How Did “I” Become an “I”? A New Historical Work on Liberalism

It’s time for another book review.  I am reading several books but just finished one by Larry Siedentop, entitled Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2014, 434 pages).  The author has a fascinating and somewhat counterintuitive thesis that what we call “Liberalism” ( I will capitalize the word) was really “created” by Christianity and arose over a long period of time from the 3rd or 4th century AD to the later Middle Ages.  Contrary to many scholars and what has become almost an assumption, Liberalism did not arise in the early modern period, with figures such as John Locke as prime representatives.  Rather it began when the Christian church began to undermine the ancient notion of the family as the unit of worship, which later encompassed the tribe and village, but always in terms of the collective.  Christianity, because of its emphasis on salvation not of the group, but of individuals, immediately posed a problem for paganism.  It saw individuals as moral equals, whose destiny was determined as individuals, not as a group.  The church advocated this idea in its opposition to paganism and the biblical idea began gradually to prevail—in fits and starts to be sure.

Siendentop takes to reader on the long intellectual journey as the individual came to be “institutionalized” in legal thought and practice, first in canon law and later in civil law, and later in political thought in terms of individuals as equal under a ruler or rulers.  Property rights themselves were part of the narrative, as were natural law and natural rights.  Augustine, Charlemagne and his court, Aquinas, canon lawyers, the Franciscans and Dominicans, William Occam and others make up the many characters of the story.

But the overall point is that the “individual” as the “unit of analysis,” subject of dignity, and moral agent, did not come from pagan roots but from Christian roots.  Siedentop argues at the end of the book that this insight has been lost, to our impoverishment, as we have tended to see individualism as a product of secularization.  Now I sympathized with the author’s thesis, and even see much that is valuable.  Most of the individual parts making up the overall meta-narrative have been verified, for example, the development of subjective and natural rights in the later Middle Ages.  But I am still mulling over whether the grand narrative he constructs can hold up in the face of the inevitable charge that he has created what was not there, that he has, s it were, superimposed his scheme on a set of data that might or might not be the actual “way things were.”  Still, it is a most attractive thesis and one that deserves a thorough hearing.

I recommend the book for theologians, church historians, political theorists and historians, legal theorists, and in general, anyone who wants to discover the potential origins of a major idea that is still very much with us.   Most take it for granted that we are to be judged and governed as individuals, that we make choices as “free” and responsible moral agents, that each one is to be treated on his or her own merits rather than only in terms of some amorphous collective (though of course political decisions are collective, but even they are aggregations of individuals).  But we don’t often think about how we came to value this concept.  There have been some other books on this subject (Morris, Ullmann, and others), but they have not written such a sweeping narrative or been as focused on the specifically Christian causal factor in the rise of the individual.

5 thoughts on “How Did “I” Become an “I”? A New Historical Work on Liberalism”

  1. Thanks for the insight. I always enjoy hearing new ideas and methods to think about a topic. Although this does not sound like the type of book I would personally enjoy, I will recommend it to a few friends who really eat this stuff up.

  2. I think the Bible is a progressive revelation from God. And like for other social issues (e.g. slavery, treatment of women), God brings His people along to a higher level of ethical living. Likewise, with individualism. Community living is necessary but it does have its downside when overemphasized. In the church, the Bible seems to correct this with a balanced view of individual and community life. 1 Cor 12-13 is a great example of this.

    1. Hi Jeff,
      Is it possible that the development that we have seen in the “other social issues” you mentioned came after and were residual of the development of individualism with the individual person “as the “unit of analysis,” subject of dignity, and moral agen[cy]”?

      1. Interesting point, Bert. It think it is very possible, but I have not heard of any studies to support the idea – if such a study is possible. How would a person do such a study?

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