The Origins of Rights and the Ironies of History

January 13, 2013

Government, Latest Thinking, Natural Rights / Rights, Philosophy of Rights

When reading history, I am always amazed by the number of unexpected ironies upon which one stumbles. Looking backward, we always find twists and turns on the road to our current ideas. Our current ideas, of course, seem self-evident to us because they have become part and parcel of our core convictions. But if you excavate those ideas, if you trace them back in history, you find that they rest on other ideas that we would find quaint or absurd. Yet without those earlier ideas we never would have arrived at our current convictions. It makes you stop and realize how accidental it all is that we believe what we believe.

This point came home to me most recently when reading the second volume of Quentin Skinner’s Foundation of Modern Political Thought, Volume II. Our ideas that government represents the people and should be beholden to them ironically emerged from the response of Catholic thinkers to the ideas of the Lutheran Reformation. The twists and turns of the story are many.

Luther fundamentally questioned the Catholic Church’s right to have political authority in the temporal world. In attacking the Church’s authority, Luther argued that secular authorizes had absolute jurisdiction over secular affairs and should not be interfered with by the Church, which should focused on affairs of the spirit. In part, the Reformation spread because Luther’s ideas appealed to secular authorities and enabled monarchies to justify their increasing power. The notion of the King’s divine right and absolute power was thus grounded in Luther’s critique of the Church and this theology.

Luther’s ideas about the secular authority were anchored in his conviction that human beings could not be saved by their works because of their fall into a sinful state. Only through faith alone could they be “justified” by God. This theology provided the grounds for arguing that the Church and its sacraments represented a perversion of Christianity.

The first irony then is the consolidation of power under the monarchies was due in no small part to of Luther’s attack on the power of the Church. To undercut the Church, Luther in fact argued that the King represented God’s will and authority. He held that individuals had to obey the secular authorities even if the authorities violated the law and were evil, a position that Luther and his followers softened as their theology developed. Still, Luther’s views of the Church and his theology of human beings helped solidify the view that monarchies and Kings had absolute unquestioned powers as God’s representatives on earth.

Our second irony has to do with the origin of the core assumption of republican government: the idea that government is only a representation of the people and beholden to them. Initially, this idea was developed and put to use by Catholics thinkers in their attempts to refute and undermine Luther’s ideas. In doing so, at least one of their goals was to reaffirm the importance of the Catholic Church and to question Luther’s assumptions about the Church and secular authority. To do thinkers of the Counter Reformation questioned the Luether absolutist notion of secular government. To undercut the power and authority of the monarchies, Catholic thinkers argued that the monarchies derived their powers from the people and should be held accountable to the laws of morality and God. The people had the right to disobey a King who gave orders country to God. In part this was also a justification of and return to the Thomist position that God’s will could be discerned from natural law and provide a basis beyond secular authority for knowing the foundation of God’s will.

I hardly do justice here to the ironic twists and turns of idea in the Reformation and Counter Reformation. It is worth reading this background to the history of our political ideas if you haven’t realdy. The point is that many of our ideas, and our particular idea that government derives its just powers from the governed, owes its origin in part to a debate spawned in the sixteenth century on religious matters totally foreign to current debates today.

Who would have thought that the debate over the nature of the Church would have laid the groundwork for our ideas about representative democracy. Yet without these debates about the nature of God, the Church, human sin and redemption, we may never have stumbled on and embraced the idea that government should be beholden to the people. Makes you stop and think about how tenuous it is that we believe what we believe.


, ,