The Code Civil Between Enlightenment and Restoration. The Heritage of Portalis

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Bert van Roermund


The French Code civil, including the tradition of legal practice and scholarship it stands for, is the child of two parents: Enlightenment and Restoration. They came together in the person of Jean Etienne Marie Portalis (1746-1807), who was the main drafter of the code under Napoleon. I want to investigate which line of philosophical argument he followed in uniting the two and critically assess the value of this argumentation. In section 1 I briefly sketch the codification of civil law in the (post-)revolutionary setting of the time, as well as Portalis’ philosophical background. Section 2 turns to the principled and wide-ranging discourse he delivered at the occasion of the formal presentation of the draft civil code to the legislature. This discourse, in turn, found its deeper roots in an extensive treatise that he wrote prior to the former, on the use and abuse of reason in times of Enlightenment (Section 3). I will focus, in particular, on the twin concepts of knowledge (section 4) and nature (section 5) in this treatise. From this vantage point, section 6 analyzes the eclectic way in which Portalis uses his philosophical godfathers Montesquieu and Rousseau, while section 7 shows why his preoccupation with the protection of established property rights can explain such eclecticism. Section 8 takes stock and submits that at least one of Portalis’ arguments presents a real challenge to Enlightenment philosophy up until the present day.


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How to Cite
van Roermund, Bert. 2014. “The Code Civil Between Enlightenment and Restoration. The Heritage of Portalis”. Diametros, no. 40 (June):149-75.
Special Topic - The Radicalism of the Enlightenment
Author Biography

Bert van Roermund, Tilburg Law School

Bert van Roermund Professor emeritus of Philosophy Tilburg Law SchoolPO Box 901535000 LE Tilburg The NetherlandsEmail: g.c.g.j.vanroermund@tilburguniversity.eduBert van Roermund has published widely on various fundamental legal concepts and contemporary legal problems (constitutional review, democracy, punishment, contract law). Since 1997, he has focused on problems of authority and representation (sovereignty, identity, normativity) in supra-national contexts (in particular the EU), as well as on transitional justice and reconciliation. His latest monograph Legal Thought and Philosophy appeared 2013 with Edward Elgar Publishing (UK). More info at
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