Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy

By A. P. d'entrèves | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER III
A THEORY OF NATURAL RIGHTS

"The Representatives of the French people, constituted in a National Assembly, considering that ignorance, oblivion or contempt of the Rights of Man are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, have resolved to lay down, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, inalienable and sacred Rights of Man, in order that this Declaration, being always before all the members of the Social Body, should constantly remind them of their Rights and their Duties; that the actions of the Legislative as well as of the Executive Power, being liable at any moment to be referred to the end of all political institutions, should be more respected; that the grievances of the citizen, being henceforward based upon simple and indisputable principles, should always be conducive to the preservation of the Constitution and to the happiness of all."

THESE solemn words form the preamble of the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen. Together with the fall of the Bastille, the Declaration adopted by the French National Assembly on the 26th of August, 1789, opened the way to the French Revolution. The proclamation of the "natural, inalienable and sacred rights of man" marks the end of an era and the beginning of contemporary Europe.1 How tempting it is to consider it only the final act in two thousand years of uninterrupted development! According to many historians, the theory of the rights of man had "been implicit in political thought ever since the Stoics and as a result of Rome's transmission of Stoic conceptions of equality" ( McIlwain). I have in the preceding chapters raised some doubts as to the continuity of that development. They will be further confirmed if we submit the modern theory of natural rights to the same critical examination to which the Roman and the medieval notions of natural law have been subjected.

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1
See note at the end of this chapter.

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