• 2 avril 2014
fr fr

Can Human Rights be completely independent from any religious background ?

Transcription of a lec­ture from Professor Rémi Brague, who has come at the UN on 20 March, 2014, to pre­sent his last-but-one book Le propre de l’Homme, sur une légi­ti­mité mena­cée (Bibliothèque des savoirs-Flammarion, 2013)

Professor Rémi Brague is a member of Institut de France, a Middle Age Philosophy tea­cher both at the Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne University and at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich.

He is the author of La voie romaine (Folio-Essais, 1999), La sagesse du monde (Fayard, 1999), La Loi de Dieu (Gallimard, 2005), Au moyen du Moyen-Age (Champs-Flammarion, 2008), Du Dieu des chré­tiens (Champs-Flammarion, 2009), Les Ancres dans le ciel (Champs-Flammarion, 2013)


The notion of huma­nism has lost his cha­rac­te­ris­tic of obvious­ness it had bene­fi­ted from for a long time. There is nowo­days a trou­ble on the very value of human being. However, huma­nism assu­mes that human being des­ser­ves to be sup­por­ted. Humanism stands up for huma­nity of human being some­ti­mes even against human being itself. Although the adjec­tive "humane" is posi­tive, huma­nity is from now on threa­te­ned from within.


Formerly, the only issue was how, that is to say by what means can huma­nity be pro­mo­ted and heigh­te­ned. Henceforth, the issue is why, that is to say are they some foun­ding prin­ci­ples of huma­nism which can incite human being to defend its own huma­nity. Schopenhauer, in his first sen­tence of his Essay on Morals, has writ­ten : « It is easy to preach morals, it is dif­fi­cult to have a basis for it » [1]. It seems that huma­nism is now defi­ned by nothing but an anti-anti-huma­nism, which means it does not assert uni­ver­sal values any­more meanw­hile it tries to esta­blish itself by default, since any other phi­lo­so­phy would be worst.


The word huma­nism was appa­rently coined around 1840 AC. However the notion itself has been esta­bli­shed in four steps far back into the his­tory of ideas :

  • Firstly, man became aware of his difference (without judgment or comparison) from all that was not him : animals, earth... For instance, Egyptien gods were hybrid, half-men half-animals, without any clear distinction between the two species. Thereafter, Greeks worshiped exclusively human-like gods. Indeed, Greeks well understood man’s specificity, based on two main characteristics : (a) The logos, the reason, implying man as a rational animal ; (b) The city, the public affairs, the politics, implying man as a political animal, since men connected together.
  • Secondly, man deemed himself to be the best one. Several sources vouch for this thought process in the course of civilizations. Thus Xenophon, from the Ancient Greeks, said that man is the best thing among living things. The Bible, psalm 8, wonders « What is man »[first occurrence of this fundamental question in universal history]« that you care for him ? » and sets man just below divine beings, just above animals. Italian Renaissance resumed and accentuated that idea of man’s superiority over the rest of the Creation, starting with the first Treaty on Dignity of Man, printed in 1453 AC [2].
  • Thirdly, the beginning of XVII century deduced from the difference and the superiority of man that the latter is in charge of taming others, of becoming their master, of conquering the nature. This superiority of man was not anymore granted to him by the nature or by god, but was shaped by man himself. Descartes or Bacon illustrated this thought. The German Fichte precised that taming the nature was now on a moral duty for man, no more a plain necessity or a material optimization of his comfort [3].
  • Fourthly, man appeared as such a superior creature than he replaced God itself, pursuant to an exclusive humanism. There was nothing above man. Marx, belonging to this philosophy, expressed it as follows : « Prometheus’s principle [who has stolen fire from the Mount Olympus in a superhuman effort] embodies principle of philosophy ». [4]. Human consciousness became the superior divinity, in front of what no other divinity should stand. Auguste Comte called man the "Great Being". Fenelon in sciences, Rousseau in Romantic literature’s lyrical effusion contributed to this idea. These four historical steps shaping the notion of humanism had succeeded each other not in a necessary way, but in a voluntary choice made by man.


Then, this cons­truc­tion in four steps, las­ting thou­sands of years, col­lap­sed step by step in only one cen­tury.

  • The third step, the superior man taming the nature, using it, has been critizised by the environmental movement which keeps growing up nowodays. The extrem side of the environmental movement considers that man is no longer empowered to tame the nature, that the environment’s respect needs to belittle man. The North-American Marsh very clearly expressed it in his book Man and nature which was published in 1864 and which have been used as a founding book by the American environmental movement since then [5].
  • The second step, based on man’s superiority, has been deconstructed by a thinking movement for which man is the worst of all living things, the most dangerous, the most omnivore and the one who wants to occupy every space. Dream of a man-free earth appeared for example in youthfull writings by Gustave Flaubert [6]. It appears again from time to time, thus D.H. Lawrence : « Man is one of the mistakes of the Creation » [7].
  • The first step, when man became aware of a difference between himself and all things around him, is also more and more attacked. Most popularised mainstream thinking nowadays explains that man distinguishes himself from animals not anymore by nature, but only by degree (very low). This is the end of human exception. Language, social life, morals, laughing... are not anymore peculiar to man, are not constitutive to him, but on the contrary are aslo shared by animals like dolphins or monkeys. A malicious joyce exists in spreading information such as 95% of DNA of man and monkey are the same. However, Marcel Proust and Rémi Brague possess more than 99% of DNA in common, but one is a far better writer than the other.

Only exclu­sive huma­nism, the fourth cons­truc­tion step of huma­nism’s notion, still pre­vails. Man repla­ces god, denies any kind of divine. It is not pos­si­ble any­more to be pagan, to see a god in a storm for ins­tance.


For all that, new gods fore­ver appear : social class (Marx), race (Hitler), nation (two world wars), secu­lar reli­gion… Anatole France’s book, Les dieux ont soif [1912], reminds his rea­ders of rene­wed crea­tions of gods in all their forms. It is thus a kind of fai­lure of atheis­tic huma­nism, fai­lure that takes its roots in the first modern phi­lo­so­phers as Machiavel or Hobbes. These phi­lo­so­phers, who have impac­ted all modern society, based their atheis­tic huma­nism upon rules that allow men to live toge­ther. These rules are of course effi­cient, vital, but remain insuf­fi­cient. These authors explai­ned that it is in the inte­rest of man to obey these rules. But these authors were not able to base or even explain man exis­tence. There is no more out­side Archimedean point allo­wing to exer­cise any jud­ge­ment on human being. Atheistic huma­nism is not able to excer­cise any jud­ge­ment on man him­self. One cannot judge itself, nor judge someone on its own opi­nion. Sartre clearly unders­tood that issue, who quoted the words of a cha­rac­ter from Cocteau [in Le tour du monde en 80 heures] taking flight, at the begin­ning of the XX cen­tury, above moun­tains : « Man is ama­zing. » Then the exi­sen­tia­list phi­lo­so­pher com­men­ted on « This huma­nism is absurd, because only dog or horse could excer­cise an ove­rall jud­ge­me­ment on man » [8].


This bea­ring point, this refe­rence point, afo­re­said Archimedean point, could consist for ins­tance of a trans­cen­dence, pre­fe­ra­bly a God with a person face (unlike a divi­nity as a thing), that man would try to contem­plate face to face. Absence of refe­rence point, of trans­cen­dence, is badly felt nowo­days. Indeed, man has obtai­ned by him­self genuine pos­si­bi­lity (whose means of imple­men­ta­tion are already avai­la­ble) to des­troy huma­nity, by nuclear or chi­mi­cal bomb, by aggra­va­ted pol­lu­tion, by demo­gra­phic decrease already hap­pen­ning in wes­terns coun­tries where the gene­ra­tion repla­ce­ment level, around 2 chil­dren per women, is not rea­ched any­more. Humanism whi­shes that man takes his own res­pon­sa­bi­li­ties, beco­mes master of his fate. This whish has become rea­lity. Man is now able to decide alone : choose to give birth or not, choose to whom giving birth, choose his own death, choose his repro­duc­tion method... But self-deter­mi­na­tion can be posi­tive (self-confi­dence) as well as nega­tive (sui­cide). Human Rights should not be com­ple­tely inde­pen­dent of reli­gious back­ground. This reli­gious back­ground is one of the only ways to deeply answer the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion : Why is it a good thing that man exists ?


[1] A. Schopenhauer, Preisschrift über die Grundlage der Moral [1840], in Werke, ed. W. von Löhneysen, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962, t.III, p.629

[2] G. Manetti, De dignitate et excellentia hominis, ed. E.R. Leonard, Padoue, Antenore, 1975

[3] J.G. Fichte, Die Bestimmung des Menschen [1800], I, in Ausgewählte Werke, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1962, t.III, p.288-289 ; puis Der geschlossene Handelsstaat [1800], I, 3, ibid., t.III, p.452

[4] K. Marx, Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie [1841], preface, Werke, „Ergänzungsband“, Berlin, Dietz, 1968, p. 262-263

[5] G.P. Marsh, Man and Nature or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, ed. D. Lowenthal, Cambridge (Mass.), The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965

[6] G. Flaubert, Mémoires d’un fou [1838], chap. IX, in Œuvres complètes, ed. B. Masson, Paris, Seuil, 1964, t.1, p.234b

[7] D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love [1920], New York, Knopf, 1992, chap.XI, p.121-122

[8] J-P. Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, Paris, 1646, Nagel, p.90-94

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