The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 352 pp., $27.95.
PEOPLE THINK of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” This observation from one of Philip Roth’s novels applies with particular force to the contemporary cult of human rights. Most people today believe that the prominence of rights is the almost-inevitable conclusion of a long process of moral development. Originating in Greco-Roman philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion, so the story goes, the idea of human rights expressed a cosmopolitan vision of universal humanity, which went on to find expression in modern times in the English Civil War, the French and American Revolutions, various antislavery movements, the Second World War, and the struggles against colonialism and racism. The history of the West is a continuous unfolding of this majestic idea, and if contemporary Western societies are superior to others, past and present, it is because of their respect for personal liberties.
Cited at the beginning of The Last Utopia by Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University, Roth’s observation encapsulates the central theme of Moyn’s brilliantly illuminating book. For anyone who reached adulthood in the United States and other Western countries during the past ten or twenty years, human rights are an immemorial inheritance, only now properly developed, which provides the only possible framework for moral and political thought. Over the last few decades, Moyn writes:
a new field has crystallized and burgeoned. Almost unanimously, contemporary historians have adopted a celebratory attitude toward the emergence and progress of human rights, providing recent enthusiasms with uplifting backstories.