Is There a “Modern” Natural Law Theory? Notes on the History of Human Rights

Human rights are a complex concept with distinct parts, whose histories are often independent from one another. Histories of human rights are almost always partial histories, and we cannot reduce their history to that of one part. This article challenges one of the central tenets of the early-modern history of human rights, namely that it was the “discovery” of subjective rights in the late medieval period that was the critical move in the development of human rights. It examines in particular the work of Richard Tuck, and exposes his debt to the French legal historian Michel Villey and to Leo Strauss. In so doing, it disputes the existence of a “modern school” of natural law theory, and sketches an alternative history of natural rights, which passes from the Huguenot monarchomachs and the English Levellers to the American and French revolutionaries.