BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Christianity the crucible of freedom
, August 30, 2014
INVENTING THE INDIVIDUAL:
The Origins of Western Liberalism
by Larry Siedentop
(UK: Allen Lane / Penguin)
Hardcover: 448 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
There are some allegedly self-evident things which modern Westerners take for granted themselves, and assume have always been taken for granted by everyone else.
These include individualism, in both its psychological and socio-political senses, and its corollary, human volition (Larry Siedentop provocatively asserts that “Augustine … invented the idea of the will”).
Thinkers who realise that the concept of individualism is not as timeless as the alternation of night and day, usually trace it back to the Enlightenment, the Reformation or, at the earliest, the Renaissance.
Eighteenth-century proponents of liberalism sometimes imagined that they were restoring a freedom and secularism which was enjoyed by citizens of the ancient world, but which was later stifled by Christian theocracy.
A decade ago, a current version of this view lay behind the opposition to any mention of Christianity in a proposed constitution for the European Union.
Siedentop’s book argues that, on the contrary, the roots of modern individualism, liberalism, democracy, equality, secularism, pluralism and respect for the interior conscience, are to be found in early and mediaeval Christianity.
Not that this conception was planned; as Siedentop puts it, liberalism “can be described as a natural rather than a legitimate child of Christianity”.
The book’s opening chapters are grouped under the general heading of The World Of Antiquity, and demonstrate that life in ancient Greece and Rome was far from being a utopia of free-thinking scepticism and rationality.
Instead, it was dominated by an authoritarian, patriarchal cult of the family, which was modified by the development of polytheism (originally local, tutelary deities), and by the emergence of the Greek polis and the Roman city, but never shed some of its original features.
The most important of these primeval dogmas was that of inequality — of an irrevocable assigned status and role, predetermined by an immutable natural law.
A man or woman was not a member of a common humanity, with his or her own opinions, feelings and aspirations to a personal destiny, but a unit within a social category with a fixed telos, or purpose.
The Jewish diaspora, with its belief in ethical monotheism, provided an early challenge to this mentality.
This challenge turned into a cultural explosion when it was universalised by Jesus, then systematised by Paul and disseminated by him and his missionary successors throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond.
Put simply, it was the message of moral equality, the warning that each and every man and woman, regardless of his or her temporal prestige, had a responsibility to get right with a God who is “no respecter of persons”.
Unlike paganism, the “church did not speak of fate, but rather of salvation or damnation, and so of a soul at risk in every person, of crucial choices open to each”.
Siedentop goes on to show how this principle evolved in Christendom through the years of Late Antiquity, the so-called “Dark Ages”, and Mediaevalism proper, up to about 1400.
(In the middle of this sweep of time appears Charlemagne, who insisted that every one of his subjects, great and small — even serfs — took an oath of loyalty; but, significantly in terms of respect for human agency, insisted that each understood what he or she was swearing).
Every decision to face martyrdom, and later on every decision to enter a monastery or convent, represented “an exercise of an individual will … an interior conviction that disregarded gender, class and status”.
Christianity thereby “democratised the ancient cult of the hero”.
Augustine of Hippo, mentioned above, pioneered autobiography with his Confessions, which emphasised the importance of a single person’s — any single person’s — relationship with God.
Political developments, ecclesiastical and temporal, also contained the seeds of individualism.
The story is too long, dense and complex to cover in a review, but the emerging administrative role of bishops as the Western Roman Empire declined; the rise of the papacy, its clashes with secular rulers and the recognition of their respective spheres; and the growing sophistication of canon law — all of these contributed to the breakdown of the old view of government’s role as the maintenance of unequal “natural” class distinctions.
Siedentop writes: “The example of the church as a unified legal system founded on the equal subjection of individuals thus gave birth to the idea of the modern state.”
In mediaeval Christendom, the fields of politics and law overlapped with that of philosophy, to produce new interpretations of natural law.
In antiquity, natural law was descriptive, referring to that which was self-evidently in accord with reason, such as the “fact” that some people were “naturally” slaves.
William of Ockham had no desire to jettison reason per se, but freed it up, arguing that “the self, which is a gift of God, is obligated by the principles of equality and reciprocity, by ‘right reason’”.
Through the influence of Christianity, natural law became first of all prescriptive, describing that which should be rather than a rigid what is, and later still came to mean “a subjective force or power intrinsic to man, and to a corresponding sphere of freedom, where action is neither commanded nor forbidden by ‘nature’”.
In other words, natural law became first of all a precursor of individual human rights, and secondly a harbinger of secularism and pluralism!
And then there are the liberalising influences of bourgeois towns from the 10th century, the universities from the 11th century, and the mendicant orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) from the 12th century — the list of agents of change goes on and on!
Siedentop’s thesis will appear violently counter-intuitive to many readers today, to whom pre-modern Christendom is a byword for repression and intolerance, rather than the (unwitting) crucible of liberalism, equality and freedom of thought.
Some historians, philosophers and theologians will no doubt accuse him of oversimplification and selective presentation of evidence.
However, any refutation which they attempt will have to match the range of his erudition, and the subtlety and depth of his analysis.
To which one can only say, “Good luck with that!”
Bill James is a Melbourne-based writer.