Unconditional basic income, free health care, marriage for all? But how do human rights come into the picture? Well, that is an old story.
A Spartan king once explained to the Persian ruler of the time why the Greeks were such dangerous opponents:
“Free they are, yet not wholly free; for law is their master, whom they fear much more than your men fear you. (…) what their law bids them, that they do.”
The fear of the law here means that we do not make decisions based on passion, but on common sense. The difference, then, is that opposed to a Persian who is afraid of the wrath of a tyrant, a Greek is afraid of the law and therefore does not back down on the battlefield.
The Greeks knew that there was a huge gap in human action. The problem is eternal and affects everyone. Man is reasonable by nature, but he has free will. Our actions inevitably fall short of our words. It is our daily struggle to recognise what we need to do, but not do it.
It is natural law written in the heart of man that helps to distinguish good from evil, right from wrong, just from unjust. It teaches that our minds and passions are in harmony with each other. This harmony is called virtue, the passion placed in the service of good.
The classic view assumes that there is an objective good that is recognisable. So, if we understand what our goal is and if we achieve it, we will be happy. Natural law does not restrict our freedom. On the contrary, it really sets the actor free.
At least that is what the classics thought: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
This gap, hence, was not invented by Christians, but was brought to light again by the scandal of the cross. The belief that the Son of God died for the sins of men.
In the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s teaching was christened, the practical Greek approach was reconciled with Christian teachings. However, at the twilight of modernity, two revolutionary theories emerged to bridge the gap:
One was created by Niccolò Machiavelli. He did not reject natural law but proclaimed that the prince should know when to take the path of sinful deeds. If you must choose, then, it is better to be feared than to be loved. And if that happens, he must bury his conscience to reap the positive fruits of his evil deeds. Because it happens, Machiavelli writes, “Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good.”
The other theory is named after Martin Luther. The German monk rejected the Catholic church’s traditional teaching of justification. That only those who not only believe but also act well will get to heaven. Luther believed that salvation was separable from good works, saying sola fide, only faith mattered. But if a believer does not need good works, there is no real need for the law. Therefore, the primary function of the law for him is to show that it is impossible to pass its mark.
Machiavelli, therefore, put fear in the place of natural law, and Luther emphasized only the subjective act of faith.
After such antecedents, we move from the age of natural law to the age of natural rights, where there is no longer any objective good, or at least it is difficult to get to know them. So, all you must do is defend the principle that everyone is as happy as they want to be. That is the essence of natural rights.
But how did this happen?
Thomas Hobbes eventually abolished the practical attitude of the Greeks to action. He undermined Christian teaching on the natural law and free will.
It was the father of liberalism who separated rights from law. He saw the basis of human existence in the fear of death. Individuals, he says, are completely free and have no obligations to others. Violence rages in Hobbes’ world. Everyone fights with everyone, and in the fight for self-defence, everyone has a right to everything.
The problem with this is that rights no longer have meaning. For in Hobbes’ world there is no longer a natural law. And where there is no longer this moral compass, why would there be rights?
If we interpret natural rights in this way, then sooner or later we also call our desires human rights, and we wage war against common sense in the name of universal equality.
We see this when the unlimited extension of rights undermines the authority of the church, education, and the nation-state. This is logical, because if will and the law are the same, then the question is no longer whether what we want is right, but how we achieve what we want.
(This was inspired by Pierre Manent and Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist.)
Click here to watch Norbert discuss this topic.