Arts & Culture

The literary roots of human rights

5 min read

Scholar points to the novel as a key spur to the sympathy that precedes notion of rights

The aim was determining the truth and the technique was torture. Pain was administered in secret, under strict guidelines, often with a judge and doctor present. Once a suspect confessed, the confession would have to be repeated in court.

But this perfectly legal practice began to draw howls of protest from the day’s humanitarians — or those in 1764 who might be considered “humanitarians” by 2008 standards. Anti-torture advocates like Italian philosopher and politician Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria, argued that under torture “the stronger would last while the weak would tell you what you wanted to hear.” So said Lynn Hunt, a professor of modern European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a distinguished expert on the history of human rights.

Parallels between 18th and 21st century perceptions of human rights were underscored by Hunt, a scholar of the French Revolution and the author of “Inventing Human Rights: A History,” in an April 14 talk that concluded the 2007-2008 Dean’s Lecture Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Hunt, who was introduced as a “leading historian of our time” by Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the University Committee on Human Rights Study, spoke of how rights that Americans consider “self-evident” were anything but that in the sweep of history.

Beginning in the mid-1700s, cultural shifts — including, Hunt argued, the emergence of the novel — helped create a human rights movement.

“It might be rather a stretch to link listening to music, reading a novel, or ordering a portrait … to the abolition of torture or the moderation of cruel punishment, “ Hunt said. “Yet legally sanctioned torture did not end because the judges gave up on it or Enlightenment writers opposed it. Torture ended because the traditional framework of pain and personhood fell apart to be replaced, bit by bit, by a new one in which individuals owned their bodies, had rights to their separateness … and recognized in other people the same passions, sentiment, and sympathies in themselves.”

The roots of the human rights movement have been attributed to many sources, ranging from Greek Stoicism to Christian concepts of the soul, Protestant conscience, and Catholic perception of natural law, Hunt said. Why, then, was there such interest in the so-called rights of man starting about 1789, an interest that went “into an eclipse” from 1794 to 1948?

The American Revolution, and later the French Revolution certainly had an impact. “Human rights had plenty of non-revolutionary antecedents but also some important revolutionary ones,” she said. Influential thinkers, such as John Locke, “all wrote in response to major upheavals.”

Moreover, “declaring the ‘rights of man’ had a logic all its own.” It galvanized opinion worldwide, even if no one was sure “who was ‘the man’ in the declaration,” Hunt said, noting that it would be centuries until men of all races and women won full rights in the Western world.

But Hunt also attributes the growth of human rights to new “cultural practices,” including the emergence of the epistolary novel, such as Samuel Richard’s “Pamela” in 1740 and his “Clarissa,” in 1749. “The lesson here is that equality has to be learned,” Hunt said.

Such popular novels induce “readers to empathize with ordinary people; it forces readers to see that the most ordinary people, even servants like Pamela, the heroine of Richardson’s novel of that name, have inner selves just like their own.”

Natural rights proponents of the time recognized this. “[Thomas] Jefferson himself advocated the reading of his favorite novels as a form of moral education,” Hunt said. “Novel reading created a new kind of feeling, including the recognition of shared psychological experiences. These translated into new cultural and social movements.”

That included pressure to ban torture, which then included a simulated drowning practice that resembles today’s “waterboarding.” People were generally recognizing the pain that might be suffered by “the other,” an effect of the “strong body reactions” that come from becoming totally engrossed in the lives of a character in a novel, Hunt said.

“Why do practices that had been accepted for centuries like this one,” and Hunt showed a slide of “strappado” — in which a rope, attached to hands tied around the back, is used to suspend a victim — “suddenly come apart at the seams? I think the answer lies in a new framework for the body and especially its pain.”

The argument seems to have come full circle: “What was once acceptable, legally sanctioned torture became unacceptable. And it seems to be becoming acceptable in some measure again.”

During the Q&A period, Stephen Marks, Harvard François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights, questioned Hunt about the influence of scientific discoveries on the notion of natural human rights. Hunt acknowledged that the growth of human rights came from multiple effects, not a single source, and that “equality is a really difficult set of relationships to establish.”

How could Jefferson, for example, a slave owner, talk about the “self-evidence” of the equality of all men, she asked.

Ultimately, “human rights are not granted, they are won,” Hunt said.