Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop

Is Christianity the foundation of our Liberal Individualism? In this wide-ranging and ambitious work, Larry Siedentop attempts to answer this particular question.

Siedentop’s central thesis is that Christianity was the foundation upon which liberalism was built.  Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is a historical narrative spanning from Antiquity to the Medieval Period, 2000 years of history. Siedentop tells a remarkable story. Beginning with an overview of the Greek and the Roman world, where society was built around a patriarchal family, he goes on to examine the controversial Medieval period, generally considered as a period of cultural decline and stagnation. And yet, argues Siedentop, it was during the Medieval period that the ideas and beliefs of equality, individualism, egalitarianism, self-realization and free will, ideas that are identified as distinctively liberal, were developed and provided the space for secular liberalism to rice.

Siedentop argues that papal sovereignty which was tied – through the care of souls – to the government of individuals, was a fundamental reversal of – up to that moment – assumptions and beliefs. The legal system used by the Catholic church, known as canon law, has tied the church as legal system to an individualized model of society. ‘Justice was no longer understood in terms of natural inequality, but rather of natural equality’, says Siedentop. He emphasises the role of monastic institutions in all of these developments. Reformed monasticism and especially the Dominican and Franciscan orders, who produced schools of scholars and nominalism put in place the basic building blocks of secularism. William of Ockham (or Occam) and his nominalist followers ‘reconstructed the idea of justice’, argues Siedentop, introduced the scientific method, and ‘laid the foundations for what we now call liberal secularism….’.

It reminded me the rivalries between Dominicans and Franciscans, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book that take its title and finish with a Latin quote which is attributed to Ockham. “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”.  In this story Eco collects around his detective-protagonist, an English Franciscan who alongside William of Ockham advocates reason and scientific method, the revolutionary movements and the rising of the secular state.

Siedentop does not suggest that the Renaissance did not matter, that ‘it did not channel human thought, feeling and expression into new forms’, but he maintain that ‘as an historiographical concept the Renaissance has been grossly inflated’. The discontinuity that has been created between early modern Europe and the preceding centuries is misleading, he says.

Siedentop’s work is admirable. This is not an easy read but it is illuminating. I do not possess sufficient knowledge of the subject to judge the validity of all Siedentop arguments, but I do have one concern. Siedentop argues that liberal political philosophy could reconcile faith and reason. Thomas Aquinas and some future natural theologians have attempted to unite faith and reason, but faith and reason each still seem to govern their own separate domains.