Review of Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, by Tim Whitmarsh

New York: Knopf, 2015

In Virgil’s Aeneid a warrior on guard at the Trojan beachhead in Italy contemplates a mission to Aeneas, who is off recruiting Etruscans. He ponders the impulse that will lead to his night raid and end in his death, along with that of the young friend he addresses: “Do the gods,” he wonders, “add this eagerness to our minds, or does our dread passion become a god for each of us?” The lines are developed from a similar, but fundamentally different, question in the Odyssey, a response by the attendant Medon to Penelope, who has just asked why her son has left Ithaca “I do not know whether some god impelled him or whether his own heart was stirred to go to Pylos” (4.712–13). Medon may not know why Telemachus has left, but we as readers do: Athena, in disguise, had earlier in the poem told him to do so, so putting “strength and courage in his heart” (1.320–21). Virgil, Homer’s closest reader, has conflated these two separate moments, so creating an utterly different question, and we are meant to see that difference. Nisus, who feels the impulse to act, himself puts the question Medon had asked of a third person. Nisus does not know the answer, and neither does the Virgilian narrator—or at least he never answers it. In short, Nisus is agnostic on the role of divinity in human affairs, neither atheist nor theist. He just doesn’t know; neither, I suspect, did Virgil.

Tim Whitmarsh has produced a stimulating and learned book, which ranges throughout the Greek and Roman worlds (mostly Greek), from the time of Homer to the time of Virgil, and well beyond, in search not of agnostics, to whom I will return, but of atheists. He writes with flair and is informative on matters literary, philosophical, cultural, historical, and religious. The secure information on the topic has however been available for some time. A. B. Drachmann’s Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, almost a century old (1922), contains much the same evidence, although papyrus texts have added a little in the intervening years. Jan Bremmer in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007), and David Sedley in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2013) cover the essentials. Whitmarsh is to be congratulated and thanked for assembling with helpful and scrupulous endnotes all of the primary and secondary texts in which the claims for ancient atheism are to be found. He has pitched his discussions at a level aimed to be accessible to readers with no knowledge of the ancient world, but with a complexity of detail that will also be of interest to specialists. He also contextualizes the material in ways that others have not, so non-specialist readers will in the course of reading Battling the Gods be treated to some of the essentials of Greek and Roman history, politics, and cultural developments.

The book, like many on “the Greeks”, is largely about philosophical discussion in the city of Athens during the last third of the fifth century BCE to the death of Socrates in 399 BCE, a period of intellectual and political turmoil. Though Whitmarsh’s book moves chronologically, from the time of the Homeric poems down to Byzantium, much of the (slight) evidence for what he calls the “atheist revolution” in Athens is simply passed down, repeated and repackaged over the years. He also subscribes to the proposition, put forward by David Sedley, of an “atheist underground”. Again, the evidence is slight, the argumentation interesting, but conclusions uncertain. It all depends on whether or not Plato’s—or rather his character the Athenian stranger’s—exclusion of atheists from the ideal city (not Athens) in Book 10 of the Laws reflects an Athenian reality around 350 BCE. There is simply no way of knowing, and Sedley and Whitmarsh both seem to want to find what they do in fact find, card-carrying atheists to serve as progenitors of those moderns whose voices have been heard in recent years. Whitmarsh develops this supposed underground into “virtual networks” of atheists connected across the centuries. In reality the same names keep being brought up, with one or two additions, suggesting that the candidates are fairly limited.

So, for instance, six or so centuries after the death of Socrates a Greek doctor by the name of Sextus, produced a work generally known as “Against the Professors”, Book 9 of which included a chapter “Whether gods exist”. The argument of this Sextus Empiricus (the second name was given to identify his insistence on the necessity of evidence) is conveniently summarized at Whitmarsh pp. 165–72. As a follower of the Skeptics he believed it right in accordance with the laws and ancestral customs to worship the gods, but also right to decline to commit on the level of philosophical enquiry (9.49): he held on the basis of the equal strength of the opposing arguments that the gods are “no more existent than non-existent” (9.58). At 9.50–59 Sextus gives an “atheist list”, including poets and “sophists” of the fifth century, a list that goes back to Epicurus and beyond and gathers up later figures such as Euhemerus and Epicurus himself. The list includes the lyric poet Diagoras of Melos, of whom Sextus preserves a fragment and an anecdote. “Diagoras began his poem this way ‘By heaven’s will and fortune all things are accomplished’ but when he had been wronged by a man who had sworn falsely and suffered no punishment for it, he changed round and asserted that God does not exist.” This has the ring of implausibility and scholiastic journalism to it. Also prominent are Prodicus and Critias, all three of the late fifth century. Whitmarsh could have made more throughout the book of the contradictions that seem possible within a polytheistic world even for those who made it onto the atheist list. But Whitmarsh is hunting for dogmatic atheists, for disbelievers who will fit well the worlds of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheism (p. 4). There is a sense of mission, so to speak, that leads him to veer towards a dogmatism of his own.

The list of Sextus, as Whitmarsh notes, is inherited from previous writers, in particular perhaps the Hellenistic Skeptic Carneades (ca. 214–129 BCE), who wrote nothing down, but of whom one Cotta, speaking for the Skeptics in Cicero’s dialogue On the nature of the gods (3.34), says “[t]hese arguments were advanced by Carneades, not with the object of establishing atheism (for what could less befit a philosopher?) but in order to prove the Stoic theology worthless”. Some scholars, Whitmarsh included, reject or doubt this representation of Carneades, but Cicero unlike us had the texts in question, whatever motives he himself may have had. Whitmarsh sees as especially important in the spread of atheism Carneades’ successor in heading the Academy, the Skeptic Clitomachus (ca. 187–110 BCE), “that prodigious figure in the history of atheism” (p. 172). At p. 165 “[i]t is likely that he wrote a book called On Atheism”, while at p. 212 Clitomachus “almost certainly” wrote a “doxography of atheism, a distillation of all the very best arguments against divinity”. Assuming he did so, it presumably looked more or less like the lists and presentations of Cicero (On the Nature of the Gods 1.117–19) and Sextus.

Not everyone will go along with the conclusion on p. 213 that “[b]y the second century AD, atheism in the full, modern sense had acquired full legitimacy as a philosophical idea.” Bremmer’s take on the atheist lists seems preferable (The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, p. 20):

The ever-expanding lists with atheists should not conceal the fact that in historical reality no practicing atheists are mentioned in our sources for the period. In the first two centuries of our era, atheism had mainly become a label to be used against philosophical opponents but not to be taken too seriously.

Similarly Sedley, The Oxford Handbook of Atheism p. 150:

In the four centuries down to the beginning of the Roman empire in 31 bce, disbelief in the existence of gods was a recognizable if rare stance. Yet we know of virtually no public intellectual during that period who displayed it with complete openness.

Presocratics or sophists could be labeled atheist, comic playwrights called philosophers atheists, the character Sisyphus could utter atheist doctrine on stage (but we know where he ended up), Stoics called Epicureans atheists, and in due course pagans would call Christians atheists (no temples or statues).

Bremmer further notes CCA, p. 11 “[i]f we find atheism at all, it is usually a ‘soft’ atheism or the imputation of atheism to others as a means to discredit them.” That is, charges of atheism, whether in the law courts or the comic poets, cannot easily be taken, in the absence of other evidence, to indicate the widespread practice of atheism — whatever that would have looked like. In his play Clouds Aristophanes parodied Socrates as being a worshipper of clouds. For the joke to work the reality has to be far different. Again, there is in all of classical antiquity no instance of a categorical first-person denial of the existence of deity. There doubtless were those who came, through philosophical reflection or other processes, to believe that, but the absence is remarkable, and cannot across a millennium always be attributed to the political danger from the “state”.

Nor is Clitomachus the only “prodigious figure in the history of atheism.” Other, more attested and familiar, authors are found to have atheistic tendencies. So when Herodotus talks of “the god” or “the divine” he “means not the god of religion but an abstract, underlying system that the author claims to disclose thanks to his painstaking research. God is the moral logic that holds the historical cosmos together” (p. 81). Whitmarsh allows that the historian reports that Apollo heard Croesus’ prayer and sent rain to put out the fire which was about to consume him, whereupon Cyrus honored him as being “good and beloved of the gods”. As for Thucydides “[w]hatever his own personal beliefs were, the History can reasonably be claimed to be the earliest surviving atheist narrative of human history” (p. 86). But criticism of the Athenian general Nikias’ superstition, with its disastrous outcome for the Athenians, hardly supports such a conclusion, however much the historian separates divine interventions from the historical record. And at p. 137, Whitmarsh adduces a slightly curious reason for Plato’s notorious hostility to atheism in the Laws. Plato

seems to be the victim of a kind of intellectual Stockholm Syndrome: having spent so long psychologically trapped by the traumatic effects of Socrates’s unjust execution [half a century earlier] for supposed impiety [not atheism], he ended up designing a state that cannot tolerate anything other than one type of religious orthodoxy and punished disbelievers.

Whitmarsh seems to want his Greeks to be more modern, more fully rational and materialist, competing in their atheism with modern atheists. He is driven by a desire to push back against the “modernist mythology” that atheism is an invention of the European Enlightenment. But, again, it is generally accepted that atheist doctrine was a topic of ancient philosophical debate. Where there is doubt or hesitation is in the realm of atheist practice beyond that debate. In the introduction he proposes an “archaeology of religious skepticism … in part an attempt to excavate ancient atheism from underneath the rubble heaped on it by millennia of Christian opprobrium” (11). It is, however, in the pre-Christian evidence, from Plato to Sextus, that there is such paucity of evidence. He is therefore driven to see atheism as more widespread than the evidence will support.

One looks in vain for shades of grey, for the possibility that ridicule of the Olympian gods could co-exist with any number of generally theistic practices or beliefs. Such ridicule can also imply strongly theistic attitudes: the notion that Zeus exists is absurd, but I know that Dionysiac, Orphic, Eleusinian, or other systems are true, and in them is my salvation. Similarly with agnosticism which gets a solitary reference in the index. Protagoras (ca. 490–20), like Virgil’s Nisus is, from the evidence, agnostic, at least if we are to judge from what was perhaps the opening of his work “Concerning the Gods”: “Concerning the gods I am unable to discover whether they exist or not, or what they are like in form.” On p. 210 Whitmarsh treating the Epicurean text of the Diogenes inscription refers to the “now familiar argument that agnosticism is, philosophically speaking, the same thing as atheism” citing Bagnini—should be Baggini—(Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 22–25), who says no such thing. Rather Baggini talks of dogmatic theists and atheists, both of whom believe their positions are indefeasible, noting “[i]t would be fair to object to both of these dogmatists that their beliefs are unjustified, since there is no way either can be so sure that they are right.” The undogmatic, intelligent theist and atheist in Baggini’s view both hold a “firmly held belief” while acknowledging that belief could be wrong. The agnostic is positioned between those two, no closer to the undogmatic atheist than to the undogmatic theist, but is not to be found in Battling the Gods, which allows for little in the way of undogmatic atheism or agnosticism.

Whitmarsh, then, succeeds in reiterating what is generally acknowledged, that philosophical discussions of atheism, atheist lists, and comic, satirical, and courtroom charges of atheism can be found in various, and occasional, places throughout antiquity. But how widespread was atheism outside the philosophical circles and their atheist lists made up of the same half-dozen or so figures repeated by a handful of sources between the fourth century BCE and the second century CE? Whitmarsh tries to find traces of such circles (“virtual networks”) in the works of writers such as Apuleius and Lucian. There is however little to justify the statement “it seems clear that atheism did indeed flourish alongside the many cults of the empire” (p. 213). Indeed, there is not even a Latin word for it, and even the transliterated Atheus is only found of Cicero, almost just as a nickname of Diagoras. What would flourishing atheism actually look like, and why would there be no real trace of it? To speak moreover of the cult of atheism flourishing seems almost oxymoronic.

A brief final chapter on “Christians, Heretics, and Other Atheists” gives a stimulating account of the arrival of Christianity in connection with atheism, a phenomenon not even mentioned by the Codex of Theodosius, which was concerned only with a critique of superstition, i.e. polytheism. The penultimate chapter is entitled “Imagine”, as in the second verse of John Lennon’s song:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

In this chapter Whitmarsh examines texts, Latin and Greek, of the Second Sophistic (ca. 60–230 CE) in which he claims to see the “network” of atheists that he supposes existed on the basis of the various repeated atheist lists (or “doxographies” as he prefers). When Apuleius in his Apology (meant to recall Plato’s work of the same name) attacks his North African prosecutor Aemilianus, saying “I know there are some people, among them this Aemilianus, who enjoy mocking all things divine,” Whitmarsh is reminded of the familiar atheist lists of the fourth century BCE, and wonders whether this is evidence “for a comparable network in North Africa, but this time a network of real-life atheists” (p. 218). This seems fanciful, and again, no names. Plutarch’s treatise On Superstition opposes a character called “the atheist” to the “superstitious man”, neither coming out well. Doubtless in Plutarch’s day there were atheists, though again the only ones he names are from half a millennium before his own time, the familiar figures Anaxagoras, Xenophanes, Diagoras and Critias. Similarly Lucian’s “Zeus the Tragedian” finds the god eavesdropping at an argument between Timocles the Stoic and Damis the Epicurean. The position of the latter (that the gods do not involve themselves in human affairs) is with rhetorical deliberateness extended by Zeus to imply that the gods do not exist at all, an anti-Epicurean trope that goes back centuries. In a tendentious move typical of Battling the Gods, we are told (p. 227) that this dramatization “is, of course, comically exaggerated but it does show in broad outline how a debate between and atheist and a theist might have proceeded.” Generally Whitmarsh colossally, almost willfully, under-reads this literature which he has treated with more nuance in his scholarly writing. Author and persona are merged, Lucian is taken literally, rhetorically constructed details of Apuleius’ brilliant speech are taken on faith and used to provide rock-solid factual evidence.

The final paragraph concludes, against the available evidence, that “[a]theism was a widespread and well understood phenomenon in the early Roman Empire” (p. 230). It concludes with the language of regret, with the death of the dream and the extinction of these imagined networks of (unnamed) atheists (p. 230):

It was now possible to imagine the possibility of a world that had left religions behind: the Olympians would be, as Lucian envisaged it, starving for want of sacrificial smoke. Within two centuries of Plutarch and Lucian, however, that dream was dead: the religious landscape of the Roman Empire had been entirely reshaped, and there was no room in it for disbelievers.

But as Whitmarsh so well shows the target of Christianity was also the target of the supposed atheists, that is superstitious polytheism. When Lennon was asked what the 1971 song was positively imagining, he replied (David Sheff, Playboy interview 1981): 212–13:

The concept of positive prayer ... If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true ...

Whitmarsh’s agenda, and his drive to find networks of atheists to serve as a model for those encountered in our own century—for the most part flourishing in university and other elite circles—distract from a book that nevertheless is an impressive and rich assemblage of all the possible evidence on this topic. But as a work aimed at informing a broader public of the realities of this topic it falls short of its obligation.

Posted on 7 November 2016

RICHARD F. THOMAS is George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics at Harvard University. His most recent book is the co-edited three-volume work The Virgil Encyclopedia, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).