The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods. As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“. Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.
In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction. For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer. Inevitably the gods win. It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.
Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief. In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.
Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!). Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians. The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.
This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself. Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized. It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.
Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening). He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome. He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions. And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.
However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down. There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it. Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work. In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.
Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity. His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.
Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.
I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.
Marcus Aurelius has a reputation as a great emperor, if not one of the best. He studied philosophy, ruled temperately and was fairly successful in his wars (mostly fought in self defence). He was the last of the “five good emperors”, with the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. However things were not that simple, and both Marcus and the Empire were not without flaws (some of them pretty major). This 2009 biography by Frank McLynn attempts to paint a more complete portrait of Marcus and his legacy.
This is a therefore a book with a lot of side tracks and dead ends. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to really weigh up a man like Marcus Aurelius we need that background. He was a “good” emperor just as the Empire started to collapse; he was a philosopher whose meditations can read like an inconsistent self-help book; he was a wise leader or a terrible judge of character. The detail goes towards building a better picture of who Marcus Aurelius was (or at least who Frank McLynn thinks he was).
Continue reading Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn
Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.
The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.
Continue reading Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2
I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).
The Rise of Islam
When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.
Continue reading Post 42: Science & Islam
Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.
Continue reading Post 37: History of Philosophy part 1