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What is Morality? Pascal’s Heartfelt Answer

 

 

Introduction

I had the good fortune and privilege of meeting Mike when I was a student, back in 1995, and I owe him so much in so many ways, both as a man and as a scholar, that no words of mine will ever be able to convey my gratitude, my admiration and my friendship. A bottle of red wine might do instead. Also, as a humble token of recognition and a heartfelt recollection of the times when we first met, I decided to answer the question that he has chosen for this symposium by going back to an author, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was influential in making me interested in philosophy as a boy, but whose work I have not dealt with as a scholar. Thus, what follows is both old and new, being a first step into a terrain upon which I have not trodden for many years.

In effect, had I been asked to give an immediate answer to the question ‘what is morality?’ I would have said: ‘an instance of civil commons’, that is, an instance of “social constructs which enable universal access to human life goods without which people’s capacities are always reduced or destroyed.” (John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice” Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 11-61, 2011, p.17) In line with my academic studies over the past decade, I would have placed myself in the ideal position of an external observer and determined what role morality has been playing vis-à-vis the most regular aim displayed by human beings, both individually and collectively: to lead a tolerable life. Now, referring to the civil commons would give a description of morality that focuses upon its life-enhancing function. It would be a description of morality from the outside. Another description is also possible, however, that focuses upon the feelings of outrage, remorse, shame, distress, empathy, pleasure, pain, as well as the calls of duty and the spontaneous sense of what is right and what is wrong that populate at least my experience of morality—inside. All these emotions, the related beliefs, the reasoning processes that they set in motion, the subsequent acts of will and the corresponding physical actions that one imagines and hopes to materialise constitute the domain of morality as felt being, or lived personal experience.

It is primarily within this domain that Blaise Pascal develops his reflections on morality, which, despite his enduring fame as a scientist and a thinker, have received very little attention by modern Anglophone ethicists, who have written instead endless volumes on the epistemology of his wager or le pari (“the machine”, 680)[1]—itself a piece of apologetics and an early example of game theory. They have labelled Pascal a ‘philosopher of religion’ and pretty much left him there, as marginal as religion itself seems to be these days.[2] Yet, Pascal did have a moral philosophy of his own and one that can help us answer the question ‘what is morality?’ from the perspective of lived personal experience.[3] It is not an easy one to detect, for it is scattered across his unsystematic maxims, short reflections and aphorisms, themselves scattered across a number of differing manuscripts. Reconstructing and outlining it here today is the chief aim of my paper.[4] Knowing that some of today’s participants are greatly interested in French philosophy, literature and culture at large, Mike himself included, I hope you will appreciate my effort.

Pascal’s Moral Philosophy

According to Pascal, morality is behaviour consistent with the correct apprehension of moral value, i.e. goodness, through “the heart, which perceive[s] wisdom” (339). The heart [coeur] is the faculty that feels or senses good and bad or, in other words, it is the moral sense, perhaps an organ of perception, analogous to hearing (41) or seeing—hence Pascal’s writing in the same passage about “the eyes of the heart” (cf. also 804 [from the Manuscript Guerrier, not Copy B]). And if the eyes can see many things, so does the heart deliver much more than just the immediate apprehension of moral truths or values, whether ‘explicitable’ (e.g. “homicide is wrong”, 450) or not, since all forms of knowledge rely upon first principles that cannot be rationally demonstrated, but only intuited:

We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all knowledge. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it. The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space and… Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways (142).[5]

Analogous remarks appear in his 1658 Art of Persuasion (Harvard: Harvard Classics, 1993-2013 [1909-14]), where Pascal distinguishes between knowledge that enters the heart through the spirit, and knowledge that enters the spirit through the heart.[6] Perhaps the heart should be better described as a skill than a faculty, indeed one relying upon long-internalised skills, such as seeing or hearing; this is certainly a difficult issue to resolve, given the ambiguity of many passages in Pascal’s work. However, the actual crux of Pascal’s emphasis is the following: sane human beings grasp and believe in the existence of, say, space, time, extended bodies, moral wrongfulness, and upon them build their sciences, whether these eventually reflect adequately the original intuition or not.[7] “Ethics” itself, albeit “special”, is, for Pascal, a “universal science” (598).[8] What is important in it, is to rely upon correct, intuited principles, which we may have experienced in childhood, if we had good enough a natural disposition (157-9, 527), and before education, local customs[9] or excessive faith in discursive or demonstrative reason could lead astray (97-8, 132, 171): “Wisdom leads us back to childhood” (116).[10]

It is important to highlight that the heart’s sentiments combine emotional, intellectual and volitional elements. We may separate them in abstracto, but they are joined in actual experience.[11] These sentiments are “internal and immediate feeling[s]” (360; emphasis in the original), but they are also forms of comprehension, insofar as they engender certain beliefs and interpretations (287), and they prompt us into action, including successive discursive or demonstrative rational processes (662). As Pascal famously asserted: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (680; emphasis added) Typically, philosophers have emphasised the negative part of this statement. However, the positive is at least as important. Pascal was an intuitionist and believed sentiments to be the springboard of morality, but he was no sentimentalist or, to use a 20th-century label, no emotivist. “Religion”, as he writes, “is not contrary to reason” (46). “The principle of morality” is, for Pascal, “to think well” (232; cf. also 106, 117). Pascal does not posit an impassable contradiction between blind subjective bodily passion on the one end, and cognising objective disembodied reason on the other. Rather, he tries to reveal how different types or levels of belief, certainty and knowledge, wisdom included, can be acquired through our different faculties, one of which, the heart, also characterisd as “instinct” (187), can grasp fundamental truths that discursive or demonstrative reason cannot grasp.[12] Indeed, science itself would not be possible if we were not trustful enough in our intuitions (cf. also 455). Thus, Pascal condemns “Two excesses. Excluding reason, admitting only reason.” (214).[13]

True to his intellectual hero, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), and to Augustine’s motto “credo ut intelligam”,[14] Pascal sees the limits of human reasoning and believes our sentiments to be able to spur (142 cited above), integrate (e.g. 287) and, when necessary, substitute our discursive or demonstrative reason (e.g. 662). A famous mathematician and physicist, Pascal reminds himself nonetheless to “write against those who delve too deeply in the sciences. Descartes” in primis (462). There are much more important subjects than the scientific ones, such as “the study of man” (566), to which science can contribute nothing, for it cannot address the ultimate questions of existence (57). The strictly rational conceptual tools of science are inadequate: “The heart has its order; the mind has its own, which consists of principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we should be loved by displaying in order the causes of love. That would be absurd.” (329).[15] Thus, gifted with intuition, a humble child may attain moral truths that an adult, even the keenest scientist or theologian, fail regularly to grasp (13). As Pascal puts it: “The greatness of wisdom… is invisible to carnal or intelligent men. These are three different orders. Of kind.” (339). The most intelligent philosopher’s reason may demonstrate, the libertine’s body desire; but the sage’s heart loves, allowing for forms of understanding that escape reason. After all, to expect that one faculty or one mode of reasoning suffices for all possible domains of experience and investigation is a foolish form of “tyranny” (92).[16] For Pascal, there are “different kinds of right thinking: some in a certain order of things, and not in other orders, where they talk nonsense” (669).[17]

Let me emphasise once more that Pascal is not advocating irrationalism, rather a form of understanding that does not rely primarily upon abstract conceptual expression (e.g. Descartes’ ethically “useless” rationalism, e.g. 445), logical reasoning (e.g. the “corrupt” Jesuits’ casuistry attacked also in his Provincial Letters, e.g. 498; 770 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B], 800 [from the Recueil Original, not Copy B]) and algorithmic computation (e.g. his own calculations of utility for the libertine’s sake, 680). As difficult to pinpoint as it may be, for he never offers more than a sketchy phenomenology of the heart in action (cf. 87, 544), Pascal’s account of moral experience entails an embodied rationality that is intuitive rather than discursive or syllogistic, as well concomitant and intertwined with emotions and wilfulness, and capable of grasping objective truths about the world. As Pascal writes, “We know this in a thousand things” (680).[18]

Immediate, intuitive apprehensions of good and bad are not the end of Pascal’s moral philosophy. Rather, they are its beginning. In primis, there is the issue that we might be mistaken in our apprehensions, which may then require correction, as when we hear ‘cabbage’ instead of ‘baggage’ inside a noisy airport, or claim to have seen Woody Allen when in fact we had seen Mike. Yet this is not an issue that Pascal is interested in as such. His focus is moral and apologetic, not epistemological. As Richard Rorty would possibly put it, it is relevance, not rigour, what guides Pascal’s endeavour (cf. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth Cambridge: CUP, 1990). Pascal wants to help his fellows to lead a better life, not to get entangled into technical debates. Indeed, Pascal cautions us against over-rationalisation as a path leading away from our intuitions’ potential clarity: “Reason acts slowly, and with so many perspectives, on so many principles, which must be always present, that it constantly falls asleep or wanders, when it fails to have its principles present. Feeling does not act in this way; it acts instantaneously, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling, or it will always be vacillating” (661). Consistently, he warns his readers against people who no longer have any “common sense”, such as “academics, students, and that is the nastiest type of man I know.” (662)

Pascal is much more intrigued by the fact that despite our possible immediate grasp of moral value, human behaviour is all but consistent with it. Even moral philosophers, who might be inclined to making morality an important feature in their lives, fall prey of professional pride, pettiness and resentment. A devout Catholic, Pascal was well aware of the endless list of sins that human beings are capable of. How can we sense what is good and bad and, between the two, opt for the latter? Pascal’s penultimate answer to this crucial ethical question lies in his account of imagination, which reshapes and reinterprets the immediate givens of the heart. And this is bad. Far from extolling the virtues of this faculty, which Romantic and post-modern philosophers have done in later centuries, Pascal worries about the imagination’s “dominant” role within the human psyche (78) and its ability to distort in self-serving fashions the data of sentiment, which is particularly prone to being twisted in over-intellectualising minds: “I am not speaking of fools; I am speaking of the wisest, and they are those whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may well protest; it cannot determine the price of things.” (Id.)

Reason does not fix values within and around us; imagination does. Appealing to our “proud” and selfish thirst for power, knowledge and pleasure, “imagination… has established a second nature in man” and “disposes of everything. It creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are the whole of the world.” (Id.) Instead of allowing the humble acknowledgment of our helplessness and imperfection, which is grounded in our feelings (689) and is rationally as undeniable as our mortality (e.g. 195-8, 686), imagination leads each person to attribute an overwhelming amount of value upon herself and “makes [her]self the center of everything” (494), when it is quite obvious that she is not (cf. also 509-10). Far from the exaltation of amour-propre or “self-love” that will characterize much French and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, Pascal writes:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what will it do? It cannot prevent the object it loves from being full of faults and wretchedness. It wants to be great and sees itself small; it wants to be happy, and sees itself wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees itself full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its defects deserve only their dislike and contempt… No doubt it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since this adds the further evil of a deliberate illusion. (743).

The power of imagination can be so deep-reaching that we may no longer be able to distinguish between sentiment and the fantasies that imagination—also “fancy”—delivers in order to please our self-love:

All our reasoning reduces to giving in to feeling. But fancy is similar and opposite to feeling, so that we cannot distinguish between these two opposites. One person says that my feeling is fancy, another that his fancy is feeling. We should have a rule. Reason is proposed, but it is pliable in every direction. And so there is no rule (455)… It is a nothing that our imagination enlarges into a mountain: another turn of the imagination makes us discover this without difficulty (456)… We need a fixed point in order to judge… The harbour decides for those who are on a ship. But where will we find a harbour in morals? (576)

In the midst of such uncertainty and confusion, which are epitomised by the madness of human love affairs (cf. “Cleopatra’s nose”, 31-2, 228), given that intuition itself can become as unreliable a source of belief as reason, tradition can come of use and help us. When something is not “demonstrable” and “doubting” leads nowhere, “submission” becomes reasonable (201; cf. 203-13). In Pascal’s case, that means submission to religious tradition, and specifically to the Catholic one (cf. “Luther: everything outside the truth.” [791] {from the Recueil Original, not Copy B}); in this sense, then, “all morality is concupiscence and grace” (258).[19] “Religion is such a great thing”, as Pascal writes, also because it grants “[c]omprehension of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’.” (709-10). Submission to religious tradition means, in essence, to follow “[t]wo laws” that “suffice to rule the whole Christian Republic better than all political laws” i.e. to love God and to love one’s neighbour, as of Matthew 22:35 (408); “charity” or love “in morals” being able “to produce fruits against concupiscence” (458) and turn the energy of potentially sinful “passions” into “virtues” (500; cf. 759 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).[20]

Still, even within religion does imagination make moral life difficult: “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.” (739); they can therefore remain “duplicitous in heart… neither fish nor fowl” (451); their “blinded” minds leading to quarrels, schisms and sectarianism that “destroy… morals” (447-8); their misplaced self-confidence making them “sinners, who believe themselves righteous” (469; cf. 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), “corrupt the laws” of “the Church” (558), and “do evil… completely and cheerfully… out of conscience” (658). Consistent with his picture of the human being as an erring wanderer prone to error yet also capable of greatness, Pascal offers no easy path to wisdom, which may be perceived at times, even patently exemplified in saints and sages, yet still elude us in spite of our best efforts to grasp it and make it truly ours.

Furthermore, according to Pascal, imagination is the first step in a process of moral self-deception, which reasoning can take farther by: (A) adding the uncertainty of sceptical considerations to the distortions of the imagination; and (B) making religious self-correction ineffective. We may even be most thoughtful and honestly good-willed, but without divine grace there is little likelihood of success. The good may still escape us—even the brightest and most celebrated minds amongst us. As Pascal remarks, there are “[t]wo hundred eighty kinds of supreme good in Montaigne” (27; cf. also 16, 714).[21] Starting a theme that will play an important role in the moral philosophy of 20th-century French existentialists, Pascal deems self-deception the main springboard of immorality, not our inability to perceive what is right or wrong, or our incapacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Quite the opposite, according to Pascal, we would appear to have the faculties needed to perceive and understand all this; but we also possess another, imagination, which, combined with our passions and with self-love in particular (e.g. 699; 744 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), distorts our perceptions and understanding to the utmost degree.[22]

 

Conclusion

Reading a classic is always a worthy endeavour, especially if it offers opportunities for genuine philosophical meditation. However, there are some more specific reasons why I think that rediscovering Pascal may be advisable for today’s Anglophone ethicists.

First of all, his moral conceptions and his celebrated literary style highlight the importance in human morality of sentiments. This is no minor issue, for the impact of sentiments upon people’s actual behaviour tends to be much stronger than that of abstractions or complex reasoning.[23] And yet philosophers have been pursuing relentlessly the path of abstraction and complex reasoning, leaving that of sentiment to others. Now, if we wish to engage in meta-ethics alone, such a division of labour may be fine. But if we want to change the world a little, whether as educators or public intellectuals, then some familiarity with the realm of sentiments may be a boon, since we may aim at “impassioning” rather than just “instructing”, as Pascal would word it (329; cf. also 496, 702).

Secondly, moral intuitionism has been on the rise over recent decades because of its recurrent empirical substantiation in psychology (e.g. J. Haidt (2001), “The Emotional Dog and its Rational TailPsychological Review 108:8, 14-34). Still, as far as I know, the only philosopher who has taken seriously Pascal’s notion of a different, heartfelt understanding—embedded, embodied, united with sentiments—and built an ethics upon it was Max Scheler (1874-1928). Amongst contemporary Anglophone intuitionists, Pascal is as absent as Scheler himself, who has long lost the enormous popularity that he enjoyed in the early 20th century. Yet Pascal’s moral philosophy is based upon the notion of intuition and constitutes an attempt that treads upon the tight rope set between rationalism and sentimentalism, and one that could be mined for insights and for the enduring rhetorical power of his writings.

Thirdly, Pascal’s approach is relevant because it makes the ground of moral value independent of the individual, who can only apprehend it for what it is, lest her imagination is so corrupt as to distort apprehension. In that case, Jesus Christ, that is, revealed religion is the fixed point of equilibrium that Pascal opts for (e.g. 570). Since the global affirmation of industrial society, we live in the first age in human history in which our species has become a threat to its own survival, as another religious-minded ethicist, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) underscored repeatedly in the 20th century (cf. The Imperative Responsibility Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1979]). Pascal’s moral philosophy is relevant in this respect because, like Jonas’, it reminds us of the possibility that the ground of moral value may not be individualistic, relativistic, or even anthropocentric. The risk of species-wide annihilation may reveal something much more objective, such as planet-wide life-conditions and eco-system-wide life-needs, which we can only acknowledge and comply with, lest we prefer perishing to living, hence destroying the fundamental precondition for all preferences. As such a reminder, Pascal’s moral philosophy can then serve as a token of civil commons. And there I am, again: civil



[1] All references are by fragment number as they appear in the latest complete English translation of the 1976 Sellier edition of the so-called “Copy B” of Pascal’s thoughts, that is, the second copy prepared for his sister and least likely of having undergone third-person reordering (Pensées, edited and translated by Roger Ariew, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005). When preparing this paper, I have also made use of the original French and related Italian translation of Pascal’s thoughts by Adriano Bausola contained in Pensieri (Milan: Rusconi, 1993).

[2] A valuable and possibly unique recent exception is constituted by: William D. Wood (2009), “Axiology, Self-deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s PenséesJournal of Religious Ethics 37(2): 355-84; the first footnote in Wood’s essay contains also a brief account of the negligible record of Pascal studies in modern Anglophone ethics.

[3] Pascal’s religious focus is as much a result of his moral philosophy as his moral philosophy is the result of his religious focus: “Man’s true nature, his true good, true virtue, and true religion, are things that cannot be known separately” (12).

[4] The main difference with regard to Wood’s own commendable 2009 attempt is my further avoidance of strictly epistemological and theological considerations, to either of which Pascal’s moral philosophy is regularly reduced. Also, I attempt hereby to provide more numerous references to relevant fragments in Pascal’s Pensées.

[5] Pascal’s emphasis upon intuition vis-à-vis first principles is analogous to Aristotle’s epagoge in connection with the fundamental laws of thought that cannot be obtained through any set of syllogisms but that underpin them all nevertheless (Anal. Post. II, 99b-100b; Meta. 980a-981a).

[6] This is not to be confused with Descartes’ distinction between empirical and innate knowledge. Rather, Pascal wishes to separate knowledge that we can reach through explicit reasoning processes of demonstration, whether deductive or inductive, and the indemonstrable fundamental principles that make them possible.

[7] Henri Bergson, probably, would be sceptical that they do so (cf. Time and Free Will London: Allen, 1910 [1889]).

[8] Given the regular use of “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” in connection with the moral considerations expressed in his Pensées, I would venture to argue that this different object is one of the reasons why “ethics” is said to be a “special” science.

[9] Customs, for Pascal, are very powerful, to the point of establishing causality itself (661), though theyr are neither absolute (e.g. 527) nor certain (e.g. 94-6).

[10] Some human beings, according to Pascal, are fortunate enough as to be able to attain religious faith through the same mode of apprehension: “As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good, giving us instead very little knowledge of this kind… That is why those to whom God has given religion by intuition of the heart are very fortunate and, in fact, properly convinced” (142). The least fortunate, instead, who are devoid of a piously “incline[d] heart” (412; cf. also 443, 448, 450, 646, 717) or have been hardened (580) or corrupted to the extreme point of cynical disinterest for the most important things, such as the fate of our immortal soul (2, 5), may have to think through Pascal’s wager or “machine” and determine whether it is advantageous to lead a pious life rather than a selfish one (680).

[11] Pascal’s account is reminiscent of Mihail Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002 [1958]); perhaps morality is an eminent example of tacit knowledge that is difficult to make explicit and cannot be turned into a neat system of axioms, theorems and corollaries

[12] On repeated occasions (e.g. Gesammelte Werke, Bern: Francke Verlag, 1971-97, volume V, p.104) did Max Scheler praise Pascal and his spiritual mentor Augustine for attempting to overcome Western thought’s long-standing prejudice that grants epistemic objectivity and evidential value to rational proofs alone, ignoring sentiment and religious revelation or, worse, condemning them as subjective and dangerously irrational.

[13] The notion of a golden mean between too much and too little of something is a recurrent theme in Pascal’s thoughts and it applies, inter alia, to the effect of age on judgment (25), thinking (25), the distance from an object of observation (25), the speed of one’s reading (75, 601) and the constitution of virtue (645). Whether it can be attained, however, is doubtful, given the dual nature of man (cf. especially 145-67, 230-4, 690, 707-8; 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), who is a “thinking reed” cast between two opposed infinities (i.e. meaninglessness and all-embracing thought), experiencing opposed tendencies (e.g. fear and courage, pain and pleasure) and possessing two opposed natures (i.e. animal and angelic). Jesus Christ alone seems capable of embodying opposites successfully (e.g. 736; 749 & 771 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).

[14] “I believe in order to understand”; cited in Perry Cahall, “The Value of St Augustine’s Use/Enjoyment Distinction to Conjugal LoveLogos (8)1: 117-28, 2005, p.117; under this perspective, Pascal’s heart can be seen as opening a hermeneutical horizon, which embraces much more than just the knowledge that can be rationally demonstrated.

[15] This is another notion that Pascal derives from Augustine, i.e. the “order of love” [ordo amoris].

[16] One generation after Pascal, Vico would describe reason’s hypertrophic disregard of bodily and emotional components of life and related understanding the “barbarism of reflection” (The New Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948[1744]). Today, faced with the notion of a particular mode of reasoning (e.g. scientific ‘Method’, homo oeconomicus‘ self-maximisation) being regarded as the only one possible, we would speak of cultural or disciplinary imperialism.

[17] There is no lack of vagueness and ambiguity in Pascal’s writings. For one, “heart” itself is not used only as the term denoting our faculty of intuition, but also more loosely as referring to will or desire (182, 536, 681-2; cf. also 544 in which “the will” is said to be the human faculty that “loves”), mere feeling (210), and a person’s soul or character (especially in connection with the Old Testament’s use of it, e.g. 309, 311, 378, 504; cf. also 707). Furthermore, it does not help that Pascal stresses so often the opposition between heart and reason, as though they were irreconcilable enemies at “war” with each other (29; cf. also 144, 164, 203, 414, 503, 514)—and here we get truly to the negative part of the cited famous statement about heart’s reasons.

[18] Whether in matters of mathematics, love, or religion, intuition anticipates, grounds and eludes whatever subsequent reasoning we may attempt to build upon it. As morals are concerned, Pascal believes logical reflection to be inadequate within the domain of the intuitive spirit for fine things, or “ésprit de finesse”, as opposed to the logical spirit of geometry, the “ésprit de géometrie”. Whilst the former is subtly acute, delicately nuanced, highly personal, and mixed in its being both cognitive and affective, the latter is forcefully trenchant, rigorously explicit, methodically interpersonal and allegedly purely rational. These two forms of comprehension are not mutually exclusive in absolute terms. For example, a mathematician may sense analogies or truths and conjure thereof new hypotheses, which he can test according to standard geometric methodology. Moreover, explicit knowledge may be internalised to the point of becoming intuitive, as with the acquisition of a skill (531; cf. Polayi, supra). Still, Pascal knew that these two forms of comprehension could subsist separately. A mystic, for one, could cultivate the former to the point of becoming unfamiliar with the latter: “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand matters involving reasoning. For they want first to penetrate at a glance, and are not used to looking for principles.” (622) On their part, persons relying upon logical reasoning can become so removed from their own heart and the realm of intuition that they end up quite ignorant of them both and incapable of ascribing any order or intelligibility to them: “And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles and being unable to see at a glance” (Id.)

[19] Pascal does seem to allow for cases of commendable moral virtue in non-Catholic and non-Christian settings, e.g. “the Jewish religion” (276; cf. 692-6, 715).

[20] Christ’s two laws go to the very heart of human behaviour towards oneself and others, hence they can make the eradication of vice fairly effective, since “[t]here are vices that take hold of us through other ones, and that, when the trunk is removed, are carried away like branches”. (457)

[21] Humbly, Pascal remarks: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” (568)

[22] Wood (2009) argues convincingly that the imagination’s detrimental deceptions are, for Pascal, one of the consequences of the Biblical fall, i.e. the ultimate cause of immorality. For Pascal, having tasted perfection before the fall, we are condemned to sense and seek truths that, however, escape us (e.g. 25, 62, 90-1, 165-6, 180-1).

[23] Abstraction and complex reasoning are relied upon in somewhat particular circumstances, such as bioethical committee’s deliberations about technology-driven dilemmas and adjudications by courts of justice. Under normal circumstances, mothers, teachers, priests, novelists and TV stars affect people’s sentiments to a much greater degree than any ethicist or judge, shaping a fortiori people’s moral and immoral behaviours. As Richard Rorty noted in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did much more to let Americans see the true horror of slavery than all liberal philosophers since John Locke’s day.

Sigurður Árni Þórðarson, Limits and Life: Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland (Peter Lang: American University Studies, 2012)

 

Today about 320.000 people still live on this island with its contradictory name Iceland. But are they aware of their limits? According to the news in the past few years, some thought that everything could be possible if you had enough money. Yet, all of a sudden, Iceland was a country that stood on the verge of national bankruptcy. Many realized the following: We are limitied! Þórðarson’s book gives exactly the kind of food for thought that is needed in today’s transformation of Icelandic society.

Limits and Life, Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland is in that context an appreciated 200-pages long, revised English version of the authors’ dissertation, first published in 1989 with the title “Liminality in Icelandic Religious Tradition”. The author states that this revised version is in line with the original publication, but additionally it addresses some of the most important recent scholarly work, primarily concerning his two major fields of study: Vídalínspostilla and the Hymns of the Passion, leaving a detailed discussion with this literature open for scholarly papers yet to be written.

 

Sigurður Árni Þórðarson [Sigurdur Arni Thordarson] is a pastor in one of the biggest parishes within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland (ELCI). He holds a Cand. Theol. from the University of Iceland and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. His 30 years of work within the ELCI has brought him a wide range of expertise as a manager, community leader, scholar, teacher and writer. Therefore his further publications on this matter will be of great value for the contemporary discussion in Iceland. A discussion that is among other things reflecting the youngest history of the ELCI; a church that, at the beginning of the 20th century, could still be proud of almost a 100% membership of the inhabitants and a close link to the state. At the end of the same century, it enjoyed still a 90% membership, whilst already in 2010 it only had an 80% membership; the tendency is clear: declining. As regards the status, it is not closely linked to the state any more.

 

Social Change

Chapter six might be the one to find most interesting among Iceland’s population today. Solely the title itself cries out to the reader: “Social Change, Theology and Critique”. On his search for a meaning behind the travel of the Icelandic nation through the ages, Þórðarson here looks into the time of the birth of modern Iceland with its new capital Reykjavík in the late 19th century. He reminds the reader that this was the time when Reykjavík became the centre for Iceland’s parliament as well as the centre of education. Further the District Court was moved to Reykjavík and the society took new steps in strengthening the democracy along with human rights and new means of power for the working class. At the beginning of the 20th century, Þórðarson states, a new society was born requiring a new system of meaning. Its theological counterpart was the so-called “new theology”.

 

In a powerful way Þórðarson shows how this new theology was interrelated with one of the contractions that where a part of this gestation of this new society during the last two decades of the 19th century. For the first time the Icelandic church was confronted with a major critique which, so argues Þórðarson, included a many-fold challenge: All of a sudden the discussion around theology in Iceland was flavoured with challenging inputs from abroad, having counterparts in Canada explaining how boring church life in Iceland seemed to be; at the same time as the Danish Brandesian realism found more and more followers in Iceland and theosophy, spiritualism and other religious movements inspired people. And this all at the same time as Catholics, Mormons and different non-Lutheran groups grew in strength and number in Iceland. This historical review leads Þórðarson to the conclusion that the entire message of traditional theology needed re-evaluation; a statement that could stir today’s discussion on the (missing) fundament of Icelandic society.

 

The cry of the time

Quoting the poet and politician Hannes Hafstein “The cry of the time is the life of the person”, Þórðarson continues the discussion around the new theology in a new era in chapter eight, having given some insights in the life and work of bishop Pjetur Pjetursson (1808-91) in chapter seven. Þórðarson researches show that bishop Pjetursson had the role of an intermediate figure, a link between the old tradition and the upcoming new theology. According to Þórðarson, this new era was a time where the nation changed their thinking about the fight between good and evil into the question on how negative aspects of the world were to overcome. Analogously he analyzes the main themes of two liberal theologians, Jón Helgason (1866-1942) and Haraldur Níelsson (1848-1928); themes that are very much interrelated to today’s discussion around the National Forum 2010 “Þjóðfundur”. According to Þórðarson, Níelsson speaks of life, power, faith, love, humility, beauty and peace, and Helgason of similar values, adding joy, freedom and firmness. All values of great importance, 100 years ago and hopefully today as well.

 

Those two men, Jón Helgason and Haraldur Níelsson, seem to be a kind of role model for pastor Þórðarson, remaining as he states “the standard for the Icelandic pastors in the early twentieth century who wanted to modernize church and theology” (page 131). For the reader it is obvious that Þórðarson is enchanted by their work, their individualistic, even privatistic approach that results in actual consequences for church, ethics, politics and the world as an interwoven reality of both Mother Earth and the spiritual world. The interested reader is given a holistic picture of the life and work of those two gentlemen on almost 40 pages in chapter nine and ten.

 

Foundation for the 21st century

Only two other names have as great an importance in Þórðarson’s book (next to Luther of course). Those are the names of Iceland’s most adored spiritual poets, writers and Lutheran theology scholars: Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), the author of the Hymns of the Passion, and bishop Jón Vídalín (1666-1720), who is the man behind a collection of sermons called Vídalínspostilla. Even today the Hymns of the Passion are widespread literature in Iceland, while Vídalínspostilla has become less known during the last century, but both were used in homes and churches for centuries after their first publication. To understand the broad use of those books one has to imagine almost a whole nation sitting together, each at their own farm, night after night, week after week, year after year, every evening during the long, dark winters, listing to the head of the farm reading from one of those two great spiritual books. No wonder that many people knew those books by heart.

 

Those two men and their works mark the point of departure for Þórðarson as he steps into his research to undertake an analysis of the theological tradition in Iceland, something that is, as he states, “long awaited and badly need for understanding theological development of the twentieth century” (page 4). And he is definitely sure that the history is a needed teacher: “If people do not live well connected to history they are doomed to a series of disasters. But when wisdom of well worked crises is heard the healing is in the making. The wisdom about limits is a wisdom and a practical orientation for life.” (page 5)

 

Dialogue and background

Þórðarson’s book appeals to every human being to engage into dialogue with the primary goal to team up for an analysis of human nature and culture. Such a task is, according to Þórðarson, of primary importance in our pluralistic world, and he states that it will help us to understand the limits of the human being as we realize where our ground, our foundation is or might be missing. Referring to Mark Kline Taylor and Richard Bernstein, Þórðarson stresses the importance of valuing experiences and struggles made by us and others working towards a genuine mutual participation, which includes reciprocal wooing and persuasion.

This book can be understood as Þórðarson’s statement that it is very likely that the Icelander will engage in such a dialogue marked by his/her post-Reformation, Christian tradition that is primarily a “limit-tradition”, but at the same time coming from a society that is leaving behind the model of the monarchic-fatherly God, while questioning too a whole cluster of images and concepts given by the church through the ages. That leaves, so claims Þórðarson, the question open concerning whether or how the contextualization, with its aim to address the meaning of central Christian issues into the situation of each and every inhabitant in Iceland, really was a success: “There is always a need for a reconstruction of theology, a new theology and even a new paradigm. […] The achievements of past generations and individual theologians need to be cherished, but particularly their concern for a better and more realistic critical correlation of the Christian message with the contemporary situation.” (page 179-180).

 

Limits and Life, Meaning and Metaphors in the Religious Language of Iceland is in itself a journey through the landscape of 300 years of theology, looking in the back-mirror of some of the gems of old Icelandic literature, heading towards a new era of non-dualistic theology. The question will remain open though, that is, whether the inherent human limits are to be accepted, although authentically reacted to – as done in the Hymns of Passion and Vídalínspostilla – or if the limits are to be seen as characteristic of this world and its human beings, yet giving us the task to find an escape route – as done perhaps by the scholars behind the new theology. For Þórðarson there is no question that further research is needed in order to reflect more deeply on the limits that we face / our forefather faced, how their concept of limits looked like, and how we understand our limits today. Among others things, he mentions further research on the folklore of Iceland, the 20th-century theology of Iceland, especially the one of bishop Sigurbjörn Einarsson, as well as the meaning of today’s challenges, like for instance ecological changes and nuclear catastrophes. One might be attempted to add the assumption that research on ethics of modern Iceland should be included as well, having the recent challenges of Icelandic society in mind. So, there is still work to be done. Let’s face it in our limits!

 

C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)

 

More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions, asks this relevant question regarding the old Nordic belief systems and religions in a publication comprising together a vast array of scholars of Pre-Christian Scandinavian cultures and a handful of views on the Sámi-Finnish tradition. The 286-page book opens new horizons in the understanding of the past and the present of the Northern part of Europe.

 

Central to the diverse papers are the overarching themes of narrative studies, the role of rituals and the discussion of regional difference and distribution, and perhaps secondly also religion as a communal practice. Price opens the book with an in-depth and conclusive view on “Mythic Acts”, stressing the need of assessing burials, rituals and other practices as series of “performances” sometimes spanning over decades in the same geographical place, such as the gravesites in the Oslo Fjord. He refers to such a process as the “theatre of death” where these “performances” have taken place. Furthermore, in his splendid essay, he makes the case for the need to combine archaeological data with ethnographical, anthropological and other textual sources. He makes a strong case for diversification of views regarding the pre-Christian Nordic context, given the reported 500,000 different grave- and other dug sites, stressing the need to avoid any “unified view”. Price also proceeds to provide the reader with an eyewitness’ account of a “Viking” funeral along the Volga River in Russia, through the text of Arab geographer and historian Ibn Fadlan – such a description remains a pivotal text on the topic, despite the possibilities of misinterpretation and culture-specific lenses that Fadlan’s testimony gives rise to. Again, the notion of performatory function of the rituals comes to the fore.

 

Jackson investigates the merits and limits of comparative philology. He positions the crucial difference of nomadic and settled communities of the “pre”-Indo-European peoples of the Steppes as a topic worth paying attention to in the linguistic context. One can almost see the vast expanse of the pre-historic Indo-European society from India to the West Fjords in Iceland, spanning continents, nations, cultures, over time and space. Jackson investigates the rituals of the past using key linguistic possibilities, employing such concepts as the “blót” qua shared cultural heritage. Dumezils’ notion of an “Indo-European” ideology is mentioned, but Jackson stresses that the “present now” of any belief system makes the unique characteristics of such systems.

 

DuBois makes an excursion into the diets and deities of the Scandinavians and the Sámi. This is a good overview of the differences between the settler-farmers of Scandinavia and the hunter-gatherers belonging to various Sámi Nations. He positions different animals as a source of cultural-religious similarity and difference between the two cultures – as a result the Nordic communities hold in reverence mostly domesticated animals, as opposed to the Sámi, who have preserved other worldviews centred on “wild” animals, even though the reindeer, as a semi-domesticated herd animal falls between these categories. Within the Scandinavian life-world, the role of sheep and goat is very interesting. Differences come to the surface with regard to fish and their cultural interpretations in the communities. Interestingly, some animals, such as horses, have a meaning for both peoples, but they are of a very different kind – to the Sámi the horse possesses a demonic association. DuBois discusses the notion of a “mythic lag” on community change – how some attachments from “prior” systems [hunter-gatherer] manifest “still” or persistently in the “more advanced” life stage of a people.

 

As he is the only author who, to a certain extent, discusses Sámi worldviews and compares them to the Scandinavians, his text requires some reflection. The article has merits. At the same time, it has serious flaws too, for the viewpoint is fixed upon the Finno-Ugric side. According to DuBois, “both Scandinavians and the Sámi differentiated themselves from each other through the religious imagery related directly to the species they chose to consume”. It is true that the Sámi stress their connection with fish and reindeer as opposed to domesticated animals, but there is a set of reasons for this. DuBois avoids stressing the Scandinavian and, since the 1800s, the Finnish colonisation of the Sámi across the region; meaning the hunter-gatherer-herder systems as opposed to invading and expanding farming settlers. It is reasonably safe to assume that already the early historical meetings [while trade was certainly also a part of them] between the farmers and the Sámi in various parts of the region led to land use conflicts, as the subsistence rounds of the hunters required large, stable old-growth territories, as opposed to the needs of the farmers to clear forests for farms. As several Sámi scholars and leaders, such as Elina Helander, Jelena Porsanger, Pauliina Feodoroff and others have done, the emphasis in the cultural discourses on reindeer and fish, and other “wild” foods and animals, are also mechanisms of resistance against invasion.

 

DuBois utilizes some photographs from Eastern Sápmi (or Finnmark) in Norway in his article. They should be seen in a critical light. Especially the famous “Grease Stone” of Mortensnes (p.81) receives special attention. Having worked in the villages and areas around the stone since 1996, I have another opinion. My Sámi friends indicate strongly that the stone is, in fact, a Scandinavian imposition on their landscapes – while other stones and other sites of Mortensnes are indeed of the Sámi world. DuBois utilizes little-known and well-established sources from the Sámi side, but the big change and sites of resistance are not expressed clearly enough.

 

Raudvere establishes religion as a mechanism to interpret local reality. Cosmic histories and transcendental realities of past community life are a text for the scholars but a lived reality for the people themselves. She utilizes Völuspá to explore ritual and meaning. Readers could have benefitted from a more thorough discussion on the various versions of Völuspá.

 

 Nordberg presents a significant methodological paper on the study of Old Norse religion. Importantly, he stresses the need of geographical diversity and difference.A Map could have helped this article. Secondly, Nordberg importantly distinguishes between farms and coastal fishing villages, and stresses the shifts within religions in times of change. Some old colonial ghosts loom within the text with the references to “advanced religions” [of farming societies] – such terms having been deconstructed a long time ago to their proper place by postcolonial research.

 

Stark and Anttonen offer us the only views of the Finnish-Karelian tradition. They dwell little on the difference between the Scandinavian and the Sámi tradition; however Stark reminds us that “some elements of the Finnish folk practice…clearly have Finno-Ugric roots…[deriving from] Eurasian shamanism.” According to her, these constitute a “loosely structured ethno-theory for illness aetiology.” This is in line with the claims by Clive Tolley, who has not found evidence of shamanism in the Old Norse religion. Stark employs a strong feministic view on the recorded texts and identifies the year 1860 as a big change for the Nordic traditions and the complex cultural layers of religious imagery. Anttonen, by quoting at length the earliest Nordic folk tradition text by Agricola, investigates the influences and context of Finnish and Karelian deities in early times. He argues that no single coherent pagan system existed here and makes the case for the slow speed of religious change. Both texts are an important and distinct introduction to the Finnish tradition and its difference compared to the Sámi and Scandinavian ones. Stark’s conclusions could benefit a Finnish popular audience too.

 

Sundqvist investigates the sacral kinship and proposes a “religious ruler ideology” instead as a defining term. It would consist of relationships with the mythic world, its rituals, symbols and cultic organisation. He convincingly argues that there is a need of an all-inclusive rethink – and using empirical materials makes a strong case between the Swedish-Norwegian situation and the strongly independent Icelandic Commonwealth, leading to the conclusion that there was no uniform religious ruler ideology in the Nordic space.

 

Schjödt brings the far-reaching volume to its close by offering new aims and methodological discussions. Shortly stated, contemporary sources such as archaeology and the medieval sources, such as cultural texts of the time, need to go to together to widen the scope of studies on the Old Norse religion. Sagas and Eddas are to be viewed as a blend of skills of the author, oral traditions and influences of the time-space in which they were composed. Models, discourse analysis and comparative views will open the doors to new understandings. The hunt for the “original text” remains an enigma, even though, according to Schjödt, an Indo-European kernel of stories and myths existed – but, despite this and Dumezil, the “old” religion was not a coherent worldview, rather a “discursive space of diversity”.

 

Technically, this surprisingly good book could have benefitted from maps. Contemporary views of Norse religion, the role of Sigur Rós in Iceland and other followers would have enlightened the views expressed in the book too. A clear distinction between Karelian hunter-societies in the period 1600-1800 and the Sámi hunters, as opposed to the colonial impact of the farming societies of Scandinavia, would have made clearer the expanding nature of the Old Norse world. And lastly, what happened to the dragons?

 

And thus we come to a close of “More Than Mythology” – in the opening line I asked, borrowing from Schjödt, what kind of evidence is needed to propose convincing interpretations? The main problem with the critical study of religion is that it is often done by people that do not believe. Therefore the “materials” are seen as “texts” and interpretations abound, but yet the “source” is missing.

 

I am pondering this in the Karelian village of Selkie, one of the westernmost of our communities, where a hundred years ago Kalevala-style incantations and poems were collected by the scholars of that day. Snow has fallen on trees and our fishing season for open waters is at a close, boats are up and we eagerly await for the arrival of proper lake ice so that we can spread the nets under the ice again. As I reflected about the More Than Mythology, on the lake, the last of the migratory birds flew by on their way to the south – soon we will meet again, I said to them. And the realisation came to me – if we are to understand the views of our ancestors, we need to live in that nature, or remnants of that nature, that sustained them – that is the source. Then the scholar, removed from the yearly cycles of the European North with his analytical or even her feminist apparatus, can return to see that time and space are not a line, indeed many things remain, of the “old” and of the “new”, of the things the wind only whispers of, but which are already emerging.

 

 

 

 

George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff (eds.), Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009)

The account of the city’s founding continues in Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander (3.I.5-2.2),[2] where Alexander, who travelled to Kanobos and sailed around Lake Mareotis to select an appropriate site, decided to locate his city. Once he had planned out the city, determining the location of the Agora and establishing the sanctuaries and temples for the various deities ? both “Greek gods and Egyptian Isis” ? Alexander sacrificed to the gods and when he received favorable signs, he laid out the city walls; however, since he had nothing with which to mark out the parameter of the city, he used meal that his soldiers carried with them. While there is disagreement about the precise date of the founding of Alexandria, some have suggested that this event may have occurred in 332 or 331 BCE. Shortly after founding the city, Alexander left the actual building and administration of the city to others and, moving his campaign further east, was never to return to his city. Certainly, current scholarship is critical of the foundation stories surrounding the origins of Alexandria; many of the authors in this collection of essays, Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot, emphasize persistent difficulties with sources and the tendency for various ancient authors to mythologize the founding of the city. According to Krasilnikoff, however, “the first citizens of Alexandria were also soldiers in Alexander’s and Ptolemy’s armies” (“Alexandria as Place,” 21). Hence, it is not surprising that Greek and Egyptian cultural forms and content should be intertwined in Alexandria. Citing Heracleides, Plutarch notes that Homer, who “was no idle or useless companion” accompanied Alexander on his campaign (“Alexandria as Place,” 21).

Indeed, the ancient city was a center of scholarship and intellectual activity with the Alexandrian Library and the Museum, and much of the early Homeric scholarship was done in Alexandria; even the form of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have received these works each having twenty-four books was first codified by scholars working in these institutions. To be sure, other groups also helped write the history of the city. Jews were apparently among the earliest inhabitants of the city. Philo the Jewish thinker, known for his skeptical epistemology, worked there. As Per Bilde argues in his paper, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” while he has not been recognized as such, Philo was also a polemist and a political apologist for the significant Jewish population of the city, and, according to Josephus, led the delegation to Gaius to plead for the Jews. Moreover, Alexandria belonged to the Roman Empire and under the influence of Clement and Origen it was a significant center, along with Antioch and Rome, in the development of early Christianity.

Alexandria: A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is the ninth volume in the Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity (ASMA) series published approximately once a year by The Centre for the Study of Antiquity, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Edited by George Hinge and Jens A. Krasilnikoff, the eight papers in this volume were selected from among those presented by a number of scholars from different countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and the United States, at the May 2004 seminar on Alexandria hosted by the Centre; other papers were also included later. The eight papers in this volume are divided into two sections, entitled: “Part I. Alexandria from Greece and Egypt” and “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity.” Each paper in this text is well-researched and is followed by a rich bibliography. While the authors are critical of the mythological accounts of the founding of Alexandria, the ancient sources are not simply rejected out of hand; rather, despite the problematic character of ancient sources, these sources along with their scholarly interpretations are examined carefully and critically with an eye to understanding the city the cultural and religious diversity of its people. The authors represented in Alexandria are also aware of and discuss the tendency of some sources to distort their facts in their enthusiasm for a particular historical point of view or outcome. While one must use the available sources, we must keep in mind that religious conflicts, for example, between Pagans and Christians tend to be written by the victors. One advantage that the scholars writing for this publication have had, however, is the enormous growth in the scholarship of Egypt and north Africa during the last thirty years and the increase in the availability of the number of papyri manuscripts and other relevant evidence from these regions. Another theme common to the papers in this collection is the view that cultures are extremely complex, living organisms and not ‘static things’. Thus, in his essay, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen, citing Martjin van Beck, objects to “a static model” of culture – one that

… gives a distorted picture of the cultural and social reality of human beings, past and present. Culture – and religion as well as part of the cultural construction – should rather be seen as ways of interpreting the world. Culture represents what one does and not what one is. Martjin van Beck has poignantly emphasized this point. He underlines to what a great extent the talk about cultures is itself part of the cultural construction: “The point is not to deny that common features exist in particular fields but to document that the extrapolation from specific similarities and differences to homoginised, cultural and even civilizing units is a creative process and not just a mapping of already existing facts” (Petersen, 123).[3]

Indeed, reminding us of Alfred Korzybski’s observation “that the map is not the territory,” Peterson writes, “Cultures are by their very nature ‘messy’ or hybrid affairs” (124 and 125).[4]

The four papers of the first part take up in various ways “the relationship between Ptolemaic Alexandria and its Greek past” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10). Jens A. Krasilnikoff launches the volume with his paper, “Alexandria as Place: Tempo-Spatial Traits of Royal Ideology in Early Ptolemaic Egypt.” Specifically, Krasilnikoff is interested in the way that Egypt as space is transformed into Alexandria as place. Borrowing from the work of humanistic geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, Peter J. Taylor, and Jonathan M. Hall, he examines this problem by considering the concepts of “space,” “place,” and “identity.” Citing Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Krasilnikoff observes that the concepts of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are “interdependent” (Krasilnikoff, 23).

… the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value … The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place (23).[5]

Interdependence of space and place and the relationship between these two concepts “determine the formation of different kinds of identity”; hence, we can distinguish “identity of place” which “includes the identity markers that constitute a particular place,” and “place identity” which “involves those qualities of a place that helps generate identities of individuals or groups.” Krasilnikoff, uses these concepts to explore the meaning of “place within the Egyptian context of the Ptolemaic period”; indeed, he wants to understand how “the Greek concept of the ‘city-state culture’ and society developed in this distinct framework” that is Alexandria (38). For Kasilnikoff, then, Alexandria is to be understood in the Greek polis tradition because of its founding and the heroic character of its founder; this view was reinforced by the Ptolemaic rulers who claimed to be direct descendents of Alexander and by ancient authors who apparently borrowed their conceptions of the founding from other founding myths. At the same time, examining the earliest history of the city leads Krasilnikoff to conclude that Alexandria “differed fundamentally from the majority of classical and Hellenistic cities” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 10).

In her paper, “Theatrical Fiction and Visual Bilingualism in the Monumental tombs of Ptolemaic Alexandria,” Marjorie Susan Venit notices that in the very beginning of Alexandria the inhabitants created “monumental tombs as communal spaces for both burial and veneration of the dead” in the limestone on which the city stands (Venit, 42). These tombs, Venit observes, are “unique” to the city, “and, until their dissemination across the north coast of Egypt and to the eastern Mediterranean, they stand unparalleled as monuments to a complex vision of the afterlife.” Illustrating her paper with five diagrams and eight pictures of the tombs, she notes that elements of two “disparate” traditions are brought together in the construction of the tombs. First, “Egyptian elements” are incorporated “into the fabric of an initially and fundamentally Hellenically-inspired monument.” The second element that interests Venit is that the tombs include theater. Hence, the tombs and monuments combine two “culturally distinct architectural traditions and … two ethnically discrete visual systems as well.” The tombs, according to Venit served as “a purposefully designed space within which, and against which, the human drama of the funerary ritual” was performed. While the dead were entombed in these monuments, the buildings also served a symbolic function making an “external reference” that allowed an extremely diverse population to identify themselves as Alexandrians. It is precisely this that makes the Alexandrian tombs unique. “Both visions,” Venit writes:

… bilingualism and theatricality – incorporate into their fabric the fiction that is the underlying basis of Ptolemaic period Alexandrian tombs, and both fictive situations apart and in concert, establish the mortuary buildings of Ptolemaic Alexandria as bi-cultural monuments that can only have had their genesis in the peculiar construct that was ancient Alexandria. It is this bi-ocular modality that separates characteristics to express the singular eschatological vision that marks the monumental tomb of ancient Alexandria (64).

George Hinge takes up the ever-controversial subject of race in his essay, “Language and Race: Theocritus and the Koine Identity of Ptolemaic Egypt. ” Hinge cites Herodotus’Histories to show that “Greek ethnicity” is determined by “four components: origin, language, cult, and culture” (Hinge, 67). In this passage, Hinge refers to words spoken by the Athenians to a Laconian delegation, arguing for a coalition to fight against the Persians.

There are many reasons why we should not do this, even if we wanted to: First and foremost, they have burnt and destroyed the statues and temples of our gods, and we are obliged to revenge them as far as possible rather than conclude a treaty with the offenders. Furthermore, there is the Hellenicity, consisting in the same blood and the same language, the common shrines of gods and cult and the same way of life, which the Athenians should not betray (Herodotus, Histories, 8.144.3; Hinge’s underling).

Thus, Hinge argues, “language is quintessential to Herodotus’ concept of ethnicity” (68). In this Hinge is arguing against Jonathan Hall, who in his Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity holds the view “that language played only a minor role in the formation of ethnic groups” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 11).[6] Hinge argues that while it may have mattered “what sort of Greek you are” ? whether one was a Spartan, an Argive, or an Athenian ? in the Greek homeland, once the colonization of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE got underway, “a Greek identity” began to emerge “in opposition to the non-Greek natives in Cyprus, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, Italy or Scythia. The otherness of those ‘Barbarians’ and the complete unintelligibility of their languages, which were frequently compared to the chirping of birds, made the existence of a specific Hellenic identity obvious” (Hinge, 69). This identity, as Hinge emphasizes, “is not natural per se, but a cultural construction” that has its origins in the Mycenaean Age and that leads to “the creation of a Koine.” That Koine displaced local dialects, Hinge argues, was not just a way to bridge various local languages and dialects, “but the symptom of a new identity, and not only a symptom, but also a most powerful contribution to that identity” (77).  

In her “Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria,” Minna Skaffie Jensen describes the Alexandrian Museum and the research conducted by the scholars working there especially the work done on Homer. According to Jensen, Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian scholar and one of Aristotle’s students was responsible for organizing the Alexandrian Library; not surprisingly, it was modeled on Aristotle’s library in the Lyceum. While he was active in politics and even ruled Athens for the Macedonians (317-7 BCE); he also continued to work with the Library and is credited with having had Aesop’s fables written down. Jensen engages a number of scholars’ interpretations of the origins of the Homeric texts, including, Martin West, Antonio Rengakos, Gregory Nagy, Stephanie West, and others. She concludes her brief history of the Library and Museum and of the Homeric scholarship that took place there lamenting that, despite the problems, the view “we get in the sources does not confirm the picture of the Library as an important participant in the great interaction of cultures and religions. On the contrary, the philologists of the Library appear to have been concerned with Greek literature and nothing else” (Jensen, 89). Apparently Egyptian texts were left to the priests. While the subtitle of this collection of essays is, “A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot,” and while there is evidence in other fields for a melting pot, with regard to the Library perhaps it was not quite so. “The Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt,” Jensen writes,

… achieved nothing more important than the superb intellectual milieu established at the Museum. Whatever their intentions, the results of their generous support of learning are remarkable. To them we owe infinite gratitude for the fact that ancient Greek texts have reached us in such quantity and quality Scientific and scholarly method was developed to a previously unknown level. Poetry flourished. And just as Alexandrian poets become the stimulating ideal for Roman poets from Ennius onwards; the Ptolemies offered themselves as worthy models for the patronage of the artists practiced in Augustan Rome (91-92).

The first two of the four essays constituting “Part II. Rome, Judaism and Christianity,” are devoted to Judaism. In the first piece, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist: An Investigation of his Two Historical Treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius,” Per Bilde considers two texts by Philo, an extremely influential Jew from one of the most important and prosperous Alexandrian families to show that although Philo is usually known for his work in theology, epistemology, and metaphysics, he also played an significant role as a politician, a polemist, and a political apologist, especially between 38 and 41 CE – “a period of great importance in the history of the Jewish people in the ancient world” (Hinge and Krasinikoff, “Introduction, 13). In his essay, Bilde reconstructs the historical and political events in the year 38 CE, the year of what has become known as “the first pogrom” against the Jewish people. Then, he analyzes Philo’s two historical treatises Against Flaccus and The Embassy to Gaius. Finally, Bilde examines “the literary genre and the aim, dating and intended readers” of these two works and considers whether Philo’s writings “could be perceived as a threat to Rome” (Bilde, “Philo as a Polemist and a Political Apologist,” 98).

As Bilde explains, Judaism had flourished in Alexandria for many years and “continued to thrive well over the first year of Caligula’s rule (37-38 CE)” (Hinge and Krasilnikoff, “Introduction,” 13). Aulus Avilius Flaccus was a Roman prefect in Alexandria and Egypt (32-38 CE). While “the living conditions for the Jewish people,” according to Bilde, were generally not bad “in the Roman empire from Caesar (died 44 BCE) and Augustus (31BCE-14 CE) until the summer of 38,” for reasons that are not evident, Flaccus “seems to have cancelled the Jewish population’s established right to live in Alexandria according to the customs of their fathers and under some kind of internal self-government …” (Bilde, 99). When King Agrippa I, also known as Herod Agrippa, (37/41-44) who had recently been crowned King of Palestine stopped in Alexandria en route from Rome to his homeland, his visit set off riots against the Jewish people. Non-Jewish residents of the city also tried to set up statues of the emperor in synagogues. Instead of trying to stop the riots, Flaccus, and here Bilde follows Philo’s account, sided with the “‘Greeks’ and issued a decree … denouncing the Jews as ‘foreigners and newcomers’ … in Alexandria” (100). Subsequently, Jews were driven out of four of the five parts of the city and ghettoized into the remaining fifth part. Jews were the subject of violent attacks, some were flogged publically, some were killed, and some were forced to violate religiously sanctioned dietary prohibitions by eating pork. Although Bilde cautions: “when reconstructing historical circumstances in Antiquity, from using terms related to the European persecutions of Jews in the Middle Ages and in recent times” (101), he also claims that “this violent persecution of Jews seems to be something new in Antiquity” (100). Eventually, Flaccus was arrested by the Emperor, returned to Rome, where after his property was confiscated, he was sent into exile and eventually put to death by the emperor. According to Bilde, then, Philo’s Against Flaccus is begins with a glowing report of Flaccus’ first six years in office only to explain Flaccus’ fall from office; indeed, it is a cautionary tale that proclaims the power of the god of the Jews and explains that those who violate the Jewish people will face a fate similar to Flaccus’. On the one hand, Bilde interprets the texts as being written for the Jewish people in a “traditional and effective Jewish literary form or genere, religious apologetics,” which was later adopted by Christians; Philo’s apologetic texts were meant “to comfort and edify Jewish readers” and should be compared to the Book of Esther of the books of the Macabees (109). On the other hand, however, Bilde suggests, is that Philo wrote in “this form or genere “for Roman readers, primarily the new Roman emperor, Claudius, the new imperial prefect in Egypt, Pollio, and other leading Roman circles …” as if to warn them against actions that might harm the Jewish people and blaspheme their god.

In his paper, “Alexandrian Judaism: Rethinking a Problematic Cultural Category,” Anders Klostergaard Petersen takes a quite different approach from Bilde’s, for he is not interested in well-known writers like Philo nor is he interested in “the empirical subject matter of Alexandrian Jewry” (Petersen, 116); rather, Petersen’s paper is much more ambitious and is focused on the theoretical problem of how to reconstruct past cultures. Petersen begins by briefly sketching out the history of Jewish people in Alexandria. Then, he examines “Alexandrian Judaism with close attention to a number of theoretical problems that are infrequently mentioned in the predominant strands of scholarship.” Finally, Petersen concludes by offering “a theoretically viable way of reconstructing ancient cultures in a manner that is simultaneously theoretically adequate to the acknowledgement of the confined nature of the sources, and to current insights within the fields of cultural anthropology and sociology of how to speak and to conceive of culture.” Petersen is critical of approaches to culture that assume one individual, such as Philo, Aristeas, or Artapanus, can speak for or represent a particular culture or subculture. While contemporary scholarship seems to understand this, Petersen maintains that even though many contemporary scholars acknowledge this problem, they proceed to deal with their sources without considering the consequences of taking “one trajectory of thought” as the embodiment of an entire cultural entity. Indeed, “the banalities of culture and the platitudes of human beings,” Petersen writes, “are seldom handed down” (118). On the other hand, he does not argue that scholars should ignore available sources; rather, the solution is to keep “the constrained nature of the majority of the extant sources” and to reflect on the “wide strands of scholarship, current as well as classical, on Alexandrian Judaism” (119). Petersen is also critical of those who understand Philo in terms of a preconceived dualism of Hellenism and Judaism. This dualistic view, Petersen argues is “theoretically flawed” for several reasons (124).

First, even the most vehement Jewish antagonist of Greek thinking is culturally as well as socially inevitably enmeshed in what he opposes …. Secondly, the use of a notion like “Hellenism” is always contextually bound. It relates to particular traits only within the other culture. It is never a comprehensive term that refers to the entire plethora of phenomena of the “other culture. “Jerusalem” and “Athens” are unfailingly entities that are rhetorically used in particular contexts to refer to specific phenomena. Thirdly, the abstract taxonomic play with terms like Judaism and Hellenism in modern scholarly discourse is very far from their use in antiquity. That … does not invalidate contemporary use, but it certainly should put some restraints on the manner in which they are used (125).

One must remember that a thinker like Philo is a Jew, but also an Alexandrian; even Philo himself is not a simple unity; “Philo’s writings should be interpreted as the creations of a composite being who under particular circumstances and with particular aims and situations in mind attempts to conquer the cultural battlefield of his time” (139). Still, this does not mean that we should speak of “Alexandrian Judaisms or Jewries” instead of “Alexandrian Jewry / Judaism” (Petersen, 128). While this may have “heuristic value,” it is “misleading” because it indicates the inability “to distinguish a concept and a phenomenon.” Alexandrian Judaism may only be a construct of contemporary scholarship. On the other hand, Petersen suggests, following Benedict Anderson, that although “Alexandrian Judaism was hardly a community characterized by ‘the primordial village of face-to-face contact,’” it could still be understood as “‘imagined community’” because “its members constituted a conscious community” that “shared the common frame of reference of being Jews of Alexandria.” In end, Petersen concludes, “however perplexed we may be as a result of engagement with cultural ‘messiness,’ the great intellectual challenge for future studies not only on past Alexandrian Jewry, but on ancient cultural entities in general, will be to take the ‘messiness’ of human cultural and social affairs profoundly seriously” (140).

In “From School to Patriarchate: Aspects on the Christianisation of Alexandria,” Samuel Rubenson is not concerned with religion or theology; rather, he focuses on “the transformation of the classical heritage into an early medieval Christian culture” and the important role that Alexandria played in that transformation (144). Indeed, Rubenson argues that this transformation must be understood “from a social point of view” (145). The importance of Alexandria to the development of Christianity with development of Christian theology and the revision of classical philosophy is unequaled until “the emperor and the bishops of Rome and Constantinople … ended the ecclesiastical power by means of the council of Chalcedon in 451.” Origen of Alexandria was important for his work in “Christian hermeneutics and Bible interpretation”; indeed, according to Rubenson, he was the most important Christian teacher of this period. Athanasius of Alexandria is acknowledged for his interpretation of the divine as trinity and his efforts to define church dogma. Cyril of Alexandria addressed himself to the problem of how Jesus as Christ could be both man and god. The work of later Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, the Cappadocians, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus are certainly based on Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril. Rubenson concludes that our understanding of early Christianity in Alexandria, then, is based on the work of Christian teachers and philosophers, who instituted a tradition of Christian schools during the second century, and who were recognized for their work both in Alexandria and in the larger emerging Christian community. Schisms and a break between the church and the school were caused by “the severe and prolonged persecutions of the Christian leadership of Alexandria in 303-11” (156). Emperor Constantine’s recognition of the bishop of Alexandria elevated the importance of the bishops and gave them increased responsibilities. The bishops, who attempted to unify the church and unite the Christian community in the face of the pagan traditions that were embraced by parts of the Alexandrian elites, were resisted by intellectuals living independently on the edge of the desert south of the city. Uniting with local authorities, the bishops received the support of the emperor to unite Christians against their Christian opponents and critics and the remaining pagans.

In “Religious Conflict in Late Antique Alexandria: Christian Responses to ‘Pagan’ Statues in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries CE,” Troels Myrup Kristensen begins where Rubenson ends with the conflict between the Christian bishops and the continued pagan tradition of parts of the Alexandrian elite. Noting the complicated religious, social, and political tensions that were part of the Mediterranean world of the fourth and fifth centuries, Kristensen contextualizes his discussion of the conflict between Christians and pagans by tracing Christian opposition to pagan statuary to “the Judaic tradition and the Mosaic prohibition against idolatry” (160). While wooden statues were burned, stone statues were either defaced or “reinterpreted” by adding crosses or other Christian symbols to the statues by Christians (161). At the same time, Kristensen emphasizes that these views were not held by all Christians and that some pagan statues survived in Christian households. Illustrating his paper with three photographs, one diagram, and one map, Kristensen discusses the destruction of the Serapeum and its statuary in 392 CE which along with “the murder of the philosopher Hypatia” are “among the best known cases of religious violence in Late Antiquity” (162). Christian destruction of pagan statuary is one of the reasons that pagan statuary was cached and pagan practices were driven underground. Kristensen concludes by noting that the violence brought on by the religious and social transformation in Alexandria in Late Antiquity was rampant; indeed, it can be understood “as the result of the ‘brutalisation of local politics’ or ‘progressive Christianisation’” (172). While there is much literary evidence for the Christian destruction of statuary, actual evidence is much more difficult to obtain. One of the problems is that most of the surviving accounts of this period of Alexandrian history are from Christian sources. “The bias of the Christian literature concerning the ‘end’ of pagan cult at Alexandria makes it difficult to accept them at face value.” Archaeological evidence is also problematic because interpretation and documentation are difficult. Still, Kristensen argues, we can rough out Christian reactions to paganism and pagan statuary.

Hinge and Krasilnikoff are to be commended for bringing together the papers in this volume; indeed, Alexandria A Cultural and Religious Melting Pot is an interdisciplinary text that may be recommended to both the scholar and the general reader interested in culture, religion, and ancient communities. Although Alexandria will certainly interest classicists, cultural anthropologists, and classical archeologists, scholars working in other disciplines such as art history, philosophy, and cultural studies will also find this text exciting for its fresh look at the ancient city of Alexandria that exemplifies the social, economic, and political complexities of a diverse population living in the same community. The various reflections on culture and religion are obvious strengths of this text. However, the discussions of the problems involved in the study of ancient cultures, and their reflections on how scholars might approach ancient cultures are important n/pot only for those studying ancient cultures, but also raise questions that should be considered by anyone thinking and writing about culture.


[1] Krasilnikoff cites Pseud-Callesthene I:30, trans. E. H. Haight (New York: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1955).

[2] Krasilnikoff cites M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), no. 7.

[3] Petersen translates and cites M. van Beck, “Identiteternes møde, civilisationernes sammenstød,” Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 40, 1-11.

[4] Petersen refers to Alfred Korzybski’s “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics,” presented before the American Mathematical Society at the December 28, 1931meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.

[5] Krasinikoff quotes Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

[6] See Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).