Inventing the Individual

The Origins of Western Liberalism

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Larry Siedentop
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , October
     2017.
     448 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780674979888.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Justice. Rule of law. Rights. Equality. These terms continue to mark social and political discourse in the modern West. Debates often swirl around the historical genealogy of them and the best moral or philosophical justifications or motivations for them. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual seeks to show that Christianity has gifted these concepts to the modern West in both intentional and unintentional, but more often overlooked, ways through the centuries. 

To make such a claim plausible and even persuasive, Siedentop offers a survey of intellectual and cultural history. Twenty-five chapters constitute six parts of the book: part 1 looks anew at “the world of antiquity” (7-50); part 2 describes the “moral revolution” that was Christianity (51-112); part 3 explains how papal and ecclesiastical law prompted Western society “toward the idea of fundamental law” (113-64); part 4 reconsiders feudalism and assesses how “Europe acquires its identity” (165-224); part 5 suggests how canon law birthed “a new model of government,” the modern nation-state (225-80); and the sixth part considers in a textured way “the birth pangs of modern liberty” by looking anew at how “the Renaissance has been grossly inflated” (337, see 281-348).

The book pushes against a number of common assumptions. Whereas many today might think of Christianity (at least its more traditional or orthodox forms) as being conservative regarding the constitution and centrality of the family unit, the early Christians acutely disrupted the family as a religious site of primary importance in the antique world (115). Otherworldly concerns have consistently prompted moral reform (161, 176). The development of canon law as a distinct area with particular expertise and criteria helped create space for a religion-less political mechanism known as the secular state (253, 267, 275). 

Perhaps most notably, Siedentop says that “liberalism rests on the moral assumptions of Christianity. It preserves Christian ontology without the metaphysics of salvation” (338). The book makes a strong argument that Christianity was the most significant source in commending the notion of personal and volitional responsibility (over against mere family or social mores) and thus of the equality of all humans made in the image of God (as opposed to the assumption of natural inequality in the antique world). Like the historical work of Brian Tierney, then, Siedentop helps show that human rights, rule of law, and equal rights are concerns prompted by this ontological and moral revolution ingredient in the Christian religion (albeit often inadequately or inconsistently applied in various ways).

Siedentop’s claim may presume too much in its second statement, namely, that liberalism preserves an ontology like that of Christianity (or of centrist commitments held by mainstream Christians, admitting that there is variety on diverse fringes across time and space). Others (such as Peter Berkowitz, Patrick Deneen, and Charles Taylor) have shown ways in which liberalism has tended to act parasitically and not preservatively in this regard, which raises questions regarding whether or not concepts such as equal rights can and will be rationally defended apart from an abiding, preserved, and enervated commitment to an ontology like that of early Christianity. Is there some other metaphysic that will offer a similar motivation for jolting a concern for opposing natural inequality? In what ways can we function without an operative metaphysics of creation that prizes every human equally (whether through the doctrine of bearing the divine image or some other such ontological claim) and thus undergirds what is now increasingly codified in secular law? 

A variety of questions can and should be raised about a host of moves made in the execution of this argument. At times Siedentop’s claims seem to stretch the evidence to the breaking point. For example, is it really the case that early Christian persecution rendered “the idea of the individual, or moral equality, more intelligible” (80)? That he shows personal moral responsibility discussed amidst such struggles does not in and of itself demonstrate a clarity regarding the notion of the individual. Does his claim that nominalism encourages equality not blur a debate about human rights with a logically distinct discussion of metaphysics (236)? These and other queries are worth exploring further, for this book does hang its argumentative hat ultimately on its ability to make sense of the variegated intellectual and cultural evidence that spans several millennia and multiple civilizations. 

Siedentop points to the value of a number of panoramic tomes that seek to take in the sweep of intellectual history with what he deems necessary “audacity”—works by F. Guizot, A. O. Lovejoy, H. Maine, P. Brown, D. MacCulloch, W. E. H. Lecky, R. W. and A. J. Carlyle, and P. A. Rahe (365)—and it would be fair to add his own name to this august list. Like the sweeping studies of others seeking to assess the intellectual and cultural fate of Christianity in the modern West (books by Funkenstein, MacIntyre, Milbank, Gregory, Schneewind, Rieff, and Taylor), Siedentop’s book operates at both a panoramic and a particular level. It makes broad claims about trends functioning over many centuries and connecting intellectual and common history (e.g., the rise of late medieval nominalism and its effects on early modern constitutions). At the same time, it exercises a host of judgments about specific texts and particular cultural shifts (e.g., the development of the Benedictine Rule). A book such as Siedentop’s volume deserves to challenge us at both levels and to elicit from us careful conversation in both terrains.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orland, FL.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Larry Siedentop is emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford.

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