For the political philosopher Larry Siedentop, “the only thing worse than religion is its absence”. And it’s the absence of religion right now that concerns him: specifically any understanding of Christianity. Because for him – and this is the argument of his most celebrated book, Inventing the Individual – it is Christianity that has formed the Western European idea of the individual. This notion of the value of the human person as having an identity and moral responsibility, from which we get the very concept of human rights, is, he says, grounded in the tradition that began with St Paul and developed through two millennia of Christian thinking.
Right now, he’s struck by the unrest caused by the Black Lives Matter protests and identity politics generally. “Looking at the world around us and all the virtue signalling, it betrays in a strange way an absence of fundamental beliefs: people looking desperately for something to defend, something to believe and something to condemn.”
So the protesters are filling the gap in their culture left by the retreat of the churches. “What we suffer from – and that would be the crucial contribution of religion at the moment – is the failure to ask fundamental questions,” Siedentop says. “There’s a lack of understanding, especially of historical understanding, that’s endangering our culture. It has happened in my lifetime.”
That’s 85 years, most of them spent in England. It gives him a useful perspective on current events. “Those who talked about liberalism in the immediate post-war period knew what a difficult and precarious tradition it is,” he says.
We’re talking in a garden square in London’s Holland Park, a green, enclosed space, but with the noise of traffic from outside breaking in all the time. He’s had a home there for 35 years, but most of his academic career has been in Oxford, where he’s a fellow of Keble College: he was due to go there the day after we met, after an absence of four months on account of lockdown.
Siedentop was born in Chicago, but the influence of his Dutch-German grandmother, of the Dutch Calvinist church in which he was raised, of Harvard and his departure to Oxford at the age of 22, means he feels very European. (His speciality was French political thought, and he’s currently working on a book about Tocqueville.) He’s humorous as well as thoughtful, his accent situated somewhere between Oxford and Harvard.
What worries him is the gaps in contemporary culture. “It’s the decline in the teaching of history and the knowledge of history that’s especially dangerous in the West at the moment”, he says, “because there aren’t that many churchgoers any more and philosophy as a secular discipline has professionalised itself in a way that doesn’t ask many of the basic traditional questions. And so there’s a kind of void when it comes to asking those fundamental questions. And I think the most important thing the churches can do at the moment is re-introduce them. Questions like: are we free? Should we be free?”
The argument of Inventing the Individual was, he says, that “most societies have been organised around the claims of the family or the tribe or the caste, but European society was different in that it was organised around the individual … [which entailed] the language of rights, and the book was an attempt to explore how this happened.”
Yet the trend underlying contemporary protest movements seems to subsume the individual in other identities – that of race, or gender or sexuality. How does this square with the idea of the individual? “I do think multiculturalism is a confused and dangerous idea,” he says. “It’s a fact, of course, in many ways, but as a goal … I still think the basis for some sort of social order is shared beliefs.”
And when it comes to shared beliefs for Western Europe, the most fundamental of them was, and is, Christianity. “It may still be the shared belief,” he says, “but it’s concealed. And that’s where I think the churches could have a role and should have a role.” In other words, one role for the churches is to tell people in Europe their own story: what their values are, or were, and where they came from.
It’s a real issue just now. “I’m in mourning at the moment, for Hagia Sophia,” he says, referring to the decision of the Turkish president to turn the building back into a mosque. “It is in my opinion the greatest building our species has ever put up. It’s a wonderful building. There have been protests but there should have been a hell of a lot more than Western governments have done.”
This move brings us back to the 15th century and the Ottoman conversion of the great church into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople. And that in turn underlines Siedentop’s main concern.
“I can’t emphasise too much that I think the decline in historical teaching and historical awareness is fundamental. When you talk to teenagers they don’t know anything about our history and without knowing it, the word “our” becomes equivocal. What do they belong to; what do they think are their antecedents? To some extent that’s bound to happen when you have large-scale immigration but it is a problem and it should be addressed.”
There are few politicians who would have the nerve to say all this, but Larry Siedentop does, in his gentle, compelling way. Yet he doesn’t think immigration has to be inimical to teaching a shared history. “That’s a problem the United States had from the beginning,” he says, “and for a time it succeeded very well in imparting basic information about the founding of the republic and the American story. European countries haven’t been able to do that so far, [though] the French may be a bit of an exception.”
He’s not impressed either with the method of teaching history, whereby students jump from one period to another without engaging with what happens in between. “If history isn’t about sequence, what is it about?”
If Siedentop thinks it’s the job of the churches to raise fundamental questions, what are those questions? What about the Established Church? He chuckles. “The Church of England is a paradigm case of why the churches are in trouble, because its traditional forte was avoiding difficult issues. The tragedy was the Church of England became too closely associated with the structures of society, and it’s now dismayed and almost ignored because the social roles it in effect endorsed have withered away.” Another laugh. “The English don’t have a great taste for abstract argument and this has contributed to the Church of England’s now equivocal role.” The British, he finds, seem to have no understanding of religion in a way that even secular Dutch and Germans do.
What about the Catholic Church? What fundamental issues should the Pope raise? “Are we free?” he says, returning to the question. “Free will. Human agency. Is freedom adequately described just as an accumulation of wants? What are these wants? Should they be formed? How do we judge them? These are the basic questions which led to, in the Middle Ages, philosophy developing out of theology.”
He’s seen Christianity addressing all these things. As a boy growing up in the Dutch Reformed Church he would sit through long sermons every Sunday: serious, intellectually demanding homilies, “like a university lecture. What impressed me was the rigour of argument. It was never condescending.” The effect was to foster his taste for arguments about fundamentals. “If you’re a seven or eight year-old boy, getting an elaborate abstract argument from the pulpit isn’t bad for you.” What would he call a long sermon? “Perhaps 40 minutes?”
Preaching is something of a family tradition. Siedentop’s Dutch-German grandmother was widowed early and he, as the eldest grandchild, spent a good deal of time with her; she used to preach in church.
In his early days at Harvard he went to chapel there and listened to theologians of the calibre of Paul Tillich and Martin Niemöller. “It was really exciting,” he said. “When I meet theologian fellows in college, I ask them, who are the great theologians now? It’s a very bad lookout for the churches, and really, for society.”
Today’s attitude to religion he characterises as “indifference, really … not even anti-clericalism.” He agrees that Protestantism is no longer a coherent intellectual force but thinks its essence has been diffused, unrecognised, into the wider culture. In that sense, it has been a success.
Why isn’t he a Catholic? He laughs. “I don’t think I could be.” Why not? “Protestant surliness,” he says cheerfully.
Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism is published by Harvard University Press and in Penguin paperback
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