Review: Inventing the Individual, by Larry Seidentop

We suffer in this age from a lack of historical perspective, but perhaps that’s been true of all people, in all ages.  If we could but look back and understand, accurately, where we have been, then we might be able to project forward; to extrapolate into the future, to understand what man is, and where man is going.

But alas, we fail.  George Santayana wrote (in 1905) that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  We nod sagely at the wisdom of those words, and then wring our hands at the inability of others to understand them.  But the truth of the matter is that we none of us really fail to remember the past.  We just “remember” it differently; meaning, that we have different ideas about the significance of past events.  It seems to be that our fundamental beliefs shape our perception of the past, rather than the reverse.  The result is that the past is malleable, in our imagination.  We routinely argue from the same history to support diametrically opposed positions.  Not so hard to do, really:  arguing from history.  The problem with history is that there is just so darn much of it.

We should be grateful to Mr. Seidentop.  He develops a thesis from history, but he does it with such depth of understanding that it rings true.  One cannot read this dense but well-written study without seeing that the parts of his argument fit together entirely plausibly.  We are not left to puzzle over leaps in inferences.  It’s all right there, and hard to argue with.

The thesis is implied in the title:  that western liberalism is the product of the evolution of our self-perception, from social and familial collectives, to the individual that is the subject of individual rights.  The ancients didn’t see themselves as autonomous agents, on equal footing with other autonomous individuals, each with individual rights.  Instead, they perceived themselves first as being defined entirely by the place they were born into.  A first-born son was one kind of animal.  Later sons, a being of another kind altogether.  There was a highly differentiated hierarchy among people, and the paradigm of everyone in the society was that they had no place outside of it.  That is, they could not conceive of themselves as someone with equal rights, or equal personhood, to everyone else.  The very idea would have been meaningless.

On this understanding, the values of the ancient Greeks that we so revere suddenly come into sharp relief.  Some of the more obscure family and tribal arrangements and confrontations of the Old Testament suddenly make so much more sense.  Much of what is puzzling about history in the millennia before Christ becomes less puzzling.  As I say, we owe Mr. Seidentop a debt of gratitude.

In all of this development, he shows, the religious impulse was clearly the driving force:  first, from ancestor worship, and the priestly function of the (male) head of household:  the paterfamilias.  Then, the gradual shift to household gods, and then tribal gods, and the merger of those, to gods of the city, and the primary virtue of allegiance to the polis, and its gods.  Hence the prosecution of Socrates.  No wonder Christianity was treated with such disdain, fear, and oppression.  It was fearsomely radical to the mindset of the ancient world.

Mr. Seidentop moves into somewhat more familiar territory, in his discussion of historical ages after the advent of Christianity, showing the gradual shift from understanding ourselves within a hierarchy of human value, to understanding ourselves as individually of equal worth, nothwithstanding our stations in life.  With clear illustration from historical events, we see that the nascent and then developing church brought forward the modern idea of the individual, inexorably.  By the time of the Renaissance (not so much a re-birth as a shift toward a new kind of humanism built this time on a foundation of equality) ideals of political freedom would necessarily be founded on the rights of individuals as persons of dignity in their own right, rather than on the basis of their family standing, property, or even religious traditions or inclinations.

Some emphasis is given to the divergence between two important points of view in late medievalism:  that between the neo-Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas, on the one hand, and the nominalism of William of Ockham, on the other.   Mr. Seidentop convincingly demonstrates that Ockham’s insistence on moral free will, to the point of error, was a necessary element of human freedom, precisely because of that individual responsibility.

Mr. Seidentop even asserts, and indeed proves, that the egalitarian moral intuitions generated by Christianity resulted in individual action from conviction, rather than mere outward behavioral conformity, even if the outward conformity related to doctrines or institutions of the church.  This phenomenon is nothing less than the birth of liberal secularism.  That secularism is not doctrinal materialism, but rather the toleration of religious freedom that is the substrate for a free society; the freedom for individuals, to exercise the freedom of conscience that Ockham championed.

Seidentop brings us current.  It is now for us to observe where the next shoe will drop.  Does the resulting secularism now bleed from us the individual dignity that these historical developments have provided?

(See, Inventing the Individual/ The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Seidentop (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014)

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