Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014) (i)


It is the thesis of Larry Siedentop that the West has a way of thinking about the individual that is different to those of other societies, and he believes he can account for this. In ancient times people thought of themselves as part of a family, and the cities that developed were confederations of the cults practised within families. Such ideas were turned upside down by the Apostle Paul, whose teaching about salvation entailed individuals possessing independent moral agency and a will that was in a sense pre-social. It took centuries for the implications of this view to be worked out, but such things as the destruction of the ancient family, the enhancement of the position of women, and the atrophy of slavery show it in operation. In early medieval times the church focussed on souls, rather than the claims of family (the ideas of Jack Goody may be apposite here.) Crimes came to be understood in terms of intention rather than outcome, and moral intuitions increasingly came to be grafted onto legal concepts; rather than looking backward to Roman times, Carolingian rulers saw themselves as doing something new.

The church offered the example of a unified legal system founded on the equal subjection of individuals. Indeed, canon law applied general principles to individual cases, where Roman law  gave birth to the idea of the modern state, canon law being the first modern legal system. But the doctrine that underlay such understandings contained the seeds of its own destruction, for it was open to nation states to accept the principles of natural right without the Christian underpinning. In the thirteenth century pope Innocent IV argued that all persons, whether or not they were Christians, had natural rights, and thinkers such as the Franciscans Duns Scotus and William of Ockham emphasised the importance of the will of an individual rather than the proper use of reason.  Indeed, for the latter ‘the egalitarian moral intuitions generated by Christianity [could be] turned against doctrines and institutions that did not acknowledge the difference  between acting from conviction and mere conformity behaviour.’ Hence, religion paved the way for its own retreat into a sphere of private opinion, and modern secularism was its unlooked-for child; liberalism ‘preserves Christian ontology without the metaphysics of salvation.’ Siedentop therefore feels able to dispense with the significance that was attributed to the renaissance by Jacob Burckhardt, who exemplifies an inclination by historians ‘to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages.’

This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. Its attribution of unexpected consequences to Christianity recalls the widely discussed thesis of Lynn White jnr that the religion was to blame for ecological crisis; the linking of it with individualism the views of Colin Morris, although the reluctance to define terms made his thesis less compelling than it could have been. Books that make big statements are worth thinking about (to be continued.)


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