Inventing Human Rights: A History 
by Lynn Hunt.
Norton, 272 pp., £15.99, April 2007, 978 0 393 06095 9
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If you want to understand the origins of modern human rights legislation, Lynn Hunt claims, the place to start is not the philosophical background, or the crises that the legislation addressed, but 18th-century fiction. The path she follows is not obvious, by any means – particularly as she has not chosen the fiction that most directly confronted issues of injustice (Candide, say, or Montesquieu’s Persian Letters). Instead, Hunt draws attention to epistolary novels of private lives and loves, above all Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, and Rousseau’s Julie. These books received frenzied popular and critical acclaim, but not because they said anything about constitutions and rights, even allegorically. What they did do, according to Hunt, was to encourage readers to identify with weak female characters who struggled to preserve their autonomy and integrity against various forms of domestic oppression. ‘How many times,’ Diderot wrote after reading Richardson, ‘did I not surprise myself, as it happens to children who have been taken to the theatre for the first time, crying: “Don’t believe it, he is deceiving you … If you go there, you will be lost.”’ By creating such bonds of identification, Hunt argues, the novels helped 18th-century readers understand that all humans resembled them on a fundamental level, and that all humans intrinsically possessed natural, equal rights.

Hunt’s long-time readers will find this linking of fiction and politics familiar. Some twenty years ago, she popularised the term ‘the new cultural history’ to designate scholarship that emphasises the role of language and ‘cultural practices’ (e.g. habit, ritual, forms of reading and play etc) in driving historical change. Since then, the loose school that embraced the label has made cultural history the most dynamic area within the profession. Hunt herself has done as much as anyone to demonstrate its promise in a series of luminous studies on the French Revolution that draw profitably on anthropology, literary theory and psychoanalysis. For instance, in The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992) she explored how changing visions of family relations in 18th-century French society lay behind the radical left’s hysterical demonisation of Marie-Antoinette, and, more broadly, behind the transition from a paternalistic monarchy to a fraternal republic. That book delved into 18th-century art and literature, gathering up representations of the family from diverse sources and showing how they fit into coherent patterns.

In Inventing Human Rights, Hunt has shifted the focus from revolutionary democracy to human rights but retained something of the earlier book’s thesis. Once again, she argues that a key modern political phenomenon sprang out of changes within the supposedly private, intimate sphere in mid-18th-century Western Europe. At first glance, the move seems perilous, not because the personal and the political aren’t linked (something historians accepted long ago), but because of the chronology. Can we really say that human rights were ‘invented’ in any single time and place? Ludger Kühnhardt, in his 1987 study The Universality of Human Rights, began as far back as the Greeks. Such historians generally devote considerable space to Thomas Hobbes, who had much to say about ‘natural rights’, and carefully follow the labyrinthine debates among Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke and Wolff on the same and related subjects, before even reaching the late 18th century. Hunt has little to say on any of this material. And having established the ‘invention’ of human rights in the age of revolutions, she finishes off the rest of their history, to the present day, in a breezy 38 pages, concentrating on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The historian Samuel Moyn has taken her to task for these omissions, and particularly for ignoring the 1960s and the Helsinki process, which arguably brought the concept of ‘human rights’ to the centre of modern world politics.

Hunt has invited this criticism by giving her book the title Inventing Human Rights, but the criticism is partly misplaced. As befits a ‘new cultural historian’, she cares less about providing an intellectual genesis of a concept, or following its particular political uses, than about asking why, at a certain moment, it became widely accepted – indeed, widely recognised as wholly and irrefutably obvious. A better title might have been How These Truths Became Self-Evident, because that is the problem that actually concerns her (she starts with Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence). As she notes, between 1689, when the Bill of Rights spoke only of the particular rights of Englishmen, and 1776, when Jefferson claimed that all men ‘are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights’, something changed fundamentally. Moyn makes a good case that another large shift occurred in the 20th century, but Hunt’s point still stands.

For her, the 18th-century discovery that rights were self-evident depended on two factors. First, people had to learn to see one another as separate, autonomous individuals possessed of free will. And second, they had to be able to empathise with one another, to see themselves in one another’s shoes. Only when they came to feel, viscerally, that all others deserved the same rights as they did could the notion of universal, equal, natural rights take hold. Hunt notes further that ‘autonomy and empathy are cultural practices.’ They have histories, and both changed remarkably during the 18th century. Which is where the novels come in.

Happily, Hunt does not depend solely on novels to make her point, and rapidly sketches in a much broader cultural background. She draws on Norbert Elias, and his story of the ‘ever-rising threshold of shame about bodily functions’, to trace the rise of personal autonomy. She follows Charles Taylor, in his great philosophical history Sources of the Self, to elucidate the evolving 18th-century concept of ‘sympathy’. She also devotes a fascinating chapter to changing attitudes towards torture. Here she notes that ‘an almost complete turnabout in attitudes took place over a couple of decades.’ Up to the mid-18th century, most educated Europeans accepted the legitimacy of the most grisly forms of torture: stretching on the rack, pincers, forcing gallons of water down the throat, and a form of execution that involved crushing a person’s bones, dislocating their limbs, and then stretching them over a cartwheel and leaving them to die. When Voltaire condemned the judicial murder of the Protestant Jean Calas in the 1760s, he did not initially consider the victim’s ‘breaking on the wheel’ worthy of comment. But some years later he denounced the punishment as inhuman, and by the 1780s torture in general had come to be almost universally denounced as barbaric and impermissible.

But it is the novels that matter most to Hunt. She wants to understand how people came to think in new ways – indeed, literally how their brain chemistry changed (she cites recent research in cognitive science in an attempt to prove the point). For her, the only experience powerful and sustained enough to produce these effects was intense reading. Modern readers of Julie and Pamela, however, may find it surprising that these novels in particular could induce any physical effects besides a narcotic one. Our current sensibilities do not generally take well to their massive helpings of undiluted sentiment. But as literary historians have long pointed out, 18th-century readers reacted very differently. Julie, these readers reported, took hold of them like ‘devouring fire’. The climactic chapters left them, in the words of one, ‘shrieking, howling like an animal’. Readers of Clarissa and Pamela burst into ‘passions of crying’, and wrote to the author that there was ‘witchcraft in every page’. Indeed, the Scottish philosopher Lord Kames spoke of the ‘waking dream’ induced by novel-reading, while the cultural Cassandras of the day denounced the genre as a threat to public morality (they considered women particularly susceptible to its contagion). This emotional impact, Hunt argues, powerfully reinforced the lesson in empathy that arose from the particular form of the epistolary novel, which allowed readers to peep over the shoulders of supposedly ‘real’ letter-writers, and to imagine themselves in their place. The result was deeply felt instruction in ‘imagined empathy’.

In this new cultural context, Hunt suggests, an older language of rights quickly flowed into new and powerful channels. Even before the American and French Revolutions, political writers started to refer not only to ‘natural’ rights – which might not apply outside the state of nature – but to ‘human’ rights that every individual possessed intrinsically by virtue of their humanity. They began to speak of ‘the rights of man’. By 1776 the existence of such rights had therefore become ‘self-evident’, at least to Jefferson. Thirteen years later, the authors of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen echoed him in their endorsement of man’s ‘natural, inalienable and sacred rights’. As Hunt notes, this document in turn ‘transformed everyone’s language virtually overnight’, as the phrase ‘the rights of man’ and its many translations proliferated in political debates across the Western world.

But it was not just the language of rights that proliferated. Hunt argues that, in its wake, a ‘logic of rights’ spread as well. It drove the rapid abolition of official torture across the West. It spurred a curtailment of cruel, unusual and unequal punishments (if not of the death penalty), and also a perception of institutionalised social hierarchies as presumptively unjust. In a nice turn of phrase, Hunt speaks of ‘the difficulty of maintaining social distinctions in an impatiently equalising world’. In France and its empire, the logic led to granting full civil rights to religious minorities (first Protestants, then Jews), and then, if only temporarily, to black slaves. It did not do similar things for women but Hunt implicitly takes a stand against those authors (especially Carole Pateman and Joan Scott) who see a symbiotic relationship between the rise of equal rights for men and female subjugation, arguing that modern forms of individuation depend on radical sexual differentiation. What matters, Hunt argues, is not that the American revolutionaries did not even consider granting full civil rights for women, or that the French revolutionaries did consider it, only scornfully to deny it. The very idea of equal rights laid the groundwork for later liberation. ‘The promise of those rights,’ Hunt pleads, a little whiggishly, ‘can be denied, suppressed, or just remain unfulfilled, but it does not die.’ She does concede that the very assertion of equal rights, by undermining traditional assertions of racial and sexual difference on the basis of custom and tradition, helped provoke the ‘explosion in biological explanations of difference’ that occurred in the 19th century. But she holds fast to her faith in the ‘logic’, citing the 1948 Universal Declaration as its 20th-century vindication.

All this makes for a rich, elegant and persuasive essay. But like all such essays, Inventing Human Rights raises more questions than it can answer. To begin with, why does Hunt concentrate so intently on the novel to the exclusion of other cultural phenomena? She points to the fact that epistolary novels in particular appeared to remove the authorial point of view, voyeuristically heightening the sense of their characters’ ‘reality’, and hence the ability of a reader to identify with them. Yet remarkably, a similar shift of perspective took hold simultaneously within several different creative arenas. Paul Friedland has shown that striking new practices arose in the theatre during precisely the same decades that Hunt highlights. Actors stopped interacting explicitly with audiences and started trying to give the impression that they were engaged in ‘real’ action that the spectators just happened to be watching, as if an invisible wall stood at the front of the stage. And, as Michael Fried has argued, painters in the same period began to depict characters deeply absorbed in their own activities, no more conscious of the spectator’s gaze than Pamela seemed to the readers of her letters. So here, too, the creators of art strove to efface their presence, to present their work as a piece of reality that the audience could spy on – and therefore to encourage a bond of identification between the audience and the subjects of the works.

It might also be noted that the 18th century was a period obsessed with the idea of ‘emulation’ – of putting representations of ‘great men’ before the eyes of the population so vividly that their example would lead to widespread imitation. In France, the century saw the brief transformation of eulogy into an important literary genre. We should not forget that some of the strongest bonds of identification in the period were not with fictional characters, but historical ones, created through the reading of classical writers such as Plutarch; they dominated the cult of emulation. Rousseau may have led his readers to identify with the fictional Julie, but as a boy he imagined himself rather as Pericles and Cato: ‘I thought myself Greek or Roman; I became the person whose life I was reading,’ he wrote in Confessions. A few decades later, Saint-Just lamented that ‘the world has been empty since the Romans,’ who seemed more real to him than his own contemporaries.

There is also the question of the longer-term causes behind the rise of ‘imagined empathy’. What caused readers to react as they did to the novels (and plays, and paintings) of the mid-18th century? Hunt hints – but, frustratingly, only hints – at one important factor. ‘Adherents of the novel,’ she writes, ‘understood that writers such as Richardson and Rousseau were effectively drawing their readers into daily life as a kind of substitute religious experience.’ In talking about the decline of torture, she notes that ‘pain, punishment, and the public spectacle of suffering all gradually lost their religious moorings.’ In speaking of older, Christian notions of human dignity, she observes that ‘the equality of souls in heaven is not the same thing as equal rights here on earth.’ Indeed. By any measure, changes in religious observance, and the decline of specifically Christian notions of sin, had an enormous amount to do with the developments chronicled in Hunt’s book. To most educated Western Europeans before the 18th century, nothing would have seemed less ‘self-evident’ than the possession of copious natural rights by the wretched creatures of sin who went by the name of humans, who properly could hope for nothing other than God’s grace to save their souls. Only once this gloomy shroud of assumptions had seriously frayed could deists such as Jefferson start to see things in a new way. It is no coincidence that the greatest pre-Enlightenment theorist of rights – Thomas Hobbes – was also the man who did most to unmoor Western understandings of politics from Western understandings of God (what Mark Lilla nicely calls ‘the Great Separation’). Seen from this perspective, Hunt’s cursory treatment of Hobbes becomes somewhat less defensible.

A final question that she prompts is why and how the idea of human rights appealed so powerfully and so deeply to people who did not read novels – or go to plays, view paintings or read Plutarch. We have plentiful evidence that millions of ordinary American and French people from well outside the cultural elites eagerly embraced the new creed of human rights at the end of the 18th century. In my own research, I came across a speech in large part about the rights of man that was delivered in Toulouse in 1790 to a unit of revolutionary National Guardsmen who probably did not even speak standard French, as the speaker used the local dialect. He insisted ‘that there is no one, absolutely no one… who does not have an equal right to justice and to life’s rewards’ (‘nou ny a pas cap, absouludoment cap … que n’ajo un dret egal à la justiço & à las recoumpensos’). What did these words mean to the peasants and artisans in his audience? They had not undergone the same instruction in empathy as their novel-reading contemporaries. But it was thanks to their actions that the Revolution that proclaimed the Rights of Man was not stamped out (and stamped out, moreover, by counter-revolutionaries whose leaders most definitely did read novels, and probably abhorred torture as well). Historians who want to trace the intellectual genesis of rights can elide these questions. I wish Hunt, with her focus on how rights became ‘self-evident’, had done more to raise them.

Problems of this sort in fact point to some of the limits of the ‘new cultural history’, enormously fruitful though it has been. Closely linked to the trend in literary studies known as new historicism, it generally involves close analyses of texts – and, still more, treating events themselves as ‘texts’ to be read. But in doing so, it tends to flatten the distinction between texts and actions – or, if you will, between actions and the meanings attributed to actions. At one point, Hunt writes: ‘Reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects that translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organisation of social and political life.’ It is a striking statement. But how do the physical effects of reading about torture – powerful as Hunt shows them to have been – compare to the physical effects on the brain of actually witnessing torture, to say nothing of actually undergoing it? Many different sorts of experience can arguably produce a heightened sense of empathy. In the case of the common people in revolutionary America or France, one might include the experience of witnessing a blatant injustice, of taking part in a crowd action, of receiving a National Guardsman’s uniform, even of confronting shared starvation. François Mitterrand once wrote eloquently of the effects of having to share out meagre rations in a German prisoner-of-war camp: ‘One has to have seen the new representatives – nobody knew exactly how they had been appointed – dividing up the black bread into six slices, equal to the nearest millimetre, under the wide-eyed supervision of universal suffrage. It was a rare and instructive sight. I was watching the birth of the social contract.’ It is a good example (if rose-tinted by hindsight) of how different kinds of experience can impart a political education as powerfully as different sorts of reading.

Taking on all these different questions would have led Lynn Hunt far afield, and stretched her elegant essay into something much more awkward. But the questions, however difficult, need to be posed. As she has shown, in this book and throughout her career, there is much to be learned by drawing connections between the political events that shaped modern politics and the literary developments that shaped modern sensibilities. Pamela and the Declaration of the Rights of Man do indeed belong in the same conceptual sphere. But drawing these connections takes us only so far. It leaves a great deal else, about the age of revolutions, and the politics that it engendered, a mystery.

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