Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.06.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.06.10

Thomas Bénatouïl, Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, Michel Narcy (ed.), L'athéisme antique. Philosophie antique. Problèmes, renaissances, usages, 18.   Villeneuve-d'Ascq:  Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2018.  Pp. 308.  ISBN 9782757423721.  €22,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pablo Pinel Martinez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid (

Open Access

This collective volume, as the editor indicates in the introduction, was intended as a contribution to the debate on what atheism in antiquity actually was. In fact, in the first few pages Gourinat puts forward some of the conceptual and methodological problems one must confront when studying the phenomenon of atheism in Ancient Greece, the main one being the polysemy of the term atheos. Thus, with his introduction, Gourinat sets a very interesting starting point, which, on the other hand, does not necessarily fit with the character of the following articles. Despite these first few pages and the very broad title of the volume, one will not acquire a panoramic survey of the state of “atheism” in Ancient Greece. This does not mean that the following contributions are without merit, for they offer insightful studies on very concrete topics related to this more general object of study.

Some contributions focus on ancient authors with a well-established reputation for being atheists already in antiquity: namely, Protagoras, Democritus, Prodicus, and Euripides. Regarding the agnosticism of Protagoras, we can find Michele Corradi’s article (L’aporie de Protagoras sur les dieux), which attempts a reconstruction of the fragment of On the gods, with attention to the different versions that have come down to us. Corradi evaluates the likelihood of the tradition of Protagoras’ trial and offers a commentary of the aforementioned text, which consists of two main parts: the first one, literary, introduces the topoi which this fragment may have shared with the contemporary sources; the second, philosophical, tries to reconcile the ideas presented there with what we know of Protagoras’ other doctrines. The first article by Christian Vassallo (Atomism and the Worship of Gods), on the other hand, focuses on Democritus, starting with an evaluation of the traditions and sources which label this author as an atheist. Especially interesting are his considerations on the Democritean fragments we find in Philodemos’ On Piety. Finally, Vassallo analyses in detail fragment B30 DK, contexualizing it within the wider picture of Democritus’ thought. On Prodicus we find two separate articles. The first one is by Stavros Kouloumentas (Prodicus on the Rise of Civilization), which attempts to integrate the later notices of Prodicus’ theory of religion within the other contemporary (or almost contemporary) testimonies, namely: Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon. His conclusion is that, while both groups of testimonies are compatible, the later traditions nevertheless ought to be read in light of the different receptions of Prodicus’ theory of religion, mainly the Epicurean one (which interpreted it as atheistic), and the Stoic one (which used the theory to back its own doctrine). The second article on Prodicus, also by Christian Vassallo, (Persaeus on Prodicus on the Gods’ Existence and Nature) offers a textual commentary on two texts of Philodemos’ On Piety. Some different conjectures in the reconstruction of the text allow the author to draw conclusions that differ from some of the more widely sustained interpretations of Prodicus as an atheist (in particular that of Albert Henrichs1). To conclude this set of essays on “famous atheists”, Maria Michela Sassi presents an article on Euripides (L’art subtil d’Euripide de critiquer les dieux sur la scène). Sassi focuses on the ideas within Euripides’ plays which may have been deemed as atheistic at the time; with this purpose, she compares the kinds of “asébeia” presented by Plato in (Laws X with some of the ideas of the divine that one can find in Euripides’ plays. After commenting on several passages of these plays, she leaves open the question of what the dramatist thought of the gods, but she does point out the distinctive interest that Euripides shows for the human condition and argues that he ought to be read as a “humanist” more than as an “atheist”.

In this volume we also find an article about a much less well-known atheist of antiquity (Bion of Borysthenes) by Suzanne Husson (Les Athéismes de Bion de Borysthène). Her discussion of the character of Bion is mainly philosophical, and it takes as its starting point the etic classification of the different kinds of atheism scholars have noted in Ancient Greece (practical, theoretical, agnosticism…), in order to pinpoint the positions of the cynics (such as Bion) as practical atheism. Turning next to the testimony of Diogenes Laertius, virtually our only source for this particular philosopher, she analyzes the unexpected position of Bion in the work of Diogenes (book IV, which is dedicated to the Academics, instead of book VI, related to the Cynics), and tries to justify it through some of the currents of thought that may have had an influence on Bion. Husson also adds a commentary on a testimony by Demetrius Laco, where she explains the reasons why Bion may have been labelled an atheist in ancient times.

In addition to the articles about particular authors, we also find two works in this volume that deal with wider issues concerning atheism. The first one is by Tim Whitmarsh (Theomachy and Theology in Early Greek Myth), which is an extension of the third chapter of his very popular book Battling the gods (2015). Whitmarsh focuses on some of the theological implications of the theomachic myths, particularly those related to the sons of Aeolus, narrated in the Catalogue of Women. He argues that these myths are a privileged place to reflect on the divine, and that some of their earliest literary representations already show the advances of presocratic philosophy concerning the concept of the divine. The other more general article is by Fulcran Teisserenc (Le dieu de la loi. Athéisme et politique de la religion), which attempts a reconstruction of the religious situation of Classical Athens through the analysis of the plays of Euripides and the testimony of Plato’s Laws. The article also explores some other famous texts, such as the myth of the Protagoras and the Sisyphus Fragment (Critias, B25 DK), and carries out a general consideration on the relationship between law, religion, and atheism at the time.

These articles related to atheism in this volume are valuable contributions to this topic, in as much as they are insightful and meticulous, providing great attention to the different traditions and involving rigorous philological work (particularly those which revolve around a single author).2 All these pieces are grounded in the ancient sources themselves and make an evaluation of the different traditions in order to work with the most reliable information. Some articles present perspectives that are not common in scholarly treatments of ancient atheism, such as wondering what caused an author to be considered an atheist (as Kouloumentas and Husson do with regard to Prodicus and Bion respectively). On the other hand, Sassi and Teisserenc provide another interesting approach, comparing the testimony of Plato’s Laws on atheism with the sources of the fifth century to investigate the beginnings of atheism in fifth century Athens. Such an approach already proved to be effective in David Sedley’s 2013 article,3 and these two pieces are further evidence of its productiveness. Finally, a feature that is common to almost all of the articles is the contextualization of the ideas of the texts; most of the contributors examine how each particular idea fits into the wider picture of the thought of the ancient author, of their work, of the intellectual context, or even of the reception of their theories. Such an approach allows the authors within this volume to make cautious but meaningful contributions to the state of the question.

However, the volume as a whole lacks cohesion; all of the articles revolve around atheism in Ancient Greece, but they do not offer an overview of this phenomenon in antiquity, as one would expect from a work titled L’athéisme antique. Also, in a volume with such a title, it seems that some important ancient authors are lacking: Epicurus, Critias, Diagoras of Melos, and Theodorus the Atheist, just to name a few. Furthermore, there is no mention of irreligious or atheistic manifestations in other ancient cultures. Thus, the introduction presents many problems that this collection of articles cannot solve, including the basic question of what it means to speak of atheism in antiquity. Perhaps some closing remarks, establishing some connections amongst the articles and drawing common conclusions would have contributed to a more unified volume.

This volume constitutes a useful tool for those investigating ancient atheism in as much as it offers an insightful and rigorous analysis of some particular authors, and also of some general dynamics (as the relationship between religion, atheism, and law analysed by Teisserenc), but it fails as a panoramic view of ancient atheism.


1.   As presented in these two articles: Henrichs, A., Two Doxographical Notes: Democritus and Prodicus on Religion. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 79 (1975), 91-113; The Sophists and Hellenistic Religion: Prodicus as the Spiritual Father of the Isis Aretaoligies. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 88 (1984), 139-158.
2.   Aside from the pieces specifically focused on atheism, we find a logical analysis of the notion of completeness in Aristotle, and both a presentation (by Glenn Most) of the new edition of the fragments of the Presocratics, and its response (by Maria Michela Sassi).
3.   Sedley, D. (2013). "The Atheist Underground" in V. Harte, M. Lane (Eds.), Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy, (329-348). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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