How the individual invented the modern West

The European Middle Ages have been deemed an era of regression but this couldn't be further from the truth. In this period, the foundations were laid to establish a liberal West centred around the rights of the individual.

Construction of highway, eighteenth century France Engineers on horseback inspecting the work, a painting Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1775. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo.
Construction of highway, eighteenth century France Engineers on horseback inspecting the work, a painting Claude-Joseph Vernet, 1775. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in Nation, State and Empire: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, published by Bokförlaget Stolpe in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, 2017.

What, historically, has set the West apart from other human societies? It is important to answer this question if we are to understand the nature of the ‘sovereign’ state — a form of government which has Western origins, but has now spread throughout the world. Failure to understand these origins means that today the word ‘state’ is often misused.

Most human societies have been organised around the claims of the family, the tribe or the caste. By contrast, the West has come to be organised around the claims of the individual. That emerges in the role played in our societies by the language of rights. In the West, we assume that individuals have a set of basic or fundamental rights, which for centuries were called ‘natural rights’ but are now more often called ‘human rights’. These rights are deemed to provide the proper basis for our legal and political systems. They provide the bedrock of personal identity and social order in the West. They are codified and protected by the state.

We now take this for granted. But how did this come about? How did the Western world come to introduce the individual as the foundation of society rather than the family, tribe or caste? We need an adequate understanding of this process — an account which makes intelligible not only to others but to ourselves how we came to be organised in this way. The absence of such an account makes it difficult for us to understand the way the sovereign state underpins the ‘individuation’ of society.

Lacking an adequate account of what has made Western societies distinctive can lead us into serious misunderstandings and public policy blunders. For we project our vision onto societies which have historically been organised around the quite different claims of family, tribe or caste. Even when economic factors — Western capitalism with its offshoots — and post-Second World War developments such as the United Nations and the Charter of Human Rights have introduced a more individuated conception of society into non-Western countries, their roots in family, tribe or caste can still lead us lead us into difficulties. For example, it can explain why Western attempts to graft our democratic legal and political institutions onto societies with a tribal foundation have often had such limited success. Sub-Saharan African states provide many examples of surviving tribal loyalties interfering with democratic norms and processes. India too, with its ancient caste system, struggles to adjust to an imported rights-based system, though with greater success.

We tend to take the justice of such intrusions into other societies for granted, assuming that a rights-based system is the manifest destiny of the entire planet. But because the question of how we came to organise our own societies in such an individuated way has been neglected, we lack a coherent account of the route that has led to our beliefs and institutions.

To be sure, there is a major obstacle to understanding the origins of modern Western beliefs and institutions. It is to be found in the categories we usually rely upon to organise European history: the ancient world, the Middle Ages and the modern world. For these categories introduce radical discontinuity into our past.

Ever since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when these categories developed, the Middle Ages have been presented as a period when the rational, secular civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome were superseded by a period marked by ignorance, credulity and violence, clerical oppression and radical social inequality. Eighteenth-century historians such as Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon delighted in applying to them terms like ‘monkish’ and ‘credulous’. Thus, they presented the Middle Ages as a period of regression rather than progression, a setback in the story of human progress. Do not the very terms Middle or Dark Ages suggest a regrettable interlude?

Writers of the eighteenth century succumbed to a temptation. And it is easy to see why they did. For they were writing at a time dominated by memories of the religious wars following the Reformation which saw Europe convulsed with attempts to impose religious uniformity by means of force. The result was that a powerful anti-clericalism developed across Europe in the eighteenth century, a mood expressed famously by Voltaire in his call to écrasez l’infâme — privileged churches that threatened freedom of conscience.

Anti-clericalism became a passion in many eighteenth-century intellectuals. That passion shaped their historical writing. So the temptation they succumbed to was that of maximising the moral and intellectual distance between their ‘modern’ world and the Middle Ages, while minimising the distance between their modern world and the ancient world. Understanding the ancient world as secular thus became an important political weapon as European intellectuals struggled to separate church and state in Europe. What is the consequence? It is that our understanding of the origins of modernity — of liberal secularism and of the concept of the state — is inadequate.

How secular was the ancient world? How like our own world? What I shall try to demonstrate is that there is a deeper continuity between the Middle Ages and the modern world — for both were shaped by the consequences of a moral revolution.

To understand the nature of that moral revolution, we must start by looking more closely at the eighteenth-century assumption that the ancient world was free of dogma — of anything like a monolithic church and an oppressive clergy. But how accurate is that assumption? It is not so accurate at all. Radical inequalities of status and treatment permeated the ancient world. Its fundamental social unit was the family rather than the individual. Ancient societies of Greece and Rome understood themselves as associations of families rather than individuals. In Ancient Greece and Rome, each family had its own ‘worship’. For the head of the family was not only its chief magistrate but also its high priest. And that role passed from eldest son to eldest son, creating a hereditary priesthood. Thus, when eighteenth-century historians looked at ancient societies, what they failed to notice was that each family was itself a kind of church — a cult devoted to the worship of ancestors. The ancient family with its paterfamilias rested on the assumption of ‘natural inequality’. The privileged role of the father (and his eldest son after him) rested on the radical subordination of women and younger sons as well as slaves and foreign residents (metics).

This assumption of natural inequality meant that such differences of status and treatment did not need justification. They were simply deemed to be natural. Something important follows from that. If we are to understand the ancient world, we must abandon the modern distinction between public and private spheres — the distinction that underpins our notions of civil society and individual liberty. For the Greeks and Romans, the crucial distinction was between the public and domestic spheres. And the domestic sphere was understood as the privileged sphere of the family, rather than as that of individuals endowed with rights. The domestic sphere was a sphere of radical inequality. Inequality of roles was fundamental to the worship of the ancient family.

The assumption of natural inequality dominated ancient thinking, shaping institutions and mores. In public life, this emerged as the role of the citizen, a role originally limited to the fathers or patres. Citizens in the ancient world were a privileged caste. They were what Nietzsche would later call ‘supermen’. The public sphere was reserved for them. Younger sons and women were hardly more than chattels. The paterfamilias originally had the power over the life and death of family members as well as slaves. The paterfamilias was a god in preparation. He would eventually number among the family divinities.

Ancient liberty consisted in having a share in the government of the city (the polis). It was not civil, that is, individual liberty as we know it. It was a privilege, an extension of paterfamilias and the assumption of natural inequality. That inequality, which underlay both the ancient family and the polis, was extended even into ancient ideas of the cosmos. For ‘the heavens’ were understood as a series of spheres which became ‘purer’ the further away they were from the earth. Hierarchy was thus seen everywhere, in society, in government and in nature.

This pervasive assumption of inequality was overturned at the beginning of what used to be called ‘our era’. What put an end to this assumption? Doubtless there were many causes at work, not least the decline of the polis and the centralising of power around the Mediterranean under the Roman imperium (suggesting to minds a more universal order). But the decisive change in belief came with the emergence of the early Christian movement in the first century.

We can see this in the writings of Paul. Under Pauline influence, Christian belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God challenged the inherited meaning of society, introducing a universality which undercut traditional inequalities of status. The message was urgent. (It is true theStoics had speculated about pre-social man, but their speculation had not carried any moral urgency). By contrast, Paul’s conception of the equality of souls (in ‘the body of Christ’) provided the foundation for a moral revolution — a revolution in the mind which would, in turn, gradually provide the basis for a social revolution. Paul’s assumption of the moral equality of humans was deeply subversive.

I shall try, briefly, to identify four major stages in that process of subversion. The first stage saw a philosophical exploration of the implications of the new assumption of moral equality. It was the work of the early ‘fathers’ of the church, Origen, Tertullian and Augustine. Their new emphasis on equality led to an assertion of human freedom, freedom of the will. In effect, they revised earlier views of the human self which had focused on appetite and reason when tracing the source of human action. Between appetite and reason these thinkers inserted the will, a free will.

Thus, Tertullian wrote at the end of the second century: ‘One mighty deed alone was sufficient for our God — to bring freedom to the human person.’ Origen insisted that ‘the diversity between rational creatures’ consisted ‘not in the will or judgement of the creator, but in the choice made by the creature’s own freedom’. In Tertullian, we also find one of the earliest assertions of something like a basic right, a rightful power claimed for humans as such — that is, as individuals.

These thinkers were not blind to human fallibility. Far from it. Augustine explored human conduct with an equal emphasis on human freedom and human weakness. With extraordinary subtlety, he demonstrated how, in developing habits — that can rapidly become compulsive — humans undermine their own free will. Yet recognition of that free will had already created a new form of human association: voluntary association. For the monastic movement, developing out of Egypt, created associations based on adhesion by the individual will — a sharp contrast with ancient forms of association based either on birthright or force.

For three centuries, the Christian movement spread within the Roman Empire by persuasion rather than force. It is true that after its adoption by the empire as its official religion, in the fourth century, that peaceful basis for its spread was compromised. But only briefly. For the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century, with the Germanic invasions, placed the movement in dramatically different circumstances. It was suddenly confronted with the reign of brute force. Persuasion became not merely a choice but a necessity for survival.

That led to a second stage of development. In many cities of the former western empire, bishops became their de facto leaders. How did they respond to a situation so terrifying for the church? They seized the only sword they could wield against the invaders, a spiritual sword. With this weapon, they claimed to offer access to a better world, a life that extended even beyond death. In that way, a sharper distinction between spiritual and temporal power developed. A stout defence of the former as ‘the care of souls’ was promoted especially by the writings, in the sixth century, of Pope Gregory the Great — writings widely diffused in the following centuries.

The Christian clergy sought to establish an ascendancy over minds, especially over some of the Germanic rulers of the new kingdoms. We can see its influence already in a provision of the will made by the Frankish king, Chilperic, late in the sixth century. He expressly rejected ancestral customs, saying: ‘A long-standing and wicked custom of our people denies sisters a share with their brothers in their father’s land; but I consider this wrong, since my children came equally from God…Therefore, my dearest daughter, I make you an equal and legitimate heir with your brothers, my sons.’

This is but one piece of evidence for what over several centuries amounted to a momentous moral change — nothing less than the destruction of the ancient family and the role of the paterfamilias. The Christian clergy offered a kind of escape — though the care of souls — from the constraining hierarchy of the ancient family. In the clergy, younger sons, daughters and even wives found moral authority which could distance themselves from the excesses of paternal power.

By the ninth century, we also find changes in conceptions of the role of government — changes inspired by the duty to take care of souls. We can see this in Charlemagne’s ideas about his own rule and empire. For in his mind the ancient notion of dominium (lordship) gradually combined with a new concern for individual conscience and the allegiance it can foster. Thus, Charlemagne asked his subjects not only to obey local lords, but also to swear oaths of loyalty to his empire. Within a few years, he extended that request even to women and slaves — something inconceivable in the ancient world. The individual’s will had become a matter of consequence. In fact, what we are encountering is an antecedent of the modern notion of government ‘by consent’.

Charlemagne had been influenced by his clerical advisers such as Alcuin, who even ventured to criticise the emperor at times. After Charlemagne forcibly converted thousands of prisoners at the end of a campaign, Alcuin reprimanded him: ‘Faith must be voluntary, not coerced — converts must be drawn to the faith not forced.’ Thus, the idea of a moral law which could provide a criterion for public law and policy was emerging out of the care of souls.

The collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the tenth century, however, threatened to reverse that development. For what would become of the care of souls? Who would defend the idea of moral law? The disappearance of centralised government ushered in a third period. Leading members of the church — and especially the monastic leaders of Cluny – feared that the church too was collapsing into the emerging feudal system. The power of local lords was undermining all centralised authority.

The result was the development of a monastic reform movement based on Cluny which sought to defend the ‘liberty of the church’. By the second half of the eleventh century, it was transforming the claims and role of the papacy. Popes with monastic backgrounds began to claim a sovereign authority in the moral sphere. With the help of Roman law, they began to create a system of canon law based on the papacy’s monopoly of the right to assert and administer the moral law. Soon the popes were often also highly trained lawyers, overseeing a system of law founded on the assumption of the equality of souls, of moral equality. In that way, canon law began to undercut many of the inequalities found not only in Germanic ‘customary’ law but also in Ancient Roman law.

The result was that, by the fourteenth century, canon law — and the system of courts administering it — were creating a new world. The assumption of moral equality underlying canon law was generating the idea of basic or individual rights — casting doubt on the assumption that inequalities of status and treatment required no justification. New roles for conscience and consent had begun to reshape many social practices in Europe. As the historian, Brian Tierney has noted: ‘In marriage law, by the end of the twelfth century, the simple consent of two parties, without any formalities, could constitute a valid, sacramental marriage. In contract law, a mere promise could create a binding obligation — it was the intention of the promisor that counted. In criminal law, the degree of guilt and punishment was again related to the intention of the individual defendant…’

In this fourth period of change, the system of canon law — and the sophisticated administration it had created – began to inspire a new ambition in the secular rulers of Europe. For it offered them the prospect of founding their authority and power on a new basis — the care of individuals rather than the privileges which permeated feudal hierarchies. Instead of reaching people only indirectly, though feudal intermediaries, the idea of a sovereign power offered secular rulers the prospect of founding their rule directly on the individual. That vision spelled, in the longer run, the death of feudalism in Europe.

What secular rulers took less note of was that canon lawyers had also begun to transform the idea of a corporation — so that bishops were no longer conceived as virtually owning their diocese, but as being accountable for the use they made of their authority to the lower clergy and the people of that diocese. That revolution in minds emerged with a vengeance in the Conciliar movement of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries — itself an anticipation of the struggles of the Reformation.

We are now in a better position to understand what is distinctive about the state as a form of government. The concept of its sovereignty is not neutral or value-free. For the concept entails the equal subordination of individuals to its rule, and it thereby limits the range of social structures compatible with a state, properly so-called.

Yet how often such a basic term of political discussion is misused! For it is frequently used as if it were interchangeable with government. Thus, we find examples of writers referring to the Athenian state, the Ancient Egyptian state, and feudal states. But these are misuses because they ignore the feature that distinguishes states, properly so-called, from other forms of government.

The concept of sovereignty introduces a criterion which has the effect of limiting the range of social structure compatible with a state — the kind of society over which the state claims to exercise authority. Where do we find that criterion? We find it in a stipulation of ‘equal submission’ to the state’s authority. That is a world away from the religious claims of the ancient family and paterfamilias which removed the domestic sphere from the public sphere and protected it through the assumption of natural inequality. By contrast, a sovereign state introduces an authority which can limit the claims of family, tribe or caste if it so chooses.

Societies with states are understood as associations of individuals, equally subject to its authority. That does not mean that formal equality before the law is entailed or that a range of fundamental rights is guaranteed by the very concept of a sovereign authority. But that concept does create an authority superior to the claims of family, tribe and caste — an authority which, therefore, can abridge their claims.

That, in turn, may throw light on some of the difficulties of Western societies today experiencing large-scale immigration. For multicultural societies may comprise groups that find it hard to accept the norm built into the conception of sovereignty. Certain Islamic communities are a case in point. They may see the patriarchal family as setting fundamental limits on the reach of public authority. May not the difficulties that Islamic societies have had in creating stable democratic states reflect the extent to which the ancient family and paterfamilias survive in them? The secular goal of an equal liberty founded on the state’s sovereign authority is not congenial to them.

There is a final irony here. Militant Islamists themselves fall victims to the widespread misuse of the term ‘the state’. They do so when calling the regime for which they fight an Islamic state. Yet such a state would introduce a human agency with a monopoly of the authority to make law — whereas the basis of their own credo is that Allah is the only legitimate source of law. There can be no role for a human sovereign. An example of the ambiguity introduced by the idea of an Islamic state can be seen in the present government of Iran, where the concept of the state with an elected president sits uneasily with the supervisory role of the ayatollah, designated as the Supreme Leader.

That is why it is so important to recognise that creating a sovereign state involves creating a human agency with a monopoly of legal authority.


Larry Siedentop