Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism

By Larry Siedentop


                Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop is an incredibly important book on political philosophy. Siedentop is an American born political philosopher who has spent his entire life teaching at Oxford University in England.  His thesis is that the liberal secular state and Christianity have the same roots.


        Basically, he argues that the Christian emphasis on the individual soul and conscience ultimately led to the need to create the secular state, not in opposition to religion, but in partnership with it. Seidentop argues that it is our ignorance of the historical reality of ancient Greece and Rome, plus a distorted view of the history of the development of the church, that has led to a misunderstanding of the connection between Christianity and the secular state.


        “What is the crux of secularism?  It is that belief in an underlying or moral equality of humans 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.  That belief is summarized in the central value of classical liberalism: the commitment to ‘equal liberty’.  Is this indifference or non-belief? Not at all. It rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and moral agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions. It puts a premium on conscience rather than the ‘blind’ following of rules. It joins rights with duties to others.


        “This is also the central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity.  It stands out from St Paul’s contrast between ‘Christian liberty’ and observance of the Jewish law. Enforced belief was, for Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in its first centuries Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms – a contrast to the early spread of Islam.


        “When placed against this background, secularism does not mean non-belief or indifference. It is not without moral content. Certainly secularism is not a neutral or ‘value-free’ framework, as the language of contemporary social scientists at times suggests. Rather, secularism identifies the conditions in which authentic beliefs should be formed and defended. It provides the gateway to beliefs properly so called, making it possible to distinguish inner conviction from mere external conformity.” P. 361


        The implications of Siedentop’s theory are profound.  It explains why native people in the Arab world and in Asia might not see western impositions of democracy as a beneficent act.  By giving the history of the development of the church and secular liberalism, Siedentop makes it easy to understand different cultures still attached to family or tribal structures, and even those who still worship their dead family members.


        As Ho Chi Minh wrote: “C’est pourquoi, toute mission civilisatricequ’elle soit destinée aux Antilles, á Madagascar, á l’Indochine, á Tahiti – a toujours comme remorqueuse une mission dite d’évangélisation.”[1]


        This means that native populations, whether in the Middle East or Asia, may not see Western Liberalism and the secular state as neutral entities.  This is not to say that the United States should stop trying to promote democracy as the best way to organize a society, it just means that it should not be done by force without expecting significant and continuous blowback.



[1] “This is why, all civilizing undertakings – whether in the Antilles, Madagascar, Indochina or Tahiti – always have in tow a so-called evangelizing mission.” Nguyên-Aï-Quôc (Ho Chi Minh pseudonym) in The Case Against French Colonization, p. 95.