Prof. UAM dr hab. Michał Wendland
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
English abstract: The main difference between classical (both ancient and medieval) and modern concepts of natural law lies in the assumption of its supernatural (divine) foundation. Early modern philosophical concepts tend to undermine and gradually to deny God or some other metaphysical entity as the source of natural law. Some contemporary scholars (e.g. Habermas, Bobbio) define this process as transition (modernization, rationalization, Positivisierung) of traditional natural law towards the idea of natural rights and human rights.
We can distinguish at least three main schools of natural law during the 17th and 18th centuries, each one more radical than the others: de Groot dares to consider the natural law “as if there were no God”. The philosophers of early Enlightenment (e.g. Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire) were perhaps more daring, nevertheless they were all deists and the “Supreme Being” still validates natural law in their writings.
The article aims to examine the most radical view on natural law, i.e. partly forgotten and underestimated ideas of French materialists: La Mettrie, Diderot, Holbach, Mably, and Condorcet. For they were all thinkers of the radical Enlightenment (J. Israel), all of them were materialists and atheists, and they perceived the nature and natural law as completely separated from God or other supernatural being. Unlike their older colleagues, these radical philosophers demanded equality (for women and ethnical minorities as well), emancipation, and social justice for all classes.
This papers describes the idea of natural law within the radical Enlightenment movement, and investigates some political consequences of this interpretation during the French Revolution. While strongly materialistic, progressive, and atheist, the ideas of Diderot, Holbach, Mably, and Condorcet were also perceived as politically dangerous. All revolutionary attempts to put these ideas into political and social practice have failed. Finally, these ideas were refuted, but they returned during the 19th- and 20th-century debates on human rights.
Keywords: natural law, radical Enlightenment, modernity, materialism, ethical naturalism
Published: Number 4(25)/2020, pp. 91-102.
Number of downloads: 281