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Christian Europe, the Inventor of Liberty: Part I

This post was written by Ryan Shinkel, a senior and AEI Executive Council member at the University of Michigan.

This year we celebrate the eight centennial of the Magna Carta. Many will quote that “TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have” granted “all the liberties written out below….” But it is often forgotten the Magna Carta does not begin with that statement, but with a declaration of the liberty the English Catholic Church. A Free Church precedes Free Men because that religion authored those political freedoms. As philosopher Larry Siedentop demonstrates in his book, “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism,” Christianity gave birth to the equal liberty of all individuals.

inventing the individualIt’s easy but false to presume the individual—a private self with intrinsic value and the primary subject of justice—is the natural human condition. The historical record shows that most societies have conceived themselves not as individuals, but rather as families whose members have no existence or significance outside social status. But the Christian worldview, rooted in Judaism, broke the mold: it created the idea that someone could exist as a soul before God and apart from the social status they were born with. This belief gave rise to political liberalism, the western belief that “an underlying or moral equality of humans,” Siedentop says, “implies that there is a sphere in which each should be free to make his or her own decisions, a sphere of conscience and free action.” Through the new beliefs, habits, and institutional reformations arising from Christian moral intuitions, Christendom became the crucible for equal liberty: its belief in moral equality gradually became a social status and substituted the ancient Hellenic belief in natural inequality.

A New Narrative

It may be very difficult to understand that the individual is a cultural innovation. But the way in which we morally think about the world is a rare achievement and historically contingent. Aristotle, for instance, said slaves were “living tools” and it was presumed in antiquity that women had less rational capability than men. Yet nearly two thousand years later, westerners assume “all men are created equal” and that female suffrage is common sense. The accepted historical narrative for several centuries told that this emergence of equal liberty was foreshadowed by the Greeks and Romans, recovered by the Renaissance Humanists, made a political reality in the Reformation, and then secured as religious belief and clerical state power weaned away. This narrative considered the Middle Ages to have been a fly-over zone. The Middles Ages, it was thought, knew not of the individual.

As the Victorian Jacob Burckhardt wrote, “In the Middle Ages … Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category.” That is, man was not conscious of himself as an individual. Siedentop says this example characterizes modern historical writing: “to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between Europe and the Middle Ages.” Yet what happened between Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson? What happened in that fly-over zone?

Siedentop shows in this remarkable and much-needed book that the old narrative is confusing the effect with the cause. The 15th century in Renaissance Italy and afterwards saw what had been institutionally pioneered for centuries by Christianity in spite of ancient beliefs: the individual and liberty were formed in the “Christian liberty” of St. Paul and the Patristics like St. Augustine; self-government, volunteerism, and equal status in the reform-minded monasteries; economic and political freedom in the charters of medieval boroughs; and natural rights in the natural law theory of canon lawyers and scholastic philosophers. While the French Revolutionaries looked to Hellenism for a model of liberty of individuals, instead “the Christian conception of God provided an ontological foundation for the individual, first as a moral status, and then, centuries later, as the primary social role.”

Natural Inequality and the Body of Christ

It’s easy to project our own social categories into the past—one may read “Antigone” and see the conflict between Antigone and Creon as individual conscience versus tyrannical rule. Yet such an analysis underscores how much we moderns can retrospectively project the inherited categories our own moral imagination onto the life of a pre-Christian era. Antiquity did not know the private versus the public, but the domestic versus the public. Social life existed not in free consent and associations of individuals, but in serving the civic gods as Antigone did. The thing to understand is that the ancient city was built on ancestor worship, as Rome was based on the divine figure of Aeneis as told by Virgil. Public honor existed in fighting for the city, and only the few eldest males could do it. These males were like actors put on display—no sense of privacy—and the audience were the much less important members of the household (wives, children, slaves) who knew no sense of participation or privacy. Both the civic actors and the audience existed to serve the city gods in their inherited social roles. There was nothing else.

Undergirding this system was the assumption of natural inequality: every person had their role to play, watcher and actor, and they were fated to exist in that way. One finds this assumption in the philosophy of the time: inequality, from the eldest males to the slaves, was ordained by cosmos in which social fate was enforced by the ancestral civic gods. Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics like Marcus Aurelius all believed each person was less capable of reasoning than his or her superior. Instead Christianity in St. Paul and the church fathers like St. Augustine introduced a newfound belief that all human beings had souls, equally beloved by God and made in His image, who could together belong to an association here on earth independent of their social status. Everyone could be a part of the body of Christ. This Christian belief only arose during that historical fly-over zone.

“Christianity invented the very idea of free individuals.”

It was “the creation of a self-consciousness” that undercut “merely social identities.” Consider the language of the time: it is debated whether there was even a Greek linguistic understanding of having a will. Yet Paul introduced the idea of a free will that could be made upright by membership in “the mystical body of Christ.” Borrowing from the abstract philosophy of the Hellenic world, Paul and the church fathers attach to each person an existence transcending their inferior statuses in the social order: he hypothesized a universal human nature as an association of individual identities joined together in the Incarnation. Paul’s conception of Christ bestowed a will to be made upright for all people: each person has the ability within them to act. “Now,” Siedentop writes, “the identity of individuals is no longer exhausted by the social roles they happen to occupy. A gap opens up between individuals and the roles they occupy.”

Consider Augustine’s analysis of Lucretia. Lucretia, raped by the Roman king’s son, confessed to her cousins what happened and then to prove her innocence, committed suicide in front of them. Lucretia killed herself in public because she had no categories of thought like a soul that remained innocent and virtuous despite the evils of this world. She had no way to imagine her innocence because her existence was domestic. Augustine contrasts her in “The City of God” with Christian women, raped by barbarian tribes sacking Rome, who did not commit suicide. They instead had something new: a soul with a private conscience that proved their innocence in the eyes of God and given dignity by union in Christ.

The Christian Revolution ushered in a belief in moral equality and individual dignity for all—women, foreigners, and slaves, that was unbeknownst to antiquity and invented the individual who was a part of the body of Christ.

A Certain Forgetfulness

We in the industrial west often enjoy forgetting our own cultural inheritance. The Lisbon Treaty, the de facto Constitution of the European Union, makes no mention of Christianity when it discusses its heritage. Siedentop mentions that what is most embarrassing is the idea that a moral system derived from Christianity even has to be brought up. Also many may like to think that intellectually, Christianity was a regress. As Edward Gibbon infamously wrote, “A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.”  Yet I am sure the authors of the Lisbon Treaty imagined that they were individuals who freely authored their own writings. Siedentop shows this historical amnesia only betrays the fact that Christianity invented the very idea of free individuals. And we shall see in Part II, the Christian Church institutionalized the individual as a legal entity under the sovereign state, thereby turning free souls into free men.

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