In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt links the development of universal human rights – the idea that all people, as a rather formative American document puts it, “are created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights” – to two 18th-century events: the French Revolution and the rise of the epistolary novel.
The French Revolution resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which argues for the existence of a universal humanity – “man” – and the necessary connection between the rights of this universal body and the body politic. If that language feels a lot like that in the Constitution, that’s because it is: universal humanity and equal rights were both Enlightenment concepts, and the framers of the Constitution were Enlightenment men.
But the novel? Hunt argues that novels, which didn’t even exist before the 18th century, were hugely important in the construction of human rights because they created a sustained, intimate relationship between the reader and characters whose lives were very different from their own. In particular, epistolary novels – especially ones about women – drew readers in with the most intimate details about characters’ lives; if reading through fictionalized correspondence seems pedantic today (er, it does to me, anyway), back then, this extended snooping allowed readers to become familiar with, even attached to, people they had nothing in common with. Arguing that familiarity breeds empathy, Hunt finds in the novel a necessary corollary to abstract concepts like “universal” and “equality:” individual empathy. This empathy, she says, is necessary for universal human rights to work, since you can only see another person as an equal when you can see yourself in them.
Hunt thus puts a very human face on universal human rights. While she could pay a little more attention to the lives of non-readers and the complex power structures in which they live and work, in this book she still provides a compelling intellectual and cultural history of a very formative idea.