Monday, 5 September 2016

Luther is to Blame for Modernity, Right?

Religiously motivated anti-modernists, which is to say traditional Roman and Anglo Catholics (and a smattering of Eastern Orthodox) have often placed the blame for modernity - particularly secularism and the paramountcy of the freedom of the individual - at the feet of Luther. But it is impossible for anyone with some actual familiarity with Luther's life and writings that goes beyond the caricatures of his enemies to accept the basis for such a charge. Those sympathetic to Luther have instead pointed the finger at the Renaissance, a charge which on the surface at least has more plausibility.

But what if the truth is infinitely more complex than either of the above theses allows for? What if secularism and the freedom of the individual actually developed inexorably out of the Western Christian tradition itself, with apostles, medieval theologians, friars, bishops, canon lawyers and even popes all playing their parts?

That is the thesis which the scholar of intellectual history, sometime Oxford lecturer in political thought and Fellow of Keble College Larry Siedentop sets forth in his latest book, which describes how modernity and the paramountcy of the individual that is the hallmark of Western liberalism developed over two thousand years (without once mentioning Luther!):
"The view that the Renaissance and its aftermath marked the advent of the modern world - the end of the "middle ages" - is mistaken. By the fifteenth century canon lawyers and philosophers had already asserted that 'experience' is essentially the experience of individuals, that a range of fundamental rights ought to protect individual agency, that the final authority of any association is to be found in its members, and that the use of reason when understanding processes in the physical world differs radically from normative or a priori reasoning. These are the stuff of modernity."

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual, The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane, 2014)

To expand upon a 'new media' adage, if politics is downstream from culture, then culture itself is downstream from religious belief, and this book demonstrates it with copious examples, beginning with the somewhat stifling cult (i.e. system of religious beliefs & devotions) that surrounded the family in Greek and Roman antiquity. Siedentop paints with broad strokes - he has to to cover so much spiritual, psychological and intellectual history in 400 or so pages - and specialists in the areas he covers will undoubtedly have their quibbles, but anyone vitally interested in the spiritual history of the West will benefit from reading this book. His omission of the Reformation is a curious lacuna, but it at least goes to show that a major scholar can account for modernity, secularism and liberalism without invoking an old trope.

An inexpensive paperback Penguin/Viking edition is available where good books are sold. Recommended!