Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western
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
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
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