Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Can’t we all just get along?

Renowned classicist Mary Lefkowitz has a new solution for our culture wars: bring back the Greek gods.

The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.


There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

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Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.


Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.


The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety.

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Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.


Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

There you have it. If you could choose a religion for merely political reasons, you might choose polytheism, especially since it--naturally, as it were--provokes philosophical skepticism. Of course Lefkowitz’s picture of the gods and the Greek response to the gods conveniently elides the conflictual aspects of Greek religion (all too often imitated by those proud and bellicose Greeks). If only the gods could learn to get along--to be open to the free exchange of ideas the way Wellesley professors are (oh wait, faculties aren’t like that...)--then perhaps all could be sweet. But we’re fallen and fallible, as a non-polytheistic religion reminds us. I guess we’ll just have to muddle through.

Apologies for getting to this a few days late. I just saw the piece in the Atlanta paper this morning, a few days after it ran in the LA Times.

Discussions - 16 Comments

Her fuzzy-wuzzy, post-modern interpretation of the Greek gods bears about as much resemblance to the Homeric gods and the strong Greek conception in the playwrights of punishment for sinning offending the will of the gods as Liv Tyler's understanding of Lord of the Rings as an "environmental story." Too bad this is the best we can get from "classical" "scholars."

She concludes with: Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

The ironic thing about this statement is that one today's new faith traditions -- faith in the ultimate salvation through science and reason -- actually encourages a kind of blind confidence and unrealistic hope. And liberalism has a kind of unhealthy confidence in human intelligence and achievements ... provided liberals are allowed to implement their policies.

I can't speak for Islam, but I know that the Judiac and Christian traditions never offer a hope that "everything will work out okay" in this lifetime. There is nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition that conditions God's existence on good times here on earth. On the contrary, the message is quite the opposite -- as long as we reject God and go about things on our own, things will be as bad as we make them.

Her article is precisely the kind of thing that will win her nods of knowing approval in her social circle. It sounds nice, it feels nice. That it confuses the basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition is typical. No amount of discussion or education will solve that. She is not one who "has ears to hear."

True enough, Don, but I think the more fundamental problem is that the Greeks did not even think what she proposes/said they did.

Tony wrote: "True enough, Don, but I think the more fundamental problem is that the Greeks did not even think what she proposes/said they did."

I'm not versed in that area, so I wasn't sure. But if what you're saying is true -- and I believe you -- then her essay is doubly sad: she's wrong on both ends. And she was a noted "classicist" at Wellesley?

What might explain this? Was this deliberate? Or is she so blind to the hoped-for narrative that what actual was has morphed into merely what she wishes?

Lefkowitz did yeoman work in arguing against the Afro-centric attempt to derive Western civilization from sub-Saharan sources, but her blindness here stems from the fact that she seems simply not to know the first thing about Christianity. Don is right that, in the Christian tradition, the 'end" where everything comes out right, isn't something we can make happen.

Sure, that Athenian democracy was a "cooperative system of government" alright.

I wonder if she really accepts the fact that humans are that falliable (which is incidently one of Christianity's most keen understanding), because otherwise, would she want a religion where the gods are just as jealous, capricious, corrupt, and whimsical (etc.)?

Another of her main problems is her postmodern belief that religion, along with all other "truths" and "beliefs" is that they are all "socially constructed." Thus, we can simply, by an act of will, start worshipping these gods and teach our children to do the same to promote toleration and multiculturalism. This "choice" can simply almost be voted on by an act of democracy or at least (her) the "general will."

What she ignores is the fact of Revelation, whether it is the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or Muhammad's visits from Gabriel. People do not generally believe in made-up religions that are indeed socially constructed. What's ironic is that she would mock others' viewpoints as "only" socially-constructed and therefore not valid (like the differences between the "genders"), while gladly willing to embrace one that she is socially-constructing (I guess it's because she is enlightened, out for the betterment of the world, and not one of those hegemons.).

Tony, your last post touches on something I've been pondering -- that is, Lefkowitz doesn't seem to be making a claim for the reality of the Greek gods. They are merely actors on an imaginary stage, but they portray a philosophy that Lefkowitz believes is beneficial.

That begs the question: why burden it with these imaginary gods? Why not simply advocate the philosophy and do away with the mythical trappings?

The answer, I would imagine, is that Lefkowitz believes "the gods" (or any mythical figure) is what we -- the lesser people -- need. The gods need not exist, and indeed in Lefkowitz's mind I'm sure they don't exist. But that thinking runs counter to her desire for skeptical thinking ... wouldn't a mind inclined towards skepticism be skeptical of these mythical figures?

What is sad is that were Lefkowitz to study the Christian message with an open mind and heart, she might well find the God she yearns for. What is even more sad is that her closed heart is no doubt due, in some measure, to the behavior of some (many?) who carry the Christian banner.

The irony is this: Lefkowitz wants people to look upon mythical figures. For most of today's "Christian" world, Jesus Christ is little more than a mythical figure ... a historical figure that may or may not have even existed. So in effect the mythical "gods" are present, but not, apparently, with the message Lefkowitz wants. Or, more precisely, with the social outcome Lefkowitz desires.

Some of you might be surprised to learn that Lefkowitz is hardly some postmodernist, multiculturalist nutcase. Her 1997 book Not Out of Africa was critical in undermining bogus "Afrocentric" claims about the origins of Western Civilization.

John, that may well be. I'm not accusing Lefkowitz of being a "postmodern multiculturalist nutcase" ... but I do admire the phrase! :-)

For me, I'm struck by her advocacy of a "religion" for which she makes no claim whatever of its reality.

I doubt very much she is seriously advocating a return to the polytheistic Greek god system. I suspect her real objective is to tear down the monotheistic Judeo-Christian God. I suspect a "no God" system is perfectly okay with her. But I doubt she has faith in "the people" to live in a "no God" (or no gods) system.

Comments 5 & 10 are to be echoed: ML she did yeoman's (pardon the sexism) work in that necessary debunking effort vis-a-vis the "out of Africa" tendentiousness. She, however, does show the grave limits of much of the classicist guild, who are blissfully untouched by philosophical learning or capacity (normally -- but not always! -- this learning or capacity comes about via some contact with Strauss (and/or Straussians)). So, she's good on ideology and partisanship masquerading as classical scholarship; alternates between banal, "solid," and barely insightful in her own readings; ignorant of the philosophical aspects and dimensions --- not to mention the arts of rhetorical and indirect speech of many of the ancient authors -- and her political judgments not-so-good. All in all, a solid C+. (No grade inflation for me!) She reminds me of Christina Hoff Sommers in philosophy (although she may no longer be in academe). But in the guild sML does stand higher than that grade might indicate, and as comments 5 & 10 indicated. Your kids would profit from taking a course from her. Among other things, I have in mind an article she did on Women in the Classics (or something to that effect; it may have appeared in the American Scholar); its banal readings -- and salutary moral -- should be contrasted with, say, Arlene Sacenhouse's readings in Women in Western Political Thought.

Paul ... I'm not sure I've got the background to follow all that you wrote. It seems you're willing to grant her credit for her work combating the "Afro-centrism" movement, but less credit for her work overall.

I can't speak from personal experience ... I've seen her name prior to this post, but otherwise I have no prior grounding in her work or outlook on things.

But, that said, the view of her based on this one snapshot is not flattering. She fundamentally misunderstands the Biblical representation of Christianity (as opposed to "Christianity" as demonstrated by some in contemporary society), and she's advocating "religion" as casually as one might advocate a more comfortable pair of shoes. The former harms her argument against Christianity; the latter harms her general argument about religion in general.

Count me as unimpressed. Frankly, I regard what she wrote as being one of the more silly things I've seen lately.

Dan, you're right in your judgment of the merits of her piece, including her "recommendation" of polytheism. (BTW: Max Weber did it much better in his Science as a Vocation.) ML did have a golden moment in taking on Tony Martin of Wellesley though. So, a fairer assessment of her work and qualities would be broader than the piece Joe brought to our attention.

I think it is interesting to note that one of the chief criticism the Wahhabi's make of other islamic groups and especially the more moderate ones is that they are polytheistic.

In other words if you don't agree with the Wahhabi interpretation it is because you have imported other concepts foreign to Islamic ousia(to import a greek term).

Following the Wahhabi interpretation of things all of modernity and the west is already polytheistic. According to the Wahhabi's they are the guardians of the one and only true Monotheistic religion other muslims make bargains with Allah which means that the religion that they end up worshiping is polytheistic.

There is something to this in my opinion. In fact I would come close to arguing that there is no such thing as pure christianity, and there may not be any such thing as the Wahhabi ideal of Islam either or at least such a thing is not in evidence in America. Every american I know is polytheistic in that they worship many idols: cars, career, fame, football, basketball, baseball, fishing, cigars, poker, beer, wine, food, music of a million types, politics, women, motorcycles a billion and one interests ambitions, hobbies, dreams and hopes. We don't break out the Koran or the Bible to determine that Michael Jordan is a great basketball player...there are those who worship basketball who debate the hierachy of their gods with great fanfare...but he is acknowledged the Greatest God by the greatest number...people still commit murder for his shoes, and everyone knows of his hymns...like mike, I want to be like mike... I can't even begin to count all the various things people worship...Ohio State football...the Indians, the Cavaliers, Tiger Woods in golf, Phil Ivey in poker. How many people sit throught a boreing church service before being allowed real time with the NFL gods they trully worship? Julie had a thread where she discussed political symbolism, and in this thread I argued in different words that these were just examples of american polytheism, or people saying: this is what is important to me. What is religion if it is not that which people hold to be important to them? You go to a Nascar race with a few men and look at the glint in their eyes, then you see them in church, and I ask you a simple question: What is it that they worship? Pick a few people at random and observe them...try to figure out what makes them tick...what idols they trully worship, do this and you will understand that the United States is already polytheistic.

An interpretive proposal or hypothesis about American "polytheism": isn't it (largely) the monotheism of a fetishistic fascination with "freedom" and a dogmatism of subjectivism (e.g., "values")?

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