siedentop inventing cover

Review of Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop
(Allen Lane)

Towards the end of this engrossing, illuminating book, Larry Siedentop describes a fourteenth century battle between two Christian monastic orders.  The Dominicans and the Franciscans were mendicant orders, begging monks who had abandoned the comforts of the cloisters to preach among the poor, largely in response to growing disaffection about the Church. At the heart of the struggle between the two groups, Siedentop suggests, lay ‘Contrasting accounts of relationship between will and reason’. Where Dominicans emphasized the role of rationality and ‘correct’ doctrine, seeking to combat heresy and heterodoxy, Franciscans highlighted the importance moral equality and human agency, emphasizing the ‘spirit’ rather that the ‘letter’ of faith. Dominicans were deeply influenced by Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of theologians, and the driving force in the reintroduction of Aristotelian ideas into Christian thought. Franciscans worried that ‘wholesale borrowing from Aristotle’s theory’ elevated reason ‘above the facts of moral experience, the complexity of human motivation and dependence of the will on ‘grace’.’

One way to think about Inventing the Individual is as an attempt to restore the Franciscan spirit to both intellectual history and the Christian tradition. Siedentop rewrites the story of Western liberalism not merely to establish it as a Christian project, but also to infuse it with the Franciscan view of faith, politics and human nature.

The conventional view of liberalism is that it is a child of modernity, that it developed through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment primarily in opposition to religion. On the contrary, Siedentop insists, liberalism is ‘a child of Christianity’. The liberal concept of the individual was invented by Christian theologians. And secularism is ‘Christianity’s greatest gift to the world’.Siedentop sees Inventing the Individual as a challenge to secular accounts of the development of the liberal tradition. It is also a challenge to many Christian accounts. Historians and philosophers influenced by Catholicism, and especially by Thomist philosophy,such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, view the development of the Western intellectual tradition differently to Siedentop. In that context Inventing the Individual is a rather Protestant vision of intellectual history.

The critical historical cleavage for Siedentop lies not between modernity and premodernity, but between the Ancient world and Christianity. Thanks largely to the Renaissance, whose artists and thinkers saw themselves as effecting a rebirth of culture after a Christian ‘Dark Age’ by reaching back to glories of antiquity, we tend today to see the Ancient world as the source of modern humanism. In fact, Siedentop observes, Ancient Greece was a deeply religious, highly superstitious society, built upon an unshakeable belief in natural inequality and an irresistible fate. It was, writes Siedetop, an ‘irredeemably aristocratic’ world. The very structure of the cosmos dictated the inequality both of nature and society.  Rationality was regarded as the possession of a select few. The Greeks possessed no concept of the individual, separate from that of the family or polis, nor a notion of free will.

Christianity, Siedentop argues, revolutionized this worldview. At its heart were two claims: those of moral equality and of human agency. For the Ancients, gods were constrained by the rational structure of reality. The monotheistic  God, whether Jewish, Christian or, later, Islamic, was all-powerful and constrained by nothing. He could act as He chose. This new vision of God opened a new concept of agency and will. What made Christianity fundamentally different and revolutionary, Siedentop suggests, was that it married the Jewish concept of the unconstrained God to the Greek concept of a rational universe.

jesus icon

In the Christian view the unconstrained God had created humans in His own image as equals, and as rational agents with free will. These two ideas, equality and agency,  Siedentop suggests, were first formulated by St Paul, possibly the ‘greatest revolutionary in human history’, a man of whom ‘it would be hardly too much to say that [he] invented Christianity as a religion’.

Siedentop traces the development of these concepts through the Christian tradition, from Augustine, who with Aquinas stands as the most influential of its theologians, through to the medieval philosophers who helped fashion canon law, asserting that ‘“experience” is essentially the experience of individuals’, and that ‘a range of fundamental rights ought to protect individual agency’, so establishing the foundations of liberalism. Only the ‘anti-clericalism’ of subsequent centuries has, Siedentop insists, obscured the roots of liberalism in Christianity.

Inventing the Individual is beautifully written and rigorously argued. Siedentop usefully challenges the conventional narrative about the development of the Western intellectual tradition. But the story he tells in reframing that narrative is itself deeply problematic.

Consider the issue around which Siedentop builds his whole account: the tension between the Ancient belief in natural inequality and the Christian idea of moral equality. Christianity certainly played a major role in developing notions of equality and universal visions of humanity. Yet, ideas of hierarchy and inequality remained central to the Christian tradition. ‘It is in the natural order of things’, Augustine preached, ‘that women should serve men, and children their parents, because this is just in itself, that the weaker reason should serve the stronger.’ As with the family, so with society. It was given by nature for the lower orders to serve the upper orders, and for all to serve the Emperor. Slavery, too, was ‘ordained as a punishment by that law which enjoins the preservation of the order of nature, and forbids its disturbance.’ While the rulers of a society could take punitive action – including even the torture of innocent men – to defend social peace, individuals had no such right. In Augustine, as the theologian John Rist observes, ‘the powers of ordinary citizens are almost non-existent.’ Plato and Aristotle, Rist adds, who themselves worried about the ‘mob’, ‘would have shuddered at such an empty concept of citizenship.’

Siedentop regards such defences of inequality and hierarchy as remnants of ancient ways of thinking. Yet, the premodern Christian world was bound together by hierarchy and inequality every bit as much as the Ancient world had been. Ideas such as Augustine’s were so central to Christian thought that it seriously distorts the history of that tradition to dismiss them as lightly as Siedentop does.

Siednetop’s discussion of the Crusades is striking in this context. He regards them as a critical moment in the creation of a European identity and hence as part of Christianity’s universalizing project. But, extraordinarily, he ignores their malign, destructive impact, in particular their role in cementing a new vision of the Other, and in the demonization of Islam. He introduces a 1054 statement by a church council in Narbonne that ‘No Christian should kill another Christian’ as an expression of ‘a new mood sweeping across feudal Europe’, yet ignores the fact that the Crusades helped deepen the rifts between the Western and Eastern Churches, leading for instance to Crusaders sacking Constantinople. It is a quite inexplicable silence.

Siedentop disregards, too, the distinctiveness of modern notions of equality. Christian equality was circumscribed because it was tied to religious belief; hence the long and fractious debates about whether non-Christians were equal, or even possessed souls. The crumbling of belief in a God-ordained order helped, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to develop a new, radical, inclusive form of egalitarianism. Having dispensed with God, there was, as the historian Jonathan Israel has put it, no ‘meaningful alternative’ to grounding morality in a ‘generalized radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’ The new egalitarians drew upon radical strands of Christian thought. But they transformed the very meaning of equality.

Similar problems attend Siedentop’s discussion of agency and will. It is true that the Christian tradition developed new concepts of the individual and of individual agency. But ‘will’ in the Christian tradition can be understood only in the context of belief in the Fall and in Original Sin, the belief that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Michaelangelo Adam and Eve

For Siedentop, the Fall is a means of introducing a realism into discussions of human agency by acknowledging human weaknesses. But the Fall possesss a more profound, far bleaker meaning. It expresses the insistence in the Christian tradition that, as Siedentop observes,  ’Only through grace’ do ‘humans become moral’. An ‘upright will’ requires not merely reason but ‘the union of individual wills with a higher will.’ Reason ‘acquired the status of “right reason” only when it submitted to the moral law revealed by revelation’.

If the all-powerful, unconstrained monotheistic God had introduced a revolutionary notion of agency, the Christian concept of the Fall and of Original Sin ensured that human agency was viewed in a very different way. In its Christian version (the Jewish story has a different resonance), the story of Adam and Eve is a tale about the corruption of free will and the constraints on human moral responsibility. It is the acceptance  of the impossibility of humans doing good on their own account.

Not till the Enlightenment was the bleakness of that vision of human nature truly challenged.  Only outside the context of a God-ordained order could a truly revolutionary view of human agency develop, a view in which human will is not dependant upon another, superior agency. The concept of the individual and of agency that developed from the seventeenth century certainly drew upon Christian ideas. But it also transformed them in a way that Siedentop fails to acknowledge.

‘The characteristic of historical writing in recent centuries’, Siedentop observes, ‘is an inclination to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages.’ I am not sure that it makes much sense to talk about a ‘characteristic of historical writing’ that stretches over ‘centuries’. This is particularly so given that one the characteristics of recent historiography has been the opposite: the tendency to blur the distinction between the Middle Ages and modernity. Inventing the Individual is very much part of this revisionist trend. The trouble is, in revising the previous approach Siedentop now makes the ancient world too alien and modernity not distinctive enough.

Inventing the Individual remains, nevertheless, a valuable book, and an important part of the debate about the development the European intellectual tradition. Like the best books, it both teaches you something new and makes you want to argue with it. Its strengths lie, however, more in raising questions than in providing answers.


A shorter version of this review was published in the Independent.

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