On how Christianity changed the world

Nick Spencer says the “invention of the individual” was theoretical and practical – but also slow.



Nick Spencer says the “invention of the individual” was theoretical and practical – but also slow.


The way in which Christianity reformed the classical world and brought about what Larry Siedentop calls the invention of the individual is … it’s incredibly complex.

Historians don’t agree on it. And in any case, of course, one has to realise it was only partial. Let’s not imagine that the classical world at the end of the fourth century, 50 years after the conversion of Constantine, was a paradise in which individuals were genuinely honoured for their being saved by God.

There are two ways I think it effected the changes it did effect. The first is theoretical. It brings about a new conceptualisation of the cosmos, effectively. And the cosmos is better understood a) as an ordered place in which the machinations of the classical gods and their manipulation of humans no longer has much of a place; and, importantly, that this Christian God’s intervention in the classical world was as a poor person, as a socially ostracised person, and for poor and socially ostracised people. So that reconceptualises the value you can put on the poor and the socially ostracised.

But critically, that conceptual, that theoretical change, comes hand in hand with the practical change. So Christians visibly do not commit infanticide, and they prohibit abortion as well. The Jews were like that in the ancient world, but were only ever of course a minority. Now, visibly, Christians actually not only do not allow infanticide but actually take in infants – very often girls – that were exposed, and eventually develop an institution which we now know as the orphanage. There’s good evidence that, during the plagues that ravaged the ancient world, Christians tended to stay in the cities – rich people fled – and looked after plague victims, and looked after one another as well.

In other words, there was a practical demonstration of this love which went hand in hand with the theoretical articulation of this love – which slowly and partially reformed the classical mind.