The ‘Rights of Man’: Our debt to the Enlightenment?

Barely a week passes without some news story, from somewhere around the globe, involving human rights – most often, sadly, a story of their violation. But how far back does the story of human rights itself go? How deeply rooted in history is the idea that human beings have rights that they can assert against state and other forms of power?

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This is not a question a single book can answer. But Vincenzo Ferrone’s new book The Enlightenment and the Rights of Man goes further than most. It tells the story how, in Western Europe, the notion of the rights of human beings grew and took root, from beginnings in the seventeenth century to the late eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The starting point is natural law theory. This itself has foundations in antiquity and medieval thought. But it was in the seventeenth century, with figures such as Grotius and Pufendorf, that it was elaborated into a fully worked-out body of thought. The rights of individuals were in fact not one of its primary concerns. But in allowing for a source of law that lay beyond the limits of existing or ‘positive’ law, it made room for an idea of individual rights that pre-dated and could claim priority over the law of the state. It was this idea that later thinkers such as Locke, Barbeyrac, Rousseau, and Filangieri could take up and develop. What was needed, finally, was for talented popularizers such as Voltaire, Diderot, Mirabeau, and Schiller to spread the gospel of the rights of man to public opinion at large – which, as Ferrone shows, they did with gusto, and with considerable success. Through their efforts, the rights of man were entrenched in public discourse, becoming a political cause in the process.

This of course is not to say that the political programme of the rights of man has ever been universally accepted. On the contrary, it has been contested, and has suffered numerous setbacks. Ferrone indeed closes his book with the story of one such defeat.

It concerns the short-lived order of the Illuminati, an offshoot of freemasonry. Committed to radical political aims, it was founded in 1776 and banned in 1784. The fear of its influence, exaggerated for propagandistic purposes by its enemies, led to repressive measures in a number of jurisdictions, both Catholic and Protestant. The excesses of the French Revolution after 1792 did the rest to discredit claims to individual human rights in large parts of Europe. The revival of the idea, in the political struggles of the nineteenth century, lies beyond the scope of the book.

For Ferrone himself the cause of human rights, as formulated in and by the Enlightenment, is far from spent. In a time when many have queried the legacy of the Enlightenment, he delivers a passionate defence of its central claims. But whatever side of the argument you are on, you will find in his book a narrative that gives ample food for thought. The case for the illumination provided by intellectual history is rarely made as forcefully as it is here.

– Kevin Hilliard

 

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)