St Paul is the father of humanity's Damascene conversion. Credit: Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

January 6, 2021   6 mins

Where did liberalism come from? According to Ian Dunt in his book How To Be A Liberal — which, despite the title, is not a self-help guide —  it started with René Descartes. Dunt’s book is a historical account of how liberal ideas emerged, and the subsequent routes they’ve taken up until the present day. It offers the conventional narrative, shared by many on the Left and Right, that liberal thought is opposed to tradition, authority, and religion.

Liberalism, the story goes, emerged with the dawn of science in seventeenth century Europe. Instead of “finding certainty in god”, Descartes found it “in the individual”. Each human became “not a subsection of our family, or class, or tribe, or religion, or race, or nation,” writes Dunt. “We are individuals. We can think for ourselves. We have a capacity for reason. This was the philosophical truth that emerged from the ruins of the world certainties.” 

Before Descartes came along, we had the Middle Ages — the age of tyranny and enforced superstition. Then these two revolutionary ideas came along in the early modern period of Descartes — that you are an individual and you are capable of reason — and would, Dunt writes, “go on to destroy the old world and create a new one, based on rights, reason, and liberty.” These two ideas are the axioms of liberalism, and in the seventeenth century they were disseminated, along with the affinal values of scepticism, science, democracy, and human rights.

As a piece of narrative, this story is enchanting. Imagine the solitary Descartes, in his damp Dutch bedroom, stumbling across the simple idea that would revolutionise his conformist civilisation: cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. This is, in fact, how Dunt presents it. But as a historical account of liberalism, it is erroneous. Liberalism didn’t emerge as a revolt against the certainties of Medieval Christianity; its origins lie in Christianity.

If any individual could be said to have conceived liberalism, it would be the father of Christianity, St. Paul, in the first century. As Larry Siedentop writes in his book Inventing the Individual, “Followers of Jesus began to claim his sacrificial life and death amounted to a dramatic intervention in history, a new revelation of God’s will”. This, not Descartes’s epiphany, was the insight that gave rise to the concept of the individual:

Previously in antiquity it was the patriarchal family that had been the agency of immortality. Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death.

In other words, in antiquity, your sense of self was grounded in the family network you belonged to. Then came the Pauline moral conviction: you had individual agency.

Siedentop’s direct quotation of Paul’s words is striking in their similarity to Dunt’s exaltation of Descartes: “So if anything is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new”. This moral revolution was grounded in the view that we are all equally made in the image of Christ: neither Jew nor greek, slave nor freeman. And the moral universalism implied by this conviction suggests, as Siedentop puts it, there is “a moral agency potentially available to each and everyone, that is, to individuals”. Rights, like identity, used to belong to tribes — now, they belonged to us, as individuals, since we all individually belong to Christ. And so the individual, as we now more or less understand it, was born. And liberalism depends — fundamentally — on the existence of individuals.

Dunt has a habit of presenting historical incidents as clean breaks from the past: Descartes’s discovery; the work of the Leveller philosopher Richard Overton; the French revolution. But it’s worth remembering that these are moments in a gradual evolution of ideas. The effects of epochal events take time to be measured. Siedentop argues, for instance, that although that initial conception of the individual can be traced back to Paul’s moral revolution, it was the canon lawyers of Medieval Europe that really lay the groundwork for our modern conception of liberalism.

The notion of natural law, for example, was rooted in the ancient world, but was revised by Christian moral intuitions to become natural rights. These rights were ascribed to the individual, based on the assumption of underlying moral equality between all persons.

Of course, these principles were not genuinely applied in practice until about five minutes ago in historical time. Nevertheless, as I’ve said, ideas and concepts take their time. As Siedentop puts it:

the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century resembles nothing so much as the stages through which canon law developed from the twelfth to the fifteenth century…The canonist, so to speak, ‘got there first’.

The person who conceived of the individual was not the embodiment of early modern scepticism but a rambunctious Jew from the 1st century. The people who lay the foundation for modern liberalism were not English Puritan radicals, French Enlightenment libertines, and eccentric Victorians; they were the lawyers and theologians ensconced in the ivory towers of Medieval Europe.

This may seem intuitively strange, but to consider it another way, let’s consult another book published last year: Joseph Henrich’s The Weirdest People in the World. WEIRD stands for western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic. It describes, in short, the psychological profile of people from western countries. This profile is unique. As Henrich writes:

Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, we WEIRD people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, and analytical. We focus on ourselves — our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations — over our relationships and social roles.

This profile is exactly consonant with how Dunt depicts the liberal — not as a subsection of family or tribe, but as an individual. And indeed, the people in WEIRD countries are the most receptive to liberal concepts and beliefs. But reading Henrich’s book shows clearly that what led to us seeing ourselves as individuals, rather than as simply parts of a larger network, was not the innovation of early modern thinkers. Rather, it was a consequence of the marriage and family proposals of Latin Christianity’s early churches.

Throughout much of history, people lived in dense family networks. Your social circle consisted of your cousins and in-laws. The social norms that came about as a result of this, what Henrich calls kin-based institutions, “constrain people from shopping widely for new friends, business partners, or spouses. Instead, they channel people’s investments into a distinct and largely inherited in-group”. The Medieval Catholic Church changed this. Between the first and thirteenth century, they prohibited both marriage to relatives and polygnous marriage; required bride and groom to publicly consent (I do!); and encouraged couples to set up independent households.

By the end of the Middle Ages, well before Descartes burst onto the scene, Europe was already defined by monogamous and nuclear marriages. People married comparatively late, with both men and women marrying in their mid-20s. Many women never married at all — by 30, 15-25% of north-western European women were unmarried, compared to China where the figure was between 1 and 2%. Families were relatively small, and fertility rates relatively low.

This, ultimately, led to WEIRD psychology. Because we were freed from the constraints of our family or tribe, we became more interested in the idea of ourselves as individuals. It was the policies of the Medieval Catholic church, then, that led to the psychological profile which makes us most receptive to liberal beliefs and concepts.

Dunt does concede in one part of his book that “although modern liberalism is overwhelmingly secular, one of its ironies is that the seeds of its growth were planted by Christians making pious protests against Catholicism”. But he doesn’t go far enough. In fact, it’s only “ironic” because Dunt doesn’t recognise that the term ‘secularism’ is in fact profoundly Christian. As Tom Holland writes in his book Dominion, the very words with which we reject religious authority and proclaim individual conscience derive from Christianity itself: “‘Religion’, ‘secular’, ‘atheist’: none of these are neutral. All, though they derive from the classical past, come freighted with the legacy of Christendom. Fail to appreciate this, and the risk is always of anachronism.”

But Dunt, of course, very much wants to stress that liberalism is a radical ideology — perhaps because the word itself has often, in recent years, been characterised as stodgy and slightly embarrassing. Badly dressed centrist dads who revere the EU and Radiohead are liberal. Calling yourself a classical liberal on Twitter is like confessing you wear socks with sandals. Liberalism is also, nowadays, in opposition to populist nationalism and identity politics — beliefs which, in contrast to the popular conception of liberalism, possess a certain vigour.

Dunt’s worry about the anaemic nature of contemporary liberalism is well-founded. So is his wish to present a compelling narrative — the Age of Science against religious tradition and authority. Because narratives are a powerful way of expressing belonging. And liberalism, Dunt stresses, needs to find a better way of articulating belonging, being a part of something greater than the individual self, without sacrificing the underlying principles of liberty and equality.

One way to do that is perhaps, as Siedentop suggests at the end of his book, emphasising that our values are Christian — that we are not simply individuals: we also have a collective custom and a tradition that gives dignity to our individualism. The problem is, a lot of liberals will feel squeamish about this, arguing that our values are universal, not religious. And liberals are meant to be sceptical about tradition.

But the assumption, shared by many of all political or religious beliefs, that these principles belong to all of us is itself a product of our Christian inheritance, which dictates that we all belong in the body of Christ. That we deny this religious inheritance in favour of a vague moral universalism is proof of just how powerful that inheritance is: our intuition is so universalist, we forget it comes from a particular place — that it is WEIRD.

Liberalism is not simply a live-and-let-live philosophy, a radical questioning of tradition and old certainties; it is also a product of the Christian tradition. Which is another way of saying the tradition is itself radical: prior to it, we were not seen as individuals, but merely extensions of a tribe; after it, liberal thought intuitively makes sense to us. The answer to Dunt’s title — How to Be a Liberal — is through absorbing, knowingly or unknowingly, some of the moral assumptions of Christianity.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which will be published by Atlantic in June.