Category: History
Theory of Natural Rights

The Enlightenment was a period in the history of European culture associated with the development of scientific, philosophical and social thoughts. The basis of this intellectual movement was rationalism and freethinking. Enlightenment, as a new system of the world’s humanity, introduced the ideas that were in contradiction to the feudal-absolutist system in Europe. Revolution was the transformation of the social and political systems of the state, which led to the destruction of the old order and the monarchy in the country as well as to the proclamation of the republic. Subsequently, this caused the corresponding transformation in the whole of Europe. At the same time, the idea of natural rights, as one of the main principles of the Enlightenment, was the basis for the French Revolution in 1789.

In order to confirm this idea, it is necessary to consider the general concept of natural rights and its relation to the revolution, the theory of natural rights, the influence of that theory on the revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 as the implementation theory of natural rights during the period of Enlightenment.

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The General Concept of Natural Right and Its Impact on the Revolution

In order to understand the way in which natural rights have led to the revolution, it is prudent to explain the definition of the natural law concept. Natural law is the requirement of a legal nature, which is directly derived "from nature" of life and from the mind. These are the requirements directly expressed in the customs and morals, which define them in many possible ways. Natural law is the freedom of every person to use own strength in order to retain own nature and life; therefore, it is freedom to undertake all the actions suitable for attaining this goal. One of the concepts of natural law is the freedom that everyone has from birth.

Such freedom, according to the exact meaning of the word, refers to the absence of external obstacles that often can deprive a person of his power to behave. Such a statement could not be implemented under the feudal system that existed before the Revolution.

A feature of the natural law is a prescription or a general rule, according to which a person is prohibited to do things that are detrimental to his life or that deprive him of its preservation means. According to this rule, a person may not neglect the measures that he believes are the best to save a life. However, the feudal system prevented people from the ability to act according to the reason and set a framework for decision-making. The system presupposed the division of the society into strata, each of which had its limited rights and opportunities.

According to the natural right concept, the right could not be considered as an act of will of the state, but as the embodiment of justice and reason. Being a form of government, the absolute monarchy did not involve human identification as an individual as well as his rights.

Every person had natural rights, according to the rules set by Enlightenment. The concept of natural rights emanated a new definition of the concept of freedom, equality, opportunity to make decisions, personality, and fairness. All of these concepts could not be realized under conditions of absolute monarchy and the feudal system. Such rights were opposite to the nature of the state system. The society began to support the natural rights concept, which led to the loss of confidence in the government from the side of the clergy, nobility, and bourgeoisie. Thus, the concept of natural rights contradicted the existing system. Therefore, the discrepancies between the state and the views of the Enlightenment, which received the support of the community, formed the basis of the French Revolution.

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Theory of Natural Rights and Its Implementation in the State

In order to understand such contradictions, it is necessary to investigate the work of Enlightenment thinkers. Hugo Grotius was the founder of the theory of natural rights. He formed a new understanding of the state providing the natural rights of a man. It subsequently received the support of the society, which decided to change the existing state of things, leading to the French Revolution.

Hugo Grotius formulated the understanding of natural rights as a prescription of reason. Therefore, regardless of social strata to which the people belonged, they possessed natural rights. According to this statement, any action can be recognized as morally shameful or necessary depending on its consistency or contradiction to the rational nature of a man. Thus, natural law serves as the foundation and the criterion for distinguishing permissible and impermissible things by its nature, not by the virtue of any provisions established by the people. However, the society of pre-revolutionary France had to consider the state laws and those created by the monarch as the main criterion for evaluation of the human actions.

Natural law, according to the theory, is the rule which should provide others with everything they already own and should fulfill their corresponding responsibilities. The source of this law in the strict sense is not someone else's benefit, interest or will, but very reasonable nature of a man as a social creature. This opinion was not compatible with the internal organization of the country because most mechanisms were designed to use lower society strata by the monarch.

In accordance with the theory, the human capacity for knowledge and activities should correspond to the natural rules inherent to a person. Such compliance of the general rules of the community is the source of so-called law in the proper sense, which includes limited access to anyone’s property, damages, and deserved punishment. That theory could not be realized in the society because the peasants were always punished for their actions, and the bourgeoisie, as well as the clergy, were seldom punished. The monarch could punish anyone, but he could not be punished in any way.

Reasonable sociability as well as benefits and a combination of equity, a derivative of the requirements of the natural law in the prescribed form, are reflected in the state concept. It is a consequence of the people’s organization providing natural law. The state should be the perfect union of free people, which should act for the sake of compliance with the law and the common good. The problem was that the authorities did not consider their citizens as free men. Moreover, they could not tolerate equivalent to the right of people to make decisions because they could not prevent the recognition of the state as a union, in compliance with natural rights.

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Grotius said that the responsibility of the state is to guarantee the natural rights (freedom, equality, property) and laws (peace and security). The state should be based on the association of the society of free people. Free people have natural rights because the state through legislation ensures the implementation of these rights. Such views were not consistent with the organization of the absolutist state. The state was represented by the monarch who did not recognize the equality of all people and their natural rights. However, society apprehended the theory of natural rights, liberty, equality, and the organization of the state as an agreement between the government and the people. They claimed the idea that the King's power is usurpation in relation to the rights of the strata and corporations or to the rights of the people. The society, supporting such views, intended to change the system, which led to the Revolution.

Declaration of Human Rights of 1789 as the Implementation of the Natural Right Theory of the Enlightenment

The result of the French Revolution was the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights on August 26, 1789. It expressed ideas of the revolution and the desire of the society, which wanted to change the existing order of the state’s organization. It proclaimed the democratic and humanistic principles of the state and legal system. Under the rule, in most countries of the feudal medieval oppression and even slavery, Declaration was considered as a revolutionary challenge to the old world, its categorical denial.

It was based on the works of thinkers of the Enlightenment at the ideological and theoretical levels, especially on the development of the natural law theory. The creators of the Declaration considered a new political outlook as meeting the requirements of a universal and timeless mind.

Democratic and humanistic orientation of the Declaration was determined with the idea that people were born and remain free with equal rights. The enlightenment worldview of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man was called liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. Such rights for people destroyed the pre-existing state and derived the relation of the state and people to the other system.

The freedom was determined by the Declaration as an opportunity to act in a way that does not harm others, according to the statements of Grotius. The embodiment of freedom, like any natural human right, could meet only those boundaries that provided other members of society with the enjoyment of the same rights. Their boundaries could be determined only by law. The Declaration allocated individual liberty, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion. According to the Declaration, these rights were announced as inviolable and sacred. Before the Revolution, such right was used only by the monarch, and after the Declaration, the usurpation of such privileges became impossible. Thus, natural law radically changed the concept of the internal structure of the society.

To ensure the safety of the person, a number of principles were declared relating to criminal law and procedure: no one could be subject to charges, detention or imprisonment, except cases provided by the law. Anything could not be claimed as a crime without the guidance of the law; no one can be punished except by virtue of properly applied law, published and promulgated prior to the offense. The law was not retroactive; each was assumed innocent unless proved otherwise. These laws ensured the possibility to provide one of the main tenets of the theory of natural rights, namely equality.

In this case, ensuring the rights proclaimed by the Declaration was the obligation of the state. That was followed by one of the main ideas of the natural law theory, which is considered in the state concept. It has appeared due to the social contract as a tool to protect the inalienable rights of a man. It was declared that the supreme power of the state belonged to the nation. Neither any organization nor individual could have a power provided clearly by this source. Consequently, the political rights of the citizens were declared as follows: their participation in the adoption of the law is viewed as an expression of the general will. Determining the size and levying taxes, the activities of officials as well as equal access to the public office were proclaimed under the control of people. This mechanism could have been considered impossible earlier unless the Revolution had not been forced by the idea of natural rights.

Thus, the Declaration resulted from the needs of the revolution in 1789. It included the basic ideas of the natural rights theory such as freedom, equality, property, security, and the agreement between the state and the people. It legally enshrined all changes that have occurred in the course of the Revolution at the state level. The main requirement was providing equal rights for all. The introduction of such a document provided natural rights to all citizens at the state level. Declaration has proved de facto the implementation of the requirements of society.


Enlightenment formed a theory of the natural rights of a man. The gradual emergence of individualism and certain autonomy of the individual, expressed in the Enlightenment, led to the formation of conflict in the society between supporters of the human rights and the feudal-absolutist system of the state. The requirement to bring the political system in line with the natural right of XVII-XVIII centuries resulted in the Revolution. Subsequently, after the revolution, natural rights became interpreted at the state level as those belonging to a person by nature as well as inalienable and not granted by the state. The state was responsible for the provision of such rights, and the state should have been based on the association of the society of free people. The proof of this process implementation was the Declaration of Human Rights in 1789, where the natural rights were enshrined in the form of law. Therefore, one may conclude that the theory of the natural rights of a man became the basis for the Great French Revolution in the late 1780s, which confirms the corresponding thesis.

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