Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fiction and Human Rights

In a scathing article, Jerome Stolnitz (1991) argued that art has only short term effects. Greek drama is regarded as powerful but, says Stolnitz: “There is no evidence that Aristophanes shortened the Peloponnesian War by so much as a day” (p. 200). Stolnitz asserts that effects of art simply do not appear in history.

Except that—as Frank Hakemulder has pointed out to me—they do. They appear in the history of human rights. As historian Lynn Hunt (2007) has shown, the establishment of human rights has been strongly affected by literary art.

We now think of human rights as universal, but Hunt shows that 300 years ago even the idea of human rights was not present in European society. It had to be invented. By the end of the eighteenth century a change was accomplished.

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