restricted access Chapter 1 The Critique of Polis-Religion: An Inventory
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C h a p t e r 1 The Critique of Polis-­Religion An Inventory Hegelian dialectic made a profound impression on historians of the nineteenth century, including, where Roman history is concerned, Theodor Mommsen and his successors.1 This form of thought projected Western religious concepts into the past and on this basis explained the evolution of religion up to and including the Christian religions. It was relatively easy, since (by definition) no great rupture was expected. It sufficed for each generation of humanity to separate the wheat from the chaff before arriving at the enlightened Christianity of the modern age. Many historians took this route, including Ulrich von Wilamowitz-­Moellendorff, Theodor Mommsen, and from a certain point of view Georg Wissowa, Franz Cumont (who invented the celebrated concept of the oriental cults), and Jules Toutain, to name the most representative figures.2 The phenomenology of religion was also inspired by this historical-­ theological dialectic.3 Against this comparatism or reduction of all religion to a precocious manifestation of some religiosity approaching Christianity, other approaches have emphasized the religious alterity of the ancients. This alterity is, of course, not total. The Romans employed in part the same vocabulary for religious matters as we, and their conduct resembled ours. But if one looks closely, one cannot fail to observe numerous small differences that are, in fact, essential. To begin with, their conception of divinity was fundamentally different. The Romans, too, believed that their gods lived eternally at the heights of heaven and that they intervened in the lives of mortals, but their religion was not concerned 6 Chapter 1 in any way with the metaphysical space proper to the gods; it concerned itself solely with relations between gods and humans on a terrestrial plane. The rest was not relevant, so to speak, to the competence of human imagination. The Romans thus appear on one side very near to us, and on another, they are very much unlike us. It is for this reason that I affirmed, in the conclusion of my inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, the necessity to work on details:4 not rejecting theories and models, but recommending that one practice one’s research while in continuous contact with the sources, remaining attentive at once to otherness and to that which is difficult for us to understand. It is precisely in the unintelligible that the proper originality of the ancients reveals itself. If we think purely through abstractions, working from syntheses or general studies far removed from the sources, or by means of theories not continually subjected to empirical verification, we inevitably impose ideas and concepts of today on the civilizations of the past. Strongly inspired by what was once called sociology, such as it was understood by Georges Dumézil and Louis Gernet, which has become social anthropology, this project adopts as a fundamental principle the obligation to take the otherness of the ancients as a point of departure—­ in other words, to refuse to assimilate them to us. Or, if we compare two types of religion, to proceed with great caution, knowing that in matters of religion we are all of us directly or indirectly formed by 1,600 years of Christian thought. We are thus concerned with a method whose relevance extends beyond religion and reaches all other aspects of ancient culture . It calls for caution and the deconstruction of all modern interpretations before returning to the ancient sources. It has been possible to exaggerate this affirmation of otherness, and it is appropriate to criticize such excesses. At the end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth, a certain number of historians of religion were already affirming the alterity of the ancients, when explaining their religious behaviors in light of practices observed in Africa or Australia. Their approach was tied to a grand objective: as philosophers, sociologists, or historians, they aimed to explain the birth of religion. Such was the aim in philosophy, as in sociology or history. The sociologist Émile Durkheim, like the philosopher Hegel before him, or his contemporaries, the so-­ called Cambridge ritualists5 and the historian William W. Fowler,6 sought the origin of religion or, at least, of particular religions. The comparativism practiced by Durkheim and Fowler did not differ on this point from the explicit approach of the Romantic philosophers. The Critique of Polis-Religion 7 Notwithstanding numerous useful observations, regarding, for example, collective behavior, their interpretations often resulted in theories of historical evolution necessarily...


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