Natural Law and the Imperative of Timeless Principles

French philosopher Pierre Manent discusses the harms of the modern ideology of human rights and calls for a return of natural law to restore social cohesion within Western societies.

French philosopher Pierre Manent
French philosopher Pierre Manent (photo: Semaines sociales de France/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Western democratic systems are increasingly plagued by a war of individual rights that leads to a tyranny of minorities over majorities. Two centuries after Alexis de Tocqueville predicted — in Democracy in America — that democracy could lead to a tyranny of the majority through the judicial system, Western nations are now faced with a new threat, as law is more and more designed to respond to individual claims rather than ensuring the stability of the institutions and social cohesion. Such a system exclusively founded on the doctrine of human rights favors the rule of emotions and favor over reason and justice.

It is this concern that led French philosopher and academic Pierre Manent to restore to favor the ancient notion of natural law, based on a source of moral principles rooted in human nature. In his recent book Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason (University of Notre Dame Press), Manent shows how modern civilization got rid of natural law to progressively make human will the ultimate source of law within societies, denying the very idea that nations can be governed by universal principles that should be acknowledged and preserved rather than constantly reinvented.

Manent taught political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris for many years and is also a visiting teacher at the Boston College Department of Political Science. He is the author of a number of books about the history of political thought and the relationship between politics and religion, including Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic and A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State.

In this interview with the Register, while warning against the excesses of the human-rights doctrine, Manent discusses the importance of natural law to sustainably organize the human world and the life of the city.


What is the origin of natural law, and how was it ignored, if not outright rejected, by modern philosophy?

Human beings have — more or less — always understood that the way they live depends on their decisions and actions. Thus, they are the masters of the form their life takes, until a certain point. At the same time, they are afraid of such a capacity and freedom. Therefore, they want that the rules by which they organize common life be ultimately rooted in God, in nature, in their ancestors’ models, and not in themselves. Here stands the ambivalence of human nature. To this extent, there are several important dates in this history.

First of all, the Greek revolution: In ancient Greek cities, for the first time in history, men claimed to be the masters of their own lives, and the citizens organized the life of the city the way they decided. But such a possibility was not entirely sovereign, because there are constraints weighing on the human life. There are non-written laws and natural limits as well as a natural difference between masters and those who serve these masters. There is also a difference of functions according to nature — thus, men and women don’t do the same things, biologically speaking. But with the Greek city, there is a first substantial progress toward individual autonomy.

The other great revolution is Christianity. Indeed, it increases the role of the nonhuman authority, God, since the Christian God, as well as the Jewish God, has an intensity of being that is incomparably superior to that of pagan gods. At the same time, as a creator god, God created human beings to be free. Just like the greatness of God is exalted in Christianity, so is human freedom.

Thus, the Christian evolution of Europe — and then of the U.S. — favored a tension between human law and nonhuman law. This duality put European people in an unprecedented difficulty, as they lived under two different laws (divine and human), through which they had to organize their lives. It created a division of power between the popes and emperors, between religious and political institutions, and between the different religious confessions.

It is within this Christian context that, in the 16th century, human beings developed a brand-new idea: becoming the absolutely sovereign masters of common life, being the sovereign architects of common life and its rules.


What were the consequences of this new sense of sovereignty for Western civilization?

European people started thinking humans alone were the source of rule for the common life. They expelled both God and nature from the life of the city to make the human group the unique source of legitimate rules. This principle was further developed in the 17th century.

The horizon of the European people thus became a human order exclusively founded on human will, without any superior source. It is the moment when we gave up any divine law, as well as natural law, but it has been a whole process over time, until our days. The consequent definition of the human being is quite poor. He no longer possesses a sense of natural law, but only has a sense of himself as a being with rights imposed upon him.

Nowadays, Western humanity violently rejects any idea of a natural rooting of norms. Norms must entirely be the product of human will. All the natural differences are considered irrelevant. The last attack against natural law happened through an aspect that we seemed not to be able to put aside, as it is connected to a natural fact, that is, the difference between sexes.


The laws on same-sex “marriage” seem to be a textbook case for your analysis of the excesses of the human-rights ideology.

It is indeed, because it is the most obvious example. Traditionally, in all civilizations, family is the institution in charge of ensuring the collaboration between the two sexes and between generations. Today, there is a demand from individuals, in the name of individual rights, to have a “right to a family” and all that goes with it, even if the kind of life they lead doesn’t include the conception of children nor the union between the two sexes. The individual that makes such a demand considers he has an illimited enforceable right over the institution and that such an institution has no right to raise objections against him, even though he doesn’t have any qualification and doesn’t respect the rules of this institution.

It is the same approach, for instance, as those who ask to have access to a university without any prior selection process to determine that such persons are capable of undertaking an education at this institution. They refuse the very idea that there are skills to be acquired.


Why do you think that this advance of the doctrine of human rights in Western societies has a negative impact on entire nations?

What we tend to forget when focusing on individual rights only is the search for goods, which can be political, religious, economical, and so on. The motivation of human actions is the search for good in every sense of the word. People look for these goods by forming associations that are in charge of producing and allocating goods.

There are, for instance, institutions that take shape to acquire and distribute knowledge — through education and research. In a similar way, the institution of family takes care of the conception of human beings, producing them within the nurturing context of the family. There is also the political body, which institutionalizes the political life and enables men to govern themselves.

But these institutions need legitimacy in order to function, a legitimacy which is rooted in the human good that the institution produces — such as the education produced by a college or university, the human lives which are born in families, and the just laws generated by a governing body — and these same institutions also give out these goods to the community that has formed these institutions.

However, if there are human rights only, all these institutions — university, family, government — are delegitimized. Individuals have enforceable rights against the institution, but the institution has no enforceable right against the individuals, who want to access them without qualification, as in the case of the law on same-sex “marriage” in France.


Isn’t natural law commensurate with Christianity? Is it really possible to promote a return of natural law in a de-Christianized society?

It is true that, historically, the Catholic Church in particular developed and preserved the idea of natural law, but it is a universal idea that existed even in pagan regimes. In reality, if we appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas or other theologians, we learn that natural law is simply the shaping, the explicitness of the natural tendencies of the human life.

In my view, today the most urgent challenge goes beyond any religious dimension. Of course, the Christians already have an enlightened approach on law. It is enlightened by their faith and the anthropology which is inseparable from natural law. But our political regimes, being founded on secularism, and given the high division of opinions and the increasingly minority position of Christianity in the West nowadays, if we are to defend natural law, it is important to show that it fits human experience, Christian or otherwise.

Therefore, societies should find a certain agreement around human experience that could be described in an impartial manner, showing that rights, as important as they may be, always suppose natural finalities. Such finalities can only be reached in communities that have rules, which are possibly enforceable against individual rights.

My goal is to warn a whole society. The governing opinion, which sees only individual rights, blinds itself. It refuses to see obvious things such as the natural differences between the two sexes. I want to show that a world only made of rights is an unintelligible world. Today, we no longer know how to use words like “father” or “mother.” What does the word “mother” become, for instance, when there is no father? Conversely, what does the word “parents” mean when there is no longer any natural biological basis for parenthood in the first place? Hence the difficulty for jurists to simply name the consequences of this decomposition of the human world caused by a strictly individualistic vision of rights. The delegitimization of institutions results from a delegitimization of the natural tendencies of human beings.


The erosion of natural law in favor of an individualistic vision of rights is, according to you, partly imputable to prominent thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, among which Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes are some of the more prominent. What is so problematic with their thought and legacy?

They are very important, as they help us understand how and what we think today, because they invented what we think in a certain way, or at least they made it clear. Regarding Hobbes, for instance, it is more useful than ever to read him, as for the first time in history, we are totally immerged in Hobbes’ regime as described in the Leviathan: There are only individual rights; what is fair and unfair is what the rule maker decides. This idea was very shocking at that time, and it remained so until recent times.

Regarding Luther, it is more complicated, even if deep inside it is the same question of the legitimacy of institutions which is at stake. The problem that Luther had is that of the mediation by the ecclesial institution — the Church, which is a mediator between Christians and God. Luther wanted to go without any such mediator. But if there is no priest to tell you what is fair and unfair, and to deliver yourself from your sins, nothing will master your anguish for salvation. Luther was a young Augustinian monk eaten up by scruples and the fear of hell, until he had what he considered an enlightenment: One had to throw oneself in Christ’s arms and hide in his mantle, thinking that, after all, these sins were not one’s, as Christ already took them upon himself.

If we compare this position with that of the Catholic faith, we understand that all of Luther’s thought flows from the abandonment of the ecclesial institution. The belief in a Catholic dogma is an adhesion to the Church as the vehicle of salvation. Luther pushes the Church out of the way so that he may stand alone before God. As he sees it, his salvation cannot depend on his behavior because he is a sinner and no institution can ease the burden of his guilt. Therefore, he has to force Jesus Christ to take his own sins upon himself. There are astonishing passages of his texts where he writes that to be a Christian is to be ensured of one’s own salvation. And if you doubt your salvation, you doubt God himself. The question of the institution is fundamental here. One cannot achieve the aim or goal of an institution without the use of the institution. By wanting to give everything to God and nothing to the Church, Luther ends up giving himself everything. From this position which Luther took, it was an easy jump for those that came after Luther to put aside the actions, works and the whole Christian life. Therefore, it should be no surprise that there are few, if any, rules left in the Lutheran faith which might be considered universally applicable to Lutherans.


Many of the recent populist movements in the West have expressed a certain rejection of the ideology of human rights. Do you think that this rejection is expressing a popular desire to put nature back at the center of the laws that govern common life?

Populism in itself is not an alternative to the governing opinion as such because most populist movements are not based on sound philosophical reflections. The governing opinion, on the contrary, has a structured thought — which I consider deficient but that is coherent and explicit.

Populism indicates the need among a growing number of Westerners to defend the form of life — the customs, the culture, the history — which they inherited from previous generations. It also expresses a rebellion on the part of a certain majority in the West, a large swath of society which gradually feels delegitimized, shook up, humiliated by a governing opinion that declares that their form of life is one of narrowmindedness because of their denial of minority rights. Therefore, populism claims the right to defend the form of life that a people or nation inherited. It would be important for populism to articulate its claims in this sense.

Alexis de Tocqueville often said that democracy was threatened by a despotism from the majority, and today we see in our regimes that there is a tyranny of minorities, of individuals, who are the most minoritarian minority. We don’t realize that we grant illimited power to a right that cannot be formulated and which has no reason to be, apart from feelings. But a feeling is nothing but an affect which can also be very unstable and changing.

Our world, in which we used to exchange arguments based on reason, is now dominated by claims which make a point of honor not to be based on reason but on some ineffable intimacy. Our liberal regimes are in the grip of dangerous tendencies; one of the reasons for this dangerous drift in liberalism is that the liberal philosophers turned their back on religion. It would be good indeed to find other directing elements than individual rights in our societies because, if we go on in this way, ruled by emotions and preference rather than reason and justice, no common life for a people or for the world is possible.

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)