Seven Theses on Human Rights: (1) The Idea of Humanity

Thesis 1: The idea of ‘humanity’ has no fixed meaning and cannot act as the source of moral or legal rules. Historically, the idea has been used to classify people into the fully human, the lesser human, and the inhuman.


If ‘humanity’ is the normative source of moral and legal rules, do we know what ‘humanity’ is? Important philosophical and ontological questions are involved here. Let me have a brief look at its history.

Pre-​modern societies did not develop a comprehensive idea of the human species. Free men were Athenians or Spartans, Romans or Carthaginians, but not members of humanity; they were Greeks or barbarians, but not humans. According to classical philosophy, a teleologically determined human nature distributes people across social hierarchies and roles and endows them with differentiated characteristics. The word humanitas appeared for the first time in the Roman Republic as a translation of the Greek word paideia. It was defined as eruditio et institutio in bonas artes (the closest modern equivalent is the German Bildung). The Romans inherited the concept from Stoicism and used it to distinguish between the homo humanus, the educated Roman who was conversant with Greek culture and philosophy and was subjected to the jus civile, and the homines barbari, who included the majority of the uneducated non-​Roman inhabitants of the Empire. Humanity enters the western lexicon as an attribute and predicate of homo, as a term of separation and distinction. For Cicero as well as the younger Scipio, humanitas implies generosity, politeness, civilization, and culture and is opposed to barbarism and animality.1 “Only those who conform to certain standards are really men in the full sense, and fully merit the adjective ‘human’ or the attribute ‘humanity.’”2 Hannah Arendt puts it sarcastically: ‘a human being or homo in the original meaning of the word indicates someone outside the range of law and the body politic of the citizens, as for instance a slave – but certainly a politically irrelevant being.’3

If we now turn to the political and legal uses of humanitas, a similar history emerges. The concept ‘humanity’ has been consistently used to separate, distribute, and classify people into rulers, ruled, and excluded. ‘Humanity’ acts as a normative source for politics and law against a background of variable inhumanity. This strategy of political separation curiously entered the historical stage at the precise point when the first proper universalist conception of humanitas emerged in Christian theology, captured in the St Paul’s statement, that there is no Greek or Jew, man or woman, free man or slave (Epistle to the Galatians 3:28). All people are equally part of humanity because they can be saved in God’s plan of salvation and, secondly, because they share the attributes of humanity now sharply differentiated from a transcended divinity and a subhuman animality. For classical humanism, reason determines the human: man is a zoon logon echon or animale rationale. For Christian metaphysics, on the other hand, the immortal soul, both carried and imprisoned by the body, is the mark of humanity. The new idea of universal equality, unknown to the Greeks, entered the western world as a combination of classical and Christian metaphysics.

The divisive action of ‘humanity’ survived the invention of its spiritual equality. Pope, Emperor, Prince, and King, these representatives and disciples of God on earth were absolute rulers. Their subjects, the sub-​jecti or sub-​diti, take the law and their commands from their political superiors. More importantly, people will be saved in Christ only if they accept the faith, since non-​Christians have no place in the providential plan. This radical divide and exclusion founded the ecumenical mission and proselytizing drive of Church and Empire. Christ’s spiritual law of love turned into a battle cry: let us bring the pagans to the grace of God, let us make the singular event of Christ universal, let us impose the message of truth and love upon the whole world. The classical separation between Greek (or human) and barbarian was based on clearly demarcated territorial and linguistic frontiers. In the Christian empire, the frontier was internalized and split the known globe diagonally between the faithful and the heathen. The barbarians were no longer beyond the city as the city expanded to include the known world. They became ‘enemies within’ to be appropriately corrected or eliminated if they stubbornly refused spiritual or secular salvation.

The meaning of humanity after the conquest of the ‘New World’ was vigorously contested in one of the most important public debates in history. In April 1550, Charles V of Spain called a council of state in Valladolid to discuss the Spanish attitude towards the vanquished Indians of Mexico. The philosopher Ginés de Sepulveda and the Bishop Bartholomé de las Casas, two major figures of the Spanish Enlightenment, debated on opposite sides. Sepulveda, who had just translated Aristotle’s Politics into Spanish, argued that “the Spaniards rule with perfect right over the barbarians who, in prudence, talent, virtue, humanity are as inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults, women to men, the savage and cruel to the mild and gentle, I might say as monkey to men.”4 The Spanish crown should feel no qualms in dealing with Indian evil. The Indians could be enslaved and treated as barbarian and savage slaves in order to be civilized and proselytized.

Las Casas disagreed. The Indians have well-​established customs and settled ways of life, he argued, they value prudence and have the ability to govern and organize families and cities. They have the Christian virtues of gentleness, peacefulness, simplicity, humility, generosity, and patience, and are waiting to be converted. They look like our father Adam before the Fall, wrote las Casas in his Apologia, they are ‘unwitting’ Christians. In an early definition of humanism, las Casas argued that “all the people of the world are humans under the only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational … Thus all races of humankind are one.”5 His arguments combined Christian theology and political utility. Respecting local customs is good morality but also good politics: the Indians would convert to Christianity (las Casas’ main concern) but also accept the authority of the Crown and replenish its coffers, if they were made to feel that their traditions, laws, and cultures are respected. But las Casas’ Christian universalism was, like all universalisms, exclusive. He repeatedly condemned “Turks and Moors, the veritable barbarian outcasts of the nations” since they cannot be seen as “unwitting” Christians. An “empirical” universalism of superiority and hierarchy (Sepulveda) and a normative one of truth and love (las Casas) end up being not very different. As Tzvetan Todorov pithily remarks, there is “violence in the conviction that one possesses the truth oneself, whereas this is not the case for others, and that one must furthermore impose that truth on those others.”6

The conflicting interpretations of humanity by Sepulveda and las Casas capture the dominant ideologies of Western empires, imperialisms, and colonialisms. At one end, the (racial) other is inhuman or subhuman. This justifies enslavement, atrocities, and even annihilation as strategies of the civilizing mission. At the other end, conquest, occupation, and forceful conversion are strategies of spiritual or material development, of progress and integration of the innocent, naïve, undeveloped others into the main body of humanity.

These two definitions and strategies towards otherness act as supports of western subjectivity. The helplessness, passivity, and inferiority of the “undeveloped” others turns them into our narcissistic mirror-​image and potential double. These unfortunates are the infants of humanity. They are victimized and sacrificed by their own radical evildoers; they are rescued by the West who helps them grow, develop and become our likeness. Because the victim is our mirror image, we know what his interest is and impose it “for his own good.” At the other end, the irrational, cruel, victimizing others are projections of the Other of our unconscious. As Slavoj Žižek puts it, “there is a kind of passive exposure to an overwhelming Otherness, which is the very basis of being human … [the inhuman] is marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity’ is inherent to being human.”7 We have called this abysmal other lurking in the psyche and unsettling the ego various names: God or Satan, barbarian or foreigner, in psychoanalysis the death drive or the Real. Today they have become the “axis of evil,” the “rogue state,” the “bogus refugee,” or the “illegal” migrant. They are contemporary heirs to Sepulveda’s “monkeys,” epochal representatives of inhumanity.

A comparison of the cognitive strategies associated with the Latinate humanitas and the Greek anthropos is instructive. The humanity of humanism (and of the academic Humanities)8 unites knowing subject and known object following the protocols of self-​reflection. The anthropos of physical and social anthropology, on the other hand, is the object only of cognition. Physical anthropology examines bodies, senses, and emotions, the material supports of life. Social anthropology studies diverse non-​western peoples, societies, and cultures, but not the human species in its essence or totality. These peoples emerged out of and became the object of observation and study through discovery, conquest, and colonization in the new world, Africa, Asia, or in the peripheries of Europe. As Nishitani Osamu puts it, humanity and anthropos signify two asymmetrical regimes of knowledge. Humanity is civilization, anthropos is outside or before civilization. In our globalized world, the minor literatures of anthropos are examined by comparative literature, which compares “civilization” with lesser cultures.

The gradual decline of Western dominance is changing these hierarchies. Similarly, the disquiet with a normative universalism, based on a false conception of humanity, indicates the rise of local, concrete, and context-​bound normativities.

In conclusion, because ‘humanity’ has no fixed meaning, it cannot act as a source of norms. Its meaning and scope keeps changing according to political and ideological priorities. The continuously changing conceptions of humanity are the best manifestations of the metaphysics of an age. Perhaps the time has come for anthropos to replace the human. Perhaps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, expressing and promoting singularities and differences instead of the sameness and equivalences of hitherto dominant identities.

Cos­tas Douz­i­nas is Pro­fessor of Law and Dir­ector of the Birk­beck Insti­tute for the Human­it­ies, Uni­ver­sity of London.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 107.
  2. B.L. Ullman, “What are the Humanities?” Journal of Higher Education 17/​6 (1946), at 302.
  3. H.C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), 201.
  4. Ginés de Sepulveda, Democrates Segundo of De las Justas Causa de la Guerra contra los Indios (Madrid: Institute Fransisco de Vitoria, 1951), 33 quoted in Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America trans. Richard Howard (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 153.
  5. Bartholomé de las Casas, Obras Completas, Vol. 7 (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1922), 536 – 7.
  6. Todorov, The Conquest of America 166, 168.
  7. Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights 56,” New Left Review (July – August 2005), 34.
  8. Costas Douzinas, “For a Humanities of Resistance,” Critical Legal Thinking, December 7, 2010, http://​www​.criticallegalthinking​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​1​2​/​0​7​/​f​o​r​-​a​-​h​u​m​a​n​i​t​i​e​s​-​o​f​-​r​e​s​i​s​t​a​n​ce/

  15 comments for “Seven Theses on Human Rights: (1) The Idea of Humanity

  1. 16 May 2013 at 11:14 am

    Good morning Costas! Does the problem lie, as you write, with “the idea of humanity”? Or does it instead lie with isolating and examining the history of ANY social or ethical concept in this step-​by-​step way? Is there any meaningful normative concept for which we can NOT perform the same kind of history, only to find that it, too, rests on millennia of manipulation, hierarchy and oppression? Suppose I do the same kind of geneology of the concept of “liberation”, or “tolerance”, or “cosmopolitanism”, or “open-​mindedness”, or “love”, or “altruism”, or “empathy”, or “non-​discrimination”, or “receptiveness”, or indeed even “revolution”. Won’t I obviously get the same kind of result? Does the history of a concept equate with some a priori meaning and necessary destiny? Are we no longer active agents over the concepts we use? Are we no longer able to intervene in history? Perhaps the concept of “human rights” collapses because ANY axiomatised ethical system collapses. Any ethics is always manipulable. Can we, or rather should we try, to imagine some “purer” one that isn’t? Isn’t “purity” the most manipulable notion of all? After Wittgenstein and Heidegger, can any analysis of such a deeply political concept as “humanity” really be plucked out and placed under a historical microscope in such a straightforward way? Is the problem, then, that any isolation of such a concept will inevitably deliver the same result, namely, a necessarily contingent history, which is then presented as a priori and unalterable? Doesn’t this style of analysis fall into the binarist trap it seeks to overcome, namely, of opposing a faulty concept to some un-​stated assumption of an impeccable one, a “pure” one? I might even stray so far as to argue that injustice is not, as this analysis suggests, the opposite of justice, but rather its constant product. Hugs from Eric.

  2. 16 May 2013 at 11:50 am

    PS: As to the conclusion, “Per­haps the rights to come will be anthropic (to coin a term) rather than human, express­ing and pro­mot­ing sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences of hitherto dom­in­ant identities.” But don’t countless philosophies promise to “express­ and pro­mot­e sin­gu­lar­it­ies and dif­fer­ences instead of the same­ness and equi­val­ences.” (Some might call it the stock formula of run-​of-​the-​mill liberalism!) How, then, will the “anthropic” avoid the fate of the “human” as narrated here? E

  3. Alessandra Asteriti
    16 May 2013 at 3:39 pm

    A small historical aside; in a legend recorded in Mesopotamian literature, the Akkadian king Naram Sin is engaged in a battle with the ‘Umman Manda’, incredibly powerful creatures of distinct physiognomy. Wondering if they are humans, he orders one of his officials to try and hit them to see if they bleed and are humans. Indeed, one of the proposed etymologies for their name is ‘humans? maybe’. I guess this shows how ancient is our preoccupation with ‘humanity’ and ‘human nature.’

    • syed asim
      22 March 2014 at 4:38 am


  4. dingus
    16 May 2013 at 8:02 pm

    And what of the ancient Greek word ἄνθρωπος?

  5. dingus
    16 May 2013 at 8:12 pm

    “Human­ity is civil­iz­a­tion, anthro­pos is out­side or before civilization.”

    I don’t think that is how the Greeks used ἄνθρωπος at all. And what about the Greek concept of ‘mortals’ (βροτῶν), which includes men both inside and outside civilization. See Book 6 of the Odyssey (for example):
    ὤ μοι ἐγώ, τέων αὖτε βροτῶν ἐς γαῖαν ἱκάνω;
    ἦ ῥ᾽ οἵ γ᾽ ὑβρισταί τε καὶ ἄγριοι οὐδὲ δίκαιοι,
    ἦε φιλόξεινοι καί σφιν νόος ἐστὶ θεουδής;

    Plato uses ἄνθρωπος a lot, but he certainly does NOT use it to mean ‘outside or before civilization’.

    Can you give examples of where the Greeks used the word this way?

    • 16 May 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Dingus: Brilliant, and probative, point about Plato. I would argue that Plato has no real concept of “civilisation” at all, and certainly not in the way Aristotle does, or in the way early European modernity would later develop. Aristotle tells what we would today call an “Enlightenment narrative”, clearly referring to “primitive” and “advanced” stages of human society (with Greeks at the summit), and he repeats that point constantly. Plato, by contrast, tends to narrate history far more sceptically (or, as in Τίμαιος, cyclically).

      Plato certainly (perhaps self-​parodically) constructs notions of superior and inferior humans (infamously in Πολιτεία), but mostly in his oddly meritocratic scheme. He discusses differences between Greeks and non-​Greeks, but never in Aristotle’s stringent, emphatic terms, nor does he really share Aristotle’s categorical notions of natural slaves. (Nor of women’s inferiority. After all, a woman can in theory become a philosopher ruler.)

      And remember the “mere slave” who performs an extended dialectical operation in Μένων), of the type Plato thought appropriate only to philosophers. Curiously, then, Plato (even if he does pointedly ask whether that slave “speaks Greek”) does not so rigidly construct notions of humanity or civilisation in ethnic terms.

      Thanks very much for your observation. Eric

      • dingus
        16 May 2013 at 9:01 pm


        I was thinking about the slave in Meno the other day. It’s a really remarkable and beautiful passage. I don’t think I understand the dialogue — or how that scene in particular fits into the whole corpus — but it would be a rich topic of research re: natural equality. It’s always unclear what Plato is actually saying and how much is ironic or eristic.

        Really, the concept “Greek” is not really clear in a lot of ancient sources. It’s definitely non-​existent in Homer. When Odysseus shows up somewhere, he doesn’t wonder ‘are they Greeks or not?’, he wonders if they are good to strangers and respect the gods (that is, civilization is defined ethically, not ethnically).

        • 16 May 2013 at 9:15 pm

          Hello again. I think there’s no doubt that Plato has a strong notion of dialectic as non-​eristic (although we could certainly doubt its plausibility!), as emerges, for example, in the contrast with speech-​making in Πρωταγόρας. Arguably the criticism of Plato in those “pure” dialectical passages is not against its dialectical artifice per se, but against its dialogical artifice — Socrates makes every point, and the interlocutor mostly just agrees (although I think that pattern does become a bit more complex in some passages in the other dialogues). So many have argued that Plato lacks any real notion of a participatory dialectic, i.e., that his dialectic is really just a monologue. That criticism will later come back to haunt figures as different as Aquinas, Hegel, and, I think, at least some of Marx.

          Part of the significance of the slave in Μένων might have to do with Plato’s constant sarcasm about Athenian democracy, and its “free” citizens, having sacrificed any interest in truth-​seeking (and therefore in justice), by throwing it open to a “mob” who, within that populist and market-​driven context, merely end up seeking individual gain, and end up, so to speak, “lost to truth”, and “lost” to its primary tool, i.e., dialectic.


          • dingus
            16 May 2013 at 11:00 pm

            The character Socrates certainly has a strong notion of dia­lectic as non-​eristic in some dialogues, but I’m hesitant to say what Plato’s position was. The way the dialogues are written seems to undermine the seemingly protreptic nature of the speeches. What do you make of the Euthydemus? Or the horribly unreliable narrator of the Symposium? It’s very unclear to me what Plato was doing.

            In any case, the original blog post overstates its case against the Greeks and doesn’t provide evidence for its strong claims. I think it’s clear from Homer (to give one example) that there was an ancient conception of humanity that was not connected to ethnicity or ‘cultural superiority’. The split was between mortals and gods or man and beast. Even the Phaeacians, who are totally cut off from other people and compared to the Cyclops and Giants, are considered part of humanity.

          • dingus
            17 May 2013 at 12:15 am

            Another (related) question is: how “Platonic” or “Aristotelian” was ancient Athens? How accepted were their ideas? There probably isn’t enough evidence to say.

            What I do think is clear is that the ancient world — indeed, even Aristotle himself — was not “Aristotelian” in the same way as his Medieval followers (either Christian or Islamic).

          • 17 May 2013 at 7:18 am

            G’morning again. Many 5th century Athenians certainly become chauvinist after the Persian wars. But with important dissenters. Plato, and probably Socrates, pokes fun at Athenian supremicism. They ironise it and parody it. And Plato, like Thucydides, certainly warns against its dangers, even seeing in it a crucial cause of Athens’s demise. Plato’s refusal to qualify Athenians, or even Greeks, as superior, in the categorical way that Aristotle does, is certainly no oversight.

            (PS — I certainly agree that Plato and Aristotle do not play the role in Athens that they would later play in the Middle Ages, either in influence or in substance. The staunch democratic faction of Anytus and Meletus would have fallen dumbstruck reading Augustine and Aquinas!).

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