The Death of Sir Larry Siedentop

Culture - July 5, 2024

Sir Larry Siedentop the Anglo-American political philosopher has died. It is sad indeed that this fact will have been of concern to relatively few, especially to those who care about the history and culture of Europe.

Larry Siedentop was born in Chicago Illinois in 1936. He was an undergraduate at Hope College in Michigan, a school associated with the Reformed Church of America and went on to take his masters at Harvard. He won a Marshall scholarship given to “intellectually distinguished young Americans [and] their country’s future leaders” which allowed his to study at any university of his choice in the United Kingdom. He took his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford University under the supervision of Sir Isaiah Berlin the great advocate of humane British liberalism. He would carry some of Berlin with him in his interests and disposition for the rest of his career.

He was a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford from 1965 to 1968 but Keble College ,where he was appointed a fellow, was to be his home for the great part of his Oxford life. After retiring from Oxford, Siedentop was a visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Wassenaar, Queen Victoria Eugenia Professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and a visiting fellow in Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews.

Queen Elizabeth awarded him a CBE in 2004 and he was knighted in 2016.

The work for which he is best known  his third ,Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism was published in 2014. Other works in a similar vein had appeared before it such as Marcello Pera’s “Why we must call ourselves Christians” published in 2008. Tom Holland has had great success and notoriety with his  Dominion: The making of the western mind. Both a fine books and well worth seeking out but the depth, scholarship and sweep of Inventing the Individual make it a special book.

A life long secular liberal Siedentop wished to challenge many of the long accepted truisms of post Christian liberal history. The Whiggish interpretation had been that after a long dark period of medieval stagnation and superstition the rediscovery of the ideas of pagan classical antiquity had inspired first the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment giving birth to the new liberal democratic order. Siedentop instead says not only was not the idea of the Polis or Republic that gives birth to liberalism but that they could not. He is not the first to claim that St Paul invents Christianity but he is unusual in the central role he gives to the Pauline vision in forming what was until recently the commonly held anthropology of the West. In an article in the Financial Times he says

“Inequality remained the hallmark of the ancient patriarchal family. “Society” was understood as an association of families rather than of individuals. It was the Christian movement that began to challenge this understanding. Pauline belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God – the discovery of human freedom and its potential – created a point of view that would transform the meaning of “society”. This began to undercut traditional inequalities of status. It was nothing short of a moral revolution, and it laid the foundation for the social revolution that followed. The individual gradually displaced the family, tribe or caste as the basis of social organisation”

His narrative emphasises the long organic evolution of ideas throughout the middle ages through developments in canon law and conciliar theory that give rise ultimately to the ideas of constitutional government we find in Locke et at.  Natural law and natural rights theory have their origins in the Scholastics which we blossom in the great schools of Salamanca and Coimbra. He argues that it is in terrible religious wars post Reformation that drive the need for separation of Church and state and this drive end up in the virulent anticlericalism of the 18th century and it was that anticlericalism that gave rise to our ahistorical view of the development of the West.

Thomas Sowell often observes that one of the great errors of the left is the belief that somehow poverty is unnatural and if could could extirpate the exploiters and deconstruct power then man in a state of nature would flourish. The truth is that in the long sweep of human history poverty is the norm for all but a handful of people. What is unusual is prosperity and there is only one mechanism known to provide prosperity for ever larger numbers of people. What Siedentop gives a deep sense of is that our culture, liberal secular tolerant comes from a very specific history and what were very weird ideas that to us now seem banal. The unique moral value of the individual, the democracy of the Soul, are Christian ideas without which it is perhaps impossible to conceptualise the invention of liberal Europe. Our civilisation is not easy or accidental, it is a way unnatural or at least atypical. If more people today were to read this magisterial work we might be a sight more careful with the institutions we have been gifted by more than a thousand years of hard working out by our Christian ancestors.

In the prologue to the The Invention of the individual Siedentop poses a question “Is it mere coincidence that liberal secularism developed in the Christian west?” His answer is a clear and ringing No.