On Siedentop and The Re-Invention of Liberalism (I)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 28/04/2020 - 9:26pm in



Thus, even before Augustine’s ‘city of God’, Christian apologists were invoking ‘the country of God’ to assert the claims of the individual conscience. Such claims of conscience seemed to follow irresistibly from the assumption of moral equality. Equality, choice and responsibility hung together in their minds. Irenaeus repeatedly insisted on this as early as the mid-second century: ‘God’s just judgement falls equally on all men, and never fails.’
If God has created humans as equals, as rational agents with free will, then there ought to be an area within which they are free to choose and responsible for their choices. Identifying such an area was at first a means of self-defence by Christians. But soon it was also more than that. Tertullian saw clearly the implications of Christian moral beliefs. ‘Here lies the perfection and distinctiveness of Christian goodness,’ he argued. ‘Ordinary goodness is different; for all men love their friends, but only Christians love their enemies.’ Respecting a range of freedom of choice in all humans might be seen as one aspect of the latter.
The suggestion that belief in ‘equal liberty’ appeared in early Christian apologetics will surprise many and irritate some. For the-anticlericalism which has been an integral part of liberal historiography does not lend itself to such a conclusion. Besides, the distrust of anything like teleological explanations in history – of what is often called the Whig interpretation of history – reinforces such scepticism. But texts are facts. And the facts remain. In the mid-second century Irenaeus of Lyon asked, ‘what new thing did the Word bring by coming down to earth?’ For Tertullian, writing only a few decades later, the answer was clear. ‘One mighty deed alone was sufficient for our God – to bring freedom to the human person.’ Larry Siedentop (2014) Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, 77 [HT Bart Wilson]

Jacob Levy's Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom starts with a footnote to Siedentop's work. The name was unfamiliar to me, but I made a mental note to check it out some time. So when, a few weeks ago, Bart Wilson asked me if I had read Siedentop's Inventing the Individual and what I thought of it, I decided to to read the book (now done). As regular readers know (recall), I think the second wave of liberalism has ended, and so it may be useful to take stock of how liberalism was re-conceptualized, even re-articulated, by those on the precipice of imminent collapse. 

Before I get to re-conceptualization, let me do one paragraph summary. The key idea behind the book is that "Christian moral intuitions played a pivotal role in shaping the discourse that gave rise to modern liberalism and secularism." (359) Strikingly, the book ends well before the invention of either 'modern liberalism' and 'secularism.' Rather it is a fascinating attempt to offer a somewhat schematic, genealogical development of western Christianity from Paul to Ockham, as the unfolding of the articulation of key moral intuitions in which we are invited to recognize the shape of future liberalism and secularism. Although Nietzsche is never mentioned, the simplest version to describe one strain, the ethical strain, of the book is that it takes the sardonic and satirical unmasking account of the Genealogy of Morals, and endorses that account with a lot more historical and conceptual detail than Nietzsche had offered. There is also a juridical, political strain which aims to show that the development of canon law and the papal conception of sovereignty prefigure structural features of political liberalism. Along the way, the invention of the institutionalization of the work ethic is attributed to the cluniac reform movement. 

Okay, with that in place, let's turn to the character of the individual and liberalism Siedentop offers, and to start conveying why I find this book highly problematic. For a book on the invention of the individual, it is refreshing to see Petrarca, Luther, Montaigne, and Descartes nearly entirely ignored.*  This is deliberate: Siedentop is not interested in and rejects what he calls the "cult of individuality" which he associates with the Renaissance. (337) He contrasts the individual as a moral notion (originating in Paul's Letters) rooted in ontology (fleshed out by Ockham) with the cultivation of self as an aesthetic project he associates with Renaissance humanists. The true individual is interior and, in its reliance of conscience, in some sense independent of society; whereas for Siedentop the 'cult of individuality' depicts the (false) "individual as the 'victim' of social pressures and heroism as resistance to such pressures. Social institutions were presented as a threat to  the self." (337)

Let's leave aside Siedentop's embrace of Whig philosophy of history. As regular readers know, I have no right to that criticism. I have defended the legitimacy and utility of teleological explanations (of history) in print. My criticisms of Siedentop's historiographical practice will be from the perspective of a teleological fellow traveler. And not unlike him, I have (recall on Petrarca) reservations about the Renaissance expressions of individuality.

Even so, it's worth asking in light of the attack on the 'cult of individuality' what's so liberal about Siedentop's individual. Siedentop identifies "classical liberalism" with the commitment to ‘equal liberty’ which "rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the ‘blind’ following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others." (361)  It is no surprise that Kant is acknowledged as a kind of end-point of the narrative, (p. 107, 359), although somehow Siedentop forgets that this agent is ideal, not flesh and blood.  Even so, let's stipulate that equal liberty understood in this fashion is a core commitment of liberalism.

Yet, something more than our fallen human nature is missing here. Siedentop somehow skipped On Liberty (and Orwell's essays), and so the threats of conformism to (civil rights of) the individual and the ways in which even lofty moral ideals can turn into oppressive group think seem to elude Siedentop entirely.

Of course, he is not entirely unaware of this. To give a telling example: when the inquisition is first mentioned, briefly, it is obliquely criticized in terms of shaky juridical foundations: "Even writers well disposed to the papacy concede that ‘the juristic principles which the procedure embodied bore hardly any resemblance to those which were commonly accepted and consistently advocated by the papacy itself.’ (288) But the next mention of it (on p. 362) is in terms of the "legend of the Spanish Inquisition." My point in mentioning this is not to re-enforce enmity between secularism and religion -- something Siedentop thinks represents Europe's "civil war" -- (362). But while Siedentop clearly endorses "civil liberty" (262) and judicial safeguards for the accused, he seems to have no interest in the conditions of pluralism

This is, in fact, revealed by the snub of  Montaigne, who is described, and rejected as a skeptic (335; 386). Rather than understanding Montaigne's skepticism as one of the antidotes to fanaticism and one of the grounds of an experimental life worth having, it is clearly seen as corrosive of ''conviction" (362).

Thus, although the book begins with offering an attractive picture of Christian experimentation with different forms of life, under the collapsing Roman empire, once we get to Augustine, pluralism is generally presented as unattractive. Pluralism is identified with feudal, legal disorder (253; 256)-- and this is a book that embraces the middle ages as a progressive era!

This is surely deliberate. The acceptance by the 'religious camp' in the centuries after the French revolution of "religious pluralism" is presented as a good thing (360). But this is not because of a commitment to true diversity. For, there is explicitly no room for Islam in Siedentop's vision of Europe (362). Siedentop is alarmed by "born-again" Christianity Stateside. With political friends like these, religion needs no enemies.

That is to say, Siedentop shapes a narrative of the "tradition" of the "West" in the service of developing citizens that have moral convictions such that they can "shape the conversation of mankind" (363--these are the last words of the epilogue). Yet, these convictions are not to be tested robustly by alternative viewpoints.

This is characteristic of the central historiographic failure which is ultimately a failure of imagination. In Siedentop's narrative the tradition is entirely, as it were, homegrown. The emphasis is really on 'Western' in 'Western Liberalism' (except not as far west as Muslim Spain, which is mentioned once as a source of translations of Greek philosophy). The tradition, once understood, is sui generis and has nothing to learn from others; and, in fact, in Siedentop's presentation never learned anything from without. To put my cards on the table, ahead of my next installment, if that un-inquisitive autarchic edifice were the liberal tradition, it is not worth re-animating, But luckily, we find in Siedentop some of the clay for a nobler project.



*Descartes is mentioned once, in passing.