November 30, 2014


In a Fragmented Age, Spotlighting the Core of What Unites Us (Peter Berkowitz, November 30, 2014, RCP)

A better understanding of how we are united by the conviction that human beings are by nature free and equal would encourage greater respect for the divisions that are bound to continue to animate our politics.

One achievement of Larry Siedentop's "Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism" is to bring into focus an unexpected but decisive source of our core principles. An emeritus fellow of Keble College, Oxford, Siedentop is a distinguished student of the history of European political thought. He brings to his new book special expertise in the great 19th century French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that "equality of conditions" was the defining feature of the modern era and that the vibrancy and stability of democracy in America owe much to the vitality of religion in America. 

At once scholarly and readable, "Inventing the Individual," in effect, takes these Tocquevillian arguments as its point of departure. Siedentop will find little opposition to his assertion that Western civilization is marked by liberalism -- that is, the politics of individual freedom and human equality.

But in sharp opposition to conventional wisdom, Siedentop denies that Western liberalism arose in the 15th century with the Renaissance's throwing off of the shackles of the Middle Ages and its recovery of classical Greek and Roman thought. Nor does he think that the 17th century social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke ushered in the era of the individual. Nor, despite the Enlightenment's pretensions to have finally and fully liberated the human mind, does he credit 18th century European thought with establishing that political life must respect the equal worth of every person.

Although each of these represented watershed moments, Siedentop maintains that organized religion -- the very force from which the Renaissance, social contract theory, and especially the Enlightenment presumed to liberate humanity -- placed the individual front and center and made him the fundamental unit of political life. It was Christianity, according to Siedentop, that introduced of the idea of the moral equality of individuals. And it was this faith that revolutionized social and political life in the West and continues to provide the foundation of liberal democracy in America and around the world.

Posted by at November 30, 2014 6:41 PM

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