Three books to make you think like Tim Keller: No. 3, ‘Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism’, by Larry Siedentop

This brilliant history of the growth and impact of Christianity in Europe will make your brain fizz.

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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop

We are becoming used to the importance of ‘cultural narratives’, their power, and pervasiveness.  Tim Keller in Manhattan has woken preachers up to it, by championing and simplifying the ideas of Charles Taylor, making us aware of the way that our cultural context provides myths for itself about the inevitability of secularism and the failure of faith in the faith of the science.

This book attacks another myth.  It’s written by an eminent historian, Sir Larry Siedentop, and it is dazzling, brilliant, daunting, entertaining, in equal measure.  In my estimation it has a couple of serious flaws, but nothing that damages its main thesis.

So here’s the myth: Western democracy is fundamentally a secular and late idea, born out of the intellectual ferment of the eighteenth century, with a background of Europe’s long civil wars  over religion.  Arcing back to the ancient world, it drew on the Republic of Rome and the democracy of Greece (both secular cultures, where religion was formal and pubic, but not deemed to be real), to produce the new and necessary ideas of human rights, individual freedom, social equality, and democratic accountability.

Have you heard it?  You can hear it whenever any politician talks of being on ‘the right side of history.’

So here’s the reality.

Both Greece and Rome were profoundly religious although based on the family, not individual faith, which it’s why it is easily missed.  They were also profoundly unequal, with different rights and status being granted before the law based solely on birth as man or woman, Roman citizen or not, slave or free, paterfamilias (ruling your household) or subject, and your family lineage.  These were unalterable: your destiny was your genealogy.

Into this fixed world of inequality, came Jesus, with a radical new concept: each person, irrespective of status, is called to love God for him or herself, and each person should love their neighbour, irrespective of either person’s status, as him or herself.  That would inevitably produce, over time, a society of equals, individuals with individual rights and duties before God and each other.

Furthermore, Jesus’ self-identity as Messiah is inevitably universal – he dies for many, within and outside Israel, and in his resurrection and ascension becomes a single cosmic ruler over all people, not excepting the emperor, breaking down every social barrier in the process.  From now on, each individual is accountable to him, for the way they react both to him, and to each of their neighbours.

The person who grasps this most readily and provides it with even greater force, is therefore Paul. He located the impact of the gospel on an individual, and gives each individual Christian responsibility and accountability for their moral acts and decisions. To that point slaves are only to obey.  From this point on, even slaves are required to decide. ’In one sense, Paul’s conception of conscience introduces the individual, by giving conscience a universal dimension.  Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?’ (p353).

So here’s my first caveat: I don’t think he gets Jesus or Paul right.  In a minor sense, I’m not persuaded by his take on the Cosmic Christ, which is obviously less interested in Christ as an ongoing person, than as a concept.  I think he pays insufficient attention to the corporate nature of church, which is curious given where he heads next.  But above all, he puts for too strong a disjunction between Old Testament as enforced Law, and the gospel as freely adopted grace.  Accepted, there is a national, regulative element to Israel, but if ‘Love God and Love your neighbour’ is the ground of the idea of human individual’s choice, will and responsibility, then Siedentop should acknowledge that that idea is rooted on the Old Testament, as Jesus was the first to teach.  And I would argue that the idea of a corporate Messiah is a profoundly OT idea too – whoever heard of a Messiah without a Messianic people? Paul would be horrified to think he invented that.

Sir Larry Siedentop, CBE, in 2013.  Photo By Olli Eickholt, CC BY-SA 3.0 lu,

Siedntop’s next move is to look at the churches in the wake of the slow collapse of the Empire.  He is brilliant on the idea of the rise of monasticism as the birth of self-led communities with elected leaders, and also, rightly, on the importance of Augustine and a new interplay of individual and society.  This is the construction of a new society, when the old, inevitably, collapse.

Why inevitably? Because a system based on status and mass  servitude cannot survive long when large numbers of the population believe that the meanest slave has infinite value, being made in the image of God.

On the story goes: churches elect bishops, monasteries elect abbots, slaves become serfs, then vassals, then peasants, then citizens.  Kings are Christians, forging laws with equality and accountability.  Popes have their wings clipped by councils, Ockham battles Aquinas (and wins, on Siedentop’s view), and as the idea of law and rights are clarified, over centuries, the language of ‘the state’ and ‘the individual’ emerge.

As he repeats, perhaps too often, universal human rights and individual responsibility are the product of Christian thought.

This is brilliant stuff, and largely unknown. Why unknown? Well, because of the counter-narrative: that the great secular values of the classical world were lost by the church during the ‘Dark Ages’ (note the term) and only re-emerged in the ‘re-birth’, ‘Renaissance’ (note the term).  Anything between the loss of the classical world and its re-emergence was an uninteresting ‘Middle Age’ (note the term).  That was a story told by the humanists at the time, but much elaborated and spun by the atheist humanists of the eighteenth century.

So the chapter on ‘Dispensing with the Renaissance’ is a masterclass in intellectual demolition, in many ways the climax of the book. ‘As an historiographical concept, the Renaissance has been grossly inflated.’ (p337). ‘Combining (the values of equality of souls and individual liberty) gave rise to the principle which more than any other has defined modern liberal thinking, the principal of ‘equal liberty’. Yet it is far from clear that the Italian Renaissance did much to explore or develop that idea’ (p339).  This is good, knockabout, SCR stuff.  I’m sure it played well over the dry sherry at Keble, and rightly so.

But then he pauses and puts it with great clarity:

‘What is characteristic about historical writing in recent centuries? It is an inclination to minimise the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time to maximise the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages’ (p350).

Bang on, and tweet that.  Because, as he then pursues in his final chapter, modern Europe is profoundly embarrassed about its Christian past and wishes that it weren’t there, but simultaneously finds itself incapable of explaining itself without it.  And without a credible account of why there are universal and individual rights and equality, we cannot face down a Shariah-imposing form of Islam.

This final chapter also caused me problems, and many reviewers found the same.  Because Siedentop’s final conjuring trick is one too many, trying to show that secularism is itself a gift of Christianity.  That’s been argued before, I know, but never plausibly to my mind, because up to that point in the argument, Christianity has not been required to deny itself.  Now it’s a finely made argument, because he’s not arguing for secularism in the French sense (faith is the opposite of a secular state), but in an American sense (faith is a separate but uncontactable entity to a secular state); but we know, not least thanks to Charles Taylor, that that narrative won’t wash.  If you’re interested, I think Peter Gay’s account of the French philosophes gives the lie to the other story as well.

That aside, this is well worth £9.99 of anyone’s hard-earned spondoolicks.

So how will it help me preach, I hear you ask?

Good question.  Last Sunday we looked at Ephesians 6, on slaves and masters.  Siedentop made me see the profoundly radical nature of that passage: slaves are addressed, as individuals with moral choice, in the presence of their masters, and then hear their masters addressed, as people accountable for their behaviour to those same slaves.  That moment, not the French Revolution, not the writings of Thom Paine, not the Declaration of Independence, not even the Magna Carta, and certainly not the slave-consuming oligarchies of Greece or Rome, is where human rights are born.

You can buy Inventing the Individual: The Origins of western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (London: Penguin, 2017) here. 

1 comments on “Three books to make you think like Tim Keller: No. 3, ‘Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism’, by Larry Siedentop”

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