Inventing Human Rights: A History

David A. Bell writes:

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.

(LRB 15 November 2007)

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