22 May 2013

Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? by Paul Veyne

I've been wanting to read this ever since I first heard of it. What a fascinating question! you think to yourself. It's a slim book, so I was expecting a delightful set of maybe somewhat loose reflections on the nature of belief and the uses of myth/history, bolstered by some close readings of a variety of sources. But no. Instead, you get a grindingly repetitive, often rambling monologue supported with no evidence whatsoever. It's the kind of work that people call "suggestive" and describe as brilliant even though it has no discernible argument. It drives me nuts.

That said, it does, almost in spite of itself, have some interesting thoughts (I can't help but think of a swine snuffling through a leaf pile and happening upon some acorns). There is a lovely though somewhat incoherent metaphor of history as polygon with events filling up the space inside it, for instance. Veyne circles around questions like, is there such a thing as a disinterested lie, and, what are the potential approaches one might take to retrieving truth from myth, and sometimes the specific ways he frames juxtaposes these questions is indeed interesting, even if his plan for answering them is just to kinda think about them. So in that sense, it's not a total loss, though I still didn't find it a particularly useful text to think through.

What I ultimately found most frustrating in this book was the lack of any sort of grounding in evidence. That's just, like, your opinion, man. In the last lines of the book, he says
The theme of this book was very simple. Merely by reading the title, anyone with the slightest historical background would immediately have answered, "But of course they believed in their myths!" We have simply wanted to make it clear that what is true of "them" is also true of ourselves and to bring out the implications of this truth.
And I really felt quite cheated. Like, no. It's actually not that simple at all. Thanks for nothing.

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