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Enlightenment anticipated

27 June 2014

Nick Spencer on the case for Christianity as a liberal force

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Larry Siedentop
Allen Lane £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT522 )

HISTORY writes historians just as much as historians write history. The presuppositions of an age leave deep marks on those who study the past, albeit marks that are usually visible only at a distance and in retrospect.

The re-emergence of authoritarian religion as a powerful public force in the past two generations has, it seems, affected today's historians, many of whom are eager to defend the Enlightenment as the (now highly vulnerable) source of our liberal political goods.

It is a brave soul who swims against this tide, but this is precisely what the historian Larry Siedentop attempts in this masterly retelling of the European intellectual narrative. Siedentop's argument is that the foundation stone of Western liberalism - equal liberty under the law - was laid by Christianity. This, he notes, with some understatement, will surprise many and irritate some. The "anti-clericalism" that has long "been an integral part of liberal historiography does not lend itself to such a conclusion". Nevertheless, he insists, "texts are facts. And facts remain." And the fact is, at least according to Tertullian, whom Siedentop quotes without demur, "one mighty deed alone was sufficient for our God to bring freedom to the human person."

Inventing the Individual begins in the ancient world, which, Siedentop shows, was nothing like as liberal, tolerant, or equal as some eager modern secularists imagine. Into this hierarchical universe, Christianity emerged as a "moral revolution". Siedentop locates that revolution with St Paul, baldly stating that little can be known about Jesus with certainty. Throughout, it is Paul's understanding of Christ (or "the Christ" as Siedentop calls him) that is judged formative, rather than anything Jesus was reported to have said and done.

This is hardly something that Paul himself would have recognised, and the book is at its least convincing in drawing Paul's own intellectual background and context. This is a small quibble, however, as what follows is first rate.

Siedentop follows the impact of Christianity's moral revolution through late Antiquity and beyond, venturing to places that intellectual historians tend to leave well alone, such as the Merovingian and Carolingian centuries. He explains how foundational ideas of human equality, universality of law, limitation of power, and an ethic of charity and humility were extracted from the ruins of empire, and were slowly embedded in the violence and chaos of the so-called Dark Ages. The task was slow and full of unintended consequences, but it set the stage for the West to emerge as a unified and distinct entity.

The story then pivots on the monastic and papal reforms around the turn of the millennium, which founded secular space, placed authority under moral judgement, and codified law; and moves on to the nominalists of the later Middle Ages, leaving the reader at the doorstep of the Renaissance, the point at which the ancient world began to be reimagined as a paradise of cultured freedom.

The ensuing wars of religion set the seal on this retelling, after which many historians proved unable or unwilling to recognise Christianity's political legacy. It is to Siedentop's immense credit that he has done so, with clarity, rigour, and courage.

Nick Spencer is the research director of the think tank Theos.

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