BEOWULF VS. THE FOUNDERS
I just returned from a week long vacation with the family camping at Big Bear Lake. Consequently, I was unable to read Grim’s post about animal rights and his subsequent posts until a day ago. What struck me most about the original post on animal rights was not so much the discussion of animal rights but rather Grim’s statements concerning the origins of individual rights. Since I have great respect for Grim’s opinions I am compelled to address an opinion of his with which I take issue.
Grim’s position on the origin of rights is summed up by the following quotes:
“I argue that "rights" arise from that precise contract, and all rights stand on it. In the state of nature, you have no rights in any practical sense -- whatever inalienable rights you may hold from the Creator, they have no force on what happens to you in the world. In order to make a space in which those rights can exist practically, we must make the space and defend it. Society owes nothing to anyone except to those who are engaged in making that space, defending it once it is made, and keeping it clear internally. They are the ones to whom society belongs.”
Grim goes on to clarify his position on duties that entitle a citizen to rights by stating that, “a person who gets a job and works at it steadily is doing enough, even if they don't deserve the special praise due to soldiers.”
In addressing the issue of how the infirm, injured, or children fit into this scheme Grim places significant weight on ancestry. He states that, “ancestry is important in a narrow sense -- because a society is a project across generations, we have to extend loyalty to those who went before, and those who will come after. He goes on to say that these groups fit in “because they are wrapped into these family webs, they belong anyway. We take care of them out of respect for what their fathers did for all of us, or their mothers; and what their children may do, if they have children.”
What emerges from Grim’s concept of rights and the citizen is a utilitarian societal model that has more in common with European fascism, and even the Germanic warrior tribes of the Dark Ages, than it does with ideas of the American founding. Grim’s understanding of rights appears to be based on the utility of the individual as a defender or supporter of the state (society) or, at a minimum, his or her relationship to those who have or are providing such service. One has no rights other than what he or his family could carve out in the state of nature. Seamus Heany provides a similar description of the Germanic warrior society in the introduction to his new verse translation of Beowulf. In that introduction he describes a society founded on blood and honor with the warrior chief as the central foundational member and the tribe’s warriors as the primary support structure. A man’s worth and reputation within the society were directly proportional to his contribution to the defense of the tribe.
Regardless of how appealing such a romantic pagan concept of human rights might appear, I stand with the Founding Fathers in passionate opposition to such a retreat from the advancements of Western Civilization.
Let me be very clear. I am not accusing Grim of being a fascist or even ascribing to him less than honorable intentions. I believe him to be a patriot of the highest order. I simply do not believe he completely understands the ramifications of the position he has stated as I understand it.
In explaining my understanding of the origin of human rights I will dispense with the silly and pernicious concept of “The State of Nature.” This mythological idea of our ancestors moving about as autonomous noble savages in some pristine precursor to the formation of society has never existed. Man is by nature, and always has been, a social creature. Man has always lived in groups, from the hunter-gatherer societies to the modern nation state. Consequently, using “the state of nature” as a base line for discussing rights is misleading at best.
Human rights come into existence with the birth of the individual. They are not based on the worth, or potential worth, of the individual as a warrior or supporter of society. Consequently, I think our Founding Fathers were right when they said “that all men are CREATED equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” While I believe that these rights exist at birth I also believe that they mature with the individual as he or she matures. A child’s right to pursue happiness is not as extensive as an adult.
The Founder’s correct identification of human rights existing at creation invariably leads to their concept of government, which is that it exists to secure these rights for the individual. Because the Founders believed that sovereignty rested with the people their views on rights and government recognized the inherent worth of the individual beyond and separate from the individual’s use as a potential soldier for the state.
Furthermore, contrary to Grim’s position, ancestry has nothing to do with an individual’s rights or standing within our republic. In fact, it was so important to the Founders to take ancestry out of the equation that they specifically forbade both the government from using ancestry for purposes of punishment or privilege in the Constitution. For instance, Art 1, Sect 9, Clause 3 forbids the passing of bills of attainder, legislative acts that condemned specific people or groups of people to death and denied to their heirs the right to inherit their property. Clause 9 under that same Article and Section prohibits the granting of titles of nobility. Article 3, Sect 3, Clause 2 prohibits the punishment for treason to include “corruption of blood.” In short, the Founders made sure that no one would be punished or entitled to privilege based on what their father did.
In a warrior based society ancestry is often seen as a legitimate claim to leadership and privilege within the group. While this obviously worked for Beowulf and his contemporaries anything remotely resembling this as a basis for citizen rights was rejected by the wise men who created our republic.
Whatever romantic appeal such outdated pagan ideas posses I would urge my fellow countrymen and women to reject them and renew their dedication to the ideas and principles upon which our republic was founded. There is no need to create a new society or frith. We already have one and I think it was founded on sound ideas. Let us work to strengthen what we have been given by the Founding Fathers.