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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism

The book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop, was published only a few weeks ago and already I bought it and read it. It is great because it includes so much. In only 363 pages of text (and about seventy more pages of notes and index), Siedentop explains the ethos of ancient Greco-Roman civilization, how it was affected by early Christianity, and how it developed for a thousand years during the Middle Ages until the early modern period. Three individuals are highlighted as especially important in originating and developing Western Individualistic Liberalism: Saint Paul, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and William of Ockham. The final chapter is perhaps the most thought-provoking, as it calls on Europeans and Americans today to understand our own heritage, and see that Christianity and Individualistic Liberalism developed together, and they cannot be separated. The anti-clerical Europeans who try to have liberalism without Christianity, and the fundamentalist Americans who want to have Christianity without liberalism, both err, and their error is the cause of a cultural civil war that weakens the West and makes us vulnerable to Islam. If they all knew more about the Middle Ages, then they would not make this mistake.

Though I highly recommend this book, I noticed a glaring absence: the Trinitarian doctrine that God is three Divine Persons in one Divine Nature. The word “person” or, in Greek, “hypostasis”, was debated and defined by medieval theologians. Originally, “hypostasis” or “person” meant “mask”, and implied that one was playing a part, which was somewhat deceptive, as in the word “hypocrite”. Though Jesus verbally attacked hypocrites, yet the religion He founded elevated hypostasis, or personhood, to a level of importance that it did not have in the ancient world. Though Siedentop could not possibly explain this without making his book inaccessible to all but a few scholars, yet he should have at least written a chapter about it.

Here are two important quotations from this book: “We have to reconsider the view that the Renaissance marked a decisive break in European history, separating a period of ignorance and superstition (the ‘middle ages’) from one of freedom and progress,” (page 336). “Liberalism rests on the moral assumptions provided by Christianity. It preserves Christian ontology without the metaphysics of salvation,” (page 338).