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Does the concept of natural rights have roots, logical and historical, in the concept of natural law? Our answer is, ‘it depends’. By this, we mean that some conceptions across Western history do not in fact allow for the derivation of natural rights in the subjective sense. In contrast, others are conceived such that natural rights follow logically therefrom. Our premise is that talking about ‘natural law’ in the singular – at least in the period from Roman times to sixteenth-century – represents a distortion of on-the-ground realities.
The study of the events surrounding the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket at the side altar of Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 has focused primarily on the significance of the assassination itself as confirmation of his saintliness. As the body was finally being prepared for burial, the surprising discovery was made that underneath his stately vestments, Becket wore (and had long worn) a hairshirt, crawling with lice, maggots, and other vermin. All lingering suspicions that Becket's ‘conversion’ from worldly courtier to spiritual archbishop had been a pretense, a fabrication designed to bolster his claim to authority against King Henry II, fell away. It was the hairshirt, and not the murder, that made the martyr.
Keywords: Thomas Becket, Canterbury, Twelfth Century, England, Garnier of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, King Henry II
The documentary reconstruction of the history of the life and martyrdom of Thomas Becket of Canterbury has proven among the most vexing challenges for historians of twelfth-century Europe. Contemporary reports (those composed within fifteen or so years of the archbishop's fateful murder on 29 December 1170) abound, including accounts by his intimates and other participants in key events of Becket's career. But these voices speak in a bewildering and exasperating cacophony, as might be expected by the sheer number of vitae, as well as letters and other important pieces of evidence, available to the modern reader. At the end of the nineteenth century, Edwin Abbott, in his masterful attempt to collate the multitude of accounts of one crucial moment in Becket's career – the few hours surrounding his actual death – stated with evident frustration that examination of the extant narratives shows ‘how even eye-witnesses may have been misled, and may have misled others, as to important details, and also how easy and natural it was for the miraculous to intrude, even within five years of the Martyrdom’. Yet, recent scholars have doggedly sought to separate the wheat from the chaff so as to create a single coherent tale about Becket's procession from birth to afterlife, applying the critical tools of the modern historian to the rich body of evidence afforded by the many reports of the saint's deeds and words.
The showdown between King John of England and his barons, climaxing with the sealing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215, was surely one of the most dramatic and weighty events in the course of medieval English history. The document and the circumstances of its ratification continue to be valorized, perhaps with dubious accuracy, as a key moment in the development of Western human rights and liberties. Such judgments, while reinforcing Magna Carta's mythological status, require some serious historical qualification. First and foremost, one must recognize that the final and ‘official’ version of the document – the one that was reconfirmed by English kings on numerous occasions during the Middle Ages and beyond – was actually ratified in 1225, early in the reign of King Henry III. The 1225 Magna Carta was in many ways a changed document, in terms of its length and organization (it contains 37 articles in contrast to the 63 of the 1215 original), as well as some of its language. Even in its 1225 redaction, however, the grievances expressed were of limited applicability. Cursory examination of the text of Magna Carta would lead one to the entirely reasonable conclusion that it reflects the interests of a tiny population of England, namely, the upper echelons of the landed nobility. Certainly, its specific articles in its earliest form pertained almost exclusively to grievances expressed by that class.
Most importantly, serious scholarship has challenged and decisively defeated the once-dominant view that Magna Carta was instantly recognized by thirteenth-and fourteenth-century Englishmen to be a document that embraced constitutional monarchy and limited government. The concentration of recent research concerning the Charter has generally been devoted instead to its technical dimensions as applied in the courts and (after the late thirteenth century) parliament, for example, its many reconfirmations and, more broadly, the shifting significance of the utilization of its various articles during the 1200s and 1300s. Any further conceptual features ascribed it have been now relegated to the revival of interest in it among sixteenth-and seventeenth-century English legal theorists such as Edward Coke and William Blackstone, who found in it common law principles of constitutionalism. Certainly, opportunities existed during the thirteenth century to put Magna Carta to work in normative writings.
Some readers may find it surprising to encounter a chapter on “individual autonomy” in a survey of medieval philosophy, especially in connection with political philosophy. After all, an established tradition of historical scholarship insists that the Middle Ages was a period in which hierarchy, interdependence, and communal holism were emphasized to the virtual exclusion of the individual. The recovery of Aristotle’s writings on ethics and politics during the course of the mid-thirteenth century would seem only to reinforce the generally “communitarian” and anti-individualistic orientation commonly ascribed to medieval thinkers. Recently, the image of medieval Europe as hostile to the individual has been reaffirmed by its depiction as a “persecuting society.” Thus, according to the conventional view, the Renaissance and the Reformation constituted the watershed for the appearance of the individual as a moral and political category worthy of philosophical consideration.
Yet medieval political thinkers, both before and after the dissemination of Latin translations of Aristotle’s work, were surprisingly attuned to the standing of the individual and the role of free choice in public affairs. In their emphasis on the centrality of private property and consent to government, as well as their insistence on the ability of individuals to enjoy forms of personal liberty (such as free thought, judgment, and speech), these authors resisted the supposedly hierocratic (even authoritarian) tendencies that scholarship often ascribes to the Middle Ages. In turn, the ability of high and late medieval writers to establish a firm grounding for the individual in relation to religious as well as political authority depended upon their access to a wide range of pagan and Christian sources that yielded philosophical and theological principles supporting personal autonomy. For example, the political and legal traditions inherited from Rome endorsed such values as liberty, philosophical skepticism, and economic freedom.
Scholars generally agree that the Magna Carta of 1215 was a watershed in Western (and, more specifically, English) legal and political history and thought. Beyond this simple statement, however, there is little consensus concerning the nature and significance of the Magna Carta's achievement. One central unresolved issue centers on whether the charter represents a principled defense of human liberty or instead reflects a pragmatic statement of baronial liberties. The dispute over this question is nontrivial and reflects much more than a matter of language. If one subscribes to the former belief, which received its classic articulation in the seventeenth century (Turner 2003, 145–82) and retains powerful resonance today (Linebaugh 2008), then the Magna Carta deserves to be accorded a foundational role in the intellectual and political history of the liberal-democratic constitutional tradition, in which the rule of law is deemed the basis for the protection of individual freedom. If, however, one adopts the viewpoint of “the modern historian” that the charter “is a statement of [specific] liberties rather than an assertion of [general] liberty,” then the document should be read narrowly as an interesting artifact stipulating elite “privileges” that were “devised mainly in the interests of the aristocracy” (Holt 1965, 4). In other words, either the Magna Carta reflects deeper philosophical doctrines and commitments that enjoy purchase beyond their specific time and place, or it represents an expression of the immediate demands and grievances of a specific class displeased with the conduct of King John's government.
In contrast to recent commentators on Quentin Skinner's Foundations of Modern Political Thought, this work argues that Skinner's approach to the development of the modern theory of the state is strictly consistent with his earlier methodological proposals. But it is also established that Skinner's consistency ultimately leaves him without a “genuinely historical” basis for a unified state-tradition within late medieval and early modern Europe. The article proposes an alternative historical methodology which allows for the explanation of persisting traditions of discourse (such as that of the state) within a coherent historical framework.
This article examines the doctrine of tyrannicide in John of Salisbury's mid-twelfth century political treatise, the Policraticus, in light of recent scholarly skepticism that John never meant to advocate a theoretical defense of slaying the tyrant. It is argued that John's conception of tyrannicide in fact possesses a philosophical foundation derived from his idea of the state as a political organism in which all the members cooperate actively in the realization of the common utility and justice. When the ruler of this body politic behaves tyrannically, failing to perform his characteristic responsibilities, the other limbs and organs are bound by their duty to the public welfare and God to correct and, ultimately, to slay the tyrant. John illustrates this position by reference to the many historical and scriptural instances of tyrants who have legitimately been killed. Thus, John not only proposes a theory of tyrannicide, but also roots it in a strong positive obligation to raise the sword against tyrannical rulers in the name of public benefit and justice.
Several recent scholars have raised afresh the question of what Aristotle meant in Politics 1 by the statement that men are “by nature” political, that is, are political animals. This article addresses this quandary by reference to Aristotle's psychology and his notion of political education. It is argued that by concentrating on Aristotle's theory of human locomotion and its implications for moral choice, we may identify the relation he conceived between the polis and human nature. Specifically, the ability of humans to live according to their natures requires the systematic education afforded by the laws and institutions of the polis.
It has become common to locate the origins of the modern notion of subjective rights theory in late medieval scholastic and juristic writings. But comparatively little effort has been made to connect medieval ideas of individual rights to some of the other key political ideas associated with it in early modern thought, such as consent, limited government, and resistance to illegitimate power. This article argues that a little-known work by the English churchman William of Pagula, known as the Speculum Regis Edwardi III (1331–1332), constructs such a connection. Starting with the concept of a basic human right to property and its free use, William argues that the ruler must respect the individual lordship of his subjects if he is to gain and retain their love and approval. He also asserts in a rudimentary way the legitimacy of popular revolt against a government which violates their subjective rights.
The essay addresses the construction of the common good as viewed by one of the most controversial thinkers of the later Middle Ages. Marsiglio of Padua presents an extended argument for the compatibility of the material advantage of individuals with civil association by basing his conception of the community on the benefits that accrue to human beings from realizing their “natural” self-interests. According to Marsiglio, it is in the nature of human beings to seek their own physical well-being, which is best achieved by living communally. Hence, Marsiglian society is ultimately arranged according to the principle of promoting the goal of private advantage, the fulfillment of which is equivalent to the common good. The argument contains distinct elements of some of the main themes of modern economic rationality, yet also builds a bridge to a substantial idea of community.