Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece

  Detienne, Marcel. 2009. Comparative Anthropology of Ancient Greece. Hellenic Studies Series 17. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Preface: Doing Anthropology with the Greeks

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Our history begins with the Greeks.

Ernest Lavisse

Back in the mists of time, long before the emergence of articulate language, the human race discovered that it possessed the power to imagine itself other than it was. To begin to be outside oneself, to be transported to another world, all that was needed was a powerful smell or an evocative vision caught by a single intoxicated human being. However, to conceive that the spaces “colonized” by the human race exhibit cultural variation, it would seem that more is required; not only mastery of a rich and complex language but also long, sustained, and thoughtful observation in circles capable of detecting significant differences. America, dubbed the New World several hundred years ago, presents us with “the stupefying spectacle of extremely advanced cultures alongside others at an extremely low technological and economic level. Furthermore, those advanced cultures enjoyed but a fleeting existence: each emerged, developed and perished within the space of a few centuries.” [1] In the topmost chamber of a pre-Columbian pyramid, there may perhaps have been a human being, a poet or sage, who did have an inkling that civilizations too are mortal and that others produced concurrently may emerge and be reborn from their own particular cultural productions. Today, the wise men of the United Nations all agree that the development of the human race involves “cultural freedom,” the right to choose one’s culture or cultures in a world that is becoming increasingly unified yet recognizes its fundamental diversity.

In this volume, I wish to tackle the subject of a comparative anthropology of ancient Greece. Perhaps the first thing to do is explain what I mean by anthropology and how I understand “comparative” in relation both {ix|x} to anthropology and to ancient Greece. The fact that the word anthropology stems from the Greek language does not mean to say that antiquity produced a body of “knowledge” or discourse, a logos, on human beings in general that was peculiar to “anthropologists” in the same way as, for example, there are theologoi, or “theologians,” so called because they write about either the gods of their own homelands or those of neighboring cities. [2] In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle remarked that “anthropologist” was the word applied to a chatterbox, someone with an excessive gift of the gab; a somewhat unpromising start! [3] It was not until the eighteenth century CE, a little before the time of Immanuel Kant, that, in Europe, we find the first signs of a body of knowledge called anthropology, which, in 1788, was so designated by Kant himself. Subsequently, and more important, there emerged scholarly societies such as that of the “Observers of Mankind” (1799), mankind in all its diversity, in the astonishing variety of the “civil societies” or, as we should now say, its “cultures.” I am using culture in the technical sense that this word acquired with Edward B. Tylor. Tylor was one of the great English founders of anthropology-as-a-science, which encompassed beliefs, practices, and technology—everything that we consider to be covered by morality, law and art, customs, and mores—all that the human beings (of both sexes) who make up a society receive and pass on, transforming it as their creativity and choices dictate, insofar as the latter are accepted by that society. [4]

As soon as anthropology gained recognition as a science—Tylor had called it the “Science of Civilization”—it set about posing questions of a more general nature. These concerned kinship rules, forms of social organization, and systems of representation. Anthropology was born between 1860 and 1880; and, it must be stressed, right from the start it took a radically comparative form. It chose to place in perspective so as to study not only ancient societies, the medieval European past and some, at least, of our contemporary mores and customs, but also primitive civilizations across the world. The first person to be given a professorial chair of social anthropology in Europe—indeed, in the world—was the author of The Golden Bough. James George Frazer, a Hellenist who had edited and written a scholarly commentary on The Description of Greece by Pausanias, a traveler in the reign of Hadrian who set off to discover the cults and traditions of Greeks in times past. [7] But the skies soon darkened as the first “great nations,” France, Germany, and Britain, appeared on the scene and as, concurrently, history, pompously labeled “historical science,” was institutionalized {xi|xii} and took to preaching from its professorial pulpit. Once ensconced, it appropriated as its own domain one subject in particular: “nationhood,” which had first received its political and legal credentials in the 1850s. The task for professional historians on university payrolls was to establish “scientifically” that all great nations depend inherently on the manner of their genesis. [8] In 1905, the sociologist Emile Durkheim remarked, with some distaste, that it was impossible to analyze “the obscure, mystic idea” of a “Nation” scientifically. [9] With pre-1914 foresight (he was, after all, to become the moral conscience of the French motherland), this same scholar argued that “nationhood” was not at all a good subject for a sociologist; by reason of its very unique character, it ruled out comparison. According to Durkheim, comparison had to be constructive. That is to say, it was essential for work on social types in order to pick out their common characteristics, to contrast their respective systems and contexts, and then to observe and analyze their invariant features. [10] Around 1870, historical science forged a national and exclusive type of history, extolling its incomparability, in both senses of that term: such history was superior to every other kind and, furthermore, could not be viewed comparatively, as was demonstrated by the example of France and Germany, facing each other on either side of the Rhine. The orientation of the discipline of historical science could not fail to draw attention to the distance that set it apart from anthropology, which, in contrast, was entirely committed to the exercise of comparison.

The cultures newly discovered between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries have been grouped together under a variety of headings; primitive societies, savage societies, and societies not yet civilized. When, in 1868, in France, the institution of the Hautes Etudes was created alongside the university, one extremely controversial department gathered under its secular aegis all the known religions, in order to analyze them as different species of one and the same genus. But in 1888, a chair of “The Religions of Non-civilized Peoples” was created alongside that of “The Major Religions,” the foremost of which was, and still is, Christianity, in particular in its hard-core version: Catholicism. It took many years of ardent struggle to gain recognition of the right to “religion” for the group of peoples lacking civilization. It was, I am convinced, when, even before Maurice Leenhardt, this chair was occupied by Marcel Mauss, surrounded by his Africanist, Indianist, and Oceanist disciples, that it became the vibrant focus for anthropological thought. Leenhardt’s successor, Claude Lévi-Strauss, has told us how, at the suggestion of his listeners from what the French, curiously, called “overseas,” he changed the name of his chair to “The Religions of Peoples Without Writing.” “Without writing” then came to be regarded as the self-evident feature in ethnology, which, in Europe, soon came to be regarded as devoted essentially to societies for the most part ruled by oral tradition and supremely indifferent to writing and other graphic signs. [13]

As the eighteenth century and, a fortiori, the nineteenth saw it, it was impossible to spread civilization among peoples of nature if they remained illiterate: for civilization, writing was indispensable. Written texts constituted the essential mark of historical societies, the kind that made history, about which historians had to write, particularly now that they had become the professional practitioners of a real “science.” Noncivilized peoples, “without writing,” had to be considered likewise “without history,” a fact that the Age of Enlightenment had discovered and that the nineteenth century then turned into a dogma. The newly born historical science had no doubts that its proper object was to analyze written documents, archives, and testimonies transmitted by writing. The task of history was to study and understand civilized societies whose ancient status could be deduced from readable written signs. Even today, in the scholarly disciplines of nations now mere provinces of a federated Europe, some societies are designated “for ethnologists,” others “for historians.” Those historians are ten or fifteen times more {xiii|xiv} numerous and more powerful than the anthropologists, to whom, nevertheless, France’s Ministry of (so-called) National Education generously allots the intellectual management of some 6,000 of the 6,500 cultures known to us.

In between history on the one hand and anthropology on the other, where, I again ask, do the Greeks stand? They belong to the group of ancient peoples but likewise to that of societies that have also been classed as archaic, ever since Lewis Morgan compared “types of family relationships” among Indian, Greek, Germanic, and Polynesian tribes. [14] The very idea of classifying the Greeks of Homer and Plato among the noncivilized peoples soon came to be considered scandalous, not to say unthinkable. Across the board, from Winkelmann to the German romantics, Greek philosophy and literature lay at the very heart of whatever was meant by civilization. So how should we envisage a project such as a comparative anthropology of ancient Greece? We are at this point reaching the very nub of the question of a comparative approach. Once historians of the France “before” France and the Germany “before” Germany appeared, nationalism became the dominant feature in the early form of historical science. Even today, after more than a century of a so-called communitarian approach, the history that is taught in the French mother tongue remains fundamentally nationalistic. After World War I, even Durkheim accepted that “our [that is, French] history” had a universal significance. In the 1980s, Fernand Braudel, a quintessential historian, took over from Ernest Lavisse and Maurice Barrès. But it was Lavisse who first realized the important role that a myth of origins played in founding a history of the nation.

In his Instructions, Lavisse declared that what secondary-school pupils need to be taught, without their realizing it, is that “our history begins with the Greeks.” [15] Our [French] history begins with the Greeks, who invented liberty and democracy and who introduced us to “the Beautiful” and a taste for “the Universal.” We are heirs to the only civilization that has offered the world “a perfect and as it were ideal expression of justice and liberty.” [16] That is why our history begins, has to begin, with the Greeks. This belief was then compounded by another every bit as powerful: “The Greeks are not like Others.” [17] After all, how could they be, given that they were right at the beginning of our history? Those two propositions were essential for the creation of a national mythology that was the sole concern of traditional humanists and historians, all obsessed with nationhood. The major nations of Europe, each in its own way, share the {xiv|xv} belief that their own histories also—thank goodness—originate in the values of Greece and that their Greeks are, naturally, beyond compare. Anthropologists of Greece who had the effrontery to compare the mythology and thought of the Greeks with the risqué stories of the savages of America and Polynesia were promptly marginalized, if not well and truly excommunicated. [18] Today, as no doubt tomorrow too, it is commonly accepted among Hellenists and antiquarians both in Europe and in the United States that Greece remains the birthplace of the West and of all the values that conservatives the world over defend with equal vigor. Once scattered in tribes throughout a thousand and one motley cities, the Greeks have become our Greeks: in them our Western autochthony must be founded and rooted.

Paradoxically enough, the impression that the Greeks are our closest neighbors, which some of our “humanists” may nurture, is based on common issues and categories, many of which are precisely those on which early comparative anthropology decided to focus. As I have noted above, the founders of anthropology, while being imbued with the very best kind of Englishness, laid the bases for the “Science of Civilization” by proceeding from descriptions of the Aboriginal Australians to the treatises of Plutarch, and from the mythology of the Iroquois to reflections on the myth of Xenophanes, the philosopher of Colophon. Out of this dialogue that the young anthropologists of the nineteenth century set up between ancient Greeks and primitive peoples emerged major issues for the new discipline and excellent questions on the basis of which we can, as I hope to show, involve ourselves in comparative anthropology with the Greeks, possibly adopting a new methodology.

Let me begin by listing a few of those issues, briefly indicating why they are relevant today. The first is myth, along with mythology and “mythical thought.” Then come the relations between orality and writing. Next, those {xv|xvi} between philosophy and wisdom, and the question of truth. And finally, the origin of politics and the invention of “Democracy.”

One early line of thought about the nature of myths and their meaning in the history of the human race unfolded in the eighteenth century, with Fontanelle and Lafitau, around the “fable” of the Greeks and the Americans. Today, as in the past, debates on “primitive thought” or “mythical thought” are inseparably linked with the status of mythology as recognized among the ancient Greeks. [20] Whether they appear as mutants or as mediators, the Greeks of antiquity seem to present in their culture, or at least in that of Homer and the eighth century, a state of civilization midway between forms of orality and the already diversified practices of writing. Should those early Greeks be classified among the societies “with” writing or those “without”? For historical science and the tribe of historians as a whole, that is an important question, and much research has been devoted to a comparison between different types of oral poetry and oral practices generally. Meanwhile, anthropologists working with certain doughty Hellenists have successfully explored and compared the effects of the introduction of writing in a wide range of different types of societies in which new subjects for intellectual consideration have emerged. [21] In the land of Pythagoras and Parmenides, philosophy and wisdom were always considered to be indigenous. The invention of philosophy was absolutely and emphatically claimed by archaic Greece, while ancient China was allowed a monopoly over wisdom. Clearly, the Seven Sages were never consulted on the matter, and comparative studies set out to qualify such a simple-minded dichotomy by dint of analyses of a series of microconfigurations encompassing, for instance, “places and names allotted to truth” in both “philosophy” and other forms of knowledge. [22]

Regarding method, I should stress how important it is for a comparatist to be at once singular and plural, but what kind of a comparatist do I have in mind? One who takes shape thanks to an intellectual network woven to {xvii|xviii} include a number of ethnologist-historians and historian-ethnologists. The enterprise—and that is certainly the word for it—may be undertaken by a couple of scholars working together, one a historian, the other an anthropologist, provided each shares the intellectual curiosity and skills of the other. We should, then, work together, in groups of two or four, but each of us must believe that it is as important to be sustained by the knowledge and questions of our partners as it is to analyze in depth the society for which each of us, either as an anthropologist or as a historian, has chosen to become a “professional” interpreter. There can be no doubt that a regular attendance at seminars disposes people to think together and out loud. Working together in a mixed group comprising both ethnologists and historians: well, you might ask, what is so new about that?

It has been ages since ethnologists and historians met up and began to move forward in convoy. Traveling in convoy certainly implies keeping an eye on one another as you navigate. You observe your companions, rub shoulders with them, sometimes borrowing a subject (immediately dubbed “a new subject”) or an expression that provokes an agreeably exciting feeling that you are thinking in a new way. The way that anthropology stands back from its object and views it from afar is both unsettling and attractive to history, particularly if, perchance, glancing in the mirror one morning, the latter decides that it looks somewhat jaded, less beautiful, a touch more ponderous than it used to. The two disciplines usually enjoy a flirtation, but seldom a full-blown relationship. Their more serious practitioners soon return to their own affairs. Historians make the most of the opportunity to reassert that they prefer to compare among themselves, with their close and longstanding neighbors. The wiser among them even acknowledge a certain weakness for fine similarities and analogies. But there is no getting around the fact that the fervent advice of the entire establishment—clergy, academies, and all the institutions that really count—is that history should not take ethnology as its bedfellow. Ethnology is, of course, alluring, but really not from the same social bracket. Besides, rumor has it that it does not have much of a future: out of work today; and tomorrow, without the necessary official credentials, who knows? We have been warned by our elders: this is not the way to end up with a seat in the academy.

That is the first move to make. The second comes hard on its heels, once the group members begin to venture further afield and travel from one culture to another, frequently between ones that are separated by vast distances. This is the surest way to discover a society in which there seems to be no equivalent of “founding” or “foundation.” The local experts are categorical: in the society of which they are the historians or ethnologists, “there is no such thing as founding”: there is simply restoration, ceaseless restoration. What is discovered seems to be a perfect dissonance: a category that seemed commonsensical more or less everywhere begins to waver and soon crumbles away.

The comparatists, now on the alert, immediately begin to wonder: what is it that we ascribe to “founding” that makes it a very particular way of doing something that amounts to not just “inhabiting” or “being in a certain space,” but “establishing a territory”? “Establishing a territory” may involve certain forms of autochthony of a native or aboriginal character and also ways of inhabiting a particular place after arriving from outside or elsewhere.

“Founding” was not a bad point of entry. “Establishing a territory” was an even better one—above all a better way to begin to construct what can be compared. What, after all, is the meaning that we ascribe to “founding,” to “being autochthonous” or “aboriginal”? If we set about analyzing a series of very different ways of “establishing a territory,” we begin to pose questions that soon branch out in two main directions: On the one hand, what is the meaning of to begin, to inaugurate, to historicize, to historialize? On the {xx|xxi} other, what does it mean to be born in a particular place, to be a native, to be called indigenous, to have or not to have roots? And what is a place? What is a site? The comparatists, alerted by one or more dissonances, then proceed to coin a new category or set of concepts. They move constantly from one culture or society to another if these seem of a kind to make the conceptual elements that have been discovered productive. They try to see how known cultural systems react not only to the initial category that was selected as a touchstone but also to the series of questions that now arise and the conceptual elements that gradually come to light.

So “our history” does not begin with the Greeks. It is infinitely vaster than a single territory such as France and the beliefs of its accredited authorities. Rather, let us do anthropology with the Greeks: that is the invitation to a voyage offered by this book, which aims to discover at least some aspects of the art of constructing some kind of comparability. {xxi|}


[ back ] 1. Eribon and Lévi-Strauss 1984:84.

[ back ] 2. Pépin 1971:1–51. On“theologia” or the meaning of theologos see Goldschmidt 1970:141–172 and also Bodéüs 1992:115–167, 301.

[ back ] 3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IV, 8, 1125a5.

[ back ] 4. References in Copans 1996; others, many of them very suggestive, are to be found in Izard and Bonte 1991.

[ back ] 5. Eg. de la Boullaye 1922:151–175; Borgeaud 2004.

[ back ] 6. Allow me to refer the reader to Detienne 2000b:17–39 (“Si d’aventure un anthropologue rencontre un historien,” which is still relevant).

[ back ] 7. See Ackerman 1987.

[ back ] 8. See Detienne 2003: 123–149 (“Grandeur du français raciné”).

[ back ] 9. Durkheim 1975:160–163; 178–224.

[ back ] 10. See Durkheim 1937:124–138.

[ back ] 11. See esp. Detienne 2001.

[ back ] 12. See Detienne 2000a. For reflections on “historical discourse/ethnological discourse,” see Duchet 1985. On “Anthropology and History” (yesterday and today in France), see above all Lenclud 1987.

[ back ] 13. Lévi-Strauss 1968:1–4.

[ back ] 14. Morgan 1877.

[ back ] 15. Ernest Lavisse, Instructions de 1890, cited in Furet 1982:119–120.

[ back ] 16. A notion expressed over and over again, most recently in de Romilly and Vernant 2000:5–28.

[ back ] 17. Detienne 1975:3–24; 1998b.

[ back ] 18. Detienne 1978.

[ back ] 19. As is shown, despite his philosophical understanding of “multiculturalism,” by Taylor 1992.

[ back ] 20. See Detienne 2003c:3–28, “From Myth to Mythology.”

[ back ] 21. See Detienne 1994b.

[ back ] 22. See Detienne 1996:15–33.

[ back ] 23. See “Des comparables sur les balcons du politique,” in Detienne 2005:145-176 passim.

[ back ] 24. For an initial approach, allow me to refer the reader to Detienne 2000b:61–80 (“Mettre en perspective les régimes d’historicité”).

[ back ] 25. This is the subject of my book Comment être autochthone: Du pur athénien au français raciné (2003).

[ back ] 26. Following “Construire des comparables” (Detienne 2000b:41–59), I returned to this subject in Detienne 2002a, hoping to attract the attention of a few anthropologists if not of certain historians. See also a paper aimed at Anglo-Saxon readers, Detienne 2002c.

[ back ] 27. The comparative approach that I am championing is thus different from that practiced by Georges Dumézil and Claude Lévi-Strauss, both of whom declare that nothing should be compared unless it can be related to a common history, that is to say, for the former, the domain of Indo-European languages, for the latter, the historical and geographical unity of America.

[ back ] 28. Valensi 2002.

[ back ] 29. I am inspired here by an example in Geertz 1983:64–70. Particularly given that in Europe, in the 1960s and 1970s, “personality” was a subject greatly favored by those practicing a comparative approach, a fact of which American anthropologists continue to be unaware. See, for example, Meyerson 1973.

[ back ] 30. Geertz 1983:64–70.

[ back ] 31. This is the clearest example, and I used it in Comparer l’incomparable (2000b:44–56), on the basis of my remarks in Detienne 1990.