The most dramatic feature of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia is a graph that tracks appearances of the phrase “human rights” in TheNew York Times and the Times of London since 1785. Essentially flat until the turn of the twentieth century, the line begins to move around the outbreak of the First World War and rises dramatically with the entry of the United States in World War II. The early years of the Cold War, however, see a decline to pre-war levels. References really take off only in the early 1970s. By 1977, the year Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize, they were mentioned more than 3,000 times, compared with the previous peak of just under 1,000.

The graph is arresting because it belies the standard story about the rise of human rights. According to that story, human rights emerged from classical philosophy, went on to inspire the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth...


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