Have you ever wondered where your rights come from? Do you find yourself puzzling out what enumerated rights belong to the individual? Most modern ideas concerning rights come from John Locke, a political philosopher of the 17th-century. His listed rights are, famously, “life, liberty, and property (or estate).” In the United States, these rights were co-opted to justify the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson modified Locke’s position to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, one’s rights are handed down from a somewhat bitter Englishman. To understand one’s proper rights, the thread must be trailed back to the very beginning.
Plato first described a concept of natural law in Gorgias, although he never used the phrase. In The Republic, he described the perfected city as one that lives “in accordance with nature,” meaning that the community is governed by a set of natural laws, from which one may extrapolate the rights given to man by nature. Aristotle builds on this idea with the “common law” each man has in accordance with nature. The universal law is what one must appeal to when seeking justice. It is the unyielding rule that governs mankind. Yet, it was not a Greek that gave mankind its fully functioning rule of natural law.
Cicero, senator of the late Roman Republic, wrote in On the Laws, from what nature has bestowed on mankind. Cicero describes the good of society over the individual, which is the foundation upon which republics are built. Law becomes the reformer of the state, encouraging just behavior in accordance with virtue. Virtue, in this case, alluding to the idea that the individual may cultivate happiness if they nurture all those things that are just and true. Cicero’s understanding of the natural law and its influence on rights shaped the ideas of the post-revolution American colonies, whose founders attempted to model the early Roman Republic.
Up to this point, one’s rights rested solely in the state. One could appeal to the natural law for justice, yet there was nothing concrete and real to motivate virtue and just rule. The marriage of Christianity and philosophy, though, expand the dialogue concerning the law and rights. Augustine of Hippo, an early Church Father, outlined his position in City of God. The law is the foundation of Christianity, much in the same way that Judaism relies on the strict interpretation of the law. Since man is a fallen creature, not fully broken, not fully healed, he may not achieve the grace of nature before the fall of Adam and Eve. Yet, mankind could find perfected law in Christ, who fulfilled the law of the Old Testament.
From the natural and Eternal law, one may begin to see where rights are formed. Rights are not innumerable, nor can they always be fully understood. Fundamentally, one has a right to life. However, does one necessarily have a right to property? What about liberty? Happiness? Thomas Jefferson was correct in asserting that all men are born equal. Each person is born in a world that has, to some extent, lost its God-given grace. Thus each of us is born with the chance to find grace in a postlapsarian world. When judging a law against the perfect nature and justice of Christ, of God, it becomes easier to see when a law is just and when it becomes tyrannical.