Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 448 pages

An illuminated manuscript showing the coronation of Philippe III of France
An illuminated manuscript showing the coronation of Philippe III of France, who reigned from 1270 to 1285

Medieval Catholic theology, philosophy and law are not the most obvious places to look for the roots of western liberalism, which, according to Larry Siedentop, can be found in the idea of “moral equality” among individual human beings. It is this concept, he believes, that marks out the Christian west from the rest of the world, and that provided the seed bed from which sprouted a liberal ideology that has proclaimed itself to be staunchly secular, forgetting its Catholic origins.

“In its basic assumptions,” he asserts, “liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity”, for “liberalism rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity”. These are values that need to be defended when, in other parts of the world, different assumptions about the way society can or should be directed hold sway. In China, he says, “the governing ideology has become a crass form of utilitarianism” that tramples on human liberty, and this “offends some of our deepest intuitions”.

As the author of a provocative analysis of the European Union, Democracy in Europe (2000), and as an expert on Tocqueville, Siedentop must be aware that looking for intellectual origins is always problematic. Is the idea that one can already trace a liberal outlook – whatever that term actually means – in the mainly medieval writers he considers? Not really: it is more a question, in his view, of a fundamental idea that came into its own in later centuries, but could never have emerged at all without the priming provided by Christian thinkers between St Paul and the 14th-century English thinker William of Ockham. He is not trying to prove that the Middle Ages were an epoch of happy liberal thinking, though he manages to detect promisingly inclusive views even in those great popes of the 13th century who were most assertive of the plenitude of their power.

He begins with the idea that in the ancient world there was no sense of the equal status of all members of society. The Roman paterfamilias was not merely the symbolic head of the family but its ruler, exercising complete control over the younger male and female members. This was challenged, in Siedentop’s view, by the Christian message diffused by St Paul, for whom neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew was of distinct status in the eyes of God, so long as they accepted the word of Christ. (Siedentop has the annoying habit of constantly talking about him as “the Christ”, conjuring up disturbing images of Mel Gibson.)

“St Paul,” Siedentop says, “was the greatest revolutionary in human history.” No matter that most of the supposedly revolutionary passages he cites from the New Testament were quotations from the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish sources: do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself; love your neighbour as yourself. He traces a distinctly western tradition of “moral equality”, ignoring the fact that the Churches in the east, notably the Greek Orthodox Church, also knew St Paul backwards; and he is uninterested in the possibility that Islam too preached a sort of “moral equality” of believers backed up by codes of law older than the Catholic codes of canon law, on which he lays much emphasis.

The idea that the Middle Ages, rather than the Italian Renaissance, saw the “discovery of the individual” is in fact one that has been cultivated by medieval historians for quite a while. The eminent Oxford historian Richard Southern wrote far more about this than the one, rather general book of his that Siedentop cites, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970). Southern’s idea turned on the career of the great philosopher and reluctant archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, who at the end of the 11th century tried to grapple with the significance for his fellow Christians of God becoming man, an act that not merely humanised God but conferred dignity upon humanity. Moreover, the agonising death of Jesus on the cross was understood to mean that Christ took upon his shoulders all human sin and offered the chance of redemption and eternal life to those who accepted that he had suffered on their behalf. Jesus had undergone the ultimate human experience, death, in order to redeem all who believed.

Admittedly, Anselm was not at all optimistic about how many Christians could really hope to achieve salvation. Most people were so mired in sin that all they could look forward to was eternal damnation rather than beatitude. Hope of salvation lay not in taking up arms as a crusader and making a penitential journey to the place of Christ’s crucifixion, as many of his contemporaries did, but in making a much shorter but far more fulfilling journey into the cloister, where the life of a monk provided some relief from the trials of earthly existence.

Other historians pointed to the 12th century as a period when sensibilities about secular emotions were openly expressed. The cult of courtly love, which (contrary to Siedentop) was often earthy and produced some crude lyrics spattered with four-letter words, celebrated the physical and spiritual bond between the lover and the beloved. This discovery of the individual also encompassed problems he barely touches upon: what was the status of Jews, pagans and Muslims in Christian society, when society itself was understood to consist of “the body of Christians”, or corpus Christianorum? Did only Christians possess “reason”? For surely anyone with the true power of reason would rapidly accept the doctrines of the Incarnation, Trinity and so on? Such issues had a cardinal importance in the evolution of the idea of the individual; and how exclusive it could be was shown in the reaction of Europeans to the previously unknown peoples of the New World after Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. These encounters raised problems about the nature of the individual that Siedentop completely ignores.

The rise of medieval cities and of urban self-government is another area where Siedentop misses the point. He romantically assumes that all citizens were equals. But that is not how things worked in Florence, Venice and elsewhere, where aristocracy mattered and family power (exercised by patriarchs very similar to the paterfamilias of Roman times) lay at the heart of politics. His picture of medieval Europe would have developed into less of a caricature had he not relied so heavily on the eloquent but dated works of François Guizot, published in 1828 and 1840, and were there any sign that he had read anything by leading medieval historians such as Chris Wickham and Robert Bartlett. Siedentop is nothing if not bold in seeking to persuade us of God’s place in modern politics. Unfortunately for Inventing the Individual, the devil is all in the detail.


David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge

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