Early Evolution of Rights Thinking

In the second post here at the website I offered an intuitive summary for the evolution of rights thinking. In that post I started with civilization already at the point of city states and the amalgamations of city states into kingdoms and empires. I started with politically oriented “rights to rule.”

 It doesn’t require much reflection on the rights-oriented verses from the Old Testament to call out a realization that political amalgamations of kingdom and empire were actually late to the party of ancient rights thinking.

In the earlier stages of the Old Testament history, say back to the time of Abraham, around 1000-1200 BC, the culture that would become “Hebrew” was a nomadic herding tribe, and around the time of Abraham was probably transitioning from primarily herding to a society that combined nomadic herding with caravan trading. Within the scheme of truly ancient, Middle Eastern cultures, Hebrew society emerged relatively late. When they were beginning to carve out self-identity as herding caravan traders, full empires were already long established in the region.

But backing up to earliest rights thinking, we probably need to go all the way back to hunter-gatherer societies, even prior to real livestock tending. If we back up to hunter gatherer societies, it makes a sense that “property rights,” including “rights of relations between members” would probably have been the earliest “rights thinking.” Even if it didn’t really involve much systematic thinking, it was nevertheless a set of culturally worked out norms. In a hunter gathering society, there would still have been tools for living, both hunting tools and domestic utensils, shelters, clothing, articles of adornment, and so forth. These were probably the earliest material “property rights.” People within the group knew which resources “belonged to” whom and had generally accepted methods of allocation. Recognition for those systems of allocation was worked out locally and socially. Even earlier than any material property, probably “relational rights” between people were recognized first, and these were probably the very earliest workings-out of anything that would eventually be seen as “rights.” Even if relations within a group were in flux, they were probably “only so fluid and not so much more,” at least not without some friction developing and having to be worked out. There may have been a lot of those frictions, and “norms” were developed to set expected, understood guidelines to minimize that friction and the resulting risks of resolution.

So, the genesis for “rights thinking” was probably interrelationship oriented between members of hunter-gathering societies, which tended to be small, about 30 members of mostly-extended family. Not much later, or maybe even concurrent with those developments, really maybe going back to the beginning of human tool-acquisition and use, rules for allocating those resources would also have been worked out. In terms of evolving civilization, it’s a long way from this “hunter-gathering” society to even the earliest “empires” of the ancient Middle East. In the process, we moved from hunter-gathering to nomadic animal husbandry, to (in some cases, likely the Hebrews) caravanning traders and finally fixed-land agriculture. All these were on the way to establishing the wealth and society for a village or anything so advanced as a walled city to offer protection and be defended, so governed or “ruled” in some early political fashion.

It’s probably those earliest rules of human interrelations and property that were borrowed from or applied toward the amassing political power to rule a village, town, walled city, and finally kingdoms and empires. Hunter gatherer governance was (usually, vastly) patriarchal, with men ordering extended family life by established in-group norms. Many of those norms translated to “rights thinking,” or agreed rules of access and allocation that came to be enculturated and socialized, leading eventually to “presumptions” about “how we work these things.”

And this brings us up to about the point where I started my prior summary in Post 2 here at the website. In the evolution from patriarchal rule of an extended family to a bigger model for ruling groups of extended families, it seems somewhere early in that transition the claims of divinity or special relationships with divinities developed to justify claims of ruling authority.

Then once those bridges to divinity were crossed, they morphed and reappeared in many guises on down through Western Civilization. Most recently related to us they appeared as the Divine Rights of Kings throughout the dark ages, middle ages, and into the age of enlightenment in Europe. The enlightenment age in Europe reached back to Greece and Rome, re-discovering democratic norms for republican political institutions. But Rome, and to an extent, even Greece had their ruling authorities tied in with their divine mythologies. In Greek mythology, the co-founding brothers, with the claim that they were descended from the goddess Venus, crossed the line from mortal legend over to divine mythology. The Greeks seem to have had an odd mix, where the divine was more culturally extra-religious, or more about cultural tradition than real religion per-se. But, to legitimize the founding of their culture, even they rested on a tradition that bridged the legends of mere mortals back to a divine mythology.

Now I want to return to the Old Testament to revisit some of its verses relating to rights, and discuss rights and rights thinking more generally.

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