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  • On the Right to Have RightsHuman Rights; Marx and Arendt
  • Werner Hamacher (bio)
    Translated by Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús (bio)


For classic political theorists, it was unimaginable that someone outside the polis could be a human. Everybody was a human only by virtue of a society; and a society could only be that which secures its coherence, its duration, and its independence from other societies of similar or different types through laws and rights, forming a political community as a constituted society. From this follows Aristotle’s definition of the human as an essentially political animal—a zōōn politikon. This definition would become problematic for the first time in history only with the expansion of a religion that did not understand itself as a political theocracy or as a religion of political virtues and observations but rather declared its constitutive indifference and its structural neutrality over and against political matters. “Nobis ... nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica. Unam omnium rem publicam agnoscimus, mundum” (No thing is more foreign to us [End Page 169] than public matters. We acknowledge one public thing, the world).1 These two sentences from Tertullian’s Apology (197 AD)—that Christians could not be more foreign to the public matters of the Roman Empire; and that, moreover, they could recognize exclusively one public thing: the world as a whole—were just a reaffirmation of the harmlessness of a regional sect that was uninterested in imperial politics. And yet, at the same time, these two sentences contained a declaration of independence over and against the prerogatives of the political and introduced a distinction in the essential determination of the human that, to this day, has not ceased to agitate the political and theological destinies of European as well as any other cultures. The res publica, and hence the politics of the city and of the worldly state, were foreign to Christians; in contrast, the sole thing that mattered to them was the thing that is common to all: the world. This meant nothing less than that, from this moment onward, the human was not only a political being but additionally, and, above all, a world-social being. It could remain neutral concerning state-society because it felt itself to be defined through its participation in a society that was other than that which was constituted by the state.

Society thus became the only sphere that could grant the possibility of indifference vis-à-vis political society. That the community of the faithful organized itself in the ecclēsia (assembly) as a civitas (citizenship), following the model of imperium (empire) was secondary to the distinction between a political and a faith community, between res publica and res intima, between state constitution and psychic participation. The split between publicity and interiority grew deeper as the Christian apostles and catechists proclaimed their gospel to be a “catholic,” and, hence, a universal gospel, which ought to be valid in the whole world—“holō to kosmō”—regardless of political, ethnic, or legal-ritual particularities.2 Their religion was not the civic religion of the citizen of a city-state, a nation-state, or a transnational empire; on the contrary, their religion emerged with the claim (Anspruch) to be a religion of universal human beings and of the divinity of this universal humanity.3 The Christian religion presented itself as the all-encompassing anthropotheological corporation, which could remain irrelevant to individual political forms so long as they did not threaten its internal universality. [End Page 170]

However, in the heretic and Reformation movements of Christendom, no less than in its dogmatic and orthodox tendencies, the claims to the universality of faith—and indeed of a faith that insisted in the primacy of the inner sociality of the faithful—led to its own type of society that was politically determined in a thorough manner. Among the Reformation movements, Protestantism clarifies the utmost consequences of this process. By way of its paradoxical conformism, the Protestant Reformation contributed to the democratic revolutions from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, and to their principle of universal equality—that is, the principle of the immediacy of the social—the only principle that is thoroughly...


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pp. 169-214
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