Inventing the individual

Book Cover:  Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western LiberalismInventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop is an interesting and challenging book.  

This short but highly ambitious book asks us to rethink the evolution of the ideas on which modern states are built. The author argues that the core of what is now our system of beliefs, liberalism, emerged much earlier than generally recognised, established not in the Renaissance but by the arguments of lawyers and philosophers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’.

Explaining that large parts of the world have  different belief systems to ours  – the book sets out to help us understand the origins of our own ideas as an important part of knowing who we are. He debates whether people who live in the nations once described as Christendom ‘seem to have lost their moral bearings’: We no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. There is little narrative sweep in our view of things. For better or worse, things have just happened to us. He says ‘we are in a competition of beliefs, whether we like it or not’.

The book begins with a look at the Greek and Roman world, and whether the modern conception of liberalism comes from Christianity.  He explains how Greek and Roman traditions merged with Christian teachings and then takes the reader through a tour of the subsequent ages. He shows how theological concepts such as charity went from being a theological idea to a common state of mind and expected action. At the end he asks, ‘If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’