This semester I am taking a graduate class on the history of human rights. It has been fantastic even though snow has interrupted it twice now. One of our first books was Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt. She examines the language of human rights as it emerged with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. She argues that before and during that time period we see a change in thinking and a rise in empathy towards other people. This coincided with the emergence of new popular literature, the epistolary novel, as well as shifts in perceptions of torture and its purpose.
The strongest section is her chapter on Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, the two big epistolary novels of that time period. She does a nice job explaining how these works could give rise to empathy for others. Of course she can’t make a causal argument, but she attempts to show how people identified strongly with the “fate” of those main characters, so much so that they begin to think they were real. (It reminds me of the Harry Potter fan base especially with Rowling’s reinterpretation of Hermione and Ron’s relationship.)
The challenge with this book is that she is trying to make a much stronger argument about empathy, and I don’t think she succeeds. In arguing for empathy she is actually arguing that it is a biological change in how we think about others–that our brains fundamentally change. It is an interesting argument, but how on earth do you prove that, especially in relation to historical events and people. Luckily she doesn’t dwell too much on this idea and the rest of the book is still fascinating and well worth a read if you are interested in human rights history.