Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop, makes an important contribution to available literature on the origins of the individualism and secularism which characterize Western Civilization.
Before I read the book I was aware from reviews that the author claims that, in some sense, Christianity “invented” the individual. How could that be so?
Siedentop summarizes his argument: “in its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity” (p 332). What he means by “inventing the individual” is recognition that individuals have natural rights, including the rights to liberty, to equality before the law and to election of representatives. As early as the 13th and 14th centuries, recognition of the important roles of conscience and individual choice even led some philosophers associated with the church to recognize that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms. The essence of Siedentop’s argument, is that liberal thought became established as a way of thinking “as the moral intuitions generated by Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church” (p 332).
The words, “moral intuitions generated by Christianity”, raise another problem that I might as well consider before moving on to provide some positive comments. The moral intuitions that Siedentop is referring to are intuitions about moral equality and reciprocity – including the ideal of loving others as oneself and the golden rule of doing unto others are you would have them do unto you. My problem is that something like the golden rule is common to the major religions and is expressed in remarkably similar terms in Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Brahmanism. More fundamentally, the idea of moral intuitions being generated by religion seems to rule out of consideration the possibility that such intuitions are innate. Perhaps Siedentop means to argue that Christianity has been more successful than other religions in cultivating moral intuitions, but his book contains few references to other religions.
One reviewer, Samuel Moyne, writing in Boston Review, has suggested that there is a major difficulty for anyone who tells a Christian story of liberalism’s origins:
“They must explain how, against its original purposes, the Gospel’s message was brought down to earth, applied right now to radically new aims and institutions that Jesus and Paul would not have accepted. The reversal is stark: from a refusal of the relevance of Christian moral beliefs’ to politics to a revolution in this-worldly assumptions about the subordination of individuals to hierarchy. You need an argument to show how this happened. Siedentop doesn’t really have one. He just knows the reversal occurred”.
Siedentop has probably attracted such criticism because he has been over-ambitious in stating the aim of his book. He has set out to answer a very big question:
“Is it a mere coincidence that liberal secularism developed in the Christian West?”
In my view his book should be viewed as answering a more modest question:
Did Christianity contribute to the advent of liberal secularism in Europe? That is a fairly provocative question in view of the common belief that liberal secularism stems solely from the Renaissance in Italy and the rediscovery of ancient humanism.
This book shows that liberal secularism has some strong moral roots in Christianity. The author also acknowledges that the development of market towns and cities played an important role in the growth of freedom (as have other authors including Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations).
I found the author’s discussion of St Paul’s contribution to be a powerful reminder that his message was about, among other things, the idea that all humans are children of God and the potential of that idea to liberate individuals from constraining perceptions of their personal identities as defined by social roles - such as father, daughter, official, priest or slave. Siedentop puts it his way:
“Paul overturns the assumption of natural inequality by creating an inner link between the divine will and human agency. He conceives that the two can, at least potentially, be fused within each person, thereby justifying the assumption of the moral equality of humans. … That fusion marks the birth of a ‘truly’ individual will through the creation of conscience” (p 61).
The book is largely about the development of the concept of ‘moral equality’ within the Christian establishment as well as among heretics. Siedentop points out that the concept of moral equality was evident in the early years of Christianity, and led to recognition of the claims of conscience by some influential Christians. For example, he quotes Tertullian as recognizing that “it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions” (p 78).
It was, of course, many centuries before the implications of moral equality came to be tolerated by Christian churches - the full implications have arguably yet to be accepted by most church leaders. The author takes us through the history, providing a fairly persuasive case that the roots of Western liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of canon lawyers and philosophers by the 14th and early 15th centuries.
My mind is unable to comprehend the book’s discussion of the contest between doctrines associated with Aquinas and Ockham on the question of whether references to eternal ideas in the mind of God implies a restriction on God’s freedom. In terms of the book's objectives, however, the important point concerns the role of the individual’s will. Siedentop notes that Ockham associated reason with individual experience and choice, and saw ‘right reason’ as obligated by principles of equality and reciprocity (p 309).
Incidentally, the discussion of the different approaches of Aquinas and Ockham left me with the impression that the author is claiming that Ockham rejected Aristotle’s teleological reasoning. However, the entry on Ockham in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests otherwise. According to that source, Ockham accepted Aristotle’s view that humans have a natural orientation toward pursuit of their own ultimate good (happiness). The point that Ockham adds is that this inbuilt orientation does not restrict individual choice - individuals are free to choose whether or not to will their ultimate good.
It seems to me that the author has provided people in the West with a timely reminder of the links between liberal secularism and the concepts of moral equality and freedom of conscience. The book reminds us that secularism is not devoid of values. As Larry Siedentop puts it, “secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended”.