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Cultural Waves: The Ancient Greek Contribution to Human Rights

Date: Thu. April 2nd, 2015, 4:00 pm-5:00 pm
Location: Clark Hall Room 206

The U.S. government’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” since 9/11 has made the topic of basic human rights newly urgent. Professor Sternberg suggests that human rights concepts arose from humane discourse that developed in “cultural waves.” Through close philological work on ancient pity, Greek oiktos and eleos, she discovered that Athenians of the classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) invented humane values, even though they conspicuously failed to live up to them. In this, they resembled Thomas Jefferson, who owned more than 175 slaves when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and are entitled to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Professor Sternberg’s paper offers a comparison of two historical moments (Classical Athens and the 18th century Enlightenment), a discussion very much indebted to Lynn Hunt and William M. Reddy, and considers the Greek contribution to human rights law.

About the Speaker:
Rachel Sternberg (PhD, Bryn Mawr), associate professor of Classics and History at Case Western Reserve University, wrote a book Tragedy Offstage: Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens (University of Texas Press, 2006) and edited a collection of essays titled Pity and Power in Ancient Athens (Cambridge University Press, 2005) She is interested in the history of emotion, emotional discourse and moral rhetoric, and the reception of the classical tradition in the age of Jefferson. Her current focus is on the Greek contribution to the invention of human rights concepts. She teaches Greek language, literature, and history.

This event is sponsored by the Department of Classics and the Department of History.


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