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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


MALAN, Koos. What about places, roles and offices? Because the law is about more than individual rights. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2022, vol.62, n.1, pp.40-71. ISSN 2224-7912.

The notion of subjective individual human rights is presently occupying a dominant position in legal thinking and practice. Hence, people's position within the legal order is almost exclusively conceptualised in terms of individual human rights - abstract, equal, universal subjective individual human rights - to put the concept in true perspective. Nothing, so it is believed, needs to be added to that. In our day, moreover, human rights assume the character of a redeeming gospel, guaranteeing justice comprehensively and serving as a panacea for all the challenges humanity might be facing. Whenever a new ill arises a new human right will surface providing the required cure. However, the dominance of human rights is no natural given. Its present dominance is also of fairly recent origin. It is associated with a distinctive individualist ideology that emerged only since early modernity. It made tumultuous strides during the revolutionary era in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and finally triumphed only after World War II. Given the tremendous upsurge of subjective individual rights, conceptualisation of law in its objective guise as a holistic system has largely been neglected. This is unfortunate, since it has caused a distorted and impoverished view of what law - and a legal order - on closer analysis should signify. The last part of the discussion (Part 4) precisely seeks to offer suggestions as to what law viewed from an objective vantage point should signify. To reach that point, an historical overview of the emergence of the concept of the individual is first given in part 2, followed in part 3 with an overview of the rise of individual rights. These two issues are closely inter-related. For clarity's sake we deal with them separately. Focusing first on the individual (and individualism), it is shown that the "individual" of Classicism and the Middle Ages was in fact far removed from the individual of present-day individualism. Thus Louis Dumont (similar to Ernst Troeltsch, Alasdair Maclntyre, Collin Morris and various other idea historians referred to in Part 2) highlights the drastic break between the kind of individuality of early Christianity in stark contrast to contemporary individualism, explaining: This "individual " was a sinner before God the Almighty, equal to all other individual sinners, yet "naturally" anchored in a variety of communal settings occupying designated places and fulfilling roles. The latter were not regarded as equal to all others and exercising individual rights on an equal footing with all other individuals. Only after the individualising events specifically associated with René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, something that vaguely resembled the modern-day individual, reflecting the notion of individualism, really started emerging, culminating in the post World War II triumph of individualism. Part 3 deals with the equally modern-day notion of subjective individual human rights. Concurrent with abstracting the notion of the individual, the idea of individual rights appears to have emerged only in the nominalism of William of Ockham and others. Before that, none of the Classical roots of our Western civilisation - Christianity, Classical Athenian philosophy, Roman law - conceived of law as a system of subjective equal human rights. On the contrary, law was viewed in the first place as a natural whole designating specific places, roles and offices to each person. Thus Michael Oakeshott explains: Roman law with reference to numerous classical sources such as the work of Celsius and Paulus as reported in the Digest in the Justinian Code, as well as various others such as Marcus Aurelius all viewed law as an objective (cosmic) order of justice sustained by everyone fulfilling his and her (naturally) allocated, distinctive roles. Individual rights have no doubt brought about huge strides to the betterment of human existence, but such rights also have a dark downside, having caused an inordinate degree of fragmentation, atomism and loss of a sense of civilisation. It is suggested that our classical Western roots of civilisation may be of help not by simply transplanting them into our present-day reality but instead to regard them with hermeneutical judgment as argued by Danie Goosen. It is on the basis of this constructive relationship with our tradition, steering clear from the extremes of a reactionary retreat to classicism on the one hand as well as, on the other, a hostile rejection of anything that classicism might offer, that I embark on the discussion in Part 4. It is argued that over and above subjective individual rights we stand to gain richly from the following six notions for elucidating our insight into how a sound legal order should be conceived. These six notions, unpacked in the last part are that of place, role, office, capacity, responsibility and calling.

Keywords : abstract subjective individual rights; Christianity; Classical Greek ideas; tradition; (Classical) Roman law; views; jurists; law in the subjective sense; law in an objective sense; Plato; Aristotle; Hobbes; Nominalism; William of Ockham; Notions of place; role; office; capacity; responsibility and calling.

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