Donald W. Livingston’s insightful sketch of individualism and its history (“The Strange Career of Individualism,” October) pays scant attention to what is surely the most important part of the story: the Protestant Reformation. For Livingston, the emergence and development of modern individualism has to do primarily with philosophy—Hobbes, Descartes, Paine, Mill—but it was Protestantism’s emphasis on personal salvation, and especially private interpretation of Scripture, that laid the groundwork for the “modern ethic of autonomy” identified by Livingston.

The dominant Protestant image of religious devotion, it has been said, is a man sitting alone studying his Bible; the dominant Catholic image (“Catholic” defined broadly to include not only Rome but all the apostolic and liturgical churches) is a parish community standing in line together to receive die Eucharist. Protestantism made history’s first sustained attack on the corporate, hierarchical order of medieval Christendom, and from this source flowed the modern ideals that have gradually destroyed Western civilization: equality, democracy, the “free market,” the “open society.” And most importantly. Protestantism (unlike political philosophy) directly transformed the lives of millions of early modern Europeans. It did not ask a man to read Leviathan, but it did tell him it was acceptable (indeed imperative) to decide for himself the meaning of Sacred Scripture.

I am not denying the importance of Hobbes. But let us remember (as cartoonist Bill Watterson seems to have understood) that Hobbes comes alive only through the power of Calvin’s imagination.

        —Daniel Crosby
St. Louis, MO

Dr. Livingston Replies:

It is true that Protestantism is an important part of the story of how the ethic of modern autonomy arose, but I doubt that it is the most important part. If we probe deeply into the subatomic physics of the culture of individualism, we find the philosophic act, not Protestantism. It was the Catholic tradition that first united philosophy with non-philosophic biblical tradition. St. Augustine sought to understand his biblical faith through neoplatonism; St Thomas Aquinas, through Aristotle; Catholic liberation theory, through Marx. The possibilities were as endless as the number of philosophical sects. The medieval Church encouraged philosophic-theological disputation. As Catholic doctrine became more and more theoretical, the philosophic act began to break free from biblical and Church tradition. In time. Church tradition could no longer contain the disposition of philosophy to independence. Protestant questioning of authority was only one expression of this disposition of philosophy to seek radical autonomy. The rationalism of the Catholic Descartes was another. Protestantism (especially in its more radical forms, such as Puritanism) is simply the emergence of the philosophic act in its religious aspect.

The incorporation of philosophy is one of the glories of Catholicism, but when the Church took philosophy into her bosom, she was saddled with a troublesome servant that could not be controlled. It is no good complaining that Protestantism subverted the unity of Christendom when the source of that subversion had been cultivated in the Church all along. The most powerful arguments for atheism ever were given by French Jesuits in the 17th century. To be sure, they were presented to be refuted, but is it any wonder that many would not be convinced? Had there been no Protestantism at all, Catholicism would have generated as many secular rationalisms as we have today. This is not true of Eastern Christianity. The Orthodox tradition never took on the theoretical mode of the Western Church. And so it never spawned a Reformation or rationalisms. When rationalisms came, they were imports from the West. I make no judgment about any of this, for I know that Eve was the first philosopher.