Inventing the Individual

Inventing the Individual April 14, 2014

Larry Sidentop’s Inventing the Individual is intellectual history of the old school, the broad-sweep, big-idea type. Jeffrey Collins thinks that for all the dangers the book works (TLS review). It is “a thoroughly interesting and fundamentally convincing book.”

The key development, Siedentop argues, was the “Christian revolution” that gave a central place to “equal individuals” in Western thought and institutions. 

Christianity marked a sharp break from the classical past. In Collins’s summary, Siedentop “presents a world of suffocating hierarchy, saturated with assumptions of natural rank, with ancestor worship, and with patriotic cults of the ‘father land.’ In a world of ‘graduated essences and purposes,’ where ‘nature and culture belonged to a single moral continuum,’ reason itself was the possession of born elites. Christianity detonated this ancient order. The Gospels and Paul’s epistles separated nature from culture, presenting a moral world (imperfectly realized, to be sure) of equal individuals. Master and slave, Jew and Gentile, father and son emerged reborn as individual souls sharing a common fate and endowed with equal moral status.”

By contrast, Gnosticism “so treasured by radical-chic biblical scholars of a sceptical bent, are here presented as rearguard warriors for a pagan code of natural elitism.” It was the orthodox who developed “the radical social implications of the new Christian egalitarianism.”

Along the way of telling his story, Siedetop rehabilitates the Gregorian Reformers whose aim was “to protect the university morality (and sacramental life) of Christianity in an era of imperial disintegration. Not seeking a theocracy, the emboldened papacy aimed rather to preserve its own autonomy from warrior princes and feudal lords.” 

He even rehabilitates the bete noire of anti-modernism, William of Ockham: He credits the nominalists with achieving the full flowing of Christian egalitarianism. This disagreement largely implicates differing evaluative judgements about the relative importance of individual freedom on the one hand and ethical foundationalism on the other. Siedentop privileges the former. . . . The great Franciscan, in his view, unshackled human reason from the exterior world, and associated it with ‘individual experience and choice,’ rather than ‘a timeless nature of things.’ Neither divine nor human will could be bound by a ‘Greek necessity’ of natural ends and reasons.”

Grand intellectual history in the old style may not be dead after all.

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