Advocates of LGBTQ rights often accuse their critics of living in the past, specifically in the Dark or the Middle Ages. In my case, I am guilty as charged. Indeed, while revising my Medieval Church lectures over Christmas, I was reminded of just how medieval I am by the new book from Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual. The book tells the story of individualism from ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, with the major focus being on the latter. It also sheds unexpected light on some of the most pressing of modern political issues.
Siedentop’s central thesis is provocative and plausible, though inevitably in need of further documentation and argument. In essence it is this: Christianity, by stressing the equality of all human beings before God effectively undermined previous categories which divided up or stratified society. Family, polis, and social hierarchy were all ultimately relativized in the light of the concept of a universal human nature.
Perhaps the key figure in Siedentop’s narrative is Duns Scotus who carefully distinguished between the freedom of the will to act and the notion of justice. Freedom to act was a necessary condition of moral behavior but not a sufficient condition: Acts also needed to be in conformity with what was just. Scotus thus gave conceptual clarity to the relationship between the individual human agent and the common standards of moral action rooted in shared human nature.
Scotus was himself an epistemological realist, but his conceptual innovations helped pave the way for the nominalism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as espoused most famously by William of Occam. Of course, Siedentop’s narrative is selective and focused in a way that cuts through much of the complexity of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is for others to provide the subtlety and the detail. But his thesis, bold as it is, seems persuasive. It is also noteworthy for its attention to social, political, and economic aspects of what is primarily the history of an idea.
His argument is also helpful for understanding aspects of modern politics. For example, it offers yet one more reason why the current debate about the politics of sexual identity is fundamentally discontinuous with the Civil Rights struggle of the fifties and sixties, despite the noisy claims to the contrary made by many.
The Civil Rights movement was built on the egalitarian assumption that African Americans shared with those of European ancestry a common humanity which transcended and ultimately undermined racial categories; by contrast, LGBTQ politics assumes that self-determined individual sexual identity trumps everything. It is thus built not on the foundation of a common humanity but on the priority of the individual’s will.
This is not a stance unique to LGBTQ activists. In fact, it is one of the major assumptions in the contemporary political climate. Much of modern politicsright and leftoperates with an impoverished, solipsistic definition of selfhood. The result is that we have lost the classic liberal balance between the constraints rooted in the concept of a shared humanity and the rights of the individual. The late modern self would seem to be understood primarily as a self-determining agent whose desires are curbed only by the principle of consent when brought into relationship with the desires of another self-determining agent.
Contemporary society is gambling that the principle of consent will be enough to maintain some kind of viable long-term social ethic. But if we extend Siedentop’s analytical narrative to the era of late modernity, the principle of consent looks like little more than the last, flimsy vestige of an earlier moral discourse built on a richer understanding of a shared human nature. After all, consent implies that there must be something held in common between two or more parties which gives them commensurability. In other words, the principle of consent is built on a foundation which has already been demolished, and its continued plausibility has more to do with social tastes than philosophical coherence.
This demolition of the concept of human nature started centuries ago and is now firmly ensconced in art, in literature, in social and material relations, and in legal and political institutions and the standard news and entertainment media narratives. It thus has tremendous momentum. Anyone wishing to defend the unborn or traditional marriage has a much greater task on their hands than that faced by those who oppose them on these issues. The consensus of historic thinking may well be on our side, but the dynamics of historical process are far otherwise.
Still, there is some ironic comfort here: The advocates of LGBTQ rights are clearly living in the Middle Ages as much as their opponents. So perhaps that is one piece of rhetorical abuse that can now be set aside.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.