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A Note on Totalitarianism and Human Rights

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

In her fascinating work The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966 ed.), Hannah Arendt observes:

The Declaration of the Rights of Man at the end of the eighteenth century was a turning point in history. It meant nothing more nor less than that from then on Man, and not God’s command or the customs of history, should be the source of Law. Independent of the privileges which history had bestowed upon certain strata of society or certain nations, the declaration indicated man’s emancipation from all tutelage and announced that he had now come of age… . [I]n the new secularized and emancipated society men were no longer sure of these social and human rights which until then had been outside the political order and guaranteed not by government and constitution, but by social, spiritual, and religious forces (p. 290, 291).

Arendt elaborates on the shifting of the securance of “rights” by religion to their securance by civil government and proceeds to catalog the disasters and ambiguities engendered by this severing of “rights of man” from religion, specifically orthodox Christianity.

It is crucial to recognize that the rights-terminology so prominent in modern Western society, especially in its political discourse, represents a deviation and, indeed, apostasy from historic Christianity and Holy Scripture, the latter of which is devoid of any such terminology or sentiment. The protection of citizens from magistrates, magistrates from citizens, minorities from majorities, the weak from the strong, and races from races is secured in the Biblical scheme not by the imposition of an abstract conception of human rights but by the imposition of concrete Biblical law. In sharp contrast to the sentiment of modern human-rights theory, the Scriptures preserve the safety and fair treatment of citizens by imposition of a universal inscripturated divine decree to which all men are subject. Foreigners, widows, orphans, and the physically handicapped, for example, are protected from mistreatment not on the rationale of inherent human rights but on the rationale of the universal authority and applicability of God’s law as expressed in his inscripturated revelation. Human-rights theory grounded in Enlightenment ideology constitutes an attempt to preserve the benevolence inherent in the proper application of Biblical law while repudiating that law.

Arendt recognizes the “confusion created by the many recent attempts to frame a new bill of human rights, which have demonstrated that no one seems able to define with any assurance what these general human rights, as distinguished from the rights of citizens, really are. Although everyone seems to agree that the plight of these people consists precisely in their loss of the Rights of Man, no one seems to know which rights they lost when they lost these human rights” (p. 293).

The ambiguity, moreover, in which the abstract theory of human rights is sheathed renders it susceptible of arbitrary expansion, by which it spawns such selective rights as homosexual rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and so forth. This proliferation of “rights” naturally creates a dilemma when the exercise of two or more of these “rights” collides, when, for instance, the “sensitivity rights” of homosexuals collide with the “free speech rights” of vocal heterosexuals; when the “economic rights” of the destitute collide with the “property rights” of business owners and the wealthy; when the “right to privacy” of women collides with the “right to life” by the unborn child; and when the “right of religious exercise” of the church collides with the “separation of church and state” hailed by modern secularists. These collisions of “rights” are not merely intrasocial, but also intersocial. When the United States criticized the old Soviet Union for its “human-rights violations”-by which the United States meant the Soviets’ denial of free speech, free press, free religion, and so forth-the Soviets regularly shot back that America was utterly hypocritical inasmuch as its own citizens lacked the “right” of “economic freedom,” i.e., a guaranteed job and wages.

In these cases newly discovered “rights” are instruments by which to oppress freedoms secured by the proper exercise of Biblical law. The redistribution of wealth by means of taxation to provide state-guaranteed welfare, medical, and retirement benefits (“economic freedom”) to all citizens violates the eighth commandment by oppressing the more wealthy. The extension of religious freedom to Satanists and other idolaters violates the first commandment. The extension of the “right to privacy” to women who wish to abort their unborn children violates the sixth commandment by oppressing the unborn. The imposition of “affirmative action” programs to conform to an abstractly created racial or sexual quoto violates the Biblical law requiring the even treatment of all and thus oppresses those not among the “minority” groups. The employment of human rights easily becomes, therefore, a blatant and intentional assault on the law of God.

The inevitability in modern times of the suppression of the “rights” originally justified by appeal to “natural law” (speech, property, religion) in favor of “rights” recently discovered (children’s, homosexual, privacy) evidences the flimsiness of rights-theory and underscores the cogency of Biblical law. The proper understanding and enforcement of Biblical law in the civil sphere secures all of the “rights” essential to the exalted place of humanity under God’s rule without sacrificing the transcendent foundation without which “human rights” become nothing more than an arbitrary fiction.

Human rights of any kind require a transcendent justification (“the laws of nature and of nature’s God” were the justification posed by Jefferson), and it is not surprising that as belief in the infinite and personal God of Scripture-and now, even in the deistic God of Jefferson and the philosophes-has evaporated, it is becoming increasingly difficult for proponents of human rights to justify their cause.

In a fascinating passage, Arendt evinces that totalitarianism is not the absence of law but, quite the contrary, the direct application of an abstract conception of law to the human situation, irrespective of the consent of humanity.

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or Nature without transplanting it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It apples the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men (p. 462).

Totalitarian law is not interested in the nature of man but in theoretical abstractions. Human law requires consent:

Both judgment and legal punishment presuppose this basic consent; the criminal can be judged justly only because he takes part in the consensus iuris, and even the revealed law of God can function among men only when they listen and consent to it (ibid.).

God’s absolute eternal decrees do not obviate true subordinate freedom: Israel was free to apostatize from divine law, as is modern man. In the consummation of all things all knees will bow to Christ, willingly or unwillingly; but in the preconsummation era God has permitted rebellion. This sort of rebellion modern totalitarians cannot tolerate, for the juridical goal of totalitarianism is not merely justice, but salvation. For this reason, totalitarian governments relativize transcendent law and absolutize temporal law:

At this point the fundamental difference between the totalitarian and all other concepts of law comes to light. Totalitarian policy does not replace one set of laws with another, does not establish its own consensus iuris, does not create, by one revolution, a new form of legality. Its defiance of all, even its own positive laws implies it believes it can do without any consensus iuris whatever, and still not resign itself to the tyrannical state of lawlessness, arbitrariness and fear. It can do without the consensus iuris because it promises to release the fulfillment of law from all action and will of man; and it promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of law.

This identification of man and law, which seems to cancel the discrepancy between legality and justice that has plagued legal thought since ancient times, has nothing in common with the lumen natutale or the voice of conscience by which Nature or Divinity as the sources of authority for the ius naturale or the historically revealed commands of God, are supposed to announce their authority in man himself. This never made man a walking embodiment of law, but on the contrary remained distinct from him as the authority which demanded consent and obedience. Nature or Divinity as the source of authority for positive laws were thought of as permanent and eternal; positive laws were changing and changeable according to circumstances, but they possessed a relative permanence as compared with the much more rapidly changing actions of men; and they derived this permanence from the eternal presence of their source of authority… .

In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement. When the Nazis talked about the law of nature or when the Bolsheviks talk about the law of history, neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing force of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements in themselves… (pp. 462, 463).

This is a striking passage, but what Arendt fails to realize is that virtually all modern legal philosophies and codes differ from those of totalitarianism only in degree, not kind. Inasmuch as each replaces Biblical or even a sort of amorphous “natural law” with the naked will of humanity, it “promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of law.” Hence, if Arendt’s description of totalitarianism is correct, all forms of modern government lead to totalitarianism.

The absolutization of nature or history becomes, ironically, the relativization of nature or history because nature or history isolated from the transcendent God simply becomes a tool in the hands of ideologues to apply their rationalistic abstractions to humanity. Again, what the otherwise perceptive author fails to notice is that not merely in modern totalitarianism but in virtually all societies “all laws have become laws of movement.”

The rejection of Biblical law is of necessity accompanied by the absolutization of some form of the temporal. In ancient times, the king was divinized; in the Enlightenment, nature and its supposed laws were divinized; in modern society, in which both Biblical law and even “the laws of nature’s God” are rejected, the human sentiment as expressed in the asserted “will of the people” is divinized. In this way, history is absolutized and subjected to the whims of man. It is crucial to recognize that both “free” and totalitarian political orders share this premise of the absolutization of history, and that the existence of freedom in the West is only relative, since it rests on the tenuous ground of human sentiment.

When, in Arendt’s terms, “mankind itself [becomes] the embodiment of law,” no barriers whatsoever survive to inhibit the headlong rush into totalitarianism.


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