Posted on January 17, 2023
J. P. F. Wynne’s 2019 monograph Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion: On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination opens its introduction with a with a pointed and cutting sentence:
“The Romans did not understand their own religion.”
I was browsing through the book, to see if it would be of some indeterminable use in the future for my personal reading and polytheistic musings, and this sentence stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Derived from the situation presented by Marcus Tullius Cicero in Academica 1.9, the sentence is certainly direct and eye catching, befitting an introductory hook.
And, yet, instead of simply rolling my eyes and breezing past it, I sat with the thought a moment. The Romans did not understand their own religion? How could this be? A people of such antiquity, with a vast tradition of both historic inquiry and practical, priestly traditions, unaware of their own religion(s) or religious views?
He clarifies immediately:
“They were the heirs to immemorial practices in honor of their gods. But when they paid the gods cult, they did not know the meaning of what they did, nor the nature of the gods they worshipped. The result was that they moved through their own city, looking for a way to feel at home.” (Wynne, 2019 pg. 1)
This last sentence is the picture painted by Cicero in his work, from which Wynne takes his very pointed remark. In his work, Wynne is crafting an argument for the development of Cicero’s translation of (Greek) philosophy into the Latin corpus, especially from the interpretation of the works On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum) and On Divination (De Divinatione) and from the position that they were actually the fabrication of a careful and methodical philosopher – a title which has historically not been granted to Cicero.
Also, as a modern scholar, Wynne is writing in a tradition of academic scepticism and, without knowing his personal life or predilections, most probably one inculcated in a Christian-dominated academic milieu (that which either has inherited ideas of “religion” from scholasticism or, conversely, attempts and sanitize such things through a “secular” lens). So from a certain perspective (that being modern/post-modern Christo-academia), it is possible to argue that the Romans did not understand their own religion.
Wynne contrasts Cicero’s project – the application of Greek philosophy – with the alternative and then-popular remedy of Varronian antiquarianism, both employed by a small class of intellectuals who would naturally be concerned with the rigors of understanding such a thing as the “why” or “how” of religion.
At the risk of grossly misinterpreting Varro and the misrepresenting the accounts left to us of his Antiquitates (via Augustine of Hippo and Tertullian, for more on this and treatments of Varro, see scholars such as Burkhart Cardauns, Jörg Rüpke, et cetera), Varro’s efforts were a reconstructive attempt at recalling ‘forgotten’ religious lore, the laying of data to recall the Romans to their orthopraxis and traditions, practices he felt were falling into disuse or lapsed beyond memory, and an attempt to foster a sense of piety-through-historic-convention.
Effectively, Varro’s work was a form of social memory (Rüpke 2014, pg. 250). Cicero’s one of philosophical theology. Both authors approached the idea that the Romans had lost something – a helpful understanding of their religion – and sought to give interested parties the tools to regain that understanding.
I personally see parallels with this discussion in the modern polytheist movement, especially as I have experienced it. Put simply, many of us simply do not understand out religion(s). I most assuredly and emphatically consider myself one of these people, and it is a large reason why I do what I do and where my interests lead me. As someone who strives to understand the “why” and the “how” of this great contemporary experiment, the overall sentiment professed by Wynne deeply resonated with me.
I have made no small criticism of contemporary Western polytheist traditions and their tendency to levy the weight of historic precedent and historiography as both road map and justification for an unerring reconstruction of religious modes of practice, of expression of identity. It is such that, in effect, many of the lesser-attested traditions which are lifted by contemporary practice engage in their own forms of religious historiographical creation. Historic precedent (either attested or reconstructed) forms a cornerstone for further inquiry, sometimes at the detriment to contemporary exploration or development. In many cases it serves as a barrier to entry.
In this case, I very much see my desires and predilections reflected with greater clarity in the Ciceronian style of inquest, though with different levels of concern for what constitutes impiety or superstitious views. It simply does not satisfy me to solely recreate the aspects which we can glean from “the sources”, their interlocutors, translators, or contextual reporters, without understanding the deeper meanings. In doing so does little more than appealing to history as a fallacy and, to me, is lazy intellectualism, for it promulgates a lineage of regurgitated orthopraxis, where few from before understand the philosophical mechanics involved.
When we collectively speak of ritual reflexivity (ex. Kimberley Patton), or the cosmological foundations of ritual and rituals role in the wider metaphysical and physical world (ex. Mircea Eliade, or Paul Bauschatz, or Roger Woodard, or Roy Rappaport, or Catherine Bell, etc.,), or simply the why of something like sacrifice and the economy of gifting (ex. Marcel Mauss, Seneca, etc.,) and all other subjects or religious topics, we are speaking to the intellectual project of understanding our religions and religious practices from this mechanical perspective. It is not one strictly, or even necessarily, the traditional or historical.
I shall fully and readily admit that, perhaps, this is not the driving fixation for some (Many? Most?). My anecdotal experience is – after all – anecdotal. There is no fault to the practitioners who are quite contented with a road map and instruction guide, or even simple exposure to the themes enough to engage in ritual enactment with the numinous. Should they desire to take it that “far”, that is their prerogative, and I shall not be construed or misinterpreted so as to be speaking to a totality on this. My views, wants, needs, or desires within the wider understanding of contemporary polytheism should not be taken as the sole method, nor the presiding guidepost from which to follow.
For his part, Cicero wasn’t antagonistically critical of Varro’s writing, and his narrators credit Varro’s methods as helping the Roman populace at large. The right way, to Cicero, was to return to the legacy (expounded by Varro), with philosophical moderation and the application of philosophical theology to the benefit of the whole. A carefully weighed view of the Gods will lead closer to pious action (Wynne 2019, pg 278), or, failing that, helping each Roman find theological meaning in their religion.
Contemporary consensus argues that most likely the average Roman was not very much influenced by the philosophical-back-and-forth on the nature of the divine or the practices associated with the religion(s) at Rome. Cicero and Varro were writing for a small and elite audience, even if principally they were not likely to see the results of the philosophical help that the elite were designing and arguing.
Wynne does bring up the idea that it is possible that the “diagnosis of alienation and bewilderment in the face of the traditional religion was true for people even beyond those with the leisure and education for intellectual pursuits” (Wynne 2019, pg. 73-74, footnote 33). I would say it is probably more than possible, but a likelihood, given the various contemporary experiences of modern polytheists. The question would then be whether the Roman populace at large employ or consider new philosophical ideas, a question which is largely unanswerable.
Now, much as then, there are individuals who are engaging in a rationalization of their religions, which in itself is a part of religious experience and expression (Rüpke 2014, pg. 248, this is not to say that such ruminations satisfy the prescribed religious requirements of a faith-practice.). This rationalization I believe, is intrinsically necessary as we are exposed to new challenges of thoughts and theories, and new developments in society, else we remain out-of-step.
Comparably, we have the luxury of having at our fingertips access to a mutually intelligible education combined with a robust network and global information infrastructure, permitting us to – unlike Cicero and Varro, and all the other philosophers and historians at the time who were approaching these questions – engage with an unfathomably wide treatment from which we can pursue our goals and aims. These formerly “elite” questions, the philosophically mechanical and historic both, are no longer confined to a class of means or leisure and can (should) be asked, in my view. By doing so, the collective “project” of Western polytheism can only be fortified and holistically enriched.
However, we mustn’t box ourselves in by cleaving to a singular historic or philosophical precedent. To do so risks much in the way of isolating our understanding. The question of which philosophical theological framework could be of use is another matter, entirely. I would not care to force myself into the same manner of box of historic philosophy, understanding my philosophical theology “simply because the Stoics said so”, as my criticisms to those performing a rigorous historic reconstruction would then be self-applicable.
So, as I sit with Wynne’s quoted text, above, I see some similarities in states of existence and history. I see the yearning and the use of history and of philosophy to engage in the natures of the religions, and keenly understand a listlessness in theological belonging. I also see tremendous opportunity for rigorous intellectual expression, provided it is crafted in such a way that it is not elevated beyond the reach of those practitioners who form the beating heart of the contemporary enactment of our polytheistic religions.
Rüpke. Jörg. 2014. “Historicizing Religion: Varro’s Antiquitates and History of Religion in the Late Roman Republic.” History of Religions, Vol. 53, No. 3 (February 2014), pp. 246-268. https://doi.org/10.1086/674241.
Wynne, J.P.F. 2016. Cicero on the Philosophy of Religion: On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press