Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop (Briefly Noted)

Richard M. Gamble

Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, by Larry Siedentop. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014, 434 pages, $35.00.

The accepted narrative sees political liberalism as the triumph of Enlightenment secularism over reactionary Christianity. Over against this, Oxford historian Larry Siedentop argues in favor of the religion of Jesus and Paul as the true origin of human emancipation from the constraints of antiquity. Modern liberty owes its existence to belief, he argues, not to unbelief. Christian teaching of “individual moral agency” gradually produced our now-familiar world of human agency, rights, equality, the private sphere, the inner claims of conscience, and political and social democracy. These are achievements under assault by Islamic fundamentalism and the West needs a moral rearmament of the kind available through a renewed European and American “self-understanding” that recovers Christianity’s place as the source of liberalism and secularism. After the first century, the new faith slowly eroded and replaced the ancient world built on family, clan, status, and aristocracy with the modern world of the state and the individual.

Siedentop’s story of “becoming” requires him to reinvent Christianity into a revolutionary movement of a kind the Apostle Paul (who gets the credit) would never have recognized. Siedentop’s version of Christianity sets the West on the road to universal human freedom, the brotherhood of man, the fatherhood of God, and the “new self” of the autonomous human will. Although he mentions Immanuel Kant only once, Siedentop projects a Kantian reading of Christianity, the individual, and morality back across the centuries in his search for origins. This is an ambitious, sweeping, and dramatic survey of two thousand years of history populated with generations always standing on the “brink” of some great change. He tries, unsuccessfully, to preempt complaints about the deeply embedded Whiggism of his story. On page after page, he indulges in a reading of the past where precursors “lurk” and “foreshadow” the modern West, where “anticipations” of the future await their moment, where revolutions lie just around the corner. By approaching the past at every step as a place “pregnant with the future” and where “seeds” lay hidden except to the eye of the discerning philosophical historian, Siedentop guarantees that neither he nor his reader ever confronts Christianity or the past in general on its own terms. This is teleological history that instrumentalizes Christianity for the purposes of present action and not for the purposes of cultivating historical consciousness.

Richard M. Gamble is Anna Margaret Ross Alexander professor of history and political science and associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November 2015.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: November 2015

Jonah's Baptism

Also in this issue

Jonah’s Baptism

Divine Covenants and Moral Order by David VanDrunen

A Clarification of the Review of Divine Covenants and Moral Order by David VanDrunen

Insightful Fool’s Talk: A Review Article

Interpreting the Prophets by Aaron Chalmers: A Review Article

To Persuade or Not to Persuade: A Review Article

Cowper’s Grave

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church