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Samuel Moyn: Christian Human Rights

Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights, Intellectual History of the Modern Age series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 264 pages, ISBN 9780812248180.

This is an enlightening book about the role that Christian understandings of the dignity of the individual have had in the modern push for human rights. In four chapters, it offers vignettes about pioneers in the human rights movement(s), and showcases the role of the distinctively Christian element in their arguments. As such, the book provides a valuable historical offset to some recent attempts to set the notion of rights over against Christian commitments, and presents a clearer view of the playing ground than some other treatments might give.

I referred above to the “individual,” but Moyn intentionally steers clear of that term, preferring instead to speak of the “person” as something borne of neither individualist nor communitarian notions. Here a little more explanation on his part would have been helpful, especially as the question of the “person’s” status vis-à-vis the community is the most obvious issue defining the “playing ground” that I mentioned above. Moyn’s use of “person” is intended in service to the thinking of “personalism,” a notion “linked quickly to spiritualism and humanism and not infrequently to European identity,” and which functioned to dispute the opening moves of “liberalism and communism” (p. 69). This use of “person” only made me wish all the more for a detailed map of Moyn’s operating concepts. (The “individual” is something that can be “depersonalized,” as it was [Moyn says] in the French Revolution [p. 37].)

It is important to note that Moyn places the dawn of Christian human rights in the wake of World War II, with some attention to events shortly before that. (The book lacks a subtitle, which could have made this limitation in scope clear.) Moyn says little about the role of Christian thinking in the so-called “invention” of the individual, often attributed to the Enlightenment. Instead, his chapters discuss figures that cash out this individualism (or personalism) in the service of common decency—figures like Boris Mirkine-Guetzévitch, Éamon de Valera, Jacques Maritain, and Gerhard Ritter (the “first historian of human rights”). Most of this history, of course, is not Anglo-American, and many of the names will probably be new for most readers.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in ethics, or in modern history. It is also helpful for thinking through philosophical anthropology, although it is the need for the perspective this book offers (rather than the depth of its treatment) that makes it valuable on this score.

Reviewed by John C. Poirier


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Category: In Depth, Summer 2017

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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