The dramatic, ongoing encounter of democratic civilisation with totalitarian regimes is the decisive philosophical and political event of the twentieth century, the impact of which has shaped the very essence of the movement of history. In its current form it consists of the bias to minimize, and in fact to displace, all of the unsettling findings concerning the nature of this conflict and its consequences.

To the west of the former Iron Curtain, this encounter involves two main tendencies. On the one hand, it amounts to a continuation of Cold War perceptions in the public opinion of western democracies. The prevailing character of those times, which seemingly has been permanently ingrained into the memories of ordinary citizens, was peace and stability, coupled with the acceptance of peripheral wars (Gambles, 1995, 26-35). In other words, the era of the Cold War was largely associated in Western public opinion with the peaceful everyday character of an affluent life-style. The routine of life, whose foundations and origins were hidden, remained unquestioned and unshaken. This was the decisive experience of the period.1 The acute and drastic spasm of World War II was thus followed by a soothing, self-isolating defence from the chronic danger to democracy posed by the totalitarian communist regime.

Moreover, the peaceful serenity of "the Golden Age" of the western democracies during the greater part of the Cold War (1945-1973) can legitimately be explained as the unequivocal success of the United States in her efforts to turn the catastrophe of two world wars into a democratic "Century of America" for herself and into a "Golden Age" for other nations (Kurth, 1995, 11).

On the other hand, there are justifiable grounds for questioning whether the democratic world has actually come to grips with the totalitarian menace, and whether the Cold War actually came to an end with the democratic changes in Eastern Europe and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. A range of reasons substantiate such misgivings. Politically, for example, it is obvious that totalitarian regimes have not perished from the earth, and their flexible vitality can be seen in the most practical terms on the vast territory of continental China. This large communist power applies a differentiated approach to the various regions of the country and the many strata of the population with regard to the usage of communist terror (the substance of totalitarian regimes) and to ideology as the principle of action. No less characteristic of this approach is a nationalistic mixture of Marxist ideological schemes with the traditional Chinese rhetoric of Confucianism.

An analogous trend exists mutatis mutandis in certain East European countries, which at first had conformed to the wave of anti-communist upheavals and revolutions that took place in 1989. These include most parts of the former Yugoslavia, Slovakia, and the greater part of the former Soviet Union. A visible turn in the direction of a nationalistically tinted totalitarianism recently became evident in Russia itself during the Spring of 1996. The phenomenon has also appeared in such Asian and Africa countries as North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. There we find various combinations of the totalitarian aversion to principles of human rights and democracy with both nationalistically and superficially religious approaches to propaganda. By the same token, the religious and national significance of local traditions, along with their possible conjunction with the principles of human rights and the democratic option of the rule of law, are losing ground to totalitarian ideological distortions.

When investigated more closely from a philosophical perspective, the presumed coping with the totalitarian danger is revealed to be an alarming failure. Both the currently prevailing theoretical notion of human rights and democracy as well as the consequent practical views originate in a half-hearted understanding of liberalism as the given fact of individual liberties which require no preliminary conditions for either their possible or actual existence. This is how there has come about an unjustified rejection of the verifiable preconditions and grounds for the emergence of the concept of human rights and democracy, the latter being based on the former in terms of dwelling in the natural life-world. Such an approach is the culminating movement of modern dilettantism, whose key theoretical expression consists in systematically ignoring the only possible basis for the existence of natural human rights, namely, the phenomenon of the law of nature.

The basic principle of the law of nature was articulated by Augustinus Aurelius, one of the most distinguished early Christian philosophers, who wrote, "What you will not to be done to you, do not do this to others" (Augustinus, 7).2 This is the decisive point of departure for natural law and natural rights, which later stood at the origins of the Anglo-Saxon notion of human rights and democracy. Its fundamentals had already emerged clearly within the Greek tradition of poetry, drama and philosophy as the eternal law, which provides the origins of human legislation.3 The source of the modern tradition of democratic stability, including its basic concept of human rights, consists in the conviction that, "[T]he law of nature is that which God at the time of creation of the nature of man infused into his heart, for his preservation and direction; and this is the Lex aeterna, the moral law, called also the law of nature" (Coke, 1957, 45-46). This tradition became the basic framework for the modern conception of natural human rights, including the demand for religious tolerance and the ideas of democratic political consensus and civic virtues, first formulated by John Locke.




The development of the Lockean conception of the law of nature demonstrates a preference for the irreplaceability of its religious grounds, instead of the initially one-sided emphasis on its ability to be known rationally (Sinopoli, 1992, 39-51). Lockean philosophic realism is germane not only to the meaning of philosophy as such but to the Christian religion as a distinct phenomenon of world history. Locke agrees that, apart from knowing God as the creator of all things, humankind is capable of clearly knowing its duties. Locke maintained that it was precisely this aspect of knowledge which, although scrupulously cultivated by the ancient philosophers, had not taken secure hold among people (Locke, 1958, 60).

Nevertheless, Locke does not give in to the tendency to accuse mankind of moral corruption. He writes:


All men indeed, under pain of displeasing the gods, were to frequent the temples, every one went to their sacrifices and services; but the priests made it not their business to teach them virtue. . . . Few went to the schools of the philosophers, to be instructed in their duties and to know what was good and evil in their action. The priests sold the better penny-worth, and therefore had all their custom. Lustrations and processions were much easier than a clean conscience, and a steady course of virtue (ibid.).


The force of natural reason cannot fully provide what Locke speaks of as a natural, morally adequate religion. He states that:


It is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality, in all its parts, upon its true foundations, with a clear and convincing light. And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a King and law-maker, tell them their duties, and require their obedience, than leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out of them: such strains of reasonings the greatest part of mankind have neither leisure to weigh, nor, for want of education and use, skill to judge of (op. cit., 60-61).


The Lockean point of departure at the creation of the modern conception of human rights and liberalism is the philosophical legitimation of both the Christian and ancient origins of natural law. Proceeding in this fashion, Locke saw a harmony between verifiably true insight, understandability and practical usage. In addition, Locke took into account the obvious danger of a too narrow, egoistic grasp of the natural law. He criticized such attitudes by emphasizing that:


[S]elf-interest is not the foundation of the law of nature, or the reason for obeying it, although it is the consequence of obedience to it. . . . Thus the test of the rightness of an action is not whether it is self-interested; but rather a moral action is also self-interested, but only because it is right (Wooten, 1993, 183).


The Lockean religious-ethical grounding of the natural law as the basis of human rights is clearly evident. For Locke, the concep-tions of the law of nature and of human rights are unequivocally anchored in the philosophical and Christian tradition of the natural law as the identification of Right with Good within the framework of human participation in the eternal by means of the law of nature. This is not at variance in its basic intention with Hegel’s philosophical-political conclusions regarding the topic of natural law (Hegel, 1972, 419-420).

As the Founding Father of the modern conception of human rights, John Locke sought an harmonious synthesis of the classical concept of natural law with the modern emphasis on the irreplaceability of individuals. For Locke, the rise of the body politic as political civic society in the form of the state comprised a safeguard of the rights to life, freedom and property on the basis of an application of the law of nature that was more consistent than in the state of nature (Wooten, 1993, 309-10). The basic modern concept of human rights and democracy thus differs essentially from the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and J. J. Rousseau on this crucial point. These thinkers presented unbalanced and one-sided conceptions of the state of nature as either arbitrariness or the absence of property, and they depicted the state as the subordination of the population to the Sovereign or to the General Will.

As a result of the predominant modern fascination with mathematical natural history, and in the aftermath of the drastic events of the European religious wars, a distorted interpretation of the Lockean concept of human rights became routine, which displaced it from its religious and ethical foundation in the law of nature. Given the parallel impact of Rousseau’s theory of the social contract, the conception of religiously and ethically indifferent liberalism took root initially in France, Belgium, and Germany as a secular, deductive, normative and all-encompassing system of law and political institutions based on law. Its origins are related to the close of the French Revolution, and its full-fledged development is connected with the aftermath of 1848 in Europe.

In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of democratic civilisation preserved the decisive continuity with natural law and human rights to a much greater extent. The still-growing liberal opposition to this tradition consists first of all in the prevailing tendency to consider the public civic sphere a realm of strict rationality and objective validity, and to separate it sharply from the spiritual dimension of human life, including religion and ethics, which it presents as a sphere of privacy, subjectivity and, on the whole, irrationality.

In this way, the modern conception of human rights and democracy lost its force, foundation and life-world horizon, all of which are expressed in the recognition of the validity of natural law. Along with the abandonment of the latter, the primary element of both self-control and public control, which is intrinsic to public dialogue about basic orientations and decision-making in the common world of human life, was also discarded. As a result, totalitarian movements and regimes were provided the means for raising the claim that this core element of human rights and democracy should be totally eliminated from within the framework of their thoroughgoing efforts to liquidate individual moral responsibility and eliminate it as the point of departure for human reflection, decision-making, and action. Totalitarian regimes thereby eliminated the unnatural separation of morality and public life characteristic of the half-hearted continental type of liberalism through their ideological postulate of objective laws of nature and history and through their omnipresent mass terror. Thus, the shallow dilettante elements and origins of religiously and ethically indifferent liberalism actually served to foster the enthroning of totalitarian regimes, mainly in countries with conspicuously weak and doubtful democratic traditions. These regimes represented, and in many places in the contemporary world still do represent, a viable alternative form of human existence.

The relative defeats delivered to both totalitarian Nazism in World War II and Marxist Communism in the Cold War have merely negative significance. A genuine coming-to-terms with totalitarianism in terms of education and democratic civilisation can take place only as a result of a thorough re-evaluation of religiously and ethically indifferent liberalism. This must include its untenable projects for dividing up human existence into separate units as the ground for a distorted conception of human rights and democracy. The extremist totalitarian challenge to democracy and human rights has so far triggered only superficial, negative and limited aggressive reactions. Evidence of this is provided by the contemporary range of extreme forms of liberalism that culminate merely in its deficient version, i.e., its discontinuous polarization of, and subsequent abstract parcelling out of, human existence ad infinitum. Leftist communita-rianism also belongs here as an updated version of the post-communist revision of Marxism (Walzer, 1989; Mouffe, 1992).

On the other hand, the conservative strand of communita-rianism, which characteristically stresses the traditional ethical-religious environment of the moral virtues of democratic civilisation and its authentic development in terms of natural law, has met a weak response. This tenor of communitarian thought places the primary emphasis on a sense of civic responsibility in terms of the political articulation of community, involving civic education understood as duty. Consequently, this sense of responsibility amounts to a sense of dutiful mission representing that which binds democratic civilisation together (Johnson, 1995). Ethics is conceived as the leading scheme of laws such that civil law should be directed in harmony with the law of nature (Kirk, 1994). Conservative communitarianism fundamentally argues against the present currents of positivism and realism in law. It maintains that the origins of the positivist science of law lie in the interpenetration of 19th century nationalism with scientific mechanism and materialism. As a consequence, legal positivists and realists conclude that laws are mere commands issued to human beings. In such a conception, there is no necessary coherence between law and morality, i.e., between laws as they exist and how they ought to be. It is thus presumed that value judgements are not defensible by rational arguments.

Conservative communitarians see this as the first stage of a general contempt for laws. That is why they argue for the necessity of reviving a general understanding of both ancient and Christian teachings on justice (Kirk, 1993). It appears obvious that the spiritual climate of the United States in the mid-1990s endorses a rejuvenated synthesis of the conservative and liberal bases of American democracy. This development was necessitated first of all by the impasse, long verified both theoretically and practically, facing materialistically-grounded liberalism (Heineman, 1994; Lowi, 1979). Its modern origins date back as far as Hugo Grotius, who declared that he would deduce the law of nature solely out of the humanist condition of a purely secular contract between men independent of the divine mind or will, i.e., apart from any divine framework whatsoever. Grotius’s point of departure contradicted the notion of any absolutely valid law of nature and the existence of God; in fact, it renders God superfluous. Grotius wrote:


Measureless as is the power of God, nevertheless it can be said that there are certain things over which that power does not extend. . . . Just as even God cannot cause that two times two should not make four, so He cannot cause that which is intrinsically evil be not evil (Grotius, 1925, I, i).4


Grotius’s alluring efforts moved the unclear distinction between law and morality into the sphere of the self-important Absolute of human self-sufficiency. Human freedom as a crystally transparent freedom of the will, its relation to rationality, and the recognition of duty became isolated in "rational choice" as a self-sufficient frame of reference. Its philosophical-political outcome can only be a religiously and ethically indifferent liberalism. In con-trast, the Lockean modern renewal of the original meaning of the natural law, along with its liberal and democratic culmination, emerge as the appropriate synthesizing and promising response to the challenge Grotius had presented to this notion.

Considering the global turn of events after 1989, we now stand before a task strikingly similar to the one with which John Locke had to cope in the aftermath of the catastrophic European experience of the Religious Wars. It is necessary today to stand up to the still challenging totalitarian alternative of human existence, which arose out of the empty, liberal, voluntaristic rejection of any moral vision, through a revival of the realist moral option as the basis for the movement of human life and the world. This option amounts to a cogent reconstruction of clear rational vision as "a result of moral imagination and moral effort" (Murdoch, 1970, 37). The will is not an arbitrary movement, and man is not a combination of impersonal rationality and personal will (ibid., 40-41).

There is need for a true and authentic coming-to-terms with the totalitarian alternative of human existence at the level of the philosophy of politics. This involves conceiving human rights on the basis of a new synthesis of post-totalitarian perspectives in respect to the intrinsic union of individuals, community, the spiritual and moral tradition of "caring for the soul," and the institutions of the liberal democratic state. Such a conception of human rights and democracy is necessarily anchored in an essential unity of the spiritual-moral and public spheres of human existence, and it decidedly involves a hierarchy of values that revives the original meaning of the natural law.




The present impasse facing liberal conceptions and the one-sided arguments of the communitarian critique of liberalism demand a profound philosophical reflection upon the issues at stake. The current literature contains references both to this obvious necessity as well as to its orientation, which originate from the intrinsic nature of the everyday human experience that always precedes contemporary utilitarian culture (Paparrigopoulos, 1995). In particular, the recent development of the Czech tradition of political philosophy has outlined a valid conception and elaborated a viable terrain that comprise an appropriate response to that demand. This can be found in Jan Patoka’s conception of the Third Fundamental Movement of human life, which is a philosophical restoration of the unity of human freedom and responsibility. This conception depends fundamentally on an individual’s decision concerning whether one will disperse and lose personal integrity in particulars, or retrieve and realize oneself in terms of a genuine relation to other beings, the universe and one’s own life. The latter involves a radical reorientation of one’s life towards other lives: if an individual human life is lived according to its finality, the natural end of such a self-retrieval consists in self-devotion to others.

In this way, Patoka indicates a lifeworld sociality that is rooted in the shattering of the seemingly unshakable Second Funda-mental Movement of human life, that alienated human beings from each other by self-extension of life through endless provision, competition and defence (Patoka, 1989, 280-284; Patoka 1970, 228; Patoka 1980, 1.2.190). This is the source from which arises Patoka’s moral philosophy and his conception of human rights in the spirit of a phenomenological recovery of the natural law. Patoka writes:


No society, no matter how well-equipped it may be technologically, can function without a moral foundation, without convictions that do not depend on convenience, circumstances or expected advantage. Yet the point of morality is to assure not the functioning of a society but the humanity of humans. Humans do not invent morality arbitrarily, to suit their needs, wishes, inclinations and aspirations. Quite the contrary, it is morality that defines what being human means.


From this perspective, the very concept of a "Pact on Human Rights" implies:


that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment: that they recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable, and that in their power to establish and maintain a rule of law they seek to express this recognition. This conviction is present in individuals as well, as the ground for living up to their obligations in private life, at work and in public. The only genuine guarantee that humans will act not only out of greed or fear, but freely, willingly, responsibly, lies in this conviction (Patoka, 1989, 341).


This philosophical insight reveals the verifiable and decisive reality that the very existence of the human being, society and the state stands and falls with its non-instrumental, spiritual and moral basis. The Czech tradition of the philosophy of politics has thus succeeded in grasping as a whole and clearly defining the authentic source and the decisive context of human dignity. The core of the possibility for a fundamental movement in both the private and public dimensions of human life is the verifiable recognition of their common unconditional end in terms of a transcending validity. Accordingly, the philosophical-religious and ethical reality of the natural law reappears disquietingly, but no less legitimately, at the centre of the philosophy of politics.

The problem of how to conceive of the comprehensive public good, which liberal philosophers and political economists since Thomas Hobbes have evaded, has once again been placed on the agenda, now with an imperative urgency due to the experience of totalitarianism. The frequent liberal flights into allegedly reliable mechanisms for maintaining social peace by means of generating prosperity have always failed in the long run. The reason is obvious: private, calculating interests lack the genuine prudence that can never be replaced by any social engineering (Sullivan, 1982, 29, 171). The original Aristotelian meaning of prudence consists of knowledge and purpose in bringing about what is unquestionably the best and most fair political order. It also involves real attainability, prevailing validity and absolute measure, i.e., measure which is not established according to concrete circumstances. The original notion of constitutional republican democracy (politeia) meets the basic assumption that civic freedom and equality comprise a permanent struggle for the virtuous life in terms of recognized natural law (Bluhm, 1962, 750-753). There is obvious need that these ideas, including the concept of human rights, must be restored. Together they comprise the authentic alternative both to the extreme totalitarian challenge of the 20th century, and also to mainstream, spiritually indifferent liberalism, including "post-modernism" as its offspring.

Different conceptions of power apply in these latter cases. Concerning liberalism and the post-modernism that arises from it, there is also an emphasis on freedom as the occasional absence of obligation in respect to any concrete purpose or end (Taylor, 1979, 177; Skinner 1986, 193-221). The present post-modernist inclination towards the definition of power as a diffusion without origin belongs to this same category. Its postulate that power is of an exclusively local nature represents a one-sided reception of the present exponential growth of diversity in communication during our technological era. Adherents of the "post-modern" view of the world supply merely directives and speculations about "strategies of survival" that lack virtually any normative responsibility. The only permissible, universally valid response they admit is the imperative of pluralistic justice, i.e., the command to maximize and multiply small narratives to the greatest possible extent (Lyotard and Thébaud, 1985, 59, 87; White, 1991, 132-38). The origin of the "post-modernist" inclination for this dogma of a false infinity of pluralistic otherness is the recurrent phenomenon of the original human entanglement with the neutrality of being, with its essential confusedness that always offers the comfortable recourse of routine in daily life (Patoka, 1980, 3.4.29; Patoka, 1990, 111). "Post-modernist" dogmatism basically represents a half-hearted modern regression to the level which precedes the understanding "that there is another possibility or possibilities of how to live than, on the one hand, toil for a full stomach . . . and, on the other, orgiastic occasions in public and private" (ibid.).

"Post-modern" philosophical claims are in principle in no position to transcend the originally positivist attitude towards philosophical thinking. This by no means entails, however, that it is not appropriate to strive for such a transcending of the modern situation. In our present times, the modern vision of life and of the world culminates in a technological civilisation which is based upon the general release of force and the ensuing universal being-subject-to-force, including the extreme option of totalitarian regimes that clearly ruptured the Western spiritual tradition.

It is without a doubt impossible to proceed beyond the modern tradition as it has existed until now simply by postulating that it is possible to do so; a demonstration of its evident legitimacy must be provided. In order to gain an appropriate insight into the legitimacy of distancing oneself from this tradition, it is first absolutely necessary to attain a thorough understanding of the grounds of its origins and of its subsequent development. In other words, it is necessary that its objective raison d’étre be revealed. Only to the extent that a thoroughgoing insight is attained into the modern tradition, including its perspective upon the world and the whole of human life and the activities which may follow from it, will it be possible to go beyond the limits of that dominant tradition.

It is necessary to acknowledge the preceding spiritual tradition of modernity in its entirety and authentic essence, not merely in certain of its particular features or factors. The contemporary wave of declarative philosophical post-modernism, along with its accompanying congenial multi-culturalism, is in no position whatsoever to meet this call. That is why such philosophical post-modernism is incapable of giving rise to a genuine post-modernism; that is, to a verifiable breakout from the objectivising subject-object position that has reached its zenith in the present era of a universal, exponentially increasing release of force.

A philosophically grounded and truly post-modern project that overcomes the horizons of the preceding spiritual tradition, including the technological culmination of modernity, is rather to be found in the approach and attitude adopted by Patoka. This approach displays a self-consistent and radical understanding of the principle of logos within the determining context of appearing-as-such conceived of as the authentic origin of both Western spirituality and the fundamental movements of life. This gives rise to an essential revision of Heidegger’s philosophical position of Being, as well as all subsequent levels of philosophical reflection. Patoka thus rehabilitates the problem of truth as the appearing of beings-in-them-selves, an appearing which takes place within the phenomenological life-world on its ontologically corporeal, intersubjective, historical and accordingly political level of existence. Stated otherwise, "a self-consistent and thoroughgoing phenomenological reception of logo-centrism within the Western spiritual tradition gives rise to a genuine overcoming of the universal being-subject-to-force that characterizes the contemporary developmental tendency of the modern subject-object position" (Patoka, 1979, 159, 211-214).

Patoka’s account of the principle of appearing-as-such emphasizes the not-matter-of-course nature of reality and, consequently, its inherent natural enigma. This in principle makes possible unbiased communication with non-Western, non-European cultural spheres as, mutatis mutandis, communication with other human beings as such. The phenomenological ontology of the lifeworld thus penetrates behind the limits of the preceding development of metaphysics through realization of the foundational metaphysical position of insight into its ultimate spiritual, ethical, and political consequences.

In regard to the ultimate phenomenological basis of appearing-as-such, which presents the only possibility for comprehending latency, one can hardly imagine a deeper precondition than an insightful life directed towards its own fulfillment. This crucial life-orientation could be defined as faith in terms of a religious attitude determining the temperament of life. The strength and inevitability of this position follows from the obvious fact that it is humanly impossible continuously to endure the plenitude of appearing-as-such that represents the ultimate stage of insight. Consequently, the principle of an indispensable logo-centrism is to be complemented by the principle of a religious attitude of faith that arises from the ultimate insight into appearing-as-such.

The religious principle as the human orientation towards insight into appearing-as-such is in basic accord with Patoka’s Third Fundamental Movement in human life, and it perhaps makes the latter more precise. In this sense, the authentic phenomenon of religion appears as living in the truth of caring for one’s soul on the level of an explicit surpassing of the modern project of life and world. It is a genuine transcendence of the non-technological essence of technology as the total release of force. From the point of view of human being-with-others, this can be seen as an expression of the original concept of Masaryk of religious democracy as a correlation of eternal souls in a style of life oriented towards God (Ludwig, 1937, 62-72, 217). Today this has special topical importance because of the ongoing encounter with the extreme, totalitarian alternative type of human existence that is breaking down the whole of Western civilisation.

The elementary democratic claim that human rights speak for themselves, that they be heard and that what is spoken be explicitly applied in the time and space of shared human life must have a solid philosophical foundation. This is especially so today after the destructive experience of a not entirely understood, and in fact unfinished, struggle of democratic civilisation against the totalitarian challenge. The results to date of the continuing polemic between neo-liberalism and communitarianism obviously do not meet this demand. However, the development of the Czech tradition of political philosophy in the course of the 20th century does seem to present one possible philosophical resolution of this crucial problem. This solution results in a reinterpretative renewal of the leading position of natural law in democratic political philosophy. The strength and future prospect of the idea of democracy and human rights does not reside in ideology, Utopia or some mere vacillation between them (Dunn, 1992, 265-266). Nor it is fair to circumvent the question of the Common Good by defining it as the common power of opposing forces while refusing to grasp it within the horizon of moral virtue (Kouba, 1995). The verifiable coherence of philosophy, religion, ethics, human rights and democracy is to be defined with all the pertinent risks instead of being avoided in a half-hearted fashion.


Institute of Philosophy

Czech Republic Academy of Sciences

Prague, Czech Republic




1. This is a topical interpretation of an idea that Jan Patoka originally employed in another context. See Patoka 1990, 111.

2. See also St. Mathew’s Gospel, 7, l2, and St. Luke’s Gospel 6, 13.

3. A typical example is Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1373 b.

4. Also see d’Entreves 1967, 50-54; Henry 1995.




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