Natural Rights in the Thirteenth Century: A Quaestio of Henry of Ghent

Speculum 67 (1):58-68 (1992)
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According to one recent account, in the “preliberal epoch” before the seventeenth century people did not think of individuals “as possessing inalienable rights to anything — much less life, liberty, property, or even the pursuit of happiness.” The statement is not true, but it is excusable. Compared with the flood of writing on the classical rights theories of the early modern period, there has been only a thin trickle of work on medieval ideas concerning individual natural rights, or human rights as we say nowadays, rights inhering in the human person as such. Some modern authors see the seventeenth-century rights theories as a radical departure from ancient and medieval ways of thought; they are content to explain the ideas of Hobbes and Locke and Pufendorf by reference to some aspect of the intellectual, political, or economic life of the seventeenth century itself. C. B. MacPherson, for instance, emphasizing economic factors, inaugurated a minor academic industry when he interpreted Locke's teaching that everyone had a property right in his own person as a reflection of the possessive individualism of early-modern capitalism



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