Inventing the Individual

Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop is yet another piece of historical revisionism which lends a significant amount of support to the absolutist interpretation of the role of political conflict and political structure in the development of culture.

The history presented by Siedentop is one which will be familiar to regular readers, but which adds a great number of twists to the story which instead of causing problems for the theory, lend it added ammunition. One of the more interesting twists provided by Siedentop is the thesis he provides that the driver for the creation of the individual was initially the papacy in an obvious political/ structural conflict with what the Church had termed “secular” authorities. This is interesting in light of William Cavanaugh’s thesis in The myth of Religious Violence which hews far more closely to standard history in placing the origin of the secular/religious split in the state building activities of the “secular” authorities leading up to the 30 Years War. The creation of the secular is laid squarely at the Church’s door with Siedentop, and it is something I was not fully aware of.

I had been intending to research in this general direction by following the logic of de Jouvenel in tracing the origins of the concept of a pre-social individual in scholastic thought, which is something that Cavanaugh had nonetheless noted. One of the main areas which interested me was the fact that many scholars have been puzzled by the apparent echoes of liberalism in the works of the likes of Nicholas of Cusa. The thesis I was following was that all advocacy of equality is the result of acute political conflict and that is clear with Nicholas, first against the papacy, and then for the papacy! but Siedentop has already covered all this ground and points to other academics who have gone through it in detail.

The general narrative provided by Sidentop can grossly be summarized as follows: the papacy began a number of reforms to increase its power, centralise and strengthen its position as an entity in itself. The process required the creation of institutions (universities, legal schools, bureaucracies) which encoded individualistic tendencies such as an interpretation of natural law which placed the human as prior to society. While Sidentop notes the dynamic of high-low versus the middle repeatedly, he does not make the express connection between political conflict and this cultural development because he is cheerleading this process as some great awakening and wonderful development. This process of centralisation, however, was a sword which could be wielded against the Church institutions, and it is something which the monarchs did. Siedentop notes that many of the monarchs purposefully aped the papal structure and reforms, and then engaged in high-low conflict citing the individual as a justification.

We can sidestep a lot of fuzziness in Siedentop’s account by approaching this individualizing process in a neutral manner. We can neither take it as bad, nor good, a priori and instead merely note that there is a clear mechanism in place here, and it is one laid out for us by de Jouvenel. The mechanism is that political conflict drove centers of power to secure their position by seeking to apply an equalizing process on power centers beneath them. This is simply what this individualisation is once stripped of the moral glow of being a freeing of souls, a discovery of natural rights, or a progressive freeing of people from chains of local relationships. The Papacy in seeking to secure its position, and its sphere of control, developed this religious/secular divided which the secular state builders shoved down their throat. This divide was created by asserting the natural rights of the human prior to customary and positive law (categories which we should be suspicious of.) This all also accords greatly with Filmer’s account of the origin of the high-low conflict in Catholic actions. Remember that in Patriarcha Filmer’s attacks against the social contract account of political organisation is directed at the Catholic Cardinal Bellarmine, and that he complains it was the papacy trying to raise the people above the kings.

Sticking with the de Jouvenelian model allows to cut out a lot of the noise from accounts like Siedentop’s and Cavanaugh’s and see where we can move past them. Individualism is the result of political conflict and can only occur under the umbrella of institutions encoding this pattern of behaviour and providing the necessary logistics to make it viable. It is not some magic process, it is not a mystical awe inspiring ascent into utopia, it is instead a very clear repeating pattern that occurs in the wake of centralision in an unsecure system which requires the centralising agent (the papacy, the monarchs) to make appeals to the individuals under subsidiary and recalcitrant centers of power (lords, feudal fiefdoms, kings, papacy) the position of the agents varies depending on time and place, and the race is always on to be the one in the position of the high, which gives the process a unidirectional nature. The individual cannot be free qua other individuals in an anarchistic manner at all, and it is a fever dream to suppose they can. If you think you have located a situation in which individuals are free simpliciter then it is going to be because you have either A) defined away governance in an act of self-deception (see the liberal nation state  overseeing “freedom”) B) simply stated events in a passive voice so you can ignored the subject of the sentence or  C) are simply delusional.


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