The literary roots of human rights: Scholar points to the novel as a key spur to the sympathy that precedes notion of rights

From The Harvard Gazzette:

Liter_2 The aim was determining the truth and the technique was torture. Pain was administered in secret, under strict guidelines, often with a judge and doctor present. Once a suspect confessed, the confession would have to be repeated in court. But this perfectly legal practice began to draw howls of protest from the day’s humanitarians — or those in 1764 who might be considered “humanitarians” by 2008 standards. Anti-torture advocates like Italian philosopher and politician Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria, argued that under torture “the stronger would last while the weak would tell you what you wanted to hear.” So said Lynn Hunt, a professor of modern European history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a distinguished expert on the history of human rights.

Parallels between 18th and 21st century perceptions of human rights were underscored by Hunt, a scholar of the French Revolution and the author of “Inventing Human Rights: A History,” in an April 14 talk that concluded the 2007-2008 Dean’s Lecture Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Hunt, who was introduced as a “leading historian of our time” by Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the University Committee on Human Rights Study, spoke of how rights that Americans consider “self-evident” were anything but that in the sweep of history. Beginning in the mid-1700s, cultural shifts — including, Hunt argued, the emergence of the novel — helped create a human rights movement.

More here.