The Invention of Human Rights in France

171 :  A Concept in French Cultural History
Fall 2023
Class No: 31014
115 Social Sciences
Susan Maslan
12:30 PM - 1:59 PM

France prides itself on being the birthplace and the home of human rights which were first articulated in the Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789). Indeed, it conceives many of its engagements around the world today as the necessary corollary of its commitment to human rights. Why was it that the idea of human rights first came into being in France? How did a notion of the “human” evolve there and how did the idea of “rights” get attached to it? How and why did literature participate in the creation of what we might call a culture or a “mentalité” of human rights? Why and how did rights appear as a remedy to problems of suffering and inequality? How did a specifically literary discourse act upon and with other discourses, e.g., political and economic? Can we distinguish a literary history of human rights?

In this course we will examine the development of the idea and the figure
of the human—that is, of some nature that is specific to human beings, on
the one hand, but that is shared by all of them on the other. We will see
how the human evolves in relation to the State, the family, and love. We
will examine the relation between citizenship and humanity—why and when are some humans and some citizens? Who is included and who is excluded from these categories? We will also study critiques of human rights and debates over human rights both from the earliest period of the invention of human rights and in our period. Readings will include primary literary texts such as Corneille, Horace, Montesquieu, Les Lettres persanes, Rousseau, Le Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité and more.  We will also discuss some of the voluminous secondary literature: Hannah Arendt, Samuel Moyn, Jacques Rancière and more.