Among Thomists, a Chinaman Alone
In a room full of Christians and Jesuits – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, all notably absent – one Chinaman alone in 1947 challenged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by zeroing in on an idea that could have cancelled the fundamental basis for its western construction. It is that obligations may exist, but no rights are “inalienable”. Freedom and justice got into the wrong shoes and, today, they have consigned the name Chang Peng-chun to a footnote.
IN 1947, the world as is known today was not yet fully conceived. At the UN General Assembly, membership was 58 compared with about 200 today. India and Pakistan had become nation-states, but just barely, after which Hindus went one way and Muslims the other; Ireland and the two German states were only formed two years later. Malaysia and Singapore had not yet come into being, and so were a hundred other countries, large and small. Among those that did exist, half in ruins, half western and in the UN, they were starting to talk about an international bill of rights.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian but in Cambridge without yet publishing his treatise Philosophical Investigations, would later reaffirm the Cartesian position of the self in the centre of the universe and as the ultimate basis for knowledge and truth. It is western knowledge and truth.
In East Asia – China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam – life was too devastated to contemplate such weighty issues as truth, self and, pertinent to this essay, human rights. In any case, these were settled issues; only Europeans had the time left from killing each other to quarrel over them.
In that year, and by a number of accounts, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was centred on three persons although the committee of the UN Human Rights of Commission (UNHRC) responsible for the work had eighteen member states. The Commission, then with 53 members overall, was disproportionately white and Christian. Roman Catholic Latin America especially backed the Commission, many of which like the Brazilians wanted the opening lines from the Genesis reproduced in the actual text. A word here and there was switched; and, one of the words, “created equal” in Article 1, was substituted with “born”. Thus, drafting went in the direction intended.
Two of the core members of the Commission were the power brokers. Charles Malik of Lebanon and Rene Cassin of France were representatives of an initial “executive” group that later evolved into the “drafting committee”. Its initial task was to frame an “international bill of rights”, which then became the “Declaration”.
A third person in this core group was John Humphrey, a Canadian although Canada was not a Commission member. But Humphrey, a lawyer fluent in both English and French, was made the first Director of the newly created UN Division of Human Rights, better regarded today as a job creation programme than for the work it actually does. Convenient to the task at hand, the division became the Commission’s Secretariat. And, Humphrey, as its head, was thus assigned to write an initial series of drafts, four in total, for the Commission.
These drafts were debated within the drafting committee, nominally headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, who also chaired the Commission. The Russians, indifferent to and suspicious of the project, played virtually no role. Africa’s existence was not even acknowledged. India was preoccupied with Pakistan to bother; and the closest the Muslim states had in influence on the work was in Lebanon’s Malik.
But Malik’s national affiliation to the Middle East did nothing to change the opinions of the Islamic nations. The Saudis took one look at the Declaration’s draft and rejected it because leaving Islam, that freedom of conscience is suppose to allow, is not an option. Malik and the rest continued without the Arabs.
In Malik nationality does not betray culture, and he was every bit a westerner, an Orthodox theologian and, equally valid, a Thomist philosopher, after Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Catholic monk. Thomism gave birth to the present-day western notions of the two kinds of laws. One is the eternal (or, divine) law as is available in the bible (or the quran); and, the other, natural but man-made and inspired by and derived from god, hence, an extant of “him”.
These are critical facts, which translated into the influence by Malik and Cassin on the final declaration. The influence is well documented in various accounts. One in particular, by Malik’s son Habib, noted that his father wrote the initial wordings in the preamble to the Declaration that underpinned and gave an entire theoretical and ethical foundation to the document.
Cassin, a jurist, is a French Catholic. His role is reaffirmation and, above all, ominous, like that of god’s. He not merely reaffirmed Malik’s wordings in the draft. But 20 years later after the Declaration had passed, Cassin confirmed its raison d’etre in its biblical content. In his speech titled ‘From the Ten Commandments to the Rights of Man’ Cassin said: ‘The expression: “God created Man in his own Image” characterizes both that prise de conscience (awakening) and the religious form which it adopted initially. Secularization followed.’
This means that Cassin took the Thomism theology (recall Thomas Aquinas) and gave it literal application. In this ominous role, he alone revised the entire draft that started with Humphrey and passed through to Malik.
Against this core of the western triumvirate – Humphrey, Malik and Cassin – there was neither any other religious nor intellectual counterweight. Since the Declaration, there has been promotion of the document as a synthesis of cultures and legal tradition. But not a single paragraph exists to prove the assertion.
For example, in his 5,569-word essay, The Ten Commandments, not once did Cassin allude to Islam or Hinduism in the “prise de conscience” and erroneously attributed Buddhism to India rather than Nepal. (Hindu and Muslim populations account for 40 percent of the world’s total today; add the Chinese, the proportion reaches to 60 to 65 percent.) Instead, the preponderance of influence of the three persons on the initial and the final wording of the Declaration elicited from Tom J Farer, the historian, this observation: “At its outset, we had the Word, the Universal Declaration”.
In this biblical sense, the Thomist philosophy of the liberated, free, autonomous, individual self is everywhere in the Declaration.
The Humphrey drafts were essentially, and ultimately, talking notes. However, once in the hands of Malik and Cassin, the essence, the tone, and the language of the drafting and the wordings changed considerably. Humphrey had starting by borrowing generously from the “Statement of Essential Human Rights” issued at the time under a study sponsored by the US-based American Law Institute.
But, by Cassin’s own admission, the spirit and letters of the American (1778) and French (1789) declaration on human rights prevailed over the entire process so that this, plus numerous other evidences, all since ignored, showed that the Declaration was a racial, western, and especially white, Christian-based ideological and theological doctrine. Even by the lowest denominator of classification, the human rights of the Declaration were cultural, religious and intellectual racism.
Indeed, Charles Malik minces no words when, after he had left the Commission to become Lebanon’s Ambassador to the US, said that human rights is a “glorious” Christian agenda to convert and save the souls of a non-western world worshipping “false and alien gods”. At the Waldorf Astoria in New York and speaking on the topic of human rights, this, below, is what he told Americans towards the end of his speech (with emphasis added):
“It is not sufficient in modern times to be happy and self-sufficient. You must step forth and lead, and not only in material things. It is not enough to realize good institutions and to leave it to others to copy them….
If your only export in these realms is the silent example of flourishing political institutions and happy human relations, you cannot lead. If your only export is a distant reputation for wealth and prosperity and order, you cannot lead. To be able to lead and save others, you must above everything else address their minds and souls. Your tradition, rooted in the glorious Graeco-Roman-Christian Western European humane outlook, supplies you with all the necessary presuppositions for leadership.
All you have to do is to be the deepest you already are. The challenge of human rights is whether Western society, conceived in the joyous liberties of the Greek city-states and nurtured on Christian charity, can still recover from the worship of false and alien gods and return to its authentic sources.”
Today, with its dogma established and its political supremacy anchored in the consciousness everywhere and in nearly every society, the hope of conversion and saving souls is near complete. Predictably, the Holy See endorsed the Declaration with the opinion that man, under it, had been elevated to the reflection of the divine, the “image of God” (here, page 19). Today, they say the human rights regime is universal, helping to perpetuate its multicultural myth.
INSIDE the constricted atmosphere of the Commission’s New York and sometimes Geneva meeting rooms, one exception ran counter to the direction in the Thomism of the triumvirate. This is in the person of Chang Peng-chun, or PC Chang (張彭春), a Nankai University professor in Tianjin, specialising in Chinese classical works, Confucianism in particular.
Fluent in English he represented China, which at the time of the drafting was a country at war with itself and whose government, the Kuomintang (Nationalist), failed to keep its seat at the UN General Assembly after the Declaration was passed in 1948. The People’s Republic later disowned Chang’s representation in the mistaken belief that he was subservient to western colonial powers. The UN itself, apart from the banalities they paid to Chang for his services, consigned him to the footnotes whereas Cassin in Europe was feted as the “Father of the Declaration” and given a Nobel prize. Malik, when he heard of it, fumed.
Chang, on the other hand, fought numerous battles during the drafting process, all of which he almost certainly lost. Records of these disputes are available from Humphrey and Malik’s son Habib in interviews.
For example, Habib said Chang had objected to the word “inalienable” that had been inserted into the preamble. The objection was voted upon, and rejected. Later, in his autobiography, Humphrey also noted other arguments between Malik and Chang, with him caught in the middle.
The two men, Humphrey wrote in his memoirs, “were too far apart in their philosophical approaches to be able to work together on a text. There was a good deal of talk, but we were getting nowhere. Then, after still another cup of tea, Chang suggested that I put my other duties aside for six months and study Chinese philosophy, after which I might be able to prepare a text for the committee. This was his way of saying that Western influences might be too great, and he was looking at Malik as he spoke.” Throughout, Mrs Roosevelt said “little and (continued) to pour tea.”
Humphrey’s narrative is revealing in a number of aspects.
By suggesting that the triumvirate stop work to study Chinese philosophy, Chang seemed nearly ready to give up on the draft of the Declaration. This is because, to study Chinese philosophy, his nemeses will have to be willing, if they can, start learning Chinese. Without it, any access to its philosophy is limited and typically defective. It begins in the English language, and doesn’t stop with French. For example, the most commonly cited translation of the Analects (even the Jesuits were wrong to name Kungzi, Confucius) from James Legge is considered highly unsatisfactory. DC Lau’s new translation was published only in 1979 and, until today, the rest of the Chinese classical text is still a work in progress and that in the English.
More revealingly, Chang asked the triumvirate to spend six months on the study of Chinese philosophy. This, in an underhanded, metaphorical Chinese way, was to tell the men sitting around him that they knew next to nothing on the subject. If so, how could a declaration be conceivably “universal” when its drafters could only work within a single theological and ideological framework, entirely western and religious in origin?
Humphrey mentioned of differences in “philosophical approaches”, but what exactly are these?
Habib’s remarks offer a clue when he said the differences between Malik and Chang had come down to a metaphysical level. The metaphysics of it, that is, Thomism, can be seen in the final draft completed in 1948 and was admitted to it in biblical terms by Cassin
Now, between the metaphysics and its application, that is, the Declaration as it exists today, the lineage is clear-cut. But in their initial drafts, nearly every word was composed differently. From the first to the fourth drafts, Humphrey used clauses to describe “duties” of citizens to society and “loyalty” to the state. In final form, all these references were completely erased.
These references, and their removal, explain a great deal about the philosophical differences between Chang and the rest of the drafting committee.
For the moment, a few key points. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, man, as an individual entity, in the image of god, stood alone. Before secularisation his primary loyalty was to god.
Nothing like this exist whether in the Chinese or even Hindu worlds. In the Chinese world, human life is a replication of nature, mortal, but with the difference of culture. In Confucian interpretation, life includes a series of rites that are attendant to achieving a moral life. This moral good is relational, to the parents, kin, friends, colleagues, and to the state. In short, he has loyalties and duties, that is, responsibilities.
The Declaration is the exact opposite. For the individual, everything is prescribed, as if owed to him by all governments. It is like a long list of entitlements. In the words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the former US Ambassador to the UN (1981-85), it was like “a letter to Santa Claus”. Even this is understated.
If Chang had succeeded to keep even a modicum of the Confucian concepts, the Declaration would be a very different document. And if so, the western monopoly in defining the human rights regime would give in to a wider audience. Consequently, its import into and its effect on numerous political and civil societies and countries today would then be cast anew.
To explain the fundamental differences between Chang and the triumvirate, return briefly to Cassin, the man who completely rewrote the drafts to produce the final version. Years later Cassin was to explain that he had wish for an “ethical” document that would subject an individual to “international law in respect of his life and liberty”. This meant, to Mary Ann Glendon, in writing about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, removing the primacy of state control over the individual.
Glendon’s observation contains two antithetical elements, that is, the state and the individual. It presumes, as fact, that the state is always inimical and even hostile to the individual. Cassin’s purpose then was to protect the individual against the state, any state or any government, by absolute, incontrovertible law that is known in the American constitution as the Bill of Rights.
This is like saying that the Ten Commandments (mentioned by Cassin in his 1968 speech) that were issued to the tribe of Israel is to be turned upside down and inside out. Instead of instructing Israelites on a list of dos and don’ts, Moses is commanded, as head of the tribe, to obey a separate list of Commandments handed to him. The people of Israel replaces god, thus, and the Ten Commandments is issued to Moses not through him. This, then, is the secularisation Cassin referred to in his 1968 speech: god is dead, and man does anything he wants.
All this made no sense to Chinese or Hindus, a world outside of the western, Judeo-Christian tradition. But, in western thought the cultural, philosophical and religious lineage is traceable from the Declaration backwards to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, the Bible and Greco-Roman civilization at the time of Aristotle.
The implications of the Declaration are vast, not the least of which is this: it speaks of a contract. But it is a one-sided contract, solely from the point of view of an individual’s entitlement. And the contract is used to govern the conduct of one side only, the state. Absolutely nothing is mentioned about the obligations of an individual to any country, that is the entitlement of the state or the government of the day.
This individual is unnamed and unspecified in residence or in origin, ethnicity, in nationality or in culture. He can be anybody, anywhere and the state presiding over him owes him the terms of the contract. In the strict interpretation of the deal, he may be a foreign national of Country A residing in Country B, and the government of Country B owes him on the basis of the Declaration and this without any reciprocal rights.
European hand wringing and turmoil today over migrants settled legally or illegally has roots in the imperative of this human rights regime that its countries have adopted into law. This problem has reached a level to which human rights activists now say that immigration is a human right. As a result, it makes very difficult or near impossible to deport anybody without a judicial interpretation or court order. Because migration is a right, it makes incumbent on any country to take in any person and to feed, clothe and house him the moment he touches land.
There is no record to suggest how Chang might have insisted on an entirely different set of “human rights”, or even a different set of terms (few, like Roosevelt’s biographer Glendon, acknowledge that the words “human rights” make for a bad phrase). In the main – and even this he didn’t go far – Chang was challenging the premises and the philosophical basis of how obligations owed to the individual could have been derived. Back hence to the UDHR drafting. Much of this is problematic in the Declaration’s preamble, the backbone of the rights regime.
Because Chang could get past with very little, if any, with the Declaration’s preamble it makes little sense for him to go below it and dwell into the articles that followed. In this regard, there is no record of his contributions. But, in some of the challenges thrown up by him, they may be restated as follows in two broad categories, the state versus the individual.
One, why is the state so opposed to the human individual, who must be given protection as if signing to him a blank cheque? Or, to rephrase it, why are the two necessarily locked in conflict? Why is the state different from persons?
Two, who is the individual who is now considered universally sacrosanct? And, he is sacrosanct to the extent that the state owes him a living, indeed a life? How? Who is this “being”?
Those questions are asked from a Confucian-Chinese point of view not western because, in the latter, the answers are already presumed, that is, they are the premises for the Declarations drafting.
For example, individual life is sacrosanct because god is its creator and, perfect as he is, he would have to create all to be equal. Not only equal in status, but man is also created equal in image and in the likeness of god (the Brazilian wanted this in the Declaration). This presupposes a natural state of being, including equality, the likeness of god, goodness, and so on. Man in the language of Spinoza is like the wax of a candle. Burn the candle to the end he remains wax.
Hence, those are the meanings by which the word “equal” was inserted into the preamble. Equality has biblical attributes. Now, from this basis alone, every non Judeo-Christian faith (including Islam) would find the Declaration discomforting.
By secularization, Malik and Cassin might have made the word, equal, palatable to all; but it doesn’t change its attributes. Given there is equality in birth – so what? See, all the fingers in the hand are not equal in length? Secularization required no leap of thought. It merely required the deft of the pen, replacing the word “created” with the word, “born”. And this, unknowingly to either Cassin or Malik, involved the usurpation of their god. Man is not only the wax in the candle, he has, under the Declaration, now become the candle maker and Cassin is the Father of all Candle Makers and Malik the (unacknowledged) Stepfather.
Up to this point, the underlying premises are couched inside a western epistemological framework, for which there is little or no response from other cultures or learning. This is for good reason. From the Confucian-Chinese (or Korean or Japanese or Vietnamese) view of the individual, there is no religious or theological aspect at all. And why should there be? Malik may revere his creator; Kungzi has his own, his father.
The Confucian state of being is not fixed, given at birth and innate; it is acquired over a lifetime. A life has value not for its own sake – the secularised version of Thomism – but only in relation to his family, children, neighbour, farm, factory or state. The state is worthy if and only if it satisfies the purpose of its mandate. This mandate, if extrapolated from the early Confucian times, includes a decent living to the citizenry, maintenance of law and order, and the display of peace and harmony through the highest virtues in officialdom.
All this is to mean that the questions, posed earlier, answer themselves and answers differently once situated in their respective cultural worlds. In the western view, the individual reigns supreme; duality resides in the material essence of a single entity. In the Confucian-East Asian view, duality resides in the functioning of the lone entity. Man’s obligations to each other run both ways and are expected on both sides; they sustain each other. The status of human relations may be unequal. But virtue, not in law, rather in fairness, in good faith and in the ethics provides the basis for these relations to be sustained and for the creases of the inequality to be ironed out.
Consequently, all men are created equal or equally endowed may have epistemological force of argument but only if premised inside a Judeo-Christian philosophy. Once outside it, the statement is pure nonsense, neither in accord with nature nor humanity.
Next comes the legal codification of the human rights regime. This, again, has roots in the bible that projects forward to Thomism and in a nearly linear fashion to the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Jefferson, all the Enlightenment philosophers. The key ingredient in all them is the idea of the individual as a standalone physical self, autonomous and indivisible, the one capable, on basis of innate Reason (given by god), of making law. This is natural law.
This legal concept begins with Thomas Aquinas the moment he agreed with the philosophy of his times to split the individual into two entities, soul and body or, in the colloquial expression of dualism, mind and matter. The first belongs to the Christian god, and the second is the extension thereof. In biblical language, the body is the temple of god, the soul, and this notional separation has currency in the early Roman idea of rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to god that which is god’s.
From this beginning is the rise of medieval natural law, almost church or sovereign based, there was no difference between the two then. But revised by Hobbes who argued that Reason, stemming from an innate self, not morality, should take precedence in law creation, natural law grew a life its own. Thomas Hobbes created nine such laws. Locke and the others, independent of Hobbes or otherwise, produced principles of similar laws but secularised them, that is, leaving god out and putting Reason in. This natural law regime thus moved farther away from religion to found rights. But throughout the process, it retained the standalone self as the legal progenitor. (To be continued…)
Next, Part 2: Confucians v Jesuits in New York, Geneva