Inventing the Individual

While I was in Singapore last month I spent the better part of an afternoon browsing the Kinokuniya bookstore. One of the books that stood out to me was Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual. It’s subtitle, The Origins of Western Liberalism, frames the focus on the book.

Part of what I find engaging about books like this is how they challenge things you presume to be first principles. It’s why I enjoyed so much of the reading, if not always the classes, in college. In this case Siedentop tells a history that stretches from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. Throughout he shows how the modern notion of an individual was built through centuries of change.

While much of the book focuses on Christianity and the Catholic church it does so in a historical, rather than religious, sense. A theology book it is, thankfully, not.

It’s helpful to understand that for ancient Greeks and Romans the starting point of identity was not the self. Individualism was not how society centered itself. Instead the center of power, prestige, and citizenship was the family. And prime amidst that was the father.

The ancient family was, in many ways, a church unto itself. The father represented all his ancestors and served a role that was one part priest and one part magistrate. Legislation tended to stop at the property of the family while the eldest son inherited the wealth, power, and of course ancestors of his father.

This started to shift during the later years of the BC era. It was centuries, though, before we got to the type of individualism that informed the political or artistic movements of the 1400s and onward.

There are three things that most stood out to me when reading back over my notes on the book. They’re ideological shifts that made sense as soon as I read them, but ones I’d never thought of in such a clear way as Siedentop puts it.

Inherited Power

As mentioned above, family and inheritance played a large role in ancient identity and power. That set a foundation in which leadership, wealth, and power were hereditary. The assumption for much of how society operated was that inequality was natural and people had natural roles to fill. Even something as basic to us as the exercise of reason was presumed to be only possessed by a few.

The early Christian church had a very different starting assumption. For them the focus was on equality. It was vital to the faith that all souls could have a relationship with God. So they needed to subvert the established, ancient societal order.

But Christian priests, particularly in later years, had a lot of local power. The church needed to ensure that didn’t become hereditary local power and wealth. Otherwise priests, and the inequality surrounding their position and family, would undercut the message of The Bible. By disallowing marriage and procreation among the clergy the church was also able to ensure power and authority remained in the hands of the church itself rather than in bloodlines. They preserved a fundamental assumption of equality and avoided the trappings of inherited power.

The Value of Work

When your society is built around inherited wealth and power work comes to take on an interesting meaning. When wealth is inherited work can become something that’s disregarded. It’s what those without strong families have to do. It’s not necessarily a value in itself.

Monasticism helped shift this narrative and rehabilitate work. It made work and labor less servile and gave it a renewed dignity. The early monks felt that personal salvation was a laborious, lifetime quest. And in many ways they laid the groundwork for later ideas like the Protestant work ethic.

Reason and Rationality

From 1000 to 1300 the papacy initiated a host of changes that were long underestimated but, at their core, were revolutionary. One of those that Siedentop emphasizes is the democratization of reason. For Greeks and Romans, Reason (often personified by the god Apollo) was something that used people; it was not evenly distributed in society nor was rationality thought to be available to all.

By the twelfth century reason began to lose this aristocratic heritage. It became seen as an attribute of any individual. And, notably for the church, it enabled people to build a personal relationship with a deity rather than an ancient and tribal one. The democratization served the church’s immediate need as it enabled individuals to investigate their inner relationship with God. Over time this shift and movement of equality had far-reaching impact.

There’s more that I took away from the book (I have around 2,500 words worth of notes). But those are the three historical shifts I hope to remember and that I wanted to share.

Next on my reading list is Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom, a book that also focuses on individuals. I’ll have reading notes for that posted shortly.