Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop

Belknap/Harvard Press, October 2014
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal


We tend to think that the idea of the individual was born during the Renaissance and developed during the Enlightenment—along with the conceptions of democracy, liberty, and human rights. After all, the word “individual” first became current in the 15th century, as did the word “state,” which makes sense, since the meaning of these words depend on each other. Yet in his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Oxford professor Larry Siedentop argues that this isn’t the case. Rather, it was, ironically, within the sphere of the Catholic Church and Medieval Christianity in which the idea of the individual developed, despite how counter-intuitive that sounds. I mean, we tend to think of liberalism and religion to be at odds, which is why Siedentop’s argument should change the way we look at both the Middle Ages and the formation of the modern nation-state.

In ancient societies, there was no such concept of the individual. A person was simply a part of a whole. The basic unit of society was the family, with the patriarch serving as king and priest. The household hearth was the temple, and the family’s religion was the worship of its ancestors. Inequality was assumed. The father had rights, and the oldest son would inherit those rights; others had only duties. Justice was law, which upheld honor and duty over moral and ethical concerns.

In the city-states of Greco-Roman civilization, there was a shift toward more social privilege for younger sons and the lower classes, which undermined the aristocratic intuitions resting on the family. But there was still “no notion of rights of individuals against the claims of the city and its gods.” Things only really changed not with Jesus but with Paul. Through his peculiar interpretation of Jesus’s teachings, Paul of Tarsus introduced the idea of individual moral agency. There was the possibility of individual salvation through faith in the Christ. One had to choose to make this leap of faith. This idea led to a new inner awareness, of a focus of looking inward to the individual conscience, rather than outward to custom and tradition. For Siedentop, this could have been the most important intellectual revolution in history.

Over the centuries following Paul of Tarsus, the Christian idea of the soul developed along with the evolution of the Church and its rooting out of paganism, incorporating traditional rituals if unable to eradicate them. All souls were equal before God, and any soul could be saved, regardless of social status. The words “equality” and “democracy” wouldn’t be introduced for several centuries, but there you have their incarnation.

As feudalism created a power play between secular lords and the papacy, the Church had to define its role in order to protect itself. The Church codified its informal rules into formal Canon law, and its defined role came to be “the protection of souls,” which practically means the protection of individuals. Canon law contains the seeds of the right to justice and peace, an idea that later led to the modern nation-state’s duty to protect citizens. Through it’s own argument, the Church’s position of privileging souls above all else led to the rise of the merchant class and the end of feudalism, and afterward, the demise of the privileged authority of the Church itself, which came to be seen as violating the individual rights that it purported to protect. (And to further understand the importance that the notions of soul and afterlife had in forming the concept of the individual, also read Peter Brown’s book The Ransom of the Soul, also recently published by Harvard Press.)

Rather than being a modern invention, liberal thought and the formation of individual rights arose from a millennium-long combination of “Christian moral intuition, Germanic customs, Roman law, and Greek philosophy.” In other words, things aren’t as we thought. They rarely are. And keeping this in mind, it might be best to take another look at the entire Middle Ages.


This is the first of a two-part review. Read a review of The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried here.

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