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Musing on the Concept of Inalienable Rights
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-05-23 10:02:46
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There is a misguided understanding of inalienable rights largely propagated by a Straussian philosophical reading of “natural rights” buttressing an overt or covert political agenda, and it is this: human inalienable rights, as stated in the Declaration of Independence of the US, are nothing else but the ancient rights advocated by pre-Christian, Stoic, Greek philosophers, that is to say, they are “natural rights” which as such are universal and apply to every men. That is the theory.

In practice however, human rights and civil rights are conceived nowadays as political, that is to say, the government creates them and legislates them and the government can take them away; they are only as strong and long-lasting as the State that promulgates and protects them. More often than not, the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, is portrayed in full agreement with this Straussian ancient Greek “natural law” notion of human rights, even when he is duly acknowledged as a Deist, or someone who believed in a Creator God.

I’d like to propose a radically different understanding of the notion of human rights and especially inalienable rights: It was the Judeo-Christian ethos, not pagan antiquity, which gave birth to the very Western notion of rights inhering in human nature. Those rights cannot be denied without denying the image of God in man, for to deny them is to deny that man is a human being. The starting point of this mode of understanding of rights theory is Genesis 1 and 2. There we find that in the beginning God created the universe. Not only did God create man in His own image, thus endowing man with certain faculties and abilities, but Genesis 1:28-29 also records that God gave man a decree, a "creation mandate," God commanded man to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and take dominion over the earth and all its resources--the land, the plants, and the animals.... Endowed with God's image and also with God-given authority, man became a lord over God's earth.

The idea that man is created in God's image and has lordship over the earth is the key to the modern notion of subjective rights. Subjective rights are those that are inherent in the individual; they are inseparably part of the human personality. Being made in God's image makes man a being of enormous value and inherent worth. Moreover, God is conceived as a benevolent and providential God, a Father, thus making all of us brothers and sisters, not in the French Jacobin sense, a pseudo sense of brotherhood, if there ever was one. This notion was foreign to all ancient systems of thought and accounts for the lack of any strong concept of subjective rights outside ancient Israel. Men’s inalienable duties toward God translate into inalienable rights between men. As a steward, trustee, and protector under God, a man may resist other men's unlawful interference with the performance of that duty. Therefore, the basis of inalienable rights is properly speaking Biblical, not ancient Greek Stoicism.

Alas, the paganism of antiquity is now flooding the secular West which has banished the voice of faith and religion from the public square in the name of “enlightenment.” In fact, all religions are banned from the public square, except one: the orthodoxy of the French Jacobins. We are back to the unity of the state and religion which existed at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact, were one to examine carefully the beliefs about rights among the ancient Greeks and Romans, we would soon discover that the Greeks had no clear concept of a Creator or creation in the Biblical sense but believed that all men and things participate in the divine essence or are extensions or emanations of an impersonal divine life force or energy. Moreover, having no Biblical concept of creation, the Greeks had no place for an endowment of authority or power from a Creator; Man existed at the whim of the gods and fate. Might rather than right prevailed, and "rights" were a product of society and state enjoyed only by the strong; the weak deserved to be the slaves of the strong. Plato and Aristotle shared these views: they believed that some men were superiors and born to be leaders and some were inferiors and born to be followers or slaves. They did not have the foggiest about brotherhood and equality among all men in the eyes of a providential Father.

“All men are created equal” declares the Declaration of Independence. Where did Jefferson get this notion of equality? Certainly not from the French Revolution, as some would maintain, since the French revolution comes after the American. Neither did he get it from the Greeks. The Greeks had no doctrine of equality and believed, as the Romans did later, that some men by nature were superior to others. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw property as a right, much less as an "unalienable right." The idea of active and subjective claim rights, not merely passive but prosecutable rights, had to come from something other than a Greek or Roman source. Some change in Western thinking had to mark the shift from passive rights to claim rights, where all rights are juridically identifiable and legally redressable.

I would submit that such a shift was initiated in the entrenched Hellenism of Greece and Rome by the coming of the gospel. Prior to the gospel, the state was the religion. The regime was coextensive with creation, and its purpose was to become the "best regime" by making men virtuous. Redemption was to be brought to men through political action and state activism.  Christianity’s revolution is this: the state was no longer the religion. The purpose of the state became completely transformed and redemption and virtue in man was to be produced by God's supernatural activity. The state became a mere administrator of justice under God's divine law. Paradoxically, it was Christianity which made possible the jurisdictional separation of church and state.

The ascendancy of the Biblical Christian model of rights can be placed in the period of 1075 to 1122, the time of the Gregorian Reform and the Investiture Struggle. The historians Richard Tuck and Brian Tierney give us an account of the development of claim rights in the modern sense. For example, the "unalienable right to life" is based on man's duty to live his life for God Who gave him life in the first place (and this is why man, under God, has no right to harm himself, to commit suicide, or to waste his life). Thomas Aquinas for one, reasoned that to own property was a gift of God given to man before the fall into sin, and this view was officially approved by Pope John XXII. Liberty became a “right” because, as per Thomistic philosophy, at Creation, men's ius (right) was not only an auctoritas (authority) but a facultas (ability), and therefore liberty is a kind of dominium' (liberty as a property).  Once liberty came to be viewed as a right, it quickly passed into the category of inalienable rights.

For example the Declaration's concept of the "pursuit of happiness" is an "unalienable right" given by the Creator and can be found clearly spelled out in Sir William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), where Blackstone writes that God had "so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former". According to Blackstone, man's happiness meant his sense of blessedness in his earthly existence due to obeying the Creator's laws. The word itself comes from the Latin word beatus, immediately reminding us of the "beatitudes" of Christ's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), and it is also found in the Old and New Testaments. So, Jefferson clearly did not pick up the notion of inalienable rights out of the blue sky, and try as he might have, he would never have found it in antiquity.

I would further submit that the doctrine of individual rights was not a late medieval aberration from an earlier tradition of objective right or of natural moral law as found in antiquity. Still less was it a seventeenth-century invention of Suarez or Hobbes or Locke. Rather, it was a characteristic product of the great age of creative jurisprudence that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, established the foundations of the Western legal tradition. What remains tragic nowadays is that although the West received the bulk of its political freedoms and scientific vision from the impact of Christianity and the Church, they rarely get credit for their role in the development of Western political freedoms or science.

Modern Western society considers itself “enlightened” and as such it considers it normal to be oblivious of religious ideals and principles. It acts exclusively on secular concepts, and attributes Western achievements to those same concepts. And that is why it is in the same early stages of dysfunction that preceded the fall of Rome. Having denied both the source and the rationale for the best in Western culture, we are quickly moving into the twilight era of Western freedom and the ultimate demise of a free society. It is modern Europe (or the EU) in search of its soul or cultural identity; an identity that will forever elude it till it grasps that personal rights and freedoms are God-given and inalienable; that they do not exist merely for civil convenience or at the discretion of those who hold civil power, and that only Biblical ethics rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage is able to maintain a proper balance between order in public life and individual freedom.

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Gerard Farley2011-05-23 21:27:39
I've not yet read Professor Paparella's article. Marco Androccchio sent me a quotation from St. Thomas's S.T. in which St. T. states that slavery is ok. St. T. was wrong. It isn't.

Emanuel Paparella2011-05-24 00:09:24
Indeed Professor Farley, Marco Andreacchio, as a declared Straussian has to exculpate the ancient's tolerance for slavery (under the rubric of "natural law") by turning the table around and declaring Christians, including Thomas Aquinas, as slave promoters. No great surprises there. He has probably found an esoteric passage in the Summa which only Marco Andreacchio and his fellow-Straussians can undestand and interpret.

Emanuel Paparella2011-05-24 01:27:19

P.S. For a nuanced and scholarly treatment of the issue of slavery in Aquinas’ Summa see the above linked article by Professor Hector Zagal (September 2003) given at an international congress on Christian Humanism and titled “Aquinas on Slavery: An Aristotelian Puzzle.”

...2011-06-06 07:23:04

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