Rights 4

Natural Law to Natural Rights; Aquinas, Hobbes, and Locke

In generally accepted chronologies, the Natural Rights thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) are frequently related back to the Natural Law development of Thomas Aquinas. (1225-1274). Even counting from the death of Aquinas to the birth of Hobbes allows a time lapse of 314 years. If we go from the death of Aquinas to the death of Locke, we have a span of 430 years.

Aquinas is generally recognized as the chief initial contributor to the West’s notions of Natural Law. And it’s generally accepted that the Natural Rights thinking of Hobbes and Locke stemmed from the Natural Law thinking of Aquinas.

Just looking at the multi-hundred-year gaps in time between Natural Law (Aquinas) and Natural Rights (Hobbes and Locke) I thought surely, I must be missing a lot. Being vaguely familiar with Locke’s political work, and not thinking it very good philosophy, I guessed there must have been any number of “evolving thinkers” between Aquinas and Hobbes. I suspected a gradual slipping slope that managed to get from “natural law” to “natural rights.” Barring that, as another option I guessed that Hobbes and Locke must have engaged in some kind of torturous mental gymnastics to get from the Natural Law of Aquinas to their own expositions on Natural Rights. If Aquinas had really laid a connecting path from Natural Law to Natural Rights, why the interim of several hundred years before anyone picked up on it and connected the dots?

[Sidebar: one key contributing element I may be missing here would be the evolving system of English Common Law. The evolving precedent of English Courts may have been contributing to an evolution in rights thinking (and probably was, is my guess), without there really being a “distinguished philosophical landmark” accounting for it.]

So, I went back to read Aquinas, to see what in fact he had done in the way of paving a path from Natural Law to Natural Rights. I first turned to my copy of Summa Theologica, Aquinas’ generally accepted grounding for Natural Law. I skimmed and skimmed through articles, questions, objections and replies. I was looking for anything like “right” or “rights.” There were discussions of “right,” but they had to do with right/wrong, or correct/incorrect, not the kind of right or rights we are talking about here. As for any labeled pointer to or mention of “rights,” I just couldn’t find any reference.

Coming up so empty handed as I did, I feared there must be something literally lost in translation. Perhaps Aquinas had written extensively about something that could have been translated into English as “rights,” but for whatever reason had been translated as something else. So, what if I was staring all kinds of rights thinking directly in the face, but missing it on account of choices in translation?

Also, from the introduction of my copy of Summa Theologica, it was clear that it was only one of a few major works from Aquinas, and that he had also made numerous other smaller contributions. Any one of those might have pointed to rights thinking, and I would never know it. So, I went online and found a little volume Aquinas; On Law, Morality, and Politics, translated by Richard J Regan. I got the second edition. The advantage of this little book is that it distills Aquinas’s related thinking from across several of his works, without me having to acquire and digest a bunch of them directly.

So, I do confess I am leaning heavily on this later, small book to help me more quickly wrap my mind around Aquinas’s most direct pointers that would send his Natural Law thinking to the Natural Rights direction of Hobbes and Locke, hundreds of years later. Using this little volume, I go to pages 105-107, referencing Summa Theological II-II, Question 58, On Justice. There, we find repeated use of the phrase “what is due them,” or “what is their due.” This phrase, seems to me, to be a perfectly slippery tripping stone to lead from Natural Law to Natural Rights. This notion of “what is due someone” could very easily slide to rights thinking, with no tortured mental gymnastics, or even a multi-hundred-year evolution in rationale. It’s almost a “natural slip” or trip to stumble from assuming someone has something due to them, to thinking they have a right to whatever that thing is. Aquinas did not introduce the term “rights” to this paradigm, so far as I can find, but this does strike me as a hyper-fertile invitation to move that direction.

[ Sidebar: In fact, during a recent visit with the same Christian mentor who, all those years ago put me onto this whole rights-doubting train of thought, even he protested, “But now we have a commandment that says you’re not supposed to steal my stuff.” I said, “Yes.” He replied, “Well then, doesn’t that mean I have a right to whatever it is you’re not supposed to steal?” I countered, “Decidedly not.” My explanation of that short answer will have to come when I get around to the posts on the bible and rights thinking. An adult son of mine has also followed up with me on discussions, calling me back to ask how I deal with property rights, the possibilities of reparations, and things of these kinds. Again, I think I can get there. It’ll take a while.]

Now, one commenter on Aquinas made the suggestion that Aquinas had gone further than his predecessors by more or less “implying” a “right of rebellion.” She (sorry, I do remember that it was a she, which stood out because there aren’t a lot of women commentators on Aquinas, but I don’t recall her name or where I read it). But recalling that comment, I also scoured the Law, Morality and Politics book looking for that contribution from Aquinas, and I think I found it. This may not be the only one, and perhaps not even the one she was refencing, or she may have been thinking of several comments by Aquinas and I’ve found only one. Nevertheless, in the smaller book, chapter 6 is offered to highlight Aquinas’ thinking on Obedience and Rebellion.   In that chapter, starting on page 188 begins the presentation of Summa Theologica II-II, Question 42 (On Rebellion), Second Article (Is Rebellion Always a Mortal Sin?) Here again, Aquinas does not refer to a “right” of rebellion, but does discuss circumstances in which tyrannical governance is unjust and does offer the suggestion that in the case of tyranny, it’s the tyrant who is the rebel.

Chapter 7 in that same condensed book does go on to show Aquinas’s approaches to “Tolerance and Church-State Relations.” This of course, from Aquinas time in Europe, in the 1200’s. This led me to wonder if this discussion that we now read as a “right” of rebellion might not have struck Aquinas as being more of a “responsibility to the Church” rather than any kind of “right against tyranny.” But I didn’t really extract a solid answer to that. It may be there and I missed it. But it is a possibility I have thought to consider.

But near the end of this post, I have to confess, I have come up short on clarity. I started by thinking that there must have been required mental torture to get from Natural Law to Natural Rights thinking. Otherwise, why 300-400 years to bridge that gap? As I’ve already indicated, there were no mental gymnastics required. While Aquinas didn’t refer to rights, he plainly enough invited the slippery-trip-hazard with his talk of “what is due them,” and related comments. I have no clear idea why it took 300-plus years to slip from that phraseology to an expressed attempt to work out a “philosophy of rights.” That tripping stone just seems to me to be way too fertile of an invite – almost inviting a natural slip from “Natural Law” to “Natural Rights.”

Earlier in this post I mentioned that one commentator mentioned that Aquinas had “gone further than his predecessors” in suggesting a right of rebellion. This mention of Aquinas’s predecessors brought out the idea that, with Aquinas, we are only back to the 1200’s. So, with him we are still 1,200 years after the New Testament events, and maybe around 1,000 years since the close of what are known as “The Early Church Fathers.” If there are “landmark contributions to rights thinking” that paved the way for Aquinas (aside from the Greeks and Romans), if there were Christian/Western contributors between the close of the Early Church Fathers and the work of Aquinas, those contributions do not achieve much or any recognition in generally recognized chronologies of rights based thinking. Augustine is during that interim and is of massive note in Western thinking, but rights-thinking chronologies don’t seem to trace back from Locke, to Hobbes, to Aquinas, to Augustine. They seem to stop at Aquinas, as though Augustine did not make a direct contribution to rights thinking. Maybe the rights chronologies err by omission in that regard.

So, I approached one Catholic Diocese in an area that includes several Catholic colleges and maybe a University or two. I asked for direction to Catholic scholars who might be able to point me in the direction of any first-millennium evolution in Christian/Church/Western rights thinking. No reply. The I followed up directly with a couple of Catholic/Thomist institutions seeking help. No Reply. I guess they think if you need that kind of help, you should sign up for the class. Maybe I should have gone in search of classes to take (that might at least have gotten some replies), then gotten the syllabus, bought the text books, and done the work myself. While I am not Catholic, if I was I on trial for being a sympathizer, I hope they could find enough evidence to convict me. But I do hope the Catholic institutions are better suited for responses to emergency needs than they were to my requests. Anyway, I do have about a 1,200-year gap here from Aquinas back to the New Testament. If, regarding rights thinking, there was much going on during that timeframe in the West, the people who would know best haven’t responded to my requests for help. Not that they owed me that. I would think they would consider it a part of their business, and again, maybe I couched the requests poorly. So maybe the lack of response is more on me than them. I suspect they offer classes that would answer my questions. I don’t presently sense that I have the time for those.

Next up, Rights and Class/Caste in Rome

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