Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)
This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.
There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.
The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes, was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’
The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.
It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.
I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.
But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Christianity, he says, changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.
That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings was more important than any social roles they might occupy.
And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.
His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.
Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.
Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.
I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right: Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’ has for a long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.
It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.
Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.
I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again, unfortunately: the information revolution is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls and what belongs to the great collective – whether that collective is the government, Facebook, some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.
But Seidentop – the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK – is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.
He points out that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.
There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.
Paul took this and fashioned it into something more, turning those teachings into the ‘moral earthquake’ – away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.
Paul, whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.
When he began talking of ‘the Christ’ – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.
Which is pretty radical stuff. It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.
‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’
This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.
Siedentop then takes the reader from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine, and through to the medievalists such as Abelard, Aquinas, and Ockham, right up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.
The epilogue, ‘Christianity and Secularism’ which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone. Christian ‘moral intuitions’ – his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.
Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.
That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.
The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.
‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.
Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’
This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.
Finally he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.
That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.
The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.
The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’
In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’
I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.
But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.