When the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss was invited to give the 1938 Huxley Memorial Lecture, he chose for his subject ‘A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self. Mauss thought that his contemporaries falsely believed that the idea of the self was an innate and stable human property, and that they further subscribed to an historically aberrant and socially divisive cult of the individual. Instead, and as if to combat the detachment of moderns from their own past, Mauss proposed that the seemingly self-evident conception of ourselves as unique individuals is in reality an artefact of a long and varied history stretching back to the earliest human communities. Not only do other peoples hold very different notions of the self, but each is intimately connected to the ethical community they occupy as members of distinct societies. Mauss referred to ethnographic materials from North America, Australia and archaic Greece to show that in cultures where persons are defined by kinship, descent and status, responsibility flows directly from membership in a family or clan, and neither love nor one’s conscience alone can serve as justifications for action. Only with the emergence in ancient Rome of a more abstract notion of a person, seen as the locus of general rights and duties, could individuals understand themselves as endowed with a conscience and inner life, chiefly through the medium of Christianity. It is this notion of the person as a sacred being, later articulated as the possessor of a moral consciousness, as the source of autonomous motivation and capable of self-development, that is the foundation of our own self-understanding.