magritte the lovers

In May, I took part in a discussion on ‘Individualism’ organised by the Ax:son Johnson Foundation and the British Academy.  The starting point of the discussion was Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual, which argues that the modern liberal idea of the individual was created in the work of Christian theologians. It is a view about which I am skeptical, as I observed in my review of Siedentop’s book. Larry Siedentop spoke at the event;  other speakers included Angelica Gooden, Edmund Fawcett and Mara Delius. This is a transcript of the first part of my talk. I am reworking the full talk as an essay to be published in a collection together with those of the other speakers.

In 1948, Berthold Brecht revived Sophocles’ Antigone in a much celebrated production at the Chur Stadtheater in Switzerland. The last of the Theban Plays (though the first one that Sophocles wrote) Antigone tells of the confrontation between the eponymous heroine and Creon, the current king of Thebes.

Just before the play opens, Antigone’s two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have killed each other. The two brothers had shared the throne of Thebes, each the ruler in alternate years, until Eteocles had refused to turn over power at the end of his annual term. Polyneices gathered an army and attacked the city in furious retaliation. The brothers died at each others’ hands in single combat.

Creon, their uncle, the new king of Thebes, decides that Eteocles should be buried with full honors as a defender of the city. The body of Polyneices will, however, be left outside the city gates, to rot unmourned as a traitor. Anyone who honours him would be put to death. Antigone defies Creon’s decree, scattering funeral oil and earth over Polyneices’ body. A furious Creon condemns Antigone to be buried alive.

To the modern mind, Creon is a brutal tyrant and Antigone an unalloyed heroine. That was certainly how Brecht saw it. In his Antigone, over which the shadow of the Holocaust inevitably looms, the prologue is set in a Berlin air raid shelter. Creon struts like a manic Hitler, Antigone embodies the spirit of popular resistance.

But this was not Sophocles’ Antigone, nor his Creon. Sophocles viewed Creon not as a tyrannical brute but as the unbending defender of the polis. ‘Our country is our safety’, as Creon proclaims, ‘Only while she voyages true on course / Can we establish friendships, truer than blood itself.’ Not that Antigone is not a heroine, even in Sophocles’ eyes. She is a figure defiant of human rule and insisting on God’s justice. The burial of the dead – even the enemy dead – was an ethical absolute for the Greeks. Antigone’s heroism is, however, diluted by her hubris. ‘You went too far’, the chorus insists. ‘Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you’.

Antigone is unswervingly resolute, possessing unalloyed confidence in her judgment and in her ability to define that which is just. What makes her almost a goddess for Brecht diminishes her in the eyes of Sophocles.

lytras nikiforos antigone polynices

In the chasm between Sophocles’ Antigone and Brecht’s we can glimpse the transformation that has taken place in our understanding of the individual, of the social and of the relationship between them. Until the sixteenth century, most audiences would probably have understood the original meaning that Sophocles had infused into Antigone and Creon. From the nineteenth on, most audiences would likely have been sympathetic to Brecht’s version. An audience in the seventeenth or eighteenth century may have found glimpses of understanding in both Antigones and, perhaps, found both baffling, too. For this was the historical hinge, when many of the developments that had been maturing over centuries now decisively transformed moral and political conceptions of the individual.

The concept of the ‘individual’ is inextricably linked to notions of what constitutes, on the hand, ‘the human’ and, on the other, ‘society’. And to understand how the individual has transformed, we need to understand how the meaning of the human and of society has also changed. The chasm between Sophocles’ Antigone and Brecht’s lies not simply in distinct views of the individual but also of what constitutes the human and society.

Though we rarely think of it in this way, Greek society was, as Larry Seidentop observes, deeply religious. Greek life was lived in the shadow of the gods. The divine and the human were inextricably linked. Fate was seen as a social reality and there was no evading it. But the religious sensibility of the Greeks was, paradoxically, one that helped nurture a non-religious view of what it is to be human. Greek gods, unlike the later Gods of monotheism, were not wise and judicious, but capricious, vain, vicious, deceitful and immoral. Human life was framed by the gods, and yet humans could not rely upon them. It was human reason that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity within it.

The importance of the philosophical tradition that flows from Socrates is that here begins in Europe the tradition of properly reflective moral thought. Previously, the moral framework within which people lived was rarely explicitly established but more often intuitively grasped through stories and myths. What was important about Socrates was the claim that ideas about what constituted a virtuous act or a good life were not implicitly crafted, and intuitively grasped, through the narrative of myth, but explicitly established through rational argument.

Socrates was not alone in this. There were similar changes throughout world. From around the sixth century BCE on, what has come to be called the heroic world gave way to more settled, productive and innovative societies, not just in Greece, but in Persia, India and China, too. And in this shift, a new kind of moral philosopher emerged – Socrates in Greece, the Buddha in India, Confucius and Mo Tzu in China. For all of them, the starting point of moral discussion was a new conception of humans as rational beings; all, to a greater or lesser degree, looked to reason as a means of finding answers in a world they saw as constrained by fate.

david death of socrates

But the ancient vision of the ‘reasoning individual’ was very different from the modern concept. In early Greek thought there is little conception of the self as a single entity within the body. Homer, for instance, rarely refers to the internal mental state of his heroes or their sense of self or identity. Equally, there is an absence in the Iliad and the Odyssey of concepts such as ‘mind’, ‘conscience’ or ‘consciousness’ – concepts vital to the modern notion of the individual. By the time of Plato, there existed the notion of a unified soul as a single locus of thinking and feeling; Plato, indeed, played a significant role in developing this notion. But the relationship between the internal and external worlds was different from the modern understanding. In both the Platonic and Aristotlellian traditions, the concept of thought (‘nous’) referred to both an internal process by which humans come to understand the world and to the external order of things which must be understood. For Plato, in particular, the process of thinking was of coming to realize the rational order that existed in the world. In the Platonic world, writes Charles Taylor, ‘To be ruled by reason is to have one’s life shaped by a pre-existent rational order.’

The Greek concept of the individual had also to be understood against the background of the concept of ‘community’. The individual had no meaning but as a member of a community. Aristotle found Antigone perplexing and did not regard it a great work of tragedy. Nevertheless he agreed with Sophocles’ fundamental theme. No citizen, he wrote, ‘should think that he belongs just to himself’. Rather, ‘he must regard all citizens as belonging to the state, for each is a part of the state; and the responsibility for each part naturally has regard to the responsibility for the whole.’

The ‘state’ or ‘polis’ carried for the Ancient Greeks an almost spiritual sense – something that cannot be conveyed by the modern translation of ‘city state’. Polis described ‘home’ and embodied a sense of belonging. It embodied also the sense that only through membership of the polis was humanity raised above the level of barbarism. Both in relation to the human and the social, the individual was a very different being in the ancient world than in the modern.

Monotheism – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – introduced a very different vision of the human, making humans both greater and lesser than they had been before. For the monotheists there was, of course, but one God, all-powerful and constrained by nothing; and a God, particularly in the Christian tradition, that was also wise and loving. This new vision of God helped Christianity in particular develop further the concepts of moral equality and of human agency. The idea of the one, all-powerful, loving God who had created humans in His own image helped enlarge the meaning of ‘humanity’ and develop new ways of thinking about agency. Because all humans had been made in God’s image, so there was implicit in the Christian message a new sense of moral equality. The dignity of the individual derived not from his or her participation in a specific community but through their God-created nature. For the Ancients, there was a plethora of gods, all constrained by the rational structure of reality. Fate, for the Greeks, was more powerful even than the gods. The monotheistic God, all-powerful and constrained by nothing, could act as He chose. This allowed for radically new concepts of agency and will, not just in relation to God but also in relation to humans.

el greco christ carrying the cross

Yet what God giveth with one hand, He taketh away with the other. While notions of equality and agency important to the modern concept of the individual developed within the Christian tradition, both notions were also circumscribed in being tied to religious belief.

The idea of a universal humanity was constrained by the very nature of faith. Equality was equality in the eyes of a Christian God.   Hence the long and fractious debates, well into the early modern period, about whether non-Christians were equal, or even possessed souls. Other premodern traditions, the Greek Stoics, for instance, faced no such constraints, and developed a vision of equality and universalism far more revolutionary than that of Christian theologians and one that came to influence many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas of social hierarchy and of inequality remained central to the Christian tradition. ‘It is in the natural order of things’, Augustine, the greatest of Christian theologians, certainly before Thomas Aquinas, 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.’

Such beliefs were not, of course, specific to Christianity. Difference and inequality were stitched into the social fabric in the premodern world. Not till the coming of modernity, and the social possibilities it forged, could equality take on new meaning. But it does suggest that early Christian thought was unable to break free from the constraints of premodernity.

Similar problems attend the claim that modern notions of agency and will derive primarily from the Christian tradition. It is true that the Christian tradition developed new ways of thinking about the individual and about human agency, just as it had developed notions of equality and universalism. But just as faith constrained the ways in which Christians could conceive of equality, so it constrained the ways in which they could imagine agency and will. ‘Will’ in the Christian tradition can be understood only in the context of belief in the Fall and in Original Sin, the insistence that all humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God in eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In the Christian tradition it is impossible for humans to do good on their own account, because the Fall has degraded both their moral capacity and their willpower. Only through God’s grace could humans achieve salvation. 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.

blake the fall paradise lost

Not all Christians were willing to accept this desolate, guilt-ridden view of human nature. A major theological debate erupted within Western Christendom in the fifth century when a Welsh monk, Pelagius, challenged Augustine’s vision. Pelagius argued that it was possible for humans to achieve salvation independently of God’s grace through the power of reason and the exercise of free will, though he accepted that God’s grace assisted every good work. It is the responsibility of human beings to follow the Gospels, and to suggest that ‘the frailty of our own nature’ makes us incapable of doing so was, in Pelagius’ view, ‘to indulge in pointless evasions’.

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine was the question of whether humans are to be defined by depravity and sinfulness or by reason and the capacity for good. Are humans moral agents? Or are we so crippled by sin that it is impossible for us to have a clear idea of right and wrong?  Augustine won the dispute.  Pelagius, and those who supported him, were declared heretics.

In the struggle between Augustine and Pelagius we can see two threads of Christian thought, two contradictory views of God, salvation and human nature that Christianity has never truly resolved. Augustine’s victory set the tone for how Christians came to see what it was to be human. Not for another millennium did a truly new vision of human nature and of human agency begin to develop.

From the late Middle Ages conceptions of God, of human nature and of the good society all began to change. From within the Christian tradition there developed the beginnings of a new humanist sensibility, expressed in the work of poets from Dante to Milton, of artists from Giotto to Michelangelo, of philosophers from Aquinas to Erasmus. At the same time, a host of changes, from the emergence of the individual as a new social actor to the breakdown of traditional communities, upended the social world. Increasingly, social structures were no longer seen as given but became debated politically and challenged physically.

These changes both drove and were driven by changing conceptions of God. There was greater skepticism among theists themselves about arguments for theism, a growing desire to root faith in reason, a more naturalistic view of the world, even among believers, the burgeoning of secular spaces in society, a developing sense that one’s relationship with God was more a private than a public issue.

The Reformation played an important role in fostering many of these changes; at the same time many of these changes allowed for the emergence of a more Protestant sensibility. The Reformation was, however, a complex, contradictory movement, as reactionary as it was revolutionary, as constraining as it was liberating.

The Reformation with which we are most familiar, the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, was in fact an intensely conservative religious reaction against the spirit of reason that Thomas Aquinas had introduced into Christianity in the twelfth century by marrying theology to Aristotelian philosophy. The reformers insisted on the absolute sovereignty of God over His creation and saw the human race as a ‘teeming horde of infamies’, as Calvin put it, whose innate sinfulness degraded any autonomy except for the autonomy to be wicked.

Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church appealed to many monarchs and princes, especially in northern Europe, chafing at the constraints imposed by Papal power. The so-called ‘magisterial Protestantism’, wrenched power away from the Pope, but did not abandon the idea that the rule of the monarchs was authorized by God.  Many, such as Charles I of England, insisted on the ‘divine right of kings’.

There were, however, more radical strands to the Reformation. From the Anabaptists in the Low Countries and in German speaking lands in the mid-sixteenth century to the Levellers and Diggers in England a century later, such movements sought to challenge the power not just of Popes but of monarchs too. They took Luther’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ as an expression of the moral equality of all humans, and as a challenge to all religious authority. The Levellers, for instance, were a political movement during the English Civil Wars that held to a notion of ‘natural rights’ and emphasized popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. But while such ideas developed within the religiously-shaped movements of the radical Reformation, they only became properly developed within the radical wing of the Enlightenment.

david jeu de paume

Just as there were radical and mainstream wings of the Reformation, so there were two Enlightenments, too, an argument that historian Jonathan Israel has fleshed out into monumental, magnificent trilogy, Radical Enlightenment, Enlightenment Contested, Democratic Enlightenment. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know, which provides the public face of the Enlightenment, and of which most historians have written. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and, in particular, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.

The two Enlightenments, Israel suggests, divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. The mainstream’s intellectual timidity constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. By contrast, the Radical Enlightenment ‘rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely’. In Israel’s view, what he calls the ‘package of basic values’ that defines modernity – toleration, personal freedom, democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation and the universal right to knowledge – derives principally from the claims of the Radical Enlightenment. Having dispensed with God, the radicals had, in Israel words, no ‘meaningful alternative’ to articulating a new view of the human in which morality was grounded in a ‘generalized radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’ It was, ironically, in the crumbling of the God-ordained order that the moral universalism implicit in Christianity could become manifest.

Whereas for previous generations, both nature and humanity made sense as God’s order, only humans, many now insisted, infused both with meaning. ‘If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth’, Denis Diderot claimed, ‘this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene’. It was ‘the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful’. Meaning is not something to be discovered. It is something that humans, and only humans, create.

It is difficult to overstate how transformative such an idea was. Ancient Greeks had seen humans as using reason to carve out, within an unpredictable universe, a space for dignity and honour. But they were able to do so only within a framework that accepted the idea of irresistible fate and of individual interests as sublimated to those of the community. For monotheists, God provided the framework within which one understood both human nature and social order. Humans could make choices, but only within that framework. But it was that framework that was now being unpicked.

Not just new conceptions of the human but new visions of society, too, shaped changing ideas about the individual. In the premodern world, the structure of the community was broadly a given. Societies changed, of course, but few people entertained the idea that it was possible to will social change. Every individual possessed a fixed place in society (his ‘station’) from which derived his duties, rights and obligations.

One of the key changes with the coming of modernity is that social structures were no longer given but became debated politically and challenged physically. This inevitably changed the ways in which people understood what it was to be an ‘individual’. Just as with the coming of monotheism, the concept of an all-powerful, unconstrained God opened up new ways of thinking about human agency, so the new possibilities of social change that developed with modernity transformed also the concept of individual agency and individual autonomy. I do not have the time to pursue the argument here except to suggest that one cannot understand the ways in which modernity transformed the concept of the individual without understanding, too, the ways in which it transformed our relationship to the social; and that in fundamentally transforming our relationship to the social, it fundamentally transformed our concept of the individual, too.

The modern concept of the individual possesses roots in both Christian and Greek thought. And yet it is also a peculiarly modern concept, the product of the specific social, political and intellectual currents of the modern world.


The paintings are, from top down, René Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’; ‘Antigone in front of the dead Polynices’ by Nikiphoros Lytras; ‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques-Louis David; El Greco’s ‘Christ carrying the Cross’; William Blake’s illustration for Milton’ ‘Paradise Lost’ of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden; and Jacques-Louis David ‘Le Serment du Jeu de Paume’. 


  1. I’ve only got a third through this. I must remember to get back to it. It’s fascinating. But it’s best midnight and I’ve a busy day tomorrow.
    I don’t suppose you would ever consider giving us a short abstract for your posts, would you?
    Thanks for posting.

  2. I’ve read much about all of this before. It has been one of my favorite topics in my blog recently. You wrote about it well. This can be a tough area of thought to communicate clearly. I’d say you succeeded. You brought a lot of ideas together that require making connections people aren’t used to considering.

  3. Kenan Malik – I had a question for you (or for anyone else who might know). I’m interested in this topic right now. In recent years, I’ve been looking for reading materials along these lines. Do you write about this topic in any of your books?

    • Hello, I have read around this quite alot and could give you some reading suggestions. The argument Malik is countering is outlined by Larry Siedentop in his book ‘Inventing the individual.’ Francis Oakley has also begun a three volume series of books making an argument along similar lines to Siedentop. The first two are ‘Bottles of Empty Gentilism’ and the ‘Mortgage of the Past.’ Brian Tiernay’s works on Natural Law highlight the historical importance of Christianity in the development of human rights. Colin Morris’s ‘Discovery of the Individual’ discusses the emergence of concepts of individualism in the Middle Ages. As Kenan Malik suggests in the article, Jonathan Israel is an exemplary historian of the origins of the Enlightenment. Conversely, Carl Becker, another important historian, highlights the Enlightenment’s continuity with previous developments in intellectual thought. Tom Holland has also written articles on this subject such as this one: A summary of Siedentop’s argument can be found here:

      • Thanks for the response. I do have Siedentop’s book and have read some of it. I’ve read several of Israel’s books and enjoyed them immensely. I don’t think I’ve come across the others you mentioned—I’ll check them out. I have a ton of books on these and related issues. I’ve been working my way through them these past years.

        I always appreciate book recommendations, but I was more specifically wondering if Malik had a more extensive discussion in one of his books. His presentation here is well done for a shorter piece. I’d love to see him write a full-length book on the topic or at least a long chapter, if he hasn’t already written about it in one of his books. I’m sure he has plenty of original thoughts he could add.

        • Benjamin, first, my apologies for not responding before – I have been away for a few days and without easy access to the Internet. I have not written any book-length account of the historical transformation of the concept of the individual. However, the early (historical) chapters of
          Man, Beast and Zombie
          explore changing historical ideas of the human. And one of the underlying themes of my last book, The Quest for a Moral Compass, is the shifting historical debate about what it is to be human.

          Perhaps the seminal work on the history of the idea of the individual is Charles Taylor’s The Sources of the Self. (It is actually subtitled ‘The Making of the Modern Identity’, but is at heart a historical account of the emergence of the concept of the human agent, of individuality and of what Taylor calls ‘the sense of inwardness’.) Taylor, who is a Catholic philosopher, gives a very different account to Larry Siedentop (as, indeed does Alasdair MacIntyre, another Catholic philosopher, in works such as After Virtue). I suggested to Siedentop at the Ax:son Johnson / British Academy debate that Inventing the Individual seemed a very Protestant account, and that this might explain the difference between his understanding and that of Taylor and MacIntyre. He acknowledged that there was some truth to this and that he wrote Inventing the Individual partly to challenge the Taylor/MacIntyre version of history. So it might be worth reading Taylor and Siedentop in tandem.

        • I appreciate the response. I did decide to get your last book. Maybe after that I’ll look at Man, Beast and Zombie. I haven’t read Charles Taylor, but I have come across many references to his work. I recognize Alasdair Macintyre’s name from somewhere. I’ll see about Taylor and maybe Macintyre as a balance to Siedentop. It’s all fascinating stuff, to my mind. I wish I had more time to read.

  4. No problem. I don’t think he has written any extensive material on the subject: I think he is writing mainly in reaction to Siedentop. But, it would be, as you say, very interesting to see a fuller discussion of the thesis from him. It is very good that ‘Inventing the Individual’ has sparked such an engaging debate! Although, some of it is quite old. For instance, Nietzsche discussed the influence of Christianity on modern moral ideas in his ‘Genealogy of Morals.’ Moreover, Fustel de Coulanges and Benjamin Constant wrote extensively, in the nineteenth century, on the difference between Greek and modern morality. Well, I hope you enjoy reading about it….

  5. Simon Graham

    Benjamin David Steele in your request for material on the subject of individualism, I recently read a book review of Individualism In The United States by Stephanie M Walls in which the reviewer in contrast to the reviewed book suggested a better book for understanding the subject: Individualism by Steven Lukes.

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