"Human Rights and Human Dignity": Public Lecture with OU's Kyle Harper


The Kinder Forum on Constitutional Democracy welcomed University of Oklahoma Professor of Classics and Letters Kyle Harper to campus on February 19, 2015, to deliver a public lecture as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitors Program. Prof. Harper, who also serves as Senior Vice President and Provost at OU as well as Executive Director of the University’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage, framed his talk within the context of an ongoing, high-stakes debate in the humanities and social science regarding the origin of human rights. Specifically, Prof. Harper’s talk looked back in time from the Enlightenment, examining the rise of Christianity in the world of late antiquity as a moment in history when the ideas of universalism and dignity that are central to Kantian rights (and human rights logic in general) began to underlie “new kinds of claims about the duties and entitlements we have just by virtue of being human.”

Prof. Harper grounded his argument for “the essentially Christian origins and theistic nature of rights claims” in a study of Christian leaders’ public reactions to institutional structures in Greco-Roman society after Constantine’s conversion. For example, he argued that we see a conception of the boundless worth of human beings much like Kant’s in Gregory of Nyssa’s radical opposition to slavery in a fourth-century sermon on Ecclesiastes. In using scripture to resist the then extant and widely-accepted rationalizations of slavery, Gregory arrived at an account of human nature that was not only rooted in Christian values but also “firmly centered on universal dignity.” In Basil of Caesarea’s attack on the ancient sexual economy and the Christian response to poverty in late antiquity, we see, Prof. Harper continued, a similar use of the gospel to cultivate a public ideology that acknowledged the worth and dignity that was inherent in individuals’ status as human beings and thus “bearers of the divine image.” Though they are often left out of the narrative of human rights, it is in the sermons of late antiquity that we see, he concluded, “the first beams of a new kind of human consciousness breaking over the horizon”—a consciousness devoted not only to acknowledging human dignity but publicly confronting those institutions that denied it.

A video of Prof. Harper’s lecture can be found here.