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Critiquing Liberalism from the Inside

Critiquing Liberalism from the Inside

Larry Siedentop’s doctoral thesis, written over fifty years ago, was on Joseph de Maistre and Maine de Biran. De Maistre is reasonably well known as, in Siedentop’s words, an “intransigent, anti–revolutionary and ultra–Catholic”. De Biran is rather less well known, best described as a “cautious liberal conservative”. The pairing of these figures gives an indication of the breadth (as well as the depth) of Siedentop’s mind.

Both breadth and depth are in evidence in his new book, Inventing the Individual, which traces the roots of Western liberalism and is discussed at length here. The book traces the emergence of the individual as a free and equal person from the ancient world though late antiquity, the growth of monasticism, the chaotic Merovingian world and Carolingian renaissance, Papal reformation and the ensuing canonist movement, all the way to the nominalism of late mediaeval Europe and the Renaissance. It is an extraordinarily sure footed performance, striking not only for its range but also its argument.

Siedentop makes a powerful case for Christian basis for those political virtues we either take for granted or ascribe wholeheartedly and without reflection to the Enlightenment. I put it to him when we meet in central London that he is swimming against some powerful intellectual currents in putting forward this narrative. He agrees without hesitation.

“Yes, I think that is fair. Some of it is just a hangover from anticlericalism (which was justified very often). But the thing was, in forming a position to limit the legitimate claims of the church these thinkers were themselves the product of a tradition. They drew on moral traditions that had been generated by Christianity and what they did in effect was turn them against certain claims of the church.”

The sentiment captures not only the spirit of Inventing the Individual – recognising the unnoticed grounds on which so many intellectual movements stand unaware – but of its author – critiquing those movements, gently and persistently, from the inside, rather than attacking them from without.

Siedentop was educated at a liberal arts college run by Dutch Reformed Church – “there was chapel every morning” – and then at Harvard, before his supervisor decided that “Isaiah Berlin was the man for me”, and he went to Oxford on a Marshall scholarship.

A summer in France, in 1956, when he first became interested in French thought, and a natural breadth of mind – “I’ve always found it very hard to judge between philosophy and history so in as far as possible I’ve tried to combined the two” – led to his doctoral studies and thereafter French political thought of the 18th and 19th centuries. This was a period when it was “dominated by Protestants”, intellectuals who were keen to defend and articulate the idea of a Christian Europe without simply resting on the traditions of the ancien regime – and in whose steps Siedentop feels he treads. “I began to explore new ways of defending and understanding the Christian formation of Europe and I supposed in a way that’s what I’ve tried to continue.”

I am curious to examine the philosophical side of this coin also. Is he simply making a historical case or a normative one also? Christianity may have provided the foundations for Western liberalism but does that mean Western liberalism needs Christianity to survive?

“That’s a very good question,” he answers laughing. “I wish I knew the answer.” Tentatively, he offers one. “The risk is that if liberalism loses these metaphysical foundations, you get not liberal democracy as an outcome but populist democracy; you get equality with much less liberty.”

Siedentop is in no way apocalyptic but he has concerns that too many liberals have for too long been deaf to. “To what extent the social order rests on shared beliefs?” he asks. The question is neither rhetorical nor simple, and modern liberals have been avoiding it for too long, living as they do in the seemingly interminable shadow of societies that once demanded “complete conformity of belief”. We are afraid of shared belief because we have seen what enforced belief can do and have yet to see what the other end of the spectrum heralds.

We have loosened the ties that bind us to a dangerous degree, he suggests. “There is a great temptation to take a quasi–Marxist view and say that if a society is sufficiently prosperous… that will do the trick. I don’t agree with that.” The absence of what he sees as traditional identity markers – religion, family, constitution – poses a real problem to Europe and its constituent countries. British politicians’ eagerness to define precisely what Britishness entails is “a symptom of our plight”.

Does that mean that ‘Europe’ as an idea (and possibly as a project) cannot survive without Christianity? It would be “very fragile”, he responds, underlining again the need not necessarily for Christianity per se but for the sense of deep shared identity that Europe has, for so long, taken for granted and which unprecedented levels of migration are now calling into question.

He casts doubt over another sacred liberal object towards the end of our interview: human rights. The “inflation of the language of rights in last few decades is not doing a service to liberalism”, he says. There is a temptation to “redescribe all sorts of wants or preferences as rights”, a temptation that we seem too weak to resist but one that ultimately devalues the notion of a right.

No one could possibly question Siedentop’s liberal credentials. He may have written his thesis on de Maistre but he is not his political child. He critiques from the inside precisely because he thinks the democratic liberalism of the West is such a good system.

His critique, however, is marked by a recognition that democratic liberalism does not simply float in the air like some kind of political Laputa, the flying island Gulliver encounters in his travels. Equality and freedom do not come naturally to human beings. Inventing the Individual shows how they were achieved in Europe through Christian commitments that were slowly and sometimes accidentally instituted and embedded across the continent.

Out of sheer curiosity – I have not often spoken to political philosophers who are so alert and sympathetic to the formative influence of Christianity on Western politics – I ask him whether he is a Christian himself. He answers with another laugh and choosing his words carefully again, as he has through the entire interview, says, “Let’s say I’m a fellow traveller”.

Inventing the Indvidual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is published by Allen Lane

Image from Commons Wikimedia, available in the public domain.


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 22 April 2014


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