Revo­lu­tion­ary Thought

How “all men were cre­ated equal” be­came “self-ev­i­dent.”

The Washington Post Sunday - - Book World - Re­viewed by Maya Jasanoff


By Lynn Hunt

Nor­ton. 272 pp. $25.95

Afew 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 18th­cen­tury 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 ba- sis 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 lan- guage 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 self­in­ter­est; 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.

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