Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

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Long before the European Enlightenment and the Darwinian revolution, which we often take to mark the birth of the modern revolt against religious explanations of the world, brave people doubted the power of the gods. Religion provoked skepticism in ancient Greece, and heretics argued that history must be understood as a result of human action rather than divine intervention. They devised theories of the cosmos based on matter, and notions of matter based on atoms. They developed mathematical tools that could be applied to the world around them, and tried to understand that world in material terms. Their skepticism left a rich legacy of literature, philosophy and science, and was defended by great writers like Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero and Lucian. Tim Whitmarsh tells the story of the tension between orthodoxy and heresy with great panache, a story that ended--for the moment--with the imposition of Christianity on the Roman Empire in 313 CE.

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James Langton trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. An AudioFile Earphones Award winner, he has performed many voice-overs and narrated numerous audiobooks. James was born in York, England, and is now based in New York City.

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9. Plato and the atheists

Athens in 399 BC was a fearsome place to be. In 404 the city had fallen to the Spartans, after 27 bruising years of warfare, sometimes bloody and sometimes attritional. The aftermath was horrific. For thirteen months, the democracy was suspended, and a pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the ‘thirty tyrants’ was installed. Their leaders, Theramenes and Critias (possibly the author of the atheistic ‘Sisyphus fragment’), were famed for their brutality. A faction loyal to the old democracy was identified, arrested and executed. After a while, a power struggle between Critias and Theramenes saw the latter hauled off and killed. In 403, their rule ended when rebellious forces led by the staunch democrat Thrasybulus joined battle near the Piraeus. After more fighting, the democracy was restored.

Despite an amnesty forbidding mnēsikakia, ‘the remembering of wrongdoing’, Athens in 399 was scarred and haunted by recent events. This was the backdrop for one of the most important events in Greek cultural and religious history, the trial and execution of Socrates. Socrates, Athens’ most famous philosopher, had found himself reluctantly embroiled in the events of the previous five years. Critias had been one of his students, along with another of the tyrants, Charmides. Both of these were relatives of Plato, Socrates’ star student and later apologist; in fact, two of Plato’s dialogues featuring Socrates are called Critias and Charmides. Certainly Socrates’ relationship to the junta was not unambiguous. He had been mandated, along with others, to arrest one Leon of Salamis; he had refused, however because (according to Plato) he feared committing injustice more than the recriminations that would follow. On that occasion, he was saved by the fall of the tyrants from any repercussions from his principled insubordination. But the stain of association with that hated band, which the Athenians of the newly restored democracy were keen to drive from their memory, was hard to shift. The idea that his association with the tyrants was behind Socrates’ execution stuck around for a long time.

But association with the tyrants was not the explicit basis of the charge against Socrates, which ran: ‘Socrates commits a crime in not recognising the gods the state recognises, and introducing other, new divine powers instead. He also commits a crime by corrupting the young’. Diopeithes’ decree providing for the impeachment of ‘those who do not recognise the gods’ lies in the background for the accusation: the shared language of ‘not recognising’ (mē nomizein) suggests this much. The vaguer charge of asebeia, ‘impiety’, was also hanging in the air. But as so often in Athenian criminal prosecution, impressionistic as it was, not everything corresponds exactly to known legislation. ‘Corrupting the young’ was not a crime on the statute book. The additional accusation was no doubt designed to influence the jurors with insinuations: this, after all, was the philosopher who had taught Critias and Charmides (and Alcibiades too) when they were young men. There was also a pederastic hint in the word ‘corrupt’: Socrates was well known for his attachment to handsome youths. For an older man to court a younger boy was not in any sense seen as a moral offence, but it was a practice associated with the aristocratic elite, and so likely to play badly with the largely working-class jurors.

Whatever the underlying political motivations, the explicit force of the charge lay in the assertion that he had turned his back on the religion of the city, and invented his own private mysticism. This accusation was rooted in a peculiar foible of Socrates’: he claimed to have access to a daimonion, a ‘divine thing’, which he identified sometimes as a voice in his head and sometimes as a ‘sign from the god’. He was claiming a direct communion with an unspecified deity, a form of divine engagement that in one sense cut right across the usual ideology of Greek religion, which insisted that collective ritual marked one’s subservience to the social order. Believing that gods speak to us was not in itself so very strange: Greeks imagined that gods revealed all sorts of things through dreams, signs, and even direct manifestations (‘epiphanies’). It was the idea of an enduring one-to-one relationship with his own personal deity that was the problem. If Socrates believed that he alone had been granted access to the full depths of the divine, while conventional religion merely paddled in the shallows, that would have been deeply threatening to the civic consensus. Earlier philosophers had claimed similar things: the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides of Elea, for example, describes a journey on a chariot, through a locked gate, to the temple of a goddess who reveals to him the ways of truth and hollow belief. But Parmenides was not unfortunate enough to have to defend this claim in the aftermath of a bloody aristocratic regime spearheaded by some of his followers. Socrates’ (alleged) claim to exclusive access to divine truth could have been presented to his democratically-minded peers as a dangerous attempt to legitimate the rule of the many by the elite.

What did Socrates really think about the gods? Did he really ‘not recognise the gods of the city’, as the accusation ran? Did he believe firmly in the ‘divine thing’, or was that simply a whim of this famously ironic philosopher? How did he square this emphasis on divine revelation with his philosophical commitment to rationalism? Barring some remarkable discovery, these questions will never be answered conclusively, for Socrates – like Jesus and Mohammed (and, indeed, several other noted Greek philosophers – wrote nothing down. Every single piece of evidence for him comes mediated through others. What is more, apart from the scurrilous portrait painted by the comic poet Aristophanes in 423 BC (in Clouds), during his lifetime, every major piece of evidence is carefully polished up by one of his loyal supporters, in the aftermath of the trial. Socrates is a paradox: we know all about his central importance to Athenian cultural life in the late fifth century, but there is little certainty about his beliefs.

The two most important of these sources for Socrates’ thought are also the two most vigorous polishers of the Socrates myth: Xenophon and Plato. Xenophon (approximately 430-355 BC) was an aristocratic Athenian who combined a diverse literary output with a colourful military life. An associate of Socrates in his youth, he left Athens in the turbulent years after the end of the Thirty Tyrants to join the Greek mercenary force supporting the failed attempt of the Persian Cyrus the Younger to oust his brother, Artaxerxes II, from the throne. His epic march from Mesopotamia to the Black Sea (where the soldiers uttered the famous cry ‘The sea! The sea!’), and thence to Greece, is recorded in his Anabasis. When he returned, he began associating with his native city’s other nemesis, Sparta, and even fought with the Spartan king Agesilaus II against Athens in 394. This loyalty to Sparta won him a beautiful country house at Scillus, near Olympia (site of the games); there he wrote many of his literary works, including a biography of Agesilaus, an idealised novel on the subject of Cyrus I of Persia (the sixth-century creator of the Persian Empire), and four works on Socrates: a fictionalised version of his defence speech at the trial, a collection of conversational pieces, a dialogue on household management and a description of a symposium. Although he may have returned home in his declining years, it is fair to say that Xenophon was far from a conventional Athenian. Whether he had become alienated by the horrors of the Thirty Tyrants and the aftermath (for which his History of Greece is the primary source), or whether he was simply perverse by inclination, he seems to have allied himself with persons most unwelcome to Athenian ideology: Persian kings, Spartan kings, and Socrates.

Plato (approximately 424-347 BC), the most famous of all philosophers, was another native Athenian aristocrat, and an almost exact contemporary of Xenophon’s; but whereas Xenophon’s life was characterised by experimentation and adventure, Plato spent most of his adulthood beavering away at his writing (37 works are transmitted under his name, at least 26 of which are genuine). His one big foray into Realpolitik may have been a trip to the court of Dionysius II of Sicily (ruled 367-357 and 346-344). According to a surviving letter that purports to be written by Plato himself, he was invited over to Sicily on two occasions, first by Dionysius’ father (during his own reign) and second (early in the new king’s reign) by his philosophically inclined uncle, Dio. On both occasions, the plan was to curb the young man’s lavish appetites, and to put into practice the Platonic ideal of the ‘philosopher-king’. Dionysius, however, was congenitally indulgent and cruel. Dio was exiled, only to return with an army and depose Dionysius. Whether Plato’s Sicilian sojourn really took place all depends on the question of the authenticity of the letter. In any case, Plato developed a reputation throughout later antiquity as a head-in-the-clouds idealist, as other-worldly as his mentor Socrates himself; and the Sicily story came to be seen as a sign of his inability to translate his ideals into practice. Lucian, the playful satirist of the second century AD, wrote a fantasy story ironically titled The True Stories. In it he visits the underworld, where he meets all of the famous figures of the past, except for Plato ‘it was said that he was living in his imaginary city in the republic and under the laws that he himself had composed’. The joke is on the titles of two of his best known works, the Republic and the Laws, both utopian blueprints for ideal cities.

Both Plato and Xenophon wrote Apologies, accounts of the trial of Socrates. Convergences between the two might be taken as evidence that they are both testaments to the actual words spoken in court, but in fact that assumption crumbles once we realise that Xenophon is responding to Plato. Xenophon was not there in person; his account is simply a blend of Plato and a now-lost version by one Hermogenes, together with an incalculable amount of his own invention. It would be wonderful to have Socrates in his own words, but in truth he is lost to us. Although there is surely some of the historical Socrates in Plato and Xenophon, the more valuable evidence they offer is for the creation of a myth. The paradigm of the heroic individual who cheerfully faces death for her or his beliefs has exerted a powerful grip on history ever since, and offered a template for any number of heroically principled deaths.

Herein lies the central critical problem with Socrates. He is, as a well known classicist once observed, like a ring doughnut: rich around the outside, but absent in the centre. What was he really like? What did he really think and teach? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that an earlier, but wholly contradictory picture survives, in the form of Aristophanes’ Clouds. Given that the play was originally produced in 423 (and revised for reperformance at some point in the next 6 years), it is in fact the only substantial Socratic picture from his own lifetime. In the play, he appears as a blend of two different types of intellectual. The protagonist, Strepsiades, visits his ‘Thinktank’ (phrontistērion) because he wants to learn the art of rhetorical argumentation, how to make the weaker argument seem the stronger. Socrates excels at this, naturally. But he is also the model of a Presocratic cosmologist like Anaxagoras, theorising about the nature of the universe. Aristophanes has him worship the clouds of the title, and disbelieve in the existence of the Olympian deities. The Socrates of Plato and Xenophon is nothing like this; in fact, in Plato’s version of the defence speech, Socrates explicitly blames his public perception as a religious sceptic on Aristophanes’ play. Did, then, Aristophanes simply invent these traits? It is far from impossible: he was, after all, a comic writer, with all the licence that goes with that. Yet it is a striking fact that Aristophanes’ Socrates contains none of the traits visible in Xenophon’s account, and that of the early Plato: there he is primarily an ethical philosopher, whose primary interest is in discussing moral dilemmas with individuals. This disparity might lead us to ask whether there is not an element of artful construction in theirs too. Or perhaps over a career of some 25 years in the public eye as Athens’ best known philosopher, perhaps he changed course? Perhaps he started out as the Aristophanic cosmologist and sophist, and ended up at the ethical investigator?

Most would agree that the picture of Socrates as an ethical philosopher, glimpsed dimly through Xenophon and Plato, is likely to be historically accurate, at least for his later years. But agreeing this does not resolve the wider problem, of how and why Xenophon and Plato have distorted that picture. The crucial point is that both of these composed in the aftermath of his trial and execution. As apologists for a man condemned as a state criminal, they were placed in a very difficult position, particularly in the matter of religion. Their central mission was, in different ways, to rescue their hero from the atheistic opprobrium poured on him by the state.

This awkwardness is visible everywhere in the opening words of Xenophon’s Recollections of Socrates. Here Xenophon explicitly – and perhaps an element of protestation too much – rebuts the charge against Socrates, focusing on the accusation that he ‘does not recognise the gods that the city recognises’. How can this be, Xenophon wonders? He sacrificed regularly, and consulted oracles. Everyone knew this. He even claimed to be guided by a daimonion, a ‘divine thing’, which is hardly consistent with the idea of disbelieving in gods. What, then, is the problem? But there is indeed a problem, which Xenophon is sweeping under his finely woven Persian carpet. Socrates’ daimonion was not simply (as Xenophon suggests) a god like any other one in the city, but a personal connection to the divine that bypassed the processes of state religion. In democratic Athens that was an issue: it was tantamount to setting oneself above one’s peers, in religious terms.

It is Plato more than Xenophon who is responsible for transforming the picture of Socrates. Almost all of his philosophical treatises come in the form of dialogues between Socrates and one or more others. In the early Plato, as in Xenophon, the apologetic project is never far from the surface. But while Xenophon tries to present him as a regular Athenian, in religious terms, Plato takes the bull by the horns. His Socrates is a pious one – but in a wholly new way, which threatens to subvert the very foundations of conventional Athenian religious sensibility.

Euthyphro
, a dialogue between Socrates and the self-proclaimed religious expert of the title, is one of Plato’s very earliest dialogues (perhaps even his earliest). It is set in the run-up to the trial, and the discussion is prompted by Euthyphro’s incredulity that Socrates of all people could be tried for impiety. The leads them into a discussion of the nature of piety and holiness. Euthyphro, it transpires, is being accused of unholiness by his own family, since he has decided to prosecute his own father for murder. The dialogue is really about unsettling Euthyphro’s over-confident belief that he knows what piety and holiness are. Time and again he tries to define these term...

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