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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism [Hardcover]

Larry Siedentop
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Jan 2014

The new book from Larry Siedentop, acclaimed author of Democracy in Europe, Inventing the Individual is a highly original rethinking of how our moral beliefs were formed and their impact on western society today

This ambitious and stimulating book describes how a moral revolution in the first centuries AD - the discovery of human freedom and its universal potential - led to a social revolution in the west. The invention of a new, equal social role, the individual, gradually displaced the claims of family, tribe and caste as the basis of social organisation. Larry Siedentop asks us to rethink the evolution of the ideas on which modern societies and government are built, and argues that the core of what is now our system of beliefs emerged much earlier than we think. The roots of liberalism - belief in individual liberty, in the fundamental moral equality of individuals, that equality should be the basis of a legal system and that only a representative form of government is fitting for such a society - all these, Siedentop argues, were pioneered by Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, who drew on the moral revolution carried out by the early church. It was the arguments of canon lawyers, theologians and philosophers from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, rather than the Renaissance, that laid the foundation for liberal democracy.

There are large parts of the world where other beliefs flourish - fundamentalist Islam, which denies the equality of women and is often ambiguous about individual rights and representative institutions; quasi-capitalist China, where a form of utilitarianism enshrines state interests even at the expense of justice and liberty. Such beliefs may foster populist forms of democracy. But they are not liberal. In the face of these challenges, Siedentop urges that understanding the origins of our own liberal ideas is more than ever an important part of knowing who we are.

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.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (30 Jan 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713996447
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713996449
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16 x 4.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

Thoroughly interesting and fundamentally convincing . . . given the range of the material and the audacity of his argument, the account is admirably nuanced . . . formidable . . . Inventing the Individual is written with effortless lucidity (Jeffrey Collins TLS)

Inventing the Individual . . . seeks answers to the question, "Is it mere coincidence that liberal secularism developed in the Christian West?" Siedentop argues convincingly that it is not and offers an engaging and timely synthesis reaching back to the Classical world to explain why . . . If there is just one book you read this summer, make it this brave, brilliant and beautifully written defence of the western tradition (Paul Lay History Today) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressively challenging 26 April 2014
By DK
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant - a tour de force 28 April 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Siedentop's grasp of his subject and of the whole sweep of the history of ideas in western culture, as well as the clarity of his writing, makes this book a delight to read and a powerful antidote to the obscurantist denial of the key role that Christianity has played in the shaping of the Western democratic tradition of political life and thought. From his brilliantly sustained argument, it is clear that while the institutional Church has clearly at times sought to exercise authoritarian control over political life, the underlying dynamic unleashed by the radical inclusivity of the gospel and its development by Paul, Augustine and others has contributed immeasurably to the fundamental principles of equality and liberty which underpin the liberal democratic vision. His message is a vital one for a generation that has lost touch with its historical roots and is in danger of falling prey to profoundly illiberal trends, whether from fundamentalist religion or arrogant and intolerant atheism.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read. Full of truth which is why is why it will be viewed as controversial by Marxists amongst us, who insist beliefs are causally impotent. Siedentop refutes this dogma, carefully grounding his argument, spanning over a period of two millennia. His level of scholarship is impressive. A breath of fresh air!

Must read for any sober political science or history student who would like a more nuanced and objective look at our origins...

We didn't get here by gravity!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an outstanding book. Truly important and lucidly written. I found it an exhilarating read - it changed my thinking and I expect it will change yours.
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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely Cogent and Important 9 April 2014
By Louis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Siedentop offers a brilliant defense of the validity of the West, its ideals and its rich cultural and political traditions. In an era when such defenses are becoming more and more rare in a community that is losing sight of its connection to its own past, Inventing the Individual is a reminder of just how much the West has accomplished.

The book begins with the origin of such things as the western concept of property, which emerges out of the ancient belief that the house belonged to its gods, not to its occupants. From there, it moves through the whole process by which the culture has obtained its identity.

We cannot understand our world without understanding its past, and Inventing the Individual is a superb contribution to that effort.
3 of 63 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Stream of Neo-Con Babble (UN) Consciousness 15 Mar 2014
By scholarboy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I pity Siedentop's students, if this is representative of his "thinking". PLEASE, don't waste your money. Really deserves 0 stars. No, minus 2.
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