Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
by Larry Siedentop
Penguin, 2015, 448 pages, $22.99
If you go to Florence and visit the Medici-Ricardi Palazzo you will find, installed by Ricardi between 1682 and 1685, a cycle of frescos painted by Luca Giordano. The remarkable thing about this cycle is that there are no Christian references at all. The cycle begins with the Birth of Man but we do not have the Creator reaching out to touch Adam as in the Sistine Chapel, we have Father Time in the background, we have blindfolded Fate with the globe of the world in her hand and we have many figures that a classics scholar would easily identify as coming from Greek and Roman antiquity. In other words a narrative derived from ancient Greece has replaced the Christian narrative. The cycle bears witness to one of the outcomes of Renaissance thought, that the glory of ancient Greece should rival that of Christendom.
The Renaissance was followed by the Enlightenment in which, especially in France, a sceptical spirit arose that damned Christian culture and would replace it with pure autonomous rationality. The figures of Voltaire, Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach come to mind. During the French Revolution clerics were murdered en masse. Notre Dame in Paris was renamed the Temple of Reason and the date reverted to Year One.
Even in quiet England, Christianity was attacked by David Hume in his Natural History of Religion and by Edward Gibbon in the controversial chapters XV and XVI of his Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. We could add, in more recent times, Bertrand Russell’s silliness about the faith and our own dear demented new atheists. It seems that Christianity is fair game for intellectuals outside the discipline of theology, especially if those intellectuals have gained fame in other disciplines.
The following quotation from Virginia Woolf, writing to her sister in 1928, illustrates my point:
I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.
These are examples of an undeclared civil war in Europe that pitches secularism against Christianity. However, church historians, especially those engaged in the field of the history of ideas, are beginning to hit back and have demonstrated that the accepted narrative of the Church’s involvement in European civilisation is almost completely wrong.
Such an academic is Larry Siedentop. Inventing the Individual belongs to the genre of the history of ideas, much like Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind or Taylor’s Sources of the Self. Siedentop, a fellow of Keble College, Oxford, gives us an accessible journey through the transformations of the self from the pre-classical Western family, through ancient Greece and Rome and the rise of the Church in Europe to the sixteenth century.
The theme that runs through the book and gives it its coherence is the transition between the natural inequality of pre-Christian Europe and the equality of persons fostered by the Faith. In the pre-classical world, the head of the family, the paterfamilias, or the head of the tribe were the only persons to whom self-government was attributed. The position of the paterfamilias was religious: he was the priest of the family who guarded the sacred hearth and presided over appropriate offerings to the gods. All the people in subjection to him were non-persons who were not believed to have minds of their own.
In the classical world of Greece, the only persons who were deemed to be fully human were males who were trained in the faculty of reason. This placed such a person at the top of the great chain of being that determined one’s place in society. Women, children, the uneducated, workers and slaves were essentially non-persons since they were not self-determined. They could not be so because action was deemed to spring directly from reason: “there was no ontological gap between thought and action”, nothing that we would identify as the will. This does not mean that ancient psychology was fundamentally different from our own, but that the culture did not recognise intention as a separate identity from that of reason. Thus, while we recognise reason as instrumental, the ancients thought of it as the essence of a person.
One who could not utilise reason could not be a person in the sense that a citizen was a person. This reflected the prioritising of the intellect and reason by the Greek philosophers. Siedentop calls this “natural inequality” because it conformed to what was understood as the natural hierarchy of beings that accorded a place for everything. A person was determined by his position in this hierarchy for life.
With the rise of the polis and the necessity for broader government this hierarchy was maintained with the recognition of citizens as those who were from elite families and who were trained in reason and oratory. Such citizens ruled with the help of divination from the gods, signs in the heavens, oracles, animal entrails or whatever. The machinery of government was intertwined with a great panoply of religious notions. In Greek and Roman culture reason existed side by side with a mythological consciousness that limited the knowledge of reality and eventually rang the death knell for these cultures.
Siedentop marks the change that lay at the root of our present understanding of persons, not to the Renaissance with its harking back to the thinking of the Greeks, nor to the European Enlightenment with its much-vaunted rediscovery of reason and empiricism, but to the influence of one who is outside of much contemporary history writing: St Paul.
St Paul saw that persons were not determined by their birth or education or position in life or race but that all stood before God as independent souls. Paul broke with the ancient world when he proclaimed: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Paul demolished the hierarchy of being with reason at the top when he wrote:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20–25)
Siedentop elaborates: “Paul’s conception of the Christ introduces the individual, by giving conscience a universal dimension. Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?”
You can see how the new religion that overtook the ancient world destroyed that world forever. There could be no going back to belief in the obviously invented pantheon of gods. These were all swept away by the Christian proclamation of the triune God that combined the historical with the transcendent and opened a world of introspective consciousness for all. The church saw itself as being in the business of the cure of souls and produced a revolution in the understanding of the self.
As the effect of Christianity on Europe deepened, society was transformed by example. The early monastics modelled an interior life of prayer, discipline and self-denial. Where the ancients lauded the man of oratory and action, the early monastics modelled a life of reflection, of interiority. The government of the later monasteries provided an example of democratic government, with the higher positions established from below. The emergence of the Vatican as an independent state with courts and administration modelled the establishment of similar mechanisms in emerging nation-states. All of these developments relied on Christian egalitarianism, of society consisting of individual souls and the development of the inherent rights of those souls. Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus, in whom God came among us as an individual, was the “ultimate support for individual identity”.
Again and again Siedentop illustrates how the modern world emerged not in spite of the Church but because of it in almost every detail. Compared to the achievements of the Church, those of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were derivative rather than original. For example it was William of Ockham (1287–1347), a Franciscan friar, whose razor we are familiar with, who established the idea of empiricism, that we know through experience and not because of innate ideas of the eternal Platonic forms. Ockham introduced the idea of contingency in the natural world that showed the necessity of scientific measurement and the impossibility of obtaining knowledge of the objective world by a priori reasoning. He thus laid the foundations for natural science three hundred years before the beginning of British empiricism. It turns out that John Locke’s understanding of the mind as a clean slate was not original.
This account of Church history from earliest times to the fifteenth century is a must for anyone who wants to know how we came to be as we are. Siedentop’s conclusion is that the Church gave us our understanding of the self and secular liberalism. The latter comes as a surprise because many of us in the Church, including myself, have railed for years about the damage done by secular liberalism. A summary statement tells much of the story:
The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the fourteenth and early fifteenth century: 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 defense 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.
This is a compelling picture but it does not explain how the gift of the Church of liberal secularism has become such a desert in our time. This is not a criticism of the book, but recognition that more must be said, that today we live within the gift of liberal secularism but stripped of its origin in Christianity. We have taken secular liberalism as our salvation, and it is so, but it has led us to a freedom that looks more and more like a void. We have taken hold of the outcome of Christianity while, at the same time, refusing its content. Thus, in our freedom we still suffer from what John Carroll has called “the ordeal of unbelief”. We live in a time conditioned by Christianity without Christ.
This book is a welcome counter-blow to the undeclared civil war waged in Europe between secularism and Christianity. Those on the side of secularism are fond of a narrative that places the Church in opposition to reason and a promoter of superstition, a high irony considering its use of reason to establish essential social institutions and the devastation it wrought on Greek and Roman religion that was superstition to the core.
Eighteenth-century history writing gave us a bias against Scholasticism, read at a very superficial level, and promoted the Renaissance and the Enlightenment over against the Dark Ages purportedly brought to us by the Church. Siedentop shows us how, even with the plague and the barbarian invasions, the Dark Ages were not dark at all but a ferment of theological, legal and philosophical activity that laid the foundation for modernity. “The conventional interpretation also relates the emergence of liberalism to a new skepticism bred by the interest in and sympathy with antiquity.”
Siedentop demonstrates, with a vast understanding of historical research, that the conventional interpretation is almost entirely mistaken. Rather than the Church promoting superstition and irrationality, it used reason to build a workable legal system on Roman foundations with the added insight of Christian egalitarianism. It used reason to elucidate theology, at times borrowing from Greek thought and at other times rejecting it. The Church was the prime enemy of superstition, especially that of Greek and Roman religion—yet modern thinkers accuse the Church of superstition and acclaim the rationality of the Greeks.
The conclusion that the Church was responsible for secular liberalism will not ring true for many. There are of course many instances when the Church behaved violently to unbelievers in a most illiberal manner. For example, in 782 the Christian emperor Charlemagne beheaded 4500 Saxon non-Christians outside Bremen. We could make a long list of terrible acts carried out in the name of the Christian God. If we return to Florence we could recount the response of the Church to art that did not reflect the Christian ethos in the activity of Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98) a Dominican friar who delivered many paintings to the flames in the famous “bonfire of the vanities”. The two paintings of Botticelli that now hang in the Uffizi, The Birth of Venus and the Primavera, both treating pre-Christian subjects, were saved. We do not know how many were lost. In an ironic turn of fortune, Savonarola himself was consigned to the flames. Where then the Church’s liberalism? Indeed where now is the liberal spirit in the Roman Church, which refuses communion to the divorced?
Siedentop’s history is of how the Church fulfilled the liberal aspiration of St Paul over a period of 1500 years. It took time for the Church to be conformed to the gospel, as it takes a lifetime for the individual. Progress is only made through introspection and confession. It is absurd to think that the gentle Galilean was the source of cruelty and illiberalism, but believable that it took so long for our hearts to soften to his witness. Accusers of the Church fail to separate the gospel of grace from the use of religion in the hands of evil men and women.
Peter Sellick is an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. An earlier version of this review appeared on the On Line Opinion website