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The Sacredness of the PersonThe Sacredness of the Person

A New Genealogy of Human Rights

Hans Joas

Narrated by Peter Lerman

Available from Audible

Book published by Georgetown University Press

What are the origins of the idea of human rights and universal human dignity? How can we most fully understand—and realize—these rights going into the future? In The Sacredness of the Person, internationally renowned sociologist and social theorist Hans Joas tells a story that differs from conventional narratives by tracing the concept of human rights back to the Judeo-Christian tradition or, alternately, to the secular French Enlightenment. While drawing on sociologists such as Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Ernst Troeltsch, Joas sets out a new path, proposing an affirmative genealogy in which human rights are the result of a process of "sacralization" of every human being.

According to Joas, every single human being has increasingly been viewed as sacred. He discusses the abolition of torture and slavery, once common practice in the pre-18th century west, as two milestones in modern human history. The author concludes by portraying the emergence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as a successful process of value generalization. Joas demonstrates that the history of human rights cannot adequately be described as a history of ideas or as legal history, but as a complex transformation in which diverse cultural traditions had to be articulated, legally codified, and assimilated into practices of everyday life. The sacralization of the person and universal human rights will only be secure in the future, warns Joas, through continued support by institutions and society, vigorous discourse in their defense, and their incarnation in everyday life and practice.

Hans Joas s is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, where he also belongs to the Committee on Social Thought, and at the University of Freiburg, Germany, where he is a Permanent Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, School of History.


“The widely respected sociologist Hans Joas has made something of a detour in his personal intellectual history and moved into the terrain of human rights—one of the hot areas in the humanities and social sciences, yet one of the most difficult to enter. He has made an original contribution.... For rights specialists and historical theorists, Joas' book will be provocative.”

European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology

“Joas's book is an erudite and provocative contribution to omipresent conversations about human rights, their history, and their justification.... The book will be of great consequence for religious studies scholars.”

The Journal of Religion

“If we have anything like a global ethic, and not just one on paper but that is motivating people all over the world to take action to make things better, it is human rights. I have read much on this subject but nothing comes close to what Hans Joas has done in this brilliant new book. He somehow brings the reader into the intensely exciting history of where the idea of human rights came from, how many major issues it has taken on, and where it might go.... This is a book for teachers and students, but really for everyone in the world who is trying to make it better.”

—Robert N. Bellah, Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, Department of Sociology, UC Berkeley

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University Press Audiobooks