Book review

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

by Tim Whitmarsh

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I learned three main things reading this very readable account: first, that there have always been atheists, with writers expressing various philosophical positions and arguments about atheism for all of Greek and Roman ancient history (even early Christianity having a place for it). Atheism was only ever one point on the spectrum of beliefs, but it was always around, and often attracted some high profile proponents.

Second, I found an eminently clear account of the major lines of philosophy running all the way through the ancient world. I hadn’t really seen this laid out like this before, and seeing it set against the historical political background was very helpful.

And finally, I found an interesting slant on the Stoics, which made me rather uncomfortable with the modern geek (not Greek!) revival of Stoicism as a philosophy for living your life today.

The first and the last of these are worth a bit more unpacking. The first is, of course, the main purpose of the book. Tim Whitmarsh gives us a scholarly and yet very readable account of the various threads of (non)belief in the ancient world, and how these were received by their contemporaries. He starts in about the seventh century BC, where the ancient Greek city states were enormously diverse, but didn’t seem to view organised religion in political terms, but rather “for personal communion with the divine”. It provided a vehicle for collective involvement in the community, but differences in belief were personal matters, so long as they didn’t impact the cohesion of the community. This view seems to have continued for hundreds of years – even the trial of Socrates in 399BC for (among other things) “failing to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges” was about this risk to social cohesion, rather than any atheistic leanings per se.

As we transition into the Roman era, after the Punic Wars and the final sacking of Carthage in 146BC, we still see religion and the gods viewed in the same way: the Roman emperors after Augustus (who died in 14AD) were viewed as gods, but just one amongst many. The ensuing two centuries of Pax Romana didn’t change this: not believing in the gods was acceptable, especially if you were prepared to keep the peace by making the odd minor contribution to the community in other ways. It was only with the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on his deathbed in 312AD that we would have seen a move towards a much sharper division into “true religio” versus “false superstitio”. With this came the assumption that “all humans are born with a natural sense of the divine but that some people have been led into misunderstanding by false teaching”.

For me, this Christian belief is reflected in Christianity’s much more prosyletizing approach to religion. The Greeks and Romans didn’t really do this, because their polytheism allowed them to incorporate the gods of peoples that they conquered. Indeed, the often produced tables of equivalences, and as long as you knew which of your gods mapped to which of theirs, you could continue to worship whichever you chose (or none at all), and everyone was happy. Not so with Christianity, which was much more all-or-nothing. It’s not until the arrival of the Enlightenment that atheism became a philosophical position that could be held in the Western world (and even then, you were wise to keep quiet about it in many cases!).

All of this is the main thrust of the book, and Mr Whitmarsh provides an excellent and readable account of all of this. Definitely worth the wear on your eyeballs of reading it all.

My other learning, as I said, was a realisation that the modern revival of Stoicism has a rather unpleasant (for me) set of philosophical beliefs embedded within it. I certainly agree that many of the main thrusts of Stoicism are helpful views to hold: be resilient against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by anticipating the worst, act according to your beliefs, and confine your actions and your judgement to your own sphere of influence, rather than wasting too much time judging others. All good and helpful, and much lauded today by everyone from Navy SEALs to Tim Ferriss.

But in Mr Whitmarsh’s contrast of Stoicism against the other philosophies that were around at the time I saw a different side: the side that says don’t fight against conventions and the prevailing political system, don’t push back against the hierarchy, just stay in your own small world. All very well if you are already at the top of the hierarchy (as Marcus Aurelius of “Meditations” fame of course was – extraordinarily wealthy, and in due course emperor himself). But not so good for anyone in, say, the bottom half. So I need to do more personal reading here, but for the moment, whilst I will read quotations from modern fans of Stoicism with a more jaundiced eye…

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