Monday, May 18, 2009

Contra Atheos, Part Deux

[This is the second of two parts. Here is the first part.]

A Gentlemen's Agreement
In the last few years of his life, Marcus Tullius Cicero single-handedly produced a small library of works on philosophy including two major works on ethics, one on epistemology, two on religion, and some others, at least of few of which are no longer extant. These works were intended to popularize Greek philosophy for Romans, in their own Latin language. While some of these works are lost, many of them survive complete or nearly so, which is sadly not the case with the overwhelming majority of all philosophical works produced throughout ancient history. As important as Cicero's works were at the time, they became even more valuable during the Middle Ages, when knowledge of Greek all but vanished from western Europe, but Latin continued to be the language of culture, literature, science, and philosophical discourse right up to the early modern period (Isaac Newton's revolutionary scientific insights were communicated to the world in Latin, for example).

As mentioned, two of the surviving philosophical works of Cicero's were on the subject of religion. In writing on religion Cicero was quite typical of ancient philosophers. In fact, the deep interest that philosophers in general took in that subject is directly reflected in Cicero's writings, which are in dialogue format in which members of different schools of philosophy present their views. Although himself a member (and even a spokesperson in some sense) of the Academic school, Cicero shows great sympathy for the Stoic position, and this is especially the case when it comes to religion.

One of the key things that most philosophers from most of the schools agreed on was the existence of many Gods, or, more precisely, many Goddesses and Gods. This is not really surprising since Greek and Roman philosophers were not practitioners of some separate religion of their own, but rather were co-religionists with their fellow Pagans, and as such they believed in and worshipped the same Goddesses and Gods as everyone else. It should (almost) go without saying that as philosophers they of course examined religious ideas much more carefully than the average Pagan did, but as Cicero's writings demonstrate clearly, the religiosity of Greek and Roman Pagan philosophers was of a piece with that of the societies in which they lived.

P.A. Meijer has written a book on Stoic Theology (also see the BMCR review here) which shows conclusively and exhaustively that the Stoics (going back to their founder, Zeno, in the early 3rd century BC) believed in the same "traditional" Goddesses and Gods as their fellow Pagans, and that they wrote extensively on the "nature" of the divine. Unfortunately, as in the case of most Stoic writings, these earliest theological investigations survive only as scattered fragments, and the great importance of Meijer's book lies in his meticulous collection and systematic presentation, combined with thoughtful commentary, of the surviving evidence. There is no doubt what this evidence shows: that the Stoics, from Zeno forward, were adherents of the same religious traditions as other Pagan Greeks and Romans, and, in particular, they believed in a (great) multiplicity of deities.

What is true of the Stoics concerning religion is just as true of the other major schools: the Platonists (including the Academics), the Aristotelians, and the Epicureans. They were all agreed on the existence of many Goddesses and Gods, and the words of Epicurus speak for them all: "There are Gods, the knowledge of them is self-evident."

Greek and Roman philosophers (that is to say, the progenitors of modern western intellectual culture, the very people who gave us not just the word "reason" itself, but our very conception of it) were widely agreed, then, that the belief in many Goddesses and Gods is the natural and proper state of affairs for humanity.

What then are we to make of those who insist that we must choose between one God or no God? If Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Cicero, Posidonius (whose calculations of the circumference of the earth, made prior to 50 BC, formed part of the scientific rationale for Columbus' voyage in 1492), Epictetus, etc, were right, then such a choice is wholly unnatural. But if they are right and it is indeed unnatural, well, how do the Christians and Atheists get away with it?

Until quite recently the answer was all too simple. Rome became a monotheistic theocracy in 381 AD, and over 14 centuries later European nations were still putting people to death for crimes such as heresy, apostasy, and blasphemy. It should be pointed out that prior to the coming to power of the Christians, dozens of different religions were practiced in the Roman world and religious tolerance was the rule, although the rule was not without exceptions, a situation that changed utterly with the process of Christianization. Indeed, it is far from clear when (or even if) it actually became legal to worship more than one God (let alone Goddesses!). Greek law to this day still forbids the conversion of Orthodox Christians to any other religion. In the United States, the religious traditions of Native Americans were not recognized as being protected under the first amendment until the 1970's.

During World War II, Winston Churchill frequently portrayed Britain as the defender of Christendom, and declared in June, 1940, "The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization." This in spite the fact that Germany was just as Christian a nation as Britain. Four years later when FDR made his radio address on D-Day, he led the nation in prayer to "Almighty God".

I think the examples of Churchill and Roosevelt are quite helpful in understanding our present day spiritual "two party system" of Christians and Atheists in the west. By the 1940's people were no longer being put to death (or even put in jail) for religious crimes in the US and Britain, but one and a half millennia of theocracy had left a deep impression on the western psyche, even in those societies that (now) prided themselves on their "freedom of religion". A look at the history of freedom of religion over the last 500 years in the west is especially revealing. For one thing we find that for most of that time the concept of religious freedom was very tightly limited to the "freedom" to choose from among different forms of Christianity.

From the 4th century onward, Christians had drummed an "us versus everyone" mentality into peoples heads and hearts. The pervasiveness of the "Christianity or nothing" paradigm is illustrated nicely by one of the greatest Renaissance scholars of the 20th century, P.O. Kristeller, who shares his opinions about Paganism and Christianity in the Italian Renaissance here:
Many historians of the last century tended to associate the Italian Renaissance and Italian humanism with a kind of irrelegion and to interpret the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as expressions of a religious revival which challenged and finally defeated the un-Christian cultures of the preceding period. The moral ideas and literary allegories in the writings of the humanists were taken to be expressions, real or potential, overt or concealed, of a new paganism incompatible with Christianity. The neat separation of between reason and faith advocated by the Aristotelian philosophers was considered as a hypocritical device to cover up a new atheism, whereas the emphasis on a natural religion common to all men, found in the work of the Platontists and Stoics, was characterized as pantheism. This picture of the supposed paganism of the Renaissance which was drawn by historians with much horror or enthusiasm, depending on the strength of their religious or irreligious convictions, can hardly be dismissed as the result of later legends and preconceptions. In part it may be traced to charges made against humanists and philosophers by hostile or narrow-minded contemporaries, which should not be accepted at their face value.

Most recent historians have taken quite a different view of the matter. There was, to be sure, a good deal of talk about the pagan gods and heroes in the literature of the Renaissance, and it was justified by the familiar device of allegory and strengthened by the belief in astrology, but there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults. The word pantheism had not yet been invented, and although the word atheism was generously used during polemics during the later sixteenth century, there were probably few real atheists and barely a few pantheists during the Renaissance. The best or worst we may say is that there were some thinkers who might be considered, or actually were considered, as forerunners of eighteenth-century free thought. There was then, of course, as there was before and afterwards, a certain amount of religious indifference and of merely nominal adherence to the doctrine of the Church. There were many cases of conduct in private and public life that were not in accordance with the moral commands of Christianity, and there were plenty of abuses in ecclesiastic practice itself, but I am not inclined to consider this as distinctive of the Renaissance period.

[from: Renaissance Thought and its Sources by P.O. Kristeller, p.67]
Notice how Kristeller moves effortlessly and seamlessly between Atheism, Paganism, and generic "irreligion", and he even throws in pantheism for good measure. It's a lot like hearing Dick Cheney trying to explain, to this day, the "connection" between Iraq and 9/11: the message is clear enough, but there's really no there there. All Kristeller wants to do is to convince us that there was no such thing as Paganism during the Renaissance, merely degrees of religiosity, with the only religion being Christianity. What I quote is about one half page of a 16 page chapter titled Paganism and Christianity. Kristeller not once mentions the relevant fact that people were being put to their deaths at this time convicted of the crime of "reviving pagan cults", and that the people he is talking about, writers and philosophers, lived very public lives and committed their ideas to writing in public. Therefore to claim surprise that none of these writers ever published a condemnation of Christianity and a justification of Paganism is simply an act of breathtaking intellectual dishonesty.

At one point Kristeller openly lies, and this is precisely when he proclaims that "there were few, if any, thinkers who seriously thought of reviving pagan cults." As everyone even remotely familiar with the subject knows, the epicenter of Renaissance philosophy was the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was modeled directly on the last publicly functioning Pagan religious institution in Greco-Roman world, the Platonic Academy in Athens. It is not possible that Kristeller was unaware of the openly Pagan nature of the Athenian Academy, for this was the very reason that it was (infamously) ordered closed by the emperor Justinian in 529. Kristeller was also fully aware of the fact that the head of the Florentine Academy was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and that Ficino publicly acknowledged a Pagan, Byzantine scholar George Gemistos Plethon (c.1355-1452), as the inspiration and catalyst for the decision to found the Academy in Florence.

Indeed, Plethon is one of the unassailable examples that we have of a genuine bona-fide fifteenth century Pagan, and one who was explicitly devoted to "reviving Pagan cults". Many modern scholars, including supposedly Pagan scholars such Ronald Hutton and Chas Clifton, have tried to claim, lamely, that Plethon was not "really" a Pagan, but merely an eccentric Christian with an obsessive interest in antiquarianism. But noted Renaissance scholar John Monfasani, who was one of Kristeller's students, has this to say in his essay on "Platonic Paganism in the 15th century" (Monfasani consistently misspells Plethon's name as "Pletho", but that is another matter....):
There is no new Christian Pletho yet to be discovered. The Pletho we have is the Pletho that was. And that Pletho was not an orthodox, or for that matter, an unorthodox Christian; nor was he an overly enthusiastic antiquarian. Rather he was an unequivocal neo-pagan.

... Pletho claimed that he was restoring the authentic pagan religious creed and ritual (the "theologia prisca", Ficino would say) taught by true philosophers and lawgivers from Zoroaster through Plato and the Platonists. I see no reason not to believe that Pletho meant what he said; that he believed not only in the one supreme god, but also in the supercelestial gods, the subcelestial gods, and the demons, which fill his chain of being between the supreme god and man, and which he talked about time and time again. I take him at his word that he wished his prayers and hymns to these gods to be sung in accordance with the calendar he had devised; that he affirmed the eternity of the world, the unchallenged determinism of divine fate, and the transmigration of souls from body to body; and that he rejected as ridiculous the Christian notions of intercessory prayer, resurrection and paradise.
[from: Reconsidering the Renaissance, pp. 51-52]
In other words, Plethon believed in Pagan Gods, prayed to those Gods, celebrated those Gods according to a Pagan calendar of holy days, believed in a Pagan cosmology, etc. Hey - it sounds like maybe he really was a Pagan after all! And not really all that hard to find, providing one is actually looking.

Many scholars have lately tried to change their tune, somewhat, from Kristeller's crude fabrication that it is impossible to find any real Pagans during the Renaissance, to the claim that, well, OK, there might have been one or two Pagans - but nobody paid any attention to them. The fearless leader of this effort should probably be considered James Hankins, who devotes some effort in his two volume Plato in the Italian Renaissance to arguing that Plethon's Paganism, in particular, had no effect on anyone, anywhere, really.

But before proceeding to shed some light on the reception of Plethon by the possible Pagans of the Italian Renaissance, let me return to Marsilio Ficino for a moment. Ficino is the grand prize of the dueling perspectives on whether or not the Renaissance was a Pagan phenomenon. Ficino, as Cosimo de' Medici's hand picked head of the Platonic Academy in Florence, is, arguably, to Renaissance philosophy what Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, combined, are to Renaissance art. At any rate, he is a much contended over feather for either the cap of the Pagans or the Christians. The fact is that Ficino publicly identified as a Christian, and was even a priest. But does anyone believe that every (or, for that matter any) government official in the People's Republic of China is a sincere true-believing Marxist? Common sense tells us that mere professions of faith are rendered worthless when adduced in an atmosphere of repression, to state the painfully obvious.

We do know that Marsilio Ficino was a deeply religious man, and that his religiosity was much more heavily influenced by Pythagoras, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus than it was by Jesus, Peter and Paul. We also have a biography of Ficino written just seven years after his death, in which we are told quite clearly that he was a "Paganus" at least until the age of 42. In fact, his biographer, Giovanni Corsi, informs us that Ficino originally planned his monumental work Platonic Theology to be "almost a model of the pagan religion". But then, Corsi assures us, nothing less than a "divine miracle" occurred, the result of which was that "whilst he was still in his forty-second year from being a pagan he became a soldier of Christ."

If we take Corsi at his word then we see a clearly Pagan Ficino, carrying on the theological mission of Plethon, only to suddenly, miraculously, see the error of his ways, and then return to the flock with the rest of the sheep. But even if we completely discount the authenticity of Corsi's claim, we nevertheless still have the claim itself. One assumes that Corsi's intended audience would at least accept this claim as within the realm of the conceivable, which would mean that the idea of Pagans walking the streets of Florence, with Marsilio Ficino among them, was conceivable for those living at the time, even if that lies beyond the comprehension of many (but certainly not all) so-called experts in the Renaissance today!

On the other hand if we take an open minded, yet skeptical, view, we might conclude that the most likely part of Corsi's story to be untrue would be the 180 degree theological bat-turn of a man who had devoted his life up to that time to the revival of Pagan religion and philosophy. There are as many reasons for feigning such a "conversion" as there are for someone suspected of being a capitalist roader (or whatever they call them these days) in the Peoples' Republic of China to suddenly proclaim a newfound and deeply heartfelt love and admiration for Marx and Mao.

But now I wish to return to Plethon and his supposed lack of influence as a Pagan. I will call as my first and only witness a person who goes (well, nearly) unmentioned in Hankin's 847 page study, the current go-to scholarly source for those who are eager to poo-poo any notions of Renaissance Paganism (as Ronald Hutton wishes to do in his Witches, Druids and King Arther, see especially chapter 4, The New Old Paganism and chapter 5 Paganism in the Missing Centuries). The person in question is Sigismondo Malatesta (1498-1553), who, among many other noteworthy achievements, was the first person ever personally, by name, officially and preemptively condemned to Hell by express order of the Catholic Church (usually such decisions are considered to be left up to the discretion of God and/or Jesus, and that not until the Day of Judgment). If for no other reason than that, he can hardly be thought of as an unknown figure to students of Italian Renaissance history.

Malatesta was an aristocrat whose ancestral family seat was the city of Rimini. In addition to being notorious for the great enmity which the Church, and the Pope personally, felt toward him, Malatesta is also known as something of a military adventurer, which was not an unusual past-time for a 16th century aristocrat. During one expedition he managed to, temporarily, rout the Turkish forces on the Greek Peloponnesian peninsula. He took the opportunity to disinter the remains of his hero, George Gemistos Plethon, and transport those remains from Mistra back to his native Rimini.

Malatesta re-interred Plethon's remains in a "Church" that he had had built, which the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as the "wonderful temple of San Francesco at Rimini, the most pagan of all professedly Christian churches...." The Tempio Maletestiano, as it is often referred to, is "virtually emptied of Christian symbols" according to Joscelyn Godwin, who describes the Temple in some detail in his The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance. The Temple contains not only the remains of the notorious Pagan Plethon, but also shrines, altars, statues and chapels honoring the Goddess Diana, the Sybills, the Muses, the God Saturnus, the astrological Planets and Signs of the Zodiac, and so forth. Much of the Temple's design is based on a work of the Pagan philosopher Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, which, in turn, is based on a scene in Homer's Odyssey when Odysseus first lands back home in his native Ithaca, and visits a sacred Cave.

I have only just scratched the surface here, but hey, this is just a blog post, right, so what do you expect? What I hope I have made clear is that (1) one can, if one wishes, find plenty of evidence of Pagans and Paganism in the Renaissance, and (2) therefore those who insist otherwise, and/or who sheepishly admit that there might have been some Pagans but that these had no "influence", are driven by something other than the facts. What drives them, in my opinion, is their adherence to the false dichotomy of "Christianity or nothing."

You see, those who deny or minimize Paganism in the Renaissance wish to give the impression that by the 15th and 16th centuries it was impossible for anyone born and raised in Christendom to believe in the Old Gods of Pagan antiquity. But the posthumously discovered secret writings of Gemistos Plethon, on the basis of which Monfasani declared him an "unequivocal" Pagan, begin with the "unequivocal" declaration: "The Gods really do exist."

OUR present situation, early in the 21st century, is the natural result of the centuries of monolithic thought control on all matters of religion and philosophy that characterized the vast bulk of western history from the fourth century AD until all too recently. In the process Christians sought to, and succeeded in defining religion in terms of their one, and only one, "God". Whether a person is "religious" or not, in the west, is generally thought of in terms of one's thoughts on this "God" of the Christians.

Fortunately, Christians no longer have the power to blatantly and openly impose their religion directly on others, as they did for one and half millennia. But those who, during that time, remained spiritually chained crouching in the dark have lost much of the use of their limbs and their eyes, so to speak, and, as is intended by such torture, most of them have had their spirits broken: they no longer even remember what it means to move freely, or to see the light. The result is as horrific as it is predictable. Is there anything more tragic than a slave who does not wish for freedom, a prisoner who's only desire is to continue to live in his or her familiar cage? Human beings are by nature adaptable and malleable, and so while belief in many Gods was "self-evident" to Epicurus, and most others, 2300 years ago, today things are far less clear, at least to most of those in the west.

The New Atheists show their true colors by their eager perpetuation of the spiritual two-party system. Christians and the New Atheists have reached a gentleman's agreement concerning the terms of the debate on religion, terms that can be summed up in a simple question, a question that brings to mind the Inquisitor's sneer: do you believe in "God", or not?

The most corrosive (and least gentlemanly) aspect of these terms is that the coercive nature of the historical process of Christianization, combined with the repressive nature of Christendom from the fourth century AD until well into the early modern period, is to be considered as normative for all religions, indeed, for Religion itself.

When Christianity is accused of systemic intolerance it may be impolite or politically incorrect to say so, but it is historically accurate. That does not mean that every, or even most, individual Christians are intolerant. Consider for example the issue of torture and other acts of abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. To say that the US Military has a systemic problem with torture does not mean that most, let alone all, members of the US military are wannabe torturers. In fact, a "systemic" problem means precisely a problem with the institution itself and with the leadership, as opposed to a problem with individuals.

As is to be expected, many Christians disagree (often vehemently) with the statement that their religion has a systemic problem with intolerance, and it is even common to hear the counter-charge that such statements themselves smack of intolerance and religious bigotry. On the other hand, Christians are often far more comfortable with the blanket accusation that all religions are intolerant! This accusation suits both the Christians and the Atheists rather well. For the Christians it allows them to hide behind the "everyone else does it" argument, while also simultaneously promoting the "Christianity or nothing" paradigm. The Atheists love the "all religions are created equally intolerant" routine because it allows them, without presenting any proof, to paint all religions with the same brush of intolerance as Christianity.

The great irony is that today the New Atheists will defend Christianity against those who believe, as Voltaire did, that the systemic intolerance of Christianity is not a general feature of all religions. If one attempts to defend Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, classical Paganism, etc, by arguing that these religious traditions are tolerant as a general rule (as for example the historian Ramsay MacMullen has argued with respect to Roman Paganism), one will confront Atheists rabidly insisting that such a distinction is unfair to the Christians, and that the only fair-minded position is to treat all religions equally - as equally evil, violent, and intolerant, that is!

[The pie chart is from Quick: what early 80's video game does it remind you of?]


DerApparat said...

Excellent post! Finally, someone who has pointed out what I've been trying to formulate this whole time. :-)

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thanks for saying so!!

Actually, Thomas Paine beat us both to it when he said that Christianity "produces only atheists and fanatics". Although these days it is producing an ever increasing number of poor fools who are BOTH.


Zack Dergen said...

I think you are missing a very important part of the story. Modern atheists are concerned with Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, Islam) because those are the most pressing objections. In a world where most people are monotheistic, the atheist's biggest challenge is to overcome monotheism--and not just any monotheism, but the form(s) of monotheism actually practiced in the largest numbers. It's a strategic move, but not the one you think.

This approach goes back to William James' paper "The Will to Believe" (which can be found here: In that essay, he distinguishes between live hypotheses and dead hypotheses. A live hypothesis is one that seems to us like it could really be possible. A dead hypothesis does not really seem possible. When we make choices, only live hypotheses are genuine options.

According to James, we cannot stay neutral on the existence of a god or gods. Agnosticism is only a rhetorical stance: all of us either believe in a god or gods, or believe that there are no gods at all. He also thinks that this choice is very important. But even if the choice is important and unavoidable, the only way we can answer it is with a live hypothesis. And what counts as a live hypothesis strongly depends on our upbringing and background.

Most people reject polytheism (whether Greco-Roman, Norse, African, or Indian) because they simply are not live hypotheses for us. But according to James, this is not unreasonable. If we could not believe in them--which has as much to do with our upbringing and background as it does with our evidence--then there is no point in arguing over them. The will to believe is adaptable, but not infinite. If I will never be a Hindu, there's no point wasting time considering it.

For most contemporary atheists, polytheism is not a live option (whereas Christianity might be). Nor is it politically influential enough to require refutation (whereas Islam might be, even if it is not a live hypothesis for that particular atheist). So it is less a gentleman's agreement and more a matter of not discussing what most people already agree is off the table. It's the same reason I don't consider the possibility that a unicorn stole my car keys whenever I can't find them.