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Christianity as mother of western liberalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 6 October 2015


Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop belongs to the genre of the history of ideas, much like Tarnas' The Passion of the Western Mind or Taylor's Sources of the Self. Siedentop, a fellow of Keble College Oxford, gives us an accessible journey through the transformations of the self from the preclassical Western family, through ancient Greece and Rome and the rise of the church in Europe to the sixteenth century.

The theme that runs through the book and gives it its coherence is the transition between the natural inequality of pre-Christian Europe and the equality of persons fostered by the faith. In the pre-classical world, the head of the family, the paterfamilias, or the head of the tribe were the only persons to whom self government was attributed. The position of the paterfamilias was religious, he was the priest of the family who guarded the sacred hearth and presided over appropriate offerings to the gods. All the people in subjection to him were non-persons who were not believed to have minds of their own.

In the classical world of Greece, the only persons who were deemed to be fully human were males who could use the facility of reason. This placed such a person at the top of the great chain of being that determined ones place in society. Women, children, the uneducated, workers and slaves were essentially non-persons since they were not self-determined. They could not be so because action was deemed to spring directly from reason: "there was no ontological gap between thought and action" nothing that we would identify as the will. This does not mean that ancient psychology was fundamentally different from our own, unlikely when we consider our common evolutionary path, but that the culture did not recognise intention as a separate identity to that of reason. Thus while we recognise reason as instrumental, the ancients thought of it as the essence of a person.

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Thus one who could not utilise reason could not be a person in the sense that a citizen was a person. This reflected the prioritizing of the intellect and reason by the Greek philosophers. Siedentop calls this "natural inequality" because it conformed to what was understood as the natural hierarchy of beings. A person was completely determined by his position in this hierarchy for life.

With the rise of the polis and the necessity for broader government this hierarchy was maintained with the recognition of citizens as those who were from elite families and who were trained in reason and oratory. Such citizens ruled with the help of divination from the gods, signs in the heavens, oracles, animal entrails or whatever. The machinery of government was intertwined with a great panoply of religious notions. In Greek and Roman culture reason existed side by side with a mythological consciousness that limited an assessment of reality and eventually rang the death knell for these cultures.

Siedentop marks the change that lay at the root of our present understanding of persons not with the Renaissance with its harking back to the thinking of the Greeks nor to the European Enlightenment with its much vaunted rediscovery of reason and empiricism but to the influence of one who is outside of much contemporary history writing: St Paul.

St Paul saw that persons were not determined by their birth or education or position in life or race but that all stood before God as independent souls.

Paul broke with the ancient world when he proclaimed:"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)

Paul demolished the hierarchy of being with reason at the top when he wrote:

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"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1Cor 1: 20-25)

Siedentop elaborates: "Paul's conception of the Christ introduces the individual, by giving conscience a universal dimension. Was Paul the greatest revolutionary in human history?"

You can see how the new religion that overtook the ancient world destroyed that world forever. This realization is the center of the book, the rest is a detailed account of how it came to produce the modern world and our idea of the individual and our understanding of equality, of society consisting of souls, each standing before God.

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This is a review of Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop. (Penguin)



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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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