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Observations on a memorandum of P--- I---- of 13 March 1993, “Note sur une éventuelle Déclaration des Devoirs de l’Homme”
The note in question is a brilliant destructive analysis of the misguided attempts to “complement” the international and European instruments on human rights by texts on “human duties” or obligations. The arguments developed on the main point at issue are incisive and to my mind entirely convincing. I have nothing to add or subtract from them. However, the note is prefaced by an essay on the origins of human rights that I find unconvincing. If I question this essay, it is because the standing of the author implies that the views expressed are representative and held by reputable scholars. It is a serious matter if they are, as I think, to a considerable extent misguided.
The point with which I take issue is briefly that human rights arose from a concern with the Other, first in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, second, in the encounter of Europeans with non-Europeans following the great discoveries.
At the end of the note, I--- asserts that the concept of the dignity of the person is also essential to the Western conception of human rights. The term is not introduced separately; it may be assumed that “dignity” and “the Other” are seen as cognate terms. I will therefore also discuss whether dignity has any roots in Judaism and Christianity. If my assumption is wrong, I apologise for the misreading. Nevertheless the discussion may still be of interest.
The search for "foundations" of human rights is not guaranteed to strengthen them. Emphasising their Judaic and Christian1 roots will detract from their universality. Introducing terminology drawn from German idealism French existentialism and psychoanalysis will by itself attract scepticism from “Anglo-Saxon” empiricists and utilitarians. If historical reconstruction is to add anything useful to the operational scheme of human rights protection entrusted to the Council of Europe, it must be rigorous and clear in terminology. I quite realize that these strictures apply too to the writer too, and the present paper is only a sketch of an argument that deserves much more thorough treatment.
There is a general problem with the approach to intellectual history of the document. Reinterpreting the views of ancient writers in terms of contemporary concepts and language is inherently uncertain. We say to writers of the calibre of the author of the book of Job, Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo: this is not what you said, but what you would have said if you had been alive now. How can we possibly know? Looking closer at the two main concepts projected into the past, of dignity and the Other, will reinforce these doubts. For there is no a priori reason why these terms, unlike say the terms of modern science (evolutionary adaptation, quantum superposition, competitive equilibrium, etc.), were not used by these writers, representative and important examples of the tradition in question.
In theology it is necessary and common to reinterpret the Scriptures in the light of modern insights; Christians have always read the Tanakh as the Old Testament prefiguring the New. We now read Genesis questioning the maleness of God and the domination of nature. But theology is not history. It can hardly be denied that in Genesis God is described as male and man as lord of woman and of nature. If we want to establish a true history of ideas, we must take the words and ideas ancient writers actually used, and see how they affected other writers, so laboriously tracing the chain that leads to the ideas we use today. To carry out this task in full is beyond the abilities of the writer. Sadly, the destructive parts of this paper are more trustworthy than the constructive speculations I present.
A starting-point for our interpretation of the ideas of ancient authors is then the simple question: did they use this vocabulary, or a different one? If the same, there is a prima facie case that the ideas converge, subject to verification; if not, the converse holds. Now for the Bible, it is easy to show that "the Other" and "dignity" are not in fact used at all. Since I have neither Greek not Hebrew, I carried out an on-line search on Young's literal English translation2. This gave the following scores:
"the Other": hits 0;
"the other": hits 97, all in normal contexts, either adjectivally or as a pronoun with a specific antecedent; 3
Without a search, on the basis of random dipping I think it is safe to say that neither is a key term for St. Augustine.
These are not knock-down arguments, but very suggestive. I will reinforce them below by considerations drawn from the general character of the texts.
The language of "the Other", as a way of approaching the foundations of ethics, goes back to Kant's principle of treating other people as ends not means. It has become really popular only in the twentieth century, in the confluence of two rather turbid streams of thought, psychoanalysis and idealist philosophy. I am not equipped to analyse how far the writers that use it succeed in providing ethics with a more secure philosophical foundation, or simply restate with less clarity the injunctions of the Torah or the common understandings of mankind6. Capitals do not guarantee significance. If there is no originality, then congruence with these older views is guaranteed but trivial; then, by Ockhams's razor, one should avoid the unnecessary translation and use the older language. I will assume that there are original insights, and address the question whether these have any relevance first to the sources of Judaism and Christianity, and second, to the great discoveries.
There are three possible senses of otherness that may be of relevance: that of (1) other human beings, (2) other tribes (out-groups), and (3) gods. (The ethics of dealing with (4) sentient animals have been neglected by all these traditions, and concern with hypothetical (5) intelligent aliens and (6) intelligent machines is still largely confined to fiction.) All human cultures know the first two distinctions7, and almost all the third.
It is very plausible that babies are born solipsist and have to learn the distinction between themselves and other people. If this is true, the learning program is surely innate. At all events, the acquisition of the self/others distinction is common to all sane humans, and is not specific to Judaism, Christianity or any other religious tradition.
The second distinction is also general. It is possible that peasants in central China in pre-modern times may have spent their entire lives only aware of other Han Chinese; but this is quite exceptional. Biblical Hebrews knew many other interesting peoples, generally armed and hostile: Edomites, Amalekites, Canaanites, Samaritans, Philistines, Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. But they were not unique. Herodotus exhibits a wonderfully omnivorous curiosity about the habits of Libyans, Nubians, Scythians, and the many Circassians; the more stolid Romans had a practical knowledge of many sorts of Gauls, Teutons, Picts, Iberians, and Pannonians, and how to kill them. When Australians first penetrated the highlands of central New Guinea in the 1930s, they found a great valley divided up between hundreds of tribes of Neolithic farmers, speaking 500 different languages and mutually suspicious.
What is being asserted, then, must be some proposition about a unique flavour or tone in Judaism and/or Christianity about these othernesses. Let us examine the three cases in turn.
Any god is radically different from the humans who worship it: invisible, immortal, usually superhumanly powerful, and hard to communicate with. What is different about the God of the Israelites (Yahweh, Adonai, Eloi)? Is this God, and no other, “le Tout Autre?”
The Old Testament is emphatically not a meditation on a remote divine watchmaker, unmoved mover, or a Brahma who dreams this world of appearances. As Karl Barth says: "There is no question of divinity in the abstract as suprahuman and supracosmic being. Holy Scripture knows nothing of this divinity. To be sure, the God of Holy Scripture is superior to man and the world as the Lord. But He has also bound Himself to man and the world in creating them".8
What we have is an epic romance. In Genesis, God creates man in his own image. This allows, indeed compels, a running argument between two stubborn and wilful lovers – a far from unequal struggle. God (= El, the sky-god) offers to become Abraham’s personal, tutelary deity. God makes spectacular offers of fertility; Abraham and Sarah laugh in His face, before they eventually strike the deal. It is true that as time goes on God is perceived as increasingly remote and self-sufficient - "I am that I am", and the relationship becomes less personal and more bureaucratic. In the desert, the wandering Israelites strike a covenant with God – the word is the technical term for treaty. Their descendants continued to expect God to perform His side of the bargains struck by Abraham and Moses.
The tale of Job does indeed present us with an alien and incomprehensible God, but He is alien and incomprehensible precisely because of the ethical arbitrariness of His interventions in human life. There is no need of theodicy for pure transcendence.
What is unique in Judaism is, I suggest:
the combination of rigorous monotheism with continuous, nagging intervention in history
the moral law as a covenant, a contract between God and Israel
the fundamental equality of all Jews before God and the Law.
In the New Testament, the ontological as well as ethical rift between God and man is healed by the Incarnation. For Paul, the self-revelation of God through Christ restores the intimacy in which God can be addressed as Father, as Jesus did (Abba: Daddy). We can pray with Christ, see him in our neighbour, touch him in service to other people. This is the unique claim of Christianity. It is specifically rejected by Islam, which underlines the distance between man and Allah, as well as by traditional Judaism.
On inspection, the claim that Judaism and, still less, Christianity have a uniquely extreme notion of the otherness of God does not hold up.
Let us give the last word to St Augustine; unlike the authors of the Bible, a formidable, unpleasant professional intellectual. He had come across some theory of Divine alterity, perhaps from a gnostic, a neo-Platonist or – most likely - his younger Manichaean self, and takes the time to skewer it to the wall in the very first chapter of his Confessions (emphasis added):9
"Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first, to know thee or to praise thee? and again, to know thee or to call upon Thee? For who can call on Thee, not knowing Thee? For he that knoweth Thee not, may call on Thee as other than Thou art. Or is it rather, that we call on Thee that we may know Thee? But how shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? or how shall they believe without a preacher? [Romans 10 v14] ......My faith, Lord, shall call on Thee, which Thou has given me, wherewith thou hast inspired me, through the Incarnation of they Son, through the ministry of the Preacher."
Judaism offers an ethic based on the Golden Rule - "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18, KJV10). Christianity took this over unchanged; in Mark and Matthew the summary of the Law is put into Jesus' mouth, in Luke into that of a critical Sadducee. A little later, Rabbi Hillel said the same. Few Christians realize that the summary of Jesus is simply two quotations from the Torah. Other religions - Buddhism and Confucianism - also support the Golden Rule. I suspect it is more universal than that.
Human rights are clearly connected to the Golden Rule through social contract theory. For Hobbes, Locke, Kant and Rawls, the just state is one whose rules one would accept in a thought-experiment "state of nature", regardless of the position one actually holds - that is, the rules are still OK if I put myself in my neighbour's shoes. The social contract is the political version of the Golden Rule. It follows pretty naturally (except to Hobbes, because of his pessimistic psychology) that the just state ring-fences a set of fundamental rights, defined by interests which no sane person would be prepared to surrender.
This theory is not logically tied to specific Judaic or Christian features of the Golden Rule. But it arose of course in Christian countries, and human rights are thus historically connected to these versions. How far did their truly idiosyncratic features play a role in the emergence of human rights?
Where Judaism, again followed strictly by Christianity and probably Islam, perhaps differs from other religions is in linking love of neighbour so closely to love of God. Why? Because my neighbour, like me, is made in God's image; because the whole of Israel has made its detailed code of law the subject of a covenant with God11 - which we have seen are specific tenets of Judaism.
The tight linkage between God and ethics raised the emotional temperature and pressure of thinking about the latter. Injustice is a sin, and puts my immortal soul in peril. This energy has powered horrible crimes, wars and persecutions in the name of God, but also the struggles from which civil and political rights emerged - notably the French Wars of Religion, the Dutch War of Independence, Puritan emigration to America, and the second phase of the English Civil War.
A second innovation is the absence of a religious monarchy, the normal Middle Eastern and possibly universal model for agrarian societies. The Jews stand equal before their God, assisted by rulers, prophets and priests, but without a mediator. Moses did not found a dynasty. The Bible recounts that Israel set up the Davidic monarchy out of practical necessity - trying out Saul first and sacking him as a failure. Solomon may have attempted to establish full-scale religious monarchy through his temple, but it did not take. The question here is not the true course of events, but the version incorporated in the sacred books, which are plainly sceptical about the pretensions of kings.
The offspring religions of Judaism dealt with this heritage in contrasting ways. For Christianity, Jesus deepened the gap between secular power and faith by refusing political leadership; Mohammed, in accepting it, closed it for Islam. Christianity therefore, unlike Islam, had available to it in its Scriptures a sceptical, rationalist attitude to secular power. For example, take St. Augustine's theory of the "two cities": the secular, pagan one, with its own logic and goods, and the city of God, the Church, existing within it but with a higher mission12. Mediaeval Christianity occulted this separation, and tried in its own way to build a complete normative system, a parallel to the Jewish Law. Human rights arose not within this system, but in its breakdown, after the re-emergence of a distinction between sacred and secular politics.
The first step was probably the conflicts between the Papacy and secular monarchs, more important in the world of ideas than to the mass of the people. The Reformation took the process further, and penetrated all levels of society with a different attitude to the state. The crucial figure here is not Luther but Calvin, a solid Augustinian with a markedly cool and secular analysis of the state, usually run as it was by non-Calvinists13. Calvin was also, unlike Luther, a man with a Renaissance education and therefore knowledge of the non-Christian culture of antiquity. Calvinists in power in Geneva or Scotland were as overbearing as anyone, but since they were usually minorities, or at any rate not masters of the state, circumstances placed them in a forcing-house for the development of claims of rights against religious foes: in particular, freedom of conscience and toleration of religious practice. This happened in the United Provinces of the Netherlands (actually very disunited and decentralised), to French Huguenots, and to English Puritans - in the three countries that can plausibly claim parentage of human rights as a working political doctrine.
c. Other tribes
The default human attitude to other tribes and peoples is one of suspicion, incomprehension and hostility, tempered by curiosity and willingness to make contact on an individual basis. What has to be explained is universal benevolence, the ethical equality of all human beings.
The Jewish exceptionalism that strikes many readers of the Tanakh is thus nothing exceptional in itself. The Hebrews are chosen by God and other peoples are inferior, not by constitution or indeed merit but by simply by this election. From the genocidal wars of the conquest of Canaan, the Bible moves on to greater generosity. Exceptional foreigners like Cyrus and Ruth are capable of virtue, pointing up the failures of Israel. True universalism remains however an unusual counterpoint, as in Isaiah 49:6, TEV: « I will also make you [Israel] a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved » and Amos 9 :7, TEV : « People of Israel, I think as much of the people of Sudan as I do of you. I brought the Philistines from Crete ands the Syrians from Kir, just as I brought you from Egypt ».
Christianity broke decisively with Judaism on this very point; universalism became the heart of the new religion. For Jesus the issue was the ethical equality of the Jews with their neighbours, as in the tale of the Good Samaritan. Peter and Paul led the early Christian Church, through the debates and conflicts chronicled in Acts, into a universal missionary vocation: all followers of Christ were equal, and anyone – Jew, Greek, Roman, Samaritan, Ethiopian, woman, slave - could become a Christian. Even in the hierarchical Middle Ages, there was no getting round the doctrine of the equality of all believers before God. The step to the equality of all human beings, descendants of Adam and Eve, was easily made. We find the harsh Calvin, for example, saying "But I say: we ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love”14. The Catholic Church, however reactionary in its politics, never lost sight of its mission to convert the whole human race. The doctrine of natural law, in the hands of Aquinas and other schoolmen, Suarez, Grotius and Pufendorf, secularised the Catholic position and entered the received views of the Enlightenment.
Why did a parallel doctrine not emerge, so far as I know, within Islam, a religion equally universal in vocation and even more egalitarian between its adherents? Islam has no priests or bishops. The answer may lie in the contrasting early histories: Islam was, from the beginning, the ideology of a political community – the house of the faithful - within which non-Moslems were inferior subjects; while Christianity made its way for three centuries as a vulnerable minority religion within the pagan Roman Empire. It is true that Islam has generally tolerated the other religions of the Book, in shaming contrast to Christianity in power. However, when Christian thinkers addressed the question of secular justice, there was a rich fund of texts and debate from this early period to draw upon. Protestants, who tended to reject the whole experience of mediaeval catholicism, were particularly open to Biblical and patristic egalitarianism.
I--- puts forward two propositions here:
the contact with non-European peoples in the early colonial period led to a qualitative change in understanding, in that these peoples were the first totally "other" human beings encountered;
this change was crucial in the emergence of universal human rights.
The first proposition is unprovable. The European expansion greatly increased the number and range of dealings with non-European peoples; and since these dealings often took the extreme and violent forms of conquest, genocide and slavery, it would be strange if there was no impact on the general European sensibility. However, what is the evidence that these contacts were of a totally new kind? Christian Europeans in the Middle Ages, as I--- notes, had extensive contacts with Jews and Turks. Many, including Columbus' royal patrons, were obsessed by the threats, internal and external respectively, posed by these two peoples to Christendom; the Ottoman Empire was indeed by far the greatest power in the Mediterranean at the time, and still expanding. Smaller numbers had met or knew of Arabs, Mongols, Chinese, and pagan Lithuanians, but the idea of a world of exotic Paynims was common currency. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers were setting out to meet and trade with Indians (whom they had never met, but believed quite accurately to supply spices to Arab traders); they found Africans and Amerindians too, but were they shocked, or just surprised? Perhaps they were disappointed not to find the fabled creatures with one leg or heads beneath their shoulders.
The explorers were very hard men, as resilient in mind as they were brave, tough and unscrupulous. It did not occur to them to question whether those they met were humans, or could be brutally mistreated. If they had doubts about whether the peoples they met were human, these were speedily resolved by the usual test of having sex with the women (following the example of their leaders: Cortés and Dona Marina, John Smith and Pocahontas). Gonçalves captured the first black slaves in Africa in 1441, just when serfdom was dying out in western Europe. Cortés and Pizarro were able to destroy the powerful Aztec and Inca kingdoms with tiny armies, relying not only on force but on diplomacy and treachery, which assume a measure of psychological insight15. This efficient brutality, which is not the same as incomprehension, marked the whole European colonial enterprise for three hundred years.
Voices were raised early on against this exploitation. The Papacy, in giving its blessing to Spanish and Portuguese imperialism, enjoined the Iberian monarchs to convert their new subjects: so recognising that Amerindians and Africans were human beings with souls, though they may not have appreciated the benefits of conversion at swordpoint. Las Casas protested against Columbus' treatment of the Caribs, and Queen Isabella (the moving spirit of the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain) pleaded in her will for Christian treatment of the Amerindians. Francisco Suarez incorporated an anti-slavery position into his Thomist synthesis. None of this had any practical effect. There was no difference between Protestants and Catholics in the ill-treatment of slaves and Indians, and no improvements until the middle of the eighteenth century.
The movement against slavery followed the rise of Enlightenment ideas of universal rights in Europe, and did not therefore cause it. Suarez and the school of Salamanca surely contributed to this broad movement, but with limited effect in the stultifying autocracy of Spain16. Grotius and Locke were not better men, but they lived in pluralist societies where ideas could have a real impact on politics.
There is nonetheless a major problem. How did human rights emerge as the universal rights of man, not just say the liberties of Englishmen? Burke, notoriously, denied the possibility of the former: and his position is not mere reaction. The theory of the social contract, the main philosophical underpinning of human rights, makes them a necessary feature of a just constitution - for the citizens of a specific polity. If the citizens are white men, there is no compelling internal reason why its protected rights should extend to children, women, black slaves, Indians, or foreigners. The US constitution more or less followed this logic. Where did universal rights, as in the French Declaration, come from?
The obvious answer is: from Christianity, as already suggested above.
In a more limited sense, the point about the impact of non-European cultures is probably true. The much greater awareness of human difference brought about by the European expansion, and the rediscovery of the rich imaginative spaces of classical antiquity, surely helped bring the problem of universal humanity to the fore. Few Europeans have ever made the huge effort truly to understand non-European cultures in their own terms. But many eighteenth-century readers devoured sensational travel literature, and writers pressed distorted images of the exotic into service in European quarrels: Man Friday, the Noble Savage, the Persian Envoy, the Chinese Sage, serving the same function as Swift's wholly imaginary Lilliputians and Brobdignagians. We should not look down on their naivety. The practice of appealing to fictional primitives has continued up to our own day, as in Margaret Mead's sexually innocent Samoans and Samuel Whorf's Hopi with no words for time17. More positively, it was no small matter that the frame of reference changed from religious toleration for this sect to freedom of conscience for all.
Dignity in Judaism and Christianity
This concept was a key value of the Roman ruling class (as gravitas and virtus). Its function was the show or face necessary for the wealthy members of the senatorial class to maintain their group of clients; the form it took, of stern courage and impassivity in the face of misfortune, no doubt reflected the dour character of the early Roman people, later reinforced by Stoic philosophy. The style may have influenced the Christian martyrs and the cult that grew up around them. It was certainly known to Augustine and Paul. In a related Greek or Persian form (for dignity – the demand for respect - is part of the universal warrior code), dignity was quite probably known to the author of Job. But none of these writers care for it.
The Tanakh positively relishes stories against the dignity of authority figures. It is not only the Bad Guys who get their comeuppance: the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Goliath, Ahab and Jezebel, Sennaccherib. The great patriarchs and kings of Israel are presented, with pungent realism, as flawed as well as impressive human beings: Noah and Abraham, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon. A king of Israel, far from basking in the semi-divine honours readily granted to his counterparts in all the surrounding cultures, faced a good chance of some insolent and uncompromising prophet showing up to denounce his sins. The morality tale of Jonah satirises even the prophets. Only the Lord is truly good and glorious.
The difficult and disturbing tale of Job presents us with a good man deliberately stripped of social position, wealth, family, health, dignity by an enigmatic God: crushed of all but his humanity, like a captive in Auschwitz. What we admire in the naked Job is not dignity but faith in justice and the courage to endure.
For Paul, the message of salvation in Christ overwhelms and relativises human social distinctions and personal merits. When Paul appealed before Festus to the justice of the Emperor (Acts 25:10), he claimed his rights as the Roman citizen he was, not his dignity as the Roman he was not; and he reported with pride to the early churches on the manifold indignities and privations - floggings, jailings, etc - into which his call had led him (2 Corinthians 11:23-30). “If I am to boast, let me boast of my own feebleness” (idem :30, TEV). A God who accepts in his Son the shameful death of crucifixion is even less dignified: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25, TEV).
Augustine treats humans as essentially abject sinners seeking a grace they cannot deserve or earn. His review of all the pleasures and glories of his earlier life becomes a litany of self-contempt. Of a youthful attempt to get recognition from a famous rhetorician, he writes: “And it was to me a great matter, that my discourses and labours should be known to that man: which should he approve, I were the more kindled; but if he disapproved, my empty heart, void of Thy solidity, had been wounded” (Confessions, XIV). This self-hatred dominated Christian spirituality for a thousand years, and still mars it. Not for nothing was pride labelled as the greatest sin.
Another view of dignity
The linkage of human rights to dignity remains however an attractive one. The psychology of the Enlightenment is curiously bloodless, and remote from the passions that dominate the politics we observe today and in the historical record. It was Hegel who identified the need for respect and dignity as a basic human drive and motive force in history. This position is encapsulated in Nietzsche's deadly epigram - "Men do not desire happiness; Englishmen do". For Hegel and Nietzsche, the implications are profoundly inegalitarian: for some to attain respect, others must give it and accept subordination. Respect and dignity are a zero-sum game, and universal dignity a joke.
There is great force is this contention. Differences in status, and competition for status, seem to be a human universal. They are very common in social animals, including our primate cousins. Attempts at rational explanations for wars, Marxist or realist, fail to account for the sheer self-destructive wilfulness of men. Achilles chose fame over a long life, and many a soldier has followed him. The desire for fame, glory, honour, respect has provided the motive for many wars, and the means for sustaining all of them. But is dignity the source only of inequality and violence? Must the drive for it be always a zero-sum game? Some cultures, and sub-groups of cultures, are markedly more courteous than others, and everyone seems to be better off for it. Universal dignity is not self-contradictory.
It is indeed possible to sketch a historical hypothesis that gives a large place to the drive for dignity and respect in the emergence of human rights. I admit this is speculative, but it is not absurd.
The starting point of the story is not Judaism nor Christianity, but the warrior code of honour. This has emerged in a good number of entirely unrelated cultures: Homeric Greece, ancient Persia, the Japan of the samurai, the India of the Ramayana, Plains Amerindians, and feudal western Europe18, not to mention the teenage gang culture of the contemporary underclass that has given us the verb to diss = to show disrespect. It is dependent on violence of an individualistic style that permits displays of heroism. In scientific warfare it becomes marginalised; the professional armies of Alexander, Caesar and Frederick the Great did not go in for chivalry, but brutal efficiency. (Nor did the tribal levies of Joshua and David). In our story, it is feudalism that played the decisive role.
The particular feature of feudalism is that the bonds of honour between warriors became an organising principle for whole societies. The feudal order was based on contractual but unequal obligations between lord and vassal; land tenure and protection in exchange for military service, with divine sanctions. Honour and good faith thus became the basis of law. The ceremony of homage, the heart of the feudal bond, brings this out very clearly. The vassal knelt before the lord and swore allegiance: the lord accepted the homage, swore reciprocal protection, and raised the vassal to his feet before him19. (Contrast Muscovite Russia, where the greatest boyar had to prostrate himself before the Tsar and refer to himself in the affectionate diminutive used for small children, for example "Your slave, Masha"20.) The unequal bond between lord and serf also contained mutual obligations, but because it did not involve an act of free will on the serf's part, there was no downwards respect attached to it. In due course the caste of feudal lords was transformed into the class of nobles and gentry, who persisted in claiming respect and dignity not only from the peasants (ex-serfs) but from each other and the king. The honour code persisted in increasingly rococo forms long after its social use had disappeared, from late-mediaeval chivalry (jousting, orders like the Garter and the Golden Fleece) to eighteenth-century duelling21. The continuing grip on our imagination of this strange ideal is brought out in the ambiguity of Cervantes’ great Don Quixote.
When this order was challenged from below, it took in part the form of a claim by peasants and burghers for a share in the dignity, not just the property, of the gentry. In the English Peasants' revolt of 1381, a popular ditty ran: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" We can read such slogans as a demand for absolute equality, a levelling-down, and this was certainly made on the fringes of these risings by millenarian cults informed by extreme readings of Biblical apocalyptic22. But was this really the only, or the dominant, inspiration? The demands presented by the leaders of the 1381 rising were the abolition of wage controls and the poll tax; eminently practical issues of economic discrimination. Such claims to equal dignity would have made no sense in a society without a privileged class already endowed with real rights, such as the patrimonial autocracies of Ottoman Turkey and Muscovite Russia. Up to 1917, Russian peasants wanted a distribution of the land of the nobles, not to become nobles themselves.
These movements played, I suggest, an important part in the rise of liberal democracy. In the Putney Debates of 1649 in England, held between factions in the radicalised, lower-class New Model Army that Parliament had conjured into being to defeat the King, the Leveller Colonel Rainborough asserted : "The poorest he that is in England has as much a life to live as the greatest he". The Levellers lost this battle, but not the war; their ideas continued to ferment in egalitarian Protestant sects like the Quakers, with an influence both on fairly conservative English intellectuals like Hobbes and Locke, and Puritan American colonists in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
The American revolutionaries, gentry themselves, justified their rebellion in the splendid Jeffersonian tones of Enlightenment universal rights. But in practice, the real force behind the breach was a protest against discrimination on the part of the London Parliament (that is, the British gentry), legislating over the colonies without their participation. The early phases of the French Revolution can be seen as the levelling up of the peasantry to the political status of the nobility, though class warfare was present in the Grande Peur and the Terror. The gradual widening of the franchise in democracies in the 19th and 20th centuries was plainly the spread of privileges already won by some.
In this account, the drive for dignity and respect did play a major part in the emergence of human rights. The function of the latter was to provide an impressive universalist ideology in which local and practical grievances about discrimination could be articulated and justified. Human rights are the modern, egalitarian form of the drive for dignity.
This account answers Burke’s objection about the roots of civil institutions in history, and explains a major puzzle. For why, if human rights are linked, coherent, and universal, did they emerge one by one over a long period and in different western countries? Due process of law was asserted in the English Magna Carta of 1215, and was already implicit in Roman law. Toleration and parliamentary government were the problem of the seventeenth century, torture and slavery of the eighteenth, male suffrage of the nineteenth, the equality of women and of races of the twentieth. A ban on discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is still emerging today. In other words, the scheme of universal human rights is a template into which specific claims for equal dignity have been slotted.
We are now in a position to give a more measured assessment of the role of Judaic and Christian tradition in this process. Their shared doctrine of fundamental equality before God has provided a crucial source of inspiration, dialectic and propaganda in the drive for equal dignity in an unequal society, even though dignity itself is imported from the warrior code and is not itself a Christian or Jewish value.
* * *
The Other and sex
My observation on the ease with which European explorers and conquerors of America formed sexual liaisons with native American and African women rests on deeper foundations than I thought. Anthropologists have identified the “coyness display” of young women as a human universal (Eib-Eibesfeldt, ...). In other words, not only does sexual attraction cross cultural and colour divides, it is expressed in an unmistakeable universal code. There are indeed dozens of other such cultural universals (Brown, D: Universal People...), ranging from the trivial (the use of string) to the fundamental (disapproval of murder, theft and rape). The new discipline of evolutionary psychology is linking these universals into the framework of an elaborate, genetically based psychology of faculties and instincts. The tabula rasa theory of the mind - and its corollary of the infinite plasticity of culture - (Locke, Marx, Mead, and Skinner) have been defeated by the classical theory of a complex common human nature (Plato, Kant, Piaget, Lévy-Strauss and Chomsky) (see Pinker, The Blank Slate). The system of human rights is free from the objections of radical cultural relativism, since the latter is simply wrong.
To avoid misunderstanding, please note that “genetically based” does not mean “genetically determined in detail”. For example, take the coyness display again. Exogamy is adaptive for animals living in kin groups, like lions, chimpanzees and human hunter-gatherers. Many social species manage this by expelling young adult males from the group. To reproduce, they must either form a new group or fight their way into an existing one by challenging the dominant males. New Guinea tribes meet for trading brides. At all events, exogamy requires that sexual bonds be established with potential partners from other groups. Lions and baboons manage this by physical signals of female oestrus. Humans, who evolved concealed ovulation in the formation of our specific way of social life, needed other signals. A private code for sexual interest would thus reduce reproductive fitness, and a common code increase it.
A plausible evolutionary story like this does not by itself establish that the universal is indeed hard-wired biologically. It is possible that the details of the coyness display have been handed down for 100,000 years from our common ancestors, like the use of fire; but common sense suggests that this is unlikely. (1) Small girls do not see their mothers fluttering their eyelashes at strange men, at least not frequently. (2) They do not necessarily have access to the occasions when young women use the display for real. (3) Small girls often engage in practice coy displays to adult men long before puberty – sometimes with tragic consequences when this is confused by paedophiles with a real sexual overture. The share of instinct in the form of the display is probably high, while upbringing will deeply influence its occasions. In the case of another cultural universal, the use of string, the share of learning is no doubt high. For the purposes of human rights, the debate does not matter: both universals are part of a common humanity.
1 I will avoid the term “Judaeo-Christian tradition”. Judaism gave rise to two other great religions, not one: Islam and Christianity, both of which claim allegiance to the Book. I am not competent to write about Islam but it is obviously a question to be investigated how far it continues any given Judaic tradition.
2 Site: http://goon.stg.brown.edu/bible_browser/ at Brown University.
The one possible exception is Romans 13:8:
To no one owe anything, except to love one another; for he who is loving the other -- law he hath fulfilled (Young), but even here, the antecedent of "the other" is the straigthforward "one another" = each other, the people in your community.
4 Today’s English Version.
The related term "honour" had 311
hits, so is clearly an important concept. But "Honour" is
primarily attributed to God, and is close in meaning to "glory",
eg Exodus 33: 18, secondarily to kings and
other authority figures. There are two groups of exceptions:
- The fifth Commandment is translated with the verb "Honour thy father and mother …"; some other translations use "respect" (not used anywhere in Young as a substantive). The Hebrew root is different, I am informed.
- Proverbs, the most socially conservative book in the Bible, refers several times to "honour" in a sense close to bourgeois respectability.
6 These include the suppositions that other people have inner lives just as I do, and that these are not directly accessible to me. All cultures have words for feelings and states of mind; the meanings of these words are shared as a matter of logic (as Wittgenstein pointed out), though a part of their referents are not. Existentialists seem to find this state of affairs upsetting.
7 Brown D.E., Human Universals, 1991; quoted in Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994.
8 Church Dogmatics, I.1.2.
9 The idea of telling a thinker of the calibre of Augustine that he might have put things better reminds me of the braggart who unwisely challenges Cliff (played by James Coburn) in The Magnificent Seven.
10 King James Version.
11 I---'s assertion that the Law only includes obligations to other people is baffling. At least half of it is made up of ritual rules about taboo foods, sacrifices, and so on. The sacred and the secular are merged, not separated. Jewishness (as distinct from Judaism) is still as much a matter of practice as of belief; non-religious Jews still often keep kosher houses.
12 For example: “But it is our interest that it [the people alienated from God] enjoy this peace meanwhile in this life; for as long as the two cities are commingled, we also enjoy the peace of Babylon.” City of God, XIX. 26.
13 For example: “Even the most worthless kings are appointed by the same decree by which the authority of all kings is established” – Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xx.27.
14 Op.cit, II.viii.55.
15 The conquistadors would, one imagines, have had less trouble in facing six-eyed aliens with blasters than existentialists in coming to terms with the reality of other Parisians.
16 Suarez’ tract against the divine right of kings was burnt by James I in England, where the issue was deadly serious politics. It does not seem to have got him into any trouble in Spain.
17 Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct, op.cit.
18 The homology is strikingly brought out in the successful transposition of Kurosawa’s genre movie The Seven Samurai to Sturge’s western The Magnificent Seven.
19 Last held in Guernsey in 1954, when the young Queen Elizabeth II received homage from the lords of the manors of the Channel Islands.
20 Pipes R., Russia under the Old Régime.
21 Corneille’s El Cid is much more self-consciously “noble” than the professional soldier of the original twelth-century Spanish epic.
22 Cohn, Norman, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957.