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Individual Appropriation of Religion

Any attempt to think about ancient Roman religion needs to start two millennia later. In religious studies it has become a matter of course to look at religion, not only from the perspective of religious communities and religious traditions, but also from the viewpoint of the individual. The latter is true in two respects.[1] First, religion today seems to have become primarily the business of individuals who shape their personal religiosity (some say “spirituality”) by selecting from a broad spectrum of religious options, whether these be in the form of religious groups and organizations, or doctrines and practices encountered in mass media (in a book, for instance, or on the Internet). Second, the individual seems simultaneously to have become ever more the thematic focus of religion, not just as the bearer of expectations concerning an individual afterlife, personal “well-being,” and “spiritual welfare,” but also as the practitioner of specific rituals and religious training, and as the subject of spiritual experiences.

Such diagnoses of the “privatization of religion”[2] have gained currency in a variety of studies over the last decades, specifically as diagnoses of the present state of religion,[3] and “individualization” is, needless to say, regarded as a characteristic feature of the modern age far beyond the sphere of religion. Meanwhile, it has become apparent that the notion of religious individuality as the exclusive and superior property of the “Western world,” which privileges itself with the term “modern,” is also open to criticism.[4] Such critiques have taken the form of pointing out the historical absurdity of claims to singularity, or of embracing a counterstereotype that elevates Eastern collectivity over supposed Western individuality.[5]

The conceptual association of modernity with religious individuality has obstructed the investigation of comparable phenomena in earlier periods. Consequently, individuality has received limited consideration in the examination of the dynamics of religion throughout history and in ancient, pre-Christian religion in particular. The religions of great individuals, the religions of poets and thinkers, and the role of the founders and reformers of a given religion have, of course, received much attention.[6] This was and is largely due to the nature of available sources, which has favored such interest: it is often the literary products of single authors that are handed down in complete or extensive form, whereas verbal communication within and between groups and their members lacks evidence, as is also typically the case regarding testimonials for the reception of the aforementioned texts. By and large, it is the “great individual” who has won the attention of observers, historiographers, and authors of letters. Yet it is precisely the deficits inherent in such access to isolated figures that have prompted much critical comment during the last fifty years or so; for all their value, a political history based on big men, a history of ideas based on geniuses only, and a history of religion that concentrates on the testimonies of these major figures have limitations that, since the turn of the twenty-first century, have become visible.[7]

From the same period onward, approaches are interested in religious experience,[8] in religion as communication,[9] or in the social or cognitive genesis of religious knowledge.[10] But such perspectives have scarcely been used in considering the role of the individual, the distinction between individual and society within that cultural phenomenon that I here address as “religion,” or the history of religion. This is all the more astonishing because in many cultures religion represents a central instrument of individuation, by individual prayer, vows, or methods of confession. Much of the archaeological evidence for religion from Mediterranean antiquity has been produced in the course of, or in response to, individual religious action. Religious individuality has been concretized in our very sources, in the form of durable institutionalizations and the media of religious communication.[11] In this chapter I intend to highlight the possibilities and problems of an approach to the history of religion that makes use of individualization and individuality, concepts that have been and continue to be used liberally as stereotypes of auto-description and ascription.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his accounts and discussions of Greek philosophical positions, coined the term individua as a translation of the Greek atoma.[12] In his paraphrase of the Platonic Timaios, Cicero employed this word to distinguish between the indivisible and divisible matter used by the creator god to form the human soul (animus).[13] Seneca later used indi- vidua for indivisible material connections and for indivisible goods, such as peace and liberty.[14] By the end of the first century AD the application of the term had been extended to very strong bonds of friendship or love.[15] Within philosophy, the dominant discussion remained fixed around the question of whether individuals regarded as first substances (Aristotle) or as generalities (Plotinus) should be given ontological priority, leading to an understanding of individuals as clearly, demonstrably separate beings, easily illustrated by human individuals, but never restricted to human and superhuman rational beings.[16]

As far as I can see, neither the questions associated with the growth of individuality through the development in time and space of a single human being (individuation) nor the issue of communication between separate individuals (and hence the social dimension of any concept of individuality) became a matter of debate in ancient texts. Unlike the discussions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ancient discourse did not the treat difference and distinction between persons as central concerns. Hence the problem of individuality in antiquity.

Today, the term “individual” is so frequently employed that it is easy to overlook the difficulties involved in using it in a historical inquiry to set an individual apart from society and to draw a distinction between individual behaviors and the norms of social conformity. In short, “individual” has now become a normative concept: one should be an individual, and of course the individualism of today is the result of a process of individualization that categorically distinguishes the Western modern age from the non-Western world, as from the ancient world, geographically as well as culturally.

This turn has consequences for those writing the history of religion. In regarding “Western” premodern cultures, the concept of a polis religion or a civic religion (that is, the identity of the religious practices of a political unit and their functions within the whole of religion),[17] or the concept of the religious unity of medieval Europe[18] is exactly the opposite of the self-description of modern societies implied by the secularization thesis: in contrast to the collective and public phenomenon that was premodern religion, contemporary religion is mainly found in individual forms up to the point of being “invisible,”[19] if its fundamental decline is not taken for granted anyway.[20]

  • [1] Krech 2011, 163. The following builds on Rupke 2012h.
  • [2] See Dawson 2006; Rupke 2016b.
  • [3] E.g. Knoblauch 1999, 189—202; Aupers and Houtman 2008.
  • [4] M. Fuchs and Rupke 2015; M. Fuchs 2015.
  • [5] Cf. Asad 1973, 1983.
  • [6] A classical study with regard to Roman religion is found in the concluding chapters ofAltheim 1953. Cf. van den Bruwaene 1937; Goar 1972; Speyer 1989; Stepper 2003; Schmid 2005;Orlin 2007.
  • [7] See, e.g., Gladigow 2005, 29-39; Mulsow 2012, 11-36.
  • [8] Jung 1999; Ricken 2004; Taves 2009, 2010.
  • [9] Tyrell, Krech, and Knoblauch 1998; Rupke 2001; Malik, Rupke, and Wobbe 2007; Stavri-anopoulou 2006; Pace 2009; Rupke 2015b.
  • [10] Berger and Luckmann 1967; Lawson 2000; Whitehouse and McCauley 2005; Rupke 2012e.
  • [11] See chapter 7.
  • [12] E.g., Cic. Fin. 1.17.
  • [13] Ibid., 21.
  • [14] Sen. Dial. 1.5.9; Ep. 73.8.
  • [15] Tac. Ann. 6.10; Apul. Apol. 53; CIL 8.22672.
  • [16] Rupkc 2013d, 9.
  • [17] Scc Rupkc 2007a, 5—38 and Kindt 2012, 12—35 for criticism.
  • [18] Kopf 1993; Borgoltc 2001; Auffarth 2009.
  • [19] Luckmann 1967.
  • [20] E.g., Brucc 1999.
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