Christos Yannaras, “Human Rights and the Orthodox Church”
Speech given at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, October 4, 2002
What is the meaning of the term “human rights”?
The adjective “human” attributes something to all humans in general. “Rights” belong to
each human individually, unconditionally and without exceptions. Each individual
existence, being human, is a bearer of rights. The word “right” refers to the claim-demand of an individual, a claim which is made possible by some commonly accepted (and therefore mandatory for all) code of law. The
code of law (“social contract”) assures that the right is a legal, i.e. mandatory upon all,
individual claim. The legal (by codes of law) safeguarding of the individual rights is a fundamental
attribute of Modernity. It is theoretically grounded on the philosophy of the Enlightment
(end of the 18th century). The notion of right has been known in the West since the
Middle Ages, even if it is unclear when exactly the term was first used. However, in the
Middle Ages, the rights concerned specific individuals or specific social classes. The
radical innovation of Modernity lies in the fact that Modernity made rights “human”, i.e.
common to all humans, without discriminations.
The protection of human rights became the symbol of modem western civilization.
Together with the adoption of advanced technology, the undertaking of the legal
commitments (international treaties) for the protection of individual rights is considered in
the modem world as the proof of a civilized society. Of course, the countries that have
signed these international treaties and have integrated them into their own legal system
are not always consistent with the obligations to which they have been committed.
Human rights are even less respected in the field of international relations and the
strategies of the Great Powers.
This means that the protection of human rights remains a moral problem. And morality
always and immediately begs the question: who and with what authority defines morality,
who commits people to obey to its rules? Is it God and His law, as expressed by the
religious institutions? With such a view, the European West lived (in the so-called Middle
Ages) a very negative historical experience. The religious ethics became linked, in the
consciousness of people, to situations of social injustice, tortures, arbitrariness,
nightmarish punishments, ideological terrorism.
The Medieval experience led Modernity to the polemical rejection of any metaphysical
grounding of Morality and Right. The denial of Metaphysics encouraged the absolute
affirmation of Nature (Physics). The idea was that normative principles and rules of
Justice should not be deduced out of the hypothetical “Law of God”, which was arbitrarily
handled by religious institutions, but by the logic of the laws of nature which was
objective and controllable.
Man is by nature a logical existence; reason is a natural characteristic of everyone.
Consequently, we would be able to deduce non-native moral principles form the logical
definition of the common good and interest. Of course, provided that every person would
be committed, by his own will, to the common (natural) logic, this person would
responsibly accept the conditions of the “social contract”.
This is how the notion of “Natural Right” penetrated Modernity with an astonishing
growth of domains and sectors. With it came also the idea of a “natural” right for every
“natural” person prior to social, class, economic or other differentiations. Religion was
rigidly separated from social organization, thus becoming a personal matter; the
separation of the “sacred” from the “secular” (Church and State) is nowadays considered
as an institutional sine qua non of western societies. Of course, from the end of the 18th
century already, in an atmosphere of enthusiastic affirmation of nature and rejection of
metaphysics, the marquis De Sade had foretold that the logic of nature was not always
benign and that, on the contrary, crime was inherent in man’s biostructure. The horror of
inhuman behavior, the complete destruction of any sense of individual rights, reached its
culmination during the 20th century. Even today, when the global hegemony of the West
is hailed as the triumph of the defense of human rights, practices of genocide, ethnic
cleansing, slaughter of innocent people, torture, policing and censorship, even slavery,
lie on the everyday agenda of the international arena. Suffices to recall the tragedy of
the Palestinians, Kurds, Serbs, or northern Cyprus to realize that the West usually
decides which people have human rights and to which people these should by definition
There is a crucial question, which specialists of human rights leave without answer. How
and why Ancient Greece, which, in human history, created politics (both as “art” and
“science”), as well as the so magnificent achievement of democracy, how and why
Ancient Greece entirely ignored the idea of “human right”. The same question could be
asked about Roman Justice, which crucially influenced every new form of codification of
Right in Europe and which also ignored the notion of “human rights”. Should one
conclude that Classical Antiquity, about which Europe is so proud, was indifferent to the
protection of human life, honor and dignity?
I will try to give a short answer concerning Ancient Greece, because this is relevant to
my main subject.
Ancient Greece’s radical innovation in human history was that it transformed simple cohabitation
into the achievement of a city, that it transformed the necessary (for utilitarian
reasons) collectiveness into an “exercise of truth”. The city is the state of social relations
which results when the aim and axis of collectiveness is metaphysical and not utilitarian.
This aim is the imitation of “what truly exists”, of the way of existence “according to the
truth”, the way of incorruptibility and immortality. And this way is the “common” (i.e.
universal) logic, the logic of harmony and order, which makes the Universe a cosmos
The imitation of the community of relations “according to the truth” is the art and science
of politics, of the way of transforming collectiveness into a city. This cannot be an
individual effort or an individual aim; it is by definition a social event, a “common
exercise”. The people who participate in this exercise are citizens: they share the
supreme honor of realizing, by their life and their relations, “truth”, the mode of existence
of “what truly exists”.
In Modernity, “individual rights” protect an individual from the arbitrary exercise of Power.
But in Ancient Greece, the Power meant all citizens together (the demos)— the “State”
(power) belonged to the demos (democracy). Every citizen “has reason and power”:
from the moment that he is a citizen, he or she is by definition capable of holding any
political office (this is why citizens were selected randomly and not elected).
Because a political function is “sacred” (it serves the truth), a citizen’s body is sacred
too. In Ancient Greece, any bodily punishment of harm was unthinkable for a citizen
(whipping, hitting, etc.); it was unthinkable to insult a citizen’s body. It was also
unthinkable to have an executioner: Socrates, who preferred death to exile, drank
hemlock by himself— there was no executioner to kill him.
One can therefore understand that the safeguarding of “individual rights” was entirely
useless in the ancient Greek world— the whole idea was incompatible with the Greek
version of politics. The honor of being a citizen provided much more privileges than
those conventionally provided (through the civil code) by the protection of individual
The ancient Greek paradigm helps us to understand the attitude of the Orthodox Church,
(if we exclude the ideological “Orthodoxism” of our era and its institutional
representations) vis-a-vis the “human rights” issue. It is no accident that the first
apostolic (created by the apostles of Christ) Christian communities, in order to express
and reveal their identity and their specific difference from any other “religion”, borrowed
from the ancient Greek political event the tern “ecclesia”.
Similar to the ancient Greek “assembly of the people”, Greek citizens did not assemble
primarily to discuss, judge and take decisions, but mainly to constitute, concretize and
reveal the city (the way of life “according to the truth”) ; in the same way, Christians
would not assemble primarily to pray, worship, and be catechized but mainly to
constitute, concretize and reveal, in the Eucharistic dinner, the way of life “according to
the truth”, incorruptibility and immortality: not the imitation of the secular “logic”, but of
the Trinitarian Society of Persons, the society which constitutes the true existence and
life, because “He is Life” (1.John 4.16). Participants to this ecclesiastical event, even
robbers, publicans, prostitutes, or sinners, do no need to establish individual rights.
Being a participant and a member of the body of the Church means that one only exists
in order to love and be loved— therefore, far from any expectation of self-protection
through a legislation which would be “mandatory for all”.
This historical transformation of the ancient Greek political event into a Eucharistic body
of the Christian Church has two basic consequences:
First consequence: the Greek political model was the historical flesh which realized and
revealed the radical difference between Church and religion. The Church is an event and
a way of communion between persons, a way of love i.e. freedom of the existence from
nature, freedom from the physical limitations of time, attrition and death. On the contrary,
religion is an individual event, subject to the natural need of every man to worship and to
appease the unknown and transcendent,— it is an individual effort towards individual
faith, individual virtues, individual justification, individual salvation.
In the first case (the Church) the individual identity is realized and revealed through selftranscendence
and self-offering. This is the identity of what we call a person, i.e. an
existence with an active creative otherness, which is the fruit of relations of communion,
love, and freedom from the ego. In the second case (the natural religion and the
religionized versions of Christianity in both West and East), the individual seeks his or
her justification and salvation, the safeguarding of his egocentric metaphysical
protection, through virtues, good actions etc.
Consequently, the opinion that, in European history, religious individualism preceded the
egocentrism of a religionized (from Charlemagne and after) Christiamity and became the
cast of the absolute importance of individual rights in Modernity, is not arbitrary. When
the tyranny of metaphysics was rejected, the aim of the individual metaphysical salvation
was replaced by the aim of a secularized (legal) protection. And thus was born the
political system of the so-called “representative democracy”, which lies at the antipodes
of the ancient Greek democracy (in the same way that the religionized individualized
Christianity lies at the antipodes of the Orthodox Church).
The second consequence of the transformation of the ancient Greek political event into
the eucharistic body of the Christian Church is the preservation and revealing of the
difference between metaphysics and ideology: the various forms of “theocracy” have no
relation at all to the ancient Greek politics as an “exercise of truth”, nor with the
ecclesiastical realization of the image of the Trinitarian Communion. Theocracy is the
use of metaphysics (as a supreme authority) in order to impose normative principles of
behavior or aims of power by force upon the collectivity (ex. The Djihad of the Islamic
tradition of the phrase “In God we trust” on every American dollar). But any use of
metaphysics for secular aims transforms metaphysics into ideology, into a psychological
In the cases of ancient Greek democracy and of the Orthodox Church, the social event
cannot become subject to ideological rules or aims, as its dynamic realization is an aim
in itself. Relations that realize the communion of life are in both cases the unique
objective of collectiveness, as they constitute the way of “that which truly exists” (even if
this way refers to two different models).
Metaphysics are subject to ideology (leading to such phenomena as “theocracy”,
“kingship by the grace of God”, papocaesarism, caesaropapism or fundamentalism)
when they evacuate their ontological content (i.e. the question about existence, about
the cause and purpose of being). Metaphysics without ontology serve individual
psychology (the priority of individual feelings, sentimental “certainties”, “convictions”
which protect the ego). And metaphysics borrow these psychological “certainties” and
“convictions” from ideologies.
The well-known Samuel Huntington, in his famous book on the “Clash of Civilizations” (a
book with astonishing inaccuracies and monumental interpretative arbitrariness), blames
the contemporary societies whose culture has often been developed by the Orthodox
tradition for their incapacity to assimilate the principles of the protection of individual
rights. In his view, the difficulties of these societies to adapt to the current demands of
western ideologies such as “pluralism”, or to the claim for “tolerance of differences”, is a
result of this incapacity.
Certainly, the Orthodox ecclesiastical tradition ignores the idea of collectivity as societas,
as a “bending together of individuals in the pursuit of common interests”. It ignores
collectiveness as an arithmetic sum total of non-differentiated individuals, it ignores
human co-existence as a simple co-habitation on the basis of rational consensus, it
ignores the ideal of societies of unrelated individuals. We have briefly seen the
conception of the social and political event that is carried by the orthodox ecclesiastical
tradition and the infinite value of the human person that this conception entails.
However, in the Orthodox bibliography, the understanding and respect for the principle
of the protection of individual rights, which was introduced by Western Modernity, also
exists. The more (a society or persons, the revealing of the personal uniqueness,
otherness and freedom through social relations) does not invalidate or destroy the less
(the legal, institutional and uniformed protection of every individual from the arbitrariness
of Power). We Orthodox people acknowledge that the historical existence of such
experiences as the Western Middle Ages prove that the protection of individual rights is
a major success and a precious achievement.
Nevertheless, we would be doing violence to the historical memory and critical thought if,
simultaneously, we did not recognize that, compared to the ancient Greek city or the
Byzantine (and meta-Byzantine) community , the protection of human rights is a prepolitical
achievement. It is an undisputable achievement, but an achievement which has
not yet attained (perhaps not even understood) the primordial and fundamental meaning
of politics: politics as a common exercise of life “according to the truth”, politics
constituted around the axis of ontology (and not self interested objectives).
The notion of “individual right” is not a mere production of the philosophy of the
Enlightenment, a notion that is characteristic of the civilization of Modernity. In the
present historical reality, the individual rights are the primary constructive material for the
realization of the modem “paradigm”, our contemporary way of life. In the functioning of
politics and economy, in “social struggles”, or in individual existential problems (like
euthanasia), the notion of “individual rights” is pre-supposed as the self-evident criterion
of any action, planning, or logical validity.
Parallel to that, a huge international bibliography points out and analyzes the undeniable
crisis of the modem cultural “paradigm”. Scholars generally recognize the “historical end”
of many fundamental coordinates of Modernity: the end of ideologies, the end of the
parliamentary system, the end of rationalism, etc. And it is not just a theoretical
speculation. Every citizen of the so-called “developed” societies has a direct everyday
experience of the rapid decline and alienation of the fundamental coordinates of
The commercialization of politics, their submission to the laws of publicity and the
brainwashing of the masses, have literally abolished the “representative” , parliamentary
system. Politicians do not represent citizens and their interests but the economic capitals
of the electoral propaganda and the interests of fund providers. In the international
sphere, the networks of economic and political interests lead to a social corruption which
increases dramatically through the immorality of the media and their functioning
according to the “hype” and “readability”. The commerce of arms sustains wars and
conflicts and the commerce of drugs destroys the youth. Faith in the rationalism of the
“social contract” has collapsed long ago; only the logic of the antagonism of interests
seems to prevail.
Symptoms of such a magnitude are never products of a mere moral decline; they are
clear proofs of the end of a cultural “paradigm”. The “paradigm” of Modernity was
grounded on the egocentrism of “human rights”. A communion-centered version, based
on the protection of the human existential truth and authenticity might bear the arrival of
a new cultural “paradigm”.