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Inventing Human Rights: A History

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How were human rights invented, and how does their tumultuous history influence their perception and our ability to protect them today? From Professor Lynn Hunt comes this extraordinary cultural and intellectual history, which traces the roots of human rights to the rejection of torture as a means for finding the truth. She demonstrates how ideas of human relationships por How were human rights invented, and how does their tumultuous history influence their perception and our ability to protect them today? From Professor Lynn Hunt comes this extraordinary cultural and intellectual history, which traces the roots of human rights to the rejection of torture as a means for finding the truth. She demonstrates how ideas of human relationships portrayed in novels and art helped spread these new ideals and how human rights continue to be contested today.


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How were human rights invented, and how does their tumultuous history influence their perception and our ability to protect them today? From Professor Lynn Hunt comes this extraordinary cultural and intellectual history, which traces the roots of human rights to the rejection of torture as a means for finding the truth. She demonstrates how ideas of human relationships por How were human rights invented, and how does their tumultuous history influence their perception and our ability to protect them today? From Professor Lynn Hunt comes this extraordinary cultural and intellectual history, which traces the roots of human rights to the rejection of torture as a means for finding the truth. She demonstrates how ideas of human relationships portrayed in novels and art helped spread these new ideals and how human rights continue to be contested today.

30 review for Inventing Human Rights: A History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Fiona

    If I had written a book of non-fiction, I would have liked it to end up like this one. Lynn Hunt is a history professor, specialising in the French Revolution, which means I like her already, and the central argument of Inventing Human Rights is that the growth of certain types of novels during the Enlightenment, amongst other things, directly contributed to a different conception of "self" and personal boundaries, as well as changing how people empathised, which turned the tide of public opinio If I had written a book of non-fiction, I would have liked it to end up like this one. Lynn Hunt is a history professor, specialising in the French Revolution, which means I like her already, and the central argument of Inventing Human Rights is that the growth of certain types of novels during the Enlightenment, amongst other things, directly contributed to a different conception of "self" and personal boundaries, as well as changing how people empathised, which turned the tide of public opinion against judicial torture and ultimately resulted in the human rights revolution. She looks at three of my five all-time-favourite pieces of legislation ever, which are the US Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights (if you're wondering, the other two spots on my top five are the European Convention on Human Rights and the combined Geneva Conventions - I am nothing if not consistent). She charts the meaning of human rights, and rights language, from the lofty ideals of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, through Bentham's attack on the concept of natural rights, to the way in which talking about universality actually contributed to "biological" and "ethnic"-based racism, as people scrambled to try and find other bases to justify their bigotry. Natural law is a really odd thing. I gather philosophers mean something a bit different by positivism, but broadly speaking in jurisprudence, the positivist view is that law is only what society makes up itself, whereas the natural law view suggest that there are some laws that are part of nature, they exist universally, it doesn't matter whether we admit to having them or not. Such as "no extra-judicial killing". The first thing they tell you (read: told me) at law school is "you will probably not believe in natural law quite so much by the end of this year". Anyone who still believe that natural law is a useful concept at the end of first year ends up gravitating towards human rights, which is pretty much what I did. The rest is history. The language we use to describe human rights - calling them inalienable, purely by virtue of being human, a minimum standard of treatment for all individuals regardless of characteristics - that's the language of natural law. As Hunt says, starting out with "We hold these truths to be self-evident" - you don't get much more natural law-ish than that. She charts the history of people saying "of course it's self-evident!" from (impliedly) Samuel Richardson to the abolitionists, and people saying "that's really not self-evident at all!", from Bentham to Lenin. She lingers largely in France and the US - she's a French Revolution specialist at UCLA, so, obviously - and there's a lot of fascinating history going on here. A few issues. This is really readable, but I feel like there's a fair bit missing, especially from the beginning. The books Hunt talks about as case studies in discussing the advancement of empathy - she picks three of them, and two thirds of them are by Samuel Richardson. Why not Tom Jones? Why not Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? For that matter, protagonists who are ordinary people are not a uniquely C18th invention - why didn't Chaucer manage to spark a rights revolution? There's a lot more to say here, and I'd have liked a bit more of the gaps filled. She asks the question, why is it the West where all of this stuff starts - I'd have liked to hear a bit about the rest of the world, if only to explain why she wasn't going to talk about it in detail. ("Not my specialism" is a totally valid reason!) Nevertheless, as a two-hundred-page whistlestop tour through individual rights, Hunt writes a broad and accessible book. It's a great primer, with a light touch, and I think this is a book I'm going to be lending out, which is great. 3.5 stars and a hearty recommendation. Maybe there's still room in the market for my long-time-forthcoming magnum opus on how Speculative Fiction Maketh Man.

  2. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book is to human rights as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is to nationalism. I read the Anderson book a few years ago and gave it a grumpy review. Even though I'm still all cranky about the untranslated Indonesian in Anderson's book, I must admit that the ideas in it really stick with you, meaning, I've thought about it much more frequently than books that I enjoyed reading more. Also, I found out that Benedict Anderson is one of the cool kids in a certain subsection of the left-wi This book is to human rights as Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is to nationalism. I read the Anderson book a few years ago and gave it a grumpy review. Even though I'm still all cranky about the untranslated Indonesian in Anderson's book, I must admit that the ideas in it really stick with you, meaning, I've thought about it much more frequently than books that I enjoyed reading more. Also, I found out that Benedict Anderson is one of the cool kids in a certain subsection of the left-wing chatterati. A lot of his ideas and jargon turn up in their attempts in various media. So, for example, when someone on a podcast that I was listening to recently started to mutter about “print capitalism”, I was able smugly to tell myself that, to quote the meme, I understand that reference. The Anderson book and this book are similar in that they tell you that conventional wisdom on their respective topics is wrong, and they will set you right. Even though both authors are quite serious, their messages are quite cheerful in a similar fashion, if you can think about it a certain way. They tell you: the great historical forces that are the subject of this book are NOT the result of the cogitations of great thinkers or the actions of powerful leaders. They are the result of many tens of thousands of often-mundane individual actions by now-nameless and silent individuals in the past that cumulatively, like grains of sand in a process of historical erosion, changed the shape of the world. Many of the doers of these actions weren't aware of the consequences their actions would have, and many of them didn't live to see the results. However, the everyday choices they made – the books they chose to read, the attitudes they chose to have, the subjects they chose to study – MATTERED. They mattered more than the well-documented decisions arrived at by bewigged aristos or the strategies employed by celebrated military leaders, because, in the long run, their actions changed the way people thought, which was a force more powerful than armies or governments. So, why cheerful? Because maybe, just maybe, behaving like a reasonable, reflective human in your daily life might matter – not because it may please some perhaps-nonexistent judgmental supreme being who will reward you in hard-to-imagine afterlife but because, here and now, you are a part (however small) of great sea changes abroad in the world, perhaps even for the better. If you've stuck with me this far, you may now be in the mood for an illustrative example of just what the heck it is I'm nattering on about. Here it is: according to Inventing Human Rights, the concept of human rights resulted from a sea change in how people thought about themselves and their neighbors as a result of … wait for it … reading novels! Yes! And viewing art! Reading makes a difference! Art makes a difference! Thinking makes a difference! Don't just take my word for it, read the words of the author herself (p. 32), which include a bonus namecheck of B. Anderson himself… My argument will make much of the influence of new kinds of experiences, from viewing pictures in public exhibitions to reading the hugely popular epistolary novels about love and marriage. Such experiences helped spread the practices of autonomy and empathy. The political scientist Benedict Anderson has argued that newspapers and novels created the “imagined community” that nationalism requires in order to flourish. What might be termed “imagined empathy” serves as the foundation of human rights rather than of nationalism. It is imagined, not in the sense of made up, but in the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, or imagining that someone else is like you. Accounts of torture produced this imagined empathy through new views of pain. Novels generated it by inducing new sensations about the inner self. Each in their way reinforced the notion of a community based on autonomous, empathetic individuals who could relate beyond their immediate families, religious affiliations, or even nations to greater universal values. Of course, the annoying thing about things that seem like a good idea, like human rights, is that they often end up causing other problems. This is discussed in the book – like the larger world, it's not all just happy talk about reading novels and viewing art. Once you get into the business of declaring universal human rights, as the French discovered first, the sticky problem is that everyone wants them, because … universal, right? The French decided, well, I guess we can extend these rights to previously-suspect Protestants, because, well, they are white and men like us, and we can show how open-minded and revolutionary we are. However, the rest of the camel rapidly followed the nose into the tent, as groups stepped up to say, “Hey, wait a minute, what about us?” The identity of some of these groups was easy to predict (Jews, Blacks, women) but there were some surprises as well (actors, executioners). The problem of universality was solved for a long time by, ironically, the rise of nationalism, which then sliced up universality into smaller bits that were easier to manipulate to achieve the end of exclusion, as the problem was defined out of existence by declaring groups (Jews, Blacks, women) not covered by the concept of “all men” in whatever national jurisdiction was being discussed. It took two world wars to convince people of that this idea, in turn, was not quite as good as it seemed at the outset. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights marked a return to the idea of rights for everyone everywhere, and we seem in our age to see the wheel turn again, perhaps back to nationalism, God help us. In summary: this is a very interesting book on the origins of human rights, but perhaps it will disappoint people who wish to read something with a more direct connection to the headline-making events of today. Most of it is about revolutionary France. The discussion of human rights during and after the Cold War is relatively brief. I added this book to my “to-read” list after it was praised in a 2019 review (of a completely different book) in the New York Review of Books. Most of this review is now behind a paywall, but the part that is available for reading for free includes the bit where this book is praised. You may also see (still in the free bit) that this book generated a book-length response from a Harvard professor who, the review indicates, pronounced Hunt's opinions to be balderdash. I'll have to read that book some day, even though it will definitely rain on my parade in re my happy Lynn-Hunt-fueled contention that reading, enjoying great music, etc., in indicative of something more important than just quietly enjoying myself while the world goes to hell in a hatbox.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Kimba Tichenor

    This book sets out to explain how the concept of human rights, i.e. rights owing simply to one's status as a human, rather than as a member of a particular political community, gained widespread currency. She traces the origins of human rights to the eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment and tries to make the argument that it emerged at this point in time because there was a fundamental change in how ordinary individuals related to one another and in how they thought -- namely they developed This book sets out to explain how the concept of human rights, i.e. rights owing simply to one's status as a human, rather than as a member of a particular political community, gained widespread currency. She traces the origins of human rights to the eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment and tries to make the argument that it emerged at this point in time because there was a fundamental change in how ordinary individuals related to one another and in how they thought -- namely they developed empathy: "I am trying to refocus attention on what goes on within individual minds...Attention has been focused on the social and cultural contexts, not on the way individual minds understand and reshape that context. I believe that social and political change -- in this case, human rights -- comes about because many individuals had similar experiences, not because they inhabited the same social context but because through their interactions with each other and with their reading and viewing, they actually created a new social context...For human rights to become self-evident, ordinary people have to have new understandings that came from new kinds of feelings" (34). To make this argument, she opens by endeavoring to show how a new genre -- the epistolary novel -- changed the way in which Westerners (specifically British, French, and American) apprehended the emotions of others. While she does not try to claim that novels alone led to empathy, she does not identify any other contributing factors. However, the main problem is that author fails to present sufficient evidence at multiple levels that the epistolary novel had this impact and if so how exactly this new concept of empathy became entangled with political thought. For example, she states at one point, "The capacity for empathy is universal because it is rooted in the biology of the brain" (39). So if this is the case, it would suggest that human beings long before the 18th century demonstrated empathy. Thus, she would need to demonstrate a qualitative difference, as well as a quantitative one, in how empathy was expressed in the 18th century as opposed to other centuries. But she provides little or no background on earlier expressions of empathy. So one might say, perhaps she simply means a quantitative difference in its expression in the public sphere. So while she provides examples of the reading public's reactions to epistolary novels (primarily from elites), she provides her reader with no real evidence as to how widespread this phenomenon was. Is it in fact changing the "ordinary individuals" perception of the world? And who she includes in the category "ordinary" is never specified. These oversights may simply result from the book's length. At a mere 214 pages (not counting appendices or notes), there is just not sufficient space to document such a sweeping change in the history of emotion. The second chapter of the book focuses on changed attitudes toward the use of state torture and its implication for the invention of human rights. She notes that in Europe and the United States in the 18th century, a fairly rapid reduction in the use of torture techniques occurred. She links this development to 3 phenomena: 1) increased empathy 2) new emphasis on the integrity of the body 3) the rise of secularism stripped torture of its religious moorings, thus changing its meanings for the public. In making this argument, what she fails to problematize is the reemergence of torture as a viable interrogation technique since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. If a reduction in the use of torture techniques is key for human rights gaining widespread currency, then what impact does its reemergence have on the currency of human rights in the post-9/11 world? The war on terror was often framed as a human rights issue and yet initially the United States utilized torture as a key element in that war. Water boarding as practiced by the CIA, events at Abu Ghraib, not to mention the detention of possible terrorists without recourse to due process at Guantanamo Bay all attest to this fact. So perhaps the relation between torture and the language of human rights is more complicated than the author suggests, given that sometimes that language becomes weaponized against real or imagined enemies. It becomes a means of creating "the other". There is no doubt that the author raises some important questions about how the language of human rights gained acceptance and about how changes in how we perceive others and the world around us impacts our understanding of human rights. That said, the book skips over vast periods of time -- dedicating a mere 30-some-odd pages to the period following the 1948 UN declaration. Moreover, Hunt presents a history of human rights that assumes a unilateral diffusion of human rights from the global North to the global South. In short, she never considers the many grassroots movements in Asia and South America who appropriated the language of human rights in the 1970s and 1980s in order to move their local struggles onto the international stage and how this appropriation transformed the international debate on human rights.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ed

    Hunt begins by locating the rise of human rights with the rise of the novel. Eighteenth century literary culture encouraged readers to identify directly and intensely with those unlike themselves--learning to feel what was called sympathy then and is called empathy now for characters on the pages of "Clarissa", "Pamela" (Richardson) and "Julie" (Rousseau) led to the ability to identify with people in utterly different conditions than that of the reader. Individuals discovered or developed profou Hunt begins by locating the rise of human rights with the rise of the novel. Eighteenth century literary culture encouraged readers to identify directly and intensely with those unlike themselves--learning to feel what was called sympathy then and is called empathy now for characters on the pages of "Clarissa", "Pamela" (Richardson) and "Julie" (Rousseau) led to the ability to identify with people in utterly different conditions than that of the reader. Individuals discovered or developed profound feelings for the autonomy and well-being of other human beings. She writes that "rights must be natural (inherent in human beings), equal (the same for everyone) and universal (applicable everywhere)" but they were considered universal for some but not for women and only eventually for free black men, Jews, Catholics (in England), Protestants (in France) and slaves (except in the United States). Her chapter on torture is a cogent discussion how the views of 18th century Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria on legal punishment have influenced the intellectual, moral and political views and practices of kings and emperors, philosophers and revolutionaries, intellectuals and pamphleteers on torture, the death penalty and public criminal proceedings. It is one of the strongest and most incisive sections of the book. Hunt goes a bit overboard in the chapter on the French revolution, discussing it in greater detail than necessary in such a slender volume--which makes sense because she is a specialist in the French revolution.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Carla Coelho

    This book is a happy example of an instructive and readable work. Lynn Hunt focuses on highlighting socio-cultural evolution in the emergence of human rights as we know them today, solidified in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. In this context, she writes about the importance of the epistolary novel that emerged in the seventeenth century as a means of overcoming social barriers and developing empathy, a gateway to concern for others. The author focuses on the history of the United States a This book is a happy example of an instructive and readable work. Lynn Hunt focuses on highlighting socio-cultural evolution in the emergence of human rights as we know them today, solidified in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. In this context, she writes about the importance of the epistolary novel that emerged in the seventeenth century as a means of overcoming social barriers and developing empathy, a gateway to concern for others. The author focuses on the history of the United States and France, analyzing the victories and also the gaps in documents such as the Declaration of Independence of the first and the French Revolution. At a time like the world we live in, this work is a milestone in the reflection on human rights and a stimulus to continue a work that is far from finished. *** Este livro é um feliz exemplo de um trabalho instrutivo e de leitura agradável. Lynn Hunt debruça-se sobre o relevo da evolução sócio- cultural no emergir dos direitos humanos tal como hoje os conhecemos, solidificados na Declaração de Direitos Humanos de 1948. Neste quadro, escreve sobre o relevo do romance epistolar surgido no século XVII como meio de superação de barreiras sociais e de desenvolvimento da empatia, porta de entrada da preocupação com os demais. A Autora debruça-se sobre a história dos Estados Unidos da América e da França, analisando as vitórias e também as lacunas de documentos como a Declaração de Independência do primeira e da Revolução Francesa. Num momento como o que vivemos em termos mundiais, esta obra é um marco na reflexão sobre os direitos humanos e um estímulo para continuar um trabalho que está longe de estar terminado.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eli

    2.5 stars This wasn't very cohesive and it felt contradictory. At the end of the introduction, she said her argument was how epistolary novels and empathy helped further human rights. She only really talked about novels in the first chapter and then went off to talk about other things. It just felt like I was reading more than one book. And then the last chapter is titled "The Soft Power of Humanity: How Human Rights Failed Only to Succeed in the Long Run." But then she says that "human rights is 2.5 stars This wasn't very cohesive and it felt contradictory. At the end of the introduction, she said her argument was how epistolary novels and empathy helped further human rights. She only really talked about novels in the first chapter and then went off to talk about other things. It just felt like I was reading more than one book. And then the last chapter is titled "The Soft Power of Humanity: How Human Rights Failed Only to Succeed in the Long Run." But then she says that "human rights is in need of rescuing" in that chapter. You can't say it succeeded and then say it needs rescuing. You also can't measure human rights on a success/failure binary, especially in our world. Human rights have neither absolutely succeeded or absolutely failed. They have succeeded and failed and will continue to succeed and fail. I feel that the success/failure binary she hints at here oversimplifies the situation of human rights and also completely ignores the injustices that many marginalized communities still face today. Human rights have not succeeded in the end. But they have not necessarily failed either. Also, this entire book is Eurocentric, so know that going in if you decide to read it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    keko

    Nice introduction to the topic, easily readable, tough a bit high level and lacks different aspects of the subject. In fact, if your English abilities permit, I'd suggest continue your reading on https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3... , since this one discusses the economical part of the human rights idea, and is much more controversial. The book completes the ideas of https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... ; it highligts that human are by nature social animals. Sympathy ensured that happine Nice introduction to the topic, easily readable, tough a bit high level and lacks different aspects of the subject. In fact, if your English abilities permit, I'd suggest continue your reading on https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3... , since this one discusses the economical part of the human rights idea, and is much more controversial. The book completes the ideas of https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2... ; it highligts that human are by nature social animals. Sympathy ensured that happiness could not be defined by self-satisfaction alone. Some toughts (in turkish): - A topic which is reflected in our (as human beings) living so much... I enjoyed the reading a lot. - The book reserves one chapter on the contributions of literature in the human rights discussion, which which I think is striking. - I wish there was a possibility for more brainstorming for extended or different rights (which https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3... does). I am also curious of my own limits; how much human right could I dare? It is also a horrible idea that the future generations will probably think of us ignorant barbarians. If natural compassion makes everyone detest the cruelty of judicial torture, as Voltaire said later, then why was this not obvious before the 1760s, even to him? Rights questions thus revealed a tendency to cascade. Once the deputies considered the status of Protestants as a disenfranchised religious minority, Jews were bound to come up; as soon as religious exclusions made it to the agenda, professional ones were not long in following. Despite the emerging evidence of Nazi crimes against Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and others, the diplomats meeting in San Francisco had to be prodded and pushed to put human rights on the agenda. In 1944, Great Britain and the Soviet Union had both rejected proposals to include human rights in the charter of the United Nations. Britain feared the encouragement such an action might afford to independence movements in its colonies, and the Soviet Union wanted no interference in its now expanding sphere of influence. In addition, the United States had initially opposed China's suggestion that the charter include a statement on the equality of all races.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Becki

    Not the fault of the book necessarily— I have a blob of jello for a brain

  9. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    This book attempts something monumental that most historians don't try to answer: What motivates people's shifts in moral perspective? How can we explain these often-rapid shifts in specific historical contexts. Specifically, Hunt tries (and mainly succeeds) in explaining why when human rights believers like Jefferson and the framer of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen said that these rights were both universal and self-evident, why did so many people believe it and act upo This book attempts something monumental that most historians don't try to answer: What motivates people's shifts in moral perspective? How can we explain these often-rapid shifts in specific historical contexts. Specifically, Hunt tries (and mainly succeeds) in explaining why when human rights believers like Jefferson and the framer of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen said that these rights were both universal and self-evident, why did so many people believe it and act upon it? This is a trickier task that it first appears. Saying that something is self-evident requires that you avoid explaining its origins or philosophical justification. After all, if you explain why something is self-evident, it ceases to be self-evident. This makes Jefferson and co. out to be more radical than normally seen. The question then is why and how these rights became normal amongst so many Europeans and Americans. Hunt looks to the Enlightenment, but not just the philosophers. Rather, she shows how Enlightenment culture facilitated the prominence of many philosophical ideas that encouraged people to be unprecedentedly concerned with each other's rights and welfare. Here's an example: The Enlightenment witnessed a sharp decline in the use of judicial torture as public and philosophical opinion turned against this practice. People had been coming to public tortures and execution for centuries for entertainment and communal justice, so why did their opinions turn in this particular period? Lynn argues that Europeans increasingly came to see and understand each other as having inner lives and feelings similar to their own. The tendency to recognize and respect the bodily and mental autonomy of others, even those on the lower rungs of society, grew in this period in connection with a culture that increasingly focused on people's inner lives. The biggest manifestation of this trend was the novel, a wildly popular invention of the mid 17th century. Novels were about ordinary people, and they focused on their inner struggles and emotions. They evoked empathy in their readers, an emotion always based in a sense of common humanity. Novels were only one cultural mode that encouraged this type of reflection about others. People also paid growing attention to personal space, hygiene, and manners as part of the turn towards respecting the autonomy of others. A reading, increasingly humanist culture also focused less on religious abstraction and more on the humanness of the person. No longer could people be sacrificed for political or religious reasons. It was now their bodies and minds that needed protection, not their souls. Hunt argues that human rights ideology became self-evident out of a mix of reason and emotion. If you could see the inner life of a character in a novel, then you could most likely see and empathize with someone being tortured to death in the town square. Torture therefore became morally unacceptable as well as ineffective, as reformers like Beccaria argued. You could see that they were essentially like you but that they were also not you, and that they needed some level of protection. Human rights became a way of expressing philosophical arguments (because obviously people like Locke and Voltaire had a lot to do with this story) and a more inchoate but definitely real moral and emotional sensibility among many Europeans. Hunt does an excellent job explaining this complex dynamic. This book is highly relevant for the present day. It's a good warning for us to avoid thinking that widely held ideas cannot change quite quickly. Remember that it hasn't even been 20 years since the Defense Against Marriage Act, and here we are in a nation in which political, public, and judicial wills have turned decisively in favor of gay rights. The book certainly has its limitations. Any study of moral sensibilities is difficult to test empirically and will always rely on a certain inherent logic rather than extensive proof. Still, this is one of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating books on the Enlightenment that I have read, and I highly recommend it to those interested in the crossroads of philosophy and history. Last off, here's a great quote from Cesare Beccaria, tireless opponent of torture: "If I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal; his blessing and tears of transport will be a sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tessa Patiño

    Hunt argues that the development of human rights is based in humanity being able to feel empathy for those unlike themselves. Proving empathy is a bit difficult, but Hunt used unique evidence to support her thesis. While the books feels like it ends just as it’s starting, Hunt also is not necessarily intending for this book to be all encompassing. Parts of the book lack a cohesion together & seem as though they could be separate essays, but ultimately, Hunt opens up the door for more historians Hunt argues that the development of human rights is based in humanity being able to feel empathy for those unlike themselves. Proving empathy is a bit difficult, but Hunt used unique evidence to support her thesis. While the books feels like it ends just as it’s starting, Hunt also is not necessarily intending for this book to be all encompassing. Parts of the book lack a cohesion together & seem as though they could be separate essays, but ultimately, Hunt opens up the door for more historians to research further into the history of human rights.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Silvio Curtis

    Very short for a history book. The style bridges the gap between academic and popular. Starts out with a chapter about novels as a source of the idea of human rights in the eighteenth century, which I thought was a stretch, and a chapter on the fairly quick shift toward seeing judicial torture as a violation of human rights. I thought the book improved as it went on. The last parts reframed the history of human rights in a way that I found plausible but surprising and important. I've been used t Very short for a history book. The style bridges the gap between academic and popular. Starts out with a chapter about novels as a source of the idea of human rights in the eighteenth century, which I thought was a stretch, and a chapter on the fairly quick shift toward seeing judicial torture as a violation of human rights. I thought the book improved as it went on. The last parts reframed the history of human rights in a way that I found plausible but surprising and important. I've been used to thinking of them as a concept whose acceptance has increased gradually and steadily over the past 250 years. But this book suggests that after an impressive start, universal human rights stopped being a major part of ethical and legal frameworks for more than a century because of the rise of nationalism, and people claimed rights as citizens of a particular country rather than as human beings. It was only after World War II tarnished nationalism, resulting in the creation of the UN and its declaration of human rights, that they became a central concept again. It makes you wonder if the pendulum is swinging again and we are in for another bad century. This is a UCLA professor, by the way!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joel

    In my first year of humanitarian work I was called on to help start up a program in Kosovo after the end of that bloody conflict. Ethnic cleansing they called it, genocide without the murder I suppose. I was 21 or 22, wet behind the ears – young and idealistic. I was going to change the world! I went into Kosovo walking alongside the new UN government, setting up shop in Prisren as we all began to work with the people who were returning in rivers from Albania and Macedonia to help winterize thei In my first year of humanitarian work I was called on to help start up a program in Kosovo after the end of that bloody conflict. Ethnic cleansing they called it, genocide without the murder I suppose. I was 21 or 22, wet behind the ears – young and idealistic. I was going to change the world! I went into Kosovo walking alongside the new UN government, setting up shop in Prisren as we all began to work with the people who were returning in rivers from Albania and Macedonia to help winterize their homes for the coming frigid Kosovar winters and to get winter wheat planted before the earth became frozen and hard; a crop to begin that painful process of recovery. From there, after the program was on its way, I was sent into the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Goma specifically and Bukavu where the second civil war had just started. Who knew it was going to be the worst war since WWII. Africa’s world war. I was still green – and plunged from one crisis to the next, literally flying from Tirana in to Kigali and driving across the border into Goma – I was struck by the difference between these two conflicts. Kosovo – a population of maybe two million. The response? 35,000 NATO soldiers; every NGO on the planet (including “Clowns Without Borders” – its nice to know Clowns also have no borders); every UN agency. The work divided up into quadrants, funds flowing in for relief work which were staggering in their scope. Then Congo – I was there even before the incompetent peacekeepers. Uruguayans setting up prostitution rings, but this was before then. The sound of the silence of Congo’s civil war was deafening. In Kosovo we’d had the beating of helicopters and the crunch of friendly tanks and the huge parties with hundreds of foreigners who had come to help the little blond refugees. In Congo? A few haggard aid workers chain smoking and drinking themselves into early graves. There has been much written on this of course, donor fatigue and the like. But all the analysis comes down to one word – empathy. With whom we identify has a great role in how we react to the evils we see around us. I just finished reading Lynn Hunt’s well-written book “Inventing Human Rights”. First what it is not, it is not a story about westerners inventing human rights. Human rights – by their very “self-evident” nature have always existed; they weren’t dreamt up in a bar in Oxford or Geneva. The book might better be called “Re-discovering Human Rights” but I’d probably go with a different title – “Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy”. Because that’s what this book is about. It is a well-researched and well-written account of how, coming out of the renaissance and the enlightenment and the industrial revolution people in western Europe began to rediscover their humanity, but more importantly the humanity of others, through the process of empathizing. The author chooses an interesting entry into this topic, the beginning of novel-writing in Europe. And how reading novels like Clarissa helped revolutionize the way people thought about other people by putting themselves in others’ shoes – in the abstract. The book then goes into the epic fights (legislative and in public opinion) against torture; on writing the different declarations which we hold now almost for granted; the pitched battle against slavery – as step by step humans rediscovered why we are different, and above the animals. Lynn avoids the religious arguments into the “Truths we hold self-evident” or the “Laws of God written on the hearts of men” or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” – which is why the book is misnamed. Nevertheless as one in an endless series of tomes to help us figure out how we saved ourselves as a species from the rack and debtors prisons and enslavement – “Inventing Human Rights” belongs alongside others such as “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea” and “The Triumph of Liberty” to lead us in understanding the nature – and responsibility – of our humanity. The case that the greatest piece of technological advancement in history was Gutenberg’s press is one that could be well-argued using this book; that is when everything started changing in the west – and the world. On a personal note – I am very glad she started with making the case for fiction (a novel), and I feel somewhat vindicated for the sneers I receive in choosing literary fiction as my avenue for expression. There are too many people today who arrogantly and ignorantly announce to the world “I don’t read fiction” – probably not even knowing what they’re saying. Empathy – it is what I try to do with my fiction, to connect people to situations that they probably don’t think of. “I, Charles, From the Camps” the first person account of a black man from a refugee camp who becomes an LRA soldier in Uganda. “Lords of Misrule” about a Tuareg boy who joins jihad. But I digress. Read Lynn Hunt’s excellent book, and then continue on to the others I recommend and keep learning. We are losing our humanity – social media and hate are taking it from us – lets rediscover our humanity, and with it the rights not of ourselves but of others.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian Hilliker

    Hunt does a great job outlining the core of her arguments which include: 1. Human Rights is birthed in the epistolary novel and its encouragement of empathy 2. Human rights is cascading throughout history, and marginalized groups will continue to attain rights throughout the ages 3. Countervailing concepts of nationalism, socialism, and communism hindered the ability for human rights to remain prominent in the current conversation. I agreed with the secondary point. Human rights are based in the id Hunt does a great job outlining the core of her arguments which include: 1. Human Rights is birthed in the epistolary novel and its encouragement of empathy 2. Human rights is cascading throughout history, and marginalized groups will continue to attain rights throughout the ages 3. Countervailing concepts of nationalism, socialism, and communism hindered the ability for human rights to remain prominent in the current conversation. I agreed with the secondary point. Human rights are based in the idea that human's are crafted in the image of God. Without this foundation, human rights stands on the stilts of weak, secular ideas. With this foundation I can see how human rights will continue to be fought for across the world. The innate God-given dignity of humanity has not been extinguished even in the face of dramatic atrocity. However, I do not believe that human rights are not birthed in the epistolary novel. Hunt showcases her Francophile tendencies and ignores the influences of religions, philosophies, and ideas across other cultures and states. Her third point caused me to consider the implications of what human rights is attempting to become. Is it attempting to take the mantle from the failed fields of communism and socialism? Or are human rights an attempt to push against the demons of our nature? I find that human rights pursuits inspire us to fight against the powers of communism and nationalism. Whereas communist and nationalist ideologies pursue power over humanity, human rights tend to pursue the opposite goal of placing humans above power. Overall, this is a good introduction into human rights as a concept. I really enjoyed reading her arguments (even if I disagreed on a few key points).

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jakub Ferencik

    Lynn Hunt discusses many different topics in this short synopsis of the history of human rights. She touches on women's rights, racial differences in relation to rights, the importance of the media (newspapers, books, etc.), communism, Marxism, socialism, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and many more historical movements. Edmund Burke, John Start Mill, Thomas Jefferson do not go without mentioning, either of course. This volume shares some similarity with Hitchens' short biograph Lynn Hunt discusses many different topics in this short synopsis of the history of human rights. She touches on women's rights, racial differences in relation to rights, the importance of the media (newspapers, books, etc.), communism, Marxism, socialism, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and many more historical movements. Edmund Burke, John Start Mill, Thomas Jefferson do not go without mentioning, either of course. This volume shares some similarity with Hitchens' short biography on Jefferson. It requires some understanding of the social issues of the day and/or significance of certain moral questions that are raised in order to truly be able to follow along. I was familiar with some of the terms and their relevance, but I was still left wondering why raise certain events and why not focus on seemingly more important ones more? When you read Susaby Jacobson and Kenan Malik you quickly realize the difference in style and accessibility and how important that is in order for an introduction to a lengthy topic to be understandable. It is a nice introduction, though. She includes the Declaration of Independence (American-1776), The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (French -1789), & the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) at the end of the book as well which nicely puts the book in context.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bree Pye

    This was a fascinating alternative historical perspective on how "human rights" came to shape the American and French Revolutions. Of particular interest to me, was Hunt's convincing argument in Chapter One that 18th century epistolary novels helped create a sense of "inner-self," in readers, thus promoting empathy for "other" that extended to strangers and previously undervalued citizens. The chapter on torture was also fascinating, as Hunt argued that awareness of inner self led to a belief th This was a fascinating alternative historical perspective on how "human rights" came to shape the American and French Revolutions. Of particular interest to me, was Hunt's convincing argument in Chapter One that 18th century epistolary novels helped create a sense of "inner-self," in readers, thus promoting empathy for "other" that extended to strangers and previously undervalued citizens. The chapter on torture was also fascinating, as Hunt argued that awareness of inner self led to a belief that our bodies are our own and only we have the right to our own bodies - which created a concrete turn of public opinion toward notions of discipline and torture. In all, I really loved the perspectives offered in this book and loved how each point was tied to historical fact. Even if you don't agree with the conclusions Hunt draws from those facts, I highly recommend mulling the entire book over!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lauretta Farrell

    I was asked to use this book for my Justice & Human Rights class, as the foundation book from which all class lessons, discussions and assignments would be built. For the most part, I was very disappointed. It reads like a doctoral dissertation that we not adequately edited for popular book form. Chapter one, which focusses on reading novels, seemed to have no connection to the greater topic, while the other chapters repetitively discussed the history of two primary human right documents -- the I was asked to use this book for my Justice & Human Rights class, as the foundation book from which all class lessons, discussions and assignments would be built. For the most part, I was very disappointed. It reads like a doctoral dissertation that we not adequately edited for popular book form. Chapter one, which focusses on reading novels, seemed to have no connection to the greater topic, while the other chapters repetitively discussed the history of two primary human right documents -- the US Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. While there are segments of the book that raise interesting, and still timely questions, even though it was written 17 years ago, I would not recommend its use for broad-based human rights eduction.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Leonora

    Her idea is an interesting one; that an appreciation of literature fostered the empathy that led to the concept of and defense of human rights. I'm not sure it's as simple as that but even so it is interesting to think of the effect that books like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" have wrought. I particularly enjoyed reading about other readers experiences. Especially this quotation from Diderot about finishing an engrossing read: "I felt the same sensation that men feel who have been closely entwined and li Her idea is an interesting one; that an appreciation of literature fostered the empathy that led to the concept of and defense of human rights. I'm not sure it's as simple as that but even so it is interesting to think of the effect that books like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" have wrought. I particularly enjoyed reading about other readers experiences. Especially this quotation from Diderot about finishing an engrossing read: "I felt the same sensation that men feel who have been closely entwined and lived together for a long time and who are now on the point of separating. At the end, it suddenly seemed to me that I was left alone."

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas Vela

    This book was quite an interesting read. "Inventing Human Rights" was a study in how Human Rights came to be such a influence in the late 1770s. Hunt makes a case of showing the downfall of torture, the rise of what many consider to be the philosophical start of rights, and even goes so far as to say that, in the context of the Post Revolutionary Period of France, the subject of rights died off until after World War II and the founding of the United Nations. All in all, this book was a wonderful re This book was quite an interesting read. "Inventing Human Rights" was a study in how Human Rights came to be such a influence in the late 1770s. Hunt makes a case of showing the downfall of torture, the rise of what many consider to be the philosophical start of rights, and even goes so far as to say that, in the context of the Post Revolutionary Period of France, the subject of rights died off until after World War II and the founding of the United Nations. All in all, this book was a wonderful read, and I think that, when it finally gets down to the Thesis I wish to write, this book will definitely come in handy.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Inventing Human Rights: A History (Paperback) by Lynn Hunt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7pD6... ordered from the library see review https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/david-a... Contents: Acknowledgments -- Introduction: We hold these truths to be self-evident -- Torrents of emotion: reading novels and imagining equality -- Bone of their bone: abolishing torture -- They have set a great example: declaring rights -- There will be no end of it: the consequences of declaring -- Soft power of humanity: Inventing Human Rights: A History (Paperback) by Lynn Hunt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7pD6... ordered from the library see review https://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/david-a... Contents: Acknowledgments -- Introduction: We hold these truths to be self-evident -- Torrents of emotion: reading novels and imagining equality -- Bone of their bone: abolishing torture -- They have set a great example: declaring rights -- There will be no end of it: the consequences of declaring -- Soft power of humanity: why human rights failed, only to succeed in the long run -- Appendix: Three declarations: 1776, 1789, 1948 -- Notes -- Permissions -- Index.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    This book has an inventive and compelling thesis, explored at length in its introduction. I found the following chapters occasionally redundant in exploring the thesis (the torture chapter in particular spends a lot of time delineating types of torture), as if a compelling paper had been needlessly expanded to book length. But still largely worth it for that opening.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex Noelle

    Very readable but incredibly eurocentric. In ways the book suggests that empathy and compassion came from French novels in the 18th century. Remains color-blind and clearly centers the white experience despite the interwoven history of human rights with discrimination of minorities and POC.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Danny

    I read this for a class, and I am probably one of the few who left thinking positively about it. It is very short, which definitely didn't do it any favors. However, as a jumping board into the wide world of human rights, and understand their history, it does it's job. I read this for a class, and I am probably one of the few who left thinking positively about it. It is very short, which definitely didn't do it any favors. However, as a jumping board into the wide world of human rights, and understand their history, it does it's job.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Logan Streondj

    It covered much of the origins of Human Rights mostly focusing on France in 1700s. I learned most human rights were granted by the 1800s except for women. Then in late 1800s racism took rights away from Jews and others, culminated in second world war after which UDHR was signed.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    It is quite terrifying to discover just how NEW the concept of human rights (as opposed to citizen rights) actually is... This is a critical read for anyone who wants to consider themselves informed on the topic of social justice and any kind of civil discourse.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jess

    Really focused on more esoteric social concepts (in a really interesting way) but hyperfocused on European history (US, Britain, France almost exclusively) and voting rights specifically.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (2007) Gregory Clark, A farewell to Alms (2007) Hunt, a UCLA historian, tries in this book to explain why 18th century western Europe was the first society in history to develop a concept of “human rights,” as opposed to the earlier idea of political and other rights enjoyed by certain individuals, such as Roman senators or King John’s barons. Her answer is that the concept developed in large part because of the invention of the novel as a literary form, earlier i Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (2007) Gregory Clark, A farewell to Alms (2007) Hunt, a UCLA historian, tries in this book to explain why 18th century western Europe was the first society in history to develop a concept of “human rights,” as opposed to the earlier idea of political and other rights enjoyed by certain individuals, such as Roman senators or King John’s barons. Her answer is that the concept developed in large part because of the invention of the novel as a literary form, earlier in the century. The novel was important because of its focus on feelings and empathy, particularly the empathy that is stimulated by a first-person narrative. Rousseau himself, in the year prior to his Social Contract, wrote an immensely popular novel, Julie. This, together with Richardson’s Clarissa and others, permitted the enlarging literate classes to identify with the suffering of those deprived of human rights. The result was a growing indignation at such social institutions as judicial torture. Like all searches for patterns in history, this makes a good read but a story so implausible in the range of its claim as to be a fiction in its own right—one requiring a “suspension of disbelief” by the reader. It makes little sense to claim that the novel or any other innovation of the 18th century liberated for the first time an emotion, such as empathy, that clearly evolved over millennia as a component of the successful strategy of a population under Darwinian stress. Other things equal, a population of primates that develops the ability to feel empathy is more likely to cooperate and therefore to survive than otherwise. The novel cannot have triggered the first expression of this empathetic capacity, because self-sacrificing cooperation among humans was not new in the 18th century. Furthermore, Rousseau, Jefferson, and the other “philosophes” certainly did not invent the explicit concept of human rights. Jesus of Nazereth, for example, was bent on reminding people of preexisting duties already familiar to them, duties grounded in empathy. Hunt’s story of human rights makes an interesting contrast with another book just out this year: Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. Clark is an economic historian trying to explain, not the struggle for human rights, but its necessary underpinning: having enough to eat while leaving time to read novels. Why did western Europe, alone among societies in human history, escape the Malthusian trap, generating a persistent surplus above subsistence for the great mass of its people? Clark’s answer: Darwin again, on a shockingly short timetable. It seems that economically successful Europeans had more children than poorer ones, eventually creating a mutated population of capitalist entrepreneurs, passing on to their heirs both a cultural and a genetic disposition toward hard work, saving, and judicious risk taking. For my money, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy makes a better read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andres

    Hunt traces in this short book the history of the creation of the modern doctrine of human rights. How did human rights become "evident", natural, equal and universal in world that still has a long way to actually respecting them? The answer is given in short but interest insights, such as 1) The connection between the relaxation of our community networks, the increasing self-awareness of our bodies and the rise of the individualism that helped support the concept of "Rights of Man" during the F Hunt traces in this short book the history of the creation of the modern doctrine of human rights. How did human rights become "evident", natural, equal and universal in world that still has a long way to actually respecting them? The answer is given in short but interest insights, such as 1) The connection between the relaxation of our community networks, the increasing self-awareness of our bodies and the rise of the individualism that helped support the concept of "Rights of Man" during the French Revolution; 2) The increase of popularity of epistolary novels during the eighteenth century, as a reflection of the growth in our empathy feelings and the notion that all men have basic common traits, like common feelings of love and affection; 3) Analysis of the increasing rejection of institutionalized torture (referring to famous court cases, such as the Jean Calas and Dreyfus cases); and 4) The importance that the Declarations of Rights had in their evolution. This book is useful for a person wanting to have a general historical context of the ideas that developed the notion of human rights. It is a easy and very pleasant read. It does not go into the political details of the formation of human rights nor does it analyze the concept from a philosophical perspective.

  28. 5 out of 5

    FiveBooks

    Dr. Nabeel Yasin, the Iraqi poet, writer, academic and politician, has chosen to discuss Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Democracy in Iraq, saying that: “This book describes the struggle for human rights in Europe. For me the most important thing about this book is that is reminds the people who live in democratic states and societies about how the struggle for human rights started 500 years ago. These modern people are able Dr. Nabeel Yasin, the Iraqi poet, writer, academic and politician, has chosen to discuss Lynn Hunt's Inventing Human Rights: A History , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Democracy in Iraq, saying that: “This book describes the struggle for human rights in Europe. For me the most important thing about this book is that is reminds the people who live in democratic states and societies about how the struggle for human rights started 500 years ago. These modern people are able to enjoy the fruits of that struggle. Iraqi people say we need 500 years to put things right and become properly democratic but they are wrong.” The full interview is available here: http://five-books.com/interviews/nabeel-yasin

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thomas St Thomas

    My favorite insight is how empathy through the reading of novels primed the collective minds of humanity to accept the idea of rights.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn

    There are several interesting claims in this book - the potential role of more Europeans reading epistolary novels making them more empathetic across gender/social class, etc. boundaries, for example. However, I am not convinced of the author's overall argument that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen/French Revolution is the most important precedent of our modern understandings of universal human rights. Plenty of people argue that the idea of human rights is a Western construction There are several interesting claims in this book - the potential role of more Europeans reading epistolary novels making them more empathetic across gender/social class, etc. boundaries, for example. However, I am not convinced of the author's overall argument that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen/French Revolution is the most important precedent of our modern understandings of universal human rights. Plenty of people argue that the idea of human rights is a Western construction, and Hunt's argument dovetails with that contention. However, the title of the book led me to expect a more comprehensive discussion of the history of human rights. This book does not address developments outside of France, Germany, and the United States (mostly the first site). Additionally, not to be too cynical about it, but that a scholar of the French Revolution should seek the origins of human rights and find it in the French Revolution is... well, it raises my eyebrows a bit.

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