Sunday, 6 August 2017

Inventing the Individual: Book Review

Inventing the Individual 2The book Inventing the Individual, by Larry Siedentop, works on the premise that liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity. That it emerged as the moral intuitions generated by Christianity were turned against an authoritarian model of the church.

He traces the development of society, beginning with its earliest model, the family under the absolute authority of the paterfamilias, guardian of the family god and the sacred flame, through the wider family unit, the clan, to the tribe and the city state. The problem of transferring loyalties from family, to clan, to tribe and city state is addressed, with the establishment of hierarchies of gods, mirroring the hierarchical nature of society.

It is when we come to the Greek/Roman world that the influence of the church is first felt, with Paul establishing an entirely new concept of individual freedom in Christ. Where someone's value had always been determined by their role in society, Paul brought the idea that a 'soul' has worth apart from societal status. In place of the traditional assumption of natural inequality there was, for the first time, a moral equality, a common humanity, with citizens and slaves rubbing shoulders 'in church.'

With the fall of the Roman world and the fracturing of society, the church had to carve out a role for itself as a sovereign power whose area of authority was the care of souls. In doing this the church established canon law that defined its role and proscribed the role of secular powers. Indeed, it was the church, in seeing to its own affairs and survival, that first separated the spiritual from the secular.

The book traces the development of church authority alongside that of the secular world, describing the growth of papal authority and how successive generations wrestled with the inherent dangers in establishing in one man an absolute power, thereby re-establishing the hierarchical model of leadership followed in the ancient world.

There were long periods of conflict, with secular rulers, as well as within the church, as they addressed the question of where authority lay in the church, in the 'servant of servants' or in the church as a body of believers, represented by councils, cardinals, bishops, and clerics. Were Christians 'equal in submission,' as was thought by the Dominicans, or 'equal in liberty,' as taught by the Followers of St Francs? The growth of universities gave a space where these issues could be battled over, the main protagonists being Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham.

The book is well organised, with chapter heads and endings giving good summaries of where we have got to so far and where we are going. Near the end of the book Seidentop writes:

'We have seen how Christian egalitarianism (the 'care of souls') first shaped the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, creating a sphere for individual conscience. We then followed the gradual but far from complete penetration of this egalitarianism into traditional beliefs - emerging as a kind of schizophrenia among Carolingians.

Finally, we discovered its full potential for transforming institutions in the papal revolution of the twelfth century, when the idea of a 'sovereign' authority over individuals, embodied in a coherent legal system, not only transformed the church, but also began to inspire secular rulers with the project of creating 'states' out of a jumble of feudal jurisdictions.'

Here is the nub of it. The role of the church, as it carved out its own space in the world, is powerful in the development of European, therefore Western liberalism. The 'Renaissance' is a product of this process, and not a break with it, as is popularly believed. Chapter by chapter we see how church government develops, who were the characters involved, what were the respective roles of reformists and traditionalists, what were the issues they struggled over, and what the outcomes.

Addressing the implications of losing sight of our roots, Siedentop e ends with a challenging question:

'If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?'

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