Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.09.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.09.41

G. E. R. Lloyd, The Ambivalences of Rationality: Ancient and Modern Cross-Cultural Explorations.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. ix, 125.  ISBN 9781108420044.  £34.99.  

Reviewed by Michael Leese, University of New Hampshire (


All too rarely in classics do we see a work that directly engages with the fascinating debates over cultural relativism and particularism that dominated the field of anthropology in the twentieth century and have so profoundly enriched and influenced the fields of classics, archaeology, and ancient history. Students of antiquity following in the footsteps of Lévi-Strauss, Geertz, and Sahlins, have attempted to capture and reproduce the mental universe of the Greeks and Romans, to penetrate to the core of what makes our conceptual world similar to and different from those of ancient peoples. But much of this work was left undone or unresolved, and though it has shaped the thought of subsequent generations of scholars, its effects have seldom been addressed explicitly, especially with respect to the problem of rationality.

Who better to confront these issues than Professor G.E.R. Lloyd, whose prolific output has delved into the essence and particularities of ancient Greek thought for over half a century? With this latest contribution, he focuses on rationality, and has packed into just ninety-nine pages of body text a century’s worth of scholarly debate alongside original analysis of primary sources to produce a compelling argument that is much-needed in the fields of classics and ancient history.

Through extensive direct comparisons between ancient Greek and Chinese texts of the first millennia BCE and CE, Lloyd argues clearly, elegantly, and persuasively that rationality is not exclusive to the modern West, and that modern scholars’ inclination to employ the binary opposition of rationality and irrationality is a gross oversimplification of reality. The rational-irrational dichotomy is itself an inheritance from the ancient Greeks that still shapes the way we think and argue, and modern scholars need to reconsider entirely their attitudes towards the term ‘rational,’ and be acutely aware of the dangers that come from using it in an absolute sense (to exclude or simplify), rather than as an ambivalent concept (to include or complicate).

Chapter 1, “Aims and Methods,” and Chapter 2, “Rationality Reviewed,” provide the methodological and theoretical background and justification for the study. Lloyd opens with a clear description of the scholarly tradition he is addressing, with direct or indirect references to the bifurcated anthropological debates between those advocating universalism and the psychic unity of mankind on one side, and relativism and conceptual incommensurability on the other. To what extent is it possible to understand another culture or to make comparisons between seemingly similar notions in different cultures without making the mistake of inaccurately (and misleadingly) assimilating concepts between them, especially when terms are not perfectly commensurable across different languages? To address these issues, Lloyd introduces the notion of ‘semantic stretch,’ which “allows that any term may exhibit a range of interactive meanings which may all contribute to our understanding of what the term conveys” (3). With this handy tool, Lloyd gives himself some flexibility in identifying the similarities and differences between Greek and Chinese thought.

Before examining the ancient evidence, however, Lloyd devotes the second chapter to the debates over rationality and relativism and traces how they have developed recently in four different fields: paleontology, ethology, developmental psychology, and anthropology. This comprehensive overview of the various theoretical fields that have continued to explore the issues that gripped anthropology during the twentieth century is matched by the range of topics that Lloyd addresses in the subsequent body chapters, whose content covers the variety of issues that ancient Greek philosophers on the one hand and modern scholars on the other have focused on in their respective discussions.

Chapter 3, “Cosmology without Nature,” contrasts Greek and Chinese approaches to cosmology, and successfully demonstrates that although Chinese authors do not employ the concept of “nature” in their accounts of the universe, nevertheless comparisons can be made to Greek authors’ discussions of physis. This approach yields fruitful results, particularly illustrating that what the Greeks considered to be elements (like water) were more associated with processes rather than substances in ancient Chinese thought (26). Here, however, Lloyd does not employ semantic stretch to the extent that it could penetrate deeper into the comparisons between Greek and Chinese concepts. By focusing mainly on Plato and Aristotle and restricting his comparisons of Chinese texts to the Greek term physis, he limits his ability to make more elemental insights into the concepts that expand beyond this term, particularly in the specific details of the interactions between cosmological processes and substances in Greek thought. Greek cosmological texts that do not focus explicitly on physis could have been employed, and in particular more in-depth, fine-grained comparison with pre-Socratic Greek philosophical works would present a fuller depiction of the precise ways in which Greek and Chinese thought were similar and divergent. Reading the cosmogonic account of the Huainanzi alongside that of Hesiod’s Theogony would have been particularly interesting and insightful. Moreover, sources that might more closely approximate the content of the Zhuangzi texts, such as Parmenides, may have shed light on such passages as “No thing is not ‘other’: no thing is not ‘it’. What is ‘it’ is also ‘other’, what is ‘other’ is also ‘it’” (31), which Lloyd argues contrast with Greek thought. But such breadth and depth would have required a much longer and more detailed analysis, and the point of the chapter is well-taken and convincing —Chinese cosmology could be completely rational without a developed sense of ‘nature,’ at least in the sense of being a formalized term that was the focus of dedicated and sustained analysis.

In the fourth chapter, “Seeming and Being,” however, the pre-Socratic philosophers do appear, and Parmenides is a welcome addition to Aristotle and Plato, the Milesians, the Hippocratic corpus, the Stoics and Epicureans, Hiero and Ptolemy, and Galen. Here Lloyd deftly unpacks the nuances of the Greek intellectual tradition as it developed over time, beginning with Homer and Hesiod, with respect to distinguishing the superficial appearances of things from their underlying reality. Moreover, while simultaneously demonstrating that Chinese thinkers (as seen in such texts as Lüshi chunqiu) did appreciate the potentially deceptive nature of appearances like the Greeks, Lloyd also makes some interesting insights into the differences, such as the lack of an “ancient Chinese parallel to the—Platonic—view that the reality that mathematics accesses has an altogether different ontological status from the perceptible phenomena that it explains” (51), and that the Chinese “were less prone than some Greeks to try to insist that the most that could be attained in certain contexts was mere opinion” (55). This chapter is framed by a discussion of an important methodological point, which is extremely well-articulated and should be noted by all scholars of antiquity: binary oppositions are often more the product of rhetorical strategies for winning arguments by scholars or philosophers than they are reflective of the complexities of reality, and such dichotomies as “rational vs. irrational” are frequently employed in a polemical sense within the context of debate and for the purpose of declaring victory in a dispute (39, 56).

Chapter 5, “Language, Literacy, and Cognition,” begins with the Sapir-Whorf thesis and rightly criticizes scholars who once labeled certain (non-western) cultures’ thought as irrational on the basis of their language structure: “it would be a mistake to conclude from the fact that there are differences in the syntactic structures available that these languages are mutually unintelligible or that they reflect different degrees of ‘rationality’—whatever that might mean in context” (60). Lloyd then makes some important observations on the ways in which ancient Greek literary traditions and the process of canonization reveal problems with Jack Goody’s theories in The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Here Lloyd brings a fresh perspective to Goody’s arguments about literacy and its effects on cognitive performance and shows how ancient Greek evidence can make contributions to modern theories that were developed on the basis of ethnographic research (67).

The sixth chapter has the most exciting title, “Gods, Spirits, Demons, Ghosts, Mysticism, Miracles, Magic, Myth,” and deals with the material that modern science and scholars have most commonly labeled as ‘irrational.’ Here Lloyd begins by focusing on the ways in which Greek and Chinese intellectuals broke from their cultural norms and rationalized the existence of the gods as having their origins in real people or creations of the elite to justify the social and political status quo. In both societies, however, such challenges did not affect the overall religious practices of the people at large, which brings the discussion to modern theoretical debates on how and whether belief in the supernatural can be explained as rational. But as he notes, it is a particular brand of ethnocentrism to call belief in the divine ‘irrational’ because the limitations to the explanatory power of natural science provide an enormous amount of space for belief in supernatural causality (86); science today still cannot explain everything, and in the long course of its development throughout history, it is easy to see how mystical and spiritual explanations would have more persuasive power to someone seeking a cause for observable phenomena. Lloyd effectively breaks down the rational-irrational dichotomy and argues that it is only from the narrow standards of modern science that myth and magic are depicted as irrational, and such practices perform other functions in their societies than explanatory precision or measurable efficacy.

Classicists will benefit from Lloyd’s refreshing reassessment of the ways in which the terms rationality and irrationality are “deployed polemically, serving as a prime weapon to defeat opponents, whose ideas and practices, once labeled ‘irrational’, can be disqualified from serious consideration” (94). Here Lloyd draws attention to the performative contexts of both ancient philosophical texts and modern scholarship, and thereby offers a compelling methodological lesson – when these terms are employed as a dichotomy and therefore act as a rhetorical device, a stylistic means of argumentation, their explanatory value becomes undermined since they are not being used as heuristic tools for analysis. Moreover, the individual subjectivity of ancient authors can become confused with the Weltanschauung of an entire people, as modern scholars often conflate an individual’s thought with that of their broader culture to serve their own rhetorical ends, and label that entire culture’s conceptual world ‘irrational,’ when in reality that world is far broader and more complex than the single example cited to back up a persuasive agenda. Sometimes ancient intellectuals were being intentionally provocative, breaking from their prevailing cultural norms for the express purpose of encouraging members of their audience to become their students (71). Lloyd is right that when scholars privilege their own arguments within the context of a discourse of modern superiority, such a victory is gained at the expense of a true understanding of the complexities of ancient peoples and their intelligence, their achievements.

Scholars must therefore be alert to the ways in which using the terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ can distort our understanding of the ancients. Because “the diagnosis of irrationality is often just a particularly emotive way of expressing disagreement or disapproval” (19), scholars would be better off avoiding such judgments altogether, and should consider the potential consequences of employing the terms ‘rational’ and ‘irrational.’ Such self-aware “vigilance involves … harder work than a quick verdict of irrationality,” which often stems from the “implicit assumption that our own views, by contrast to those we criticise, manifest no shred of the irrational” (95).

In short, Professor Lloyd has done the field a great service with this book in drawing attention to the fact that Great Divide and Grand Transformation theories of modernization posit a strong cognitive gap between modern and premodern societies, reinforce feelings of modern western superiority, and make irrational savages of ancient peoples while simultaneously extolling ourselves. Emphasizing rather the similarities between Greek thought and our own modern analytical and argumentative techniques, Lloyd shows how classicists are uniquely positioned to challenge metanarratives about the rise of the West, and that pinpointing the cultural particularism of Greek thought in comparison to our own (or that of other ancient peoples) is a difficult task that still requires years of deep and careful analysis.

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