Douglas Murray Reviews Larry Siedentop on the Story of Western Individualism
The British writer, journalist and commentator Douglas Murray, in his article "Christianity is the foundation of our freedoms" (The Spectator, February 22, 2014), reviews what sounds like an interesting book by the political philosopher Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:
If there is one underlying source from which all our other societal problems stem, it is surely this: we no longer know who we are or how we got here. Worse, we mistakenly believe our situation to be inevitable, presuming that we have arrived in this modern liberal state through something like gravity . . . . Larry Siedentop lays this problem out: "We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development" . . . . The problems this leads to are exacerbated by the fact that "we are in a competition of beliefs, whether we like it or not" . . . . Beginning with a panorama of the Greek and Roman world, Siedentop goes on to excavate in terrain which may have been taken for granted only a generation ago, but which has currently become controversial. He points out that a major source of the modern conception of liberalism comes from . . . . the melding of the traditions -- the Greek and Roman with the teachings of Christ and St Paul -- and then leads the reader through a tour of the succeeding millennia with a learning which is itself almost miraculous. Taking us through the changing sense of time, he then guides us through Tertullian on freedom . . . , Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Charlemagne and . . . . [a]long the way he gently demonstrates the manner in which charity -- a virtue which can hardly be divorced from the Christian tradition -- found its way from a theological idea into a common state of mind and expected action. Elsewhere the way in which Christianity helped shift the concept of the governed -- or even "owned" -- people into "souls" is filled with insight . . . . This kind of intellectual history is exceedingly hard to write . . . . But it seems to me that in this work, and in his highly practised hands, Siedentop has achieved something quite extraordinary. In this learned,subtle, enjoyable and digestible work he has offered back to us a proper version of ourselves . . . . In his closing pages he notes that the forgetfulness, ignorance and sometimes even hatred of our past with which the West is now afflicted is already having severe effects. In America he sees a growing evangelical tradition which is ignorant of the vital hand-in-hand tradition of western secular liberalism. Meanwhile, in Europe there exists a strain of thought which will give no credit whatsoever to the religious tradition from which we come. It is, he rightly says, "a strange and disturbing moment in western history" . . . . Siedentop asks, "If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?" Indeed. All that need be said is that there can be few better ways to understand that depth of tradition, or feel appropriate gratitude for it, than to read this magisterial, timeless yet timely work.The competition among beliefs mentioned early in this passage is not specified, but I can imagine that Islam is on Siedentop's mind, as it surely is on Murray's. One paradox to books of this sort is that even though they often aim at motivating us to prevail in the competition among beliefs by telling us who we are through the story of where we've been, they manage only to convey knowledge without eliciting the belief essential for the will to win in that competition.
We just can't quite go back after a bite from the apple that turned us from belief to knowledge, from faith to reason, from medieval to modern, so the most we can perhaps do is get every other civilization to have a bite, too . . .