Those who once spoke, or who speak, the language of the rights of man make up a most varied group: Jefferson and Mounier, Robespierre and Saint Just; Roosevelt but also Vyshinsky; John Paul II and Ronald Dworkin. Which is to say, this language has been used in a whole assortment of ways. Thus if the notion of the rights of man has become the hallmark of modern ethical theory and liberal politics, it is nevertheless a confused notion. There were, there are, different languages of the rights of man, and these languages must first of all be distinguished one from the another.

To begin with, the rights of man were officially consecrated by the Americans and the French at the end of the eighteenth century. These rights, which did in fact open the era of modern politics, nevertheless remain difficult to interpret. Jacques Maritain, for example, or John Finnis see in them a progress in recognition and understanding of the natural law”modern rights prolonging classical natural law. Others, men like Leo Strauss or Ernest Fortin, claim that these modern natural rights represent a fundamental rupture with the tradition of classical natural law.

The difficulty here is clearly related to the equivocal, or downright indeterminate, use of terms. The eighteenth-century texts declare that men are endowed with equal rights and an equal right to liberty. In France, this formulation did, to be sure, sound the deathknell of the ancien regime, but the question remains of how to interpret such a formulation from the perspective of the history of natural right. In schematic terms, one can sketch two competing interpretations.

In the first view, this formulation of equality marks a progress in bringing to light the natural order. From antiquity down to the modern era, all societies were in fact governed by the principle of aristocracy, by which some have by nature”that is to say, from birth”the right to command others (ancient “democracy” was itself qualified in this way). The recognition against this aristocratic principle of an original and fundamental equality among men lies within the dynamics of Christian equality; it is inseparable from evangelical ferment.

The second interpretation, however, states that the modern idea of rights represents a genuine rupture with Christianity, because modern equality is not the same as Christian equality. According to the Christian idea of equality, men have in common the same filiation and the same vocation; according to the modern version of equality, that which men have in common is the right to pursue different ends, to have nothing in common except this right. The equality of sovereign individuals is not the equality of children of God.

So which interpretation should be adopted? Such questions are of course complicated; each way of looking at the interpretation of equality undoubtedly contains its own part of the truth. And because of the various influences that came together in the composition of both the French and the American declarations, we can see simultaneously the effects of a Christian context and of non-Christian and even anti-Christian ideas. It is also the case that the authors of these texts did not themselves always mean the same things by the same formulation: the declarations were no less ambiguous at the time of their composition than they are today.

Nevertheless, it seems correct to say that the dominant note was that of rupture. Historically, the birth of the “rights of man” is tied to a transformation of the conception of politics: classical politics had attached itself to the promotion of the rules of life , whereas modern politics in its liberal version limits itself to establishing the rules of the game . For classical natural law (from Aristotle to Saint Thomas), man is animated by a vocation and politics has for its end the accomplishment of that human vocation. Politics is at the service of the good life, of the bona vita multitudinis . In this perspective, classical natural law insists, above all, on the duties of man.

What characterizes modern political thought is the rejection of the bona vita as a guide to political action. Men either lack such a thing as a natural vocation or at least they disagree about what such a vocation consists in. This makes it necessary to rethink politics, to begin with men as they are and to arrange things in order that those who are divided about the issue of what constitutes the good life will nevertheless live together in peace.

The work of modern thought, pioneered by Machiavelli, followed by Hobbes and followed still further by Locke, results in the liberal, that is, a procedural, solution: the duties of man are effaced in favor of their rights; the rules of life, in favor of the rules of the game”rules that must allow men who differ to pursue their own individual interests, each in his own way. The rights of man are a key part of the modern liberal promise: that each man be guaranteed individual liberty, civil peace, and comfort.

To begin with, the liberal solution was a moderate, a temperate, one. In fact, for Locke or for the French liberals or for the American founders, the objective was clearly the establishment of a new political order on the basis of the rights of the individual and the free pursuit of his interest; nevertheless, for these thinkers it was obvious that such principles would be limited by such moderating influences as family, education, and religion (illustrations of this recognition can be found in Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education or in Washington’s Farewell Address ). The bona vita was to be excluded from politics, but there remained traditional rules about how to live properly, and with honor. Equal liberty was to exist within certain limits originally laid down by Christian morality.

But the liberal forefathers had not been conscious of the fact that they were creating a time-bomb. To begin with the individual and his rights, renouncing the idea of a human vocation, is to set in motion a process that leads to the limitless sovereignty of the individual, unbound by ties to nature and natural morality. In other words, Christian thought had been saying: “These are your duties and God help you,” and by now contemporary thought is saying: “These are your rights and the devil take care of you” ( que le diable t’emporte ).

This evolution was, of course, not a straightforward development from one point to another. Thus the French Revolution proclaimed the rights of man but almost from the beginning did not respect its own universalist principles. In June 1793”to take only one example”after their victory over the Girondins, the Jacobins wrote a new Declaration of Rights in which, at the very moment they were engaged in a systematic campaign of terror, they reaffirmed the principles of individual liberty and the right to resist oppression. It would, however, be wrong to see this as some kind of contradiction between discourse and practice. There was no contradiction because in Jacobin usage the term the “rights of man” had simply come to signify something else. The French Revolution had from the start put forward two distinct sets of principles, the universalist principles and the ideological ones. And almost immediately, the latter subverted the former. Whether in 1789 or in 1793, the patriotes were saying two different things at the same time: first, that all men are free and equal, and sovereignty belongs to the Nation or to the Peuple ; and second, that there are two types of men, Good ones and Bad ones, the Good ones being the Peuple or the amis de la liberte , the Bad ones being the ennemis du Peuple or the contre-revolutionnaires . In other words, “liberty for all” but “no liberty for the enemies of liberty.” “We are brothers,” but, as Chamfort once ironically put it, “Be my brother or I will kill you.” Robespierre’s famous formula of the “despotism of liberty” against tyranny would be a contradiction in terms if in his mouth liberty was not once and for all incarnated in a given ideological camp”the camp of liberty enjoying the complete liberty to suppress the liberty of those who do not agree. The ideology says that politics is war between two camps, that of the good and that of the wicked. Good and Evil are no longer matters of degree, but are attached to the essence of beings, on one side the patriotes, the peuple ”on the other the ennemis du peuple , the suppôts du despotisme . And by this Manichean dualism the rights of man are subverted.

The same logic was at work in the politics of V. I. Lenin. For Lenin, social life had to be understood entirely in terms of the “class struggle,” that radical and irremediable battle pitting the “bourgeoisie” against the “proletariat.” There is no third party, no intermediate situation, and no universalist perspective. Liberty, asked Lenin, means liberty for whom”that of the oppressors or that of the oppressed? Justice is justice for whom? etc. Liberty, equality, and justice are transformed and denatured by the one true perspective, the perspective of class.

There is not, then, as many for a long time have sought to suggest, an ideological version of the rights of man”a Jacobin version, a Leninist version”that competes with interpretation of the liberal version. There is a liberal version of the rights of man and an ideological subversion of the rights of man.

Leaving aside those dramatic periods of ideological domination, what was going on in the West with respect to the rights of man? Actually, we can distinguish two lines of evolution, one in which the modern liberal promise has been kept, and one in which the logic of that promise has accelerated out of control”or, in other words, in which the time-bomb has exploded.

The liberal promise has surely been kept: men have won civil peace, public liberties, and comfort. Life has become safer, life has become softer. This promise was to be sure not a Christian one””For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Nevertheless, there is of course a good side to this modern success: scientific and economic progress have permitted the great majority of men to accede to the material sufficiency that St. Thomas said is a precondition for virtue. In many ways technological progress has been useful for everyone; even the most conservative of the conservatives are not reluctant to use the airplane, listen to classical records, or seek the comfort of aspirin. In the political domain, too, the liberal West is able to boast of real success. The conduct of domestic politics is no longer a dangerous business”no one risks his life in it. The rights of man have played and still play a significant role in domesticating political power. And liberal democracy has granted to those who do not like such democracy the liberty of saying what they think.

But there is another side to the story. In seeking what Hobbes called the “delightful life” rather than the good life or the bona vita , in carrying the idea of individual rights to its extreme, the Western societies have tended to be subverted by their own principles. The rights of man were born in a world shaped by Christianity and even if they became detached from Christian doctrine, for a long time the root connections were not broken. The tempest of the sixties has changed all that; everything was swept up in its force. The idea of the sovereignty of the individual along with the principles of liberty and equality were, and have remained, completely radicalized. In Le Cid of Corneille, Rodigue says to Chimene in a perfect Alexandrine: “ j’ai fait ce que j’ai dû, je fais ce que je dois ” (“I did what I should, I do what I must”). Contemporary man says: “I do what I want, no one is better than I,” or, more precisely: “Each of us is sovereign, each is equal to everyone else; I live as I want and my way of life is equal to everyone else’s.”

The contemporary language of human rights effaces natural distinctions”between the sexes, the ages, gifts, and capacities”and rejects all moral authority and all hierarchy concerning the way to live. “The great problem for man,” said Jacques Maritain, “is that of finding oneself a master.” The contemporary mind replies: “To find oneself a master is to break with equality, with the sovereignty of the individual; each must be self-sufficient.” The world of today is a world where the language of moral authority (“You should”) tends to efface itself. It is impolite to say, “You should”; it is necessary to say, “I prefer.” Or to put it another way, it is bad to defend the idea of the good.

This evolution has had the effect of emptying the notion of the universality of the rights of man of all meaning. Men are all similar but they no longer have anything in common, except this equal liberty devoid of all substance. They have nothing in common except the right to have nothing in common.

Modern equality, then, is not a substantial equality but only a formal one. The first is grounded in the recognition of what is human, the second is founded on the claim that nothing is specifically human. In the first case, another person is equal to me because we share something that distinguishes us as human beings. In the case of merely formal equality, another person is equal to me because he cannot be more human, i.e., better than I. This latter view of equality reduces the universality of rights to simple issues of procedure. Rights, that is, lose all ties with nature and hence their very foundation. How can anyone speak of what constitutes the dignity of man when there are no criteria for distinguishing dignified from undignified conduct? How can we speak of the rights of man when we no longer know what man is?

The kind of formal equality that prevails today transforms the nature of the relationships among men. As Tocqueville pointed out, the modern sentiment of equality separates men from one another: because each man is his own master, any inequalities become purely contractual and functional and do not extend to anyone’s way of living. No one is responsible for anyone else; the true idea of education is undermined; and relationships become functional, abstract, and cold. The contemporary idea of equality is not mutual recognition; it is much more a matter of self-affirmation and mutual indifference. And each man is invited to live just this way, so each man wants to be his own master precisely in order to do as everyone else does. The consequence is that modern man is an isolated being; he is a traveler without a compass, the “sovereign of his own misfortune,” as Lammenais said.

As we know, the language of the rights of man was born outside the Roman Church and to some extent in opposition to it; and for a long time this language remained foreign to the Church’s discourse. Things have changed since the early 1940s. Pius XII and his successors”most particularly John Paul II”have to some extent embraced the rights of man in order to insert them into Christian doctrine. Not that the change has been substantial: the magisterium continues to condemn philosophical liberalism, and its version of the rights of man does not imply any surrender to modern principles insofar as they are incompatible with Christianity. The contrast between the discourse of John Paul II and the dominant discourse of our day, namely, that of extreme liberalism, is particularly blatant. In schematic terms, this contrast can be expressed as follows: the discourse of John Paul II attaches itself to the condition of the good life, whereas extreme liberalism entails the temptation to live badly; the former defines, in addition to formal rights, some substantial rights linked to the human vocation, while the latter limits itself to formal rights devoid of all idea of the bona vita and extends them to more deviant behavior. The first discourse reattaches the rights of man to the rights of God, and the second makes man instead a petty divinity. The rights of man in their Christian version are good because they are at the service of the Good; the rights of man in their contemporary radical version are good because they are not at the service of the Good (in this understanding it is bad to consecrate the Good because each is the measure of his own good).

The Pope expressed these concerns with particular clarity in a 1991 address to a meeting of European Christian Democrats:

In fact there exists a temptation today to establish democracy as a moral relativism which goes so far as to reject all certitude about the meaning of human life and dignity, about human rights and fundamental human duties. When this sort of mentality takes hold, sooner or later democracies undergo a moral crisis. Relativism impedes the exercise of the necessary discernment between various demands which are expressed at the root of society: between good and evil. A society’s life depends on decisions which must presuppose a firm moral conviction. When there is no more trust in the very value of the human person, one loses sight of what motivates the nobility of democracy; it is there ready to give way to various forms of corruption and manipulation of its institutions.

The discourse of extreme liberalism, then, is very misleading. In order to avoid being trapped by it, one must as a first step embrace the two following ideas on the basis of the natural law:

First, no formal right is an absolute. “Liberty is indivisible, unconditional,” says the modern mind. But must one truly allow men to drug themselves, to make chemical weapons in their kitchens, to appeal to racial hatred, to distribute cocaine in the elementary schools? “Equality is universally valuable,” the dominant language implies. But it is after all necessary to see both sides of this question. On the one hand, men are equal above all because they all share the same nature and the same condition, i.e., for reasons that give substance to equality. On the other hand, they are obviously unequal in a multiplicity of ways. They are at the same time fundamentally equal and powerfully unequal. It is necessary to preserve both the sense of equality and, when it touches on the question of what constitutes human excellence, the perception of inequality. In a sense, Pascal is not the equal of Bouvard and Pecuchet (the embodiments of human silliness in Flaubert’s novel), nor is Madame de Merteuil (the heroine of Les Liaisons Dangereuses ) the equal of Mother Teresa.

Second, formal rights are to be subordinated to a sober view of the human vocation. This human vocation is of course a matter of dispute, but natural reason-the inclinatio naturalis of St. Thomas-permits us to draw some lines. It is not a question of imposing the bona vita by constraint-virtue presupposes liberty to choose virtue-it is a question of limiting and containing the propaganda of the mala vita (for example, pornography). The only solution is to grope for a point of equilibrium between liberty and virtue. Indeed, formal rights correctly understood (that is, between limits established by respect for the dignity and the vocation of men) have their own value. This value is obvious when the rights of man are opposed to a tyrannical power. They translate what is the great success of liberal modern regimes: the domestication of the Minotaur.

To the question, “What does the economy economize?”, Sir Dennis H. Robertson once made the lapidary response, “love.” The market economy does not need love to work well. To the question, “What do the rights of man, in the contemporary version, economize?”, the response is equally, “love.” A society based on the formal rights of man does not need love.

The present epoch is one characterized by a procedural rationalization of a world where the divorce between law and nature, reason and life, knowledge and faith, society and friendship, is clearly manifest. Modern society is made for men who do not love each other. But what happens to a society without a sense of community? Besides, even if society does not need love, men, in fact, do.


Philippe Bénéton is Professor of Political Science at the University of Rennes in France. The author is greatly indebted to Professor Daniel Mahoney of Assumption College for his comments on the manuscript and for his helpful assistance in writing this text in English.

Articles by Philippe Bénéton

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