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Human Rights As Depicted by Luc Ferry's "A Brief History of Thought"


Humans will discover the day when war is no more, not because of obeying a command, not because of some innately endowed enthusiasm for the long slog to justice, but out of sheer interest as a species so many will take seriously their possibility for collaboration--for survival.

As Luc Ferry will show in A Brief History of Thought (Harper 2011) the key contribution of Christianity is its depiction of the person in which love binds one to concern for the common good of others.  Reviewing the book for Denver Journal, Jonah Haddad writes, "[A]ccording to Ferry, our “salvation” lies in the evolution of the human person and their ever-increasing knowledge of themselves and their world." The possibility of a world no longer fighting forever wars does depend on our mutual aid networks and the multiplier effect of persuading one another that our individual freedom stops when it impacts the freedom of others. 

In the chapter "The Victory of Christianity over Greek Philosophy" Luc Ferry writes of the rights of humans in two ways. As the prime-mover for eventual acceptance of human rights:

"By resting its case upon a definition of the human person and an unprecedented idea of love.... [T]his Christian re-evaluation of the human person, of the individual as such, the philosophy of human rights to which we subscribe today would never have established itself." (60)

Put differently, Christianity gave occasion for thinking of equality and human dignity as "the same for everyone," an idea that had no precedent while inequality was thought to be the natural order:

 "We leave behind a natural order of inequality and enter a constructed order (in the sense that it is devised by us) of equality; human dignity is the same for everyone, whatever their actual inequalities, because it is connected to our freedom to choose how to act, not upon our innate endowments." (74)

Second, referencing the documentary history:

"[M]odern thought puts mankind in the place of cosmos and divinity. ...In terms of morality, you have only to consider the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789.... It placed man at the centre of the world, whereas for the Greeks the world had been the centre of attention." (102)

The imaginary benefit of a world absolutely saintly in its observance of fundamental rights:

"There would be no wars or massacres, no genocide or crimes against humanity. There would be an end to racism and xenophobia, to rape and theft, to domination and social exclusion, and the institutions of control or punishment--police, army, courts, prisons--would effectively disappear." (134) 

However keen for that end. The 

"[O]ur prejudices in favour of democracy and the rights of man are to be explained...not by a disinterested intellectual choice, but by the fact that there is more at stake, for our survival as a species, in cooperation and harmony than in conflict and war." (202)

Finally, the notion of giving God gratitude for receiving an idea is absent Luc Ferry's developmental portrait:

"[V]alues are no longer imposed upon us in the name of authority nor deduced from this or that metaphysical or theological fiction. It is true that I discover--rather than invent--the truth of a mathematical proposition, the magnificence of the ocean or the legitimacy of the rights of man, but nonetheless is is unquestionably within me that these things are discovered, and nowhere else.

Yet the avowal has ceded too much so he retraces a step into allowance for interiority. The progression of thought he asserts can reference no philosopher's Supreme being, not in the Greek or Medieval's way, values that are never absolutely autonomous yet never arriving as the whispers of God's voice, or maybe, but then, at least not as commands: 

There is no longer a heaven of metaphysical ideas, no God--or at least I am not obliged to think so in order to accept the idea that I am in the presence of values that are at once beyond me, yet nowhere to be found except within me, manifest only inside my consciousness and conscience." (238)

 Conscience came to mean for St. Paul, who wrote of an inflicting conscience borrowing the term from the Greek playrights, developing in his teaching the notion of God-fearing Christians aiming to please neighbor, fulfilling their responsibility to preach in face of persecution. As St. Augustine of Hippo defined it was a whisper to the heart. By the time Irish monks became wandering instructors of morals, disciplining the faithful through penances took greater emphasis. The penal state, or carceral paradigm of Bentham became as much an architecture of the reformer's zeal in the 19th-century, as a weaponized surveillance with which to warrant euthanization of the weak and infirm under the T-4 program of Nazi Germany. Contrary to what Luc Ferry has posited as that "within me...inside my consciousness and conscience" the limit-language of conscience will not so quaintly serve a nonsecular agenda.

To end, I will quote the pluralism expressing a shared conviction of God near within us:

"It is not I who created the conditions for my breathing and my beating heart. All the while, there is something pulsing that sustains me. In the Hindu tradition, Anantanand Rambachan tells us, this pulsing of breath is the closest we can image the reality of God. In the tradition of Islam, God is nearer to me than my jugular vein (Qur-an, Surah 50:17)--a power coursing through me, sustaining the universe and all that exists within it. In Christian poetics, God is the pulsating beat of the universe taking up residence in my own beating heart. All that is, is love; all there is, is love." (185)

This passage from Jeanine Hill Fletcher is concluding her book The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America. New York: Orbis, 2018.


Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Translated by Theo Cuffe. New York: Harper, 2011. Rights of humans 60, 74, 102, 103, 133-35, 196, 202, 238, 245, 246

Brian Root, Lina Simet. "United States: Pandemic Impact on People in Poverty" 2 March 2021 <>


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