What was the first political document or speech that invoked the interest or betterment of humanity as a whole as a substantiation for an action or a move?

Invocation of the betterment for a nation, religion, confession, state, race or ethnic group does not count.

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    This really needs to be more specific, and/or cite which historical precedents have already been considered (and should be excluded from an answer) Sep 30, 2013 at 13:00
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    every politician ever has claimed such, in some form, in order to get the support he needed to grab power. Hitler went with eugenics, which promised to "improve the human race" by ridding it of deficient genes (a very popular meme at the time, worldwide) for example. Roman emperors no doubt had similar ideas that their divine rule was helping improve the world (and to a large degree it did, bringing prosperity and relative peace to the known world for centuries). Dig deep enough and you no doubt find the same in a stone age tribal chieftain's claims.
    – jwenting
    Oct 2, 2013 at 4:16
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    @jwenting I doubt Roman emperors could say anything about the whole world (including India, China etc).
    – Anixx
    Oct 2, 2013 at 8:08
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    @Anixx they did, as in their world view the roman empire and its direct surroundings was the entire world.
    – jwenting
    Oct 2, 2013 at 12:59
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    @jwenting: Actually, the Romans knew about, and traded with along the Silk Road, both India and China. They simply had no political interest in realms so far away. Oct 3, 2013 at 3:24

5 Answers 5


What about Hammurabi's Code of Laws dating to before 1750 BCE, from the Epilogue of which the following quotes are taken:

...then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.

LAWS of justice which Hammurabi, the wise king, established. A righteous law, and pious statute did he teach the land. Hammurabi, the protecting king am I. I have not withdrawn myself from the men, whom Bel gave to me, the rule over whom Marduk gave to me, I was not negligent, but I made them a peaceful abiding-place. I expounded all great difficulties, I made the light shine upon them. With the mighty weapons which Zamama and Ishtar entrusted to me, with the keen vision with which Ea endowed me, with the wisdom that Marduk gave me, I have uprooted the enemy above and below (in north and south), subdued the earth, brought prosperity to the land, guaranteed security to the inhabitants in their homes; a disturber was not permitted. The great gods have called me, I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city; on my breast I cherish the inhabitants of the land of Sumer and Akkad; in my shelter I have let them repose in peace; in my deep wisdom have I enclosed them. That the strong might not injure the weak, in order to protect the widows and orphans, I have in Babylon the city where Anu and Bel raise high their head, in E-Sagil, the Temple, whose foundations stand firm as heaven and earth, in order to bespeak justice in the land, to settle all disputes, and heal all injuries, set up these my precious words, written upon my memorial stone, before the image of me, as king of righteousness.

Of course there were earlier codes of law, as noted in Hammurabi's Code itself; but no known traces of these remain:

Yet even with this earliest set of laws, as with most things Babylonian, we find ourselves dealing with the end of things rather than the beginnings. Hammurabi's code was not really the earliest. The preceding sets of laws have disappeared, but we have found several traces of them, and Hammurabi's own code clearly implies their existence. He is but reorganizing a legal system long established.

Update: - meaning of Politics
The claim has been made that *codes of laws are not political. I offer as counter argument the definition of Politics from this source:

1.The activities associated with the governance of a country or area

No system of governance can be considered complete without a body of laws, by-laws and/or regulations that set out the scope of such governance, and the means by which it will be enacted; such is a code of laws.

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    I always felt that the Persians and Babylonians weren't given enough credit for social reforms relative to earlier regimes (although Cyrus the Great gets good press in the Torah). But the line between justice for all in an expanding empire versus all of humanity is pretty murky; so does an empire qualify as a 'nation' or 'humanity' for @Anixx ? Oct 3, 2013 at 3:10
  • @LateralFractal: Unfortunately, Thomas Jefferson hadn't been born in time to write Hammurabi's public relations. Oct 3, 2013 at 3:18
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    @Coelacanth: Of course all codes of law are political - that is why politicians are so involved in their construction. They very nature of politics is to enact laws. The only other two activities politicians engage in are getting (re-)elected, and debating, neither of which is productive. Oct 4, 2013 at 2:11
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    @Coelacanth But the laws are written by the legislature, which is a political body, right? (Unless it is an appoined one like the Russian Senate under the Czars and the political character is still there only the legislators then aren't politicans themselves but the servants of a politician). Oct 5, 2013 at 12:33
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    @Coelacanth making the difference between laws and politics is something of our time, since the separation of powers. Before that laws where not separated of politics at all. Saying that laws are not political but legal is a modern sentiment, and didn't apply in Hammurabi's time. You cannot view past politics through modern notions.
    – Jeroen K
    Oct 17, 2013 at 15:18

It depends on which document written by a philosopher or equivalent secular agitator was the first to be co-opted by the secular revolutionaries of Europe (or elsewhere) and hence become a political document in its own right.

Since ancient civic philosophies can become religions, Confucius' writings may not qualify as a political document in the fashion you specify.

A more modern political document would be John Locke's Two Treatises of Government in 1689.

If you mean document of this sort and written by someone in power (i.e. the government itself) then Thomas Jefferson's writings are an example.

Of course if nothing else, the League of Nations' charter would have to qualify.

As you can see, the question might be a tad broad.

  • From what I read by the link, John Locke counts. I am not sure about Confucius though. It seems though that Locke invokes some his opponents who also argue about humanity's benefit.
    – Anixx
    Oct 1, 2013 at 22:57
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    @Vector Keep in mind that if a document is co-opted by politicians to explain their reasoning, it becomes a political document. Perhaps a political document for the purpose of this question should mean 'a document of political reasoning enshrined in law' (be it constitutional or 'mundane' law). Oct 2, 2013 at 3:16
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    @LateralFractal - " if a document is co-opted by politicians to explain their reasoning, it becomes a political document." I think not. If a politician uses a pop song in his campaign, is it then a political song? I suppose only Annix can answer this question... :-)
    – user2590
    Oct 2, 2013 at 3:25
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    @Vector Then I take it you aren't a fan of political rap songs. Medium is not the message. There is no bright line for memetic mutation. Most politicians don't have the time or temperament to create policy documents out of whole cloth. If they point at existing text, audio, video, or maths and say 'That's exactly what I meant and why I'm doing this' it becomes a political artefact. The narrower definition of 'political document' only works if you believe in the Great Man theory of history, and that a document only came down the mountain with Moses but never went up it. Oct 2, 2013 at 4:10
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    @Vector I believe this is a by-product of cultural expectations put upon leaders. Great scientists, artists and theologians are happy to attribute prior work; but great 'leaders' rarely ever do. That we put certain speeches on a pedestal in a vacuum says more about our desire to preserve memetic purity than actual purity - the craving to misattribute works in much the same way. Consider - If I put an object in a frame in an art gallery, did the object change or did I change? Great men exist but I reject framing historial artefacts with them. There is no spoon. Oct 2, 2013 at 6:11

Plato's "Republic" comes to mind.

Edit: as Yannis suggested, I've got two reasons why the Republic qualifies. A part of it discusses how to organize the most effective state, in what classes should its population divided into, how to organize educational system, who should take care of the kids, how to properly brainwash the populace into obedience, etc. This discussion is not tied to Athens or any other specific city-state, it's more abstract than that, therefore one can say that the proposed design applies to the Humanity as a whole.

Much later edit, in response to @LennartRegebro comments. Below is a portion of one of the dialogs from Republic that aims at justification of distinct classes in the society. Notice that the end purpose discussed how to "make the city just", not how to benefit one class or another.

"Think, now, and say whether you agree with me or not. Suppose a carpenter to be doing the business of a cobbler, or a cobbler of a carpenter; and suppose them to exchange their implements or their duties, or the same person to be doing the work of both, or whatever be the change; do you think that any great harm would result to the State?"

"Not much."

"But when the cobbler or any other man whom nature designed to be a trader, having his heart lifted up by wealth or strength or the number of his followers, or any like advantage, attempts to force his way into the class of warriors, or a warrior into that of legislators and guardians, for which he is unfitted, and either to take the implements or the duties of the other; or when one man is trader, legislator, and warrior all in one, then I think you will agree with me in saying that this interchange and this meddling of one with another is the ruin of the State."

"Most true."

"Seeing then, I said, that there are three distinct classes, any meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another, is the greatest harm to the State, and may be most justly termed evil-doing?"


"And the greatest degree of evil-doing to one's own city would be termed by you injustice?"


"This then is injustice; and on the other hand when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their own business, that is justice, and will make the city just."

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    This is a good answer, provided you've read The Republic. For all our visitors who haven't, a (short) paragraph explaining why you think The Republic qualifies as an answer to the question would be very useful.
    – yannis
    Oct 1, 2013 at 14:11
  • No, I meant explicitly referring to humanity as a whole (that is including all known civilizations) rather than just providing some universal advises.
    – Anixx
    Oct 1, 2013 at 22:55
  • -1 I still think this requires a very strange view of "interest of humanity as a whole", as Platos republic is explicitly about letting a small elite (of warriors and philosophers, can you imagine) rule and oppress a majority he sees as lesser people. Oct 2, 2013 at 21:44
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    @LennartRegebro: yes, "Republic" advocates dividing the society into classes, but no, it does not advocate "oppressing" the majority. It has been ingrained into American minds that "democracy with universal suffrage is the most bestest thing possible", but History teaches us that this is not necessarily so. One can present numerous examples of thriving oligarchies and oppressive democracies. Among other things, "Republic" convincingly argues in favour of ruling oligarchy for the benefit of the entire society. Also lookup Arrow's theorem that mathematically proof that democracy is ineffective.
    – Michael
    Oct 2, 2013 at 22:14
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    @LennartRegebro: reviewed my previous reply to your comment, and I think it focus too much on discussion "what's better: educated oligarchy or representative democracy", but that's not the point. The point is that it's immaterial for the purpose of this question what kind of society Republic advocates, as long as it discusses how to better the society as a whole. It so happens that Republic extends "better leave cobbling to a professional cobbler" to the entire structure of society, but the purpose is making sure that entire society has better boots, so to speak, not just the cobblers.
    – Michael
    Oct 2, 2013 at 22:27

The tract Defensor pacis (The Defender of Peace) laid the foundations of modern doctrines of sovereignty. It was written by Marsilius of Padua (Italian: Marsiglio da Padova), an Italian medieval scholar. It appeared in 1324 and provoked a storm of controversy that lasted through the century. The context of the work lies in the political struggle between Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Pope John XXII. The treatise is vehemently anticlerical. Marsilius' work was censured by Pope Benedict XII and Pope Clement VI.

Having thus defined citizen and the prevailing section of the citizens, let us return to the object proposed, namely to demonstrate that the human authority of making laws belongs only to the whole body of citizens as the prevailing part of it. . . . . Defensor Pacis

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    Welcome to the site and +1 for an intriguing contribution. But can you please elaborate a bit as to how the Defensor Pacis is a universal text? (It also reminds me of my old question history.stackexchange.com/questions/5872/… which you might find interesting) Oct 17, 2013 at 9:40
  • Can you please add the relevant quotes that mention humanity as a whole?
    – Anixx
    Oct 17, 2013 at 16:18
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    I've added one quote. I need to review the document more thoroughly, but I'm not sure that it is actually an appeal to all humanity. It sounds like the argument is structured within the concept of a proto-nation state.
    – MCW
    Oct 17, 2013 at 17:52

The Declaration of Independence of the USA is be a candidate. Although it may not be the earliest, which could be quite difficult to determine, it is arguably the first clearly political document which fulfills your requirements:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Although the Declaration is in essence a justification and apology for the American colonies' rebellion against the British, "a substantiation for an action or a move" , it does not rely only on the particulars of the colonies' situation at that time, but conveys and invokes principles regarding "the interest or betterment of humanity as a whole". Its precepts are specifically designated as relevant not only to that particular time and place, but to the situation of Humanity at large.

The American Declaration of Independence is a declaration of independence for mankind at large, not just the Thirteen Colonies, and since it was written, it has been understood and used as such:

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest expositor of the Declaration on Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration:

The man who in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.

Also see: The Declaration of Independence

As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence announced to the world the unanimous decision of the thirteen American colonies to separate themselves from Great Britain. But its true revolutionary significance—then as well as now—is the declaration of a new basis of political legitimacy in the sovereignty of the people. The Americans’ final appeal was not to any man-made decree or evolving spirit but to rights inherently possessed by all men. These rights are found in eternal “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” As such, the Declaration’s meaning transcends the particulars of time and circumstances.

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    OK. I'm throwing up my hands in defeat on this one. All comments have been purged, and the answer has been locked to prevent more for a while. In the meantime, lets all just let our stack's voting system separate the wheat from the chaff, shall we?
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 4, 2013 at 18:16

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