How We Got Here (And Why We're Leaving) Human Rights and the Western Tradition

Today’s most hotly debated issues revolve around the central issue of human rights. We debate what rights we have, and how society should act in respect to them. But we have forgotten the questions that must come first. “Why do human beings have rights in the first place?” And the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?”

 

These are among the most important questions we can ask. But we are not the first generation to ask them. There has been an ongoing conversation about these questions for well over…let me check my watch…2,000 years. There is a long-held philosophical and cultural tradition which developed in the Western World, and is deeply entrenched into the fabric of European, British, and American cultures. Even today, there are things implanted into our cultural consciousness by those who came before us. And there are younger competitors which seek to cast off the traditional understanding of human nature and replace it with something very different. The newer ways of thinking are being packaged and sold as Liberty and Equality for all. At long last, we will rid ourselves of the hypocrisy of the past, and be truly moral and fair. But is this what is really happening? What is being gained, and what is being lost in the cultural wars?

 

I will say upfront that what I will write will be controversial to some people on either “side”. I am aware that what I will say will likely win me no friends. Some conservative Christians, because of their understanding of sola scriptura[i], will accuse me of adding to Scripture or attempting to put human reason on equal footing with God’s Word. Yet, the history of thought has played out in the way it has played out, whether we accept it or not. Many liberal Progressives, Christian or Otherwise, will perceive me as defending an antiquated, immoral and bigoted belief system built by privileged white men to oppress the world. Yet, they need to understand exactly what it is they hope to burn down, and take a long and hard look at the blueprints for what they propose to “construct” on its ashes.

 

Another disclaimer for transparency’s sake: I call myself “Conservative”. By this I mean that, after years of thought, I see value in the culture, and legal and philosophical traditions I have inherited, and agree with the traditional view of human nature and what it entails. Conversely, I take some critiques of the Progressives to be valid. But I flatly reject the foundation of the Modern and Post-Modern models as deeply flawed and even dangerous. One more disclaimer: well-read individuals may notice that I do not deal with nuance, and only hit the “highlights”. But there is no way for me to avoid over-simplification in such an all-encompassing topic. I’ve tried to keep the oversimplification within acceptable limits. On the other hand, some will think I’m being deliberately and unnecessarily complicated. I assure the reader this is not the case. Responsible Americans (or Brits, or Europeans) need to know this information, but often do not have the time to read dozens of books written centuries ago. So, in an effort to raise the level of conversation among those who take the culture wars seriously, I will offer three articles summarizing the information and offering my thoughts:

 

1.       How Western Traditions of Law, Liberty, and Ethics Developed

2.       How Modernism and Post-Modernism are Deconstructing Western Tradition

3.       Liberty, Attenuated

 

Here we go.

 

How Western Traditions of Law, Liberty, and Ethics Developed

 

Ideas do not happen in a vacuum. The Founding Fathers of the United States did not invent their ideas of all men being “created equal” and having Rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” out of thin air. They were aware of an ongoing conversation about human nature, and borrowed, built on, and adjusted ideas to create our uniquely American system. To understand the ideas behind America (whether you are a fan or not), we must understand them in their broader context. The Founding Fathers of the United States stood in a long tradition of philosophy, theology, and culture shared with other Western nations.

 

As you could imagine, a conversation that’s been taking place for over 2,000 years has a lot of nuance. We don’t need to (and cannot) discuss it all, but here are some of the major influencers of the ideas behind America (and in many ways Britain and Europe).

 

I.                   Aristotle’s Ethics

Centuries before the birth of Christ, the Ancient Greeks were trying to answer the big questions. Aristotle took the ideas of his teacher, Plato, and modified them into his own model of understanding the Cosmos. While Aristotle’s physics and biology were certainly incorrect in key places, his Metaphysics and Ethics provided the dominant model for understanding the world, and human nature, since their rediscovery in the 12th Century. While Early Medieval Christian thinkers operated under Plato’s model, later Medieval thinkers, due to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, developed a rigorous synthesis of Faith and Reason.

What were Aristotle’s insights into human nature that would affect Western law, ethics, and philosophy for centuries? Too many valuable ideas to discuss here, to be sure. But what is relevant to our conversation is that Aristotle deduced that there are categories of beings, each with natures respective to the kind of thing they are. Categories of things have an essence, or nature, universal to creatures in that category. Triangles have certain properties universal to all triangles. If a thing has more or less than three sides, it is not a triangle, so it is in the essence, or nature, of a triangle to have three sides. It is in the nature of an elephant to have a trunk, two big ears, four sturdy limbs, etc. These are properties in the form of an elephant. Now, an elephant can be born missing an ear, but this would be a deformed elephant.  An elephant has the potential do what elephants are designed to do. For an elephant to what is in its nature to do is “good”. For an elephant to not do what is in the nature of an elephant to do, or to do something at odds with its own nature is not good. We may not have precise mathematical definitions of each aspect of a thing’s nature, but we certainly can tell the broad-brush strokes. It is not in the nature of a crocodile to fly, or design Gothic Cathedrals.

 

Likewise, Human Beings have a nature. There are attributes that are true of being human. We share many things in our nature with the animals, but we are also clearly unique. Yes, we eat and sexually reproduce. But Aristotle realized that we also have Reason, and activity based on reason, and this sets us apart from other creatures. We are able to contemplate abstract ideas. (Rabbits think in rabbit ways, but they certainly don’t sit down with a cup of Earl Grey and discuss morality, politics, and architecture. But, if you have such a conversation with a rabbit, let me know.)

 

There is much more that could be said, but the major take-aways from Aristotle’s thought are: The essence of Human-ness precedes the existence of a particular human (this will be important to remember in the next article). Any human born will have the essence, or nature, of human-ness. There are natural tendencies implanted in us. A fully formed human being will possess reason, free will, two arms, ten fingers, etc. It is good for us to act in accordance with our design, or nature. It is not good for us to misuse, neglect, or pervert our nature. We can reason about our nature to determine what is virtuous and good. Ethics and ideas of Law follow from this. (Another thing Aristotle taught was that happiness, associated with the good of man, was found in acting virtuously. The virtues are based on our inherent nature, and are not arbitrary. Thus, the virtues must be taught to the young so that they might learn to act virtuously and be happy. Young men should be taught to be manly. This teaching is rapidly becoming...unfashionable...in today’s Post-Modern climate.)

 

II.                Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

 

When the works of Aristotle were rediscovered by the West in the 12th Century (from versions preserved in the Muslim world), it was revolutionary for world thought. One could hardly overestimate the influence Aristotle had on Western intellectual development. Progress had been made in Christendom operating under Plato’s influence[ii], but the vast mind of St. Thomas Aquinas saw the deep logic in Aristotle’s system, and synthesized Christian doctrine with Aristotle’s structural model. The physics were often wrong,[iii] but there was also a great deal of insight into the structure of the Cosmos. The world was believed to have deep order. Western ideas about human nature, ethics, law, theology, and society were further developed.

 

Aquinas realized that humans indeed have a nature, as Aristotle said. But he realized that this fact requires further explanation and foundation. It is here that Christianity provided further light that Aristotle did not have. For St. Thomas, the Being we call God is the Unmoved Mover. He is sheer existence. All thing that exist contingently are ultimately grounded in God. While created beings have various potentials to become actual (we have the potential to move here or there, or do this or that), God is sheer actuality. He simply is. His existence is not contingent on anyone or anything. His existence is Good and in his eternal mind is the conception of Human-ness. Plato and Aristotle’s forms need not float around ungrounded in some abstract space. They exist in the mind of the Logos (the Rational God).

To St. Thomas, it self-evident that humans should pursue good and avoid evil. In keeping with Aristotle, Aquinas taught that reasoning about the ends, or purposes, of our nature will reveal what is “good” for us. It is good for humans to eat healthy food. It is good for humans to act sexually in the way we were designed. From this foundation (that we can reason about the reality of our nature) an entire system of morality and understanding of law developed. This is the important legal concept of Natural Law. To the Medieval Western thinkers, this is not arbitrary or constructed law, but is reasoning about the nature of things a purely Good and Wise Being had created.



If you’ll allow me to oversimplify a bit:

Eternal Law (The Mind of God) comes,

Natural Law (The way we are designed), from which we make

Positive Law (human laws, which should conform to Natural Law).

 

God, the Greatest Good, conceived of Human Nature in his eternal mind. He created the Cosmos, and actualized the existence of humans. And so our nature comes from the very the mind of God. Consequently, it goes without saying Natural Law is not arbitrary for Medieval Natural Law thinkers, it is natural. For a human to act against Natural Law is immoral and unhealthy. It is to act against nature, and ultimately against the mind of God. It is evil, a privation, to act against the good. Human government should not make laws that contradict Natural Law, else they are unjust.

Reading this previous section a second time might help to clear it up. But the major take-aways are: the essence of human nature is in the Mind of God, so the essence of human nature pre-exists the existence particular humans (you, me, or your drunk uncle). Natural Law is the way things are; it is the thoughts of God about creation realized. The State (government) should only make laws in accordance with Natural Law, and thus in accordance with the Eternal Law.

 

Some points of Natural Law: Humans are moral, rational, sexual creatures possessing free will. For humans to live in accordance with their nature is “good”.  To misuse, neglect, or pervert our nature is not “good”.

 

 

III.             John Locke and Natural Law

 

The world changed rapidly in the 16th through 18th centuries. Reeling from the turmoil of wars largely brought on by religious and political intolerance, Modern philosophers cast off the traditional intellectual authority of the Medieval Scholastic philosophers. Thinkers like Descartes did what would have been considered arrogant in the Middle Ages: he dismissed the collective intellectual tradition of past thinkers (associated with Orthodoxy), and attempted to create his own new philosophical model from scratch. Many other influential thinkers would do the same. The world grew weary of religious conflict, and grew skeptical of any traditional authority (especially Catholic authority), traditional government and ideas, superstition, and eventually traditional core Christian doctrine.[iv] Ever increasing skepticism; ever fading tradition.

 

It was in this 17th century context that John Locke wrote about Liberty and government. Like the other Modern philosophers, he rejected traditional intellectual authority, and offered his own system in its place. Locke wrote about many important topics, but he was deeply concerned with Human Rights and Religious Tolerance. Hoping to find a system able to avoid religious war and intolerance (as well as the authority of a tyrannical monarch) Locke built from the ground up a new philosophical model, from which we could devise laws and models of government. Not all of Locke’s ideas would be well received today, and he certainly wasn’t flawless. But it was his philosophical foundation for human rights (even if not applied universally in practice) that would have deep impact on the American Founding Fathers.

 

Liberty was central to Locke’s theories. But the idea of Liberty cannot exist alone on an island. We must have reason to believe it is real. Locke rejected the thinking of Hobbes, who taught that morality is a social convention and that rights should be surrendered to the King,  but he also rejected in part the Aristotelean Natural Law moral and legal theories developed by the Medievals. Locke instead developed a modern system of Natural Law. He held that human beings are created in the image of God, and thus have certain attributes. Because we are made by God, we are God’s property, in a sense. For one human to harm another human without cause is immoral, because he is harming God’s property. In another sense, because we have certain attributes in our nature, we are our own property, and must be free to live out our lives; to freely use those natural attributes. A man must be free to worship God as he sees fit, without coercion from the State.  The ideas developed that a man must have liberty to think and express his opinions. He must be able to dissent from the Orthodox.  Because property is necessary for life and happiness, a man must be free to pursue property. And so on. Ultimately, our rights are natural, because they are based on our very nature. And our nature is made in the image of God. So, our rights ultimately come from God. Not society. Not the State. Rights are natural and unalienable to human beings. Any law the State creates which infringes upon our Natural Rights is unjust.

 

Locke’s ideas were so influential, that some of his phrases were practically copied and pasted into American legal documents. While John Locke dismissed the Aristotelianism and authority of the Scholastics, he ultimately said much of the same about Natural Law, using different nomenclature. His philosophy focused more on Rights and property than on moral duties, but the Foundation is the ultimately the same. Humans are created in God’s image, and there are consequently certain things we can reason about our nature. Rights and Morality are built into what we are, so they are not arbitrary. Human nature isn’t arbitrary, after all. Its natural.

 

The American conviction that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, stem directly from Natural Law; a philosophy which holds that our nature comes from God, and that consequently our Rights and Morality are very real. They are not even a little bit arbitrary, and no State, Church, king, individual, organization, or mob can validly take them away. Liberty is as real as Life, and if we must choose between the two, we’d do well to choose the former.

 

Every American alive today, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, benefits from Locke’s ideas.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

Most of us believe in Human Rights. But we did not invent these ideas on our own, or even recently. The ideas of Liberty, Morality, even Beauty (in art and nature) are ingrained into our social consciousness by a deep Western Tradition, which developed under Christian and Classical influences. Human nature, morality, and rights have been thought to be very real, and ultimately depend upon God. But this tradition is being discarded, its ideas deconstructed. Something radically different, packaged and sold as Liberty and Equality, is being constructed in its place. Our laws, social consciousness, understandings of morality and human nature (even art) are changing into something very different. Why? What will this mean for our Civilization? We will discuss the rise of Post-Modernism in Part II.

 

 

If you’d like to read more:

Aristotle

·         -Metaphysics

·         Nichomachean Ethics

Locke

·         -Second Treatise of Civil Government

·         Lock, by Ed Feser

Aquinas

·         Aquinas: A Beginners Guide, by Ed Feser

 

Declaration of Independence

 

 

[i] “Scripture Alone”, or the Protestant belief that Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice

[ii] See especially the works of St. Augustine

[iii] The famous incidents of Copernicus and Galileo facing opposition from Catholicism was largely due to the wide-spread acceptance of the Aristotelean model of the motions of the planets, seen as being supported by Scripture. Copernicus and Galileo were seen as challenging the model accepted to be obviously true and Scriptural. Even Dante’s Divine Comedy was set in this model of the Cosmos.

[iv] For example, in the age associated with Reason, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity became intellectually unfashionable, as it was seen as more mystical than logical. It was seen as a point of weakness by Christian thinkers, and even some of those who held to it, like Jonathan Edwards, discussed in mostly in private. Some of the American Founding Fathers rejected the Trinity as a Roman Catholic invention, or metaphysical nonsense. Deism and Unitarianism were on the rise in the new age of Liberty.