Throughout the history of civilization, people have sought to understand themselves by seeking to understand their place in society. When that society was patriarchal, the most respect was given to the forefathers, especially the eldest and most direct ancestor. When societies grew into city-states, one found his place in the service to that polis. Plato divided the classes into the guardians, the warriors, and the commoners, each serving the state in a specific capacity.
This kind of understanding extended beyond Greece. Rome granted citizenship was highly valued because it gave the citizen an elevated place in the society with greater rights.1 We see cultures, such as those of Saudi Arabia or oriental nations who still adopt a hierarchical view of the individual. But the West is different. Here, we value all people as equal. In the United States, our nation was founded on the principle. What caused the nations that sprang from the Roman Empire to so drastically alter their understanding of the worth of the individual?
Changing the Measure of WorthIn his excellent book Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop answers that question by pointing to the rise of Christianity. Siedentop details how the teachings of Jesus and Paul caused a "moral revolution" in thought, moving the value of the individual from hierarchical to equal. Individual freedom becomes elevated. He explains:
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. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.2Because the individual now holds the ability tom become immortal, one's understanding of morality is changed as well. Instead of Plato's justice being determined by how one is helpful to the Polis, morality becomes more about an individual's actions to other individuals. Siedentop argues that "the premise of moral equality requires a human will that is in a sense pre-social,"3 meaning independent of one's position within the societal structures. The only way people can do that is through faith in Christ. He continues, "Faith in the Christ requires seeing oneself in others and others in oneself, the point of view which truly moralizes humans as agents." 4
How Christianity Impacts More than Civic StatusOnce the basis for moral equality is established through Christ, Siedentop then shows just how powerful those ideas become. For example, he points to Tertullian to show the radical new way of thinking Christianity offers the world:
If God created humans as equals, as rational agents with free will, then there ought to be an area within which they are free to choose responsible a free choices. Identifying such an area was at first meant to be self-defence by Christians. But soon it was also much more than that. Tertullian saw clear implications of Christian moral beliefs. "Here lies the perfection and distinctiveness of Christian goodness," he argued. "Ordinary goodness is different; for all men love their friends, but only Christians love their enemies."5This is how true goodness comes from Christianity alone. The moral equality of all people rests in the Christian understanding of redemption. Realize, I don't know whether Siedentop is a Christian or not. His book is written from his position as a scholar of political history, serving at Oxford among other institutions. His book does not push Christian beliefs, but simply describes the paradigm shift Christianity brought upon the world. Without Christianity, moral equality cannot find its footing. Without Christianity, the value of the individual fades into how one services the state.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 17 May. 2016
2. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism. Penguin Books, 2014. Print. 58.
3. Siedentop, 2014. 64.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 65.
5. Siedentop, 2014.76.