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In jurisprudence and political philosophy, a system of right or justice common to all humankind and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society, or positive law. The concept can be traced to Aristotle, who held that what was just by nature was not always the same as what was just by law. In one form or another, the existence of natural law was asserted by the Stoics (seeStoicism), Cicero, the Roman jurists, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Gratian, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Francisco Suárez. In the modern period, Hugo Grotius insisted on the validity of natural law even on the assumption that God does not exist, and Thomas Hobbes defined a law of nature as a precept of general rule found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life. Hobbes attempted to construct an edifice of law by rational deduction from a hypothetical state of nature and a social contract of consent between rulers and subjects. John Locke departed from Hobbes in describing the state of nature as an early society in which free and equal men observe the natural law. Jean-Jacques Rousseau postulated a savage who was virtuous in isolation and actuated by two principles prior to reason: self-preservation and compassion. The authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence refer only briefly to the Laws of Nature before citing equality and other unalienable rights as self-evident. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen asserts liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression as imprescriptible natural rights. Interest in the concept of natural law declined dramatically in the 19th century, partly as a result of skeptical attacks by Jeremy Bentham and other proponents of utilitarianism; it was revived in the mid-20th century in light of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime during World War II. Skepticism of natural law and natural rights remained strong, however, and later writers almost invariably talked of human rights rather than natural rights.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on natural law, visit Britannica.com.