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Who invented the individual?

There would be no “individual” and no Western civilization at its finest if Christianity had not redefined the concept of a hero.

Detail from “Saints Augustine and Monica” (1846) by Ary Scheffer [commons.wikimedia.org]

A common misconception holds that early “modernity” invented the “individual”: the idea that everyone is a someone with a unique identity independent of family, tribe, racial group, or nation. And from that idea of individuality, it’s argued, came the most distinctive civilizational accomplishments of the West. Those accomplishments (it’s further argued) are now threatened by progressive and conservative forms of collectivism that threaten individual prerogative and initiative.

It’s hard not to agree that modernity, or post-modernity, or whatever-you-choose-to-call-our-present-moment, is a mess. Fixing that mess, however, requires opening the aperture of our historical understanding and recognizing that the Western civilizational project has deeper roots than those nurtured in 14th and 15th century Florence and other northern Italian city-states. We can learn a lot about those deeper roots from British intellectual historian Larry Siedentop, whose 2014 book Inventing the Individual makes a persuasive case that many of the ideas we now associate with “the individual” began to take form in the first six centuries of the first Christian millennium, long before the Italian Renaissance.

Before Christianity, immortality was a family concept: one lived on in one’s family. The Resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a “…resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5) changed all that, as the individual human being became the locus of immortality — and thus the bearer of a unique, personal, “individual” dignity.

Before Christianity, the fixed, unchangeable givenness of human inequality set the bottom line of all social relationships. Galatians 3:28 challenged that when St. Paul taught that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” This Pauline dictum not only underwrote a new appreciation of fundamental human equality; it also laid the basis for a new understanding that justice ought to reflect the moral equality of all, rather than bowing to inequalities in wealth, social status and power.

There would be no “individual” and no Western civilization at its finest if Christianity had not redefined the concept of a hero. Heroism in pre-Christian antiquity was the preserve of wily, wealthy aristocrats (think of Odysseus). Christianity democratized heroism through the witness of the martyrs, whose number included ordinary folk, women and slaves. Moreover, that witness embodied a new form of self-respect that is crucial to a proper understanding of the “individual” as a moral agent who can recognize obligations and freely choose to fulfill them, even at personal cost.

The Benedictine monasteries of the misnamed Dark Ages brought the West a first experience of what we now call “voluntary associations” and a new model of authority: leadership chosen by universal suffrage within a responsible community capable of grasping its needs and arranging its affairs. Benedictine monasticism also gave a new depth of meaning to work, which was previously considered servile and demeaning. By contrast, the sons and daughters of Benedict and Scholastica learned and taught the dignity of labor, linked it to prayer (thus the Benedictine motto, Ora et Labora, “Pray and Work”), and laid the foundations of a work ethic that has vastly enriched humanity’s material wellbeing.

Then there is the towering figure of St. Augustine. How can anyone who has read the Confessions, the first true autobiography, not find there one source of the modern concept of the individual — not to mention a wellspring of the habits of self-examination and self-criticism essential to science and democracy?

To these points made by Professor Siedentop, let me add one of my own: Could there be any concept of the “individual” as a bearer of “unalienable” (that is, built-in) rights if Christianity had not cut the state down to size by refusing to worship state authority?  True, there is a long road between the Lord’s differentiation (in Matthew 22:15-21) between what is owed Caesar and what is owed God to the modern Western concept of limited government by the consent of responsible individuals. But a crucial step on that journey was taken when Jesus, avoiding a trap set by his adversaries, sharply distinguished between state power and God’s supreme authority. If there are things of God’s that Caesar may not claim, then Caesar is not God; and if Caesar is not God, Caesar’s power is, by definition, limited. By desacralizing state power, Christianity helped make possible the idea of the limited state, which was not an immaculate conception sprung from the mind of John Locke.

Reconnecting with these deep roots of Western civilization would seem an important step toward fixing what ails us, as a culture and a society, these days.


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About George Weigel 372 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

8 Comments

  1. That the Christian individual as bearer of inherent unalienable rights might achieve cutting the state down to size by refusing to worship state authority is viable to this writer. Although Weigel acknowledges a mighty strenuous effort in that. At present an impasse with an extremely radical secularist government apparently prepared to take all and any measures to prevent what we hope for. Including subverting Justice [the Judiciary, Law Enforcement] creating the rule that opposition is treason.
    With Catholic politicians in the Administration fully in agreement and a USCCB reluctant to effectively address the issues [that certainly includes Eucharistic coherence] addressed in Weigel’s article, what is more, favoring this Administrations radical illegal migration policy et al a hopeful horizon lost in haze. Our Nation if this Administration succeeds will be a different place than the one we were born in.
    Since the Church at large lacks coherent direction toward a good end, and becoming a Synodal Church of random opinion it may take an act of God, or hopefully [a great theological virtue] with sufficient prayer, sacrifice, and individual heroism, better collective we can prevail.

    • Peter Beaulieu, who is more abreast of details [the important gritty stuff] and events than I am, isolates a reversal mindset back to the past pagan serf. Today’s faceless anonymous Pontifex Romanus Franciscus’ nouveau Marxist human family.
      I may not entirely agree that men with heroic individualistic mindset didn’t exist among the ancient plebeian, although it’s clear Christianity unshackled pauper and prince to discover their creative potency, and the world. Pope Francis seems oddly aligned with an egalitarian globalism, and perhaps not quite as odd with the current US Administration. No borders, environmental primacy over personal morality, social equanimity combined with an equal world salary, all welcome to the table, a USCCB in seeming tandem.
      So if one believes that the world may sleep at intervals and the devil never does, doesn’t it indicate a devilish two pronged assault on the individual?

  2. When the Renaissance Europe was regurgitating Classical Greek and Roman culture, Florence was annually celebrating Plato’s birthday, Erasmus was honouring Cicero as a saint, slavery was making an abrupt appearance after a progressive disappearance from the fourth century on.

    Regine Pernoud writes there was no comparison between the ancient servus, the slave, and the medieval servus, the serf.
    The former was a thing and the other was a human person, with unique personal individual dignity and all the rights of a freeman.
    Professor Siedentop writes on this very topic in one of his chapters to this
    book.
    The esteemed concept of humanism much trumpeted from the sixteenth century onwards did not apply to the enslaved.
    And the enslaved it can be argued are still in our midst, dehumanised by society’s rejection of God.

  3. We read: “Before Christianity, immortality was a family concept: one lived on in one’s family. The Resurrection of Jesus and the promise of a “…resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5) changed all that, as the individual human being became the locus of immortality — and thus the bearer of a unique, personal, ‘individual’ dignity.”

    And yet, in the papal prayer intention for January, we read (instead?) that dignity originates [!] in membership in the human family. True enough, this fraternity, but also a regression (?) and truncated ambiguity…

    “We pray for all those suffering from religious discrimination and persecution; may their own rights and dignity be recognized, which originate [?] from being brothers and sisters in the human family.”

  4. Professor Sidentrop’s book is a profound and impressive analysis. It is well worth reading on a subject of great importance.

  5. A more complete elaboration of these points was made in Mr. Weigel’s exceptional recent article in National Review on the role of Christianity in catalyzing the stunning progress of human civilization throughout the Christian world. Well worth a look.

  6. Protestant iconoclasm, forbidding ‘dulia’ to the saints, and hyperdulia to the BVM, banishes their images, by and large, lest the reformed Christian fall into idolatry and fails to focus on the only essential dyadic equation, namely, that of himself and the Redeemer, theandric Jesus. Unfortunately, Protestantism furthers thereby an incremental evanescence of the mystical body of Jesus Christ from the retina of Protestant man’s awareness,and implicitly impoverishes his recognition of the positive and requisite value to man’s collective nature. Fortunately, the Latin Church’s sense of piety has always advanced the communion of saints that binds the faithful living with all the faithful in Purgatory and in Heaven, forming the Mystical Body of Christ with Him at its Head:

    “The solidarity itself implies a variety of inter-relations … between the church on earth on the one hand, and purgatory and heaven on the other, suffrages, invocation, intercession, veneration. These… integrate the transcendent idea of spiritual solidarity between all the children of God” (Council of Trent, 16th century. Session XXV, decrees on purgatory, on the invocation, veneration, and relics of saints and indulgences and on sacred images) [J.F. Soller. Communion. Catholic Encyclopaedia. 1908. IV: 171-72].

    In his need to love and be loved, thereby, in his heart, and for the entelechy of his being, Man is meant always for the other. Without exercising compassionate ‘caritas’, Man cannot resolve himself, going beyond the stumbling block of alterity. However, against the collective awareness of what is requisite, rose, along with the burgeoning of 18th century capitalism, the individual unfurling the call toward individualism, fundamentally claiming his unique individuality, his priority to pursue his appetite, activities, and goals. Contemporary individualism in the US, a Protestant country, drinks from the discourse of Ayn Rand who preached mundane American selfishness with European notional overtones. Nietzsche, a renegade Lutheran and an atheist, offers a more potent brew of individualism. Even more potent the seminal, ultra-radical, autarchic, anarchistic, nihilist, intransigent thought in “Der Einzige und sein Eigentum” / The Unique One and His Property (1844), the magnum opus of Max Stirner (German, 1806-56), also an atheist of Protestant background.

    Against all logic, the individualist invariably claims that the individual comes first, and that any social bond, even the base ones of man and mate, and man and offspring, are but consequential. Postulated as incontrovertible truth, individualism threatens social viability, exacting the sacrifice of the collectivity’s well being, for the sake of the individual’s satisfaction. Such, for instance, the issue at hand of illness or health, life or death. Ostensibly, individualists, on the basis of their claim to sheer autonomy -a dubious supposition- are unwilling to vaccinate against a dangerous disease and thus contribute to the common good. They rather satisfy themselves exclusively. True, doing so, many individualists die due to Covid, though, unfortunately, not before passing on the dread disease to others.

    The malaise of individualism engulfs the U.S. SCOTUS indulges favouring individualism ‘sub rosa’ in many a case, particularly those concerning the second amendment far more than one would expect, On such instances, that a majority of SCOTUS’ members are supposedly Catholic seems to be inconsequential.

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