It is mythology that attracts interest in the Greek and Roman world. Not simply the mythology explored in the great epic poems of Homer and Virgil, or the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, but the myth of the ‘classical world’ itself, the world that saw the birth of democracy, on the one hand, and of philosophy, the science of reason, on the other. Yet at the same time, there is also an appetite for knowing more about the historical reality of the Greek and Roman worlds. Behind the façade of the ‘classical body’, recent scholarship has asked, what were Greek and Roman bodies really like?
Pierre Vesperini is an iconoclast. His target is the myth of the Greek and Roman world as the foundation of and catalyst for the modern, scientific, reasoned understanding of the world. In the long debate over whether or not ‘the Greeks are like us’, a debate that has been particularly lively in France, Vesperini sides with those who wish to answer decisively ‘no’. And at least when it comes to philosophy, to argue that philosophy and the philosopher in Greek and Roman antiquity were not what they are today.
It is in the simultaneous adoption of both these positions that Vesperini carves out for himself a particular intellectual place. In France, understanding of the ancient Greek world in the late twentieth century was dominated by the radical structuralist Jean-Pierre Vernant and those around him in the Centre Louis Gernet. Vernant and his colleagues were insistent that ‘the Greeks are not like others’, that ‘Thucydides is not a colleague’, and so on. But Vernant, in Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (1965), was also committed to the view that it was ancient Greek writers who made the crucial move from a world of myth to a world of reason. While some of his erstwhile colleagues—in particular, Marcel Detienne in The Greeks and Us (2007)—have shown some of the problems with the world of myth, Vesperini’s sights are on the problems with the world of reason.
But if the Greek and Roman worlds were so different, and the idea that the philosophers of antiquity laid the foundations for modern reason is a myth that should be done away with, why take any interest in them? Hasn’t ‘the classical world’ done enough damage already, by offering an easy way for those fortunate enough to have been able to acquire knowledge of two difficult dead languages to assert their superiority over others? Why should the Greek and Roman world matter to us at all?
In the books under review, Vesperini, a cnrs researcher and alumnus of the École française de Rome, makes two complementary attempts to bust myths about ancient philosophy and its relationship to the modern world. In Lucrèce, Vesperini’s target is the view embodied most particularly in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve—subtitle: How the World Became Modern; in paperback, How the Renaissance Began—published in 2011 and garnering the National Book Award for Nonfiction, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association. For Vesperini, Greenblatt was mistaken at every level: the Epicureans were not the hyper-rationalists Greenblatt takes them to be; Lucretius was not himself a philosopher but a poet, and does not adequately represent Epicurean views; and the supposed early-modern re-discovery of Lucretius was neither a great discovery nor an event with significant consequences.
In La philosophie antique, Vesperini’s target is the way the history of philosophy has been written as the pre-history of what philosophy is today. That is, what its historians have done is find precedents for asking the questions which philosophers think should be asked today and for the arguments they use to try to address those questions. That approach not only leaves aside the context in which philosophy was written, the material conditions that enabled it to emerge; it fails to ask what philosophy was in antiquity. Vesperini’s history uncovers what it was that was called philosophia and who was termed philosophos in Greek and Roman antiquity; he examines what we know about the questions they asked, the lives they led, the lessons they taught and the works they wrote.
Vesperini makes his aims abundantly clear in the short introduction to Lucrèce, describing his method of that of an anthropologist charting an exotic society, concerned to lay bare how that society thinks. He then starts his ethnology in third-century bc Athens, in the ‘garden’ of Epicurus. What Vesperini wants us to know above all about Epicurus is that, rather than being the father of modern atomic physics, he was a man who presided over an initiatory cult which offered the possibility of becoming a god; was himself worshipped as a god, with a monthly festival on the 20th of each month; and spoke as an oracle. None of this is in doubt in modern scholarship. (For an overview, see the late American classicist Diskin Clay’s ‘The Athenian Garden’.) Already in antiquity, writers such as Cicero, Pliny and Plutarch commented on the tension between these practices and Epicurus’s own precepts about the gods having no interest in humanity, accusing him of being insincere in his religious observance. (‘The Atheism of Epicurus’ by the papyrologist Dirk Obbink collects the evidence.) Whereas scholars of ancient philosophy have, like Lucretius, largely chosen to follow the precept and ignore the practice, Vesperini insists that to come to terms with Epicurus has to mean coming to terms with the religious ritual, too.