Wednesday, October 2, 2019


Greg Anderson, The Realness of Things Past: Ancient Greece and Ontological History. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 318. ISBN 9780190886646. $85.00.

Reviewed by Mark Roblee, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Version at BMCR home site

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Rising to the challenge of postcolonial perspectives on the limits of modern western historiography and confronting the presentism of conventional historicist approaches to the past, Greg Anderson proposes to change the rules of historical engagement by taking an "ontological turn." Taking an ontological turn means "going all the way down" to the world-making common sense of "realness" for non-modern peoples (117). Motivated by his discovery ten years ago that there was no ancient Greek "state," indeed, no classical Athenian "democracy," at least not in the modern western sense of the terms, Anderson concluded that demokratia was not a "political system" but, rather, a "way of life," an ecology of social, natural, and supernatural being pursued by all its members in complementary ways. If many historians now take it for granted that humans have "many ways of being and knowing" in the past and the present, Anderson challenges us to go a step further. He suggests that those "many ways" may actually be grounded in distinct ontological worlds entirely. To entertain this requires that we reflect on the presupposed foundations of our current ontological world (which in moments amounts to a harsh reckoning) as well as the ability to suspend our commitments, at least temporarily, to that world. Acknowledging that his book is likely to be controversial, Anderson aims to stimulate conversations that will lead historians to produce histories that are more "ethically defensible, more philosophically robust, and more historically meaningful" (xiii), a phrase repeated emphatically throughout this exciting book.

Divided into three parts with preliminary maps, a preface, introduction, conclusion, notes, bibliography, and index, the present work is written for a broad, non-specialist, cross-disciplinary audience. Part One, "Losing Athens in Translation," provides an introduction to the conventional historicist approach to classical Athens (c. 480-320) drawing attention to its limitations and its ontological ground. Part Two, "The Many Real Worlds of the Past," presents a survey of ethical and philosophical justifications for taking an ontological turn in history. Part Three, "Life in a Cosmic Ecology," turns to Greek sources having shed their modern, western dualist (mis)translation. Anderson's book is as much about the philosophy and practice of history as it is about his new approach to accessing the classical Athenian Lebenswelt. Before diving into the source material (which draws heavily on Aristotle, Xenophon, Thucydides, inscriptions, and studies of material culture), Anderson takes us on a wide-ranging intellectual journey that ventures into critical theory, continental philosophy, new trends in ethnography, quantum physics, ecological thought, the sociology of science, and an excursion into (mostly anglophone) Enlightenment intellectual history.

In Part One, Chapter 1, "Our Athenian Yesteryears" retells the standard account of the "democratic" polis from the point of view of a modern, universalist template of social being based on Cartesian dualism (mind/matter, subject/object, private/public, sacred/secular, etc.), privileging an analysis of "observable materialities" (10)—events, practices, and institutions that occur in a singular "real world" (56).

Chapter 2, "A World of Contradictions," looks at the contradictions the polis presents—slavery, imperialism, misogyny—when seen through modern democratic eyes as a "proto-liberal political arrangement" (23).

Chapter 3, "Missing Objects," enumerates the master categories employed by conventional historicism such as "state," "society," "economy," and "religion," analytical terms that "predispose us to see them there" (34).

Chapter 4, "Historicism and Its Consequences," shows how demokratia, when taken as the prototype for modern liberal democracy, appears as an unrealized, imperfect step along the way to the present and questions why historians have believed that any such proto-liberal ideology was actually there in Athens in the first place (50).

Chapter 5, "Beyond Cultural History," shows that, despite opening up historical inquiry to studies of beliefs, mentalities, ideologies, and discourses, cultural history remains committed to the materialist ontology of a singular "real world" containing many possible world-views. Cultural history, therefore, is unable to make sense of the premodern perspective where, for example, "gods, magical forces, and other alien contents of past experiences are not actually figments of 'belief' at all, but real, independently existing phenomena" (55).1

Part Two, Chapter 6, "Other Ways of Being Human," appeals to ethnographic and historical sources that describe "ontological variabilities across time and space" (65) in indigenous Amazonia and South East Asia, precolonial Mexico, Ming China, and medieval Europe.

Chapter 7, "The Anomalous Foundations of Modern Being," examines four ontological commitments of the modern capitalist world: materialism, anthropomorphism, secularism, individualism which, he argues, have yielded "a kind of retrospective political violence, a historicist imperialism that would forcefully impose the realities of our liberal capitalist present upon peoples who can no longer speak from themselves" (102).

In Chapter 8, "Ethnographies of the Present," Anderson seeks to free us from the dualist perspective of modern world-making common sense in order to explore other past worlds or "metaphysical conjunctures" (114). To do so, he presents the challenge of quantum physics to classical Newtonian physical science where now "one can no longer draw any absolute, categorical distinction between what we know of the world and our means of knowing it" (108).

Chapter 9, "Ontological History" begins to imagine what a non-dualist historical practice might look like on the ground. Although always modern in mind, imagination, and voice (121), historians must reconstruct a "local template of social being" (120) by considering terms and categories which their subjects used to talk about their world of experience (119).2

Part Three, Chapter 10, "The Metaphysics of Polis Community," opens a detailed case study of classical Athens by fleshing out an alternative "cosmic ecology" of gods, homeland, and people in Attica (5).

Chapter 11, "Governed by the Gods," looks at cult activity as evidence for a world where the gods "governed all of life's essential conditions, processes, and outcomes" (149). The Athenians could not have imagined a "secular" world where human agency "might in any meaningful sense take charge of the sources, means, and ends of life itself" (152).

Chapter 12,"The Cells of the Social Body," emphasizes the role of oikoi (households) as foundational to the polis. Drawing on work by Lin Foxhall and Virginia Hunter, Anderson diverges from the characterization of ancient Greece as "patriarchal" to one where women and men together exercise a divinely-ordained complementarity. By managing the household, Athenian women managed the polis as full participants in the politeia. Anderson is careful to point out that understanding gender relations (and later, in Chapter 15, the practice of slavery) in ancient Greece in this light does not make them worthy of modern admiration (170).

Chapter 13, "Living as One Liked" focuses on the social function of demes, phratries, tribes, etc. and their place in the cosmic ecology. What might look to modern eyes as social organizations that served to bolster central authority and control of resources (because our modern terms cause us to look for these processes), would in the Athenian world function as a spontaneous collaboration between independent groups to address the daily needs of the polis (191).

Chapter 14, "The Cares of a Corporate Self," redefines the Demos as the "living human essence of the polis itself" (195), a unitary body politic composed of "dividuals" whose sense of personhood was relational and role based.

In Chapter 15, "The Circulation of Life's Resources," portrays the world of classical Athens as a "communion of unequal but interdependent households" (227) that included gods, the land, men and women, elites, and slaves in their ecological, life-sustaining roles. Anderson observes that "the entire ecology of the classical Athenian polis, and thus the very life of the social body, depended on slavery" (230).

Chapter 16, "Being in a Different World," looks at the "messiness" of real life, anticipating possible objections to his "very preliminary demonstration" of the benefits of the ontological turn as applied to classical Athens (235). Anderson argues that the anomalous regimes of the Four Hundred and the Thirty as well as the heterodox "other voices" (especially of Thucydides and Socrates) which transgress the norms of the Athenian metaphysical world tell us more about what was not in that world than what was in it (242).

Anderson is well aware that his alternative ontological approach will invite questions and criticisms, many of which are dealt with directly in his very useful "Q & A" at the end of Part Two. Attempting to avoid the charge of cultural relativism ("ontological anarchy"), Anderson remains committed to an ontological plurality where "worlds" are "bounded" in a "giveness" that makes them "worlds" for those who inhabit them (66). I have two comments related to this. While he does address how one ontological world transforms into another (i.e. "when new forms of a priori thought become materially implicated in life-sustaining practices," 125), the conversation will benefit from even more discussion about when "formerly heterodox world-views" become world-making "rather than just world-changing" (125) developments, especially in regard to the "Great Divide" between the modern and non-modern worlds (89-92). Metaphysical ruptures are difficult to pin down. Anderson is right to acknowledge that the ontological turn does not "entail imposing a complete uniformity of thought and perspective upon the inhabitants of each past lifeworld" (124). But, by distinguishing between "taken for granted thought about givens of existence" (124) and "the beliefs, ideas, and perspectives, orthodox or heterodox, that comprise the particular worldviews of particular subjects" (124), do the complexities of interiority and experience get short shrift? I wonder if a present perspective that acknowledges ontological multiplicity might also allow for persons to inhabit different "metaphysical conjunctures" simultaneously, toggling between one and the other depending on need or desire. Can a person be a non-modern, relational "dividual" in one moment and then shift into a modern, self-interested "individual" in another? In other words, how totalizing is the "temporal-spatial dispensation" (252) one finds oneself thrown into whether in the past or the present? These are less criticisms than questions for further exploration.

Anderson's thorough critique of conventional historicism will be a rewarding read for scholars interested in reflecting on their own historical practice. His radical, often polemical, posture strikes at the root of (western, modern, liberal, materialist) certainty and his approach to the past will lead us to our own "radical alterity" in the present (123). It is tempting to say that the work is more suitable to specialists and advanced graduate students but that would underestimate the potential for this book to raise important questions for those who continue to be taught the grand narratives of non-modern peoples whose voices we have lost. If in the end, one still stands firm on modern ontological ground, refusing, as Anderson writes in his conclusion, "to give up the convenience of our standard chronometric devices," that reader should now be obliged "to suppress the peculiarly modern species of historical consciousness which has produced those devices" (252). Anderson's reading of classical Athens is well argued, making use of the evidence to present a plausible and compelling case. This is merit enough. But, I think the greater strength of this important book is his invitation—and challenge—to historians to consider what an ontological turn might look like in our own research. He offers no less than a paradigm shift of seismic proportions with the potential for equally world-shaking results.


1.   For the "realness" of material gods in the Roman context, see Clifford Ando, "Idols and Their Critics," in The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 21-42. For the "realness" of the supernatural in the modern, western context, see Monica Black, "The Supernatural and the Poetics of History," The Hedgehog Review 13.3 (2011): 72-81.
2.   For a study of religio and thr─ôskeia in their "local templates," see Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham University Press, 2016).

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