Skip to content

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, A Review

One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back.   I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World.  I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true.  If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure.  In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world.  Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new.  And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.

In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods.

Whitmarsh on Mythology

Whitmarsh might be accused of treating myth in a way that assumes that myth is not itself a site for thinking, but for a simplified and basic explanation of the way things are, as when today someone lazily tells their child when it is raining that God is crying. No one actually thinks that. If it is not a place for a simple explanation, then Whitmarsh suggests, myth offered a story with a moral. The thumb seems very much on the scale against myth when these are the explanations of what it means. Many scholars today draw on insights from Homer and Hesiod to contextualize the political, natural, and social conceptions of classical Greek life and thought. Zeus, for example, operates as the sovereign principle who occupies the liminal space of god and beast, in a way that puts us in mind of Aristotle’s claim in the Politics that one who could do without a polis was either a god or a beast. Only if we recognize that the line between is quite difficult to determine does Aristotle’s claim carry the force that it does (it is not clear we should want to be either god or beast). Zeus is the force that establishes justice which itself proscribes force. The condition for possibility of justice (Zeus’s force) is also the condition for the impossibility of justice (if justice must be without force, it cannot be founded on force). Myths exhibit these tensions in ways we should not suppose only lately have been discovered.

Salmoneus imitating Zeus with a thunderbolt.

Salmoneus imitating Zeus with a thunderbolt.

It isn’t clear that it makes sense to ask whether the god Chaos existed, but rather to say that the world was shot through with forces that exceeded human capacity to control them.  Hesiod invites us to consider whether Chaos is the name of this force or if Chaos is a personified god who brings disorder.  Part of the unexamined problem here seems to be in asking what the Greeks really meant by god. Did they mean power beyond the human (the natural world), did they mean rational organizer of the world (from Hesiod’s Zeus to Anaxagoras’s Mind to Aristotle’s Prime Mover), did they mean unity of good and being (certain readings of Plato’s Sun, Augustine)?  In some places, Whitmarsh argues that his atheistic ancients are recasting what is meant by god and in other places he argues that they challenge the existence of god altogether.  In some sense, most of the ancient writers we continue to read are presenting accounts of the gods that are novel, including Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, so what does it mean to challenge the idea of god by reconsidering what is meant by god?

I think this book is in danger of treating ancient myth, tragedy and in some places philosophy in a spirit of condescension toward simpler minds who could not but help explain their world with reference to gods. It might be accused of betraying an over-enthusiasm for reason, which itself might be accompanied by Bia and Kratos (violence and force) as Zeus is, arguing as Socrates does that the philosopher alone should have the power to rule.  Classicists like Jean-Pierre Vernant and others have written extensively on the difficult question of whether philosophy is a break from or in continuity with mythology.  One might argue that philosophy has made principles into gods, in contrast to mythology which made gods into principles.  Holding up ideals, concepts and reasons as that which have force and must be reckoned with gives new power to those who have access to these ideals and reasons, newly empowering philosophers and sophists. Of course, the philosopher has to convince others in the political sphere (the cave) that this is the case, and the substitution of ‘true knowledge’ (of one who claims to have left all this behind) for reasoned opinion appears to be just that power move. The philosopher by reasoning seems to question the force of the gods just as the atheist does.

Bellerophon's assault on the heavens.

Bellerophon’s assault on the heavens.

That the Greeks were thinking through and from and within myth is even more evident in tragedy. In a time with an emerging democracy the question of how human beings can be responsible for what seems pre-ordained by the gods is a question of the relationship between freedom and necessity, where freedom implies responsibility. Oedipus is a story that considers what it means to be responsible when actions were seen to be determined in advance. It is a story about the dangers of supposing one knows what it means to be human—the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx—when one knows himself least of all. Whitmarsh’s whole consideration of this story seems to make myth and tragedy sound like a morality tale for the simple masses, rather than a story that continues to flummox and provoke. Whitmarsh’s development of this initial point remains oversimplified when he says that it’s a way of thinking of what kinds of self-interested behavior are to be rewarded and what kinds punished (41).

A bit more than fifty pages later Whitmarsh returns to a reading of Oedipus as an indictment of Pericles, which lends the tragedy much more political force. He doesn’t develop the question of how the play could be the critique of the one deemed the savior of the city. Instead, Whitmarsh returns to the tragedy to show how it includes anti-religious sentiment because it presents a critical view of seers, exemplified by Tiresias because of the way that Oedipus sneers at him. This seems like a basic failing of a de-contextualized reading. Someone in a tragedy said something negative about another character, so the story must be critical of that character! In fact, Oedipus comes out looking foolish in that interaction where Tiresias knows far more about the situation and asks Oedipus not to further pursue knowledge.As Grazioni points out, Whitmarsh suggests that there could be no such thing as “intelligent piety,” using the example of Oedipus, against the evidence of the play that finds Oedipus’ apparent rationality problematic.  The pursuit of knowledge is what undoes Oedipus!   Yes, “all of these insults” that Oedipus uses against Tiresias “involve exactly the kind of charges that Sophocles’s contemporaries would level at religious cranks” (103), but few people would walk away from the play thinking Tiresias is the one with a problem. So when Whitmarsh concludes, “Oedipus the King is a play that seriously explores the idea of a world without divine determination,” I think he is off the mark (105). The divine determination or necessity of what happens is taken for granted and the question of how to respond to it is what drives the play.   These issues remain in our discussions of freedom and determination, agency and social conditioning, even nature and nurture. But no matter, the strange thing here is the way Whitmarsh uses the evidence within a play of a character who ends up being both figuratively and literally blind against a character who is literally blind but figuratively seeing. Whitmarsh will later refer to Tiresias and this reading as if it undisputed later in the text: “We have met Diopeithes before: he was the religious crackpot lampooned by the comic poets and perhaps reflected in Sophocles’s portrait of Tiresias in Oedipus the King” (117).

For all that, Whitmarsh’s claim that the artifice of the theater can show the human to replace the divine is an important point: “[I]t too is a human invention that makes gods out of mortals, thanks to masking, staging, and the crane” (110). Here what it means to be a god is someone who stands outside of nature and controls and presents it. But there are at least two problems with this point. The gods of myth are not always that. In the most central myths of Hesiod, they are nature, controlled by it as much as controlling it, being bound by material limitations as much as binding the world from above.   And human history could be considered the efforts of human beings to contend with nature, and more, to invent the notion of a nature that they are to various degrees bound by and able to overcome. This point too seems to be what Greek myth grapples with.

Whitmarsh on Plato and Socrates

If the relationship between myth and thinking is one place where this book is weak, another is Whitmarsh’s treatment of Plato. There are a number of times where Whitmarsh seems to think that a specific claim that Socrates or another character in Plato’s text makes represents Plato’s position. Plato never presents his position. He writes dialogues. They are often inconclusive. They involve historical figures with historical fates and reputations that Plato and his students knew. They present arguments that sometimes are carefully challenged and sometimes accepted a little too regularly. We should avoid assuming that we know where Plato’s real position is. We should instead read these dialogues with all the knowledge in mind that Plato’s contemporaries would have—we should know Critias was one of the Thirty Tyrants, Glaucon was a little too eager to join them, Alcibiades would betray Athens to Sparta, Nicias was a general whose concern to follow the seers led to loss of the battle at Syracuse, Cephalus’s family was persecuted by the Thirty Tyrants. We should keep all these things in mind and wonder what reading best makes sense of Socrates presenting a totalitarian story where even the poets are censored to a guy who is all too eager for the totalitarian regime to come. One reading is that Plato is the totalitarian and thinks the poets should be censured. Another reading is that he wants Glaucon—and the reader–to see what the thing he wants really looks like, and to present the choice to us of a community whose desires are controlled (way back in the city of sows) and the community whose desires will only become controlled once this extensive authoritarian regime is established. Whitmarsh does very little of this contextual work. He’s not a Plato scholar. Fine. But he speaks as if the lay reader should take his word, as if readings of Plato are uncontested. This presentation would seem to be to be the cessation of thinking instead of the motivation for it.

For example, Whitmarsh decides that the reference to the god is irrelevant to the discussion of virtue in the Protagoras. That the discussion of the daimon is the chief reason that Socrates is prosecuted for impiety. That the theories of the Phaedo that oppose body to soul, matter to spirit, this world and next show that “the later Socrates put the emphasis on escaping from it into a pure, transcendent realm of the soul, free from bodily impurity” (135), despite the fact that these arguments fail, the most forceful case is made through myth, and that the dialogue is ripped through with discussion of Socrates’ bodily needs and desires. Whitmarsh’s again rather simplified depiction of Socrates is as a powerful figure because he is “the paradigm of the heroic individual who cheerfully faces death for her or his beliefs” (129). Whitmarsh also thinks that both Xenophon and Plato are trying “to rescue their hero from the atheistic opprobrium poured on him by the state” (130). Whitmarsh offers no evidence for this claim. One might say that their concern is to rescue philosophy from this situation, or better to distinguish philosophy from sophistry, and to do so by distinguishing a certain conception of Socrates, whether true to the historical Socrates or not becomes irrelevant for Plato, from the sophists. The fact that drawing this distinction is very difficult, or requires a community of philosophers already, explains why Socrates was convicted and executed. Similarly, a reading of the cave analogy where it seems that no one can leave explains why Socrates is executed, he can never get out of the cave, and must convince those who have not left to see otherwise than they have always seen.

David, The Death of Socrates

David, The Death of Socrates

Part of the problem in the reading of Plato’s Socrates is that Whitmarsh addresses Socrates through some claims about ancient religion that appear to be straightforward but are not.  For example, when he says that “those in charge of religious matters had no jurisdiction over secular matters” (22) of course, he is right, but this does not mean as it might seem that there was a separation of religious powers and state powers. The gods looked over the city in war, and a challenge to a god could and was seen as a challenge to the city, but Whitmarsh does not consider this point in any depth.  If, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes in The New York Times, the civic nature of the religion leaves Greeks the intellectual space, as Goldstein says it does, to pursue questions about how we should live and what is true of the world, then it would seem unnecessary to challenge that religion in order to further pursue those questions.  It seems that in the case of Socrates, it is precisely the refusal to accept the civic nature of the religion, to stand behind the gods just because they are the gods of the city, that leads to the charge of impiety.  Then the merging of the civic religion and morality occurs because we must ask whether it is best for the city that everyone believe in the gods the city believes in as the city does or that everyone be capable of offering well-reasoned justifications for how they live (where the gods’ contradictory actions do not produce such accounts).  Consider in the Apology that Socrates says that no one believes in the gods as he does.  We take this over and over again to mean that he doesn’t, but maybe he means, none of them are taking the gods as seriously as he does because if they did, they too would have the questions and commitments that Socrates has.  Unfortunately, while Whitmarsh leads us up to this point by addressing Socrates’ arguments in the Euthyphro, he assigns Socrates positions he does not hold (Socrates never “protests that his prosecution is down to the fact that he refuses to accept all the baroque mythological stories about the gods’ immoral behavior,” and the argument in this dialogue about the inconsistency of these stories as a guide isn’t even his most damning critique of referencing the gods for the sake of ethical thinking (133).


Whitmarsh concludes the book with a discussion of how the Christianization of the empire was rooted in and emerged out of Roman history. Whitmarsh explains how sacrificing to the pagan gods was a way of signaling political allegiance, a timely claim in an American context where having the ‘right’ religion is necessary for success in politics on the national stage, and questions of whether some politician is really a Christian occupy our discourse. Whitmarsh insists that while there were instances of anti-Christian hostility, these were isolated incidents rather than part of a systemic effort to suppress Christianity (233). It is only once Christianity reaches ascendency that it reaches back and begins to rewrite its history:

The Christian idealization of martyrdom, and the polishing of martyr myths, began in earnest in the fourth century, paradoxically when there was nothing to fear from the state: rather, the myth of collective victimhood was projected as a means of galvanizing the international community in celebration of the heroic sacrifice of their predecessors (233).

Look, I want as much as the next person to take the wind out of the sails of those who, while holding political and social power today, want to describe themselves as persecuted, but Whitmarsh’s support for this claim is weak. He directs the reader to a footnote from an article published in 1968 that concludes that the persecution that did occur was because of prejudice and not because of legislation.** That seems like a weak way of saying that it was not part of a broader pattern. Prejudice often drives broader patterns and the lack of codification does not tell us whether there was still widespread persecution even though Whitmarsh suggests that it does. The fact that the Decian persecution was not “targeted” at Christians does not mean that it did not result in widespread persecution of Christians since they were the ones who refused to sacrifice. Whitmarsh might need to do some work to think about how policies and legislation can accomplish discriminatory ends without being explicitly discriminatory. He does list a series of books on the making of martyrdom and it seems feasible that there was a production of that myth to further buttress the position of Christianity in the empire.  Nonetheless, Barbara Graziosi is right to say of Whitmarsh that

He constructs a narrative in which humans progress toward atheism until the advent of Christianity, when suddenly, ‘that dream was dead.’  The notion of intellectual progress informs many of his readings…But the modern dichotomy between atheism and religion remains hard to map onto the ancient world.

Whitmarsh’s book is a useful resource because it gathers many many references together of the ways that gods are thought about and the ways that belief in gods are put in question, but its failure to get to these questions and its heavy-handedness on the notion that even for the ancients atheism was a more intelligent position leads to less insightful analysis than this material deserves.

**T. Barnes, “Legislation Against the Christians,” Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968):32-50.

No comments yet

What's your Line on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: