With Muslims once again behaving badly, it’s interesting to consider the large question of why Christians are nicer. From the Boston Review:
Did Christianity Create Liberalism?
February 09, 2015
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism
Harvard Belknap Press, $35 (cloth)
In his new book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop tries his own hand at telling how modern freedom came about. Channeling the project of the French tradition [i.e., the 19th Century historicalist conservatism of De Tocqueville and friends, not 18th Century French Social Contract theorizing], he leans heavily on the almost-forgotten Guizot, the political theorist and government minister whose History of Civilization in Europe (1828) Siedentop in effect revives and updates. …
There are a few powerful components to Siedentop’s rehabilitation of the French tradition. The most important follows that tradition’s most promising move, which is to treat modern individualism as a historical product rather than a natural fact. There was a time before the individual, and Siedentop spends his first few chapters dwelling on it: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom. “They failed to notice,” Siedentop comments mordantly, “that the ancient family began as a veritable church.”
This history may be news to Anglo-Americans liberals, who routinely take the individual as a natural given. In the social contract, individuals are a premise, not a product. In economics, the satisfaction of individual preferences is the self-evident goal, but this is never explained or justified, even though it is an astonishingly rare commitment across the sweep of time. Siedentop wants to treat such first principles as the result of a history that made liberalism conceivable in the first place.
There is another persuasive feature to Siedentop’s approach. Like Guizot, he assumes he has to look hard at the period between antiquity and modernity, since it must have been in that interim that the commitment to the value of the individual emerged. The Renaissance gave the Middle Ages a bad rap, and Siedentop seeks to undo its contempt. “What is characteristic about historical writing in recent centuries?” Siedentop asks. “It is an inclination to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages.” Nostalgically reviving the paganism of the Greco-Roman past, the Renaissance, like the Enlightenment later, disguised how alien in cultural norms and political values antiquity really was. Both the Renaissance and Enlightenment encouraged their heirs to skirt the roots of liberalism in the Christianity that flourished in the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, in spite of these plausible starting points, Siedentop’s venture soon goes awry. Having introduced the puzzle of the relationship between Christianity and liberalism, Siedentop does not know how to solve it. Like many others, he insists that something about the content of Christianity must have been decisive in making modern Western beliefs possible. But this assumption is harder to prove than Siedentop thinks.
I won’t get into this specific discussion but simply talk about how to add perspective. If you start off asking:
– In Culture A (e.g., Christendom), X (e.g., liberal modernity) happened. Why?
Well, you’re not very constrained in your speculations by any pattern recognition skills you might bring to the table because there’s not much of a pattern. So, it’s usually more productive to ask something like:
– In Culture A (e.g., Christendom), X (e.g., liberal modernity) happened, but in Culture B (e.g., Islam), X didn’t happen? Why?
But that still runs into what I call the midget-giant problem of perspective when you only have two examples that I first noticed in 1981 standing on the steps of Royce Hall looking out over UCLA’s large grassy quad. I saw two young men walking in isolation. One was a normal sized guy, and the other was a midget, a perfectly proportioned little person. I was struck by this because, while you see an occasional dwarf at UCLA, but you don’t see too many midgets. But then, a third fellow walked up and joined the group, and he was a midget, too. Two midgets! What are the odds of that? All of a sudden a gestalt kicked in and I realized I was looking not at two midgets and a normal sized guy, but at two normal sized guys and one genuine giant, the UCLA basketball team’s backup center, 7’3″ 290 pound Mark Eaton.
Having three examples is very useful in say, discussing race. Do blacks get arrested so much because the white male power structure evilly hates all other races or do blacks get arrested so much because blacks commit a lot of crimes? Adding a third race, such as Asians, adds perspective.
So, it’s helpful to add a third culture to the big question of the day about Christianity and Islam:
– In Culture A, X happened, but in Cultures B and C, X didn’t happen? Why?
Fortunately for our analytical purposes, there was a third culture C in Western Eurasia during this time period which had many of the presumed prerequisites to invent liberal modernity, such as literacy, wealth, and globalist connections, and yet failed: Judaism.
Only in the second half of the 18th Century did a few German Jews, such as composer Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather Moses, start to notice that the gentiles were no longer such impoverished ignoramuses, and that Jews could, for once, learn from the gentiles, and thus launched the Jewish Enlightenment in imitation of the host culture’s long ongoing Enlightenment.
In contrast to the Islamic world’s continuing failures, we can be sure that Judaism’s failures were due to nurture rather than nature, in that within a few generations, many Jews had rapidly adjusted to the new culture and were at the forefront of global modernity (e.g., Einstein).
So, the failure of Jews to achieve anything near liberal modernity without imitating enlightened German gentiles reflects flaws (from the perspective of liberal modernity) in Jewish culture that could provide enlightening perspectives on the current Christian v. Muslim cultures discussion.
But, of course, the failures of Jewish culture are not a topic open to discussion in the 21st Century, at least not among gentiles. The only explanation allowed for gentile thinkers to even consider is gentile anti-Semitic discrimination.