Monday, August 22, 2011

FORUM: An Undergraduate Book Review - The Matter of the Gods, by Clifford Ando. Reviewed by Nicholas Granitz

Ando, Clifford. The Matter of the Gods. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2008. 978-0-520-25986-7

Reviewed by Nicholas Granitz
Ashland University

Roman religious philosophy has been the object of classical and contemporary scrutiny since its very founding. How did the Romans discover these gods? How can we tell the origin of Roman history if the history starts before Rome itself? These questions are examined from the philosophical point of view in Dr. Clifford Ando’s recent book, The Matter of the Gods. Dr. Ando examines the philosophical underpinnings of the Roman religion through the eyes of both philosophy and historiography. He asks about the basis of the extremely versatile Roman religion, a system that claims Cicero, Varro, Augustus, Julius Caesar, and Romulus as adherents despite their many differences. Dr. Ando’s book seeks to evaluate how the Romans saw themselves in reference to the divine, how they view the divine as such, and how their complex views originated.

“In contrast to ancient Christians, who had faith, the Romans had knowledge; and their knowledge was empirical in orientation.” [1] This assertion is augmented by argument and historical sources such as decrees from the emperor and specifically the evolution of priestly rites over time. His argument, in short, is that the Romans saw natural events occurring that were beyond their human power. Based on their observation of super-human phenomena, the ancient pre-Romans deduced a system where they could link these overwhelming phenomena with less overwhelming things. For example, an earthquake could be linked to a lightning strike. This linkage provided a way to link the rare phenomena with occurrences that were less rare and more understandable. This system of finding connections between large phenomena and lesser phenomena eventually resulted in a system that Romans felt they could use predict large events. The ability to predict events evolved into the belief that humans could somehow intervene in the event phenomena by contacting whatever being was linking the sign and the event in the first place. The belief that these beings controlling event and sign could be influenced manifested itself in the practice of rites based on physical circumstance.

Say, for example, that a priest performed a rite asking that a god not flood their home, and the god nevertheless flooded their home. The priest would immediately realize that the rite were incorrectly performed in accordance with what the god wanted, and would thus change the rite until his home was no longer flooded. Dr. Ando also addresses the issues of how Romans saw their gods in relation to physical objects such as the statues of a god, and explain the state of the religion during the increasingly Christianized period of time after Constantine.

Dr. Ando’s methods and arguments are convincing and work well with the large, though sadly insufficient, amount of material regarding the Roman civilization. Through his use of historiography, Dr. Ando is able to give his philosophical position the necessary basis in reality, a link that many theoretical philosophers conveniently forget. Dr. Ando’s empiricist epistemology also helps explain the evolution of rites, certain Roman eccentricities such as the summoning of foreign deities, and the several pseudo-paradoxes in the Roman system. His system also helps explain why the clash between Christianity and paganism in Rome was such a high stakes game – the two systems were completely incompatible and regarded each other as unconditionally false. Although this has been understood for a while, Dr. Ando’s argument provides a very coherent explanation for the origins of the Rome and the origins of its ultimately fatal conflict with Christianity. Overall, Dr. Ando’s book is a very revealing, albeit technical, look at the ancient Roman religion.

[1] The Matter of the Gods, page ix

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