Realness of Things Past
September 6, 2021

Greg Anderson began thinking about the thesis of his Realness of Things Past while working on a book on the “state” in classical Greece. He discovered there was no such thing as an Athenian “state,” and that conclusion led him to question the way historians do history. Instead of running everything through our own modern categories and framework, he argues, we need to “account for each past way of life on its own ontological terms” (xiii). He calls for an “ontological turn” in historical scholarship.

Post-Enlightenment thought is governed by a set of overlapping dualisms – between subject and object, mind and matter, nature and culture, religion and reason. Even when historians use the category of “culture” in an effort “to retrieve the beliefs, ideologies, and discourses” of the past, they still “translate the contents of non-modern lifeworlds, not least because they grant us the final power to decide where subjectivity/culture ands and where objectivity/materiality begins” (3). Imposing modern individualism, dualism, secularism, materialism, and anthropocentrism on the past is an unethical historical practice, a form of cultural imperialism that authorizes us to “forcefully impose the realities of our liberal capitalist present upon peoples who can no longer speak for themselves” (102).

For example, historians of ancient Greece judge Athenian democracy by our standards of a rightly ordered democracy. Athens, it’s said, was a democracy in infancy, partly because Athenians continued to be attached to “‘myths’ about earth-born ancestors, snake-tailed kings, monster-slaying heroes, and sundry other improbabilities.” Greeks weren’t fully democratic because they “blurred” the lines between political and social, public and private, sacred and secular (2). Besides, they excluded women, and so fall short of modern democratic equality (4).

Every self-conscious historian tries to avoid about imposing contemporary standards on the past, but Anderson thinks we need something more. What is needed is “a historicism that allows us to understand each non-modern lifeworld more on its own ontological terms,” a historicism “that allows us to recognize that Olympian gods were just as self-evidently real to the Athenians as a free market economy is to ourselves” (4). A degree of “imperialism” is inescapable but we can minimize it if take the ontological assumptions of past cultures seriously.

This is tantalizing. Is Anderson suggesting that the Olympian gods might really have existed for ancient Greeks?

The answer is, Sort of. He offers a radically anti-dualist ontology that undermines the duality of material objects and subjective beliefs. Things aren’t independently out there. They are what they are in interaction with our beliefs about them. Different cultures thus exist in different worlds. As Anderson puts it,

our modern common sense knowledge of the order of things is inextricably woven into the very fabrics of our modern being. It encourages us to see how our mainstream dualist science, natural and social, is actively involved in determining where the ontological cuts in these fabrics should fall, thereby helping to constitute the very world that it purports to be merely describing. It thus suggests that this same world is not the world but just a world, a more or less stable, historically contingent metaphysical conjuncture, one that could not exist as such without the peculiarly modern common sense knowledge that helps to produce it, to make it whatever it really is (114).

Once we recognize the relativity of our own lifeworlds, we’re free to explore the lifeworlds of others on their own terms, rather than as immature versions of us. Ontological history would no longer treat history as “the life-story of a unitary species-subject wending its way inevitably towards its full self-realization in capitalist modernity” but as a set of “diverse life-stories of multiple humanities, each one pursuing whatever life meant in its own self-sustaining metaphysical conjuncture, in its own particular world” (117). We can’t say, “Greeks believed in the gods, but we know they were deluded.” That would be a return to dualism. The world they inhabited was a cultural-material world that included gods, and that’s the world historians must attempt to understand and describe.

There’s must to admire here. Anderson rightly thinks the modern category of “religion” has little purchase in most non-modern worlds, yet he takes gods, rituals, temples, and ontologies seriously because his historical subjects did.

But ontological history comes at some considerable cost. It’s not clear how far Anderson has distanced himself from the modern assumptions he criticizes. His secularism shows through. Greek gods aren’t delusions, but they exist only in the interaction of human minds and the material world. He won’t entertain the possibility of unseen powers (angels, demons) that aren’t mental-material formations. Further, Anderson’s argument depends on a strong version of the “Great Divide” between modernity and everything that preceded it. Something new entered the world a few centuries back, but it’s not as easy to see the breach in time as Anderson suggests, nor so easy to characterize it.

Finally, there’s no possibility of universal history, because there’s no unitary humanity. Anderson knows this: ontological history “would . . . require us to sacrifice our larger sense of a unitary species experience lived in a single, universal metaphysical conjuncture” (122). It’s a price that Christians, who believe that God made from one blood all the nations of the earth and who worship the Spirit of Pentecost, cannot pay.

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