Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism

Article excerpt

SIEDENTOP, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014. viii + 434 pp.--Does it still make sense to still talk about the West in what some call a "post-Christian world"? Larry Siedentop, Emeritus Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, asks, "Can the West still be defined in terms of shared beliefs?" Professor Siedentop answers his own question with a weak "yes." His answer is qualified because those who live in nations once described as part of Christendom seem to have lost contact with their cultural heritage and certainly with their moral bearings. Yet, it remains a fact that Western culture is founded on a set of shared beliefs that are manifestly Christian in their origin. In Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop shows how certain key notions, important to the secular mind, were developed under Christian tutelage. In a sweeping historical review of Western culture, Siedentop argues that it was Christianity that created the liberal ideas of "moral equality" and "natural rights," principles that the modern state takes for granted without reference to their origin and defense.

His narrative begins by contrasting pagan antiquity with the advent of Christianity. The most distinctive feature of Greek and Roman antiquity, he claims, is what may be called a "moral enclosure" in which the limits of personal identity are established by the limits of physical association and inherited social roles. Anyone who sought to live outside such associations and such ideas was called an "idiot." In contrast to class distinctions, which were understood as natural in pagan society, Christianity insisted on the moral equality of the person apart from any class or social role that he may occupy. It is this moral belief, Siedentop maintains, which constitutes a departure from the ancient world's understanding of natural law as "everything in its place," that is the ultimate source of the social order that has made the West what it is. Natural rights and relations of equality became understood as antecedent to both positive and customary law, largely as a result of medieval canon law.

Drawing on Roman law, under the patronage of the papacy, canon lawyers, in university settings such as Bologna, Padua, Paris, and Oxford, from the late eleventh century began to create a system of law for Christians founded on the assumption of moral equality. Canonists, basing their arguments on the "equality of souls in the eyes of God," advanced the notion that there is a moral law (natural law) superior to all human law. …

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