Books interview with Larry Siedentop: “What is distinctive about the west is that the organising social role is no longer the patriarchal family and instead the individual”

In a wide-ranging interview, Larry Siedentop talks to Matt Elton about his new study of the 'individual' through history and what can be done about the west's current "crisis of confidence"

Larry Siedentrop photographed for BBC History Magazine. (Image by Geraint Lewis)

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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What prompted you to write this book?

I think there is a crisis of confidence in the west that is progressive and has many sources: economic decline in comparison to other parts of the world, as well as, arguably, reduced political power and influence.

It seems to me that the idea that is central and distinctive in western history – that of liberalism – has had some bad innings of late. In Europe, it has become dismissed as market economics and in the US as extremism. Liberalism’s real central value and goal is encapsulated in the phrase ‘equal liberty’, which implies that there is a sphere in which individuals should be encouraged, and relied upon, to govern themselves. In contrast to much popular usage of the term, ‘liberalism’ isn’t just a free-for-all: it isn’t just a matter of not believing in anything.

What do we know about individual freedom in ancient Greece and Rome?

To be ‘free’ in those societies was to enjoy superior social status as a citizen, rather than something applied to everyone equally. If you look around the world, most societies had been organised around the family, more or less extended, as the crucial social institution. What is distinctive about the west as we know it is that the organising social unit has ceased to be the family and become the individual. Hence our emphasis on ‘rights’.

By contrast, the ancient family was marked by radical inequality. It was governed by the pater familias, who was not just the magistrate or civic head of the family, but also its high priest. In the book, I explore the practice of newlywed women being carried over the threshold of their husband’s house, which has its origins in a totally different mental framework. The preliminaries of a daughter’s marriage in Greece and Rome involved her family, which was also her cult, gathering with its high priest and dissolving the bond it had with her. The daughter’s identity was entirely tied up with her family, so severing this bond was necessary for her joining the cult of her husband’s family. But in between she lacked all identity, so had to be carried into the husband’s house to be initiated.

What led to these traditions changing?

It’s very striking that the growth of the Roman empire in the last centuries BC involved a decline of the independence of city states. Whereas people had looked to their local citizen class as leaders, it became clear that power was moving to Rome.

Roman citizenship, gradually extended to many throughout the whole empire, in turn changed people’s understandings of themselves. Religious beliefs also began to change: Judaism introduced a kind of monotheism with a central, all-powerful deity. For people living in a world in which there were certain parallels between Rome’s centralised power and Jewish beliefs, this created curiosity, opening the way to the spread of those beliefs.

You ask, rhetorically, if St Paul was the greatest revolutionary in human history.  What led you to suggest this?

I think that, if any one person was responsible for changing the traditional arrangement in which the basic social unit was the patriarchal family rather than the individual ‘soul’, it was St Paul. I find him fascinating because, while his background was primarily Jewish, he grew up in a part of the Mediterranean that had been very much Hellenised. So Paul’s thought represents an extraordinary merger of Judaism and Greek philosophy.

The discussion about citizenship that was taking place in city states had already started to distance citizens from family structures, but Christianity pushed it further and made it more comprehensive because Paul claimed that his message was universal.

Jumping ahead a few centuries, how does feudalism fit into this story?

After the collapse of the ninth-century Carolingian empire, the church’s higher clergy became terrified of property and power being dispersed – and perhaps even the church itself being brought into what was becoming the feudal system, with local landowners ruling their inhabitants. The fear was that the church would lose its universal identity and its claim upon souls, which led the clergy to fight hard for some continuing central organisation. This turned out to be the papacy, which became the fulcrum on which a new legal system was gradually created from the 11th century. This system, in due course, was to create the notion of fundamental individual rights.

What do you think are the causes of the west’s crisis of confidence?

The result of the Reformation and the religious wars that followed was, in a way, the birth of secularism. You could say that liberal secularism was not the legitimate child of Christianity but its natural one – in a way, its unintended consequence. It turned, however, into a code chiefly designed to limit the claims of the churches, and so became closely associated with anti-clericalism.

Although the virulent anti-clericalism of the 18th century disappeared as churches were obliged to accept the framework of liberal secularism, some of it still survives. This division also emerges when religious leaders call for an alliance of religions to fight against secularism. I think that’s rather worrying because, if we see liberal secularism as an offshoot of Christianity, it’s better, on the whole, not to go around killing your child!

The philosophical tradition of utilitarianism, meanwhile, has suggested that the state should be neutral between religious beliefs.

I don’t think neutrality is a notion associated with classical liberalism at all: it is a set of values meant to protect a maximum area of authority for individuals. Leading the west to see itself in terms of indifference, or of non-belief in any set of values, means that our ideas no longer always correspond to our intuitions – which I think is dangerous.

How can we improve the west’s confidence on the international stage?

We have to help people to understand – and to have confidence in – their own tradition, and of the varieties of human culture. You could say that we rushed into the invasion of Iraq, for instance, without any understanding of the cultures that we were dealing with. I think that having a clear sense of one’s culture can actually make it easier to understand the differences between cultures.

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Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop (Allen Lane, 434 pages, £20)