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From religion to politics: the expression of opinion as the common ground between religious liberty and political participation in the eighteenth-century conception of natural rights

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Although there has been growing awareness among historians of ideas of a close relationship between eighteenth-century religious and political argument, there is still no clear understanding of this kind of relationship. Despite its historical plausibility, the transition from religious to political thinking encounters serious logical obstacles stemming mainly from the traditional distinction between spiritual and temporal matters. This distinction, as articulated in the initial attempts to establish religious toleration, would make it untenable to extend arguments in defence of religious liberty directly to the defence of political liberty. Religious and political liberty cannot be governed by the same rationale, which is man's conscientious relationship to God. Any attempt, therefore, to explain how it was possible to pass from religious to political argument has rather to focus on the, as it were, external characteristics of these two kinds of liberty. It is argued in this article that religious and political liberty appear to be similar in that they both refer to rights that concern the expression of opinions, the so-called ‘intellectual rights’ or ‘rights of mind’. Investigating the meaning of ‘right of private judgement’ shows it to have three dimensions, which refer (i) to the mental process of thinking, (ii) to its external manifestation through speech, and (iii) to other, non-verbal actions prompted by thought. In relation to fundamental rights (i) could easily be dismissed as irrelevant, (iii) could be interpreted as a relapse to a Hobbesian state of nature, while (ii) was considered suitable for serving as a basis of a defensible theory of natural rights which could easily cover religious liberty, as well as political liberty, the right to free speech, or the liberty of the press. Unlimited and universal exercise of this type of rights was not only believed not to involve mutual harm, but it was also backed further by an appeal to the public good.
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Keywords: Dissenters; Paine; natural rights; opinion; private judgment; religious - political liberty

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 19 Ikarias Street, 144 51 Metamorfossi Attikis, Athens, Greece.

Publication date: 2000-02-01

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