Article Title

Early Modern Rights Talk


Victoria Kahn


Modem historians of political thought, legal historians, critical legal theorists, and others regularly look to the seventeenth century as the "classic" period of rights talk, the period which shaped the development of all subsequent liberal political theory. Thus, scholars as diverse as Carole Pateman, Ian Shapiro, John Rawls, and Mary Ann Glendon have taken the seventeenth century as their point of departure in evaluating the role of rights in modem liberal theory. The same is true of older scholars, such as Leo Strauss and C. B. Macpherson, not to mention the numerous historians of political thought for whom Hobbes and Locke mark the beginning of the liberal tradition. Although this list of strange bedfellows would seem to suggest a considerable divergence of opinion about what transpired in the seventeenth century, there is in fact surprising agreement about the emergence of a proto-liberal conception of the rights-bearing individual and of individual consent to political contract as the basis of political legitimacy. Ernst Bloch articulated the scholarly consensus in Natural Law and Human Dignity when he described the most important feature of the new language of rights as "the belief that individuals constitute and preserve social life." These individuals are the possessors of "private rights," which

"cannot be violated except under the one condition that the individual consents to let this happen out of what he considers his own best interest. It was a juridical rather than a historical concept that led to the view that a just state could not be thought of except as the product of the will of its members."