Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Inventing the Individual: a perverse view of the last 2,000 years

You could say that Larry Siedentop is swimming against the tide. You notice it first of all in the jacket image for the UK hardback edition. He uses Van Eyck's The Goldsmith,  a portrait from 1436, which you or I might see as a perfect example of the newly invented "individual", a modern staring at us through the picture frame. But that's not how the book sees it. According to the author, individualism started with St Paul.

Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual gives the impression that it could have been written at any time in the last 50 years. His intellectual heroes are the little-known Fustel de Coulanges  (“religion was the sole factor in the evolution of ancient Greece and Rome, the bonding of family and state was the work of religion … ancient religion thus consisted of worship of divine ancestors through the paterfamilias”) and the unread Francois Guizot (only remembered as prime minister of France, not for his vast quantity of historical writing).  You could even interpret in the acknowledgements to Siedentop’s book a thanks the woman who typed the manuscript (he doesn’t actually say this, but she is thanked for ‘patience in the face of the successive revisions of the manuscript’).  Looks to me like the author has himself something of the paterfamilias.

This book is about how the individual became the organising social role in the West – no arguments about that. What is novel, at least novel for the 21st century, is that Siedentop claims this individualism started with St Paul. The author’s argument is that ancient religion was all about the family (“the religion of the Greek and Roman pre-history did not speak to the individual conscience. Rather, it spoke to and through the family.” In contrast, St Paul emphasised a  personal relationship with God: “the atmosphere of the New Testament is one of exhilarating detachment from the unthinking constraints of inherited social roles”.

In some way, which I chose not to examine in detail, this individual relationship became the dominant mode of the Church through successive medieval popes creating a centralized administrative system in the C12 and C13. This I fail to see. As a result, in Siedentop’s view, the Renaissance loses much of its importance (even though the one thing about the Renaissance that everyone will tell you is that it was the age that invented the individual). In fact, he argues perversely that “secularization depended on the idea of personal freedom”, which itself was a product of Christianity.

I can believe in “liberal secularism” as the dominant mode of thought in the West today, but it seems to me stretching things a bit to identify the origin of liberal secularism with St Paul. Not surprisingly, there is next to no mention of the Enlightenment in Siedentop’s book.  The idea of individual freedom and equality owing their origin to the despised and ridiculed Christianity would make Voltaire and Diderot turn in their grave (not of course that they would have complied with such a Christian tradition as burial).