Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Larry Siedentop
Harvard Belknap Press, $35 (cloth)

A generation ago the political philosopher Larry Siedentop published an essay called “Two Liberal Traditions,” its title a nod to his teacher Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty.” An American, Siedentop had traveled to the University of Oxford in the 1950s to study under the great Cold War liberal, and later he taught there for decades.

In his still mandatory essay, Siedentop persuasively argues that Anglo-American liberalism has never been the sole version of the tradition. There is also, Siedentop contends, a characteristically French approach, more historicist and sociological than conceptual and normative in making the case for modern liberty. Great nineteenth-century French thinkers such as Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Alexis de Tocqueville generally cast liberal values such as individual freedom as complex social achievements won over long periods, to be treasured and fostered precisely because they reflect collective advancement, not merely moral truth.

This line of thought suggests that history and experience are central to the making of liberal values and not simply the storehouses of wisdom for conservatives, better known for appealing to the past. Unlike their Anglo-American counterparts from Thomas Hobbes to John Rawls, Frenchmen did not rely on the thought experiment of the social contract to motivate allegiance to liberal norms. Thus their approach, as Siedentop describes it, is an indispensable counterpart to the usual focus in our own liberal tradition, which prizes normative justification rather than a story about how we came to defend liberal values, through what institutions and practices.

Of course, a lot turns on how believable the narrative is. In his new book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop tries his own hand at telling how modern freedom came about. Channeling the project of the French tradition, he leans heavily on the almost-forgotten Guizot, the political theorist and government minister whose History of Civilization in Europe (1828) Siedentop in effect revives and updates. (If readers have any recollection of Guizot, it is probably because in the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx denounces him as a leading statesman of a conservative entente that had brought stability but not justice to post-Napoleonic Europe.)

There are a few powerful components to Siedentop’s rehabilitation of the French tradition. The most important follows that tradition’s most promising move, which is to treat modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact. There was a time before the individual, and Siedentop spends his first few chapters dwelling on it: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom. “They failed to notice,” Siedentop comments mordantly, “that the ancient family began as a veritable church.”

This history may be news to Anglo-Americans liberals, who routinely take the individual as a natural given. In the social contract, individuals are a premise, not a product. In economics, the satisfaction of individual preferences is the self-evident goal, but this is never explained or justified, even though it is an astonishingly rare commitment across the sweep of time. Siedentop wants to treat such first principles as the result of a history that made liberalism conceivable in the first place.

There is another persuasive feature to Siedentop’s approach. Like Guizot, he assumes he has to look hard at the period between antiquity and modernity, since it must have been in that interim that the commitment to the value of the individual emerged. The Renaissance gave the Middle Ages a bad rap, and Siedentop seeks to undo its contempt. “What is characteristic about historical writing in recent centuries?” Siedentop asks. “It is an inclination to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages.” Nostalgically reviving the paganism of the Greco-Roman past, the Renaissance, like the Enlightenment later, disguised how alien in cultural norms and political values antiquity really was. Both the Renaissance and Enlightenment encouraged their heirs to skirt the roots of liberalism in the Christianity that flourished in the Middle Ages.

How, against its original purposes, was the Gospel’s message brought down to earth?

Unfortunately, in spite of these plausible starting points, Siedentop’s venture soon goes awry. Having introduced the puzzle of the relationship between Christianity and liberalism, Siedentop does not know how to solve it. Like many others, he insists that something about the content of Christianity must have been decisive in making modern Western beliefs possible. But this assumption is harder to prove than Siedentop thinks.

After all, neither Jesus nor Paul—the revolutionary whose influence Siedentop credits most—was committed to political change or institutional reform in this world, which both thought was ending soon. Their depreciation of worldly accomplishment sundered their commitment to the moral value of human beings—including those Jesus calls “the least of these”—from any truly political vision. If the founders of Christianity made individuals matter, and matter equally, it was not for the sake of a new set of beliefs about the social order, let alone a new liberal politics. Siedentop notes Paul’s “imagery of casting off the shackles of slavery, a potent image in a world where slavery remained such a basic institution.” But he fails to mention that Paul relied on that image only in describing what Christianity would achieve for the soul after death. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul counseled followers to dutifully accept the shackles of the body in this life. “The offer of dignity through belief in Christ did not openly challenge patriarchy or servitude,” Siedentop later acknowledges, but it didn’t challenge patriarchy or servitude implicitly either.

There is a major difficulty for anyone, including Siedentop, who tells a Christian story of liberalism’s origins. They must explain how, against its original purposes, the Gospel’s message was brought down to earth, applied right now to radically new aims and institutions that Jesus and Paul would not have accepted. The reversal is stark: from a refusal of the relevance of Christian moral beliefs’ to politics to a revolution in this-worldly assumptions about the subordination of individuals to hierarchy. You need an argument to show how this happened. Siedentop doesn’t really have one. He just knows the reversal occurred.

Siedentop plausibly suggests that hopes of imminent redemption had to be given up in exchange for indefinite expectation, which came about thanks to figures such as St. Augustine. But when he comes to the problem of institutionalization, Siedentop constantly substitutes conclusion for explanation. “A moral revolution was under way,” he writes. “The rhetoric of the Christian people was undermining a whole conception of society.” Sure, but how? “By the end of the tenth century Christian moral intuitions were giving rise to a new sensibility.” That this occurred is the problem demanding a solution, not the solution itself.

It is too bad that Siedentop’s book largely turns into a chronicle of medieval Christian history—the rise of monasticism, changes in law, the nature of feudalism, and so forth. By focusing on description, Siedentop goes backward compared to his intellectual forbears in the historical and sociological approach to liberalism, forbears who wanted to explain new beliefs and changing institutions. At best Siedentop’s narrative repeats the shortcomings of the introduction to Democracy in America, where Tocqueville makes vague allusions to the slow work of Christianity in equalizing men, neglecting the vast chasm that separated the moral equality of Christians from the political equality of modern doctrine. So Inventing the Individual mostly amounts to an argument that, after Jesus’s message, it just took a while for liberalism to complete its metamorphosis and come out of its Christian shell. At least Tocqueville could rely on the claim that God’s providence unfolds in mysterious ways. We cannot.

Given this failure, Inventing the Individual doesn’t fulfill the promise of the intellectual tradition it intends to renew. Other heirs of that French liberal approach, including in recent times Louis Dumont and Marcel Gauchet, have done better at understanding the terrestrialization of Christianity. Siedentop, however, doesn’t know about them or, it appears, about more than a handful of other authors who have taken up some of the same matters since Guizot’s time. Siedentop has an admirable humanistic familiarity with neglected scholars such as the late nineteenth-century French classical historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, but his canon of recent authorities, which includes Peter Brown and Brian Tierney, is small.

Then there is everything that Siedentop leaves out. He seems to have written this book in part to remind readers of how historically distinctive the Christian West ultimately became—not only compared to its ancient past but to other traditions, too, especially Islam. But wasn’t Muhammad committed to similar notions of human equality for the sake of the right path toward the afterlife? If institutional drift or the passage of time explains the Christian origins of liberalism, why did not the same thing happen in Muslim lands? It is in part because he has no real theory of how Christianity birthed liberalism that Siedentop’s case for the cultural distinctiveness of “the West” can seem like it begs his own question.

And if, as he says in his introduction, Siedentop’s concern is a “competition of beliefs” between the West and other places today, it would have been worth resolving why, during the same Middle Ages when Christianity was supposedly becoming modern liberalism below the surface, its adherents dedicated themselves to crusading violence abroad and principled intolerance at home. When Siedentop alludes to the Crusades it is to remark on how they unified Europe and encouraged knights to put their petty feudalism aside in order to agree that Christians should never kill fellow Christians—as if the main problem were not how medieval Christians learned to tolerate other sorts of people or understand the rest of humanity to be on par with themselves. “Strikingly, in its first centuries Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms—a contrast to the early spread of Islam,” Siedentop remarks in a strange moment, as though the very period of Christian history on which he then focuses didn’t tell a different story. (As for Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, Siedentop doesn’t mention them.)

The truth is that if Christianity became liberalism, it wasn’t during the timeline Siedentop volunteered to recover, since he doesn’t get beyond medieval history. The other important reason that Siedentop comes up short, then, is that, plausibly pushing the clock far back, he ends up stopping it too early. His understandable desire to give more recognition to the Middle Ages radically truncates his story, since he is able to show only what it contributed, not what it left to achieve. The omission is most glaring when it comes to the political freedom of the individuals whom Christianity helped transform into moral equals. Siedentop relies on Tierney to claim medieval origins for the doctrine of natural rights, and both are on firm ground in doing so. But there is no denying that the inventors of that doctrine held profoundly unmodern views of what the rights held by all men equally actually were. Even if Siedentop is correct about the contributions of medieval thinkers and lawyers, these were, by his own admission, “not social revolutionaries.” Once again Jesus’s message of social equality is supposed to be coming down to earth in Siedentop’s account, but it keeps getting postponed.

Thanks to their invention of human rights, medieval canonists get the credit for completing the task Jesus and Paul left mankind: “converting the primordial Christian concern with ‘innerness’ into the language of law.” But it would be as fair to say that the language of universal human rights in canon law just repeated the “primordial” Christian concern while neither broadening it beyond male Christians nor recasting its content to include all of the modern values it now incorporates, from integrity of the body to women’s equality to social welfare. If the Christian message was becoming liberal, it wasn’t obvious yet. It is strange that, on his first page, Siedentop decries the subordination of women outside “the West” today, but then goes on to lavish praise on medieval Christendom, as if its traditions, not to mention those of modern America and Europe until living memory, were not more like the oppressive ones Siedentop wants his readers to rally against.

You don’t have to deny important developments in the Middle Ages to conclude that it was a much more Christian than liberal time. In recognition of how long the road ahead was, Siedentop makes some frantic late moves to cover the distance. But, like a runner who vainly puts on top speed when he realizes how far he is from the finish line as the clock ticks, his showing is disappointing.

Siedentop suggests that “we can observe the egalitarian moral intuitions generated by Christianity being turned against . . . doctrines and institutions of the church” itself, and this must indeed have occurred if his overall approach is to be right. But it hardly transpired mainly or even much during the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation, with its paradoxical fundamentalism and inadvertent outcomes. Indeed, as Siedentop allows, it was only later developments, whatever their medieval Christian roots, that created the “credo of secularism.” And that, in turn, involved vast changes that went beyond the process through which Christianity birthed the possibility of secular politics. By the end of the Middle Ages, moral equality had barely begun to be translated into political equality, nor the secular state to subject itself to liberal norms. It merely suffered coexistence with churches accorded the care of souls. Worse, commitment to the freedom and equality of all God’s children hardly transcended lovely rhetoric in an era when native peoples were often viewed by “discoverers” as inhuman, vast tracts of the earth were arrogated in violent episodes of imperialism, a racialized slavery that dwarfed ancient unfreedom was about to take off, and women remained subordinate as ever.

That Siedentop doesn’t solve the problem of liberalism’s Christian origins hardly means it is unimportant. In fact, many today are rising to grapple with it, especially among Christian nostalgists, typically on the right, and “post-secularist” critics, typically leftists who want less to celebrate Christianity than to vilify it as the source of modern sins from capitalism to racism. Yet the richest entry into this divisive conversation comes from Gauchet, the French thinker who also founded his career on the revival of nineteenth-century liberalism and, in The Disenchantment of the World (1985), specifically took up how and why Christianity birthed individualism.

For Gauchet, the secret lies in monotheism’s unique approach to God’s transcendence, which made the divine so otherworldly that man became more autonomous in consequence. Christianity in particular severed the monotheistic promise from terrestrial fulfillment in the Promised Land and inscribed it “in the soul’s inner recesses,” a step that, as Gauchet puts it, “[intensified] divine exteriority in relation to creation.” The same revolution that alienated individuals in relation to the world inadvertently prepared their independence from the divine and deprived politics of any sacred meaning. Siedentop observes that, as a matter of the history of language, the “individual” emerged more or less simultaneously with the “state.” Gauchet insists this is no accident, since the early modern kings who founded the absolutist state completed the long-term transition whereby secular political authority no longer incarnates the divine—that only Jesus could do—but represents the will of individuals. The social contract was thus born as authority in politics ultimately needed to come from the ground up, rather than heaven down.

These are all contestable arguments, but they attempt explanation and show why one is needed. Why, with his descriptive bent, startling omissions, and truncated chronology, does Siedentop give a historically minded conception of liberalism such a poor showing? Apparently because he issues an honorable call to understand ourselves historically in order to buck up “the West” in the face a civilization he fears is clashing with it. His approach, he thinks, will help unify the West and provide contrast with the rest. Nothing but Christianity, he wants to show, could have provided the “moral conviction” that made liberal secularism possible, even when its advocates don’t realize how much they owe the medieval period. Precisely when liberalism became secular, Siedentop says, it veered into a “heresy” by depriving itself of “its moral roots, cutting itself off from the tradition of discourse that generated it.”

It is fairly certain that, unlike Catholic thinker Alasdair MacIntyre, Siedentop doesn’t want to return to the Christian era. He wants to show the Christian origins of liberalism rather than ditch the latter for the sake of the former. “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” he writes, “Europe’s noblest achievement.” Rather, Siedentop’s enterprise reflects a crisis of confidence, not to mention fear of enemies, and in his view it behooves Westerners in this time of emergency to recover the moral basis that has made them what they are, the better to stand up for it. We would be better off, Siedentop believes, if Christians recognized that it was their own epoch-making commitment to moral equality that forced open room for secularists, who should in turn recognize how much they owe the Christians who made their lives imaginable. Among other things, Siedentop regrets the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the land of his birth, responsible for culture wars that, he suspects, are answering the clear and present danger of Muslim radicalism by recklessly undoing the Christian achievement of secularism.

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

Worst of all, Siedentop risks giving a bad name to a mode of liberal inquiry he intends to help revive. The German philosopher Axel Honneth recently noted, “One of the major weaknesses of contemporary political philosophy is that it has been decoupled from an analysis of society, instead becoming fixated on purely normative principles.” If that is right, then a more historical and sociological liberalism could help to restore balance, as Siedentop long ago recognized. But it is hardly worth exhuming simply out of fear, and with such unconvincing results.