BMCR 2001.07.05

Response: Harrison on Munson on Harrison

Response to 2001.06.22

Response by

I must thank Professor Munson for her extremely long and detailed review of my Divinity and History. The Religion of Herodotus. While I am pleased at the length of the review, and while I am more than happy to receive all reasoned criticism, I must confess to being rather taken aback: first, by Professor Munson’s surprising vehemence (‘simply silly’, ‘almost absurd’, ‘a crippled observation’, statements for which she adduces no reasons), and, secondly and more importantly, by her frequent procedure of dismissing an argument only after she has misdescribed it. Without responding at equivalent length, can I give some examples of this?

1) I made the point in the book that expressions of the unknowability of the divine are widespread in Greek literature and should not be taken as evidence of a novel fifth-century agnosticism. In parallel to Jean Rudhardt, John Gould and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, I then argue that unknowability is central to Greek polytheism (see pp. 191-2). According to Professor Munson, however, I imply that, because observations of unknowability appear in a range of sources, ‘one should not take them too seriously’.

2) My argument in a chapter on ‘Foreign gods and foreign religion’ (Ch. 8) is that ‘a picture of tolerant universalism must be qualified‘ (p. 214, a phrase quoted by Professor Munson herself). According to Professor Munson, however, I make the claim that certain aspects of Herodotus’ presentation of foreign gods (for example, the existence of untranslatable divinities) ‘ defeat the notion of a unified divine world’ or ‘appear to contradict Herodotus’ tolerant universalism’. Has something been lost here?

3) In an introductory discussion of Herodotean ‘distancing techniques’ I argue that neither the term legetai nor the strategy of alternative versions ‘ necessarily suggests doubt or distance on Herodotus’ part’ (p. 25, my original italics). How then, I continue, can one ascertain Herodotus’ stance? In attempting to establish some guidelines, the main thrust of my discussion is that ‘there are no simple rules’ (p. 28). Professor Munson takes one phrase out of context and implies that I operate with a simple presumption that characters’ utterances ‘are likely to reflect Herodotus’ own opinions’ unless they ‘serve some other purpose such as ‘characterization’. I do not.

4) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I do indeed resist ‘an overly clever Herodotus’ as Professor Munson claims (the phrase is hers). But, by arguing that Herodotus worked with shared assumptions or cultural commonplaces (some of which he did not examine), I do not wish simply to unwrite recent scholarship which has emphasised his literary artistry and sophistication. ‘He was doubtless capable … of accommodating his audience’s tastes, or of subverting their expectations’ (p. 6). My point is that there are limits to Herodotus’ freedom as author. According to Professor Munson, however, ( inter alia) I ‘deny that Herodotus could have been more thoughtful than the least thoughtful in his audience’, I am ‘reluctant to consider’ that Herodotus might have ‘intended to correct some of the prejudices of the general public’, and I ‘[assume] that Herodotus’ religious views were largely unexamined’. Such statements are at best overstatements, and at worst distortions (albeit perhaps inadvertent).

Any book which questions ‘modern canonical opinion’ (in Professor Munson’s phrase) may expect some criticism. However, I wonder if some of Professor Munson’s broadsides are not fired at a target of her own making.