On an historical puzzle

Nicholas Wolterstorff asks why the backstory to human rights has been forgotten.



Nicholas Wolterstorff asks why the backstory to human rights has been forgotten.


It’s commonly said nowadays – by Christians, non-Christians – pretty much accepted that human rights, natural human rights, were an invention/discovery/whatever of the 18-century European Enlightenment. And certainly the Enlightenment philosophers and political theorists talked a great deal about rights.

Those who like the Enlightenment think that this is a wonderful feature of the Enlightenment, that they discovered/invented/whatever natural human rights. And those Christians and others who don’t like the Enlightenment think that this was a horrible invention/discovery/whatever.

I think that the evidence is now decisively clear that this story is just plain false. A seminal book here was written by a medieval legal historian about twelve, fifteen years ago, Brian Tierney. And Tierney shows, I think beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the canon lawyers – that is, the church lawyers of the 1100s, 12th century – were employing all over the place the idea of natural human rights. You can find some indications before that, but it’s in those canon lawyers of the 12th century that it become systematically employed.

From there it goes on to the Spanish theologians of the succeeding centuries; they use natural rights to discuss what the Spaniards were doing to the natives in South America. Then it goes on into the Reformation – legal historian at Emory, John Witte, has a book on the reformation of rights in the early Calvinist Reformation.

So here’s a puzzle that I put to my historian friends, and none of them has an answer to it. If all of that is true, why the amnesia? Why have people thought it was plausible to say that natural rights were an invention of the Enlightenment – when it goes back to the canon lawyers of the 12th century, to the Spanish theologians, to the early reformers and so forth? Why the forgetfulness? And no historian friend of mine has been able to give a good answer to that question. I keep pressing it on them but … one of them says he’s going to take it up as a project.