Un Dret Egal

David A. Bell

  • Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt
    Norton, 272 pp, £15.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 393 06095 9

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.

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