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Durkheim, Weber, and Some Problems in the Recent Turn Toward the Individual in Ancient Greek Religion

Kenneth Yu

The recent focus on the individual as a knowing and acting subject has refined our understanding of ancient religions. The term individual, however, remains unclear, as it has been associated with two different scholarly approaches. The first approach employs the notion in contrast to religious systems or structures in order to explore individual action and belief as realia – 'things of everyday life' such as inter alia magical practices, dedicatory inscriptions, and household cults (e.g. Bodel and Olyan 2008). The other use of the term signals a theoretical stance akin to methodological individualism, which takes the individual as the elementary and thus fundamental analytical unit for purposes of historical and sociological research. Sometimes both uses of 'individual' seem to be deployed without sufficient discrimination (by e.g. Rüpke 2013, 3-40). 

Taking the latter deployment of individual as my focus, I attempt to reflect on what the stakes are in this recent shift in orientation toward the individual. I suggest that this move is part and parcel of a polemic reaching back to early twentieth century debates between Weberian and Durkheimian modes of theorizing religion. Central to these debates was the question concerning which – the individual or the social – served as the more apposite analytical unit in historical inquiry. In the field of ancient Greek religion, the socially oriented Durkheimian mode dominated (via Lévi-Strauss), due in large part to the pioneering work of Vernant and the Paris school. As such, the critique of the polis model (e.g. Kindt 2009) and the recent turn toward the individual represents a corrective to a trend in scholarship in ancient religions in which Weber was virtually entirely ignored, as Finley noted long ago (Finley 1986, 88).

With this historiographical background in place, I suggest that instead of simply moving from one extreme to the other, we might adopt an intermediary position between the individual and the collective that – in the vein of G.H. Mead's symbolic interactionism – understands all individual action to play a creative role in constituting macro-social dimensions of religion. This perspective grants to individual actors the freedom to engage a range of concepts and practices that are grounded in, and in turn, regenerate large-scale religious phenomena and institutions. I expound on these theoretical issues using as a case study Column B of the Selinuntine lex sacra, the fifth-century lead tablet which has traditionally been understood to reflect an instance of individual action in ancient Greek religion. I conclude that macro-constructions of religious experience (i.e. those of polis religion) are not a layer sitting above micro-episodes (i.e. individual religious experiences), but rather reside within and are structured through individual religious practices; the logic of individual religious practices and experience cannot, therefore, be conceptualized adequately if the analysis fails to account for the individual's relationship to macro-order religious phenomena.

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Practice and Personal Experience

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