[A]t the core of both ancient thinking and ancient society was the assumption of natural inequality. Different levels of social status, Siedentop argues, reflected what were taken to be inherent differences of being. Crucially, it was this assumption of natural inequality that was to be overturned by the Pauline interpretation of the significance of the life of Christ. As Siedentop expresses it, Paul wagered on human equality and in doing so he set out a Christian understanding of community as “the free association of the wills of morally equal agents”. In essence … Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual seeks to show how this new assumption of the moral equality of humans came, over a thousand years and more, to transform the way in which we conceived of both society and government.
At its heart is the claim that the Christian assumption of moral equality in turn gave rise to a commitment to the equal liberty of all individuals. If this is true, it follows, as Siedentop states, that it was the canon lawyers and philosophers of medieval Europe and not, as has usually been assumed, the writers of the Renaissance and their rediscovery of ancient humanism who are largely responsible for our modern conception of liberty and who therefore can lay claim to having established the fundamentals of modern liberalism. As Siedentop writes, the canon lawyers and philosophers of the 14th and 15th centuries “laid the foundation for a private, rights-based sphere, where freedom and conscience prevailed”.
In an earlier review, Kenan Malik wasn’t quite convinced: