Still a Radical Idea on this July Fourth
By Richard Gambino
In 2007, the remains of a man who died suddenly in 1494 of unknown causes were removed from his tomb in Florence, Italy. Examination by forensic pathologists concluded that he died from arsenic poisoning. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, dead at age 31, had fled from a very aggressive persecution of eight years on the charge of heresy, a crime punished by being burned alive at the stake.
You see, at age 23, Pico had written and published a long essay called, The Dignity of Man. The central idea in it was considered perversely and dangerously radical. It was — and is — the view that humans by their very nature have a certain unique dignity. The concept means that we know from simple observation that we humans naturally have a highly developed consciousness in general, plus a highly developed self-consciousness and a highly developed capacity to think about moral matters and what should be the goals of life, i.e., choices about how we should live our lives. From this, one can readily infer — and later it was inferred — that to fulfill his/her nature, each and every human requires rights to make choices and to live by his/her choices, along with the responsibilities that result from those choices.
Being natural, these rights are, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence written 282 years after Pico’s death, “unalienable.” That is, they cannot legitimately be cancelled (or violated) by a religious institution, a government, a political leader, or even by a democratic majority of the people or their representatives. (Yes, democracies can and have violated human rights. A most infamous example of this is the democracy of Ancient Athens putting Socrates to death on trumped-up charges.) Some believe human dignity and the universal rights that come with it are gifts from God, as did Pico. Others believe, as Jefferson did, they are from “Nature and Nature’s God.” Some believe that human dignity and these universal rights are the result strictly of natural evolution. But all who respect universal human dignity and rights reject the idea that they are man-made, something artificially manufactured by a person or persons or institutions, e.g., governments, and thus can be taken back by the manufacturer(s).
Sad to say, today a majority of governments in the world still act as if the idea of natural human dignity and rights is radical and perverse. In fact, Freedom House, in Manhattan, which for decades has tracked the status of human rights around the world, in 2012 listed 90 nations as “free” (i.e., fully respecting human rights) and 105 as “not free” or “partly free.” In the last designation, the governments respect only some rights, or limit rights only to national, racial, religious, ethnic, political, tribal or gender categories. We see every day in our newspapers that many of those who try to assert universal human rights are met with violence and other repressive thuggish behavior. Unfortunately, in the daily news we also see masses of people adoring and all but worshiping even the worst of tyrants in the repression of human dignity and rights. If you will, this is a dark side of human nature. In fact, perhaps a majority of individuals on earth still reject the radical idea of universal human rights.
A great triumph of the idea of natural human dignity and unalienable rights flowing from it occurred in 1776’s Declaration of Independence, and then in 1788, with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and of its Bill of Rights in 1791. This is what I celebrate on July Fourth, with the hope that this concept will be more and more triumphant in the world.
RICHARD GAMBINO is a past member of Board of Directors of Freedom House, founded in 1941. Its first two honorary co-chairs were Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of a Democratic president, and Wendal Willkie, who had been the Republican candidate for president in 1940.