Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop
Liberalism: the Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett
All over the Atlantic world, political liberalism has fallen on evil days. In the U.S., the creed of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F Kennedy has become a sin that dare not speak its name. In last year’s German election, the Free Democratic Party—the embodiment of the country’s liberal tradition and the second party in coalition governments for most of the postwar period—won less than 5 percent of the popular vote and is no longer represented in the federal parliament. In the 2011 Canadian election, the Liberal Party—for decades a dominant force—suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Radical Party of the Left, today the closest approximation to a liberal party in France, is little more than a pimple on the body politic. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats, heirs of the Liberal Party of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, have clambered into bed with a market-fundamentalist Conservative Party and endured a huge slump in the opinion polls.
As Edmund Fawcett and Larry Siedentop show in different ways, the travails of political liberalism reflect a profound crisis of the liberal world-view. To put it crudely, it is no longer clear what liberalism means. Its core value is freedom—freedom for unconstrained individuals to choose for themselves. Freedom, however, is a notoriously slippery word. Freedom as a source of human flourishing is one thing; freedom to ignore the common good and exploit others is quite another. Positive freedom, or freedom “to,” is not the same as negative freedom, or freedom “from.” The great Liberal government of 1905-15 curbed the negative freedom of the privileged in order to enhance the positive freedom of the dispossessed.
Much the same is true of choice and the individual. Choices can be bad as well as good. There is a world of difference between individuals of flesh and blood, shaped by lived traditions and shared histories, and the abstract, egocentric, disembodied individual posited by the neoliberal orthodoxy of our day. Yet today’s liberals seem strangely reluctant to distinguish between good and bad choices, to make clear how they envisage the individual, or to define the proper relationship between individual freedom and the public good.
At an early stage in the French Revolution, the great Whig statesman and thinker Edmund Burke declared that he was for the “splendid flame of liberty” but not for “solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man were to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will.” The liberty he sought, he added in a pregnant phrase, was “social freedom.”
In a similar vein, 70 years later, John Stuart Mill argued that individuality—the quality that made human beings “noble”—could grow only through arduous activity in the public sphere. Fawcett’s workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism’s rise and fall.
In its 19th-century heyday, as Fawcett’s history reminds us, liberalism was optimistic, passionate and imbued with strongly held moral convictions. Without using the terms, its proponents were for Burke’s social freedom and for Mill’s vision of human nobility. In France, radicals such as Clemenceau took on the army, an exceptionally reactionary Catholic Church and an ugly wave of anti-Semitism in defense of the unjustly imprisoned Captain Dreyfuss, an Alsatian Jew by origin. In Britain, Gladstone made his extraordinary transformation from High Tory to Liberal messiah because he came to believe that the masses were nobler and more virtuous than the classes.
Twenty-first-century liberalism is a pale shadow of its 19th-century ancestor. Albeit with some honourable exceptions, the passion and optimism have gone. Latter-day Clemenceaus and Gladstones are nowhere to be seen. Burke’s vision of social freedom has virtually disappeared from the liberal repertoire; few now echo Mill’s call for strenuous self-improvement. For the most part, today’s liberals see individuals as free-floating, history-less and untethered social atoms, quite unlike the rooted, flesh-and-blood individuals presupposed by their counterparts of yesteryear. The most obvious result is that, all too often, the robust moral convictions of the past have withered into a querulous self-righteousness, strongly tinged with moral relativism.
Why should this be? Siedentop’s study is best seen as an attempt to answer that question. It is a magnificent work of intellectual, psychological and spiritual history. It is hard to decide which is more remarkable: the breadth of learning displayed on almost every page, the infectious enthusiasm that suffuses the whole book, the riveting originality of the central argument or the emotional power and force with which it is deployed.
Siedentop takes us on a 2,000-year journey that starts with the almost inconceivably remote city states of the ancient world and ends with the Renaissance. In the course of this journey, he explodes many (perhaps even most) of the preconceptions that run through the public culture of our day—and that I took for granted before reading his book. Inventing the Individual is not an exercise in dry-as-dust antiquarianism, still less in pop-historical fun and games. Siedentop’s aim has a breathtaking grandeur about it: to persuade us to ask ourselves who we are and where we are going by showing us where we have come from. A challenging epilogue suggests that the answers are not very flattering.
The most insidious preconception on which Siedentop trains his guns derives from the imperious rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment. For the likes of Voltaire, Diderot, David Hume and Edward Gibbon, the long centuries between the fall of the western Roman empire and the Renaissance were a slough of superstition, ignorance, credulity, clericalism and bigotry. “Monk” and “monkish” were terms of abuse; the theological speculation that had occupied many of the best minds in Europe in the Middle Ages was dismissed as hot air. Not all Enlightenment thinkers echoed Voltaire’s call to “écraser l’infâme” (“crush the infamous one”—that is, the Church) but the mood it encapsulated was widely shared and it was expressed with bloodthirsty savagery in the later stages of the French Revolution.
Yet the Enlightenment’s picture of the past was not all black. Before the darkness of the Middle Ages, Enlightenment thinkers imagined, the pre-Christian ancient world had spawned glittering examples of rationality and freedom. The statues depicting 18th-century statesmen in Roman togas and the classical themes that figured in the paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the iconic French painter during the revolutionary period, all testified to the lure of pre-Christian antiquity. Enlightenment thinkers saw the Middle Ages as a break in humanity’s upward progress—but only as break, not as a dead end. As they envisioned it, the task for their generation was to resume the journey that the ancients had begun.
Siedentop believes that the essence of this mindset still survives, to ruinous effect. Thanks to it, he argues, our understanding of modernity is deeply flawed. We see ourselves as children of the Enlightenment and, by way of the Enlightenment, as great-grandchildren of ancient Greece and Rome. We talk of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and fail to realize that in certain crucially important respects Judaism and Christianity are polar opposites. Above all, we misunderstand the true nature of the ancient world and of the slow but profound revolution in its social and ideological assumptions that the rise of Christianity procured. The result is that we have lost touch with the moral traditions that lie beneath the surface of our culture—that we no longer know who we are and therefore can’t help to shape what Siedentop calls “the conversation of mankind.”
In truth, as Siedentop shows, the ancient world was not in the least like the Enlightenment’s understanding of it. Far from nurturing freedom, whether positive or negative, its cultures were shot through with hereditary inequalities of status, opportunity and expectation. Social roles were rigidly prescribed and, in effect, inescapable. Escape would be self-exclusion from the city and that was a kind of living death.
Patriarchy was fundamental to the social order. This was ordained by the household gods; it was the patriarch’s duty to serve them and he derived his authority from this role. The city was an association of families, each with its own cult, not of individuals. The family heads, who were by definition men, were priests as well as citizens. Women, slaves and the foreign-born, on the other hand, were not citizens and could not aspire to citizenship; the public realm of argument and debate that set the city’s course was not for them. In Athens, arguably the ancient world’s most famous city state, full citizens comprised only about a tenth of the population.
The next stage in Siedentop’s argument is the most explosive. He shows that the gravedigger of antiquity’s implacable nexus of practices and beliefs was precisely the Christian revelation that Enlightenment thinkers scorned. What the historical Jesus believed and taught is uncertain, though he patently thought that the world was about to end and that the marginalized poor had at least as good a chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as the rich and powerful. The real significance of his life lay in his death and its aftermath. For his followers, as Siedentop puts it, Christ’s crucifixion and the Resurrection that they believed had followed it were “a moral earthquake,” a “dramatic intervention in history.” For St. Paul, the true architect of the Christian religion, that intervention was inherently egalitarian and individualistic. The fatherhood of God implied the brotherhood of man and (an even more revolutionary implication) the sisterhood of woman.
Irrespective of their social roles, all individuals—slaves as well as the free, women as well as men—were equal in the sight of God. The inegalitarian integument of ritual, heredity and prescription that had held the ancient city together was replaced by an egalitarian union of all in the “body of Christ.” God’s grace was available to everyone, sinners included: souls were equal.
In a striking passage, Siedentop suggests that the scenes of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection painted on the walls of medieval churches “testified that the immortal soul, rather than the immortal family, was the primary constituent of reality.” The doctrine of the incarnation lay at the heart of Christian egalitarianism. The deity was no longer remote and awe-inspiring, like the Jewish Yahweh was. God was within us and “us” meant all of us.
To followers of this world-view, the elaborate, God-given taboos that governed daily life among the Jewish people were not just pointless; they were also offensive. God was no longer tribal. He was universal. The multiple, local gods of pagan Greece and Rome—and, for that matter, the similarly multiple gods of the barbarian invaders who overwhelmed the increasingly decrepit western Roman empire in the 5th century—were swallowed up in that universality.
The “moral earthquake” that Siedentop depicts with elegant economy was a long-drawn-out affair. The egalitarian individualism that lay at the heart of the Christian revelation did not prevail all at once. (Indeed, it has not prevailed completely even now: inequalities proliferate and patriarchy survives.) Pagan habits and customs also survived, sometimes in Christian garb. The festival of the winter solstice was reprogrammed as Christmas; the practice of praying to local saints and their relics mimicked local pagan cults.
After the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, bishops were often drawn from the ranks of urban notables, reminiscent of the notables who had dominated city life in pagan times. Later, bishops and abbots were apt to see themselves as secular lords, occasionally even leading armies into battle. Sometimes, Church offices were bought and sold; in Rome, the papacy became “the plaything of aristocratic families.” A huge gulf separated the princes of the Church, such as powerful bishops and the abbots of rich monasteries, from ordinary laymen.
Yet, all this said, Siedentop’s “moral earthquake” transformed mentalities and sentiments—the deep-seated habits of the heart that make cultures what they are—across Europe. In the hands of medieval canon lawyers, by definition churchmen, the static, pre-Christian notion of natural law gave birth to the still evolving (and still revolutionary) notion of natural rights. The centralization of the medieval Church, carried out by a series of reforming lawyer popes, helped to spawn the nation state. The creation of universities, in many ways medieval Europe’s most astonishing achievement, led to the emergence of “a new social role, the intellectual”, and created protected spaces for transformative thinking, argument and debate.
Appropriately, John Wycliffe, the “morning star” of the English Reformation, was for a time master of Balliol College, Oxford. By the early 15th century, philosophers and canon lawyers, Siedentop writes, had established the “roots of liberalism”:
... belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defense of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental or “natural” rights; and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality.
These roots were planted and watered by churchmen, imbued with the egalitarian moral intuitions that had been fundamental to the Christian message since the days of St. Paul. The great question is whether these intuitions can flourish in the secular societies of the 21st century.
Siedentop thinks that they can but only if we are willing to recognize that secularism and Christianity share a common ancestry: that they can and should be allies instead of enemies. Failing that, liberalism will have no defenses against the double threat it now faces: a morally empty utilitarianism on the one hand and an asocial individualism on the other. To put it at its lowest, its capacity to meet that challenge is far from self-evident.