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Stanford Report, April 17, 2002

Human rights: A novel idea?

Empathy with literary characters helped spur concept of human rights, scholar says


Novels played a key role in the emergence of the concept of human rights in the 18th century, according to Lynn Hunt, the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at the University of California-Los Angeles.

That's right -- novels. Like that copy of Tender Is the Night you studied in college or the dog-eared paperback of The Client you're reading by the pool. In a sweeping and eloquent lecture last week that appeared to keep an audience of about 150 people spellbound, Hunt, this year's final Presidential Lecturer in the Humanities and Arts, argued that the novel, through its power to provoke "imagined empathy," led in part to the development of the idea of human rights.

"Human rights as a notion depends on empathetic identification with individuals who are now imagined to be, in some fundamental way, like you," Hunt said. "A reader identifies with an ordinary person, unknown to him or her personally but with whom the reader empathizes thanks to the narrative form itself. I am arguing that the novel disseminated a new psychology and a new social and political order through the working of the narrative form. ...

"It made servants like Pamela, the heroine of Richardson's novel of the same name, be equal and even the better of rich men such as Mr. B, her employer."

The novel essentially was born in Richardson's Pamela (1740), although some earlier works might be considered proto-novels -- Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84), for example. Between 1689 and 1776 -- the respective dates of the English Bill of Rights, which mentioned nothing about the universality or self-evidence of human rights, and the Declaration of Independence, which did -- there was a sea change, Hunt said.

She said the earliest reference to human rights, or les droits de l'homme, she has found appears in Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762). But Diderot evoked the self-evidence of what he referred to as "natural rights" in 1755, she added. (Diderot, however, did not promote natural rights as universal and equal.)

In any case, sometime during the 1750s and 1760s the concept of human rights began to seem self-evident, Hunt said. This was an important development: As Hunt noted in her opening remarks, human rights are the lingua franca of modern political discourse. "They constitute one of the few widely shared moral and political foundations for secular authority," she said. She asserted that while many governments do not explicitly make the protection of human rights grounds for legitimacy, human rights provide the criteria by which other governments generally judge legitimacy.

"Human rights are just about the only consideration that ever trumps national sovereignty," Hunt added.

The notion that such rights are self-evident appears later in many other treatises and documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. But what's strange about their so-called self-evidence, Hunt noted, is the obvious tautology on which this idea hinges; the self-evidence of human rights relies on believing in them.

Novels, of course, were not the only force that contributed to the emergence of human rights in the 18th century, Hunt said. Other factors included ongoing developments in legal notions of rights, new attitudes about the integrity of bodies and selves, and political revolutions. Human rights resulted from an intersection of these various developments, she said. But she argued that new forms of print culture, especially the novel, were important in promoting empathy between "separate selves."

"The novel made the point that all selves are fundamentally similar because of their inner psychic processes," Hunt said. The novel drew readers in and prompted a feeling of "passionate involvement in the narrative."

So it cannot be coincidental, Hunt contended, that three of the greatest 18th-century novels have protagonists with whom readers often connect at a psychological level -- Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa and Rousseau's Julie; ou La nouvelle Héloïse -- appeared shortly before the concept of les droits de l'homme.

She admitted, however, the difficulty of directly proving the effects these novels had on people living in the 18th century, but she noted scientists now understand that the ability to comprehend narratives is built into the biology of the brain. "Neuroscientific studies have shown that certain kinds of brain lesions affect narrative comprehension, and neuroscientists seem to agree with Freud, however inadvertently, that narrative is somehow crucial to the sense of self," Hunt said.

She continued, "I believe in the notion that reading epistolary novels has somatic effects that translate into brain changes, through what is called synaptic plasticity, and come back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life." (Epistolary novels are novels composed of fictional letters, such as Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses.)

In other words, Hunt said, reading novels created new individual experiences -- empathy -- which made possible new social and political concepts -- human rights: People read novels, identified with their protagonists and hence learned to empathize with people they did not personally know. What's more, many men as well as women identified strongly with the central female characters of Julie, Pamela and Clarissa.

"We know that upper-class men, even military officers, intensely identified with these women," Hunt said. She read from a letter to Rousseau from a retired French military officer who had read Julie: "'You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine, then, the tears that her death must have wrung from me. Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.'"

Another reader declared in a letter that he had "felt pass through [his] heart the purity of Julie's emotion."

Summarizing comments Diderot made about Richardson's novels, Hunt said: "You recognize yourself in the characters; you imaginatively leap into the midst of the action; you feel the same feelings that the characters are feeling; in short, you learn to empathize with someone who is not yourself."

Indeed, Hunt suggested that Rousseau's Julie, a bestseller at the time, probably played a more significant role in the development of human rights than did his less read -- and often misunderstood -- political tract.

"[Julie] might be at least as important to developing a notion of human rights as anything Rousseau said explicitly about human rights," Hunt said.

The Presidential Lectures are held under the auspices of the Presidential and Endowed Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, a series organized by the Humanities Center.

Lynn Hunt, a modern European history professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, was this year’s final Presidential Lecturer in the Humanities and Arts. Photo: L.A. Cicero