Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins ofWestern Liberalism, Harvard, 2013
Europe, Larry Siedentop says, is in the middle of an “undeclared civil war.” The war pits religion against secularism and relies heavily on stereotypes on both sides – religion is caricatured as obscurantist and intolerant, secularism as lacking any sustaining foundational belief. What has brought the war about, according to Siedentop, is a partial and wrong-headed way of narrating the history of Western civilization – we are, he says, “victims of our own historiography.” The fault can be seen in the summary names we apply to the supposed periods of this history: Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. What this scheme does, Siedentop argues, is 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 modern Europe and the Middle Ages.” Classical civilization is idealized; the Middle Ages are treated as an interruption that ends when “scholasticism” is overcome, the dead hand of the Church is forced to loosen its grip, and classical ideals are reborn in the Renaissance; and, finally, the Enlightenment consolidates the gains of the Renaissance and definitively banishes the church from the main narrative of Western progress.
This is not the only way of telling the story, of course, though Siedentop sometimes writes as if it were. Romantic counter-cultures in the West have been rediscovering the Middle Ages for a long time. Nostalgic affection for the Middle Ages is one of the things that Romantic counter-cultures have in common – they have remembered a time, as Matthew Arnold says in Dover Beach, when “the Sea of Faith was…at the full and round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.” And they have seen in the Middle Ages, rather than in classical antiquity, what Spengler calls “the seed-time” of their civilization. Likewise, Siedentop makes no mention of the lively contemporary current of thought that that has argued that modernity is secularized Christianity, whether for good or ill. Think of German jurist Carl Schmitt asserting in the 1920’s in his book Political Theology that “all modern concepts of the theory of the state are secularized political concepts;” or of Nietzsche complaining that modernity is “a sickness” produced by Christianity; or of the religious turn in contemporary continental philosophy which finds philosophers like Alain Badio and Slavoj Žižek extolling the originality of St. Paul, and Jean Luc Nancy claiming that Christianity is the West’s “nervous system.”
But Siedentop does have a point. The names by which we divide and shape history represent what might be called our default view – the one to which we keep snapping back even after we’ve been exposed to cogent alternative accounts. And he’s certainly right that the conventional scheme misdirects our attention and hides the roots of modernity in the Christian church. The aim of Siedentop’s book is to refute this scheme and substitute one which acknowledges that liberal modernity is founded on moral intuitions that developed over centuries in the Church and could never have taken on its present appearance of a free-standing structure without this prolonged adolescence. Behind this undertaking he says are two great premises: first that ideas matter, and second that their implications may take many centuries to digest. Based on these premises, he has told the story of how the Incarnation leads to the modern, rights-bearing individual in a lucid and compelling way.
Siedentop’s book draws on the work of a relative handful of master historians: Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient city; Peter Brown on early Christianity; Harold Berman and Brian Tierney on the legal revolution of the high Middle Ages, and a few others. This gives his book a bold and clear outline. He begins in antiquity which he thinks has been badly misrepresented by the image of public-minded men pursuing rational debate on a perpetually sunny Agora. The societies of ancient Greece and Rome, he says, following Fustel de Coulanges, were founded on “the domestic religion, the family and the right of property” – the three intimately conjoined. The household was built around its domestic gods and its sacred fire which must never go out. In the famous image of Aeneas escaping Troy with his old father on his back and his young son behind him, his father, Anchises, carries the household gods, while the boy, Ascanius, holds the sacred fire. The father had a semi-divine status – as the representative of his ancestors he was, Siedentop says, “a god in preparation” - and his word was law. Society was a compact of families, not of individuals. Inequality of status was natural and inevitable. Slaves, in Siedentop’s quotation from Aristotle, were “living tools.”
The cult of the fire, the family, and the city gave the human person a meaning only in relation to a certain place and its net of relationships. Siedentop reproduces a telling quotation from Fustel de Coulanges on the relation of the ancient citizen to his city:
Let him leave its sacred walls, let him pass the sacred limits of its territory, and he no longer finds for himself either a religion or a social tie of any kind. Everywhere else except in his own country he is outside the regular life and the law, everywhere he is without a god, and shut out from all moral life. There alone he enjoys his dignity as a man, and his duties. Only there can he be a man.
No wonder that Aristotle says the life of the citizen is the only life worth living. It was the only role in which one could have full standing. The Christian, on the other hand, could say, with Origen: “We know of the existence in each city of another sort of country, created by the Word of God.” This was exactly what anti-Christians like Celsus objected to: that Christians wouldn’t sacrifice to the gods of the city because their allegiance was elsewhere. Knowledge of “another sort of country” conferred a potentially universal citizenship, valid wherever God’s writ ran.
“Natural inequality”, Siedentop says, structured the Greek world-view, binding together nature and culture. Every being had a purpose (telos) and a place in the great chain of being. Siedentop thinks that this is why the ancient astronomer Aristarchus’s demonstration that the planets revolve around the sun was put on the shelf for the better part of two millennia, until Copernicus revived it. Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose ideas prevailed, preferred the image of a rationally organized hierarchy of nested spheres made of a perfected “fifth element” called quintessence. Nature was a harmonious and and hierarchical whole pervaded by a Reason or Logos which the philosopher could discern. Each thing sought its proper end – each thing had its proper form.
The world-view of the Hebrew Bible was utterly different, as has been said many times. Siedentop’s way of expressing the difference is to say that, in the Biblical understanding, “an act of submission [is] the precondition of knowledge.” Obedience, not philosophical inquiry, leads to understanding. Abraham, “the father of faith,” does what he’s told, even when it offends reason. Wisdom is to discern, not deduce the Word of God. This world-view burst into the classical milieu in the form of the Christian claim that this Word had become flesh and walked the earth as a man. In the Incarnation, with its idea of “God with us”, Siedentop says, lie “the roots of Christian egalitarianism.” He explores the idea through the letters of the apostle Paul. Paul’s conception of the Christ overturns natural inequality because it is based on “transparency” i.e. “that we can and should see ourselves in others and others in ourselves” – an absurd idea if one believes, with Aristotle, that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Paul’s assertion that we are “one in Christ” engenders conscience as an inner space in which one realizes a relationship to God in Christ and Christ in one another. It undermines the primacy of social categories which assign our roles, statuses and duties. In Siedentop’sterms, “an ontological foundation” is being laid for that previously unheard of being that we call the individual – someone who has dignity, standing, and, eventually, rights that do not derive from his birth, station, or country.
Another way in which Siedentop dramatizes the difference of Paul and proto-Christianity from its classical milieu is to contrast its imagery of descent with the Platonic imagery of ascent. In the understanding that Christianity shares with Judaism, God condescends to man in his own time and in his own mysterious manner. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord through the mouth of Isaiah. He comes down, he enters, and his presence is sensed within. Plato, in Siedentop’s account, emphasizes “rational ascent…climbing a mountain that [leads] away from unreliable sense impressions to certain knowledge.” The philosopher accomplishes something of which his own rational faculties make him capable. The Christian waits on the Lord. To simplify a little – the philosopher ascends to the light, the Christian attends in the dark. In Siedentop’s view, the difference individualizes the believer who depends on personal inspiration, rather than following a demanding but predictable path to wisdom. Ancient reason, he says, is “coercive” – it commands assent by its objective character – Christianity veils the ways of the Lord in mystery.
Siedentop traces the progress of the Christian idea, first of all, as it undermines ancient religiosity. Here, for example, is the bracing rhetoric of Tertullian, a second century bishop in Carthage in North Africa:
I am fully convinced that the solemn ceremonies and secrete rites of idolatry build up credence and prestige for themselves by means of their pretentious magnificence – and by the fees that are charged. For God, being the creator of the whole universe, is in no need of smells or of blood. That is the fodder of petty demons; we subdue them; we put them to daily disgrace; we drive them out of people as multitudes can testify.
A second effect is the creation of the Church. One thinks of French theologian Alfred Loisy’s famous witticism that what Jesus proclaimed was the Kingdom, but what arrived was the Church. Siedentop is not so interested in the irony as he is in what is unique about this new institution and the way in which it ruptures and divides political power. In the ancient city the chief magistrate had been as much priest as politician – the first duty of the archon in Athens, and the consul in Rome, was to offer sacrifices to the city’s gods. The paterfamilias was equally a priest of the domestic cult. The church divided authority, leading Pope Gelasius I at the end of the fifth century to proclaim the doctrine of the two powers or “two swords” which allotted power between the spiritual and temporal realms represented by the Pope and the Emperor. Gelasius did not challenge the Emperor’s supremacy as ruler, but one stills gets hints in his letter to the Emperor Anastasius in 494 of the fuller doctrine of papal power that will follow five hundred years later:
There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation... And if it is fitting that the hearts of the faithful should submit to all priests in general who properly administer divine affairs, how much the more is obedience due to the bishop of that see [Rome] which the Most High ordained to be above all others, and which is consequently dutifully honored by the devotion of the whole Church.
The church reorganized Europe. In the years before the Roman Empire disintegrated, Siedentop says:
Christians…occupied important positions in the Roman administration, at the centre and in the provinces. Christians were to be found even among high officers in the army. The church, moreover, acquired rich benefactors, and the largest episcopal sees developed elaborate welfare organizations. Indeed, they amounted to mini-welfare through their provision for poorer members. Bishops were fast becoming important civic figures.
The civic importance of the Church increased with the Empire’s collapse. Gradually the old Roman urbs with its citizens was overlaid and replaced by a new civitas – a gathering of souls in the province of a bishop.
The period following the end of Rome’s empire is sometimes called the Dark Ages, but this is part of the historical scheme which Siedentop finds so misleading – the classical light goes out until it is rekindled at the Renaissance. What he sees is the gradual Christianization of Europe – a process comprised of two movements. Christianity is transforming vernacular culture while at the same time being itself transformed. A favourite story of mine, which illustrates this double movement, concerns Clovis I, a convert to Christianity, who was king of the Franks between 481 and 511. One day the bishop Reims, who was instructing him in the doctrines of Christianity, described the death of Christ. Clovis, as the bishop proceeded, became uncontrollably excited and at last jumped up from his seat and cried out: "Had I been there with my brave Franks I would have avenged His wrongs." Peter Brown in his The Rise of Christendom, gives the example of the assimilation of the Mass to the tradition of offering a sacred meal to the ancestors. “Only in the 7th century,” Brown says, “did the Eucharist lose the quality of a ‘meal’ relayed from the family to the dead. [Only then did] the Mass [come] to be spoken of as a sacrifice which only a priest could offer.”
The story of how Christianity was assimilated to the cultures of Europe, even as it was assimilating them, and of how it assumed political power, even as it was transforming the way this power accounted for itself, can be told as a story of loss – the story of how a Kingdom “not of this world” as Jesus says in the Gospel of John was gradually made the blueprint of an earthly city and thus denatured. Ivan Illich tells the story this way in The Rivers North of the Future. In summarizing, I’ll oversimplify, but Illich, broadly speaking, is interested in how the Christian inspiration ultimately gives birth to a rule-fixated regime in which administered care masquerades as love, and he treats the history of the church as a series of steps on this way. Siedentop tells what could almost be said to be the opposite story. In his version, the Church pioneers and effectively institutionalizes all the key ideas which make modernity worthy of admiration and protection: science, equality and the rule of law. If he sees any shadow, he says little about it, and this maybe because his ultimate interest is not in the Gospel but in political liberalism. But this is a question best addressed at the end of my review.
Siedentop gives any interesting account of the time of Charlemagne, and the ways in which “the Carolingian renaissance,” as it’s sometimes called, faced in two directions, combining new elements of Christianization with a revival of empire. Charlemagne was rebuked by his main clerical advisor Alcuin for attempting to convert the Saxons by force – during one of these campaigns 4500 Saxons were beheaded in a town near Bremen – but Charlemagne also showed a keen solicitude for the Christian faith of his people, once refusing to allow children to be baptized in the church at Aachen, his imperial capital, when he discovered that their parents could not properly recite the Creed and the Lord’s prayer. I learned from Siedentop that things I would have placed two hundred years later were already happening during the Carolingian period. For example, during the reign of one of Charlemagne’s successors, Charles the Bald, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was already framing a view of marriage which, following Illich, I had thought originated in the years around 1100. Hincmar, Siedentop writes, was “among the first to proclaim marriage a sacrament, a voluntary and permanent union between two individuals or ‘souls’ blessed by the church.” When the King of Lorraine attempted to set aside his wife, Hincmar blocked him and won the support of Pope Nicholas I for his actions. Hincmar also argued, ahead of his time, that “kings ought to be submitted to those who anoint them.” A just king, he allowed, answers only to God, but an unjust king “must be judged by the bishops who sit on the throne of God.” This already goes a little further than Gelasius who had claimed supremacy only in “divine affairs.”
What Hincmar began reached full expression at the time of Gregory VII, who was Pope between 1073 and 1085. This was the time of the so-called “investiture” controversy whose basic issue concerned the appointment of bishops. The church at this time was deeply entangled in the world. Rulers appointed bishops, church offices were bought and sold, and, with a mostly uncelibate clergy, there was a fear that some of these offices might become hereditary. Gregory was the spear-point of a movement to withdraw the church from these local involvements and assert its spiritual supremacy. One can see the scale of his ambition in his Dictatus Papae (Dictates of the Pope), promulgated in 1075. In this document he proclaims, among other things, that “the Roman bishop alone is by right called universal,” that “he alone may depose and reinstate bishops,” that “to him alone is it permitted to make new laws according to the needs of the times,” and that “he along may depose emperors.” According to this doctrine which achieves its first articulation in Gregory’s Dictates, a new kind of sovereignty, a plenitudo potestatis (a plenitude of power) is inherent in the papacy. It received its mature expression during the reign of Innocent the III (1198-1216). He declared himself “the representative of Christ, the successor of Peter, the anointed of the Lord…set midway between God and man, below God but above man, less than God but more than man, judging all other men, but himself judged by none.”
Siedentop endorses legal historian Harold Berman’s claim that the papal revolution, so called, was the first European revolution. What it accomplished, according to Siedentop, was, first of all, a clarification of political ideas. Western Europe was “obliged to move beyond the ambiguities of a conception of law that mingled (and confused) customary practice, legislative enactments and moral principles.” Law, one might say, was “disembedded,” using the term in the sense in which Karl Polanyi used it to describe the later abstraction of “the economy” from the hodgepodge of practices and beliefs that constitute a way of life. Under the banner of papal monarchy, the church became a new kind of entity – sovereign (“judging all…judged by none”), formally constituted, law-governed. For Siedentop, this was a crucial step in the process which he describes as the transformation of a moral status – a soul equal to other souls – into a social role. Papal sovereignty implied a radical new kind of equality, the equal subjection of all to the Pope, and, by implication, to no one else. Hobbes in his Leviathan will later introduce the same idea into modern liberal political thought. Secular rulers took notice, Siedentop says. Papal power was something they “envied, resented and learned from.” What they learned above all was to think of law not as the manifestation of something that already exists in nature or culture but rather as the expression of a sovereign will, as in Gregory VII’s claimed right “to make new laws according to the needs of the times.” The sovereignty asserted by the Papacy became, for secular rulers, a means of centralizing and consolidating power.
The thread that runs through Siedentop’s book is the idea I mentioned above of a moral status being gradually transformed into a social role – “Christian moral beliefs,” he says in summary, are “the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.” Another crucial epoch in his story is the codification of canon law, i.e. church law, first by the monk Gratian in his Decretum Gratiani ( app. 1150) and then by his successors who became know as “decretists.” Canon law, Siedentop says, develops around a new theory of justice, a theory resting on the assumption of moral equality. He cites, in evidence, the very first sentence of Gratian’s Decretum: “Natural law is what is contained in the Law and the Gospel by which each is to do to another what he wants done to himself and forbidden to do to another what he doesn’t want done to himself.” This is interesting because it makes equality and reciprocity the wellsprings of justice, but also because it claims something which has its basis in revelation (the Law and the Gospel) as natural. Gratian and the Decretists retained the term natural law from ancient philosophy but gave it a completely different twist. The ancients had seen natural law as the expression of nature’s orderly, rational and harmonious structure in which everything had its appointed place and destination. The canonists were more concerned with human nature. They argued that all humans have an intrinsic moral nature which confers on each one certain claims, claims which are pre-social and prior to all custom or positive law. Rights are inherent in the individual as an element of his or her nature. A quotation Siedentop uses from historian Brian Tierney makes the difference clear: “For some of the Stoics and for Cicero there was a force in man through which he could discern jus naturale, the objective natural law that pervaded the whole universe, but for the canonists jus natural itself could be defined as a subjective force or faculty or power or ability inherent in human persons.”
Another innovation taking place in the church at his time was the elaboration of a new kind of corporation law. Siedentop summarizes the four unprecedented elements he thinks that the canonists introduced as follows: 1) An association can be formed by the will of its prospective members – it doesn’t require the endorsement of “public authority.” 2) Any corporation can create law and exercise authority over its members. 3) Corporations act not just through representatives, they also embody a collective will which must consent to be represented. 4) The property of a corporation is held in common. Taken together these four changes amount to a revolution, with power now seen as inhering in individual wills, whereas before it was seen to belong to some symbolic personification of the whole – the head which speaks for and directs the body, the king who is his kingdom. Power has begun to derive from the base rather than apex of the social pyramid, and a whole new theory of representation, as delegation rather than personification, has been initiated. Canon law, in Siedentop’s view, writes a first constitution for civil society.
Siedentop sees many other ways in which the Church and the milieu it created were the incubator of liberal modernity. Monasticism introduces a new form of self-governing community based on voluntary obedience and conscience. The revolution of the towns in the later Middle Ages constitutes a further step in the evolution of individualism, with citizens writing charters and “swearing the commune” and creating new legal entities with defined relations with their lord or king. Of particular note is Siedentop’s view of the church as the nursery of science. Even in the “the dark ages,” Siedentop writes, the church was at work “stripping intentionality out of the physical world,” by banishing spirits and exalting the individual will over the dark powers of the natural world. Think of the confidence with which Tertullian speaks of disgracing and driving out demons in the passage I quoted above. A systematic attempt was made to withdraw human projections and to distinguish what is in nature from what is in us. The clergy, for example, introduced the distinction between intentional and involuntary acts into the criminal law. “In the seventh century,” Siedentop says, ‘the clergy-dominated Council of Toledo tried to replace verdicts based physical combat or oaths sworn by kinsmen with a careful search for evidence.”
Siedentop’s discussion of science and the church culminates in the long section of the book on nominalism. Nominalism, roughly speaking, is the view that one begins to find in Peter Abelard that names and classes are merely a convenient abridgement without inherent reality – “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. The opposite is realism, Plato being the arch-realist with his view that things on earth follow and imitate a substantial underlying pattern or archetype which he calls their Form. Aquinas, with his revival of Aristotle, is the epitome of realism in the Middle Ages. He is opposed by the largely Franciscan tradition than runs from Bonventure through Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. According to Siedentop, whose sympathies are clearly with the nominalists, these Franciscans “detected [in Aquinas] a residue of the ancient assumption that reason could ‘command’ reality and that, out of its resources, reason could demonstrate the deepest metaphysical and moral truths. In Franciscan eyes this assumption was arrogant. It elevated human fiat above the facts of moral experience, the complexity of human motivation and dependence on the truth of grace.” For Siedentop this is the nub of a question that goes back to Paul. Against the confidence of ancient philosophy which believed itself able to discern the true nature of things, Paul asserts that he “count[s] all things a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and says that he “no longer lives but Christ lives in [him.]” Augustine and Pelagius revisit the same issue. Whatever he may actually have taught, about which there has been some revisionism in modern scholarship, Augustine believed Pelagius’ doctrine to be that humans can achieve perfection by their own efforts. Siedentop continues: “For Augustine…Pelagius’s doctrine was dangerously oversimplified. Pelagius misunderstood the implication of free will. He assumed Christians could simply decide to be good and become so. In Augustine’s eyes this view was contaminated by ancient rationalism, by the assumption claimed that reason on its own could motivate.” The same stakes divide the nominalists from the realists: the freedom of God is pitted against the rationality of God. Is there an inherent and evident order in things with which we can align ourselves and from which we which we can infer something of the nature of God? Or are the ways of God, as Isaiah says, “unsearchable”? William of Ockham takes the latter view. “Only faith gives us access to theological truths.” Ockham says. “The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.”
The key role of nominalism in the creation of modern science has often been noted in contemporary histories. By denying universals and refusing to see a normative order in nature, a way was opened to study phenomena in what Duns Scotus called their haecceitas, their “thisness,” free from any idea of their intrinsic purpose. Critical histories treat this as a step on the road to a regime of “instrumental reason” – the world at our disposal. Siedentop sees it as another step in the liberation of the individual under the influence of Christian moral beliefs. In this case the Franciscan commitment to the unconstrained freedom of God purges purposes and symbolic meanings from nature and, thereby, allows people to begin to see their knowledge of the world as constructive – something they make, rather than something they are given – as well as to see nature as a realm of indifferent facts.
Siedentop concludes his story at the brink of the Reformation with an account of how “the conciliar movement” failed to rein in the pretensions of papal monarchy and thus prevent the dismembering of the church. (The conciliarists, applying the principles that had been elaborated in canon law, argued that the Church, as a corporation, ought to be governed by general church councils able to express the will of its members rather than by papal diktat.) By the end he has argued convincingly that all the crucial elements of modernity were embryonically present in the church: the sovereignty on which the modern state insists has its roots in the papal revolution; the constitution which governs the modern state descends from the church’s reconstitution of itself as a legal entity beginning in Gregory VII’s time; the comprehensive rule of law was first practiced in the church; modern civil society is traceable to innovations in the way canon law conceived corporations; popular sovereignty and the inherent right of individuals have their source in the way the canonists reconceived law; modern science rest on the prolonged disenchantment of nature that was carried out in the church. All this, Siedentop says, is a consequence of a conception of God which provided “an ontological foundation” for the individual, first as a moral status, and then, centuries later, as the primary social role. “Christian moral beliefs,” he writes in a quotation I cited earlier, “emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.”
Siedentop’s demonstration of the Christian roots of modernity is intended, as I said at the outset, as in intervention in what he takes to be Europe’s “undeclared civil war” between religion and secularism. (He gives secularism two primary definitions: first the separation of a private realm from the public sphere, and, second, the idea freedom a prerequisite of moral conduct because conduct is only authentically moral when it’s freely chosen.) He regards this war as both tragic and unnecessary.
[It is] tragic because by identifying secularism with non-belief, with indifference and materialism, it deprives Europe of moral authority, playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without conviction. It is unnecessary because it rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of secularism. Properly understood secularism can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement, Christianity’s gift to the world, ideas and practices which have often been turned against ‘excesses’ of the Christian church itself.
Belief in equal liberty for all is not “non-belief,” he says, because “it rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and formal agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions.”
Siedentop’s book is a remarkable achievement. Drawing on the best classic and contemporary historical sources, he has shaped a lucid and readable narrative that convincingly argues its main, and often reiterated point. To the extent that Western modernity has a divided soul, represented by the competing origin stories – Athens v. Jerusalem - that characterize its two cultures, I would say that Siedentop has thrown an impressive weight on the side of Jerusalem. But, that said, I find his conclusion most curious. He argues that liberalism is of Christian derivation, but then fails to ask whether it in any way depends on the truth of Christianity. Once one has ascended to the “firm belief that to be a human means being a rational and…free [and responsible] chooser,” one can apparently kick away the ladder without falling rudely back to earth. But how can “a conception of God” provide an “ontological foundation” if one no longer has such a conception? Where then is the foundation? How can secularism be said to be a belief, or to rest on a belief, if that belief is no longer believed? Perhaps Siedentop sees liberalism on the analogy of a child who could not have grown up without his Christian parents but who is now fully grown and fully independent. Christianity would then be a superseded historical stage – the pupal phase, as it were, in the life of the liberal butterfly – deserving of honour on this account and useful in fending off charges that liberalism doesn’t believe anything – we were once Christians, after all – but serving no further purpose. But Siedentop doesn’t make this argument. He makes no argument at all, just taking it as read that establishing a Christian genealogy for liberalism will show that liberalism is a belief. My point is not that liberalism is defenceless and without grounds, even if that might be so, but that, if one attempts Siedentop’s defence, certain questions seem to follow about the status of faith in the argument.
A second curious thing about the book is its failure to engage with the many other thinkers who have worked some of the same ground. “The place of Christianity in the rise of Western modernity,” as Charles Taylor notes, “has been under discussion for more than a century.” Taylor himself has weighed in at just under nine hundred dense pages in his A Secular Age, a book Siedentop mentions only passing. The claim I cited earlier from Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” has provoked a huge literature all by itself. The religious turn in continental philosophy has added the voices of, among others, Alain Badiou, Slajoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben and Jean Luc Nancy. Typical is Nancy’s statement which I also cited above that Christianity is “the nervous system of Europe.” The point is not that Siedentop should have addressed each and every writer who has put forward a position on the religious roots of secular society. That would have been impossible, and, in any case, I think that his book benefits from its clean, uncluttered line of argument. I wouldn’t have wanted him to be forever stopping to acknowledge what x, y, or z may have said to the contrary. What I would have liked, though, is some acknowledgement that his topic has been, as Taylor says, “under discussion”, and that some of this discussion treats secularization as a problematic phenomenon and not just as the heroic tale of equality rising.
Let’s start with the term secularism itself. Siedentop treats it as an unqualified good. Indeed at one point he chides Benedict XVI whom he otherwise praises “as a most learned Pope” for encouraging the faithful to “combat secularism.” The implication is that if the Pope had consulted his own “learning”, or Siedentop’s book had it had it available, he would have seen that secularism is Christianity, or as much of it as one would ever want. But clearly this is not Benedict’s view. Secularism for him means hostility to religion and the pretension that one can live without it. Benedict doesn’t believe that one can. The text that come to mind for me – I’m not quoting Benedict – is the parable of the unclean spirit. “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man,” Jesus says, “it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” Perhaps contemporary persons, believing themselves free of religion, fail to notice their own religiosity because it takes degenerate and apparently “secular” forms. They are then like the man whose “last state” was “worse than his first” – they are prey to what Jacques Ellul calls “the new demons” but they can’t do anything about it because they don’t believe in demons.
What I am saying here is that Siedentop seems simply to have ducked the question of religion – what is it and where is it, exactly? If modern society was made in and by the Christian church, and the secular is therefore a religious phenomenon, then doesn’t one have to somehow get back to this original matrix if one wants to change or even understand the society we are now living in? If the Church is the medium that produced the West – its origin and its only unity – then doesn’t this have important implications that go beyond just making it easier to defend liberalism against charges of nihilism, decadence and lack of conviction?
This brings me to a final point. Siedentop seems to see remarkably few shadows in his story of ascendant liberalism. In this respect he seems, as I said before, almost the precise opposite of Ivan Illich and his argument that the modern West is a perversion of Christianity. Modernity, for Illich, is faith brought under institutional control and made to perform reliably and punctually, hope turned into managed expectation, and charity made the license for a covert exercise of a type of power more insidious than mere domination. He argues this view in The Rivers North of the Future, a book I made out of interviews with him late in his life, and I won’t go further into his argument here. The point is that the Gospel changes when institutionalized. Faith, Paul says, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” - a curious statement when one thinks about it because it says, in effect, the faith is the evidence. What happens when this faith becomes the justification for a church which believes itself able to become, as the Council of Trent claimed “a perfect society” and this church institutes a regulation of life so comprehensive that it becomes the template for the modern state? Siedentop sees that the church is such a template, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in exploring the explosive or the shadowy side of this harnessing, so to say, of faith. Nor does he seem to think that the seemingly irresistible dynamism of our society has anything to do with its unrecognized Christian roots or its attempt to bring the Kingdom under sound administration. These are not criticisms, exactly. Siedentop’s genealogy is still instructive, even if it is uncritical, and I’m all for a more informed and more respectful view of all that was accomplished in the church. I just think that he has begged a lot of questions.