The Doubtful Descent of Human Rights from Stoicism

Presented at the
Second International Conference on Philosophy,
Athens, Greece, June 2007
Jan Edward Garrett, Professor of Philosophy
Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green KY 42101

I. Introduction
II. Stoicism and today's human rights culture: main elements
III. Examination of historical and textual record*
     A. Cicero on property and torture
     B. Musonius Rufus on gender equality
     C. Seneca on slavery
     D. The curious silence of the textual record
IV. Systematic comparison of Stoicism and human rights culture
     A. Stoic law of nature (LN) compared with human rights (HRs)
          1. LN is Zeus' mind; HRs may or may not depend upon God
          2. LN is fully grasped only by sage; most adults can grasp HRs.
          3. LN is singular; HRs form a plurality
          4. LN implies that life, health, etc. are indifferent things;
              HRs name objects about whose distribution we are supposed to care.
          5. LN anchors the Stoic philosophical system; HRs are rhetorical tools for social change.
     B. Stoicism (S) as comprehensive doctrine compared with human rights culture
          1. S ethics is a virtue ethics; HR culture is concerned about rules and application of rules
          2. For S appropriate actions conform to one's social role;
               for HRs, right conduct is action or non-action compatible with HR principles.
          3. S did not recognize the economic and social rights recognized by HR culture
          4. S is what John Rawls calls a comprehensive view, while HR culture corresponds to
               what Rawls calls a political module common to potentially many comprehensive views.
               a. S is committed to a peculiar theory of the passions, while HR culture is not.
               b. S is committed to metaphysical determinism, while HR culture is not.
               c. S held that humans but not nonhuman life forms contain a fragment of the divine.
               d. HR is concerned, but S is not, with discovering the material and social conditions
                     that promote the autonomy of human beings.
V. The ideological function of really existing Stoicism
     A. Stoicism as a reinforcer of traditional values
     B. Social roles like slave and beggar as part of "divine economy"
     C. The patron-client system in Hellenistic-Roman society
     D. Generosity and beneficence distinguished from justice.
     E. No human rights guarantees entailed by these virtues.
     F. Stoic silence on the right to freedom of conscience
V. Conclusion

* This section, omitted at the Athens conference, can be found at