"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Christian Europe, the Inventor of Liberty: Part II

In my last post, I discussed how philosopher Larry Siedentop shows Christianity invented the individual and therefore the possibility for western freedoms. Below I discuss how Christianity turned the individual into a legal entity in canon law, which was later copied by civil and criminal law. I also suggest some problems for what Siedentop recommends, given his historical interpretation.

Canon Law and Natural Rights

There are many ways Christianity usurped Hellenic assumptions of natural inequality that continued to pervade for several centuries: the nonviolent martyr replaced the Greek warrior as the new mythic hero, and monasteries and medieval boroughs became their own self-governing entities. But to narrow to the origin of our language of natural rights, I will discuss how “the Papal Revolution” (the claims of ecclesial independence and papal supremacy over all souls) lead to the development of natural rights and the sovereign state.

It must be remembered that there was no private sphere in the ancient world. That absence meant there were no natural rights of individuals. Justice was part of the public domain and existed for aristocratic families—not private individuals. Indeed, the very language of rights is historically recent. “There is no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression ‘a right’ until near the Middle Ages,” Alasdair MacIntyre notes. Roman law, for instance, did not have an idea of rights natural to an individual. But as Siedentop shows, the understanding of rights as the rights natural to individuals drew primarily from Christian moral intuitions and institutions.

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the clergy were the sole structure for government. Caesar and God inevitably mixed. To reform the faith, monasteries arose apart from the city and feudal society to seek a more authentic Christianity. These monasteries were often self-governing, voluntary, and autonomous because their system was rooted in each individual soul being equal before God, no matter where one came from. So when the papacy started asserting its independence from royal control, it went to the autonomous monasteries for help.

These monks turned to Roman law to develop the law of the church—what we call canon law. In the 11th century onwards, a distinctly Christian legal system arose. Siedentop notes that the popes and canonists, in defending the liberty of the church against the claims of the state, “based their arguments on the equality of the souls in the eyes of God, with its implications for the claims of morality.” The canonists took Roman law and purged it “of hierarchal assumptions surviving from the social structure of the ancient world.” They made each individual soul equally subject to the sovereign papacy. This “papal claim of sovereignty prepared the way for the emergence of the state as a distinctive form of government.” The canonists used the language of natural rights in claiming the equality of souls, equal in subjection to the church.

Many rulers desired to emulate the well-run papal bureaucracy and new legal system. By modelling themselves after canon law, the ‘sovereign’ states incorporated the new language of natural (and individual) rights. So if the state was to be sovereign like the papacy, all individuals would be equal subjects. The state, which copied a church that drew upon Christian moral intuitions, also unintentionally drew upon the same intuitions in the natural rights language of the individual.

A Franciscan Liberalism and a Nietzschean Critique

This Christian revolution had many sources that causally preceded the explicit idea of individual dignity. Siedentop explains a tradition of belief in private conscience and free will from the church fathers like Tertullian (who first argued for equal religious freedom) and Augustine to medieval philosophers like Hans Dun Scotus and William of Ockham. Siedentop explains the latter two (as Franciscans) articulated a new view of liberty. Classically, liberty was understood not as something to have, but someone to become. It was teleological: the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree. As the acorn becomes more an oak tree, the freer it becomes in fulfilling its innate potential. The same goes for human beings: the more virtuous—more human—we are, the freer we are. In Hellenism, teleological freedom was achieved in civic life alone. Instead Scotus and Ockham pioneered what is called negative liberty (a right to non-interference by other people) rather than the classical positive liberty (the person I am meant to become by participating in civic life). While ancient positive liberty is collective and public, modern negative liberty is individual and private. Benjamin Constant explains “the liberty of the ancients” consisted “in an active and constant participation in collective power,” while “the liberty of the moderns” consists in “peaceful enjoyment and private independence.” Scotus and Ockham rooted this new liberty in St. Paul. In this way, Siedentop argues that Christianity invented the meaning of modern liberty.

Their view developed by rebutting the Dominican philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. They believed Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle and Christianity could revive ancient social hierarchical assumptions and thereby deny the freedom of the will they were championing. Aquinas elevated reason as primary, after which follows the will: what we choose is directed by what we know to be good and true. Instead, these Franciscans said the will was primary and reason secondary. The view that nature is teleological (e.g. an acorn purposed to be oak tree) also seemed contrary to Christian humility. (As the robber Flambeau says to Father Brown in G.K. Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross”: “these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?”) Ockham and his successors pioneered negative liberty and the value of individual sovereignty over and against a rationalist cosmos in which reason used people rather than people using reason.

Siedentop champions this Franciscan liberty, a negative sphere of sovereignty derived from the dignity of conscience, which is the precondition for social relations and authentic virtue. It is, in Ockham, the triumph of Europe and Christianity’s gift to the world. Modern Europe, Siedentop says, has lost its “moral bearings” due to willful historical amnesia. But he does not think that liberalism needs to return home like the Prodigal Son, just that it should remember its home. My concern is that our common inheritance of classical liberalism is not sustainable theoretically or practically without a direct rejuvenation in its Judeo-Christian roots.

[pq]Liberalism alone is not sufficient to avoid moral sterility.[/pq]

Siedentop’s book reminded me of Frederich Nietzsche. He too credited Judaism and Christianity with inventing “the subject” or “soul,” that enabled “the majority of mortals, the weak and downtrodden of all sorts” to believe they had “freedom” and intrinsic “merit.” He also prophesized oncoming cultural and moral nihilism because as Christianity overthrew the Hellenic cosmos of rationalist inequality, a post-Christian Europe had overthrown its own universe. In killing the Christian God, Nietzsche’s Madman says, Europe had taken a “sponge to wipe away the entire horizon” and “unchained this earth from its sun.” In contrast, Siedentop’s modest prescription seems insufficient to conserve classical liberalism since the liberalism he upholds (necessary for authentic virtue and conscience social life) cannot provide a principled account of the good life.

Without some reason to guide the will, one can only admire willing. But since will is by its nature particular, one has nothing prior to the will to inspire it or in front of it to rightly order it. As Chesterton said, “the worship of will is the negation of will.” The will becomes sterile. It may be, as David Bentley Hart writes, “the only cult that can truly thrive in the aftermath of Christianity is a sordid service of the self, of the impulses of the will, of the nothingness that is all that the withdrawal of Christianity leaves behind.” The irony of modernity is this: while positive freedom preceded Christianity, it baptized classical liberty. In doing so, Christianity gave birth to negative liberty; but the rejection of the Biblical narrative (which undergirds the modernist narrative) entails only negative and no positive freedom.

The loss of Christendom entails the loss of antiquity, and the rise of modernity entails freedom of the will without anything worth willing for. This is the current crisis of liberalism: as David Marquand admits in The New Republic: “the travails of political liberalism reflect a profound crisis of the liberal world-view. To put it crudely, it is no longer clear what liberalism means.” Liberalism alone is not sufficient to avoid moral sterility. That which said, ‘Let there be Liberalism,’ is needed as well.


Nietzsche credited Christianity with inventing democracy, socialism, and equal rights. Now Siedentop remarkably shows classical liberalism and the individual must be added to that list. Siedentop notes that with competing narratives of Islamism and China, we in Europe and the West “no longer have a persuasive story to tell ourselves about our origins and development. There is little narrative sweep in our view of things. For better or worse, things have just happened to us.” So while celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, hopefully we’ll be more than just the Prodigal Son who remembers in the pigsty, but recognize our need to return to where we individuals were born. Siedentop points us in the right direction.