On Siedentop and The Re-Invention of Liberalism (II); against autochthonous tradition

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The Gospel of Thomas urges a new project on believers: nothing less than turning women into men! They are to become as ‘one’. By that it is clearly meant that women should be enabled to become rational agents, to recognize that they have the same rational and moral capacities as men. ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner ... and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, then you will enter (the kingdom).’

That reconstruction of the self, which Paul had urged on his followers, is here tied overtly to a change in the status of women. Larry Siedentop (2015) Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism]. p.75  [HT Bart Wilson]

I agree with Siedentop that anti-clericalism may well hide key Christian contributions to liberal self-understanding. I agree with him (recall) that "Christian moral intuitions played a pivotal role in shaping the discourse that gave rise to modern liberalism and secularism." (359) But it is one thing to insist that Christianity played a central, even constitutive role in developing the conceptual scaffolding for Liberal individualism and another thing to claim or imply that only Christianity played such a role. This has unfortunate consequences. For example, earlier in the week, I argued that this commitment leads him articulate a rather impoverished understanding of liberal individual (that somehow misses the contribution of Mill, or at least now identified with Mill's defense of non-conformism). I also noted that Siedentop's argument also effaces the cosmopolitan roots of liberal thought. Today, I would like to develop this thought.

A key point in the book is that Christianity invents by reversing the once pervasive and omnipresent assumption of natural inequality and social hierarchy for a view of natural, moral equality. And while plenty of Christians recoil from the implications of this intuition, as Christian institutions shape society, it has many intended and often unintended consequences that, ultimately, feed into liberalism. This draws on two key methodological "assumptions "that frame the study:

The first is that if we are to understand the relationship between beliefs and social institutions – that is, to understand ourselves – then we have to take a very long view. Deep moral changes, changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions. It is folly to expect popular habits and attitudes to change overnight.
The second assumption is that beliefs are nonetheless of primary importance, (2)

As regular readers know, I believe that habits and attitudes can change overnight, even if we then (recall) pretend for political reasons the change is more modest and incremental, and that when they don't, we should explore how institutions and force prevent change. But in what follows, I'll pretend that memetic change is glacial.  Okay, with that in place, I want to tackle two claims. 

First, in the passage quoted at the top of this post, Siedentop suggests that once Christianity embraced natural equality, gender equality (even gender homogeneity) was a firm conceptual possibility within Christianity. And while it laid dormant for many centuries thereafter, once Christian moral intuitions could shape society, there were no logical barriers against the habits and attitudes of gender equality.* As he puts it: "we have seen that the conventional view in antiquity was that women could not be fully rational beings. Their subordination, like that of slaves, was justified in that way. The Gospel of Thomas urges a new project on believers: nothing less than turning women into men!" (75)  A similar impulse, "a presumption in favor of equality," shaped "the attitudes of Gregory of Nyssa, who in fourth century Constantinople delivered a fierce attack on slave-owning." (119) Nothing is said about Gregory of Nyssa's attitudes toward gender equality.

One could never guess from Siedentop's account that one could find the doctrine of natural equality elsewhere in the Ancient world. My favorite example can be found in Philo of Alexandria's description (in an essay known as, De vita contemplativa or Of the Contemplative life) of a monastic community outside of Alexandria, the therapeutics, that practices gender equality, women joining the "sect with equal deliberation and decision."+ But not not just outside Alexandria; in fact, Philo is explicit that such communities "may be met with in many places, for it was fitting that both Greece and the country of the barbarians should partake of whatever is perfectly good."  In addition, they reject slavery. Their ground for doing so is worth quoting: "they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession of servants of slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature, for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker."

To the best of my knowledge there is consensus that Philo is describing a Jewish community; or at least it is an idealized version of possible Jewish life modeled on the description in Exodus 15 of the relationship between Moses and Miriam.* It's important to note that unlike The Gospel of Thomas, in Philo's description the therapeutics maintains, while something close to equality, gender difference. 

Philo's description of the therapeutics also calls attention to a detail that undermines another key part of Siedentop's argument. For, while drawing heavily on Fustel de Coulanges, Siedentop argues (correctly) that the patriarchal family is the basis of the inequality of Ancient political life and that each family is originally a religious cult. (This is important because there is no space for the true individual and equality in the Ancient household.) The center of the patriarchal family is the family shrine. And throughout the early chapters of his argument Siedentop, runs arguments ground in the necessary identity of family as a religious cult and the practice of political inequality/hierarchy.

As it happens, as Philo reports (or imagines) "in every house" of the therapeutics "there is a sacred shrine." It's unclear whether the home shrine is gendered male. I think not because there is a communal "holy place" which is clearly co-gendered: "this common holy place to which they all come together on the seventh day is a twofold circuit, being separated partly into the apartment of the men, and partly into a chamber for the women."

Now I don't mean to suggest that Philo always and everywhere endorses natural equality. But I do claim he did not need Christianity to arrive at it in De vita contemplativa. Philo's life and writings are pretty much contemporaneous with the life of Jesus and his writings may or may not have influenced early Christianity (and the Gospel of Thomas). But there is no reason to believe the influence ran in the other direction. 

Second, among the most striking claims in Siedentop's narrative, is that the political side of liberalism really grows out of monastic self-government in three key ways: (i) democratic values of consensual, bottom up and deliberative government ground in individual association are developed there; (ii) the work ethic is embraced and the aristocratic-intellectualist bias against work is rejected; (iii) the Cluniac reform movement gave rise to the attempts to use canon law to create unified papal sovereignty.  (Chapter 7 is devoted to articulating (i-ii) and chapter 17 to the connection between (i) and (iii).) So far so good (and (iii) is worth returning to.)

But Siedentop presents monastic life as a Christian invention developing out of the practice of Christian hermits in the 'East' (Syria, Egypt, etc.).  Here's the key passage:

[W]hile urban churches compromised with the aristocratic world in which they had developed, the new, chaotic movement of monks preserved the primitive norms of the church....Nonetheless, the gradual organization of monasticism reveals more about the moral thrust of Christianity than what had become the ‘state’ religion of the Roman empire by the late fourth century could do. As hermits or anchorites became cenobites – that is, as asceticism became communal – Christian beliefs began to generate a new conception of ‘community’, an utterly new form of social organization. (93)

Now, Siedentop could have dropped a footnote here and mentioned that there were monastic communities prior to Christianity. Quite famously -- (and not to draw on Philo again, I mention) Pliny the Elder devotes a rather striking passage to them in the Natural History -- the Essenes were a monastic community that share in many of the characteristics that Siedentop praises in early monastic Christianity. But he doesn't. I don't mean to suggest Jews invented monastic life. When I teach the history of political thought, I call attention to the significance (for political theory) of Buddhist monasticism invented half a millennium earlier or so. Many of the characteristics that Siedentop praises in Christian monasteries were pioneered there. I don't know how much of this was known in the Roman mediterranean, but Pliny mentions plenty of contact between Romans and Greeks and Indians. Pliny and Philo are not obscure.

It's possible, of course, that Siedentop is misled in part, by his hero Fustel de Coulanges, who emphasizes the uniqueness of Pauline Christianity. But I also think Siedentop has an earnest desire to show that liberal individualism is wholly, even purely, 'Western' because he wants to promote, if not a battle of civilizations, at least a dominant role for a self-confident liberalism that shapes" the conversation of mankind" (363). And so the Jewish (and other) sources on Christianity and future liberalism have to be homeopathically thinned to the bare minimum.

By contrast, here's what Siedentop says about the Jewish influence on his story:

Conforming to an external will was becoming the dominant social experience. And the voice of Judaism spoke to that experience, as no other did. The message of the Jewish scriptures was radical. Virtue consisted in obedience to God’s will. His will was not something that could be fathomed by reason. It could not be deduced from first principles. Nor could it be read in the book of nature. Scripture alone mattered, because it was the record of God’s commands and promises. Historical events – the medium of God’s will – were privileged over deductive reasoning. The Jewish God refused to be pinned down: ‘I will be who I will be.’
A new sense of time thus went hand in hand with the new awareness of will. (54)

So, on this account, the main message of Jewish scriptures is submission to the will of God. This is characteristic of the idea that Jerusalem and Athens are polar opposites (and as Hazony has noted often implies that Judaism is not a religion of reason). This is a form of Judaism as exemplified by the Christian interpretation of the commandment to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. (Here's how Siedentop puts it: "What Paul did, in effect, was to combine the abstracting potential of later Hellenistic philosophy – its speculations about a universal or ‘human’ nature – with Judaism’s preoccupation with conformity to a higher or divine will." (61))  I have noted before that J.S. Mill had a different view (itself indebted to Machiavelli), "Conditions more favourable to Progress could not easily exist: accordingly, the [Ancient] Jews, instead of being stationary like other Asiatics, were, next to the Greeks, the most progressive people of antiquity, and, jointly with them, have been the starting-point and main propelling agency of modern cultivation."

My point is not that the liberal individual is Jewish, or Buddhist. But rather that one can tell a version of Siedentop's story, and point to heterogeneous influences and exemplary sources for it, that is truly cosmopolitan. As it  happens, that is historically (in his prophetic sense) more accurate; it's also more fascinating. It's also a myth worth having for a political tradition that self-consciously wishes to shape humanity's common destiny in an egalitarian key. 


+Women are clearly thought rational and equal in the sect. But politically it does not practice perfect gender equality; it's men that lead in the assembly. 

*Philo treats this description as entirely a-political, but it is noteworthy that he offers an account of Alexandrian Jews modeling themselves on Moses and Miriam feasting the destruction of the Egyptians.