Larry Siedentop, emeritus professor of political philosophy at Oxford, published a book at the end of last year called Inventing the Individual (Belknap, Harvard U. Press, 2014). It carries the provocative sub-title The Origins of Western Liberalism and proposes to trace the history of the transformation of the Western political paradigm from ancient Rome’s patriarchal / clan-based class system protected by its legal and moral codes to the one that prevails today of autonomous individuals, all enjoying the same inalienable rights guaranteed by law. Given the history of the West for the last two millennia it should come as no surprise that Siedentop finds the roots of those political developments in the evolution of western Christianity.
The Christian Church grew from a minority cult struggling to be heard in the religious cacophony of the ancient Roman Empire to the only religion in an officially Christian state, a primacy it held for more than a millennium. During the Imperial Papacy of the high middle ages the Church elaborated a jurisprudence and a philosophical theology to back it up that reflected the political implications of its worldview. Those mediaeval developments were the sources of our current political preferences, and they were squarely based on the immortality and post-mortem moral accountability of the individual soul.
It is in the foundational Christian vision of the “soul” that Siedentop sees the roots of the supreme value of the human individual which characterizes modern society. Ironically, he points out, it was the very effort of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the middle ages to protect its interests against the encroachments of theocratic secular princes that drove the Popes to assert the “Church’s” right of universal jurisdiction. It was because the Church hierarchy had the “care of souls” that its universal right to rule was codified in law — a law which claimed to extend beyond all boundaries and include everyone everywhere, yes, even the “souls” of the very princes who challenged its power. In pressing toward that goal, Church authorities created a canonical scaffolding that eventually served as a model for the legal systems of the emerging nation-states of Europe.
Use of the word “soul” immediately evokes a radical egalitarianism that puts every individual, regardless of social status, wealth or role in society, in exactly the same relationship to “God” and therefore to the Church and its ruling hierarchy; it supported the Pope’s claim to ultimate and absolute power. At the end of the day, in mediaeval society, it was because the hierarchy claimed to rule both the prince and the pauper that it developed laws that treated them as equals. These Church laws inspired the secular authorities who were desirous of achieving the same kind of central control as the Church. It was the unwitting source of political liberalism, and it is adduced by Siedentop as the explanation for the modern “democratic” republic with its supreme respect for the equal and inalienable rights of the individual.
But Siedentop’s thesis is not without paradox. The author has selected the one single thread out of the Christian tapestry of the “soul” that led to “individual equality before the law” because it is the specific focus of his study. But we shouldn’t be deceived. The picture of the “soul” is much larger and is woven of many threads which Siedentop does not track, some of which lead to social results with a quite contrary bias. For example, in societies ruled by the Christian worldview, the very same “individual-destiny-after-death” can be cited to account for the crass tolerance for extreme inequality even to the point of slavery and human exploitation; for it is claimed that all injustices will be adjudicated after death, and the oppressors punished. Redress need not occur in this life. The hardships created by these “earthly” disparities are temporary; the sufferings of time are insignificant when compared to the joys of eternity.
An extreme instance of this mindset was on grotesque display during the 13th century Albigensian Crusade launched to eradicate “heresy” in the lands of what is now southern France. The “crusaders” felt completely justified in employing extermination tactics, in one case wantonly slaughtering 20,000 men women and children in the city of Béziers in 1209, under the religious battle cry: “Kill them all, let God sort them out.” Clearly the butchers of “the cross” believed that each of their victims would be judged by “God” for an eternal reward or punishment, and the innocent victims of the Church-sanctioned slaughter (and its obedient agents) would be cleared of guilt and compensated by an eternity of happiness. The “immortality of the soul” together with the individual judgment for an eternal reward or punishment after death provided a unique permission to slay indiscriminately. Any residual guilt due to an excess of zeal in the pursuit of such a lofty goal was a minor matter — easily disposed of in the confessional.
Siedentop places great emphasis on the contrast between the ancient and the modern conceptions of the human person. The older version, he says, identified the person as a member of a patriarchal household and its clan extensions. He claims that such a starting point immediately involves status and inequality because there is a natural, organic subordination within the family of wife and children to the father; and the constituent clans of a community always possess a “fullness of humanity” that externs: traveling merchants, servants, employees, immigrants, slaves, never achieve. The legal and moral extensions of that mindset create and protect class distinctions that reflect the superiority / inferiority implied in those genetic relationships. Your “worth” as a human being was determined by where you were born in the social pyramid. The author says that basing society on those relationships necessarily entails a structured inequality.
The individual relationship to “God,” in contrast, is said to create an invincible equality based on an inescapable moral (not physical or intellectual) accountability over which class, birthright, status or “earthly” qualifications have no bearing.
The contrast also points up a significant difference in the thought process employed in each case. For, under the Christian definition, you are not identified with where you come from but where it is imagined you’re going. You are not defined by your origins in this world, but by your imagined destiny in another — a world for whose existence there is no evidence whatsoever. Your very concrete relationships to the earth and the species that spawned you and with whom you necessarily interact for survival are determined by your projected relationship to a “God-person” whom you have never met and with whom alone, whether you like it or not, you will spend eternity. There is no guarantee that your family or loved ones will have “earned” the right to be there with you. You are on your own and you are encouraged to maintain an emotional distance from everyone else. It is from these “facts” that modern society has developed its vision of what the human person is and the laws and moral codes believed necessary to protect and enhance it.
Capitalism and the “immortal soul”
But there was still another paradoxical thread whose social import tacks contrary to the wind of Siedentop’s theory of “individual equality.” Defining the very meaning of life as earning a future happiness not available until one’s total merits are tallied and weighed at death can be said to account for the characteristic western obsession with individual achievement measured by the conspicuous display of amassed wealth. For the Christian believer the urge to accumulate necessarily becomes internalized. The curious “discipline” of western Europeans — notorious across the globe — that allows them to postpone satisfaction and to continue working compulsively to stockpile resources long after a secure satiety has been achieved, is a peculiar dynamic that can be attributed to the internalization and progressive social application of the “last judgment” paradigm. The individual’s drive to amass without limit is protected by an absolute right to “private” property, even after it is indisputably clear that the owner’s superabundance is surrounded by (and even may be causing) the severe deficiencies of others.
“Capitalism” sprang from these roots. Capitalism is an application of the individual’s right to amass superfluous wealth indefinitely and use it for personal profit, despite the needs of others. Under the ancient paradigm, superfluous wealth was considered the sole right of nobility; it provided a magnificence reflecting the superiority of the blood-line and no commoner had the right to any such public display. Under the new “Christian-inspired” vision of man, in contrast, the ownership of great wealth is open to all individuals regardless of birth and is accompanied by the exclusive right to use it however they want. The change reflected a revolution in human self-definition. “Full humanity” was no longer determined by noble blood but by the immortal soul preparing for its day of judgment. And in pre-judging one’s chances business acumen was often confused with moral superiority.
In inventing the individual, it may be said that the West also invented capitalism.
Clearly, the Church did not introduce these changes. Far from it. The hierarchy’s reactionary resistance to the revolutions of the 19th century — giving unwavering support to the maintenance of aristocratic control and their prerogatives — is well known. But, as Siedentop repeats over and over, the Church provided a radically egalitarian metaphysical definition of man that, however unwittingly, in the long run undermined the structural inequality of the class system based on patriarchal / aristocratic definitions of man. The egalitarian implications of Christian doctrine were hypocritically ignored by the authorities even though it was increasingly recognized and embraced by the general population. The Church hierarchy, in the attempt to shore up its own power, undermined the very system that sustained it. What was revolutionary was the Christian definition of man that put each individual human being into a one-to-one relationship with “God,” solidly joined to the Platonic belief in the immortality of the human soul and its liability to eternal punishment.
It all seems quite inevitable, in the way that what actually happens always appears inevitable in retrospect. There was also a relative inevitability about the earlier, second century embrace of Platonism by the Christian culture of the ancient Mediterranean. Platonism was the conventional wisdom of the age; the upper class take-over of the ascendant sect of Christianity meant that the platonic paradigm with its “particular judgment” would be favored as “orthodox” over the earlier Pauline vision of community salvation. The official public “sacrifices” to the gods in which all citizens had participated as pagans were transferred to the Christian agape meal turning it into the “sacrifice of the mass;” and a quid pro quo self-interest that contradicted the fundamental thrust of Jesus’ message came to dominate the Christian religion.
But what, historically speaking, may seem “inevitable” is not so in any absolute sense. Past contingent events do not determine future choices. In this case the respect for the individual, so characteristic of Christianity, could as easily be derived from other grounds as from platonic theory. It is important in this case because the platonic premises are, in my estimation, completely false: there is no “immortal soul;” there is no “particular judgment;” there is no reward or punishment after death and there is no “God”-person who adjudicates individual human lives. The fact that our hard-won and highly cherished respect for the individual person was ultimately derived from these erroneous doctrines does not imply either that individual rights will suddenly evaporate when these beliefs are shown to have been a mirage or that there is no other ground in which equality can be rooted. Our instinctive enthusiasm for the ultimate value of each individual has convinced us that there must be a deeper reason — one that is not tied to the platonic fantasy that there is another world where we are going after death.
Rediscovering the community
Defining life in individualist terms stands in stark contrast with basing law on intrinsically communitarian social configurations like the family and its social context. Siedentop locates the very difference between the ancient and modern social priorities in the shift of the source of the definition of the human person from the family and clan — a source of status and inequality — to the individual immortal soul which is egalitarian. But it is important to emphasize that the source of the inequality identified by Siedentop is the patriarchal family. It is not because the human individual is born of a family but because the “father” enjoyed an unquestioned superiority that gave him a permanent “status.” The father in the ancient household was also “priest” mediating relationship with the gods. Hence the family and clan took on a sacred reality and the “father” was considered, genetically, a source of sacred value; he possessed a status that could not be lost even by physical or intellectual failures or serious moral lapses; it was his forever. This image of the “father” was carried over into larger society. The Roman Emperors considered themselves the “father” of the State; in imitation, the Bishop of Rome was called Papa — “Pope” — and every Catholic priest, in direct disobedience to the explicit command of Jesus, is called “father.” Equality between levels was never possible.
It is only recently that egalitarianism has begun to penetrate the very structure of the patriarchal family itself. Prior to this development, equality may have been operative in the public forum, but the private domain of the family was still considered sacrosanct and off-limits. The legislature, police, courts and judicial systems tended to refrain from interfering with fathers’ rights to discipline their wives, determine the destiny of their children and dispose of the family’s goods as they saw fit. The sanctity of the patriarchal family, despite the victory of the liberal mindset, had been most resistant to interference. We never realized how resistant until the unexpected shock of the women’s’ movement of the last 50 years brought it to light. The drive for women’s equality is only one expression of how far the liberal paradigm has penetrated into the foundational structures of society and, in retrospect, the realization of how little, up to then, it had.
But in the kind of “family” that is emerging, the patriarchal prerogatives are being eroded and a new kind of family relationship is developing. In the industrialized nations where 16% of all children are reared in single-parent households (in the US it is 25%), more than 80% of which are headed by single mothers, the class structures and inequality that were once associated with the patriarchal family have less fuel to burn on. Even where the family is comprised of both father and mother, the woman’s ability to earn a living is universally acknowledged and the consequent tendency to parental equality is unmistakable. Respect for the rights of children in the family is beginning to be reflected in law and the policies of government agencies responsible for the protection of the family. While these trends are far from dominant, the drift is unmistakable and, I believe, irreversible.
That means that defining the human person as an “organism spawned and sustained by a human community that provides survival, personal-identity and social significance” does not run the risk of either slipping back into a class system of structured inequality, or maintaining an ersatz equality grounded in a truncated individualism devoid of any social meaning and based on a projected destiny in a world that does not exist. If the human person is conceptualized in exactly the terms of her biological-social reality, not only is each individual immediately validated as fully human but there is no need to search for another ground to justify the social reality by which she survives and is recognized as a person with identity.
With this perspective suddenly Capitalism is shorn of its Christian underpinnings. The personal accumulation dynamic is exposed as an inhuman “earthly” recapitulation on the eternal Christian theme of “gaining merit,” which was itself, in turn, a corollary of belief in the “particular judgment” of the “immortal soul.” The entire emotional drive toward personal, individual profit as a display of “merit” begins to atrophy because its “heavenly” model is discredited as delusional, and “salvation” little by little comes to be recognized as a community achievement, constructed from the collaborative contributions of its constituents. There is no individual future life or other immaterial world to accumulate for, and the individual person begins to see her destiny identified with the survival and fully human development of the community where she lives, receives her identity and makes her contribution to others.
In such a communitarian paradigm the always glaring disjunction between the family dynamics of sharing, and the aggressive self-interest that is claimed to rule the marketplace, begins to cede to a cooperative mindset across the entire spectrum of social institutions. Every social interaction of whatever kind — whether inside or outside the home — can now be considered part of a communal venture: mutual assistance in survival and in the development of the personal potential required to sustain it. “Love” dominates the definition of the human person and becomes concrete: the gift of self to the community … it ceases being a “law” that one obeys in order to gain merit for oneself and a safe place in another world … and the market ceases being a place where cutting throats is considered a necessary part of living.