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Inventing the Individual

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Inventing the Individual

The Origins of Western Liberalism

Belknap Press,

15 min read
9 take-aways
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How liberal secularism originated in the Christian West. 

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Renowned political philosopher Larry Siedentop argues that liberal concepts of personal freedom and equality originated in Christian thought. In this “genealogy” of the individual, Siedentop interrogates long-held assertions that the Renaissance was the “rebirth” of an ancient concept of a human-centric universe. He traces 18 centuries of arguments among philosophers and Christian lawmakers that defined individual freedom in evolving social institutions. Reframing assumptions about the origins of liberal secular thought, Siedentop explains the roots of the Western self. Readers interested in philosophy, history and the history of religion will enjoy his exploration.


Hierarchies resting on the concept of “natural inequality” controlled ancient societies.

The ancient world did not have a concept of the individual. Natural inequality determined one’s place in the social hierarchy. Reason, or logos, was the order that framed reality in social and natural spheres. Polytheism dominated the public realm. The polis (city) adopted civic gods to protect the populace. Patriotism was the highest virtue and exile the worst punishment. 

Few people had the distinction of being a “citizen.” Only male heads of households were permitted to participate in public life. Plebs, men with no religious ancestral connections to the city, had no status. Slaves, usually the spoils of conquest, were not considered human. However, with conquest, population diversity and growth, the citizen class expanded as society became more complex. Ties to the soil became less important as imperial power expanded and enfolded cities, reducing the power of the polis.

Abstract thinking about money, military strength and property gave rise to philosophy. Plato ...

About the Author

Sir Larry Siedentop, CBE is an American-born British political philosopher and historian who served as a fellow of Keble College and a faculty lecturer in political thought at the University of Oxford. His 2000 book, Democracy in Europe, influenced the European Constitutional Convention. 

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