This essay reviews Larry Siedentop’s recent book Inventing the Individual, the story of how, contrary to received wisdom, it was distinctively Christian convictions which generated the ideas that are foundational to liberalism and the West’s idea of itself. This is not a popular view – as Siedentop acknowledged when I spoke to him here – but his book makes a coherent and persuasive case that unpopular as the idea is, it is Christianity and not (or at very least not only) the Enlightenment that made the West what it is. The essay is long – but don’t let that deter you from reading it or the book, which is an example of intellectual history at is best.
History writes historians just as much as historians write history. The presuppositions of an age, the shadows it lives under, the light it thinks it grows towards: all inform how it narrates its past. Hume’s histories of England and Gibbon’s of Rome could only have been written in the 18th century. William Stubbs, Lord Acton and Jacob Burckhardt all bear the marks of progressive liberty and autonomy that characterise the later nineteenth 19th century. History books may not exemplify their age in the way that styles of architecture are supposed to, but they illustrate them.
So it is today. The secularisation thesis ground to halt at some point in the last quarter of the 20th century, as the rest of the world veered off Europe’s tracks and modernised without losing their religion, and the more muscularly religious emerged from the darkness to batter down the secular defences that the West had erected around itself. In reaction to this, a number of historians of recent years have been keen to bang the drum for the secular Enlightenment, defining, defending and celebrating it as the font of all our social and political liberties. These have ranged from the crudest New Atheist caricatures, through Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And why it still matters, all the way to Jonathan Israel’s awe-inspiring 2,500 page trilogy. One should not, of course, expect too much from New Atheist polemics, intended as they are to dish out the most savage punishment beatings to the flimsiest of straw men, but when someone as erudite as Israel writes…
Nothing could be more fundamentally mistaken, as well as politically injudicious, than for the European Union to endorse the deeply mistaken notion that ‘European values’… are at least religiously specific and should be recognised as essentially ‘Christian’ values. That the religion of the papacy, Inquisition, and Puritanism should be labelled the quintessence of ‘Europeanness’ would rightly be considered a wholly unacceptable affront by a great majority of thoroughly ‘European’ Europeans.
…we clearly have a problem and can be sure that the atmosphere of the age is colouring the pages of our history.
In such a context it takes an impressive and courageous historian to say that in actual fact the Enlightenment is not the source of our political virtues, and that this is better found in the distinctly Christian ideas and their institutional setting (whisper it: the church). Larry Siedentop is that man.
Siedentop is an septuagenarian academic who studied under Isaiah Berlin and whose evident approval of secular liberal values does not mean he is blind to their origins or complacent about their future. (Click here for my recent interview with him.)
Inventing the Individual, just published by Allen Lane, traces the history of certain ideas: that each person exists with worth apart from their social position; that everyone should enjoy equal status under the law; that none should be compelled in their religious beliefs; that all each has a conscience that should be respected. These are ideas that many of us deem either obvious or ‘natural’ for humans to hold or that we locate firmly in the Enlightenment. Such ideas are, in fact, very far from ‘natural’, however, and have their roots many centuries before Voltaire ever put quill to paper.
The book begins in the world of antiquity. This is sometimes taken, in more romantic (i.e. ill-informed) liberal quarters as the nursery of freedom. Yes, slavery might have been institutionalised but polytheism was tolerant, much of it was devoid of serious religion, the free were all equal, and many people even had the vote.
In reality, the ancient world was anything but secular, tolerant, free, or equal. Religion was omnipresent, and the family was everything: the primary social institution and source of identity, the basic unit of social reality, a veritable (and repressive) church in itself. The paterfamilias was effectively a magistrate and high priest with almost unlimited powers. Social roles were fixed and hierarchy and inequality were believed to be built into the universe itself. There was simply no conception of common humanity, and widespread charity (i.e. outside immediate family or clan bonds) “was not deemed a virtue, and would probably have been unintelligible”.
This changed with the emergence of city states, which widened the bonds that had been the property of the family, although not by much. Families remained exclusive and powerful, their power now pooled in cities. Citizens belonged to the city and there was little space for individual conscience. The individual simply did not exist outside family, city or cult.
Cities were inherently religious institutions: quasi-churches, as families had been, patriotism and piety being essentially the same thing. War was inherently tied in with the purpose and worth of the civic realm, and there was no clear distinction between military and economic activity. The pagan gods were no less jealous of their cities than Yahweh was of his people.
As the world changed from city states to empire, these localised social ties loosened but, again, progress was slow. Primogeniture weakened, younger sons became full citizens, the absolute power of the paterfamilias weakened, their sacred status eroded. Such progress was ambiguous, however: local city loyalties (and deities) faded only to be replaced with the God of Rome, whom you crossed at your peril. It was also strictly limited. Women and slaves were still non-persons, confined to the dishonourable and inferior worlds of the home and manual labour. The second century jurist Gaius could rely on three tests to establish a person’s status – were they free or unfree? a citizen or foreign born? a paterfamilias or in the power of an ancestor? This was enough to tell whether they were worth anything. Roman law, which would play such a significant role in the wake of the western empire, was limited to relations “between men who shared in the worship of the city, sacrificing at the same altars. They alone were citizens”.
There were a few small groups who challenged this social structure, such as the Sophists, peripatetic and paid professional teachers, often of modest backgrounds, who questioned the order of city, empire and universe. But they were few and limited in their challenge. The powerful idea, favoured by some Enlightenment historians and their eager acolytes today, that we can draw any kind of line, let alone a neat and straight one, from the allegedly tolerant and equal liberties of the ancient world to those of today is a myth almost entirely without foundation.
It was into this world, that Christianity erupted in what Siedentop calls a “moral revolution”. Siedentop’s description of this eruption is slightly eccentric. He rightly sees the Jewish concept of law – as a statement of will (God’s will, that is) which transcends human rational considerations and is thus free from the autocratic and hierarchical connotations of Roman law – as the foundation for the Christian moral revolution. However, because he deals only briefly with Jewish thought and speaks of inter-testamental Judaism as a single thing (presumably due to lack of space?) he doesn’t recognise that, by the time of Jesus, the ‘wisdom’ or Sophia of God is not only spoken of as radiating or emanating from him, but also discernable in creation. In effect, the conception and re-description of divine activity and law in terms that would be comprehensible to the Hellenic mind, had begun before St Paul.
Similarly, Siedentop locates the Christian moral revolution in Paul rather than Christ (whom he calls ‘the Christ’ throughout) on the somewhat spurious grounds that we can say very little confidently about Jesus’ life and teachings. This would be news to many New Testament scholars and, of course, to Paul himself, who had no doubts where his teaching was grounded. Siedentop does not imagine that Paul is an inventor, in the way that some like to claim that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity, but he fails to grant Paul’s thought its full intellectual heritage or context. However brilliant and influential he was, Paul was not the sum of early Christianity.
Such quibbles aside, Siedentop is forcefully clear on what Paul’s message did revolutionise. According to Paul, “the Christ reveals a God who is potentially present in every believer.” Through an act of faith in the Christ, human agency, which is no longer simply a plaything of stars, gods or fate, can become a medium for God’s love. Such an understanding of reality deprived rationality of its aristocratic connotations. Thinking was no longer the privilege of the social elite and became associated not with status but with humility, itself a virtue entirely alien in the ancient world.
Christianity put forward a new idea of a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives. In doing so, it helped redefine identity, which was no longer exhausted by social roles, these becoming secondary to primary relationship God. For the first time, humans (all humans) had a “pre-social” identity, being someone before they had some role. This provided “an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’” through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group. Martyrs in particular became examples of this inner conviction, standing against social and political forces and norms to an extreme degree; examples, if you will, of conscience. “The unintended consequence of the persecution of Christians was to render the idea of the individual, or moral equality, more intelligible.”
This was reinforced by the near-universally recognised fact (even among hostile pagans) that the church “amounted to mini-welfare states”, tending to the ‘our’ poor as well as its own, as the emperor Julian the Apostate put it. The church was inclusive and universal in a way that nothing else was in the ancient world, its sacraments emphasising the individuality and equality of all.
Even those things, like sexual renunciation, which we modern liberals like to sneer at and which are now seen as part of Christianity’s repressive side were, in this context, actually liberating. In a society where women were defined by their reproductive role, sexual renunciation was a manifest act of individual will and constituted powerful statement of independent dignity. Indeed, it was a subtle assertion of control over man – that a woman’s body was her own to choose what she did with it rather than simple being a receptacle for a man’s desire to breed – an assertion that could only be legitimised by a higher authority. A similar re-balancing of gender power was to be seen in the church’s relentless emphasis that the obligations within marriage were mutual and that male adultery was as worthy of condemnation as female. No-one, and certainly not Siedentop, is under any illusion about how church leaders could treat women, but in the realm of fundamental ideas, there is a different story to be told.
What actual impact did this moral reformation have? The answer is a slow one. Siedentop traces the line of Christian ideas through Europe’s murkiest centuries.
After the final collapse of the empire in the West in 476, ancient hierarchies were in shambles. The church was the last institution left standing and bishops frequently became leading civic figures. They found themselves negotiating with Germanic invaders who had the monopoly of physical force and whose culture entailed the supreme power of the paterfamilias, subordination of women, and inflexible rules concerning inheritance, all of which were antithetical to, or at least in some tension with core Christian ideas.
The clergy thus often became “diplomats and administrators”. Their only viable response to the violence that confronted the broken empire was to wield a moral axe – or, perhaps, moral stick and carrot – with the invaders. On the one hand, they declared that God would judge each and every person for their actions; on the other, they sought to “introduce the norm of ‘charity’” into public life. In this way “concern with the fate of the individual soul was nibbling away at a corporate, hierarchical image” – doing unto the Germanic invaders what it had done to the Roman empire they now overran.
Charity was inextricably linked with education and one of the most refreshing critiques in Siedentop’s book is of the changing educational landscape of the mid first millennium. The traditional story here is that ancient learning was free and tolerant, reasonably sophisticated and rational, only to be (brutally) closed down by ignorant monks who, if they thought at all, were obsessed by incomprehensible and essentially meaningless theological details.
While you can certainly defend this line, Siedentop argues persuasively that the educational system of late antiquity was nothing like as polished as we imagine it. The dependence of professors on imperial favour and the strict regulation of students had resulted in forms of intellectual servility and a severely devalued syllabus. Students came from privileged class and learning was primarily a matter for display, “ornament rather than substance”. If you want a more modern comparison, think an Oxford education c. 1750.
By contrast, Siedentop contends, Christian learning was shaped by the fact that bishops were immersed in the world. They couldn’t do rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. Moreover, they were discussing live issues, questions that were not yet settled, unlike most subjects within the lecture halls of late antiquity, and were therefore engaged in thinking rather than just learning. In this way, “the church gave ancient philosophy an ‘afterlife’”, as well, of course, as preserving most of ancient texts, Christian and pagan alike, that we have today.
The centre for this preservation of thought was the monasteries but monasteries did more for the idea of the individual than in their educational role alone. Although deplored by many urban clergy at first for their ignorance and cussedness, solitary monks epitomised Christianity’s potential for inwardness. They existed alone, defined not by any social role but by God alone. “The monks could be portrayed as a new type of athlete, an athlete who sought not physical perfection or competitive glory but conquest of the will.”
When, from the fourth century, they began to live corporately, their “sociability [preserved] the role of individual conscience”. The new form of social organisation was self-regulatory. Monasteries created “an unprecedented version of authority [where] to be in authority was to be humble”. They helped rehabilitate work as a good in itself. “At the end of antiquity the image [monasticism] offered of a social order founded on equality, limiting the role of force and honouring work, while devoting itself to prayer and acts of charity, gave it a powerful hold of minds.” Again, as with the treatment of women, this is an idealised picture and, again, Siedentop is alert to the monasteries’ very many “failings and compromises”. But while we dwell in the realm of ideas, it remains an important corrective to the well-worn narratives of monastic darkness, bigotry and ignorance.
Monasticism (at its best) may have preserved and nurtured Christianity’s integral values through Europe’s most turbulent centuries, but that does not mean the rest of the West was utterly devoid of them. This is the fact that will, perhaps, most surprise the casual reader of Inventing the Individual schooled, as most of us are, in the belief that these were unremittingly barbaric centuries within a generally barbaric millennium.
As an example, Siedentop quotes the remarkable legal formula King Chilperic, from the mid-sixth century concerning the status of women in his kingdom. “A long-standing and wicked custom of our people denies sisters a share with their brothers in their father’s land; but I consider this wrong, since my children came equally from God…Therefore, my dearest daughter, I hereby make you an equal and legitimate heir with your brothers, my sons”. These are not the words or laws we expect to emerged from the gloomiest corner of the ‘Dark Ages’.
The surprises do not end with gender. The plight of the poor was repeatedly highlighted in such a way as emphasised the scandal of poverty among those for whom Christ died. “Their sweat and toil made you rich. The rich get their riches because of the poor,” thundered Bishop Theodulf of Orleans, like a mitred Marx. “But nature submits you to the same laws. In birth and death you are alike. The same holy water blesses you; you are anointed with the same oils; the flesh and blood of the lamb nourishes you all together.”
Slavery remained a live reality in the barbarian kingdoms, the slow direction of travel away from the institution that could be detected in the late antique world being brought to a halt by the fall of the Western empire. Nevertheless, ecclesiastical strictures were introduced to soften the impact. The Visigoths upheld a ban on the capital punishment of slaves by their masters without public trial, and several kingdoms stipulated that married slaves could not be separated, even if they belonged to different masters. This was hardly the Clapham Sect but it nonetheless recognised the humanity of the slave that was a prerequisite for any subsequent abolitionist ventures.
Siedentop make a great deal of the Carolingian age, which was, in effect, Europe’s first mini-renaissance in the late eighth century. Charlemagne could be heroically brutal, as he showed when he had 4,500 people beheaded outside Bremen in 782. But he also was determined to build a Christian kingdom. Such are the paradoxes of history. There are no straightforward narratives here.
In 792, Europe’s greatest ruler wished to secure allegiance of all his people and took oaths of allegiance from every one, including slaves. This, Siedentop rightly points out, would have been unthinkable in antiquity, where one might as well have asked for an oath from a packhorse. Moreover, the oaths were administered in the vernacular so that people could understand them. What mattered was not the public display but the inward consent.
This recognition of inwardness also had a discernible impact on the law. It helped introduce the idea of intentionality into criminal law, judging that what a person intended demanded legal attention alongside what they actually did. This helped replace verdicts that were based on ordeal or combat with those on evidence. It even raised the idea of conscience in a more abstract sense, as certain prominent clerical advisors, such as Alcuin of York, voiced the belief that enforced belief was a contradiction in terms.
Women’s rights, care for the poor, attenuated slavery, legal equality, conscience: none of these was a reality in the period, and it is highly doubtful than any of them were even intended by people at the time. But the seeds that had been promisingly sown by Christianity were not entirely ignored or destroyed by the chaos of the ‘Dark Ages’.
The health of the church took a dive in the centuries following Charlemagne, the papacy becoming a plaything of wealthy Italian families, the disease from the head spreading to the rest of the body, where local landowners regarded parishes as their property, judging and appointing clerics like personal servants, and bishops and abbots lived like local lords. Incumbents were ill-educated, frequently simply family members who purchased or inherited their sinecures.
It was in this context that certain monasteries underwent a slow but immensely important period of reformation, seeking the purity and charity that was so evidently missing from the mainstream church. It was also this context in which the right of the church to self-govern emerged as an issue that would dominate the next few centuries.
These problems were compacted by growing political instability as the Carolingian empire collapsed, leading to levels of violence not seen since the fifth and sixth centuries. Political chaos bred a mania for castle building in tenth century and, with it, the emergence of knights, at the time little more than thugs with swords. “Unpunished violence became almost the norm”
The Church tried to bring some peace to the violence but with limited success. In 975, the bishop of Le Puy convened a meeting of knights and peasants of his diocese eliciting from the former an oath to respect the property of the church and of paupers and the powerless. Fourteen years later, a church council in Burgundy formally excommunicated those who attacked clerics and “those who stole a beast from the poor or the tillers of soil”, stating that pilgrims, women, children, labourers and the instruments of their work, alongside monasteries and cemeteries were to be left “undisturbed and in perpetual peace”.
This emphasis on the Peace of God, as it came to be known, made way, in 1017, for the Truce of God movement, an idea – comical to us now, but serious and far from nonsensical at the time – that knights should desist from private warfare from Noon Saturday to morning on Monday. This hardly constituted a European-wide amnesty – come Monday morning the bloodshed could begin again – but it attempted to show that continuous warfare was not necessary and that peace was not only possible but morally right. “No Christian should kill another Christian, for whoever kills another Christian undoubtedly sheds the blood of Christ,” intoned the Council of Narbonne in1054. It was such movements and ideas that would develop into a code of conduct between knights, stressing courtesy, honour, chivalry and which might have marked a great deal of hypocrisy in the later middle ages, but was certainly better than the unrestrained violence that preceded it.
The monastic reformation prepared the way for the papal revolution of the later 11th century which transformed the European landscape. In the early years of the new millennium German emperors began to prise the papacy away from Roman families. This, however, opened the way for the more intransigent, monastic attitudes of Cluny, the chief reformed monastery, to get into Rome, and thereafter an epic struggle with the Holy Roman Empire.
In its desire to reform and clean out its own house, the papacy sought self-discipline and developed an impressive and newly consolidated body of law. The idea of papal rule, long an ambition, became a reality, one that was embedded in universal and (subversively egalitarian) law. Monk-popes gave way to legal ones. General councils and papal decrees, legates and correspondence multiplied. The first universities – Bologna, Paris, Montpellier, Oxford – were founded, primarily in order to promote the study of law. Gratian composed his enormously influentialDecretum, a textbook systematisation of Canon Law.
Europe developed a coherent body of law for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire, although this time the presuppositions on which the law was built were crucially different. In Siedentop’s words, “by identifying natural law with biblical revelation and Christian morality, Gratian gave it an egalitarian bias – and a subversive potential – utterly foreign to the ancient world’s understanding of natural law as ‘everything in its right place’.” The result was that “the standards introduced into social life by canon law were more humane and equitable than those that had preceded them.” To take one example: the Fourth Lateran Council, held in 1215, effectively abolished trial by ordeal by forbidding clergy to take part in it. In its place, new ideas of punishment, separate from retaliation or retribution were developed, alongside a growing emphasis on confession, penance and deterrence.
Law also had a critical importance in the formation of towns. “Canonists promoted an understanding of the corporation as a voluntary association of individuals who remain the source of its authority, rather than as a body constituted by superior authority and wholly dependent on that authority for its identity.” This was of incalculable importance in fostering emerging sense of fraternal responsibility and freedom among guilds and, through them, the towns that were emerging in the conditions of greater peace following the millennium. Unlike towns and cities in the ancient (and Islamic) world, which were never legally constituted or founded as autonomous legal entities, the Western European town had its own independent corporate existence, legitimacy and often structure of self-governance, all of which were reflected in the development of town charter.
So it was that by around 1200, Western Europe had legal and moral structures in place that marked the continent out from the rest of the world. There was, in the papacy, an independent self-governing institution where, in theory, ‘secular’ power did not extend. There was a concept of political authority that, while treated as coming from of God, was not divine in itself: sacred but also desacralized. There was the conviction that divinely-authorised moral authority, in which – in theory at least – all people were equal and equally under judgement, extended over everyone. There was, in guilds and towns, the emergence of a legally-secured sphere of what would one day be called civil society. There was a centralised and systematised structure of law. There were even ideas of a ‘social contract’ kind, whereby scholars like Manegold of Lautenbach argued that authority of the king was conditional. The combination was potent and unprecedented.
There was one further development in the Western concept of political authority generated, albeit accidentally, by the papacy in the high middle ages, which was to prove essential.
Canonist lawyers had long grappled with the idea of what constituted legitimate authority, a far from theoretical question when so very much authority was invested in one man. Papal claims to moral and political supremacy reached their apogee around 1300 by which time they were – ironically – blurring the ‘secular’ separation of church and ‘state’ that the papacy itself had created. What – heaven forfend! – would happen if Christendom were to find itself with a heretical pope sitting in Rome?
At one level, the answer was obvious. God’s law stood over the pope just as much as it did any king or commoner. But that answer only got you so far. How would you know that the pope erred? Who was to judge? And, even more, problematically, who was to do anything about it? The answer to these troubling questions that theologians and lawyers edged towards was, in effect, to locate authority not in head of the institution but throughout its body.
This became a painfully live issue with Great Schism at end of 14th century, when cardinals turned against the recently elected Pope Urban VI and elected Clement VII, who had strong French support. It was then made even worse when the choice of a supposedly compromise candidate, Alexander V, in 1409, proved unacceptable and Christendom was left with not two but three popes.
This scandal was eventually negotiated, by means of various councils, but the immediate legacy it left was to elevate the power of the council over that of the pope or, in more secular terms, of the electors over the elected. Moreover, the model was approved by secular rulers who had long envied and sought to imitate the church’s sophisticated, self-regulating, centralised authoritarian structure, but at the same time resented its interventionist role within their territories. For kings, seeking to give their authority a more secure, territorial basis and to minimise papal interference, the lessons of the Great Schism and the Conciliar movement were instructive and invaluable. The church’s ideas were thus, eventually, deployed against it, its powers reduced by ‘liberal’ political commitments it had generated.
In one sense the story ends here. In Siedentop’s words,
“The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries: belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental of ‘natural’ rights; and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality.”
Of course, it doesn’t. Indeed, the tragedy is that from such promising trajectory, the narrative takes a discernible dive.
The future was promising. The movement set in train by papacy and canonists blossomed into nominalism of 14th century, when an even more radical emphasis on natural rights and personal autonomy emerged, particularly in the thought of William of Ockham, whom Siedentop discusses at some length.
It was just at this point, however, that the historical vehicle on which these ideas were travelling took a sharp handbrake turn. The successful resolution of the Great Schism helped establish a newly confident papacy, which then rode roughshod over the conciliar reforms that had re-established it. At the same time, increasingly assertive national kingdoms began to claw back power from the papacy, which became still more absolutist and brittle. The cause of reform stalled in later 15th century creating tensions that exploded in 16th.
At first, the reformers set the cause of political liberty back centuries in their unquestioning elevation of secular authority. It is telling that in the later 16th century when Protestant leaders found themselves needing to formulate arguments against political powers that turned out not to be as Reformed as they had hoped, they often, quietly and shamefacedly, had to appeal to Catholic political thought for their raw materials. More damagingly, different Christian factions attempted to restore or reform Christendom by an appeal to force. As Siedentop says, “increasingly, the adjective ‘barbarous’ – which in earlier centuries had been applied… to the beliefs and practices of the tribes overrunning the Western Roman empire – would be reapplied to the attitudes and actions of the churches”.
The church, having led the way – in ideas if not always in practice – towards equality, freedom, conscience, and restrained and judged authority – became the object that was casting a shadow over these political virtues, one that many came to believe needed to be toppled in order to secure them.
Counterfactuals may be fun but they are futile. “If the reform undertaken by the councils had been well carried out, the Reformation might have been prevented,” once remarked the 19th century French historian François Guizot, one of Siedentop’s guiding lights. It’s one of history’s biggest ifs.
Whatever might have happened, the Renaissance began a reassessment of the classical past. It was, in many ways, a partial and problematic reassessment. “Italian humanists drew on the ancient world as a kind of quarry, without asking too much about its original structure.” Be that as it may, it gained its own momentum. The Enlightenment adopted the narrative, adding a strident anti-clericalism that had originally been absent, and the history of Europe, in particular its political progress, was changed. Between the Renaissance itself and the 19th century historians who first named and defined it, the story of how Christianity crafted the building blocks which made the West was lost.
Siedentop is not the first to rediscover it. Indeed, in rarefied academic circles the works of people like Brian Tierney and Harold Berman on the role of the canonists and conciliarists has long been known and highly respected. Siedentop draws on them and other sources to bring the tale to a wider audience.
Overall, if one might quibble with a few details in his story (and perhaps feel that he pays so much attention to the history of ideas that he fails to make enough of how very far the church fell short of its own standards), one cannot but conclude that Inventing the Individual is a supreme and much-needed achievement, which should be read by anyone with an interest in why the West became what it did.