HY200: The Rights of Man: A Pre-Modern History of Rights-Based Discourse in the West
Dr Tim Hochstrasser
Human Rights are often assumed to have a precise twentieth-century origin in the 1948 Universal Declaration or in the succeeding decades of increasing activism. However, the history of human rights discourse and its practical impact emerged as only the latest stage of a sequence of intellectual debates and real-life struggles in specific historical settings over political, religious, economic rights, broadly defined. Different cultural milieus have produced a variety of contexts for working out tensions between claims by individuals or minorities for autonomy on the one hand and the rival demands of collective obligation and identity on the other. This course seeks to explore an (inevitably selective) range of these historical contexts in order to demonstrate the continuity of perennial themes of conflict between the claims of individual actors and corporate institutions, whether states, churches, empires or other institutions, while also showing how and when key changes take place in the recognition of rights of political action, conscience, property ownership, gender identity and workers’ rights etc. The growth of toleration and free speech, the abolition of slavery and torture, and the role of Declarations of Rights are all examined, but less familiar subjects also find their place. The contribution of the conceptual legacy and historical inspiration of Greece and Rome will be recognised as will the crucial role of the political thought of the High Middle Ages, and at the other end of the course specific connection will be made to the recent development of human rights organisations. In each session a contrasted selection of contemporary writings will be studied to recover the intellectual framework of the discussion and the role of the dispositive political, social, and economic circumstances of the debate are also considered.