book cover imageInventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
by Larry Siedentop.
Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $35.

In its basic assumptions, liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. It emerged as the moral institutions generated by Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church.

Political philosopher Larry Siedentop has written a predictably erudite tale of the rise of modern liberalism. In it he does the thinking public a great service by bringing greater attention to the work of two important historians—Harold Berman, whose Law and Revolution shows the formation and development of the Western legal and constitutional tradition from the early medieval to early modern eras, and Brian Tierney, whose life’s work has been to increase our understanding of the Christian roots of modern rights in theory and practice. Siedentop synthesizes these two historians’ arguments with classic work of Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient institution of the paterfamilias and the impact of this familial-religious institution and its assumption of fundamental inequality on politics and culture, Francois Guizot on the democratization of European society through class conflict over long centuries, and with the work of the social and anthropological historian of religion, Peter Brown.

Serious history on a grand scale is rarely written today, having been displaced by hyper-technical “empirical” works and various tracts viewing history as a series of vignettes useful for ideological purposes. Siedentop’s central thesis, that Christianity fundamentally altered the nature of Western Civilization through its insistence on the natural equality and free will of persons is, of course, important and too often forgotten in contemporary discourse. That said, his reading of Christian theory and institutional development is highly overdrawn and rooted in an outright refusal to recognize the medieval synthesis of faith and reason, individual and community, particular and universal.

Siedentop’s open hostility toward the long tradition of teleological thinking, in which God and his creation, including nature and the person, are seen as having intrinsic purpose, while widely shared today, clouds his discussion of the development of medieval and modern thought. He stridently forwards the nominalist rejection of the traditional understanding of the nature of being as rooted in God’s goodness, re-asserting Duns Scotus’ claim that viewing God in this manner somehow restricts God’s freedom and, perhaps more damning in Siedentop’s eyes, places pseudo-Platonic cognoscenti above the rest of us through their divination of categorical purposes. Nominalism, Siedentop repeatedly avers, is a necessary outgrowth of Christian egalitarianism, as are its atomizing and anti-foundational consequences.

In place of a conception of intrinsic purpose, Siedentop privileges the development of nominalist individualism, subjectivism, and the growthof unitary sovereignty in the nation state. The result is a skewed reading of the development of modern secularism that does nothing so much as lend support to contemporary liberal prejudices concerning the primacy of individual choice in the face of natural communitarian desires and the dangers of religious experience. Siedentop’s conclusion is all the more disappointing given his attempts to paint contemporary secularism as somehow rooted in religious beliefs. The result is a kind of Unitarian Whiggism, with all of history presented as leading to a point where religious platitudes somehow legitimize regimes that self-evidently have used up the bank and capital of their religious traditions and in which individuals stand alone and institutionally naked in the face of failing social democratic states and a meaningless, atomistic existence at constant threat of intrusion from the great unwashed masses who still believe that their lives have religious meaning and purpose.

Siedentop begins with a discussion of the centrality of the paterfamilias in ancient culture. Fathers were seen as religious as well as political authorities. In charge of placating the household gods and empowered to rule absolutely over their families, fathers were almost as gods within their households and the makers of politics outside of them. The construction of political life on this kind of family assured a deeply ingrained conception of inequality as utterly natural and inevitable. Assuming the primacy of intellectual assumptions, Siedentop presents this mindset as dictating a society in which the bulk of mankind had no significant role and certainly no independent will or moral claim. There was, most importantly for the ancient Greeks and Romans, no common human nature, but a highly stratified set of categories in which reason was reserved for the highest and only truly relevant beings.

Somewhat overdrawn, this conception nonetheless sets up an important contrast with early Christianity and its impact on common culture and the formation of individual self-conception. All but dismissing the role of Christ himself, Siedentop focuses on St. Paul as originator of a project of “reconstructing the self.” This startling anachronism begins with St. Paul’s obvious emphasis on an interior life largely (though not completely) missing from Greek and Roman sources. At least as important to Siedentop, however, is the egalitarianism of St. Paul’s vision. For St. Paul, of course, we all are “one in Jesus Christ.” To Siedentop this means that each of us, being possessed of a soul, is in essence a “pre-social” being entitled, not just to “Christian liberty” but to fundamental equality. Seeing this egalitarianism as the essence of Christianity, Siedentop even downplays any special status for saints and crucial figures like Moses. He sees intermediary figures of all kinds as contrary to Christianity, which would, of course, surprise most Christians (Catholics in particular) and sees the social welfare state as present in embryonic form in Paul’s vision.

Contrasted with Siedentop’s earlier discussion of social and psychological stratification, this reading of St. Paul highlights the radical nature of Christianity. And this is a fair point, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, Siedentop makes it the motive force for his entire book, turning Christian thought into an unfolding of equality and individualism hostile to the customs and society in which it was placed. This is problematic, to say the least, as a reading of Christian thought from St. Paul onward, but also of institutional development in Europe. And it is here that Siedentop’s heavy emphasis on secondary sources is especially troublesome, for it leaves him free to borrow selectively from Berman in particular in a manner that skews the latter’s argument to serve his own ends.

As a preliminary point, it may be well to note the shortcomings of an emphasis on St. Paul’s person as a pre-social individual. True, theProtestant vision of the soul in particular emphasizes the fact that we all die alone and must face our maker alone. But very few among Protestants, including the most radically predestinarian Calvinists, see the person as truly “alone.” The communitarian institutions of the American Puritans and their European counterparts all emphasized the need for each of us to not be alone, lest we fall away from God. Catholics, of course, recognize that the soul is shaped, for good or ill, by our conduct, which in turn is shaped by our responses to the particular surroundings in which we find ourselves. Even if God’s grace is the ground of salvation, the soul must be open to that grace, and this is the work of catechesis and hard-won virtue. At a more textual level, St. Paul declared “you are all one in Jesus Christ,” not “you are all equal individuals because you have souls.” The difference is not a small one, for where the first emphasizes equality within the Church—that is, as part of a community with the purpose of salvation—the second is mere ideological assertion torn from its ontological grounding.

Given his primary assumptions, it is easy for Siedentop to downplay, where he does not ignore, the very communal nature of the institutions in which his “individuals” led their lives. That monasticism recognized the importance of each monk, including his right to a say in choosing the abbot as well as the importance of his salvation as an individual person, is clear. But monks were not merely individuals; they also were members of groups. Yet Siedentop insists on celebrating the victory of nominalism in fostering the assumption that groups have no reality of their own, being merely collections of their individual members. In so doing he overlooks the persistence of communal institutions and communal systems aimed at common (teleological) ends, be they salvation (defined in large measure as being with God), corporate flourishing, or mere peace. As Berman shows, for example, well into the modern era various forms of corporation were seen as both collections of individuals and important corporate actors; limited liability (a relative latecomer) and the legal power of a common seal undergird Berman’s argument here, which also is in keeping with Tierney’s work on the complicated relationships between individual and group rights during the medieval era.

These “complications” are at the heart of the medieval synthesis and its fostering of both rights and meaningful community. But they are highly inconvenient to Seidentop; they would muddy his narrative of the march of egalitarian individualism through the downgrading of mediating institutions. Siedentop’s story relies on development of a kind of common mind according to which we all “understand ‘society’ to mean an association of individuals.” And this requires that the individual not be foundationally situated within the mediating structures that Guizot’s most famous inheritor, Tocqueville, saw as the saving grace of democracy, but rather counterpoised to the “sovereign” nation-state.

Much is lost in Siedentop’s effort to present an inevitable triumph of egalitarian individualism centered on the modern nation-state and producing contemporary secularism. Absent is discussion of the vast, murderous campaigns of monarchs to extirpate local opposition to centralized rule during the early modern era. Even where Siedentop’s argument seems strongest, as for example in his discussion of medieval boroughs (important townships) and their development of chartered rights limiting royal power, he presents what was a halting, piecemeal set of partial victories as if it were a sweeping movement. From Siedentop’s telling one would think virtually all European towns wrested from reluctant rulers detailed and comprehensive contracts somehow taming sovereignty and protecting individual rights. In point of fact, these charters were highly varied in their extent, effectiveness, and longevity (in France they were stamped out in the early modern era of “sovereign” rulers); they also tended to prioritize the corporate right of self-government by the borough. Finally, on this, custom continued to play a primary role in law in particular really up until Napoleon’s conquests, through the common law in England, of course, but also in the various customary laws of merchants and other groups both in England and on the continent.

One does not see in Siedentop’s simplistic narrative an understanding of the role of conflict among a multiplicity of authorities in fostering rights (of groups as well as individuals) and in maintaining a balance of power sufficient to foster the growth of ordered liberty. Fixated upon the development of “sovereign” nation-states as the source of modern democratic liberalism, Siedentop ignores the extent to which modern developments deviated from the dictates of religion (which, after all, means “to bind”) and toward the requirements of power and ideology. Much of this problem stems from Siedentop’s papal aversion, an aversion central to his argument. Recognizing the centrality of Popes’ “revolutionary” (Berman’s understanding) seizure from secular rulers of the power to name their own bishops, rather than leaving them as creatures of local rulers, Siedentop reads Church history as the growth of an absolute sovereign more powerful than Louis XIV; a sovereign whose abuses only the democratic nation-state, through the process of secularization, could end.

Like many of his generation and that preceding, Siedentop sees the growth of centralized rule as necessary to wipe away the supposed idiocy and oppression of local communalism in the name of individual conscience. To his credit he adds to this vision, which always has drawn the Church as a chief villain, recognition that the Church was not, in fact, a mere handmaiden of various rulers in the medieval era. Rather, as Berman in particular shows, the independence of the Church, the foundations of which were laid by the twelfth century, produced separate jurisdictions that in effect limited the powers of secular rulers. But where Berman recognized the importance of conflict and competition among a variety of legal jurisdictions, Siedentop prefers to see mere development of papal power with, to him, absolutist tendencies in an overly powerful Church.

As if the problems of Gallicanism, in which monarchs seized back control over “their” churches in a variety of kingdoms such as France and, one might say, England, Siedentop paints the struggles of the medieval era as ones against the overweening claims of Popes. Overweening pride there may have been, but there was not merely one jurisdiction in which conflicts took place. Rather, ordered liberty was made possible by conflicts among a variety of jurisdictions; conflicts the growth of the nation-state decided in favor of absolute monarchs it would take centuries to tame.

Not surprisingly, Siedentop sees the Church as abetting the problems of early modernity through its desire to wield power over individual consciences. Some of this there clearly was. But it is doubtful that the final victory of centralized, sovereign power was helpful to individual liberty. The experience of the bloody French Revolution ought to demonstrate this problem to anyone with eyes to see. Siedentop, meanwhile, sees modern liberalism as a more or less consistent victory for individualism. He quite properly outlines the development of representative government in the medieval Conciliar Movement and within the boroughs, but fails to note the distinction between representation and limitations on power. The checks and balances of competing jurisdictions, which Americans at least recognize as essential to limited government, have no role in his history, despite their clear centrality to constitutional government—including in the mixed orders of the British Constitution. Siedentop may find the social democratic and administrative state to his liking, but the claim that democratic power is self-legitimating provided it acts in the name of individuals repeatedly has been used (by “illiberal” regimes to be sure) to justify moral enormities unheard of in the medieval era.

None of these complications seem to worry Siedentop, who is most concerned to defend his vision of contemporary secularism against what he sees as the dangers of modern religiosity. At a time of renewed Islamic terrorism this concern is understandable. But what is it that Siedentop sees himself defending? Secularism is “Europe’s noblest achievement, the achievement which should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order.… Christianity’s gift to the world.” And what is this clearly non-religious Christian gift, precisely? Egalitarian individualism, of course; it is a set of ideas and practices, often turned against religion, that themselves are not, in Siedentop’s view, rooted in indifference or non-belief. Rather, on this view,secularism “rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions.” It is, in brief, what we all have thought all along—faith in individual conscience and ideological commitment to protecting as large a sphere of freedom of thought and action as possible for every individual. This may require action against religious institutions that have failed to live up to the dictates of Pauline egalitarian individualism, but for Siedentop this merely shows that the churches in question are continuing their historically rooted betrayal of their own deepest convictions.

Siedentop includes a word or two in his conclusion about excessive hostility toward religion. But he immediately excuses this hostility as an understandable response to religious oppressions and points to those who continue to hold serious religious views (be they Muslims or American evangelical Christians) as the real source of danger to the secular consensus. One should not be blamed for holding to the prejudices central to one’s life and career, perhaps; but to read them back into history in the face of contrary sources and even the understanding of those sources presented by largely sympathetic historians like Berman and Tierney is to take the usual intellectual self-congratulatory mode a bit farther than seems appropriate at a time when the edifice of Western culture is crumbling about our ears. 

Bruce Frohnen is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University School of Law.