Was ancient Greece secular by today's standards

Human rights

Axel Herrmann

To person

The historian Dr. Axel Herrmann runs a grammar school in the city of Hof. He worked as a textbook author and lecturer for history didactics at the universities of Bamberg and Bayreuth. As a long-standing member of Amnesty International, he is intensively involved with human rights issues.

Human rights approaches have evolved at different times and in different cultures. But it was not until the 18th century that they were formulated for a wider public in Europe and North America - and their definition and interpretation are still controversial today. A look at the historical development of human rights.

Undated representation of African slaves (& copy AP)

The express proclamation of human rights is something relatively new; in the 18th century they were first formulated for a broad public in Europe and North America. Long before that, there were also approaches in other cultures. In the thought of Buddhism (6th century BC) and the Indian lawyer Manu (2nd / 3rd century AD) there are elements that define minimum human rights standards. The Chinese philosophers Confucius (551-479 BC) and Menzius (372-289 BC) had already developed high ethical standards. In their positive image of man, however, they assumed that man could achieve good only through moral self-discipline and the fulfillment of duty. The formulation of protection and participation rights vis-à-vis the state, however, remained alien to Confucianism. According to the doctrine of natural law, human rights are considered innate, based on human dignity, but to this day definition and interpretation are controversial and not generally recognized. Human rights can be understood as something that has grown, can be attacked and changed. This brings the historical development of the concept of human rights into interest.


Human dignity in antiquity and the Middle Ages

In the 5th century BC In BC Greek philosophy discovered humans as an autonomous individual in the field of tension between state and society. (It should be noted that "people" were only understood to mean "men" at that time.) Plato and Aristotle described people as rational beings who find their fulfillment in participation in the state. The standard for every political order should be the natural law that results from the essence of man. Positive, that is, man-made law, is consistent with this. Of course, equating natural and positive law also led to inequality between people and justified the institution of slavery. The Roman writer and statesman Cicero even declared slavery to be indispensable, since the performance of certain jobs was unworthy of a free citizen. It was only the philosophy of the Stoa that questioned the image of man, which was based on the full Greek or Roman citizen, and taught the freedom and equality of all people on the basis of their nature. In practice, however, the Stoics also left slavery untouched. Although they felt a basic tension between the realm of reason and reality, they only wanted to remove this through personal lack of passion, not through active world change.


Early Christianity was able to tie in with the idea of ​​the Stoa. According to the Old Testament, God created man in his own image. This divine origin conditions the fundamental freedom and equality of all people. In the New Testament the dignity of the human being experienced an inestimable increase when God let his Son take human form and die on the cross for the redemption of mankind. As with the Stoics, this belief is based on the idea of ​​two realms: that of good and that of evil. Through the fall of man man has distanced himself from God; the earthly realms did not correspond to the ideal of the divine state. That is why those human rights arising from being children of God cannot yet develop their full effectiveness in human life on earth.

When Christianity became the state religion in the late antiquity, it took over ancient and Germanic ideas in state and society. The feudal system was based on the Germanic conception of double loyalty. The ruler could seek advice and help from his vassals, but he was also obliged to protect and protect himself. This principle applied at all levels of the feudal pyramid down to the unfree and serfs. Those who were embedded in this social system could normally count on the support of their master when they got into trouble through no fault of their own. The legal obligation and the Christian conscience of the Lord usually ensured life and a minimal livelihood even for the poorest of the servants. While princes and nobles granted their subjects a minimum of human dignity, on the other hand, with the help of the church, they cemented the idea of ​​the inequality of people in this world.

Until well into modern times, only a small number of men enjoyed personal freedom and economic independence. In contrast, influential theologians like Thomas Aquinas (around 1225-1274), under the influence of Aristotelian and Stoic philosophy, affirmed the freedom of religious conscience for all. At that time, however, the freedom to choose God existed only within the framework set by the church. The boundary lines were mostly drawn sharply. For Gentiles and even more so for apostates, the phrase: "Outside the Church there is no salvation." This in no way referred only to the hereafter. Heretics had no right to life or property in the medieval world.