Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason by Pierre Manent

David VanDrunen

Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason, by Pierre Manent, trans. Ralph C. Hancock. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020, xxvi + 149 pages, $29.00.

French political philosopher Pierre Manent offers a relatively brief but intellectually dense account of our present moral and political condition. Although Manent uses the ideas of natural law and human rights to frame his study, readers may think of it generally as an attempt to explain the cultural changes that have agitated Western societies in recent generations and to point a better way forward.

In the opening chapter, Manent introduces two important concepts. He claims that modern opinion opposes natural law because it is an obstacle to human rights. Natural law promotes “the idea of freedom under law” and is grounded in “human nature” (7). This refers to universal human nature, to characteristics that all humans share in common. The notion of human rights is about nature too, but in the sense of a person’s individual nature. There are no particular characteristics of an individual nature, and thus it can be “constructed and deconstructed as we wish” (10). Manent applies these insights to recent developments concerning sex and gender. He concludes that legalization of homosexual marriage was the paramount way to express the triumph of the concept of human rights, for it declared the rejection of human nature with respect to this most fundamental social institution.

The second chapter focuses on the historical origins of this turn from natural law to human rights. Given that Manent is a politically conservative Roman Catholic, his cast of characters offers few surprises. He thinks Thomas Hobbes’s thought was very important but devotes the most space to Machiavelli, who “contributed more than any other author to the discrediting of natural law” (34). Manent also claims that Martin Luther’s “reinterpretation of the Christian religious experience” (36) made a move analogous to Machiavelli’s. Readers familiar with Luther will see that Manent understands some important elements of Luther’s theology but portrays him simplistically as an antinomian.

Chapter 3 then reflects on the reconstruction of political thought emerging from the turn to human rights. Both classical and Christian thought approached politics presupposing that the world was already ordered by law. In contrast, modern human-rights doctrine imagines political life against the background of a lawless state of nature. Individuals grant power to a sovereign state to protect them, but the morality proper to the state remains indeterminate.

What is the result for the modern state? Chapter 4 argues that we now operate with the imaginary idea of the autonomous subject, in which the people supposedly authorize the sovereign’s actions and thereby command themselves. As a result, there is no longer any true commanding or obeying in political life. Manent suggests that the 1960s marked a “point of inflection” (75). The arguments derived from the unlimited sovereignty of individual rights became unanswerable and prevailed over all the rules and meanings of every social institution. Law could no longer aim at objective goods without allegedly violating human rights.

The fifth chapter continues to analyze the modern condition. The moderns define humanity in terms of freedom, that is, a freedom from all impediments of nature. They reject the notion of freedom under law and insist that law has meaning only as the product or expression of their freedom. The state is regarded as legitimate because the people consent to it and because its officials represent them. Again, this destroys all true commanding and obeying.

Manent seeks to recover these ideas of commanding and obeying in his final chapter. Here, he develops his thoughts about natural law in most detail. “The very notion of natural law presupposes or implies that we have the ability to judge human conduct according to criteria that are clear, stable, and largely if not universally shared” (106). But Manent does not think natural law is exhaustive. It leaves “latitude” (110) and “room to deliberate and then to choose.” It “guides action but does not determine it” (111). It does not leave humanity in a state of condemnation but helps us find “a reasonably pleasant, useful, and noble life” (112). In an appendix, Manent concludes by calling for recovery of a proper understanding of law. He points to Thomas Aquinas as the most helpful guide. Such a recovery, he says, would turn back “the disordered extension of rights” that makes “unintelligible the very bases of European moral life” (127).

Reading Manent’s work will be a thought-provoking exercise for people concerned about contemporary morality and politics and who are willing and able to wrestle with intellectually challenging material. Many American Christians think of Europe as a completely secularized, post-Christian, religiously-skeptical place, but there are still plenty of serious European thinkers who are exceptions to this generalization. Manent is one of them. Reformed office-bearers in North America may find his book useful simply as a way to expand their horizons by engaging someone with many similar concerns but who writes from a different theological and social context.

Natural law can be a complex subject, but there is much to appreciate in the way Manent treats it. He is correct, I believe, to portray natural law as an objective moral standard that precedes our own individual lives and experiences. Skepticism about such an idea is indeed a root cause of much that ails Western moral and political life. I also think Manent is appropriately modest in seeing natural law more as a general moral compass than as an exhaustive standard that leaves little room for discretion or good judgment. Nevertheless, his claim that natural law does not condemn “humanity in its ordinary or current condition” as a “mass of perdition” (111) is directly contrary to Paul’s discussion of natural revelation in Romans 1:18–32. Any Christian theory of natural law needs to account for this crucial text.

One might wish to engage Manent critically on many smaller matters, but I conclude this review by focusing on one larger issue. Manent is a learned scholar, and so I wish to say this with modesty and due respect: While I affirm much of his analysis, I also protest that things are more complicated than he often suggests. There have been some good reasons for the increasing emphasis on human rights, and they are not necessarily at odds with natural law or traditional Christian conviction. In fact, as scholars such as Brian Tierney and John Witte have shown, rich notions of human/natural rights long pre-dated the modern period and complemented Christian natural-law theory and moral theology. Human rights is an attractive idea when confronted by rulers who claim extensive authority and use it badly, mistreating many fellow humans in the process. In the face of foolish and unjust rulers, rights-claims (grounded properly in a common human nature) can be a powerful way to defend the dignity of each and every divine image-bearer.

Manent’s book, I must say, has a rather strong authoritarian bent. He rightfully critiques the loss of objective law and morality and its threat to legitimate authority, but his repeated characterization of political life in terms of commanding and obeying leaves me at something of a loss. Healthy political life undoubtedly involves some degree of commanding and obeying, but to make this so prominent in the relationship between civil officials and citizens seems one-sided and even dangerous. In my judgment, we need both a recovery of natural law as an objective moral norm to guide legitimate authority and a nuanced affirmation of natural rights as checks upon what governments can do to people. But maintaining both is difficult, even elusive, and there is hardly a Reformed consensus about how to do it. Countless sessions and consistories found themselves internally divided during the pandemic of 2020 between those whose instinct is to defer to authority figures and those whose instinct is to challenge abuse of authority (to put it very simply, I admit). It is a delicate balance, but surely both are necessary. We undoubtedly require ongoing, charitable discussion to get that balance right.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, March 2021.

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Ordained Servant: March 2021


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