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About the Author

Larry Siedentop is Faculty Lecturer in Political Thought in the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Keble College.

Works by Larry Siedentop

Associated Works

The History of Civilization in Europe (1846) — Editor, some editions — 129 copies


Common Knowledge



The majority of this book is fascinating and puts forth a strong case for Christianity being behind the modern cult of the individual.

The idea that things changed completely over night with the coming of the Renaissance is a little hard to believe so, I am very comfortable with Mr Siedentop's theory. The problem comes with the plea in the epilogue for secularism to link with Christianity in the fight against Islam. I have no wish to fight for Christianity or indeed against Islam.

Christianity was (notice the tense) integral to Western development but has become less and less significant in the modern day. I also felt that the author was a little too secure in his knowledge that individualism equates to equality.… (more)
the.ken.petersen | 5 other reviews | Dec 30, 2022 |
This is not an easy read. Siedentop delivers an almost purely intellectual history, focusing on mental images of people and society in ancient Antiquity and the Western Middle Ages. He jumps from thinker to thinker, constantly probing the concepts they use and what that says about their image of man and society.

His thesis is simple: the origin of secular liberalism, - conceived of as the intellectual current and attitude that puts the individual at the centre, as a unique acting object and as fundamentally equal to other individuals -, its origins don’t lie in the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, but much earlier, in medieval Christianity. "Secularism is Christianity's greatest gift to the world", he states. Christianity, through Paul and Augustine, put the freedom and equality of the acting man first, in contrast to ancient Antiquity, where inequality determined the character of society and each individual found its place in a certain, natural hierarchy. It took centuries for Christian intellectuals to focus on freedom and equality in their thinking and to make it a natural starting point for people and society. The major breakthrough took place between the 12th and 14th century, in the high Middle Ages. That is the central thesis of this book.

Siedentop certainly is not the first one to emphasize the Christian origins of our modern freedom and equality concept, and to revalue the Middle Ages for their contribution to the gradual development of that concept. But as far as I know, he is the first to do it so systematically and in detail. And every so often he shows unsuspected perspectives on developments in the Middle Ages, which I had not read about anywhere else. In short, it is impressive what Siedentop offers us, although it requires some concentration and perseverance from the reader to keep following his line of thinking.

But ... I did not feel wholly comfortable, as I read this work. There are some issues with the approach and focus of Siedentop, and especially his strongly Christian-apologetic undertone, and the teleological scope (exclusively aimed at proving his position). The critical remarks about that I have collected in my review for my Sense-of-History account on Goodreads. Follow this link
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bookomaniac | 5 other reviews | Jan 29, 2019 |
I was sent this book to read and I struggled to get through it. In fact, I skipped whole sections in the middle. It's very academic, extremely repetitive and, despite Seidentop's massive body of research, it only tells a very partial story. The whole thesis of the book is summed up in the epilogue and I wish I'd just read that. There's no doubt some truth in the thesis that modern day Western liberalism and democracy based on the freedom of the individual owes a great deal to historical developments in the Christian church but a whole host of other influences are left out including the populace of Western Europe (the peasants' revolt?).
As a result, the fascinating dilemma in modern western society which was his starting point for writing this book, is only addressed very schematically in a few pages at the end of the book - namely, the battle between religion and secularism, and particularly between western secular values and religious fundamentalism.
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1 vote
stephengoldenberg | 5 other reviews | Apr 6, 2016 |
1.75 STARS
Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is an ambitious project. It is nothing less than a genealogy of the ‘Western’ concept of the liberal individual spanning from Antiquity to the Medieval Period, ending right at the birth of the Enlightenment--presumably the moment of parturition of secular Liberalism itself. Siedentop’s historical narrative is motivated by the following thesis: Modern historians of the ‘West’ are mistaken in claiming that the sources of liberalism are to be found in the Ancient Greek or Roman traditions. The undue focus on the classical world obscures the significant role the Christian church played in the formation of modern European consciousness and her institutions. Thus, the Middle Ages, too long considered to be a period of cultural backsliding, need to be rethought as the most significant period in the development of the ideas of universal equality, sovereignty, and free will--i.e. what will become the central tenets of the ‘Western’ secular liberal tradition. “Inventing the Individual” is an attempt to correct this ‘deficiency’ in the literature and give due credit to the impact of Christian canon law on the formation of secular legislation.

Siedentop is motivated by two contemporary concerns, which he addresses only in his Prologue and Epilogue. First, the schism between the ‘East’ and ‘West has been consistently (and dangerously) misperceived as a rift between the religious and secular worlds. By arguing that the locus of secular ‘Western’ thinking lies in Christian religious thought, Siedentop hopes to demonstrate that liberal political philosophy is the ultimate reconciliation of faith and reason. To put it loosely: If only the East would recognize that the West’s ‘secularism’ isn’t so secular, we might not be in such a geopolitical pickle! The second concern, deeply connected to the first, is the rise of religious fundamentalism--within both Islam and Christianity--and with it the (increasingly likely) possibility that WWIII will be an all-out religious war. On Siedentop’s view, fundamentalism gains traction as reason declines. Thus he attributes (American) Christian fundamentalism to the fact that people have lost sight of the ‘rational’ Christian moral intuitions that serve as the bedrock of the very secularism they repudiate on religious grounds.

[Tl; dwtr?: I recommend these books instead: E.R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, anything by Peter Brown (particularly Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

Siedentop’s scope is, paradoxically, both too broad and too narrow. This is a symptom of a larger methodological problem: lacking a dialectical account of the transmission of ideas leads to a consistently flattened and overly reductive analysis. On the one hand, It is too broad in the sense that any monograph attempting to capture 2100+ years of history tends to be; there’s simply not enough space to do justice to the subject during any particular period of time without eliding salient historical details or producing an unreadably massive tome. Mercifully, LS’s chapters are short--10 pages, every time--but with each chapter devoted to roughly a century, LS lacks the room to develop much more than a sketch of the incredibly complex political, cultural, religious terrain. More often than not Siedentop’s chapters draw heavily on one or two secondary sources (usually powerhouse historians, to his credit) to do the heavy lifting for him. By “draw heavily” I mean that LS block quotes their conclusions approvingly, often without further comment. I don’t know about you, but I was taught that this is bad scholarship.

Perhaps I am too harsh, and this is not to be read as a serious research project, but as a survey--a sort of toe-dip--into the subject? Acclaim where acclaim is due: as a survey, it is indeed a handy primer, particularly w/r/t the Middle Ages. LS conscientiously shies away from treating the more canonical writers with whom we are most familiar, and instead often lets lesser-known voices stand as representatives of their period. This is an interesting and refreshing strategy, which lends an air of scholarly erudition to the book, and helps it stand out from more popular political histories. However, a quick glance at the footnotes attached to the primary texts cited undermines this initial impression. Direct block quotes of primary texts all come from his secondary material. LS doesn’t cite the original or consistently tell his reader the name of the author he cited. The problem here is not an issue of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’--grand surveys necessitate a reliance on forebears--to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. The problem is that Siedentop does an enormous disservice to his sources by oversimplifying their evidence and their conclusions. At first this struck me as an unfortunate (but perhaps inevitable) consequence of his overly-broad scope, but soon it becomes clear that LS’s selective treatment of the (extremely good) secondary source material is actually directed by his narrow interest in validating his own claims vis a vis Christianity.

On the other hand, ‘Inventing the Individual’ is too narrow in scope insofar as Siedentop concerns himself primarily with the activities of the ‘Western’ world (Europe), minimizing as much as possible any ‘tangents’ into concurrent developments or conflicts in the ‘East’ and ‘Near East’. In his defense, LS does examine the difference between early Eastern and Western monastic traditions, but he altogether ignores the birth of Islam. On Siedentop’s telling, one might think that the West birthed itself ex nihilo. (Of course, isn’t that exactly what a staunch defender of Western liberalism would propose?!)

Siedentop twice concedes that on-going conflicts with the Islamic world surely had some effect on the medieval public consciousness, but the extent of this effect he leaves altogether unconsidered. Of the 12 mentions of Islam in the book, half of them are LS’s speculative comments about the current state of geopolitics in his Intro and Epilogue. Of the six ‘historical’ mentions of Islam (which existed as a religion for at least 800 years of his 2100+ year monograph, i.e. nearly 40% of the period under question) only two are remotely ‘substantive.’ The first, promulgated at the time of Charlemagne, applies universally to any nonbeliever: “Outside the sway of the church and the rites of baptism, people were not considered, in a sense, fully human” (155). In other words, the killing of anyone who lacked a ‘soul’ (in the Christian sense) was justified, and therefore could not tarnish the individual conscience of the killer. The second--and the only direct mention of Islam in LS’s historical narrative--needs to be quoted at length:

“The appeal by Pope Urban II for volunteers to halt the expansion of Islam...created in Europe a new consciousness of itself…’Prior to the crusades, Europe had never been excited by one sentiment, or acted in one cause; there was no Europe. The Crusades revealed Christian Europe.’ [quoting X]...The Crusades were a truly universal event, involving all strata of the population. The revealed ‘a people’ with a shared identity capable of breaking through the skin of feudal stratification...A papal summons released this new European identity, appealing to the consciences and energies of the individual regardless of their social status. It was, of course, intensified by the centuries-old conflict with Islam and no doubt benefited from the aroma of foreign adventure and loot…” (194, italics mine).

As the only ‘substantive’ mention of Islam within a 360+ page book, this truncated (for brevity) passage deserves serious consideration. First off, obviously: it is not substantive at all. The cause of this “centuries-old conflict” is never addressed, which is quite curious. My Fascist Alarm tinkled at LS’s use of the word ‘universal’ to describe what he sees as an essentially newfound ‘pre-nationalistic’ spirit emerging in opposition to the increase of Muslim power in the medieval world. Ignoring the threat of Islam (a perspective only available in hindsight), LS lavishes nearly breathless praise of the papacy’s shrewd political machinations during its Revolution. He views it as *the decisive moment* in the development of Western Liberalism--for this is the moment that the consolidation of papal power pays in dividends; canon law get its “teeth,” to use a favorite Siedentop euphemism. The strong implication is that canon law’s ‘teeth’ were a positive and necessary development in the creation of Liberalism.

As for the Crusaders themselves, “crowds of the populus, who set out...without preparation, without guides, and without chiefs, followed rather than guided by a few obscure knights”?...Siedentop dismisses them as an irrational and uneducated mob who somehow discovered and responded to the threat of Islam with very little nudging from the newly powerful pope. This is very sneaky, especially considering that LS acknowledges explicitly in the quote above that Pope Urban II blessed the ‘mission.’ The problem here is that LS seeks to insulate (read: exculpate) the Church from any responsibility for the Crusades. This view explains why LS can so haphazardly mention ‘the centuries-old conflict with Islam’ as mere afterthought (hooligans v. hooligans!), devaluing its historical significance in the creation of the ‘European’ identity of which LS is so proud.

LS’s thought laid bare is this, if I may: “The uneducated masses who crusaded did not understand the true message of Christianity, and so anything they did ought not be taken as representative of the Christian worldview.” Embedded within is the following assumption: the masses, due to poverty and ignorance, lacked the appropriate moral apparatus to abstain from wrong behavior when the opportunity for lucre was presented to them. But such an assumption (and argument) about ignorance is fundamentally anathema to Christianity. For pre-Reformation Christians, it was not the knowledge of God (impossible!), but hard work, good deeds, and the grace of God which secured one’s salvation. Witness the serfs: you needn’t be an aristocrat, landowner, scholar, nor a saint to lay claim to the Kingdom of Heaven. To diminish the beliefs of Crusaders as ignorant and unrepresentative is to (inadvertently?) reproduce the false dichotomy between faith and reason that LS is so intent to undermine. What we see in Siedentop’s narrative is an ongoing slippage between the history of events and the history of the ideas behind them that ‘enables’ him to conflate the ideals of Christianity and the historical Church when it suits his purpose, and to decouple them when the historical doings of the Church undermine its universal mission.

One must be wearing some seriously rose-tinted glasses not to see or acknowledge the role of the Church in the selective distribution and suppression of knowledge during the early medieval period. Keeping the masses illiterate kept them pliable and dependent on the clergy for guidance. Pace Siedentrop, the church did very little to empower the serfs to fight for their freedom; instead--more pervasively--the church pacified serfs with promises of delayed justice in the afterlife. Now, what can be safely claimed, is that Christian notions of individual worth gradually seeped into the collective conscience of the serfs, leading them to assert that worth in the Peasant Uprisings. However, it is disingenuous to insinuate, as LS does, that the Church played a direct and active role in such developments. I’d argue, rather, that the power of Christianity as a religion triumphed despite the best efforts of the Church to limit the more egalitarian understanding of its meaning.

At the end of the day, Siedentop’s primary thesis--that Christianity played a pivotal role in the development of the Individual is no doubt true. Siedentop’s more controversial claim--that we are wrong to look for the origins of ‘Western’ Liberalism in Antiquity--really cannot be trusted, motivated as it is by a self-serving catholic interest to provide a an apologetic for the Christian Church (and its abuses) during the Middle Ages. Moreover, It is not clear to me why LS needs to advance the controversial claim at all. Acknowledging Christianity’s importance does not require that we devalue significant advancements in the pre-Christian ancient world. It is quite clear from Siedentop’s nearly constant conflation of Athens and the Roman Republic, that he either lacks a nuanced understanding of the significant differences between them, or that he is not troubled to distinguish between democratic and republican forms of government. It is quite odd to tell the story of the origins of the individual without including a substantive discussion of birth of democracy in Athens. And, while Siedentop is correct that the individual was not the primary social unit in Athenian society, it is egregiously misleading to suggest that there was no individual sense of self in Antiquity. One would need to ignore all of Plato and Aristotle’s works to make this the case. Despite how much LS would like to believe that the Christians invented the conscience, wishing it doesn’t make it so.

In summary: LS’s attempt to center the birth of the individual in the Middle Ages is mistaken because of the important cultural contexts and events that are necessarily left out by his unnecessarily narrow focus. On the one hand, Antiquity’s influence is obscured on account of fact that the ‘individual’ was not yet the primary social unit, but this misrepresents Athens’ significance in development of Liberalism itself. On the other hand, LS’s attempt to characterize the medieval Church as a largely benign, civilizing institution is only plausible if he omits or downplays the barbarity of the Crusades (among many other things). Omitting the Crusades requires that he underemphasize the crucial influence of ascendance of Islam in the ‘East’ as a conflicting and co-constitutive ideology.
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1 vote
reganrule | 5 other reviews | Feb 22, 2016 |


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