Two rival concepts of liberty have their roots in medieval canon law and Anglo-Saxon England
What do we mean when we speak of liberty? Where does our understanding of the concept of liberty come from? These are important questions and arguably should inform all our thinking about politics. Both, in very different ways, are addressed in Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane, £20) and Daniel Hannan’s How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters (Head of Zeus, £20).
In its most straightforward sense, liberty is usually taken to be a condition in which an individual is not impeded from doing what he or she wants to do. This was a definition of liberty first firmly established by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. “A free man,” Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, “is he, that in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.” An individual therefore remained free for as long as he or she was not physically or legally coerced by either other individuals or by the state. The extent of a person’s liberty, Hobbes argued, depended upon “the Silence of the Law”.
At least two conclusions followed from this. The first was that, of all the forms of coercion, it was arbitrary coercion by the state that was most to be feared. Such, Montesquieu observed in The Spirit of the Laws, was the nature of despotic government. Second, this simple definition of liberty largely assumed that there was a part of an individual’s existence that rightly should remain beyond the interference of either the state or society. This argument was set out brilliantly by Benjamin Constant in his famous lecture of 1819, The Liberty of the Ancients compared with that of the Moderns, and was to be developed by John Stuart Mill when, in On Liberty, he made the important, if problematic, distinction between the “self-regarding” and the “other-regarding” actions of an individual. It was only the latter that were amenable to control by society. Of course, this understanding of liberty has not gone unchallenged. A definition of liberty in terms of non-interference, it is argued, begs the question of how liberty is actually realised. Having the right to own property, it is suggested, means little if as a matter of fact the vast majority do not have the wealth to acquire property. Accordingly, we can only be said to be truly free if we have the power to satisfy our wishes. Much confusion has followed from this proposition. As Friedrich von Hayek commented, liberty does not mean all good things. To be free may mean the freedom to starve.
But where do our ideas about the meaning of liberty come from? This is the topic addressed by Larry Siedentop in his erudite and elegantly-written Inventing the Individual. No doubt to the dismay of many, Siedentop’s thesis is that our modern understanding of human agency, and therefore of the liberty of the individual, has its roots deep in the moral intuitions of Christianity. In bold outline, Siedentop argues that the ancient city was not an association of individuals but a form of social organisation built upon the claims of family, tribe and caste. In such a society there was no notion that an individual was the possessor of rights that could be employed over and against the claims of either the city or its gods. Like Benjamin Constant before him, Siedentop contends that in Greece and Rome the liberty of the citizen consisted of having a share in the government of the city. This was displayed by obligatory participation in the debates of the assembly and through service as a magistrate. The public thing, res publica, was everything: the domestic and private sphere counted for nothing.
Not only this, but at 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, the remainder of 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”.
There is much that is intriguing in this audacious argument. For example, if Siedentop is clear that liberalism can be described as the child of Christianity, he acknowledges that this was quite definitely not what the church intended. Indeed, Siedentop goes so far as to say that Christian intuitions of moral equality were turned against an authoritarian church only too eager to enforce belief.
But there is another aspect of his argument that is well worth dwelling upon. One of Siedentop’s key points is that the Christian belief in the equality of souls made it no longer possible to conceive of government primarily as rule over families, clans and castes. In short, the aristocratic character of the ancient city was destroyed. Henceforth, government would be seen as rule over individuals. Here is to be found the birth of the idea of the modern state. Yet, by making the individual, as opposed to the group, the object of rule, was there not the very high risk that the individual could become the bearer of equal subjection rather than of equal liberty? Could not the state as well as the church be an instrument of tyranny?
Siedentop’s response is to suggest that the claims of moral equality were sufficiently strong as to provide a basis for limiting the power of the state. And so it was that equality of status came to be accepted as the only proper basis for a legal system, that the defence of individual liberty took the form of an assertion of natural rights, and that some form of representative government was alone thought to be legitimate.
However, as Siedentop accepts, the outstanding political fact of this period was the centralising of power by monarchs intent on destroying the last vestiges of feudalism. The survival of the English Parliament was the signal exception. Elsewhere, the Estates-General in France, the Cortes of Spain and the Imperial Diet in Germany were crushed. Moreover, as the traditional corporate model of society lost legitimacy, the populace saw their subjection to royal authority as gain rather than loss. No one expressed the argument for the absolutism of the sovereign better than Thomas Hobbes. The new Leviathan put an end to the war of all against all. This is where Siedentop’s account ends. But it invites us to think about what happened next. This is perhaps no better revealed than by one of the thinkers most admired by Siedentop: the 19th-century politician and writer François Guizot. Guizot’s The History of Civilization in Europe, delivered first as a series of lectures in 1828, was one of the most important historical works of its age. It had as great an influence upon Karl Marx as it did upon Alexis de Tocqueville.
The development of European civilisation, Guizot concluded, was characterised by an irresistible advance towards the equality of conditions. As Guizot’s narrative closes, however, his attention turned to England. What he had to say here merits quotation at length. “When we glance,” Guizot wrote, “at the state of the free institutions of England at the end of the 16th century, we find first, fundamental rules and principles of liberty, of which neither the country, nor the legislature had ever lost sight; second, precedents, examples of liberty . . . sufficing to legalise and sustain the claims, and to support the defenders of liberty in any struggle against tyranny and despotism; third, special and local institutions, replete with germs of liberty; the jury, the right of assembling, of being armed . . . fourth, and last, the parliament and its power.” Moreover, in this, Guizot wrote, the political condition of England showed itself to be “wholly different from that of the continent”. There, by contrast, the principle of absolute royalty, be it in Spain or France, had aspired to create a universal monarchy. The state had taken a bureaucratic and tyrannical form. And this, Guizot believed, remained the case to his day. In short, England was the aberrant case.
This, one can only assume, would be music to the ears of Daniel Hannan. How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters is an unabashed celebration of English exceptionalism. The irreducible elements of Western civilisation, Hannan proclaims, are the rule of law, personal liberty and representative government. The origins of all three, he believes, are to be found in Anglo-Saxon Britain. There, in what Hannan sees as the first multi-ethnic nation state, are located the roots of constitutional liberty, the common law, Habeas Corpus, free elections, contract and property rights.
Despite the imposition of the Norman yoke, all survived and, when reformulated in the form of documents such as the Magna Carta, they provided a lasting defence against arbitrary government. In doing so, according to Hannan, these Anglo-Saxon liberties served not only to build “the most successful system of government known to the human race” but also established “a unique political heritage”.
This then is a Whig history, filled with patriotic pride in everything this small damp island has contributed to the story of freedom: our language, our ideals, and even our hymns, for, in Hannan’s eyes, this story is inseparable from our Protestantism. Heroes abound — Æthelred the Unready, Simon de Montfort, John Hampden, Sir Edward Coke, but also the Levellers. Rather than being socialists, Hannan contends, the latter are better seen as “proto-libertarians”, as “Euro-sceptic, tax-cutting, anti-state patriots”.
Crucially, Hannan seeks to extend this story beyond the British Isles to what he terms the Anglosphere, “the community of free English-speaking peoples”. Britain’s war with the 13 American colonies therefore becomes the Second Anglosphere Civil War. The British Empire is described as a process of Anglo-globalisation. Who gets into the Anglosphere is something of a problem for Hannan — can India make it, for example? — but he is quite clear what Anglosphere culture stands for: “self-government, localism and the elevation of the individual over the state”. It has no truck with common currencies or federal parliaments. Its ideal is a union of peoples and not of governments. All too obviously, in Hannan’s view, the Anglosphere is under threat, from the European Union with its “swollen class of consultants, contractors and rent-seekers”, from the anti-British Barack Obama, from our own intellectual elite and “multiculturalist establishment”, and from an increasingly centralised and expanding state. As Hannan points out, in 1900 a typical British household paid 8.5 per cent of its income in taxation: today that figure is around 46 per cent. Not only has the state machine outgrown the scrutiny of our democratically-elected representatives but the connection between taxation, legislation and representation has been broken.
Wherein lies the remedy? Anyone familiar with Hannan’s pronouncements as a Conservative MEP will know that he advocates withdrawal from the EU. In this book he calls for the creation of an Anglosphere free-trade area. He also reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about centralisation, high taxation and the cradle-to-grave interventionist state. Above all, Hannan asks us to remember who we are, to recall and cherish the values and institutions that sustained Anglo-Saxon liberties.
The tale told by Hannan is therefore a very different one from that provided by Larry Siedentop. For Hannan, what we understand by liberty has its origins in the tribal councils called by the early English kings; for Siedentop it is to be found in the moral beliefs of Europe’s earliest Christians.
Towards the end of his book, Hannan announces that, if in Europe, liberty was theoretical, in the Anglosphere it was practical. Better trust, in other words, to the liberties we enjoy than to the liberties our continental neighbours profess. Siedentop draws a different conclusion. We are wrong, he suggests, to minimise the moral and intellectual distance between the ancient and modern words while maximising the distance between ourselves and the Christian Middle Ages. To do so is misunderstand how Christian beliefs provided the foundations for our conception of the moral status of the individual, and therefore to fail to see how Christianity played a pivotal role in shaping modern liberalism, with its core commitment to the equal liberty of all humans as rational agents responsible for their own actions.
By making that mistake, Siedentop continues, we have allowed liberalism to be identified with secularism as a form of non-belief, as a doctrine without moral content, and thus by extension for it be equated with mere consumerism and materialism. In so doing, we have not only “weakened Europe’s voice in the conversation of mankind” but encouraged the propagation of two “liberal heresies”.
The first is the reduction of liberalism to nothing more than an endorsement of market economics and the satisfaction of current wants and preferences. Liberalism subsists only as a crude form of utilitarianism. The second amounts to an impoverished conception of the individual. Placed in an atomised society, this individual retreats into the private world of friends and family and in a spirit of self-reliance forgets the habit of association and ignores the wider claims of citizenship and our civic life.
This takes us back to the meaning of liberty. We can possibly agree that a definition of liberty as the power to satisfy our wishes does not get us very far. In practice it has produced big government and the welfare state. But perhaps we need a more complex understanding of liberty than simply the absence of constraint by either the state or other individuals. There is more to liberty than mere civil liberty.
And this, as Larry Siedentop knows, was something better seen by French liberals than it was by British liberals. It was writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville who saw that without the existence of a set of attitudes that fostered civic involvement and the educational benefits of political participation there was a grave risk that even our most basic liberties would be lost. It was active citizens rather than passive spectators who were best able to defend themselves against the infringement of their rights. Perhaps Daniel Hannan might care to reconsider whether we have anything to learn from our friends in Europe.