Rights, Duties, Privileges

By Henry T. Edge

On August 4, 1789, a large and unruly Parliament of excited men sat in a hall at Versailles. It was the National Assembly of revolutionary France, and it was framing a new constitution for the country. But what was agitating the assembly at the moment was the preamble to that constitution -- a Declaration of the Rights of Man. Suddenly one of the members interposed with an amendment. He proposed that the Declaration of the Rights of Man should also be a Declaration of the Duties of Man. His amendment was impatiently rejected, the majority being 575 against 433; and the assembly proceeded to adopt almost unanimously the motion that the preamble should consist only of a Declaration of Rights.

Human nature has not changed much since then. We still hear much about the rights of man. About the duties we do not hear quite so much. The lesson is applicable to the present situation, if at all.

When we demand our rights, or promise other people their rights, the motive concerned is self-interest, the self-interest of an individual or of a class. When duties are spoken of, it is conscience that is appealed to. Which is the better for the welfare and progress of the individual -- self-interest or conscience? Which is better for the welfare of the community?

This mention of rights and duties suggests that they are opposed to each other. Rights are pleasant things, and duties are painful things. Rights are what we want and can't get, and duties are what we get and can't want. So perhaps it is advisable to find another word that will suit the case better. That is why the word 'Privileges' was chose for the third of our title.

What are the Privileges of Man? Do they include the Rights or the Duties or some of both?

I believe that a man's Rights and Duties and Privileges are really all one and the same thing. But the word 'Rights,' in this case, means something that cannot be taken away from a man. He does not have to clamor for this kind of Rights; no one can do him out of them.

To be a Man, a human being -- is not that privilege enough? Does it not confer power enough? For what is Man?

An ancient emblem represents him as having a human head, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. The human head represents man's intellect; the lion's body, his daring and will-power; the eagle's wings, his power of aspiration. With these divine gifts, man can make himself what he will; and yet he abrogates them and clamors for lesser things he calls his rights.

We do not need to clamor for our rights; we only need to recognise them. The real Rights of man are his birthrights, and we know that he is born of the Spirit as well as of the flesh. Leastwise, however the doctrine and theology may run, it is an indisputable fact that you and I are somehow mysteriously endowed with a Mind and a Heart and a Will and good many other things that money cannot buy and thieves cannot steal. The sooner we recognise these gifts, the sooner we shall have our Rights. The sooner we exercise these gifts, the sooner we shall do our Duties. And, as to Privileges, all this will be privilege enough and to spare. Let us claim our Birthrights.

Would you like to be a strong man or a weak man? A strong man is self-dependent, but a weak man is always leaning on other people. The weak man has his eyes fixed on the past and on the future, but never on the present. The future is always getting away from him as he goes, like his shadow thrown before him; and the past is always receding from him. Only the present stays with him, but this he seems to have no use for. He is the unpractical man. The weak man is affected by the opinions of others, by praise and blame; he is alternately exhilarated and depressed by the turns of fortune. He lives in an atmosphere of expectation and fear and is a creature of vain emotion. The strong man simply takes his life as he finds it and acts strongly here and now in the present place and the present moment.

Why be a weakling? Why not face boldly the life in which you find yourself and determine to utilize you wonderful resources to the full?

Surely it is the venturous man who discovers things. The man who waits for a lead never starts at all. Yet how many people there are today who say feebly that they do not know the mysteries of life, and that they can never know; people who demand to be shown before they will move; people who will stay where they are until they can see something better? These people do not realise that it is often necessary to take a step first before you can see where to plant the next step.

If you would discover something about the mysteries of your own nature, you must have faith enough and grit enough to start. You must not wait for knowledge to fall into your lap. The kingdom of heaven has to be taken by might; it will not throw itself at our heads.

When we try to imagine the future of humanity, and can think of nothing better than a lot of people, of different classes, all clamoring for what they consider their rights, we do not get a very edifying picture. What is needed is that people should be taught to recognise their privileges -- the rights that they have, not the rights that they think they ought to have. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you," means that, if you attend to your duties, your rights will take care of themselves.

Surely it is a privilege to have duties!

Man has many more rights and privileges than the thinks he has. What he is clamoring for is mere pittance. There are rights and privileges waiting to be claimed; but they are the price of duty. A man who has not the faith or the grit to do his duty will stay where he is and will go on hungering for his rights. But the man who recognises that duty is his privilege will obtain all the rights he expects -- and more.

And remember that your better nature has its rights as well as your inferior nature. Why not give it a chance? And it is just because you will not give it a chance that 'Fate' steps in and does it for you. The human race would soon perish from self-indulgence if it were left to choose its own fate according to its selfish desires. Fortunately, a power wiser and stronger than our selfish desires steps in and gives us what is good for us. What is this power? It is the power that rules our destiny; it is our own real Self, the light behind our mind, the guiding star of our lives. Why not recognise its claims and admit that our higher nature has also its rights and privileges?

To follow duty is simply to recognise the claims of our higher nature. What we call duties are the rights of our higher nature; and when we sacrifice a duty to a personal pleasure, we starve our higher nature to feed our lower.

So much has been dinned into our ears about our animal nature that it is time a little more was told us about that spark of divine creative fire that is in all of us. Then perhaps we would have more self-reliance and not be expecting so much from systems and regulations. If you think you are as good as the other man, it is up to you to show it. No doubt social conditions are wrong in many points; but they would stand a better chance of righting themselves if a little more of the spirit of true self-reliance and self-respect were abroad in the world.

  • (From The Theosophical Path, January 1923)

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