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The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights

The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights

A thought-provoking study traces the origins of human rights beyond the Enlightenment to the evolution of humane discourse and empathetic thought in Ancient Greece.

July 2021
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176 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 b&w illus. |

Although the era of the Enlightenment witnessed the rise of philosophical debates around benevolent social practice, the origins of European humane discourse date further back to Classical Athens. The Ancient Greek Roots of Human Rights analyzes the parallel confluences of cultural factors facing ancient Greeks and eighteenth-century Europeans that facilitated the creation and transmission of humane values across history. Rachel Hall Sternberg argues that precedents for the concept of human rights exist in the ancient articulation of emotion, though the ancient Greeks, much like eighteenth-century European societies, often failed to live up to those values.

Merging the history of ideas with cultural history, Sternberg examines literary themes upholding empathy and human dignity from Thucydides’s and Xenophon’s histories to Voltaire’s Candide, and from Greek tragic drama to the eighteenth-century novel. She describes shared impacts of the trauma of war, the appeal to reason, and the public acceptance of emotion that encouraged the birth and rebirth of humane values.

  • Timeline for Greece
  • Key to Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Exploration A. Barthélemy’s Travels of Anacharsis the Younger
  • Part I. Two Enlightenments
    • Chapter 1. Reason
    • Chapter 2. Warfare
    • Chapter 3. Empathy and Tears
    • Chapter 4. Humane Discourse
  • Exploration B. Cyrus the Great
  • Part II. Ancient Greek Roots
    • Chapter 5. Elements
    • Chapter 6. Paths
  • Exploration C. Tensions
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Subject Index
  • Index of Ancient Passages

Rachel Hall Sternberg is an associate professor of classics and history at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Tragedy Offstage: Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens and editor of Pity and Power in Ancient Athens.