Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop (Belknap/Harvard, 448 pp., $35)
Whence come the principles of modern liberal societies — “liberal” in the classical sense of devotion to human liberty, with a private sphere protected by natural rights, the equal moral dignity of individuals, freedom of conscience, and a limited state? When and how did Western societies come by such foundational ideas of human freedom?
One usual account is that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment drove such discoveries, that in the several centuries from Machiavelli to Mill, the Western mind (in Jefferson’s words) “burst the chains” of “monkish ignorance and superstition,” with outmoded religious beliefs being at least modified and often jettisoned in favor of “the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” Prior to modernity, in this account, all is gloom and oppression.
A variant of this view is to exalt the ancient cities of Athens and Rome, the birthplaces of both republican government and political philosophy, as early exemplars of freedom and secular government. Then the thesis is that Renaissance humanists and early modern theorists came up with the new doctrine of natural rights, but only in an encounter with the thought of the ancient pagans, shunting the “dark ages” of Christendom to the sidelines.
Not so fast, says Larry Siedentop in Inventing the Individual. In this wide-ranging work of intellectual, cultural, and political history, Siedentop, an emeritus Oxford fellow, argues that liberalism, secularism, human equality and natural rights, the social contract, and the shielding of the private from the public and of society from the state should not be treated as innovations of modernity in either of these ways. Instead we should understand these essential features of the modern West as products of Christianity itself.
For Siedentop, “Christian moral beliefs emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.” The peculiar insights and commitments of Christianity took many centuries of development to unfold in all their dimensions. But it is notable that Siedentop draws his story to a close with the 15th century: The foundations of liberalism were in place before the Renaissance and Reformation, before Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, before the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the 18th century. Rarely does a revisionist history topple so many pillars of conventional understanding.
And rarely has it been done so well. Siedentop writes with a clear elegance, in over two dozen pithy chapters that move the reader briskly through almost two millennia of history. He begins in the ancient pagan world of Greece and Rome, where religion was essentially a family cult, where the city was built on a polytheistic “confederation of cults,” and where notions of human equality had essentially no political or moral purchase. This closed world is burst open by Saint Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles who “wagers on human equality,” preaching a salvation available to all — and therefore also a conscience in each human being, a moral agency and responsibility resting in each human soul. The most important relationship in each human life, for Paul’s Christian evangelism, is not the son’s or daughter’s relation to the family, or the citizen’s relation to the city, but the individual’s relation to God. These individuals, like the God in whose image they are made, are free. Thus they have claims on their fellow men, in ethics, law, and politics, claims untrammeled by questions of rank, status, family, or membership in cult or tribe.
This was explosive stuff. The noble hero and the great prince were supplanted by the humble saint, lifted to glory by his obedience to the divine law of charity. The poor had the same access to grace as the rich — perhaps more access. Social identities took a back seat to basic human dignity and moral equality. Western men — and women — entered “a world in which individual conscience rather than assigned status provided the foundation for social relations.” Dignity now attached even to work, which the ancient pagans had disdained. And the ambiguities of Christian belief and doctrine gave new impetus to the cause of learning.
Siedentop’s tale radiates outward and ranges forward into the foundations of the medieval city, the death of slavery in Christendom, improved understandings of marriage, property, and corporate organization, the struggle for the “liberty of the Church,” the development of canon and civil law, the evolving notion of a sovereign state, and the conversion of the classical idea of natural law into the medieval (no, not the modern) idea of natural rights.
Major figures in the story include Augustine, Charlemagne, Pope Gregory VII, Gratian, Abelard, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Each of them played a role in advancing the cause of equal freedom and dignity for “all souls,” helping to clear a space where the individual could stake his claim against the pretensions of “superior” birth, “natural” authority, or the refinements of reason. And with them all Siedentop seems comfortably at home, wearing his learning lightly, while candidly relying also on favorite historians old and new: Fustel de Coulanges and Guizot in the 19th century, Peter Brown and Brian Tierney in the 20th.
This is not a flawless book. My non-specialist eyes spotted a careless error about the Resurrection in one place, an oddly inverted reading of Plato’s Republic in another, and a superficial understanding of what the author calls American “fundamentalism” in the conclusion. But these are small defects in a book that is extraordinarily rich in explaining the central developments of Western civilization.
As challenging as Siedentop’s book will be to academics in various schools of thought, it also contains very important insights for people engaged in the public square, especially where religion and politics intersect. For those who champion the cause of “secularism,” it will be a salutary shock to learn that the very idea of the secular is a Christian one — that in the Christian ideas of the individual, of the conscience, and of the Church as the body of Christ lay all the predicates for a politics of freedom, of individual choice, and of limited state authority occupying a sphere separate from religious authority.
The modern heirs of medieval liberalism, taking a more atomistic and utilitarian line than their forebears, create, in Siedentop’s view, a “liberal heresy” that “deprives liberal secularism of its profoundly moral roots.” Hence the “embarrassment” of contemporary Europeans as they thrust away any recognition of the Christian foundations of their civilization. They have privileged the secular over the religious, and made enemies of two institutions — church and state — that grew up together as brothers. But “secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” Siedentop says, and it is not a doctrine of “non-belief or indifference” but a way of supplying “the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended.” Those who raise the banner of “secularism” while they attack religious belief as retrograde, irrational, or tyrannical are sawing off the limb on which they sit.
Those on the religious side of our culture wars, who rightly worry about contemporary liberalism’s corrosive effect on moral norms of conscience and its increasing attachment to statism, should imbibe Siedentop’s caution not to mount a counterrevolution against liberalism or secularism properly understood. Far from there being any fundamental incompatibility between the Christian faith and political doctrines of human equality, natural rights, and individual choice, the latter should be recognized as the offspring of the former.
One hears in certain Christian intellectual circles today a note of despair that the American experiment in liberalism has run its course, and the view that our political order has had, from its very birth, a predisposition of implacable hostility to Christian faith and the moral character of society, a hostility becoming more and more apparent in our time. The American Founders, in this account, did not “build better than they knew”: They built with termite-infested timbers, and we know it now because the house is falling down around us.
But the American Founding did not spring full-grown from the brow of John Locke (about whom much more could be said both pro and con). Nor is the anti-monkish ignorance of Thomas Jefferson our only ancestral idea. The political doctrines of our Founders’ liberalism sprang also from the sturdy faith of John Witherspoon, from the theology of Jonathan Edwards, from the natural-rights teachings of medieval canonists and philosophers, from the insights into the free human will of Saint Augustine, and from the caritas for all souls that we see in the letters of Saint Paul. We would do well to remember whence we really came, to recover our own story, and to tell it all over again.
– Mr. Franck is the director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.