Did Richard Overton Preempt Ayn Rand?

Here is a part of the shaft of the literary arrow fired by Richard Overton against all tyrants and tyranny, … from the prison of Newgate in 1646:

this by nature everyone’s desire aims at and requires; for no man naturally would be befooled of his liberty by his neighbour’s craft or enslaved by his neighbour’s might. For it is nature’s instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious; and this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just: not to be rooted out of the kind, even of equal duration with the creature. And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original

I have struck out a portion of the text which I do not understand, but which does not appear – to my knowledge – to alter the meaning. Perhaps someone will enlighten me to the contrary.

[ LATER: someone did. Julie translates this to “the basic tendency of each kind of thing in nature to preserve itself cannot ever be changed”. ]

I am more interested in this portion:

it is nature’s instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious

Ayn Rand would surely have commented on the negativity of this sentence, that avoiding a negative is not the same as pursuing happiness, but it does seem to me that this passage acts as a rational justification of the god given natural rights Overton considers elsewhere in the text. This seems to back up that observation:

And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original

My question then, which is a genuine one, is does this mean that Overton achieved the same essential moral insight that Rand did from his prison cell in Newgate centuries before she did from her apartment in New York? Namely, that a rational animal must choose the actions it requires to live happily / preserve itself from all things hurtful and therefore should, rationally, be free to do so.

It is, I think, pretty darn close. This obviously doesn’t mean that the Levellers, beloved of the Left, are really Objectivists. It just means that they had something important in common.

11 Comments

  1. No overall (“body of work”) context, as I have not read Richard Overton, but I would think it goes like this:

    …it is nature’s instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious;

    = “Our human nature is to protect and defend ourselves”

    …this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just:

    = “this natural instinct is the most reasonable, equal, and just of all of characteristics of human nature”

    …not to be rooted out of the kind, even of equal duration with the creature.

    = “this instinct or drive for self-preservation cannot be driven out human nature. It will remain a characteristic of human nature for as long as humans exist.”

    SO:

    ‘It is part of our nature as humans to protect and defend ourselves, and this is the most “reasonable, equal, and just” characteristic of human nature. Nor can this characteristic be expunged from human nature; it will remain for as long as the human race survives.’

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  2. Having now read Burke’s “An Arrow against All Tyrants,” I should point out that Mr. Overton speaks throughout of “nature,” in the same meaning we give the term. So for him, humans are natural creatures, a part of nature like everything else, and human nature also is natural.

    So I need to update my interpretation above a little, I think. I made the mistake of thinking that by “nature” in the quote he meant human nature. But he was speaking instead of nature in general, thus “nature tends to preserve itself,” paraphrasing, and since humans are natural creatures, humans tend to preserve themselves, just as trees and bees tend to preserve themselves insofar as their nature permits it. And, says Mr. Overton, the basic tendency of each kind of thing in nature to preserve itself cannot ever be changed.

    The most interesting thing to me about the piece is the fact that Overton sees the qualities and characteristics of each thing in nature — i.e., the nature of each thing — as derived directly from nature, rather than from God. So it is not God but nature that provides Natural Laws, if I understand him right. God provided Nature; but Nature provides the Laws according to which the things in it operate.

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    1. Julie,

      I don’t think Overton is excluding God from the issue by invoking nature, as he says in the first paragraph: “we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a naturall, innate freedome and propriety (as it were writ in the table of every mans heart, never to be obliterated)”.

      I don’t think Overton sees man and nature as separate, rather God provides the laws that govern nature, including human nature. That said, it certainly seems that Overton sees no need to go beyond nature to God to make his argument. Essentially the same argument is made by his friend and fellow prisoner John Lilburne, but he makes more effort to justify it theologically, while Overton is making more of an appeal to reason, I would say.

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      1. Richard, I draw your attention to my final sentence:

        God provided Nature; but Nature provides the Laws according to which the things in it operate.

        From the one Letter, I think I agree with you on Overton, God, and Nature

        What he says is that Nature is mediate between God and Man, rather than that God Himself is Immediate to Man — at least in this context.

        Analogies abound. For instance, the Framers (“God”) produced the Constitution, which provides the Law according to which the laws governing the people are to be written; but it, or the Framers, do not provide the Laws directly to the people. It is up to Middle Management (the Legislature, Congress) to do that.

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