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Does Paul Veyne actually believe in his own myths?

Postmodern hardcore ideology instead of instructive research on myths

Thorwald C. Franke
© September 2020

Review of: Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks believe in their Myths? An essay on the Constitutive Imagination, 1983; translated 1988.

This is an English translation of the German review based on the German translation of Paul Veyne's booklet, so the wording in the review often does not exactly match the wording in the English translation of Paul Veyne's booklet. Some of the given page numbers are precise, others are marked with "ca.": These page numbers are calculated on the basis of the page numbers in the German version according to the formula English page number = (German page number minus 10 pages) * 129/144. The 10 pages are the difference in starting page number, the 129/144 is the ratio of the complete text length English to German. The formula works quite well. Be prepared to find passages marked with "ca." one or two pages before or after the given page number.

Anyone concerned with the interpretation and function of myths will time and again stumble across a very specific bibliographical hint: Paul Veyne, "Did the Greeks believe in their Myths?" With such a provocative and witty title, the reader expects on the one hand expert guidance and enlightenment about the dazzling phenomenon of myths and their varied perception already in the time of the ancient Greeks, but on the other hand also a pleasurable and witty essay on the subject, the reading of which is pure joy. Some literature recommends this writing in this sense, which is obviously intended to demonstrate the education and erudition of the person making the recommendation.

But the further one reads into this booklet, the more disappointed the reader becomes. It is not the expected instructive reading pleasure, but – o horror! – the declaration of a postmodern, anti-rationalist and even anti-humanist hardcore ideology. The actual subject of the book, the myths of the ancient Greeks, apparently serves merely as a backdrop for the manifestation of this ideology, and is brutally subordinated to it. One has rarely read so much nonsense about antiquity as here. And all toenails roll up for the philosophically educated.

From the fact that this booklet is repeatedly "dragged along" in the bibliographical references on the subject of mythology, although practically no author refers to Veyne's actual statements, one can see that very few have read it, and that the booklet is cited only because of its beautiful and interesting title, and perhaps because the author is given a certain reputation without knowing anything more about him. So far, there seem to be only very brief reviews that take a critical look at this booklet. For example, the clearly negative review by Simon Goldhill of King's College, Cambridge, in "The Classical Review" of 1990. So it is time for a thorough review.

What is the ideology of Paul Veyne?

Paul Veyne believes that human beings – always, now, and for all the future – live in completely arbitrary illusions that are solely and exclusively the work of imagination. Whether something is reality or fiction is entirely in the eye of the beholder (pp. 21 f.). The "truth" encompasses both myth and fiction (p. 15). The belief in "Alice in Wonderland" when reading this book is equated with the belief in the findings of physics (p. 22). Instead of truth, Veyne prefers to speak of programmes of truth or palaces of truth that are much larger than the opposites of truth and error, reason and myth, imagination and reality; although the truths of the various palaces of truth are often contradictory, they do not contradict each other, for in themselves each of them is reasonable and true (ca. pp. 85, 122 f.). So Paul Veyne.

Reality does not count in determining truth. With Nietzsche, Paul Veyne says: "Facts do not exist" (p. 37), because facts do not exist by themselves, but must always be interpreted. The truth does not come from reality (ca. pp. 85). Paul Veyne thinks that Husserl is wrong when he tries to separate the imaginary from experience, because the imaginary is ultimately just as true (p. 88). There is indeed a material reality, Veyne says, but it is always interpreted or ignored (ca. p. 107). For him, everything is on the same level: religious faith, a novel, or Albert Einstein's physical theories; empiricism can be neglected, says Veyne (p. 117).

Reason is also completely useless and an illusion. Instead of reason, people are guided by their interests. All truths come from the imagination, not from reason (ca. p. 31). Therefore, Veyne also excuses the lie guided by interests, and it is quite wrong to see an opposition of philosophy and rhetoric, because philosophy, too, follows neither reason nor truth, but only interest (p. 56). This would also be the case if we deceived ourselves and did not recognise our own interest-led motives (ca. p. 56). Arguments would never struggle with each other either, but always only different truth programmes. There would be no reason at all, only interests (ca. pp. 82-84). Also behind the myths or human rights there are only interests or "forces"; all this has no truth but is purely historical, the thinking of man obeys the will to power, which brings Veyne back to Nietzsche (p. 90). Truth is useless, it only corresponds to our preferences, it is only a cover for the will to power (p. 128).

In some places Paul Veyne suddenly cites coincidence as the cause of our palaces of truth instead of interests and preferences, without resolving this contradiction. The process of history is a sequence of coincidences and is not based on reasonable reasons or on the conditions of production (ca. pp. 97 f.). All historical processes beyond economy and ideology, i.e. myth, art and science, can only be described if rationality and truth are dropped; and social and economic history is also without truth and reason (ca. pp. 119 f.). Everything is irrational, there is no determinism whatsoever, history is a random sequence of palaces of truth, without reason (ca. pp. 121 f.; 128 f.).

Paul Veyne always relates these relationships to "us", i.e. to all people. All people would be subject to these laws virtually without will, without exception. We all would only pursue interests, even if we deceived ourselves about our motives (ca. p. 56). Our mind does it without ceasing, that is our everyday life (ca. pp. 85 f.). Our truth programmes change without our knowledge, man is not a thinking reed in the wind (ca. p. 117). This means: The reed can only lean passively in the wind, and man does not even know that he is only like a reed. Veyne also says that it is not at all dishonest to have different truth programmes in your mind that contradict each other, because we all would do that too; our mind would do it without ceasing (ca. pp. 85 f.).

Why this is wrong and how things actually are

This basic ideology of Paul Veyne is of course extremely cynical and devoid of meaning. Just imagine! But of course this basic ideology is above all simply wrong. It begins with Paul Veyne's view that empiricism is negligible. That is of course nonsense. Experience teaches us all that this world is not a muscial request programme. If we do not behave according to reality, we will clash hard with reality. Empiricism recognizes this reality, and reason orders the individual cognitions so that we can orient ourselves, to put it very simply. And not only the environment, but also the essence of the human being itself is partly predetermined. Reality cannot be constructed arbitrarily. The "thing in itself" by Immanuel Kant is ultimately not recognisable, but it is reasonable to assume that it does exist. "Though thoughts live easily together, things bump hard into each other in space," as Friedrich Schiller wrote in Wallenstein. ("Leicht beieinander wohnen die Gedanken, doch hart im Raume stoßen sich die Sachen")

Of course it is reasonable to assume that there is a reality, and therefore a real truth. In fact, exactly one truth that is consistent in itself, and not two truths that contradict each other. Of course, we all do not know the one, real truth, and we are all constantly on the way to approaching the truth, and of course we also make mistakes in the process that take us away from the truth, but that does not mean it is reasonable to drop reason and truth altogether. That would mean throwing the baby out with the bath water. Yes, the facts do not "simply" exist, but need interpretation, that is true. But that is no reason to doubt the existence of the facts themselves. Moreover, if there were neither reason nor the assumption of a common, aspirational truth, then discourse among human beings would become impossible, which is an essential characteristic of man and human society. Here Veyne questions the humanity of man.

Of course, human thought and action is often determined by interests and by coincidence, and of course, thinking people are often not aware of this – but to claim that this is always and basically the case is far too much to claim. After all, it is precisely education (Bildung) that wants to elevate man beyond his mere material existence. After all, it is a characteristic of education to recognize secondary motivations such as interests and preferences, and to use reason better and more correctly. Education is to work on oneself and to uncover and eliminate inner contradictions in one's own thinking. But Paul Veyne pretends that all people are only uneducated, narrow-minded petty bourgeois. But even these are even more reflective than Veyne would like to admit, therefore even lower: as if all people – all! – people were not much better than animals, who only obey their reflexes. Those who strive for reason and morality are only mistaken about their true motives, says Veyne. For Veyne, the good man, striving for reason, morality and truth, is practically just an unenlightened idiot about whom he smiles tiredly. Here Veyne undermines the foundations of education and culture, and with this view of the world he also touches the foundations of humanism. It is simply irresponsible and wrong.

The cynical view of history by Paul Veyne

On the basis of the ideology portrayed, Paul Veyne's view of history can then also be called simply cynical and meaningless. There is no causality in the course of history, it is unpredictable, says Veyne. All attempts to explain the course of history in retrospect are implausible because they are selective. It is almost astonishing that there is such a thing as historical continuity. One has to consider each historical event as an individual event in itself, and then one cannot give an explanation for it (ca. pp. 35-40).

Historiography is a means of faith formation, just – according to Veyne – like journalism (p. 5). Reporters would not be more credible if they named the sources of their research, says Veyne (p. 9). What is the written history? It is simply the politics of the past (p. 66). Where modernity sees a struggle for enlightenment in history, Paul Veyne sees only a rational cloak for the continuation of the miraculous (p. 47).

The ideal of historian Paul Veyne's historiography is to trace the random course of history. It would be a matter of describing what people had built themselves as a palace of truth and how they had selectively perceived material reality (ca. p. 125). But people could not learn anything from history; a reflective analysis would not lead to an approach to the truth, but only to a different program of truth (ca. p. 125). The historian's reflection is therefore not to be understood as a light on the way; a look back into history would in no way help to find the right way (ca. pp. 128 f.). The truth is that truth is changeable, and this can be said without self-contradiction, says Paul Veyne (ca. pp. 117, 127). The task of the historian is to tell the truth about palaces of truth (ca. p. 127).

One wonders, of course, what sense such a historiography does make. So, you cannot learn anything from history. Should the historian then write with an ink that immediately erases itself, leaving only empty pages, like the "Old Man of the wandering mountain" in Michael Ende's "Infinite History"? Or should one imagine the historian like Sisyphus, as a happy person with a meaningless task? And what beats everything is that Paul Veyne, as a "historian of a new type", claims to be able to tell real truths about the pseudo-truths of everyone else, and that this is not a contradiction. His helpless attempt to justify this with the dilemma "All Cretans lie, said one Cretan" does not catch the educated reader, who has long since stopped reading Paul Veyne's nonsense with gracious eyes at this point. So he, Paul Veyne, is somehow above all things, and when he constantly speaks of "we" and "us" in this book, all of us uneducated and stupidly following our animal reflexes, then he has always excluded himself? Ah. Is this now the "interest" and the "will to power" of Paul Veyne?

Incorrect and cynical presentation of ancient historiography

After a long, long introduction, this review for the first time reaches a point where we are talking about antiquity, about which all should be about, but obviously is not. Even before the myths, Paul Veyne devotes himself to ancient historiography. Three-quarters of the texts of ancient historians were written solely in their imagination, Veyne says in all seriousness (ca. p. 111). Ancient historiography was a means of forming faith (p. 5). The word "historia" is interpreted by Veyne as "inquiry" in the sense of poor journalistic research (p. 9).

The critical thinking that we find very much in authors like Herodotus is put down and bad-mouthed by Paul Veyne without mentioning Herodotus by name (ca. pp. 7 f.). Herodotus' statement that he felt obliged to reproduce things as he heard them, even if he himself did not believe in them, is not celebrated by Veyne as a progress of reason and criticism, but as an alleged admission that everything Herodotus had reported up to this point was an uncritical reproduction of the sources (ca. p. 12). Paul Veyne has a very fundamental scepticism about the good intentions of ancient historians (ca. pp. 82 f.).

Veyne considers Cicero's request that his deeds should be propagandistically enhanced without paying too much attention to the rules of the historical genre as an indication of the hypocrisy of the times, but completely overlooks the fact that this request contains the statement that the historical genre has rules (ca. p. 13). And the criticism that Cicero and Livius make of the traditions of early times is in no way a historical criticism, says Veyne (ca. p. 51). The historian who wrote down the genealogy of the kings of Arcadia acted like a novelist, Veyne believes he knows (ca. p. 103).

Of course we cannot subscribe to this cynical, oblique and false view of ancient historiography. It is disappointing to see this evil and unfair rabulism applied to authors like Herodotus.

Wrong and misused terms send subliminal messages

While reading, it occurs time and again that Paul Veyne does not use certain words according to their actual meaning. His partly crooked, partly wrong use of terms is not just clumsiness, nor is it abbreviating, "lazy" speech, as it might appear to the reader at the beginning of his reading, but it is obviously deliberately chosen to manipulate the reader. On the one hand, the various terms become blurred in their meaning, so that the clarity of the meaning of the terms is undermined. In this way, the reader is led to believe that the terms do not have a sufficiently clear meaning, thus increasing the credibility of Veyne's irrational theses among less educated readers. On the other hand, subliminal messages are transported by the incorrect use of the terms. True and good appear as dishonest and bad, bad and dishonest as good and true, just as Paul Veyne's ideology demands. And no: these phenomena do not owe themselves to a bad translation; they are also present in the original French text.

Veyne, for example, likes to speak without further ado in absolute terms of "truth", where he should have better spoken of "truth believed at the time" (ca. pp. 8 f., 85). Veyne also does not distinguish whether the concept of truth means reality or a meaning in the figurative sense (ca. pp. 21 f.). With Nietzsche, he simply says: "Facts do not exist" (ca. pp. 38 f.). But to be precise, he should have better spoken of the fact that they do not "simply" exist, but – although they do exist – cannot be acquired without interpretation. Of myth, Paul Veyne says that it is neither true nor false (ca. p. 28). But this cannot be said. For of course there are myths that are simply not true, and then there are myths that have a considerable core of truth. But Veyne is obviously not interested in that. Then Veyne says that a lie in a myth is not considered a lie as long as the inventor of the lie does not take advantage of it (ca. p. 28). This is a very unusual definition of lie, which is contrary to the general understanding of lie. Usually, the essence of the lie is linked to the author's awareness of whether he knows he is lying.

Likewise completely against the general understanding is the understanding of the phenomenon of the forger. Paul Veyne also calls this a forgery, which its author was completely serious about, and is only later recognised as false (ca. p. 104). The process of forging is consistently relativised: Actually everyone is the forger of a different truth programme, Veyne says (ca. p. 106). The forger is a fish in the wrong tank, so to speak (ca. p. 108), and in general the boundaries between information and entertainment are pure convention (ca. p. 103). It is simply impossible to distinguish between the imaginary and the real, Veyne says (ca. p. 102). Paul Veyne consistently avoids expressing the central idea of forgery: That a forger must be aware that he produces something not true. That such a thing could exist at all, that someone consciously forges and is therefore rightly called a forger, and that someone who does not consciously forge also does not deserve to be called a forger, no matter how wrong his words may be, this idea is consistently suppressed by Paul Veyne, it does not exist at all. For Paul Veyne, forgers and liars are people who speak the truth, only in a different frame of reference. What nonsense.

Particularly characteristic of the historian Paul Veyne is the constantly repeated use of the word "history", where it would have been better to speak of "historiography" (e.g. ca. pp. 5, 103 f.). Behind this, of course, is his idea that there is no real reality, only palaces of truth that have nothing to do with an empirical reality. The general understanding of the word "history" as what has really happened is therefore overwritten by Veyne with the meaning of the word "historiography", i.e. what people believe that supposedly happened. – Reason also suffers this fate with Paul Veyne: everywhere where he should actually better have spoken of "rationalisation", namely a rationalising interpretation of myths, Veyne consistently speaks of "rationalism" (e.g. ca. pp. 66, 111). However, not every rationalising interpretation of myths is also rational(istic). On the contrary, often a rationalising interpretation of myths is wrong and irrational. But for Paul Veyne there is no real rationalism, and so he speaks of "rationalism" where he means rationalisation. In this way rationality, reason itself, is exposed to ridicule and alienated from its true meaning.

Something similar happens where Paul Veyne speaks of the "responsible" people who – in their belief in the supposed good thing – are not fussy with truth (ca. p. 79). Of course people who are not fussy about the truth are anything but "responsible". Such people may consider themselves to be responsible and they present themselves as being responsible (compare the notion of the "do-gooder"), but of course they are not really responsible. Paul Veyne should have put the word "responsible" in quotation marks at this point to make irony clear. But he did not. Because for him it is not irony. For him it is serious. – And finally, also the concept of "patriotism" is undermined in this manner. Paul Veyne uses the word "patriotism" consistently in the sense of "nationalism" (ca. pp. 81, 126). In this way, no distinction is made between a person who loves his country and an ugly nationalist. For Paul Veyne this is obiously the same. How primitive.

The dangerous nature of Paul Veyne's ideology

The educated reader has of course long since realised how dangerous Paul Veyne's ideology is. It has the potential for any kind of nonsense and thus any kind of crime. We are not, however, obliged to conclude such excesses only theoretically, no, Paul Veyne presents us in the same booklet several unfortunate applications of his ideology where it becomes really dangerous.

First, Paul Veyne's ideology is diametrically opposed to any form of science. If there can be no approach to truth, no reference to empiricism, and everything is just a free-floating illusion, then there can be no science. So Paul Veyne consequently thinks that religious faith, a novel, or Albert Einstein's physical theories are on the same level (ca. p. 116). According to Paul Veyne, the invention of the microscope by Leeuwenhoek and the discovery of microbes made possible by it was good for nothing but conversation (footnote 215). Thus he also stretches the scientific principle of finding ever better knowledge into the Procrustes bed of his ideology and speaks here too of the "perpetually provisional scientific truth", although the word "truth" naturally does not belong here, that is the point, and he speaks of the "myth of science" (p. 115). At one point Veyne also defends a rhetorical interest-led lie by Galen (p. 56), and as seen, for Paul Veyne there are actually no forgers. Ultimately, Paul Veyne thus also calls his own profession into question, for how does he intend to pursue historiography as a science under these conditions?

We find Paul Veyne's statements on National Socialism particularly unappetizing. In Paul Veyne's opinion, National Socialism was also an "invention" out of the blue, and could not be traced back to essential reasons and causes, but was in no way predictable (ca. p. 38), which is not changed by small causalities, which Paul Veyne nevertheless sees. However, National Socialism was probably not "invented" out of the blue, as Veyne thinks, even if a strong causality would also be an exaggeration. Since Veyne considers empirical evidence to be negligible, he consistently comes to the conclusion that the interest alone in not wanting to believe in Auschwitz is enough to make all testimonies about Auschwitz untrustworthy (footnote 8). Consequently, the Holocaust denier Faurisson is then not interpreted as a forger – we saw above that for Veyne there are no forgers in the true sense of the word – but as a mythmaker (!), whose only mistake was to argue and not, as a good mythmaker in the sense of Paul Veyne should have done, simply to spread apodictic claims (ca. pp. 105 f.). Paul Veyne also finds it appropriate to make a stupid joke about the Holocaust denier Faurisson: the forger himself was a fake, too, he says, because there would be no Holocaust deniers at all if one would only stop believing in the existence of such mythical beings (ca. pp. 104 f.). But here we have to counter with Bertrand Russell: reality is that which does not disappear when you stop believing in it. Finally Veyne jokes stupidly about responsibility: irresponsibility is sooo ugly, and therefore "surely" false; Diodor could confirm this, he says only sarcastically and ironically (p. 119). In other words, all the talk about responsibility is just as much nonsense as the talk about historical truth, for both do not exist for Veyne. Thankheaven this is not the issue, says Paul Veyne. It is only logical: where there is no truth, there can be no responsibility and no guilt. We have to imagine Paul Veyne as a happy collaborator of the Vichy regime – or what should one expect from someone who brushes truth and reason aside and instead speaks of the "will to power"?

We saw above that the ideology of Paul Veyne – horribile est dictu – is an attack on humanism. If there is no truth and empiricism is negligible, then man cannot learn anything, and there is no possibility of rational discourse among human beings. Science is also not possible without humanism. The idea that it is precisely education (Bildung) that lifts man above his dependencies, above his interests and preferences and makes him a self-determined, rational human being is completely absent from Paul Veyne. For Veyne, one must be a "genius" to get out of a truth programme in which one finds oneself (ca. p. 117). Obviously, mere education is not enough for Veyne, and does not exist in Veyne's world. Of course there is no morality either. The basic moral question alone, what to do, is already mistaken; only anthropocentrism believes in an answer to this question, says Veyne (ca. p. 126). Moreover, most centuries have not even asked this question, says Veyne (ca. p. 126). Really? We understood history quite differently. Veyne also says that there is no structure inscribed in the nature of things that could establish a moral: Even criticisms such as demystification, language criticism and ideology criticism are only novels (ca. p. 126). Concepts of meaning and morality are always falsifications and as such easily recognisable: they radiate human warmth, and that is wrong per se (ca. p. 126). Truth is simply useless (ca. p. 128). In the penultimate paragraph of the book Veyne writes: "Since man is not a thinking reed. Could this be because I wrote this book in the country? I was envying the placidity of the animals". (p. 128) This is an unmistakable rejection of humanism, in the form of a preference for not thinking animals.

The ideological background

Paul Veyne often refers to Nietzsche, mentions Max Weber now and then, praises Paul Feyerabend, an opponent of rationalism (footnote 166), and once mentions the controversy between rationalism and irrationalism, concretised in the discussion between Habermas and Foucault (ca. p. 119). Here we are exactly at the point. Michel Foucault's postmodern thinking is the source of Paul Veyne's ideology. It was Foucault who, instead of reason and truth, placed interests and power relations at the centre. It was Foucault who redefined concepts and values at will: Truth no longer existed, the sick were no longer considered sick, the insane no longer insane, criminals no longer criminal. And Foucault relied on Nietzsche's nihilism and his radical critique of reason.

Michel Foucault found many followers, but also met with fierce criticism: even Sartre accused him of rejecting humanism and questioning the foundations of Enlightenment thinking. Foucault was accused of using unclear and confused terms and of being self-contradictory. In addition, he had used historical facts unreliably. For the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Michel Foucault was "an intellectually dishonest, empirically absolutely unreliable, cryptonormativist 'pied piper' for post-modernism" (original: "ein intellektuell unredlicher, empirisch absolut unzuverlässiger, kryptonormativistischer 'Rattenfänger' für die Postmoderne")

Michel Foucault's thinking also had dangerous consequences: he supported or played down both the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy in Iran and the mass murderous reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Why Paul Veyne does not believe his own ideology

There are some passages and aspects where it becomes clear that Paul Veyne is obviously not really convinced of his own ideology. First of all, there is the fact that Paul Veyne wrote this booklet. Why, if there is no truth to approach? What is the point if arguing does not help? What is the point if you can't learn anything from history? And what for, if Veyne's whole understanding of science cannot be taken seriously? Basically, he has no understanding of science at all, but the opposite: an understanding that science is impossible and senseless. – And yet, Paul Veyne has written this booklet, which he wrote as a scientific historian, and in which he does not spread apodictic myths but rather argues in part. How can we believe him to believe in his own ideology?!

We have already seen a number of examples where Paul Veyne's argument is self-contradictory. But maybe he really believes in the possibility of his self-contradictions. It is interesting, however, that when asked about the emergence of National Socialism, he nevertheless wants to see "tiny causal series" (p. 37), contrary to his full-bodied theses that history happens purely by coincidence, and that National Socialism is a coincidental invention of history. How so? Where does this tiny causality come from? As tiny as it may be, it is still a causality. Here Veyne is not consistent. – After Veyne had first explained that the different truth programmes could not contradict each other at all, because it was not about truth, and that a person could have several contradictory truth programmes in the same head at the same time, Veyne explains that a reasonable struggle of arguments is in fact a struggle of different truth programmes with each other (ca. p. 73). But how is that possible if they do not contradict each other at all? Can different truth programmes contradict each other or not? Paul Veyne solves this riddle at no point.

In this booklet, Paul Veyne repeatedly makes clear assertions with a claim to truth, although in his opinion there can be no truth at all. Especially clear in his apodictic statement "The truth is simpler: ....". (p. 85, "La verité est plus simple"), which is made in the middle of an orgy of statements that there is no truth. The colon is also followed by an argument – but how can Veyne argue, when in his opinion this does not help? Of "patriotism" Veyne says that he has claimed millions of dead (he means nationalism, of course, but we leave that now), and is very convinced (ca. p. 126). The claim to truth cannot be ignored here either. Also the sentence "The second interpretation is the only valid one" formulates a surprisingly clear assertion of truth (p. 109). And when it comes to Heidegger, whom he obviously does not like, criticism is suddenly called for again, although it is, according to Veyne, not possible: "We suspect that a little historical and sociological criticism is worth more than a lot of ontology." (p. 108).

We also remember that Paul Veyne had taken great pains to portray man as being guided by motives of which he himself was not even aware: It is not reason, truth and morality that would guide man, but interest, preferences and coincidences. But in footnote 33, we suddenly learn that children, primitives and believers are not naive: they do not confuse the imaginary and the real, even though Veyne would have us believe that there is no difference. We also learn about a tribe that knows how to clearly distinguish people who consider themselves wild boars (for religious-ritual reasons) from real wild boars. Well, who would have thought it! Is empiricism not negligible after all?

And in the final sentence of this booklet Paul Veyne says: "Merely by reading the title, anyone with the slightest historical background would immediately have answered, 'But of course they believed in their myths!'" Here at last, hidden in the last sentence, it finally appears: education! (Bildung) The education, which was supposed to not exist at all. The education that enables us to break out of our modern frame of reference, in which the ancient myths no longer have any truth, and to put ourselves in the frame of reference of ancient people, who of course believed in their myths in various ways. It is this education that makes this transfer in thought possible, with reason and truth as the goal, and it does not even take a genius to do it, as Paul Veyne claimed.

We do not believe that Paul Veyne really believes in his own ideology unwaveringly. It is a myth that Veyne lives in the "unbroken myth" of his ideology. We do not believe this, firstly because it is not possible. Not in theory. And certainly not in practice. But secondly, we don't believe it either, because Paul Veyne – as has been shown – has made it clear several times that he does not believe in it. The question is, to what extent is Paul Veyne aware of this? We are involuntarily reminded of Erich von Däniken, whose juicy self-irony is not to be overlooked: he too does believe and yet does not really believe in his own myths. Both Paul Veyne and Erich von Däniken are trapped in an unfortunate mixture of error and seeing through error. But seeing through the error has not led to a breakthrough to dominance in the thinking of both.

Finally: The topic of myths!

In this review we finally come to the actual topic of Veyne's booklet, which was announced in the title, and because of which most readers will have started to read this booklet – but only few will have read it to the end, because, as we have seen, it deals first with completely different topics, and only then with myths.

Unfortunately, Paul Veyne is not in a position to adequately appreciate the criticism of myth that is emerging among the Greeks. For Paul Veyne, after all, there is no approach to truth, nor can one learn anything, and only one palace of truth is replaced by another, without the participation of reason. That is probably why Paul Veyne makes fun of the fact that the Greeks asked the question of truth, and he talks about a "watchdog" of thought (p. 61). The intellectual achievement of the Greeks and the cultural progress are only a joke for Veyne. He says in incomprehensible words that the criticism of the myth arose from the transformation of temporality, but he doesn't really want to know how that happened (ca. p. 33). The reader is shocked: This is exactly his subject, and he does not want to know? Elsewhere he also opposes attempts to explain the criticism of myths because it would be the result of many coincidences (ca. p. 34 f.). In footnote 210 we then learn that Paul Veyne agrees with Hampl that – allegedly – myth, legend and fairy tale are indistinguishable. This is a far-reaching statement, why only in a late footnote? And nowhere do we find a clear distinction between different literary genres: legend, myth, fairy tale, etc. – We can see that Paul Veyne's ideology has had an extremely negative effect on his treatment of the subject.

In fact, all the questions one can have about myths are raised and addressed in one way or another by Veyne. But the perspective is often oblique and seldom sufficiently differentiated. Often different times are rabulistically passed over, and far too far-reaching sweeping judgements are made ("the Greeks believed ..."). One could at least say that Paul Veyne is a treasure trove of interesting thoughts on the subject of myths. That yes. You can read this booklet as a stimulus to think about ideas that you would otherwise not have thought of. We will only briefly list some of the topics that are addressed:

Paul Veyne time and again comes back to the fact that the Greeks never realised that the myths were simply lies (e.g. ca. p. 113). The reader wonders: Can this be said in such a sweeping way? – Veyne time and again comes back to the fact that the valid modern interpretation of myths in our days is the interpretation as archetypes, i.e. a psychologizing interpretation in the sense of C.G. Jung (e.g. ca. pp. 14 f., 26, 58, 75). But this is only one possible modern interpretation of many! What makes Paul Veyne think that there is only this one? – Repeatedly Veyne says that Greek scepticism, rationality and historiography is not like ours (ca. pp. 3, 94) But in what way? In essence, it is very doubtful that their rationality was completely different from ours. – Once Veyne says that until demythologisation the Greeks were uncritically religious and uncritically sceptical about their myths (ca. p. 14). Another time he says that myths were treated uncritically until Nietzsche and Max Weber. Neither one nor the other can convince the reader. Far too little differentiation is made here. – Veyne claims that Hesiod freely invented his works and at the same time believed in them (p. 29). He cannot tell this to an educated person. – Cicero would not have believed in the gods (ca. p. 49). I doubt that very much. It depends on what one understands by "belief" and by "gods". – Authors who uphold the truth of myths are like philologists who uphold the preserved passages of an ancient text (ca. p. 73). The comparison is seriously flawed.

Plato and myths

The fact that Paul Veyne, in a work on ancient myths, seriously believes that he can omit Plato is downright dramatic: "but let us not dwell on a subject that would make the most intrepid commentators flinch"; for Plato does everything, he interprets myths allegorically or with a historically true core, or he even makes his own myths (ca. p. 64). Of course, it is toooo terrible to deal with such a versatile fellow such as Plato, so it is better to leave it be, as a scientist, isn't it? The fact that Plato plays an absolutely central role in the ancient discourse on myths is apparently of no importance to Paul Veyne. He does not even mention this fact. Also because of this bold passing over of Plato, Paul Veyne is simply not to be taken seriously. Yet Paul Veyne's fear is only too understandable, because Plato stands for everything Veyne rejects: for reason and the striving for truth.

Through the back door, Paul Veyne of course dealt with Plato anyway. There are about ten passages in this booklet where Veyne discusses Plato. But Paul Veyne does not admit that Plato is important. Obviously Paul Veyne wants to "destroy" Plato by making him ridiculous, by systematically misinterpreting him, and, above all, by fading him out. This is almost childish.

Veyne suggests that Plato believed that all myths were invented by poets (ca. p. 60). This is nonsense, of course, but it is entirely in Veyne's spirit. – Plato's dictum that the untruth must approach the truth as near as possible, is interpreted by Veyne that every untruth is actually only an inaccuracy (ca. p. 69). This is also wrong, because for Plato there is also the clear untruth, lie and forgery, which is no approach to the truth. But Veyne, for whom there are no real forgers, of course sees it differently. – In Plato's statement on women's fitness for war, Veyne interprets the statement on the Sauromatians as if Plato interpreted the Sauromatians as the core of the Amazon myth (ca. pp. 91 f.; Nomoi VII 806ab). But this is wrong. It is only compared "like the Sauromatians", but there is no interpretation of the myth in the sense of Paul Veyne. – At one point Veyne says that the Greeks never dealt with the problem of tradition (ca. p. 67). At another place Veyne writes that the principles of the critique of tradition can be found in Plato (ca. p. 52). – Mostly the temporality of the myths is given with the time until the Trojan War (ca. pp. 1, 40, 73 ff.). At one point, however, the temporality of the myths is succinctly called "Platonic" (ca. p. 27). The Platonic concept of time was, however, quite different from that of traditional mythology, namely cyclical, as Paul Veyne has correctly recognised elsewhere (ca. p. 48). So here too there is a flappy inaccuracy. For Paul Veyne, however, this probably does not matter, and flappiness is completely justified, since everything is not true anyway, since no value can be placed on reason anyway, etc. etc.

In footnote 5 Paul Veyne mentions the work "Greece before Homer: Ancient Chronology and Mythology" by John Forsdyke from 1957 as one of his sources. We suspect that Paul Veyne may have relied too much on this work when writing his booklet. "Too much" not in the sense of plagiarism, but in the sense that Plato is more or less faded out in Forsdyke's work, too, and that an exaggerated emphasis on Pausanias can be observed in Forsdyke's work as well, much like Veyne's.

Plato's Atlantis

In footnote 89 Paul Veyne also speaks very covertly about Plato's Atlantis. There it says: "For the mythic ages in Plato (Politics [Republic] 268E-269B; Timaeus 21A-D; Laws 677D-685E), who rectifies them and believes in them no more or less than Thucydides and Pausanias, see Raymond Weil, Archéologie de Platon (Paris: Klincksieck, 1959), pp. 14, 30, 44."

With the "mythic ages in Plato" there is talk only about Plato's cyclical view of history, even if this is closely related to Plato's Atlantis. However, the reference to Plato's Atlantis is made unmistakably clear with the reference to Timaeus 21a-d, in which the story is not about ages but about primeval Athens and Atlantis, and with the reference to Raymond Weil, whose work is centrally concerned with Plato's Atlantis. And Plato's view of – among other things – Atlantis is, according to Paul Veyne, that Plato "believes in them no more or less than Thucydides and Pausanias".

We could now easily deduce that Paul Veyne believes that Plato was completely serious about his Atlantis story. We could easily say that Paul Veyne is against the majority of historians and philologists who believe that Atlantis is an invention of Plato. – But stop! Paul Veyne is blurring the difference between invention and truth. For Paul Veyne, there is no forger, but only different palaces of truth – which, however, all owe their existence to our imagination. For Veyne, empiricism is negligible. Considering this, Paul Veyne has of course to be classified quite differently again. Veyne may indeed believe that Plato believed in Atlantis, but at the same time Veyne also believes that Plato invented Atlantis. Just like Veyne says for Hesiod (ca. p. 29). This is nonsense, but Veyne's opinion. In other words: Paul Veyne has an opinion that is like a pudding that you can't nail to the wall. The reference to Raymond Weil is also telling. For unlike Paul Veyne, according to whom Plato believes in Atlantis, even though he invented it, Raymond Weil is a staunch advocate of the thesis that Plato very consciously invented the Atlantis story.

At least we can state one thing quite clearly despite everything: Paul Veyne certainly and surely believes that Plato believed in his Atlantis story. Although Veyne also believes that Plato invented the Atlantis story, this does not change the fact that Paul Veyne is in clear contradiction to most historians, philosophers and philologists, who mostly believe that Plato invented the Atlantis story very consciously. At least this contradiction to the prevailing opinion can be distilled from Paul Veyne's opinion. There is nothing to shake about.

Let us note that Paul Veyne has neatly hidden his opinion on Atlantis in a footnote, and even within this footnote only implicitly by a reference to Plato's Timaeus and the literature reference to Raymond Weil. Obviously Paul Veyne was uncomfortable to see his own ideology applied to the subject of Atlantis. He could have simply written explicitly: Plato believed in Atlantis and invented it at the same time, just as he did with Hesiod. But he probably feared that someone might take him at his word: "Plato believed in Atlantis" without grasping the whole folly of his ideology: "and invented it at the same time". It is always interesting to see what scientists dare to write about Atlantis only in footnotes.

Formal criticism

Since we have already invested so much text in this review, we should not shy away from criticising formal aspects. Like many authors, Paul Veyne has put a lot of information in footnotes that one would have liked to see in the main text. What is pleasant, however, is that the footnotes are not numbered for each chapter, but for the whole book. This makes them much easier to use. On the other hand, the footnotes are unfortunately not set as footnotes, but are collected at the end of the book as endnotes. This in turn makes working with them much more difficult.

Some chapters are provided with headings, in which thematically something completely different is discussed than the title would suggest. There are numerous repetitions of statements in Veyne's work, which is an indication that he did not structure his book sufficiently.

The German translator has made some mistakes. For example, he writes Titus-Livius and Sextus-Empiricus with a hyphen. Euhemeros becomes Ephemerios – how ephemeral? – and euhemerism becomes ephemerism. On p. 138 [German edition] the translation was ADN instead of DNA.

Valuable thoughts

There are also a few valuable thoughts in Paul Veynes booklet. The question of where the custom of citing sources came from is answered by: controversy (ca. pp. 11 f.). It is the competitive situation that forces the author to cite his sources. This is also entirely my thought about Herodotus: Herodotus was not consistent in the application of his method (which, however, involves more than just citing sources) because he was still out of competition. Thucydides, however, avoids citing sources much more.

The knowledge that something can be known is already enough to get to this knowledge (ca. p. 91). This means that, at least in principle, there is no unattainable knowledge that is only available to the privileged and initiated. – The purpose of studying at university is not only to learn the contents of a subject, but also to give up the belief in authority regarding that subject (ca. p. 93). In the ideal case, yes. – Finally, the idea that the natural sciences are in principle not more serious than the humanities, because dealing with "facts" does not mean a privilege of knowledge, because facts must also be interpreted (ca. p. 116).


This is a really bad book, which not only misuses the chosen subject for the presentation of a biased ideology, but also badly presents the subject itself. Instead of learning about myths, the reader becomes more and more entangled in an ideological delusional world during the course of reading and has the feeling of being brainwashed. Basically, what Paul Veyne has presented here is downright cheeky. In a way, it is a prime example of a product of the humanities that makes them look like "gossip sciences". Paul Veyne is an established professor and is paid by the taxpayer – one could have expected a little more seriousness and quality. Does Paul Veyne lack the connection to the working people who finance his position?

One can almost feel sorry for Paul Veyne. What kind of self-image must a person have who sees the world so cynically that reason and truth and morality count for absolutely nothing, but only and exclusively coincidences, interests and the will of power? Or is Paul Veyne a dazzler? Do we have to interpret this bad work as the "will to power" and the "interest" of Paul Veyne? Or is it both: Paul Veryne really believes these things, but he invented them at the same time. In terms of the ideology of this booklet, it will probably be both, just as Paul Veyne believes Hesiod did (ca. p. 29). We recall again the parallel drawn above with Erich von Däniken.

So it is comforting to find at least traces in this booklet that give us a hint that Paul Veyne has no "unbroken" belief in the humbug he has told us here. These traces could be a starting point for healing Paul Veyne, so that the insight grows in him that he is on the wrong track and that his booklet unfortunately only breathes the spirit of "wooden language". We expect Paul Veyne back on the path of humanity, reason and the eternal search for the one truth.

Bibliography and external Web links

Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks believe in their Myths? An essay on the Constitutive Imagination, translated by Paula Wissing, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London 1988. French original: Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Essai sur l’imagination constituante, Éditions du Seuil, Paris 1983. German: Glaubten die Griechen an ihre Mythen? Ein Versuch über die konstitutive Einbildungskraft, übersetzt von Markus May, Edition Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1987.

French original version, partially open access:
English version, partially open access:
German version, no open access:

Bernd Goebel / Fernando Suárez Müller, Postmodernismus: Status quo einer philosophischen Strömung. Einleitung – Überblick der Beiträge, in: Bernd Goebel / Fernando Suárez Müller (Hrsg.), Kritik der postmodernen Vernunft – Über Derrida, Foucault und andere zeitgenössische Denker, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt WBG, Darmstadt 2007; pp. 7-28.

Simon Goldhill, Review of: Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, translated by Paula Wissing, University of Chicago Press, 1988, in: The Classical Review Vol. 40 Issue 1 (April 1990); p. 172.


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