Machiavelli, Luther, and the Eclipse of the Natural Law

Machiavelli, Luther, and the Eclipse of the Natural Law
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

For most participants in modern political discourse, human rights are real and natural law is not.

More than that, the limits of natural law—not just particular natural law arguments made about human nature and its institutions—are seen as oppressive and mere constructs. Human rights, by contrast, are real freedoms that must be respected and benefits that must be granted to all human beings.

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent's most recent book, Natural Law and the Rights of Man, is developed from his 2017 lectures for the Etienne Gilson Chair at the Institut Catholique in Paris and will be published in English later this year. (The final lecture is already available in translation.) In it, Manent offers a diagnosis of the way in which human rights have come to eclipse the natural law. He also advances an argument about the nature of political action and command in light of that law's rationality and outlines the consequences of obscuring action. This shift from natural law to human rights was supposed to free us, Manent concludes, but has left us paralyzed.

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