Richard Nisley

The Search For Equality
History - World Released - Feb 22, 2015

When the Founding Fathers were searching for a moral basis on which to declare independence from Britain, they looked to the writings of 17th-century philosophers Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke. Therefore, with conviction they could write, “All men are created equal,” as a key argument in the legal framework of the Declaration of Independence. It was a bold, even earth-shaking statement to make, but it wasn’t new. In fact, the principle of individual equality originated before the 17th century, back another 500 years to the writings of 12th-century philosophers. This is among the many revelations contained in Larry Siedentop’s book “Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.” The author chronicles what amounts to an 1800-year development of an idea—a search for equality, if you will—in a world of intrinsic and intrenched inequality.

To understand what was achieved, Siedentop begins with the Indo-European world that antedated ancient Greece and Rome and generated a conception of society in which the family was everything. The father was revered, imperious, even god-like, while his wife and children—other than the first-born male—were inferior in status. The worship of male ancestors led to the creation of gods based on the all-powerful father-figure. Families merged into clans, then into tribes, and eventually into cities that acknowledged a shared ancestor (“a man deified, a hero”) and founded a common worship. Honoring the gods of the city was the primary duty, the king was a hereditary high priest, and laws were the necessary consequence of religious belief. This was the world of the ancient Greece and Rome, a confederation of cults based on the family as opposed to an association of individuals. The father and first-born male were citizens with all the privileges, while everyone else was subservient. Duty, honor, politics, and the worship of the gods were paramount, while work and commerce were performed by non-citizens and slaves and was looked down upon. Even someone as rational as Aristotle regarded slaves as “living tools” and women as “not fully rational” and as “mistakes.” In this hierarchical society an individual’s fate was determined by birth (citizen, female, plebeian or slave) and bound by hereditary rules, and thus no one was really free.

The first to challenge this entrenched hierarchy was the apostle Paul as he traveled throughout the Roman world spreading Christianity. His preaching was based on the Old Testament writings of the Jews and the example and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Siedendtop often refers to the “Golden Rule” as highly influential in the Western World’s advance toward equality. From Paul, the torch was passed to the early Christian church, to the writings of Augustine, to the monasteries which sustained literacy in the wake of the Roman Empire’s collapse, and to the revival of religious study in the 10th century and the emergence of the Canon lawyers.


Under the direction of the church in Rome, the goal of the Canon lawyers was to achieve a legal avenue of fulfilling Charlemagne’s 8th-century promise of making Western Europe a wholly Christian Empire. To do so, they undertook the rewriting of Roman law which was hierarchical and therefore unequally applied. The changes to Roman law never produced the result they envisioned (a religious society ruled by the Catholic church) but did have a leveling effect on secular society. Feudal lordships, social divisions, the low status of women, slavery—all were undermined by the changes to civil law made by the Canon lawyers. Gradually, the status and rights of the individual replaced the status and rights of privilege and family. A few of the Canon lawyers were made popes (a.k.a. the “lawyer-popes”).

The model used by the Canon lawyers for making the individual the basis of society was the monastery. Inside the monastery there was no class distinction: every member labored in the fields, were weavers and potters, carpenters and blacksmiths, and partook of the stomping of grapes for winemaking. Each individual was responsible for the success of the whole and therefore valued. Monastery rule was from the bottom up and therefore democratic, as opposed to the traditional rule of kings, lords and the nobility, which was top down and decidedly elitist.

Universities and market towns began taking shape in the 11th- and 12th-centuries, fostering more social advances. The university was something almost unprecedented. It gave the claims of individual reason and dissent a public space which had previously been lacking. It made possible a new social order, the intellectual —thinkers who “navigated” between the claims of church and secular government. The growing urban population of market towns, meanwhile, consisted chiefly not of clergy or lords or nobles, but of artisans and merchants, who eventually would evolve into the middle class. This new class consisted of people who wanted the freedom to move about, to buy and sell, and to manage their own affairs as they saw fit. Unlike the ancient cities, the government of market towns did not claim religious authority, or perform religious rites and administer religious rules. Indeed, they governed democratically, like the monasteries. Also unlike the ancient cities, liberty was being claimed, not merely for the market town as a corporate entity, but for the individuals who lived and worked there. The old German expression, “The air of the city makes free,” is from this time.

Western Europe changed gradually, not into the Christian empire the Canon lawyers envisioned, but into a secular society ruled by secular governments. Yet another result the Canon lawyers could not have foreseen was the Reformation, the Renaissance, the separation of church and state, and revolution—the violent overthrow of monarchical governments, notably in America and in France.


At the core of it all, the principle that drove these changes, was the right of the individual, to worship as he pleased, to vote as he pleased, to marry whom he pleased, and to act as he pleased, so long as it didn’t interfere with another's rights. Liberty, equality, the individual’s right to choose: this is what is meant by liberal democracy. In many parts of the world, especially in countries in which the family unit still persists as the building block of society and free choice and religious tolerance are an anathema, liberal democracy is not understood and certainly not respected. This ignorance comes at the expense of beliefs dangerous to the safety and well-being of Europe and the United States, an ignorance that sees the West as godless, indifferent, and evil (as “the great Satan”).

Secularism, writes the author, is the civic expression of the value placed by Christians on conscious and moral agency. “By identifying secularism with non-belief, with indifference and materialism, it deprives Europe of moral authority, playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without conviction. Properly understood, secularism can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement, the achievement which should be its primary contribution to the creation of a world order, while different religious beliefs continue to contend for followers.

“Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world,” he continues, “ideas and practices which have often been turned against ‘excesses’ of the Christian faith itself. Enforced belief was, for Paul and many early Christians, a contradiction in terms. Strikingly, in the first century Christianity spread by persuasion, not by force of arms—a contrast to the early spread of Islam. When placed against this background, secularism does not mean non-belief or indifference. It is not without moral content. . . . It provides the gateway to beliefs properly so called, making it possible to distinguish inner conviction from mere external conformity.”

Reading “Inventing the Individual” is tantamount to taking a journey where the destination is known, but the route taken is not. The book is scholarly but not difficult to read. I found it helpful in having read books about the Middles Ages, Renaissance Italy, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, but I don’t believe this is necessary in fully understanding the narrative story. Larry Siedentop, a Cambridge scholar, writes well, in relatively short uncluttered sentences, and often summarizes his points along the way and in the epilogue.

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