Sunday, February 23, 2014

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 . . .

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At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ohhh, what a nice concluding paragraph you've written there, Jeffery. A commenter responding to a recent NYT article about an Israeli Arab professor's MOOC noted, "Anyone who understands nanotechnology will not believe our universe was built in 6 days, 6000 years ago or 72 virgins await the faithful somewhere called paradise. This is the right strategy and it shouldn't be limited to one university. Make it a large part of the Foreign Aid and spread knowledge in any language that lacks the resources. It will benefit all of us. Keep up the good work."


At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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 --"

The same St. Paul who chastised Christian women, telling them to keep quiet in church while keeping their heads covered and obey their husbands at home, for "man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man"? Yuck. Well, at least he didn't advise Christian men on the size of the sticks they could use to beat their wimminz.


At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also worth noting that while Jesus never uttered a word about homosexuality, 'liberal' St. Paul's remarks have been used by conservative Christians to condemn people in same-sex relationships as sinners. Thanks to the recorded words of the apostle who never met the earthly Jesus, our country is home to a subculture of people fixated with regulating what other people do with their reproductive organs.


At 1:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My problem lies in being too busy to read and judge all these interesting books that I come across, so I read reviews and comment on what I manage to perceive, taking care in trying to be just.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quoted from the linked review:

"Along 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. As is the explanation of how the concept of the equality of sexes — hardly shared by all currently competing beliefs — developed from a revolutionary idea into something now so entirely absorbed that whole careers can be wrecked by being foolish enough even to question its edges."

First, charity is not unique to Christianity. Virtually all religions esteem it and some codify it with tithing rules.

Second, Christianity historically did not establish or promote equality between the sexes as the powerful words of St. Paul make clear. It is science that promotes equality for all through discoveries and inventions that empower people and give them choices. This is true for all historically disenfranchised groups, including women, the disabled, and the poor. Modern contraception and medical advances in prenatal care deserve the credit for changing the lives of women, their children, and their partners. Science leads, mainstream culture follows, and organized religion brings up the rear, sometimes kicking and screaming like a petulant child that does not want to leave the store.


At 3:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I won't offer a judgment on these two points because I'd need to see his argument and evidence, though as you point out, there is certainly reason for doubt.

But I do wonder if science unequivocally promotes equality since it can lead to unpleasant facts about differences . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science does not have conscious intent like human beings do. I should rephrase myself and say that scientists promote equal opportunity through science and technology. As you know from my prior comments, I see absolutely no reason for women to be threatened by human biology or evolutionary psychology. Body dimorphism is our best visual clue to the power relationship between the sexes. The greater the difference in size, the greater the power disparity. Male gorillas and chimps are much larger than their female counterparts; correspondingly, all adult male chimps are dominant over all adult females. Gorillas have a despotic hierarchy, so I'm not sure about the power relationship between non-dominant males and females. Humans and bonobos, on the other hand, have only slight body dimorphism, suggesting slight male dominance, which female bonobos subvert by banding together effectively against males who do not cooperate so closely. The post-industrial labor shift to intellectually skilled labor negates the male size advantage, and combined with the power of contraception, women are well-matched to men economically. We see more men at the top because men are by nature risk takers. The problem with some feminists and their critics is that they selectively see only the few highly successful men whose risk-taking paid off, not the failures at the bottom, the throwaway men who are homeless, in prison, disabled, or dead. With longer life expectancies, the evolutionary advantage now goes to the female in developed countries. Only scientifically illiterate people are threatened by valid research into the sexes.


At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, the same principle holds true for genetic differences among ethnic groups. That horrible book The Bell Curve by Charles Murray was so scientifically flawed that my head hurt after reading excerpts from it.


At 3:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I haven't read that literature on gender and race, just reviews of the research, and the evidence seems to support differences.

But I don't feel inferior just because the Chinese (apparently) have an average IQ of 110 (or so I've read). I take people as individuals, not as statistics.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roughly 30% of measurable IQ owes to environmental factors like diet and home environment. I have not seen a single study that effectively accounted for environmental variables. Have you? I suspect the high average IQs of East Asians owe to brain-friendly diets and home and community environments that support learning. East Asians of all SES groups tend to have few children and raise them well. In the US and many other OECD countries, inferior diets and insecure home and community environments keep some children from reaching their full genetic potential. If there is a genetic difference, it's likely epigenetic changes caused by poor diets, substance abuse , and other behavioral factors. Given that a baby girl is born with all the eggs she'll ever have in her ovaries, one can understand how a grandmother's state of health during her pregnancy would impact her grandchildren. The ugly contrast between the quality of food that our bountiful land and water are capable of producing and what we actually eat horrifies me on several levels.


At 8:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I console myself with the thought that if my mother had eaten healthier food when she was pregnant with me, I might have been a genius . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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