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Did Christianity Invent the Individual?: A review

Inventing IndividualLarry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge: Belknap Press), 2014, 434 pp + viii. 

At the very beginning of Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop laments in terms that will resonate with many. Many goods of the past are lost. The western world, taken as a whole, has mislaid its cultural and historical identity. The book is, at its core, about the self-understanding of our own society. History, says Siedentop, is a key way to achieve this self-understanding. The west is losing its way, and he wants to help it find it again.

Siedentop, born in 1936, was for most of his academic life a Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. He is considered a political philosopher, but here he takes a turn as intellectual historian. The results of this turn are satisfying, as Inventing the Individual is impressive in its scope, depth, and historical sensitivity. Siedentop wants to tell the story of how ‘the individual’ become the core ‘organizing social role’ in the west. He claims that a ‘fundamental change in moral belief shaped the world we live in’ (p.3) but also that this change had unintended consequences, which will help trace the story of western liberalism. The ‘fundamental change’, he claims, was the arrival of Christianity. Siedentop’s central thesis is that the Christian faith was the foundation upon which liberalism was built. The history, the story, which he tells is remarkable.

He begins the story by expositing the Greek worldview: the society built around the patriarchal family cult, which morphed and changed as the highest form of community became the polis, the ancient city. This also was superseded by a further shift in ideas, as the logos was no longer centred on the polis but was in fact centred on a universal order: a natural law. Then along came Jesus of Nazareth, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Here, says Siedentop, everything changed again. The Apostle Paul began to write about people not as members of a household cult or an earthly polis, but as moral agents who stand before God. People, in themselves, were important because they were made in God’s image and had to answer to Him. Paul, writes Siedentop, laid the ‘ontological foundation for the individual’ (p. 63) For Paul, the ‘human will is pre-social’ (p. 64), laying the social foundations for a voluntaristic view of social relations and hierarchies.

The story Siedentop tells from this point is vast. Space permits only a cursory overview. Augustinian philosophical conceptions of the will transformed the west’s understanding of the self. The rise of monasticism, the social changes wrought in a Christianised Roman Empire, and the early hints of distinctions between temporal and spiritual power are all discussed. Further, we read a compelling account of the innovations and creations of the Carolingian Empire, as Christian magistrates developed a consciousness of their people as a “Christian people”. They were not merely people, even, but “souls”. These more philosophical changes were, quite naturally, accompanied by changes in jurisprudence, which in turn impacted law codes themselves.

In amongst these paradigm shifts, Siedentop observes that the idea of natural law and natural right began to have an important role in Christendom. He also makes a surprising, but ultimately satisfying, case for the important role that Feudalism played in the ‘invention of the individual’. A very different development was the further separation of temporal and spiritual power which occurred during what is now termed ‘the papal revolution’. Certainly, this resulted in a concentration of both powers in the papacy. However, the arguments for the papal revolution were in fact nuanced arguments against the spiritual power of civil rulers. At around this time, canon lawyers began to reason along the lines of the importance of the individual in legal matters, and the formerly aristocratic shape to ‘reason’ itself was gradually democratised. Individual people had not only moral agency, but thought they could access a common reason for themselves.

Siedentop emphasises the role of friars and monastic institutions in all of these developments, especially the Dominican and Franciscan orders, who produced schools of scholastics and nominalists. Social changes continued afoot, with urban insurrections further enfranchising people and giving them a political identity that extended beyond that of mere subject. All of these elements in the history of Europe are, for Siedentop, important for understanding the emergence of the nation state, the establishment of both ecclesiastical and civil democratic governance, and, ultimately, the invention of the individual.

Siedentop’s narrative is enormous, stretching from pre-Socratic Greece through until the century prior to the Reformation. This is arresting for the reader, not only for its scale, but also for the fact that the story ends where it does. For one of the author’s key claims is that the foundations of liberalism were not laid by Luther, Locke and Descarte. In fact, Siedentop’s boldest historiographical revision is that the Renaissance had little to do with the invention of the individual. On the contrary, the foundations for liberalism were laid by Paul, Charlemagne and Ockham. The Reformation was not the key breach in the pre-liberal medieval worldview (contra Brad Gregory). By the time the Reformation rolled around, it was too late. Calvin and Hobbes had little work left to do, let alone Paine, Voltaire, and Rawls. In his own words:

 

The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries; belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or ‘natural rights, and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality. (p. 332)

 

As readers will be able to tell from the quote above, Inventing the Individual makes compelling reading. Siedentop achieves what many fail at: a compelling meta-historical narrative of the impact of ideas. The history is compelling. The scale is difficult to traverse, let alone interact with at a deep level.

One concern, significant but not insurmountable, is the portrait of Christianity that Siedentop paints. His efforts in this regard are, to a large extent, admirable. Many scholars mangle Christian theology quite badly, resulting in some highly dubious claims. Siedentop does not do this, at least not as poorly as some others. Indeed, his reading of what he terms the ‘moral revolution’ brought about the rise of the Christian faith is partly correct. Yet, he is missing some of the big picture of Christian theology which means he ultimately overplays his hand.

This proves problematic for Siedentop’s historical narrative. In the end he makes the same mistakes that many make even from inside the church today. He is selective about which parts of the scriptures are utilised in his historical narrative of the development of Christian theology. The New Testament is privileged, especially the writings of Paul. These do emphasise individual salvation and the power of the gospel in the Christian’s life. But what is forgotten by Siedentop and by many in the evangelical church today is that the Old Testament serves as an equal foundation for Christian ethics and Christian theology. And so while Siedentop’s argument is compelling so far as it goes, his highly individualistic reading of Christian theology seems to be driven more by the unfolding historical narrative of the concepts of individual conscience, rights and responsibilities, and less by the Christian faith itself. Hence, he overplays his hand.

Crucially, the communal and household-centered ethic of the Christian faith is absent from Siedentop’s interpretation and narrative. His is what I would describe (with sincere apologies to my many baptist brethren) as a 20th century “revivalistic baptist” interpretation of Christianity, which overlooks the continuities between the Church between the Old and New Covenants. People in the Old Testament are considered individuals, while also being a part of a household. They are the ‘son of Jesse’ or the ‘daughter of Laban’. This emphasis on the family and the household is not done away with in the New Testament church; far from it. If anything it is further emphasised.

New Testament believers are a part of the household of God, as well as their natural earthly household. Paul and Peter both devote generous space in their epistles to household and family ethics. Household baptism was practiced in the New Testament church. All of this points us to a more household-centric view of human society in early Christianity than Siedentop allows for. This household-centric social theory continued to hold sway in European society, and emerges quite clearly during the Reformation and in the theology of later English Reformed divines, before being usurped by Enlightenment liberalism and individualism. On that understanding of history there must be more at the bottom of western liberalism than Pauline ontology.

The Christianity to which Siedentop gives the credit for liberalism is, in the end, not the Christianity of the Apostles. Not in its entirety, anyhow. This does not mean that Christianity had nothing to do with the rise of liberal individualism. On the contrary, Siedentop makes a strong case that it is central to this. But to suggest, as he seems to, that it was a necessary outworking of Christian belief is to misunderstand an important part of the story. It is as though Siedentop watched the opera of Christian history from behind a pillar. What he sees, he can see quite well. But he’s missing some crucial context for the action on the stage. Siedentop has done a marvelous job with the part of the story he can see clearly. It is now up to someone else to tell the part of the story that he missed.

By Simon Kennedy

Simon is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He resides in Geelong, Victoria with his wife and four children.

One reply on “Did Christianity Invent the Individual?: A review”

Thanks for the interesting and probing comments. The first question that arises is: can Christianity over the ages be described in just a few terms as though it was not a multi-faceted complex Weltanschauung that provided an enormously wide platform for seeking power, influence and wealth?
If history demonstrates one thing clearly, it is that Christianity gave rise to countless motivations in those dubbed Christian knights who then rode off to conquer the world. The Cathars of 13th century Lanquedoc are the best possible example of those “Good men” who departed from the orthodox view…as “individuals”…only to lose their lives and gain little notice in all of Western history!

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