Monday, March 2, 2009

Dissing the Ancients, Again

In “Naked Strong Evaluation” (Dissent online), Andrew Koppelman reviews Charles Taylor’s new book, A Secular Age. The book is also reviewed in the NYTimes by J. P. Diggins. Neither reviewer is terribly sympathetic with Taylor’s critique of secularism, but Koppelman is most interested in Taylor’s views on human rights. According to Koppelman, Taylor believes “that secularism and Christianity reveal a common ancestry in their shared commitment to human rights—a commitment that does not follow from atheism as such.” Although Koppelman seems to accept this premise, he argues that secularism has the advantage in requiring fewer ‘leaps of faith.’

What puzzles me about Koppelman’s review, and Taylor’s work, is their shared conviction that “the idea of human rights, at least in the West,” emerged “from Christian doctrine.” Koppelman claims that Taylor has done a “more thorough” job of showing this than anyone else, and I do not feel I am in a position to debate that assessment. But I think we can debate the claim itself.

It is not a new claim or an unfamiliar one, by any means. Christian religionists frequently assert that human equality and human rights are specifically Christian notions. This overlooks the fact of the derivative character of much Christian thought. With respect to human equality and human rights, we ought to look first to the Roman Stoics and their conception of the human community, humanitas, and the ius gentium, or law of peoples (often translated as ‘Natural Law’). Given Taylor’s rather longstanding debate with Martha Nussbaum, his overlooking this Stoic connection is surprising.

Now, the disclaimer/caveat/mea culpa: I have not read Taylor’s new book. So, as I said above, I’m not in a position to disagree with Koppelman’s claim that Taylor has done a particularly good job of locating the origins of human rights discourse exclusively in Christian intellectual history. Perhaps Taylor has surpassed Alasdair MacIntyre’s dismissal of the ancients from the arena of human rights discourse in After Virtue; that would not be terribly difficult. I promise that once the snow has melted I’ll get the Taylor book. But, unless he can do more than insist that the Stoic conception of human community and equality just wasn’t a source of Christian thought, I’m not going to be moved by this newest effort at Christian revisionism. After all, can’t Christianity find enough to be proud of in its own intellectual history without claiming utter originalism?

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