In a review of one of H. Gene Blocker’s book, Dennis Dutton writes of how Blocker sees artefacts – both historical and contemporary – as revealing the “values, beliefs, and sentiments” of a particular society (Dutton, 1995, p. 321). This view is clearly reflected in Blocker’s discussion of how historical documents have shaped the contemporary conception of human rights. For Blocker, the idea that human beings have basic inalienable rights is not merely a modern invention, but one that has been reflected over many centuries of codes, documents and artefacts. In “Human Rights” (Blocker, n.d) lists only legal documents from the last few hundred years: the United States Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Right of Man and of Citizens, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While these modern legal documents are undoubtedly the fore-runners of our modern legal human rights codes, it is also the case that much older artefacts and documents have helped to shape these modern texts and ideas.
In particular, artefacts, codes and documents from Ancient Persia, Ancient Rome, and medieval Europe have has a particular influence on the evolving concept of human rights as they are now understood.
One document that has clear resonance with modern conceptions of human rights is the Ancient Persian artefact, The Cyrus Cylinder. Dated around 539 B.C., the cylinder is inscribed with a cuneiform script recording the decrees of the first Persian king, Cyrus the Great. Among the different decrees recorded on the cylinder are the right to freedom for slaves, the right to religious freedom, and the right to racial equality (United for Human Rights, 2015, n.p.). In recording these three decrees, this artefact makes clear the importance that they held for this ancient population, as rights that were literally “set in stone”. These decrees also closely echo the ideas set forth in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Blocker, n.d., p. 6), showing clearly how this early code of law has come to influence later thought on human rights.
The influence of the classical philosophy of Ancient Rome on the political and philosophical thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is undeniable, making it obvious that the documents and codes of this period will have influence fundamental human rights documents such as the United States Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Right of Man and of Citizens. Some modern human rights can be seen enshrined in Roman Law, and a good example of this is Cicero’s De Officis, written around 44 B.C., which explores the Roman idea of “Natural Law”. Within this work, Cicero articulates the idea of universal justice as a “natural law” or human right: the idea that everyone has a right to justice, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality (Net Industries, 2015, n.p.). From this, it is clear to see how the myriad documents and codes that comprised Roman law have directly shaped modern conceptions of human rights.
Finally, the medieval English document, the Magna Carta, dating from 1215, is one of the first expressions of human rights to be codified into current law; this document reformed the relationship that existed between government and individuals, and used human rights as the basis to control tyranny (United for Human Rights, 2015, n.p.). As a tangible expression of the desire of the people for freedom from oppression by government, this document echoes the ideas that would form the basis of the United States Declaration of Independence, and all later human rights concerning people’s relationship to government.
As can be seen, therefore, the concept of human rights has evolved over a long period of time; however, many of the ideas that form the basis of the modern conception of human rights can be seen in very ancient documents, codes and artefacts.
- Blocker, H. G. (n.d.). “Historical Documents Listing Human Rights.” Retrieved from http://homepage.westmont.edu/hoeckley/readings/symposium/pdf/201_300/261.pdf.
- Dutton, D. (1995). “H. Gene Blocker on Tribal Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 53, 321-23.
- Net Industries (2015). “Human Rights: Stoicism and Roman Jurisprudence.” Retrieved from http://science.jrank.org/pages/9659/Human-Rights-Stoicism-Roman-Jurisprudence.html.
- United for Human Rights (2015). “A Brief History of Human Rights.” Retrieved from http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/brief-history/cyrus-cylinder.html.