Discover more from Earthly Idealism
Christianity’s true moral legacy
Who really taught us the value of the individual?
The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing rendering them equal before God and the law. (Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, 186)
Peterson is saying nothing innovative here. The idea that individualism is the product of Christianity is widespread. But it’s wrong.
Individualism is a metaphysical, moral, and political doctrine.
Metaphysically, it says that the individual is essentially an individual, not a part of some greater collective entity such as the tribe, the race, or society
Morally, it says that each individual is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others
Politically, it says that each individual has the right to exist for the sake of his own happiness
As a corollary, individualism upholds human equality—not in the sense of equal outcomes or even equal opportunities, but in the sense that each individual is equally real, equally entitled to live for his own sake, equally free to pursue his own happiness. None are born masters, none are born serfs.
Individualism is the West’s greatest moral legacy, but its source is not Christianity. It was the ancient Greek philosophical outlook that, despite crucial errors, ultimately led to the discovery of the individual and his rights. Christianity, though paying paying lip service to the value of the individual soul, led to a radically different conclusion: that man’s proper state is that of a humble servant.
The anti-individualism of Christianity
What would it mean for Christianity to be the source of individualism? It can’t mean simply that Christians can point to something in the Bible that can be interpreted as supportive of individualism. That sort of ad hoc, post hoc justification can be given for any idea.
So, how might we establish Christianity as the source of individualism?
The founders of Christianity
One approach might be to point to how the earliest Christians interpreted their doctrine. But if Acts is to be believed, the earliest Christians weren’t individualists but communists.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. (Acts 4:32)
Christian communism was always limited in its appeal, but the intellectual perspective that gave rise to it had deep roots in Christine doctrine. St. Paul understood Christian equality to mean that we are “all one in Christ Jesus,” and held that a Christian community is a collective organism he describes as the “body of Christ.” “The metaphor,” philosopher Larry Siedentop writes, “conjures up a mystical union which moralizes individual wills by relating them to the source of their being.” Members of the body of Christ are moral equals, which means, not that they are all entitled to live for themselves, but that they are all required to serve each other.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13–14)
If we cannot locate individualism in the doctrines and acts of the founders of Christianity, can we do better if turn to the church’s founding philosopher?
St. Augustine, the first major philosopher of Christianity, followed Paul in viewing the individual as an equal cell in the “body of Christ.” But for Augustine, it’s important that equality was spiritual, not earthly. On earth, “commands are given by those who care for the rest—by husband to wife, parents to children, and masters to servants,” and it was the duty of wives, children, and servants to obey. (City of God, XIX 14)
Slaves, too, owed obedience to their enslavers. Though Augustine insists that, “in the matter of the worship of God” enslavers show “equal concern for all members of the household,” a slave who is disobedient is properly “corrected by a word, or by a blow, or by whatever other kinds of punishment is just and lawful.” (City of God, XIX 16)
Though Augustine’s is certainly concerned with the individual soul and its salvation, this did not mean exalting the individual. Pride, said Augustine, is the source of evil: it is “an appetite for a perverse kind of elevation”—namely the desire to be “one’s own foundation.” You believe that you can think for yourself, live for yourself, and achieve success, happiness, and self-esteem for yourself? Not a chance. To “exist in oneself” is “to come closer to nothingness.” In Augustine’s view, the proper stature for man is not pride and self-assertion but “obedience, which can belong only to the humble.” (City of God, XIV 13)
The Church in power
If we cannot get to individualism by looking at Christianity’s founders or its foundational thinkers, yet another approach might be to look at how Christians ruled when they dominated intellectually, culturally, and politically. But if Christianity is individualist, more than 1,500 years passed without anyone noticing it. Christians by and large endorsed slavery, despotism, and repression by civil and religious authorities.
To take just one of countless examples, consider Conrad of Marburg, appointed the first papal inquisitor in 1231. Historian Tom Holland writes:
The swarm of heretics that confronted Conrad were not readily to be redeemed from damnation. Only fire could smoke them out. Pyres needed to be stoked as they had never been stoked before. The burning of heretics—hitherto a rare and sporadic expedient, only ever reluctantly licensed, if at all—was the very mark of Conrad’s inquisition. In towns and villages along the Rhine, the stench of blackened flesh hung in the air. ‘So many heretics were burned throughout Germany that their number could not be comprehended.’ Conrad’s critics, unsurprisingly, accused him of a killing spree. They charged him with believing every accusation that was brought before him; of rushing the process of law; of sentencing the innocent to the flames. No one, though, was innocent. All were fallen. (Dominion, 254-5)
Collective guilt—the very antithesis of individualism—was baked into Christianity at its foundation, with the concept of Original Sin.
The real meaning of “Christian equality”
Yes, Christians believed in human equality in the sense that all were equal under God. But what they took away from this idea was not the individualist conviction that each individual has a right to exist for his own sake, but that we are each unworthy sinners who have a duty to love and serve our fellow sinners. Christian heroes were not those who overcame great obstacles to achieve their own happiness, but those who took voluntary vows of poverty and chastity, and dedicated their life to serving the needy.
The story of St. Elizabeth is instructive. Born the daughter of a king, she gave away all her wealth after the death of her husband and worked around the clock in a hospital. Even so, she said, “If there were a life that was more despised, I would choose it.” She swore obedience to a moral authority—none other than Conrad, who proceeded to violently beat her for missing one of his sermons. “Even when punished for offences she had not committed, she rejoiced in her submission,” notes Holland. She was dead by the age of 24, at which time Conrad acclaimed her as a saint.
What we have with Christianity through most of its history is a religion that says the individual is:
Metaphysically - part of a collective (the body of Christ)
Morally - a servant of the collective
Politically - subservient to the leaders of the collective
Since we cannot get to individualism by starting with Christianity, let’s take a different approach. Let’s look at a few of the key turning points in the development of principle of individualism and see what role Christianity played.
The Greek origins of individualism
Individualism has its roots in ancient Greece. Thinkers such as Aristotle held that the individual is a rational being who should live for the sake of his own happiness. But neither Aristotle nor other Greeks saw the full implications of this principle, particularly in politics.
Crucially, Greek ethics was not universalist: the best life was not open to everyone, but only a privileged few. The most striking illustration here is their support for slavery. Even Aristotle concluded that, “some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.” (Politics, 1255a)
The Greeks mistakenly believed that not all human beings were fully capable of reason, and this entailed deeply entrenched hierarchies. Diogenes captures the Greek perspective when he shares an anecdote about the philosopher Thales: “he used to say there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: ‘first, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian.’"
It was the Stoics who corrected this error, recognizing that if the Greeks were right, and if man’s stature is rooted in his capacity for reason, then each individual has the same potential for achieving virtue. According to Cicero:
There is no difference in kind between man and man; for . . . reason, which alone raises us above the level of the beasts and enables us to draw inferences, to prove and disprove, to discuss and solve problems, and to come to conclusions, is certainly common to us all, and, though varying in what it learns, at least in its capacity to learn it is invariable. . . . In fact, there is no human being of any race who, if he finds a guide, cannot attain virtue.
Human beings, the Stoics held, are metaphysically equal in that we all share the capacity of reason. We are therefore properly bound by the same moral and political law, which they called ius naturale or natural right.
(Not that the Stoics were individualist. Far from it. “[W]e are the parts one great body,” wrote Seneca. We should therefore cultivate an “all embracing love of the human race even as of oneself.” Such love should extend even to your enemies, who deserve not retribution, but forgiveness.)
Stoicism exerted a powerful influence on Christianity from the beginning, not least of all in helping Christian thinkers formulate a universalist creed. Holland notes that:
Writing from Corinth to the churches of Rome, [Paul] freely acknowledged that Jews were not alone in having a sense of right and wrong. Other peoples too, however dimly, possessed one. How had they come by it? Since God had never given them a Law, it could only have derived ‘from nature’. This, for a Jew, was an astonishing acknowledgment to make. The concept of natural law had no place in Torah. Yet Paul—as he struggled to define the law that he believed, in the wake of the crucifixion and the resurrection, to be written on the heart of all who acknowledged Christ as Lord—did not hesitate to adapt the teachings of the Greeks. The word he used for it—syneidesis—clearly signalled which philosophers in particular he had in mind. Paul, at the heart of his gospel, was enshrining the Stoic concept of conscience. (Dominion, 95)
So Christianity didn’t originate the idea of human metaphysical equality. But it drew from that idea the lesson that all individuals are equally sinful and undeserving servants. The thinkers of the Enlightenment would draw a different lesson.
If the Greeks laid the metaphysical and moral foundations for individualism, it was Enlightenment thinkers who drew the political implications.
These thinkers were usually Christians. They did often invoke God and even cite scripture in their arguments. But their basic approach and key arguments were not derived from Christianity. They leveled philosophical arguments based on facts about this world and rooted in a view of nature and human nature that was essentially classical—not Christian.
Peter Gay describes the tenor of the times in The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism:
[I]n the eighteenth century, when the philosophes . . . asserted their kinship with the classical world, they were being radical and deeply offensive to Christian sensibilities. Their exaltation of Greece contradicted, boldly and deliberately, the traditional Christian view of history; it shifted attention away from one people to another—from the Jews to the Greeks—and elevated critical thinking into the distinctive mark of historical periods. To make Greeks into the fathers of true civilization—the fathers, in a word, of the first Enlightenment—was to subvert the foundations of Christian historiography by treating man’s past a secular, not a sacred, record. The primacy of Greece meant the primacy of philosophy, and the primacy of philosophy made nonsense of the claim that religion was man’s central concern. (72)
We can see the primacy of Greek philosophy even in thinkers who presaged the Enlightenment and who took religion much more seriously than their intellectual descendants. Take the pivotal thinker in the development of concept of individual rights, Hugo Grotius, who would be the major influence on John Locke.
Grotius sought to put international law on a secure foundation. Writing during the Thirty Years’ War, that meant figuring out how to establish a law that could bind Protestants and Catholics, Christians and non-Christians. For this, he could not look to the Bible for guidance. Instead, he turned to the “tradition of natural law which he found in the writers of classical antiquity.” (George Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 422) His chief influence—though he parted ways with the philosopher at crucial points—was Aristotle.
The details of Grotius’s argument aren’t important here. What’s important is that Grotius was deliberately not basing his argument on Christianity—or any religion at all. His argument was essentially secular: human beings are by nature sociable, but human societies can be sources of conflict. Natural law shows us how to properly deal with these dueling forces—by protect the rights of individuals. “What we have been saying,” Grotius insists, “would have a certain degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to him.”
That was the pattern. Enlightenment thinkers—even religious ones—sought to replace religion as the source of intellectual, moral, and political authority. In the process, their conclusions became increasingly rooted in this world, increasingly at odds with religious dogma, and increasingly individualistic.
Christianity cannot take credit for individualism. It can only take credit for undercutting individualism.
While Enlightenment thinkers were successful in formulating an individualist political theory, they could not defend its metaphysical and moral base.
Metaphysically, individualism depends on a view of man as a volitional being who can achieve knowledge and values through his own use of reason. Thinkers like Locke were unable to give a persuasive account of the power of reason, which left them vulnerable to attacks by Hume, Kant, and a parade of post-Kantian irrationalists. Christianity would be no help to them here.
And Christianity was positively harmful when it came to developing a morality of individualism. Enlightenment thinkers did not aim to replace Christian ethics with a new and improved version of Greek ethics, but to secularize the Sermon on the Mount. The result was to cripple their own political theory: you cannot defend a political right to pursue your own happiness unless you defend a moral right to pursue your own happiness.
To complete the case for individualism requires a morality, not of service and sacrifice, but Effective Egoism.
3 Fun Things
An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”
—Ayn Rand, Textbook of Americanism
"Individualism in an Age of Tribalism" by Onkar Ghate. Onkar explores the true meaning of individualism, and how religion encourages its antithesis: tribalism.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
Thanks for reading Earthly Idealism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.