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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism Paperback – 29 Jan 2015

4.7 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (29 Jan. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141009543
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141009544
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.5 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 16,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Magisterial, timeless, beautifully written ... Siedentop has achieved something quite extraordinary. He has explained us to ourselves (Spectator)

One of the most stimulating books of political theory to have appeared in many years ... a refreshingly unorthodox account of the roots of modern liberalism in medieval Christian thinking (John Gray Literary Review)

A brave, brilliant and beautifully written defence of the western tradition (Paul Lay History Today)

Thoroughly interesting and fundamentally convincing ... admirably nuanced ... formidable ... Inventing the Individual is written with effortless lucidity (Jeffrey Collins TLS)

An engrossing book of ideas ... illuminating, beautifully written and rigorously argued (Kenan Malik Independent)

A most impressive work of philosophical history (Robert Skidelsky)

About the Author

Larry Siedentop was appointed to the first post in intellectual history ever established in Britain, at Sussex University in the 1970's. From there he moved to Oxford, becoming Faculty Lecturer in Political Thought and a Fellow of Keble College. His writings include a study of Tocqueville, an edition of Guizot's History of Civilization in Europe and Democracy in Europe, which has been translated into a dozen languages. Siedentop was made CBE in 2004. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In our schoolbooks (in Sweden) we learn that the enlightenment and the scientific revolution prepared for a new era we call the enlightened and liberal world. But why did it happen and was it a sudden revolution or something that evolved over a long period of time? Religion and Christianity has been seen by secularists as the obstacle to scientific thinking, but Siedentop shows how beliefs and institutions that hindered free and individual thought was gradually weakened by the spread of Christianity and that is why the scientific revolution could happen within the Christian world before anywhere else. Ancient society was far from free. People were bound by family and clan or tribal ties, by honour and pride, by ancestor worship and mythical gods. Early Christianity’s message was that all people were born equal. Jesus asks his followers to be prepared to throw overboard even the ties to family. This contributed to the weakening of traditional authority and to the spread of Christianity among common people. The monastic tradition encourages people’s egalitarianism and self-government and this was further strengthened by the monastic reform in the 11th century when the monks got the authority to elect their abbots. Charlemagne’s enforcement of a higher moral authority (pope and God) weakened the authority of clan leaders and smaller kings. Religious authorities as Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great encourage self-examination (Gregory the Great had acknowledged that “the mind would often lie to itself about itself”). A new intensity of self-consciousness was allowed to brake through. Gregory’s vision was a social order founded on individual morality and self-discipline, rather than brute force and mere deference.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a great book with a big theme: that our modern secular society has its origins in Christianity, or as Siedentop concludes, "Secularism is Christianity's gift to the world."

Many people will want to challenge, if not ridicule, this thesis because it runs counter to the standard prevailing view our modern society - characterised by individualism, with its emphasis on human rights and equality - is the product of the Enlightenment, which in turn was a reaction to and rejection of everything Christian. Siedentop marshals his evidence with impressive scholarship and flawless acumen from over two millennia to show this view is a myth which grossly misrepresents history.

It is this misrepresentation which leads to the polarisation of religion and secularism which has become an increasingly worrying feature of contemporary society with fundamentalists at both ends of the spectrum taking up increasingly entrenched positions of intolerance. Siedentop likens this to a 'new civil war' which has the potential to destroy an inclusive, tolerant liberal society. It is this concern which provides the motivation for his book and what makes it so timely.

The current debate over whether we are a Christian country often overlooks the fact that one does not need to be a Christian to see that its influence is embedded in the sort of society we have and the values that make it possible, values that Siedentop shows with eloquent persuasiveness - for this is a beautifully written book - to have sprung from the moral revolution caused by the eruption of this faith into the classical world of antiquity, radically challenging it.

I bought this book partly because of the cover: I became haunted by the face looking out at me as if to seek a conversation: who was this man?
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Format: Paperback
If you want a dense and detailed interpretation of what Christianity meant and the political impact that it had, this book is a great place to start. Siedentop takes the reader on a long historical inquiry, from before the Bronze Age to the end of the Middles Ages and beyond. While disagreeing with much of it, I was riveted by the ideas from the first page.

The book begins with a look at the political culture of classical antiquity. It started with the family, a peculiarly hierarchical and exclusionary system and mindset. In the household, the patriarch was treated, even worshiped, like a god, with absolute authority over everyone: the maker of law, the final authority to whom everyone surrenders their individuality as the price of membership and anyone who elected to leave was regarded as insane; those outside were scarcely regarded as human, certainly not worthy of consideration as an equal. As the organization of societies grew more complex during the iron age, this allegiance moved to clan, tribe, and finally the city state, or polis. The political behavior of members remained similar to that of family-based patriarchies, but the wider allegiances manifested themselves in polytheism - each new involvement found a new patron god, cult, or ritual around which citizens on the inside could rally.

Even Athenian democracy was subject to this political logic, carrying obligations of service and sacrifice that are completely foreign to modern conceptions of democracy. This may all sound bizarre, but as a classics major, it clarified my understanding of the classical mind in a new way that immediately resonated with me: they regarded themselves as members in a hierarchical collective before they saw themselves as individuals, accepting their places and roles in the city state.
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