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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Larry Siedentop
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
448 pp., 39.95

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Alan Jacobs

Where Individuals Come From

Never mind nominalism: look to the bishops & lawyers.

Academic historians today often say that the era of grand narratives—big, sweeping stories offering confident interpretations of events occurring over vast swaths of time—is over. These have anyway typically been the province of the amateur historian: H. G. Wells' The Outline of History (1920), Will and Ariel Durant's 11-volume The Story of Civilization (1935-75). Arnold Toynbee was in and out of the academy but the work that made him famous, A Study of History, which appeared in 12 volumes from 1934-1961, was written for a general audience and never considered, by Toynbee or others, academic work. Something similar might be said of Susan Wise Bauer's recent histories of the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance worlds.

University-based scholars who pursue this kind of Big History are rare, and their work tends to be controversial among their peers, who routinely complain about overly sweeping generalizations, too-confident judgments. (This has often happened to Norman Davies, a professor who writes large books on large subjects: Europe: A History; The Isles: A History.) And often these complaints are justified. Still, it is understandable that readers crave some larger understanding, something beyond the local and focused — especially readers who aren't confident in their ability to do all the dot-connecting themselves.

For such readers, there is a variety of Big History that academics don't shun—that is, in point of fact, flourishing: not the books covering long historical periods, but books with some comprehensive interpretive scheme meant to explain vast cultural movements. Within this subgenre, an especially flourishing field comprises those books devoted to the rise of modernity: to whatever it was that happened in the 16th century. An exceptional number of Big Idea histories seem to focus on this period, and for academic books (sometimes just for books more generally) they get a wide readership. Charles Taylor's big books Sources of the Self and A Secular Age depend for their integrity on interpretations of this period, though they go beyond it. The same can be said for Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Thomas Pfau's Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge, Peter Harrison's The Territories of Science and Religion, and Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (which, despite being by far the worst of these books, won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize).

Some of these works (Gregory, Pfau, Greenblatt) are frankly polemical; some (Taylor, Harrison) are relatively detached and even-handed. Some are narratives of decline, some tales of triumph; some are avowedly Christian, some avowedly secular. But all of them start from the assumption that something transformative happened in the age of Luther and Erasmus and Calvin and Leonardo and Michelangelo—something of which people today are still in some sense the heirs.

Larry Siedentop's Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism presents a helpful and often provocative addition to the narratives listed above. Siedentop, an American political philosopher who taught for many years in England, has here written, if not quite a magnum opus, nevertheless an ambitious and assured narrative that covers many centuries and several European cultures but pursues a single question: Where does the Western world's universally held idea that rights are invested in individuals come from? His answer suggests that those who have looked at the 16th century and the immediately preceding period as the key moment are taking too short a view. He would have us look back to far earlier days, and is willing to overcome his profession's resistance to Big History in order to explain why.

Though Siedentop borrows some elements from the declinist narrative—the nominalist philosophers Scotus & Ockham come in for their usual whipping—he mostly avoids the polemics noted above and returns, with nuances and clarifications, to a story that once was relatively common but seems recently to have faded from historians' view: the story claiming that liberalism is the child of the philosophical centrality of the individual; that the great achievement of modernity is the full flowering of the doctrine of the equal value of all individuals; and that overall this is a good thing.

Siedentop would agree with such 19th-century thinkers as Kierkegaard that this rise of the individual is largely the doing of Christianity; however, and here he dissents from the once-familiar story, not the doing of the Reformation. Rather, the Reformation largely inherits and disseminates a model of the centrality of the individual whose foundation was laid down long before. For most of the rest of this review I will try to summarize the story Siedentop tells.

In the ancient world—ancient verging on prehistorical—say, Greece before the rise of Athens, Rome before the establishment of the Republic—moral order and immortality arose from and were guaranteed by the family. It was the household's hearth, which must always be tended, generation to generation, where the fires burned that warmed the spirits of the household gods, and our brief human lives were given value and meaning by their connection to the everlasting home fires. But as human communities grew larger and more complex, the center of moral order shifted from the family to the city—the polis or, as the institutions of civic order grew and spread, the patria, the fatherland. (Note the familial metaphor.) Eventually, as Rome came to govern more and more of the world, it paradoxically lost the ability to generate fervent allegiance: we may be able to extend our affections and loyalty as far as the civitas, at a stretch the patria, but not as far as the imperium: an empire is too big and too abstract to generate loyalty, to guarantee value and meaning.

It was at the very moment that the Empire came into its own—and simultaneously, inadvertently, created this moral crisis for its citizens—that the apostle Paul arrived on the scene. Himself a Roman citizen, and not reluctant to appeal to that status in time of need (Acts 22), he nevertheless declared to his fellow followers of Jesus the Christ that "our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20)—and it is by the laws of that country that we must be governed and judged. For Siedentop, the seeds of a radical moral egalitarianism are to be found here.

These seeds begin to sprout in Tertullian's defense of Christianity in the 3rd century. To the pagan leaders of Rome Tertullian wrote, "We worship the one God … . There are others whom you regard as gods; we know them to be demons. Nevertheless, it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions." Siedentop points out that here is one of the earliest articulations of a principle that is so self-evident to us that we scarcely even question it—a right to worship that belongs to individuals—but such a notion would have been an utterly incomprehensible claim in an age, not so long before Tertullian wrote, in which rights belonged to families and piety consisted in faithfulness to one's clan.

Siedentop asks us to consider the rise of monastic life in this light, because what monasticism embodies, when looked at in political terms, is the right of individuals to choose their communities rather than to inherit them. Monasteries by their very existence stand (and at their origin stood) over against the claims of family, of city, of fatherland, of empire. Then, after the fall of the empire, when the conquerors of the Romans attempted to repair the social structures that they themselves had endangered, something interesting happened. Siedentop gives close attention to the legal code first written and enforced in the early 6th century in the Visigothic kingdom—a code written under the influence of Christian bishops who understood, indeed in some cases had been brought up in, monastic communities. The notion that individuals have rights of choice was, for the first time, transferred to the secular order. Thus began the enshrinement in law of a society grounded in "moral equality," as opposed to older legal codes which had been grounded in "natural inequality."

This legal development would continue throughout the Middle Ages. Even by the time of Charlemagne it had developed sufficiently that it embodied "intuitions and beliefs that led the church to lay, almost unwittingly, the foundations of a new world." Eventually, "government would no longer be conceived primarily as a rule over families, clans, or castes. It would be conceived as rule over individuals." By the 12th century, Siedentop argues, this highly "modern" model was effectively in place.

What the bishops and other Christian leaders who planted the seeds, and watered the plants as they grew and spread, never imagined was the possibility of these "egalitarian moral intuitions" being used against the Church of Jesus Christ. But the very concept of individual rights that Tertullian had used to defend Christians' rights of conscience were, 1,500 years later, used to emancipate unbelievers, doubters, and independent-minded believers from church authority: "These moral intuitions provided the basis for what would become the central project of secularism: the identification of a sphere resting on the 'rightful' claims of individual conscience and choice, a sphere of individual freedom protected by law. A commitment to 'equal liberty' was emerging from Christian moral intuitions."

This, in all-too-brief compass, is Siedentop's story. The major elements of it are not original to him. The transition from a social organization based on the family to one based on the city draws on The Ancient City, a treatise by a 19th-century writer, Fustel de Coulanges, whom Siedentop wishes to rehabilitate; his work on medieval law draws on another French historian of the same period, François Cuizot, and also on the more recent work of Brian Tierney. What is distinctive and useful is the way Siedentop weaves their insights together into a compelling narrative.

He says at the outset that he wishes in this book to renew the power of the history of ideas, and in this cause takes Fustel de Coulanges as his model. But if, as Richard Weaver famously said, ideas have consequences, not all ideas have the same consequences. There is often a temptation, among scholars, to think too highly of the importance of narrowly philosophical or theological ideas: thus the aforementioned tendency, which Siedentop briefly succumbs to, to treat extraordinarily intricate and often incomprehensible debates among the philosophy faculty of medieval European universities as though they had world-changing power. But the importance of Siedentop's story arises from his treatment of ideas that were embodied in laws and institutions. If his story is correct, and I think it largely is, then it took the philosophers and theologians centuries to catch up with the insights of the bishops and lawyers.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University.

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