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Reviewed by:
  • Aristotle on Religion by Mor Segev
  • Robert Mayhew
Mor Segev. Aristotle on Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. vii + 192. Cloth, $99.99.

Here is the problem: Aristotle seems clearly to reject the traditional Olympian gods. His own conception of god (see especially Metaphysics Λ) seems to have no religious significance; for whatever else this god knows (a subject of much debate), it certainly does not know particulars, including humans and their characters, actions, and futures. Yet in the Politics, Aristotle includes priests as public officials and lands devoted to the traditional gods as necessary parts of his ideal polis, and he even seems to regard the Oracle of Delphi as an important institution (see especially Politics VII 8, 9, 12). One solution to this problem, rarely attempted by scholars, is to argue that Aristotle in fact does not reject the existence of something like the traditional gods. Another, more common solution, is to conclude (perhaps regrettably, as it sounds proto-Machiavellian) that Aristotle countenanced a religion he knew to be false—even in his ideal polis—so that hoi polloi could be kept in line.

In Aristotle on Religion, Segev superbly lays out the problem and offers a solution that does not attempt to resurrect the Olympian gods, and that goes beyond mere social stability. In chapter 1, he attempts to demonstrate, and is successful in my view, that Aristotle rejected the content of traditional religion, including any conception of divine providence. Segev devotes considerable space (29–47) to On Philosophy, fragment 3 Ross (preserved in Cicero, De Deorum Natura 2.37.95–96), which is often held to give us an earlier, more religious or traditionally theological Aristotle.

But as useful and excellent as chapter 1 is, demonstrating that Aristotle rejected traditional religion is not a Herculean labor. The major value of the book under review comes in its three central chapters; and it is here that Segev is most original: chapter 2 ("Traditional Religion and Its Natural Function in Aristotle"), chapter 3 ("Humans, 'Eternal Humans' and Gods: The Usefulness of Traditional Gods for the Imitation of the Divine"), [End Page 553] and chapter 4 ("Aristotle on the Possible Uses of the Myths of 'The Ancients'"). According to Segev, although traditional religion, including traditional myths, may be used by statesmen to help to achieve social stability and for the purpose of proper moral habituation, these are not, for Aristotle, their natural function, and neither are they necessary for social stability and developing the moral character of citizens. Seveg makes a strong case—discussing in the process lots of relevant texts from Aristotle's extant and lost works—for the view that the necessary function of traditional religion is to enable "the learning of first philosophy through the production in citizens of 'wonder' [θαυµασία] at the gods" (78). This is achieved by exposing them to what are known or held to be fictional gods. I do not know for certain whether Seveg is correct—that this is what Aristotle actually intended in the Politics and elsewhere. But it is the best case I know of that avoids both the traditionally theological Aristotle and the proto-Machiavellian Aristotle. And I think the case Seveg makes is stronger than the cases I have encountered for either of those alternatives. Of course, if he is correct, this would have major implications for the precise place of contemplation and the study of philosophy in Aristotle's best polis.

In the penultimate chapter, Segev compares Aristotle's conception of religion to that of two philosophers who, he argues, were influenced by Aristotle on these issues: Moses Maimonides and Albertus Magnus. I am not qualified to discuss either of these thinkers, though I did find this material interesting. The chapter nevertheless felt a bit tacked on. Some historians of philosophy would have found more useful a comparison or contrasting of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas given the significance of the latter, and Aristotle's influence on him generally. Personally, I would have preferred a discussion of Aristotle's conception of religion, as conceived by Segev, in light of the views of the later pagan Peripatetics on the nature of god and the possibility of divine...


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