A Medieval Perspective on Modern Identity Politics

LGBTQ politics assumes that self-determined individual sexual identity trumps everything

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 politics—right and left—operates 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.


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.

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