Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book Review: Battling the Gods

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
Tim Whitmarsh
Philosophy, history

When you're talking about the intellectual life of two thousand years ago, a degree of speculation is inevitable--even desirable. Nonetheless, there are limits; the absence of evidence against a proposition is not evidence for it. Tim Whitmarsh, at times, seems bent on blurring that line. Take this quotation, which asserts with sublime confidence that a certain passage of poetry was intended to be understood as subversive of divinity:
For some listeners the general point will have been clear enough: their king is more than human, in a way that mere language cannot capture. For others, the failure to specify exactly where Ptolemy sits in the hierarchy will have been a sign that Theocritus was not sure.
 Or this:
Could it be that Metrodorus was prompted by the atheistic arguments circulating in the Academy to propose a new type of history of Rome's rise, one that stressed the absence of benevolent divine influence?
Well, sure, Tim, it could be that way. Or it could be some other way. 

There are a lot of other examples. Academic or semi-academic authors tend to use this kind of "it is not implausible that ... " argument as a way of bolstering up some thesis, in the hopes that enough not-implausible assertions will eventually acquire the force of a convincing argument. Whitmarsh seems to be doing that; however, I'm not quite sure why. From the body of Battling the Gods, I understand that:

  1. Among the elites of the ancient world there existed a wide variety of religious views.
  2. Loaded terms like "atheist" meant different things to different people.
Which is fine. I never doubted either statement. The same could be said for comparable societies, such as early modern Europe.

Whitmarsh also makes some fitful stabs at a more argumentative thesis: that religiosity is not necessarily normative. Perhaps it's wrong to see religious societies as "normal", in other words, and atheism as therefore fundamentally "aberrant", in need of explanation. That's a more interesting position, but most of Battling the Gods kind of slants the other way. The fact that ancient authors compiled lists of thinkers identified as atheos, for example, or that "the Atheist" was not-infrequently given as a kind of epithet, or that atheistic philosophers were sometimes satirized in Athenian drama. suggests that those people were thought of as out of the ordinary. Nobody compiles lists of thinkers with brown hair, or refers to a rival as "the notorious Anaxipygion the Moderate".

Where Battling the Gods does excel is as a kind of field guide to ancient skepticism. When Whitmarsh isn't trying to make a point, he's terrific. The threads of non-theistic philosophy are laid out clearly. The writers are well identified and categorized. The description of the the place of atheism in classical, Hellenistic, and Roman society is excellent. The arguments are clearly and interestingly described. Perhaps best of all, Whitmarsh makes it obvious (without saying it explicitly) that these were some very smart men, and that we shouldn't give ourselves airs on our smartness by virtue of mere modernity; may of the doctrines and ideas being debated in Athens c. 400 BC have close counterparts here and now.

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