Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Larry Siedentop's "Inventing the Individual" is one of the greatest works of intellectual history I've ever read - it's a stunning classic

Here's a book review I've just penned for The Salisbury Review, to appear in their next issue. I was vaguely aware of Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism when it came out in hardback at the start of 2014, but I paid it no mind: if I hadn't been asked to review the paperback edition (available here), it would have passed me by completely. That would have been a shame, because it is a book which changes the way one looks at the world by turning many of our traditional historical notions on their head. Of course, that's no great trick - leftist historians have been doing the same thing for over a century. The difference with Siedentop's book is that (a) his arguments are thoroughly convincing (b) he seems genuinely politically unbiased, and (c) he's swimming against the academic tide by arguing that the liberal secular state is the product of Christianity rather than a reaction against it.

What I didn't have room to say in the review is that Larry Siedentop is a US-born British philosopher who was appointed to the first post in intellectual hstory in this country, at Sussex University, in the 1970s. He went on become Faculty Lecturer in Political Thought at Keble College, Oxford. He was made a CBE in 1974. I don't wish to sound ageist, but one of the many astonishing things about this truly great book is that it was written by a man in his late 70s (Siedentop is 79 this year). Given his clarity of thought, his control of a massive amount of historical material, and the sheer intellectual stamina he must have required to write it - well, I'm awed. Here's the review:

“Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world” is the central argument of this magnificent work by the distinguished intellectual historian, Larry Siedentop. Given the increasing hostility directed towards Christians by atheists in Europe and America, this seems an extraordinary claim. Ever since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has taught that liberal secularism and Christianity are opposing forces locked in permanent battle. Siedentop calls this Europe’s “civil war”, because the two sides share the same moral roots - roots which can be traced to the very heart of Christianity. The problem with the prevailing ignorance of Christianity and secularism’s shared origins is that the latter has come to be identified with “non-belief, indifference and materialism”, which “deprives Europe of moral authority, playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without conviction.”

If secularism isn’t merely a synonym for ”non-belief”, how should it be understood? For the author, its crux is “that belief in an underlying or moral equality of humans implies that there is a sphere in which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action.” The central value of secularism is a commitment to “equal liberty”. Human beings are rational agents who are free to choose and are therefore responsible for their own actions – actions dictated by their conscience rather than a blind adherence to rules, and informed by an understanding of natural rights and of a basic duty to others. This view doesn’t only underpin liberal secularism, but is also “the central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity.”

On first reading, this argument smacks of sophistry, a Chestertonian conjuring trick whereby paradox magicks away Christianity’s superstitions, its insistence on obedience to a set of moral commandments, and the Church’s hierarchical structure. After all, according to modern atheistic thinking, isn’t a belief in all-seeing sky pixie who will reward or punish us after death simply a device whereby the rich keep the rest of us in line? For the pure, clear light of reason, logic and the concept of equality, surely we need to look beyond the origins of Christianity to the largely secular ancient Greeks and Romans or at least to the Enlightenment, when the process of ridding the priest-ridden world of stifling Christian mumbo-jumbo mercifully got fully under way, and the liberating concept of the self-governing individual – the master of his fate and captain of his soul – truly emerged.

In response, Siedentop argues that the ancient world was saturated with religion, centred mainly on the family (the state consisted of a collection of families rather than individuals), but also on one’s caste, tribe or city – often a mixture of all of them. But the family, with the paterfamilias acting in effect as priest, was the predominant sacral entity: it was a religious cult. The defining belief of the ancient world was in natural inequality: people and their “rights” were defined by the roles they had been born into. Women and slaves had few or no rights. There was no need to examine one’s conscience before deciding how to act: one’s role decided correct behaviour – it even decided how one should think. The modern idea of the proudly self-governing individual wrestling with his or her conscience before deciding on a course of action simply wouldn’t have made any sense to our ancestors.  That required St. Paul – possibly the greatest revolutionary in history – to shape the religion whose moral teachings were to become “the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.”

At the heart of this new voluntary religion lay the concept of moral equality. Rich and poor, master and slave, men and women were suddenly equal in the sight of God: they mingled on an equal footing in the basilica as brothers in Christ.  Christianity created a sphere in which nobody was constrained by their role, where custom and human command didn’t automatically hold sway. Every Christian had a direct relationship with God, which trumped their relationship with their master, chieftain, husband or father – they reported, as it were, direct to the boss. The individual conscience and the human will moved centre-stage, ultimately making possible the emergence of the modern concept of the Individual.

The notion that the modern world was born during the Renaissance, with its enthusiasm for the ancient world, is audaciously brushed aside by Siedentop, who convincingly argues that our concepts of the Individual and personal freedom – the very foundations of modern liberal democracies – owe far more to  the 10th Century Cluniac reform of the monasteries, the creation of canon law, the growing power of city bishops, and the scholastic philosophising of the likes of Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas and  William of Ockham during the early middle ages than anything created by the Renaissance’s fascination with the classical world. Whatever the church came up with in this period tended to serve as a template according to which the secular state eventually arranged its affairs.

Among other “modern” advances, Siendentop traces the following phenomena to the medieval Church: the emergence of the city state; kingship; universally applicable laws enshrining the notion of individual rights; the concepts of charity and reciprocity (i.e. do unto others); the move away from an aristocratic to a democratic view of authority; and the emergence of representative government. He also makes a convincing case for the Church being responsible for ensuring that European feudalism – a throwback to the ancient world in giving local lords total control over the lives of their “subjects” – lasted for a relatively short time: the scholastics made a distinction between the right of ownership and the right to rule. The forging of a relationship between kings and their subjects, modelled on that between the Pope and his flock, resulted in increased freedom for the lower orders.

As for claims that the Enlightenment made us what we are,  Siendentop is unimpressed: for instance, the separation of church and state and the creation of a secular space where people of different faiths – or none - can socialize and do business is, he believes, the result of Christian thinking. It is partly this concept of a secular space that makes our relationship with Islam so fraught: unlike Christians, most Muslims ultimately don’t accept the concept of a secular state. (It’s galling when a certain type of rabidly atheistic liberal-leftist habitually sides with Islam against Christianity, the religion which gave birth to secularism.)

President Obama used a so-called National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year to warn Christians not to “get on a high horse” when judging the horrors perpetrated by Islamic extremists, inevitably citing the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples of Christian wickedness. It’s odd to hear an American President openly express such hostility to a religion he professes to follow. European anti-clericalism can be explained by the historical presence of a monolithic church and an aristocracy which became identified with it, but, absent either of these, “Americans instinctively grasped the moral symmetry between secularism, with its prized civil liberty, and Christianity, accepting that secularism identifies a necessary condition of authentic belief.”

How refreshing to read a work of profound scholarship which essentially urges Christians to get back on their high horse and recognize that their religion – whatever its faults – created the modern secular state and that its values are worth defending against its increasingly strident enemies. Inventing the Individual is a constant, myth-exploding delight: barely a page goes by without some cherished notion being turned on its head. It should delight both Christians and all but the most rabidly intolerant atheists.

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