What Artists Can Do

The HBO mini-series Rome is the stuff of nightmares.  Murder was done routinely to achieve political as well as financial ends during the period depicted in the show — a period of civil war that accelerated the bloodletting, to be sure. If the historians consulted for that show are correct, Rome’s elite routinely consigned innocent people including loyal soldiers to an early death merely to acquire what they wanted, and faced no sanction.  Further down the social ladder, slaves, prostitutes, even children were frequently sacrificed for the most trivial of reasons, their murderers also seemingly unpunished.

In America today, and in the countries that also built their governments and judicial systems on Enlightenment principles, the life of every individual is seen as deserving of full protection by the state.  Even if a murder victim is a criminal in the act of committing a crime, our system is supposed to work to redeem that lost life.  In war, the common understanding now is that a soldier’s death is an unusual event, a breakdown in the system, to be avoided whenever possible. 

The jihadists’ willingness to sacrifice themselves as well as the lives of innocents is what avowedly gives them whatever advantage they’ve got.  That we cherish the lives of individuals is interpreted as a sign of our weakness and decadance, says Osama Bin Laden.  The jihadists know they can use our belief that every person has a fundamental right to life against us.  They draw on a more ancient understanding of justice, one that relatively devalues individual life, remorselessly sacrificing thousands of people in the name of crusades for God and power.

How did we get from there to here?  From Rome to the U.S. Constitution?  From the Dark Ages to today?  From nightmares to dreams? 

According to this review on WSJ.com, author Lynn Hunt suggests (in “Inventing Human Rights”) literature made a crucial contribution:

The definition of human rights, she argues, “indeed their very existence, depends on emotions as much as on reason.” Accordingly, rights continue to evolve “because their emotional basis continues to shift.” Jefferson’s assertions resonated, she says, thanks to “brain changes” that had occurred in the 18th century. “Ordinary people had . . . new understandings that came from new kinds of feelings.”

But where did these new feelings come from? Ms. Hunt offers two answers. First, new forms of art, especially the epistolary novel, focused on the lives of ordinary people and thus encouraged a broadening and deepening of empathy. “Can it be coincidental,” she asks, “that the three greatest novels of psychological identification of the eighteenth century–Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) and Rousseau’s Julie (1761)–were all published in the period that immediately preceded the appearance of the concept of ‘the rights of man’?” Second, the public felt a growing revulsion toward judicial torture, a practice she describes in grisly detail. This revulsion, in turn, stemmed from a new respect for the human body, in particular its individuality.

The reviewer, Joshua Muravchik, finds her theory “not entirely convincing,” by the way. It feels right to me, however.  Who better than an artist, a writer, to go outside the hierarchy of power to show in memorable ways what “the little people” normally trampled by history think and feel; to educate our imaginations to see souls, not masses?

The jihadis need a good novelist.  Or a mini-series.   


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