Revolutionary Thought

Reviewed by Maya Jasanoff
Sunday, April 22, 2007


A History

By Lynn Hunt

Norton. 272 pp. $25.95

A few Sundays ago, Britain marked the anniversary of the day, in 1807, when Parliament abolished the transatlantic slave trade, ending a commerce that had transported millions of Africans across the ocean, chained down in the vile holds of British ships. The bicentennial is being observed with television shows and museum exhibitions, academic conferences, commemorative stamps, a poetry contest and a movie, "Amazing Grace." Though many are using the anniversary to focus attention on Britain's malignant slave-trading past, it is hard not to see it also as a celebration of humanitarian activism. That day in 1807 showed how recognizing wrongs could make a right: the right of slaves to be treated with compassion and, in due course, the right of slaves to be free.

Already by 1776 it had seemed "self-evident," at least to the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, that "all men were created equal." Of course, like all brilliant rhetoric, his claim was both startlingly and deceptively simple: It masked what may have been the most revolutionary (and in practice, controversial) aspect of American independence. For why and when did we ever start to think that human beings were universally equal, let alone obviously so? Lynn Hunt's elegant Inventing Human Rights offers lucid and original answers. A renowned historian of revolutionary France, Hunt demonstrates how the concept of universal human rights coalesced in the American and French Revolutions and went on to provide the basis for the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Revolutionaries often see themselves as beginning the world anew, but neither the Americans nor the French conjured up their visions of equality and liberty in a void. Hunt skillfully situates their discourse of rights within a series of broader cultural changes that transformed how (Western) human beings related to one another. It is no accident, she argues, that ideas about common humanity emerged at the same time that people began to take an interest in portraiture, to listen to music in contemplative silence and, above all, to read novels. Indeed, Hunt's mastery of the 18th-century European landscape allows the book to double as a fresh interpretation of Enlightenment culture.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance, matters for Hunt less as the author of The Social Contract than as the author of the influential novel Julie, or the New Héloïse. This, she argues, together with the sensationally popular books written by Samuel Richardson, taught readers how to empathize with others. Jefferson, a great consumer of novels, claimed that reading fiction induced a "strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts." Hunt pushes this further by claiming, on the basis of recent neuroscientific research, that "reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects that translated into brain changes" and stimulated readers to make society more humane.

This appeal to brain chemistry may seem a stretch, but Hunt's compelling argument can easily stand without it. Paralleling the rise of empathy, Europeans and Americans of the later 18th century had begun to reconceive their physical selves and develop new standards for the treatment of bodies. It became less and less acceptable for people to urinate or spit in public, blow their noses into their hands or share a bed with strangers. At the same time, states phased out the use of torture, which now appeared intolerably cruel. So, too, did the corporeal abuses of the slave trade, deplored by British abolitionists from the 1780s on.

The American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) translated all this into a language of universal and natural rights. Once made explicit, these rights had cascading consequences. Hunt neatly traces the "bulldozer force of the revolutionary logic of rights" whereby, in France, Protestants and Jews gained political rights by 1791, propertyless men in 1792, and slaves were emancipated in 1794.

But, alas, history is not always logical. Women suffered "universal exclusion from political rights in the eighteenth century and for most of human history." Napoleon reinstated French slavery in 1802, the British Empire retained it until 1833, and only in the 1860s did the United States fight a war to end slavery.

In her final chapter, Hunt explains the long, perplexing gap between the 18th-century declarations and that of the United Nations. The rise of competitive nation-states, together with pseudo-scientific claims about race and gender, trounced ideas of universal equality. It took the mass carnage of two world wars to return us to the simpler -- if more challenging -- universalism of the Enlightenment.

Yet as famine, torture and ethnic slaughter persist into the 21st century, Hunt closes with a paradox. Adam Smith observed that the "soft power of humanity" is not enough to prevent people from acting in self-interest; it takes "reason, principle, conscience" to attain a greater good. If we needed empathy to make us articulate principles in the first place, now it seems we need the discipline of principles to teach us how to empathize again. ·

Maya Jasanoff, a fellow of the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, is the author of "Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850."

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