A Brief History of Individual Rights


A Brief History of Individual Rights

Dec 17, 2021 8 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Joseph was director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
The doctrine of a divinely ordained natural law, accessible to everyone and demanding our obedience, informs the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible. ivan-96 / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The modern human-rights movement began almost as soon as the Second World War concluded.

Two fundamental concepts—of natural law and the worth of the individual—existed side by side as the Christian Church helped to build a new society.

The cause of human rights cannot prevail in an utterly materialistic culture. The doctrine of human dignity emerged from the rugged soil of biblical religion.

In his opening address at the 1945 war-crimes trials at Nuremberg, U.S. Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson accused Nazi leaders of assaulting “all those dignities and freedoms that we hold [as] natural and in­alienable rights in every human be­ing.” The horrific negation of those rights—by the agents of totalitarianism—threatened the fabric of world civili­za­tion. “The wrongs which we seek to con­demn and punish,” Jackson warned, “have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

The modern human-rights movement began almost as soon as the Second World War concluded. The scale of the calamity—75 million people dead, most of them civilians—made a mockery of the ideals of liberal democracy. The remedy, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, was to reassert the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all people as the basis for international peace and justice.

Over the next several decades, how­ever, liberal elites detached themselves from the moral bedrock of the civilization they hoped to defend: the literary and political canon of the West. Central to this canon is the concept of the individual. Uniquely made in the image of the Creator, mankind was endowed with reason, natural rights, and the desire to live in freedom. These ideas developed over centuries, in the interplay between the classical and the biblical traditions that have defined Western civilization and set it apart.

The ancient Greeks, despite their belief in fate, regarded the individual citizen as possessing moral agency and as a vital participant in the city-state, or polis. Thus, the Greeks were the first to break ranks with the accepted model of government—the monarchy—and chart a path toward demokratia, government by consent. The idea of individual agency, though left undeveloped, can be discerned in the trial of Socrates, even as Greek democracy was faltering. The legal establishment—the cancel culture of the day—accused Socrates of “corrupt­ing the youth” of Athens. His real crime: teaching people to think for themselves.

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The Apology, as recorded by Plato, his student, is a bracing defense of the individual in search of truth:

A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong. . . . I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.

What was implicit in Greek philosophy was made explicit by Rome’s greatest statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. As Cicero explained in The Republic, something other than the capriciousness of the gods was at work in the world: a moral law, of divine origin, woven into human nature:

There will not be one such law in Rome and another in Athens, one now and another in the future, but all peoples at all times will be embraced by a single and eternal and unchangeable law; and there will be, as it were, one lord and master of us all—the god who is the author, proposer, and interpreter of that law.

The doctrine of a divinely ordained natural law, accessible to everyone and demanding our obedience, informs the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible. According to the Jews, God had a moral purpose for the human race, and Israel was the chosen actor in the historical drama. Yet the Bible is the history not only of a religious community but of individuals in community. The characters in its pages are emotionally complex, sharply drawn, utterly realistic. We know their names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Rahab, Ruth, Moses, Luke, John, Judas, Paul, Mary Magdalene, to name a few. Much of the vitality of the Bible is found in the flesh-and-blood personalities who are part of a larger story.

The emphasis on individuals is consistent with the radical message of Jesus, proclaimed by his disciples throughout the Roman Empire: The God of the universe sent his Son to suffer for the sins of the world, to offer the gift of forgiveness and eternal life to every human soul. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). Here, like nowhere else in the ancient world, the individual stands at the center of divine love. Here, in the words of C. S. Lewis, we encounter “the weight of glory,” the staggering significance of every human life.

These two fundamental concepts—of natural law and the worth of the individual—existed side by side as the Christian Church helped to build a new society upon the ruins of the Roman Empire. The ideas began to coalesce when Eu­rope developed a distinctively Christian legal system in the twelfth century, as the canon lawyers of the Catholic Church sought to reform Ro­man law to reflect the equality of souls in God’s sight.

The pagan world, despite its view of natural law, assumed the natural inequality of persons. But in the in­troduction to his influential legal commentary, the Decretum (1140), Johannes Gratian redefined the concept: “Natural law is what is contained in the Law and the Gospel, by which each is to do to another what he wants done to himself and forbidden to do to another what he does not want done to himself.” As Larry Siedentop explains in Inventing the Indi­vidual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Gratian and the scholars who followed him “fused Christian moral intuitions with a concept inherited from Greek philosophy and Roman law.” The Gol­den Rule was being applied to political life: For the first time, individuals, rather than established hierarchies based on class, tribe, or ethnicity, became the focus of a developing legal system.

Yet despite its Christian ideals, the Catholic Church ran roughshod over the rights of individual believers. Christen­dom preserved its spiritual unity only by coercion: Dissent from orthodoxy was criminalized, heresy was rooted out and punished by fire and sword.

Into this maelstrom stepped Martin Luther, a theology professor at Witten­berg. In 1517, his posting of 95 grievances against the Catholic Church was only a hint of how the status of the individual was changing. Luther’s most revolutionary act was his defiance at the Diet of Worms, where he elevated the solitary believer—armed only with the Bible and his conscience—above any earthly authority. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand.” Luther’s campaign transformed the relationship of the individual to society. Writes Alec Ryrie in Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, “This was the true and enduring radicalism of Protestantism: its readiness to question every human authority and tradition.”

Although Protestants could be as intolerant of dissent as their Catholic counterparts, the Reformation set the template for nearly every successful campaign for political and religious liberty in the West. The elevation of in­dividual conscience galvanized the 17th-century revolution in natural rights, for example, embodied in the writings of English philosopher John Locke.

Locke’s breakthrough—unimagined even by Christian thinkers as formidable as Thomas Aquinas—was to combine the classical view of natural law with the concept of inalienable rights. In his Two Treatises of Government (1689), Locke identified these rights as “life, liberty, and property.” He drew from the Scriptures, as well as from Cicero, to argue that everyone was born “equal and independent, . . . the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” In A Letter Concerning Toler­ation (1689), Locke called freedom of conscience a “fundamental and immu­table right” of every person, regardless of social rank. “No way whatsoever that I shall walk in against the dictates of my conscience will ever bring me to the mansions of the blessed.”

The foundation for liberal democracy, which makes the protection of individual rights the basis for political society, was thereby established. A century later, in Great Britain—where the conception of rights was tightly bound to biblical teachings—the defeat of the inter­national slave trade became a national priority. William Wilberforce, an Evan­gel­ical who led the parliamentary campaign for abolition, concluded his opening address to the House of Com­mons thus: “I could not believe that the same Being who forbids rapine and bloodshed, had made rapine and bloodshed necessary to the well-being of any part of his universe.” The first concerted challenge to the institution of slavery came from within the centers of political power.

The new doctrine of natural rights also fueled the two great political campaigns for freedom in the 18th cen­tury: the American and the French Revolutions. Colonial Americans were fluent not only in the rhetoric of natural rights but also in the language and assumptions of the Bible. Herein lies the source of the majesty of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are cre­ated equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The French revolutionaries, inspired by the Americans, also produced a Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), which formed the preamble to their constitution. Lynn Hunt, author of Inventing Human Rights, makes much of this, claiming that, unlike the American Declaration, the French document “provided the basis for government itself.” The American Bill of Rights, she notes, was composed after the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

But this ignores the astonishing achievement of the Framers in Phil­adelphia. The American Declaration became the ultimate preamble to the Constitution, in that the entire structure of government was designed to protect the rights and freedoms it proclaimed. Moreover, both documents were fully embraced by the moral custodians of the revolution, the nation’s clergy. “The genius of the authors of the United States Constitution was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radi­cal Protestantism that was the prime religious inheritance of their fledg­ling nation,” writes Tom Holland in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

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By contrast, the French revolutionaries, especially the Jacobins, were guided by a militantly secular strain of the Enlightenment: For them, religion was the enemy of reason and human rights. “De-Christianization” was their policy. France quickly descended into social chaos, abolished basic civil liberties, and crowned a dictator for life.

Modern liberalism has adopted the Jacobin spirit. Having dispensed with traditional moral norms, liberals have transformed the severe quality of conscience into a playpen of desire. Hav­ing denied a religious foundation for human rights, they have left individuals vulnerable to the despotic whims of the secular state. This outcome was predicted by one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Charles Malik, the Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations. An Arab Christian, Malik warned of the danger of “inverting man’s place in the universe” by demanding one’s rights while ignoring “the dominion of God over the course of history and of human life.”

The history of the struggle for freedom in the West teaches an incon­venient truth: that there is no coherent view of human personality stripped of the imago Dei. Britain’s former chief rabbi, the late Jonathan Sacks, ex­plained that the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence were anything but self-evident. “They would have been unintelligible to Plato, to Aristotle, or to every hier­archical society the world has ever known,” he said. “They are self-evident only to people, to Jews and Christians, who have internalized the Hebrew Bible.”

If this is true, then the cause of human rights cannot prevail in an utterly materialistic culture. The sublime doctrine of human dignity emerged from the rugged soil of biblical religion—and nowhere else. If it is to be renewed, it must draw life from the waters of Sinai and Jerusalem.

This piece originally appeared in The National Review