On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Human Rights Law: Reading Samuel Moyn's the Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

By Zaremby, Justin | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Human Rights Law: Reading Samuel Moyn's the Last Utopia: Human Rights in History


Zaremby, Justin, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn attempts to correct the recent historiography of human rights and international law. He criticizes historians who fail to understand that theories of contemporary human rights, which envision rights in a world not dominated by the sovereignty of nation-states, did not evolve out of historic discussions of political and human rights. Moyn argues that international lawyers and advocates who fail to understand that today's idealistic definition of human rights arose unexpectedly in the 1970s lack the understanding and drive to properly advocate for today's utopian vision of rights. In making this claim, he rejects what historians might call a "whig" approach to human rights history--a historical narrative that reveals a clear evolutionary path toward progress. This Book Review examines Moyn's claims and discusses the origin of the term whig history. It then suggests that whig approaches to history, although possibly inaccurate, in fact have a persuasive power which advocates of human rights and international law could use to further Moyn's idealistic aims.

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In his "untimely meditation" on history, Friedrich Nietzsche reflected upon the extent to which too much history may be a bad thing. "We want to serve history," he noted, "only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate...." (1) Nietzsche's modern man finds himself in a constant struggle with history. The philosopher explains that

   [m]an ... braces himself against the great and ever greater
   pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways,
   it encumbers his steps as a dark invisible burden which he can
   sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men
   he is only too glad to disown, so as to excite their envy. (2)

An escape from the invisible shackles of history would bring man the happiness known only by animals grazing in the field, the ability to "sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past," and know a calm, blissful, and completely thoughtless form of happiness. (3) Nietzsche challenges his reader to discover that "the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture." (4) If man allows his entire life to be shaped by history, he cannot truly live. If man lives in a perpetual state of forgetfulness, he is hardly man. Stated with typical Nietzschean lyricism:

   It is true that only by imposing limits on this unhistorical
   element by thinking, reflecting, comparing, distinguishing, drawing
   conclusions, only through the appearance within that encompassing
   cloud of a vivid flash of light--thus only through the power of
   employing the past for the purposes of life and of again
   introducing into history that which has been done and is gone--did
   man become man: but with an excess of history man again ceases to
   exist, and without that envelope of the unhistorical he would never
   have begun or dared to begin. (5)

Properly pursued, the analysis of the past helps define the present. Pursued without limit, history strips the present of any value. The present must be understood as neither the inevitable result of the progress of history, nor as a self-standing moment, born as if from the head of Zeus and divorced from all that came before.

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, historian Samuel Moyn does not cite Nietzsche. (6) Nevertheless, Nietzsche's concerns about balancing the historic life with the unhistoric life are highly relevant to Moyn's subject. Moyn's protagonist is not one historical figure. Instead, he writes about a particular vision of human rights, created at a particular historical moment, with a particular set of character traits. Moyn's human rights are not merely a "familiar set of indispensible liberal freedoms" or "more expansive principles of social protection.

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