Human rights, story-ballet and insects: The Oxford Enlightenment programme for 2018-2019

Our 2018-2019 programme is spearheaded by events on human rights and the Enlightenment, a much-debated topic with contemporary implications. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, two emblematic documents took for granted the view that human beings were entitled to certain basic universal rights (albeit within clearly demarcated political communities). In August 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen began with a reference to ‘the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man’; while thirteen years earlier, the Founding Fathers of the nascent United States famously held ‘these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

In both cases reality on the ground did not match the universalist thrust of the celebratory Declarations. Moreover, eighteenth-century concepts of human rights should not be teleologically conflated with contemporary, post-war ideas and documents bearing similar titles (see, for example, Samuel Moyn’s account of the very recent history of present-day human rights). While trying to avoid such a distorting perspective, significant questions remain to be answered concerning, in the first place, the origins of the rights discourse so manifest in the American and French Declarations of the late eighteenth century; and, secondly, the intellectual genealogy of human rights from the Age of Revolutions onwards.

In our first event this year, the Besterman Lecture of the Voltaire Foundation on 15 November 2018, Keith Michael Baker of Stanford University – one of the foremost scholars of the French Revolution – will subject to close scrutiny different contexts and discussions of human rights in the early stages of the Revolution. The title of his lecture is ‘Writing Rights in 1789’. At the other end of the academic year, on 29 April 2019, Dan Edelstein (also of Stanford) will return to the origins of some of the basic notions at the heart of the Revolution in the inaugural George Rousseau Lecture, provisionally entitled ‘Liberty as Equality: Rousseau and Roman Constitutionalism’. The Lecture has been made possible by a generous gift from George Rousseau, a leading scholar of eighteenth-century culture, to Magdalen College (where the event will take place). The George Rousseau Lecture will be preceded by an afternoon colloquium (on the same day) on human rights and the Enlightenment, taking its cue from Dan Edelstein’s forthcoming book on the topic. We are delighted to welcome to Oxford for this discussion three major scholars of eighteenth-century political thought: Annelien de Dijn (Utrecht), Mark Philp (Warwick), and Céline Spector (Sorbonne, Paris).

Beyond this thematic focus, the Enlightenment Workshop returns in the second and third terms with a genuinely interdisciplinary programme on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European culture. Daniel Fulda, Director of the Enlightenment Research Centre at the University of Halle (IZEA), will show us how major Enlightenment ideas were represented visually. Emma Spary (Cambridge) will examine the relationship between humanism and eighteenth-century scholarship by focusing on botany and what she calls ‘the Enlightenment of ginseng’. Moving on from flora to fauna, Dominik Hünniger of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen will discuss the ways in which Enlightenment authors imagined and depicted the reproduction of insects. In papers on eighteenth-century British culture, Ros Ballaster (English, Oxford) will investigate the interface between theatre and the novel by focusing on Charlotte Lennox and Oliver Goldsmith, and Peter Sabor (McGill University, Montreal) will share with us some of the insights gained through his impressive editorial work on authors of the Burney family. In other sessions, Kate Tunstall (French, Oxford) will discuss representations of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Louis XV in 1757, and Julia Bührle (English, Oxford) will look at the links between eighteenth-century dance and literature in a session on the Enlightenment’s ‘story-ballet’. In the third term, Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile (co-director of the Research Center Sanssouci in Potsdam) will talk about eighteenth-century migration politics, while Maxine Berg (Warwick) will take us to one of the farthest reaches of the Enlightenment: Nootka Sound on the northwestern Pacific coast.

Last but not least, Richard Whatmore of the University of St Andrews will survey the activities of eighteenth-century Genevans in Ireland in a paper promisingly entitled ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans’. Professor Whatmore will accompany the rich menu of the Enlightenment Workshop with his series of six Carlyle Lectures on ‘The End of Enlightenment’. The dates and titles are available on the History Faculty website.

From eighteenth-century human rights and migration politics to the performance arts via ginseng and insects: we hope to provide something of interest to anyone who would like have a closer, unusual look at the European Enlightenment.

Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen)

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