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February 15, 2020 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Modern Western secular assumptions about the relations between gods, human beings, animals and the Earth, or between men and women, or abstract and concrete entities, simply don’t apply to democratic Athens. This is the case Anderson wishes to make. To understand the Athenians properly, we must recognise that it isn’t just that they perceived the world differently, but that the world itself was different. What’s needed, he believes, is an ‘ontological turn’ in how we write histories of Athens.

Claire Hall reviews Greg Anderson’s The Realness of Things Past
posted by chappell, ambrose (45 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was a great medium-length read that got me thinking about things in a way I hadn't before. Which is exactly it's point. I'm glad you posted it!
posted by hippybear at 12:03 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Interesting. I haven’t read the book, but I’d be curious to see whether Anderson’s literalizing “ontological turn” flattens out the symbolic, metaphorical, and sometimes merely obscure qualities of ancient Greek arts and letters.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:22 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Time is a flat circle.
posted by hippybear at 12:26 PM on February 15


Also, does Anderson’s distinction between perceiving and being hold up in terms of Greek philosophy and historiography? Would an ancient thinker execute an “ontological turn” or not?
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:32 PM on February 15


I'm fairly certain an ancient thinker wouldn't have to execute anything kind of ontological anything because the water in which the fish of their society swim is exactly the kind of water we have to work to understand now that the water is vastly different now.

We have to do the work to understand them because things have changed across the centuries. If you're from then, you don't have to do the work but if someone was to describe Now to you back Then, you'd feel like it was something alien. Centuries mean things in a lot of ways.
posted by hippybear at 12:46 PM on February 15 [7 favorites]


Okay, but the Athenians had a then too. Did they think to get all ontological when considering the Egyptians?
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:50 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


Time is a flat circle.

As is clearly demonstrated by the clock on my wall.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:28 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]


Did they even consider to get ontological when considering the Egyptians or older civilizations? How modern is our thinking when trying to consider the Greeks in this way, how new a consideration is it? Did people 100 years ago even imagine to think about this? I don't know. I wasn't alive then.

I don't know how the Greeks considered the world they emerged from. They had this pantheon of gods which stretched back ages and so maybe they thought they were all that ever were. No clue.

What did the Egyptians feel about the Etruscans? And older and further back. That race of people in Asia who aren't even accounted for in most of our histories? I mean, it's sort of a black box at some point.

I remember watching Rome on HBO a few years ago (sadly cancelled too soon), and feeling like it was depicting a world that I couldn't really grok because its culture was familiar but very separate due to living in it. I think I'd feel that even more so with Greek culture.
posted by hippybear at 1:41 PM on February 15


Persons interested in this review, and the book it concerns, may also be interested in the Latro trilogy by Gene Wolfe, often referred to as Soldier of the Mist.

Wolfe’s central conceit is that his protagonist, the first-person narrator of the books, has suffered a head wound in battle that has damaged his ability to form long-term memories, much as the protagonist of the Christopher Nolan / Guy Pearce film Memento.

In addition to this amnesia, the brain damage has expanded Latro’s perceptual abilities and he sees and interacts with a variety of Classical-era supernatural beings. The text of the books is presented as Latro’s diary. Wolfe carefully engaged with Herodotus as his primary source and uses the interplay of his setting and his theme - which is primarily concerned with faith - to perplexing, wonderful effect. The books are my gateway to Classical studies and they are delightful, and puzzling, and along with much of high-period Wolfe, repay careful and repeated reading.
posted by mwhybark at 2:34 PM on February 15 [16 favorites]


“On his view, we can’t write worthwhile history if we start from the position that it simply isn’t possible that what really happened on that day in 420 BC is that an incarnate god rode into Athens on a man-made chariot. What’s more, even if we do accept that this did happen, but then go on to explain it in terms of symbolic power or different perceptions of the world (the Athenians saw a god, but there wasn’t really one there), we haven’t truly taken an ontological turn – we are, in fact, still writing culturally imperialist history.”

Goodness, that is a radical view. I realize this is a précis of the originating author’s view, and therefore inevitably inaccurate. We cannot ever share the cultural viewpoint of the Athenians in 420 BC; it is impossible, full stop. We can construct speculative interpretations, sure. Those speculative interpretations change over time. But they are inherently worthwhile, and inevitably false.

It would appear I should read the work reviewed.
posted by mwhybark at 2:46 PM on February 15 [4 favorites]


Kindle price: $80.75. Um, no, I won’t. Fuck you, Bezos.
posted by mwhybark at 2:51 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]


This leaves me wondering what we think "the economy" is, and what other ways we might have of thinking about things which are more or less like or more or less include "the economy".
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:14 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]


Academic press, mwhybark.
posted by jrochest at 3:25 PM on February 15 [7 favorites]


This reminds me of the old etic / emic debates. That is, should a culture be described from the inside, as the participants themselves would, using their terms and frames of reference (emic), or from the outside, using cross-cultural scientific and materialist tools of analysis (etic)? There are scholars who believe that only an emic approach is valid, others who defend an etic approach, others who advocate some form of balance.

One thing that kind of rubs me the wrong way is the statement that "Few of us, in the modern secular West, consider divine epiphanies possible", with the implication that "we" cannot therefore enter in the mindset of an ancient Athenian. There's nothing "premodern" about believing that god(s) act directly in the world or that the world is suffused with the supernatural; plenty of people in all sorts of cultures believe that today. You could go and ask them what it's like.

The stuff about women shows, I think, some limitations of the emic approach. Sure, it was natural to the Athenians to keep women out of the public sphere. For a critique of that approach in ancient times, you had only to walk 100 miles to Sparta, where women were far freer. (They couldn't speak in the assembly either, but they were famous for making their opinions known, and they had far more legal and personal freedoms.) Once you notice such differences, the emic approach kind of collapses: must we look at Sparta only using the terms and mindset of the Athenian?

As to hippybear's question-- what the Greeks thought of other cultures-- a good place to start is Herodotus, who takes the grand tour of every place the Greeks knew about. He's pretty free with his opinions and is always readable. (FWIW he wasn't Athenian; he was from the Ionian islands.)
posted by zompist at 3:38 PM on February 15 [26 favorites]


zompist, I think you hit the nail on the head. I was just about to mention the etic/emic dichotomy. I think it’s a useful (if ultimately limited) lens to consider the challenges of reflecting on the perceptions and values of another culture or time.

As an aside, though tangentially related to your comment about women, I met Kenneth Pike — who coined the terms “etic” and “emic” to describe this principle — several times, in both work and social settings, while working as a linguist. I also met his sister Eunice on several occasions, including visiting her when she was in assisted living.

Ken was brilliant, but I found his sister to be significantly more clever as a linguist. (It was Eunice who provided Ken a critical insight into the tonality of Mixtec that had stumped him for some time.)

In my experience, Eunice was recognized as an extraordinary linguist among our peers, but she was less celebrated than Ken because she wasn’t as large a personality as her brother, and because the socially conservative organization in which they worked tended to aggrandize the successes of the men who were predominately chosen for positions of leadership, compared to those of women whose service was more often relegated to support roles.

Since her brother has received innumerable plaudits, I consider it my obligation to take every opportunity I can get to help balance things a little by singing Eunice’s praise.
posted by darkstar at 4:48 PM on February 15 [28 favorites]


Academic press, mwhybark

Is it typical that they price the ebook higher than the hardcover? $14 higher, here.
posted by thelonius at 5:48 PM on February 15


I often wonder what the ancient Greeks actually thought. I remember walking around Delphi feeling very sad, sad that this ancient culture that arguably invented rationality Itself could also believe in gods, and believed giving gifts to gods and seers would achieve something.

Like...even today...do people REALLY believe in Christ, or Allah, or is it just fancy finery that “we” wear to fit in? How does the “rational“ mind have such a huge blind spot?

Impossible to know the thought of my modern neighbor, let alone the thoughts of an Ancient Greek.
posted by karst at 6:51 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]


Skepticism is so fundamental to our current condition (in the West, at least) that it’s nearly impossible to imagine its absence. But you have to imagine that absence in order to get even distantly close to how some historical peoples inhabited their world.
posted by josephtate at 7:08 PM on February 15 [3 favorites]


very sad, sad that this ancient culture that arguably invented rationality Itself could also believe in gods, and believed giving gifts to gods and seers would achieve something

The faith of millions in offering up their money to the Lottery God or as "seeds" to the priests of Prosperity Jesus in the belief that they will be granted special attention tells me that not much has changed in human nature.
posted by meehawl at 7:25 PM on February 15 [6 favorites]


Wow, am I crazy stupid for thinking that this treatise has resonance with Julian Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (quite possibly the weirdest 'serious' book ever written)?
posted by Chitownfats at 7:34 PM on February 15 [10 favorites]


When I try to access London Review of Books, I always get a message that I've reached my free article limit. LRB apparently has a lifetime limit, because I get the same message even it's been months since I tried to read something on the site. I can't be the only one with this problem. Does anyone know of a way to get around this?
posted by Transl3y at 7:36 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


karst, I found this set of articles really helpful for understanding that type of belief in gods: Practical Polytheism, Part 1. Some lovely Mefite linked it in a recent-ish thread and it's a good read.
posted by harriet vane at 7:46 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]


I don't understand the distinction that's apparently being made. Hall, the reviewer, acknowledges the persistence of this mindset by saying "pilgrims at Lourdes may believe the Virgin Mary physically appeared to Bernadette Soubirous". If so, what is the distinction between the Athenians and us? Maybe we disbelieve that particular example, but I bet most Americans believe some version of the Thanksgiving story, just as most Australians believe a similar story about the surprising absence of Indigenous Australians in their daily lives.

When Hall says that "it would seem strange to us if debates in the House of Commons were prefaced by public sacrifice", well, the House of Commons is marked by a monotheistic prayer and invocation; and the House of Lords is opened by an entire Anglican service. Is it just that she thinks we don't take it seriously? I presume many people do; and I presume many would agree that, e.g., the Allies triumphed over the Axis forces because "God was on their side."

The more I contemplate her examples, the less I grasp her point. I think we really do continue to think of nations and major institutions as existing in themselves, rather as conglomerations of individuals.Surely we don't just mean a geographical indicator when we describe something as "English". It isn't that long ago that there was a Parliamentary oath specifically intended to ensure that only members of the Anglican communion could take their seats. To have Jews (and Catholics, Quakers, free thinkers, etc.) in Parliament wasn't just a bad idea; it was incompatible with the very idea of an English Parliament. Similarly, even today people seriously describe things as "un-American". What is that, if not a reification of the nation?
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:13 PM on February 15 [17 favorites]


Transl3y, does clearing cookies or visiting in a private/incognito browser tab help?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:17 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


I really wanted to like this article because it got me thinking really hard for a minute but there were a number of record-scratch moments for me reading it, especially the spots where the author just casually drops the assumption that nobody in the modern, secular west believes in gods that intercede in the affairs of the living, as others have said. Yes, the thought experiment "we paid an actor to say he was Jesus and rolled him into town with a parade" seems like it wouldn't end with everyone falling down and praising him - but that is because he's a monotheistic deity (or, well, an aspect of a three-part monotheistic deity) and he'd have to start working some pretty dank miracles before people started to really believe you'd conjured up the second coming of Christ. When there aren't many gods on offer they have to be able to do some pretty rad shit to be taken seriously. But if you've got a whole pantheon you can get away with less impressive manifestations, I think.

Certainly you could dress up an old guy and say he was the Pope or some kind of really dope archbishop and roll him into a town in many places in the world and people would be lining up to kiss his robe. And I do believe there are a lot of people in the USA who subconsciously ascribe some sort of supernatural powers to Donald Trump. He is objectively not an impressive person, but there you have it. Humans really want there to be gods walking among them. It was ever thus.
posted by potrzebie at 10:00 PM on February 15 [5 favorites]


What’s more, even if we do accept that this did happen, but then go on to explain it in terms of symbolic power or different perceptions of the world (the Athenians saw a god, but there wasn’t really one there), we haven’t truly taken an ontological turn – we are, in fact, still writing culturally imperialist history.”

The main thing that eludes me here is - what is the practical difference for a modern historian between writing with an Athenian perspective and writing about an Athenian perspective? I'd think that part of the task of a modern historian is inevitably to translate the history that was really written with an Athenian perspective - by the Athenians - to a modern perspective. So are we really just talking about a methodology for doing that (by immersion)?
posted by atoxyl at 11:03 PM on February 15 [1 favorite]


With my respect to my parents who believe in the textual accuracy of four books of the New Testament, I note that Joe in Australia writes, with respect to an invocation in UK parliamentary procedure:

“Is it just that she thinks we don't take it seriously?”

I, myself, surely do not.

I am interested in how we write about and express our experience of divinity and the supernatural. But I do not take it seriously. For me, as a reader, and a critic, and a son, that makes it hard for me to engage with my parents’ faith, and their fear at the end of their lives, and I feel badly about that. I feel badly about my inability to engage with their faith, not that I do not share it. I am interested in the thesis of this overpriced book, because I wish to challenge my viewpoint as imperialist and colonial, as priviliege. But I do not take my parents’ faith seriously, for values of serious that include supernatural empowerment. I take it most seriously for every other conceivable value. But I do not share it.
posted by mwhybark at 12:53 AM on February 16


If the review is accurate, the argument sounds terribly philosophically naive. Some properties, such as being public or being private, depend on the beliefs and attitudes of people at a time, which is why it might be correct to say that nothing in ancient Athens (or that predates humans) was public or private. But it sounds like the author believes all properties are like that, and we cannot truthfully apply any modern categories or constructs to the ancient world. That's just outlandishly relativistic and flatly false. The ancient Athenians had cells containing DNA. It doesn't matter at all that the ancient Greeks had no concept of DNA, because having DNA is not a belief-dependent property.

The author's argument (at least as presented in the review) doesn't have implications just for writing history books. It's a claim about truth conditions for statements about the past. Turns out no one in the ancient world had DNA. Better rewrite all of biology.

The stuff about quantum social science makes the book seem like the work of a crank.
posted by painquale at 1:15 AM on February 16 [6 favorites]


I've had the experience of believing really outré things that I absolutely knew were not true in the wake of an illness.

It lasted almost a week and it was distressing but not unendurable, though at the same time I was having intestinal problems that were almost more than I could stand.

For example, there was a courtyard on a nearby campus where my partner and I would go to eat lunch sometimes which was paved with large, oval river rocks set in a matrix of concrete, and I became convinced that the rocks were actually skulls embedded so that only the crowns showed, and that they emitted ultrasonic squeaks when people stepped on them and that kept mosquitos away.

I knew this was complete nonsense, but I believed it; it was as if reality had two tracks, the mundane and the supra-mundane, and knowing the skull business and other beliefs were ridiculous and absurd did not abolish them. Believing that a tall woman riding a chariot in armor and carrying a spear was Athena, and yet knowing at the same that she was just some woman employed for the occasion of the return of a disgraced politician, seems to have a kind of family resemblance to my experience — and the Athena / tall woman tracks are a lot more harmonious.

That would imply a different state of mind than most metafilterians ordinarily experience, but I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that many more Athenians did think that way a lot more often than we do.

I think it's kind of an aspect of what Julian Jaynes was getting at, really – not to mention William Blake.
posted by jamjam at 1:51 AM on February 16 [7 favorites]


When I try to access London Review of Books
Try opening it in a private window and try scrolling down to close that silly pop-up window.

posted by pracowity at 3:20 AM on February 16 [1 favorite]


I could not finish the review.

I too was reminded of Julian Jaynes, and was unable to shake the conviction that I was reading about the work of a crackpot. This "ontological turn" we are invited to take is transparent nonsense. It was not, for example, formerly the case that combustion of burnable substances resulted from the release of phlogiston, nor did the entire universe once orbit the Earth. And yet it is precisely this view that is urged.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 3:20 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]


outlandishly relativistic and flatly false......transparent nonsense

This review gives some idea of the author's response to criticism:

Anderson is well aware that his alternative ontological approach will invite questions and criticisms, many of which are dealt with directly in his very useful “Q & A” at the end of Part Two. Attempting to avoid the charge of cultural relativism (“ontological anarchy”), Anderson remains committed to an ontological plurality where “worlds” are “bounded” in a “giveness” that makes them “worlds” for those who inhabit them (66).

.....not sure how much this helps if you are entirely unwilling to decentralize the primacy of the concept of an objectively existing material reality that is the same for everyone, no matter how they and their group think, but that move seems to be the first thing the book asks for.

The stuff about quantum social science makes the book seem like the work of a crank.
I full-on cringed when I saw the word "quantum" in the Amazon description.
posted by thelonius at 5:14 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


I've seen a rather drastic shift in how a lot of people think about gender, and that's just within one culture.

If people keep saying they have certain sorts of experience of the gods, maybe we should at least be open to the possibility that they mean what they're saying.

Ancient Greece wasn't just one thing, so it would be reasonable to take Athenian points of view and Spartan points of view as not just lumped into ancient Greece.

I think that what is public and normal should be considered as different from what is typical in sub-groups. In ancient Greece it was normal to believe in many gods which were constantly making a difference, but in modern America very few people believe that.

This doesn't mean the review is perfect, but I've been realizing how different my worldview as a secular Jew is from that of believing Christians. Why shouldn't there be large differences cultures which are separated in time?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:13 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Why shouldn't there be large differences cultures which are separated in time?

No one is saying there isn't. They are saying that there is no distinction between cross-temporal gaps and cross-spatial gaps.
posted by PMdixon at 9:56 AM on February 16


Skepticism is so fundamental to our current condition (in the West, at least) that it’s nearly impossible to imagine its absence. But you have to imagine that absence in order to get even distantly close to how some historical peoples inhabited their world.

Imagining the absence of skepticism is essential to understanding the ancient Greeks.
posted by great_radio at 10:16 AM on February 16


Imagining the absence of skepticism is essential to understanding the ancient Greeks.

Well, up to a point....
posted by thelonius at 10:38 AM on February 16 [3 favorites]


Skepticism in its original form was invented by the Greeks, as Thelonius alludes to, so I don't know about that.
posted by praemunire at 12:18 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


Pyrrho was a couple of hundred years after the cart incident, at least. I don't know of any criticism of traditional mythology or folk theology before Plato, and that was on moral grounds, mostly.
posted by thelonius at 12:39 PM on February 16




Anderson casually highlighted differences to make his point, so he already crossed his own line to get there (special pleading). Ignoring for a moment that we share a lot with ancient Greece due to inheritance and either aesthetic or practical borrowing, especially through shared origins of scholarship, it is a separate argument to imply that culture dominates our intellect so that we are always enslaved by it when it comes to analysis and judgement. This assumption of always being in a subset of a culture is, objectively, as simple to reject as any foreign or native idea one happens to reject for themselves, and it can be argued that all cultures belong to a super-culture anyway.
posted by Brian B. at 9:31 AM on February 17


The books are my gateway to Classical studies and they are delightful, and puzzling, and along with much of high-period Wolfe, repay careful and repeated reading.

What he wrote.

My ten thousandth comment! Man, I've been putting it off for weeks, hoping to make it a worthwhile comment, then forgot all about that part and then succeeded. So, it's all good...
posted by y2karl at 2:36 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


hi karl, hope you are well. honored to be a catalyst.

Given that I’m unlikely to read the work in question in consequence of its’ pricing, I wanted to poke at the upthread concerns expressed about the Bicameral Mind as a contributor to the author’s work. The linked review is quite long, and entirely eschews mention of that work; the inference I would tend to draw is that the work in question does too.

That’s not to say that Wolfe’s referenced pop-culture work which I cited above is not a product of an intellectual culture which included Bicameral Mind as plausible. But it strikes me as improbable that a contemporary classical scholar would construct an argument for the inclusion of the concept of direct experience of divinity in an alien culture with reference to that work.

I may, as always in all things, be mistaken.
posted by mwhybark at 9:45 PM on February 17


I did find a link to a paper by the author:

"Retrieving the Lost Worlds of the Past: The Case For An Ontological Turn"[pdf]
posted by thelonius at 10:07 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Pursuant to karl's remark above, I created a FanFare page for the Latro books, which I then used as an excuse to centralize a bunch of Wolfean links on. Hope it's of interest and service.
posted by mwhybark at 12:20 PM on February 18 [3 favorites]


This assumption of always being in a subset of a culture is, objectively, as simple to reject as any foreign or native idea one happens to reject for themselves, and it can be argued that all cultures belong to a super-culture anyway.

Which is an rather Colonist sort of attitude to have, really. Not only saying that all other cultures are merely fragments of the One True Human culture but denying that your culture IS a culture at all, as opposed to simple reality.

Is not that far from that to "Since those cultures disagree with our world culture (which is merely reality) , it's only right to take their children and put them in schools where their wrong beliefs will be upgraded to ours." (taking their land is merely an added bonus)
posted by happyroach at 2:00 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]


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