Review: The Realness of Things Past; Ancient Greece and Ontological History by Greg Anderson Assessment 10 out of 10

Current interpretations of Classical Athens are criticised, in particular their tendency to view non-modern Athenian demokratia as if it is a proto-modern democracy.  Rather, a more real view is advocated that Ancient Athens and Attica should be understood on their own terms.

Harold Butterfield‘s “The Whig Interpretation of History”, written in 1931, made a similar point. Butterfield criticised “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification, if not the glorification, of the present.”

Clearly, there is a similarity with Anderson’s criticism of analyses which imagine they see in the Athenian past arrangements presaging modern Western democracy.

Butterfield’s chief concern was with the over-simplification of history. He argued instead for a “technical history”, fine grained analysis of documents so what happened “speaks for itself.”

Anderson signposts a different path that history and historian should appreciate different world views, including:

  • Animism, humans & non-humans thought to possess similar selfhood, but different bodily form; associated with shamanism
  • Totemism, men and the totem assumed to have similar selfhood and bodily form
  • Peoples whose lives depend on seasonal rhythms and movement of the heavenly bodies
  • Peoples whose lifestyles are synchronised with the life cycles of plants and animals
  • Peoples whose lands nurtured their ancestors and parents
  • Peoples who believed in mysterious non-human agents

To describe and analyse their worlds means adopting their world view, to “recover whatever past peoples could say [and think] about their present.”

He cites as examples of different world views:

Athens itself, viewed as a single (continuing) reality, in which mortals and immortals subsisted, ideally in mutual support.

China, where celestial heaven is reflected on earth.  The Emperor was the Son of Heaven. When dynasties were overthrown, they no longer enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. China was the Middle Kingdom, viewing itself in pre-modern times, after 4,000 years of continuous history, as superior to the surrounding peoples. The continuous importance of ancestors and filial piety contributed to reduced individualism and strengthened collectivism.

Of course, these two are exceptional pre-modern worlds, as there are surviving documents written by the Athenians and Chinese themselves. For other pre-modern world views we are reliant on scientific evidence, archaeology, ethnographic metaphor and (very occasionally) external documentary evidence.

Anderson is courageously ambitious, proposing a paradigm shift in history. Such a turn would view history not from a modern Western perspective, but from how it appeared to the actors, in Anderson’s case study, the Athenians themselves. 

Whilst assessing it very highly, the Book is not an easy read. Many words are used from philosophy, linguistics and sociology, which the reader who persists will have to look up, or at least think about. Just some of those I recorded and learnt by: alterity; calque; Cartesian; Deluzian; demiurge; diachronic; ideational and ontology itself.

Some of the language used appears unnecessarily obtuse. The terms emic (inside) and etic (outside) are used. Apparently they were only coined in 1954. They are derived from the linguistic terms phonemics, which involves elements of meaning, and phonetics, elements of sound. Use of such imagined language seems unnecessary. However the distinction they refer to isn’t, for instance in the contrast between the insider’s view in place (literally) and the outsider’s of landscape.

A similar distinction is reflected in the Book’s most profound section, on quantum physics. Experiments can’t both fix a particle’s position and momentum; thus Heisenburg’s “uncertainty principle”. His colleague Bohr goes further that these are general features; only in specific experimental circumstances can both be measured.

Anderson’s audacity is reflected both in suggesting a paradigm turn equivalent to that taken in quantum physics and using it as a metaphor for the turn he is proposing, “the rather vertigo-inducing possibility of a post-Cartesian, quantum–style alternative to “classical” social science…. that would encourage us to see social objects, from modern states and economies down to the modern individual ….. as complex effects produced by interactions between observed materiality and modernity’s peculiar ways of observing.”

He calls his paradigm change ontological history. Borrowing from what I remember as new geography, I prefer to call it simply new history.

Adopting new history modern Western man is, and should be viewed as, the exception. The significant change followed the Scientific Revolution. (Western) man became materialist, (only material measurable things matter), secularist, individualist and, most important of all, separated from nature. Yi Fu Tuan said something similar in “Escapism” (1998), viewing escapism as the construction of culture away from nature and in denial of our animal selves.

The paradigm change would result in history no longer appearing as continuing development from past to present from Greeks and Romans through the Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment, “culminating” in  the modern west. Instead history’s emphasis would be on how things were and on discontinuities, at least as much as (imagined) continuities.  

The strength and validity of Anderson’s new history is that it has influenced my own thinking.

Whilst travelling in South East Asia recently BV (Before the Virus), I read “The Cambridge History of South East Asia Volume One to c1500”. It adopts a thematic approach, deliberately avoiding national histories with three long chapters, “Early Kingdoms,” “Economic History” and “Religion and Beliefs.” Reading them, there wasn’t so much repetition, as similar concerns seen from slightly different perspectives. Anyway, I knew so little about the region and period that a similar story repeated by different scholars was welcome. Following “Realness”, you appreciate that in such pre-modern worlds the separation of economy, society, government and religion, that the Volume assumes and our analysis takes for granted, just didn’t exist.

I am studying Jersey’s Parishes. Their “honorary system”, based on Parish Assemblies, and unpaid volunteer police and Roads Committees, has continued to this day, since at least the 16th Century.  It is criticised as outdated and impractical, instead of being valued for its survival and “realness”. Such criticism exactly mirrors the modern critics of the Athenian polis referred to by Anderson.  In classical Athens, there was no distinction between society and government, oikos and polis.  He comments, that “By using terms like volunteer or civilian, which would have meant nothing to Athenians, we suggest this is a pre-political polity, which has yet to develop”.

“Realness” is a relatively short book. It is an impressive, if not an easy read. Could there be higher praise than that to say that it will influence the way you think?

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