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Home » Uncategorized » 20150710 Siedentop – Inventing the Individual

20150710 Siedentop – Inventing the Individual



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The history of Western civilization shows that contemporary notion of individual and his/her natural rights is not innate for human species, but rather process of long cultural development of the Western world based on Christianity. The common for all humanity approach is not individual, but rather family based, including family gods, family hierarchy, and rigid roles for everybody highly dependent on age, sex, and other mainly inborn parameters. The process of creation of idea of individual was highly dependent on separation of temporal and spiritual world developed by Christianity as consequence of feudal development in Western Europe with its interplaying multitude of entities both religious and secular none of which could obtain continuing dominance. This separation opened way for the idea of moral equality under god, that was core Christian believe, to expand into all areas of Western civilization prompting establishment of nation states and wide accepion of notions of individual and individual rights.


Prologue: What is the West About?

The answer to this question has to be based on two assumptions: The first assumption is that it should be based on the long view of moral and religious development that formed distinct Western attitude to key questions of what is moral center and highest value of civilization. The second assumption is that such believes are extremely important, actually more important than material basis of civilization. Author sees the key differentiation of the West from other civilizations in its positioning of individual at the center with direct connection to the god or nature with no middle man in between, leading to separation of state and temporal world with its necessarily hierarchical structure from spiritual world where all individuals are equal before the god. This separation in author’s opinion came from Christianity and eventually spilled over from spiritual area into material world creating civil society, democracy, and human rights.


The World of Antiquity:

  1. The Ancient Family 2. The Ancient City 3. The Ancient Cosmos

The ancient family as it developed from bands of hunter-gatherers was self-contained entity that included not only material self-sufficiency, but also complete spiritual structure including family specific gods, normally ancestors, usually believed to be actively involved in current affairs and capable rewarding or punishing people. The top man – father was the only controlling authority with direct connection to ancestors. Any person had value only as a member of the family with specific place in the structure and no value as individual whatsoever. The city emerged as conglomeration of families and as such had to have its own superstructure including its own gods who did not substitute family gods, but rather represented super family – hence making universe with some family gods more powerful than others and city-wide gods controlling and protecting the city as whole. From here came citizenship as form of belonging to superfamily of the city by the virtue of belonging to one of founding families of patricians. The plebeians were latecomers who joined city without family and therefore were not included in any of existing families, had no family altar, no ancestors, and consequently no gods.   This family based multilayered structure was based on philosophy of superiority of family and critical value of its competition with other families, including military competition that was a make or break activity with labor and commerce denigrated as inferior activity that could not add to the glory of the family or city. The ancient world was built on inequality of individuals within family and inequality of families within polity. The ancient Cosmos was built in the same way.


A Moral Revolution:

  1. The World Turned Upside Down: Paul 5. The Truth Within: Moral Equality. 6. Heroism Redefined. 7. A New Form of Association: Monasticism. 8. The Weakness of the Will: Augustine

This part is about moral revolution brought in by Christianity. It starts with discussion about Paul promoting new notion of human equality before god, most important it was the first time when moral equality was unrelated to the family and background. It was built on Jewish religions innovation: monotheism and nonlinear understanding of time as in contrast to usual cyclical understanding. The new relation between people and god created by Christianity was different from Jewish understanding of God as somewhat tribal leader of “chosen” people. It was expanded to all of humanity, creating direct relationship between god and any individual who wanted to accept it. Paul substituted natural inequality with new moral equality of all individuals. This part also traces development of Christianity in Roman Empire from initial rejection and martyrdom to increasing popularity. It traces formation of Monasticism as a new form of association completely egalitarian and, most important, separated from traditional family and its polytheism. Finally it discusses Augustine and his notions of complexity of human will as a motive force representing power of the soul distinct from intellect.


Towards the Idea of Fundamental Law:

  1. Shaping New Attitudes and Habits 10. Distinguishing Spiritual from Temporal Power 11. Barbarian Codes, Roman law and Christian Intuitions 12.The Carolingian Compromise

This part continues discussion about separation of spiritual and temporal power, stressing completely different approaches to temporal accommodation of human action. Even if an individual practically could not exist outside of his/her predefine station in life and had to act according to whatever wee existing rules of game, the spiritual power of this individual was making him/her equal with others in relationship to the god. Consequently author reviews in this part historical development up to the point of Carolingian Compromise, dividing these temporal and spiritual between feudal lords and kings and Christian elite of bishops and popes.


Europe Acquires its Identity:

  1. Why Feudalism did not recreate Ancient Slavery 14. Fostering the ‘Peace of God’ 15. The Papal Revolution: A Constitution for Europe? 16. Natural Law and Natural Rights

The analysis if Europe uniqueness rises an interesting question about slavery. Why medieval Europe did not have slavery, but rather used serfdom? The answer seems to be moral equality coming from Christianity with its equality of souls in combination with small farm method of agriculture. Author also points to difference between peasants uprisings from slaves revolt. The former were inclined to create representative governing bodies, while latter were directed to getting away. Another unusual characteristic was formation of professional clergy and separate distinct hierarchy in society dedicated to management of souls versus management of bodies by feudal authorities. This chapter also reviews contest between religion authority of pope Gregory and German Emperor Henry IV secular power. Amazing part of outcome was general accepion of the idea that king’s soul is not materially different from other souls and would be treated in similar way by god. The consequent popes and kings continued this contest eventually developing legal framework based on partial revival of Roman law and removal of a king from soul to god connection.


A New Model of Government:

  1. The Centralization and the New Sense of Justice 18. The Democratizing of Reason, 19. Steps towards the Creation of Nation-States, 20. Urban Insurrections

This part is about development of law by canon lawyers who promoted secular law defining violations of such law as something separate than sin, creating separate areas for material and spiritual controlling systems for human behavior. They also introduced four fundamental changes in corporate law:

  1. Any organized group can be corporation instead of corporate privileges being granted by king.
  2. Corporation could create its own laws for its members, unlike traditional Roman law created by public authority only
  3. Requirement of consent of members for decision-making meant change flow of authority from the bottom up.
  4. They rejected Roman approach “what pertains to a corporation does not pertain to its members” turning corporate property formally into common property of its members.

Then author describes long history of expansion of ideas of separation of material and spiritual spheres implemented by popes from 1000 to 1300 as democratization of reason leading to development of notion of natural rights with consequential formation of nation-states moving identity of state away from a king to population and territory. Finally it reviews long process of incorporation of urban centers into these states with equalizing effect on individual rights and important role in new entities of new class created during this process: property/market oriented middle class intermediate between old castes of feudal society.


The Birth Pangs of Modern liberty:

  1. Popular Aspirations and the Friars 22. The Defense of Egalitarian Moral Intuitions 23. God’s Freedom and Human Freedom Joined: Ockham 24. Struggling for Representative Government in the Church 25. Dispensing with the Renaissance

This is discussion about process through which egalitarian moral institutions created by Christianity permeated individual attitudes and believes, leading to development of notion of individual freedom and representative government tasked with and legitimized for protection of natural rights.


Epilogue: Christianity and Secularism

Here author makes point that secularism is pretty much natural product of Christianity and usual popular believe that Christianity consistently and fiercely fought against development and expansion of science is incorrect, practically ignoring historical record of development of these ideas. This misconception at least partially based on presentation of ancient world as secular, when in reality it was world of family specific gods / ancestors providing supernatural support for family members. Author believes that key feature of secularism is its believe in moral equality of humans resulting in their ability to make their own decisions and have opportunity for free actions. As such it could not possibly contradict individual decisions about religious believes and actions providing they are voluntary and are not forced in any way.


It is a very interesting and new for me approach to development of idea of individual as an entity separate and different from family, tribe, and such. I am not sure that I buy idea that only Christianity with its moral equality before god and separate spheres for temporal and spiritual was sole or even main source of this idea. I would rather think that this idea is natural development in any culture that occurs with development of bigger populations, wider markets, and, very important, increased mobility of people within some big enough territorial entity under unified military control over population. When scale getting big enough, there is no way that family structure with its family god would provide material and spiritual support for fast moving people in even relatively primitive market economy because number of contact, alliances, and transaction with huge diversity of people would require spiritual and legal environment capable to provide common ground acceptable for everybody, that could not be possibly done with family gods. In this environment the spiritual environment had to move with individual pretty much as Jewish god would move with Jewish merchant wherever this merchant would travel, even if there is no Jewish community, leave alone family structured Jewish community in the new place. It would be interesting to trace development of notion of individual in Eastern countries where influence of Christianity was minimal for example during vast and loosely controlled Mongolian empire of XIII – XIV centuries with tremendous movements of diverse people, goods, and services throughout huge territories. Anyway it seems that all cultures had concept of human as an inseparable part of bigger entity, while still recognizing that it as a separate thinking, feeling, and acting entity driven by internal forces.

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