Review: “The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History” by Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart. 2020. The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

In The Emergence of Subjectivity in the Ancient and Medieval World: An Interpretation of Western Civilization, Jon Stewart draws from philosophical anthropology (“the study of what it is to be human” [10]) and the philosophy of history (“a field that attempts to find patterns or regularities in history” [10]) “to trace the various self-conceptions of different cultures as they developed historically” (11). In particular, following Charles Taylor, he focuses on inwardness, subjectivity, and individual freedom. But whereas Taylor discusses the modern world, Stewart explores inwardness and subjectivity in the ancient world, or rather its development. He defines inwardness and subjectivity broadly, involving moral sensibilities, feeling about right and wrong, one’s role in the universe, relationships to nature and gods, conceptions of the soul and afterlife, and human freedom and culpability. Exploring such ideas, Stewart suggests, help us “better understand our own modern views about what it is to be human” (18).

Indeed, the introduction offers an important and admirable goal. Within various fields, notions of interiority are a hot topic. Likewise, the problem of what being human means is central and particularly relevant in the twenty-first century, a period fraught with competing ideas about how to understand our role in the world as humans. But Stewart’s introduction does not adequately discuss his method and various assumptions. Methodologically, for instance, he suggests that folks in the humanities “study different cultural products in their original context” (7). Stewart is correct to a degree. But reality and practice are different. Though we try to understand texts in their original context, whether the period somebody wrote them or in their reception history, we still read such texts in our own contexts. As such, we interpret cultural products in light of how we perceive the world to function, our assumptions about logic, materiality, and language inputted into the text. As such, that Stewart does not mention or discuss the problem of the reader’s situatedness strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Equally equivocal is his designation of what constitutes a canonical Western text. He refers to “the canonical texts of the Western tradition” (9). At no point does he explain what texts constitute this supposed tradition, why they matter, or how one decides what texts to include. Moreover, as a brief overview of twentieth-century critical theorists illuminates, canon is not self-evident. Thus, Stewart perpetuates the false idea that we can objectively identify a Western canon.

What’s more, the assumption of canon is the symptom of a broader problem: Stewart’s work orientalizes non-Western texts. As Edward Said suggests, orientalizing is not so much about understand the Other than it is about constructing a Western identity at the expense of the Other. (In Said’s words, “Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is—and does not simply represent—a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” [Edward Said, “From Orientalism,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1793]). Stewart does this, in a way, by subsuming all the texts that he examines, including the Hebrew Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works, the Gospel of Matthew, and Latin works, as texts that allow an “overview of Western civilization” (10). That is, Stewart’s use and organization of these texts effectively categorizes them as Western, using them to construct a history of the West.

In chapter 1, Stewart explores the Epic of Gilgamesh. To discuss the broad notion of inwardness and subjectivity, he introduces the text, identifies multiple key passages to discuss various themes, and provides some other, general discussion. Although my role as a reviewer is to include a summary reflective of the book’s central claims, such a task is remarkably difficult because the chapter is haphazardly composed, without any clear central claim and reading more like a series of short, unrelated essays. This problem is consistent throughout the book. As I noted, Stewart’s definition of inwardness and subjectivity is too broad. So, in trying to cover all the matters in his definition, the chapters become convoluted and difficult to follow, with no clear line of continuity.

Additionally, the chapter is unnecessarily long. Although summaries and the history of scholarship are interesting, they take the bulk of space. As a result, the chapter, and most chapters, are mostly summaries rather than nuanced analysis. And while he offers interesting thoughts, he does not usually substantiate them with secondary literature or the primary text. By reducing the summaries and including more detailed analysis throughout, the book could be better and shorter.

In chapter 2, he explores Genesis 1–11 and Job. Like chapter 1, he briefly discusses the history of scholarship, followed by snippets and themes in Genesis 1–11 and Job. As with his discussion about Gilgamesh, his interaction with primary or secondary literature is minimal. And as a person in the field of biblical studies, I see how problematic the absence is. It results in many false, dubious, and unsubstantiated statements [1].

In chapters 3–10, he discusses a wide range of Greek and Latin texts. Since I am not an expert of Greek or Latin literature, I group these chapters together. They follow the same structure as chapters 1–2: an introduction followed by a range of texts and themes. Similarly, he rarely engages with secondary or primary materials. On account of this, I am skeptical about many of his interpretations. One chapter stood out in particular—Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.

In this chapter, Stewart argues that Oedipus’s self-knowledge is a sort of hubris that leads to his downfall, and he makes comparisons with Genesis 2–3 and 11. This reading struck me as odd. Indeed, Oedipus seeks knowledge, but he seeks it so as to lift the curse, not trying “to be like the god Apollo” (148), as Stewart suggests. Such a claim, as far as I can tell, misrepresents the play. Investigating further, I realized another issue: that Oedipus’s problem is the hubris of knowledge is not an original idea. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche comments on knowledge and hubris in Oedipus Rex: “It is as though the myth whispered to us that wisdom, and especially Dionysiac wisdom, is an unnatural crime, and that whoever, in pride of knowledge, hurls nature into the abyss of destruction, must himself experience nature’s disintegration” (1956 translation by Francis Golffing). That knowledge leads to destruction is precisely how Nietzsche and Stewart read Oedipus Rex, but for all Stewart writes about knowledge as hubris he never references Nietzsche. While I cannot explain why Stewart does not refer to Nietzsche, his claims about Oedipus as reflecting Nietzsche’s reading bring two things to my mind. First, Nietzsche was not a classicist or historian. As far as I can tell from a cursory overview, classicists took issue with his readings. As such, Stewart’s discussion is problematic, issues of citations and ethical standards aside. Second, this section raises a deeper issue: How often does Stewart elide citations and pass them off as his own? Just as the chapters on the Hebrew Bible and Gilgamesh include dubious claims that I could identify because I know those texts and the scholarship, I wonder how many claims in his discussion of Greek and Latin texts likewise are based on weak grounds, or even other people’s arguments without a citation or reference.

Beyond matters of citation, how Stewart puts different traditions into conversation is questionable. While cross-cultural comparisons are valuable, how he compares Jewish, Christian, and Greek concepts is overly simplistic. While discussing natural law versus relativism, he puts forth problematic claims. First, he invokes the concept of “the Judeo-Christian tradition” (149). (For the history and discussion of why this category is unhelpful, see James Loeffler’s “The Problem With the ‘Judeo-Christian Tradition’ ” in The Atlantic.) He then makes the dubious claim that Judeo-Christian tradition believes that “laws of ethics are absolutes that are non-negotiable” (149). As such, “it would be absurd for individual human beings to rebel against these laws” (149–50). Here Stewart is simply wrong. Regarding negotiability, we see a wide range of ethical norms in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish tradition, and Christian traditions. Sometimes these ethics are rooted in divine authority, other times more akin to natural law. And in some texts, we see ethical tensions with no clear ethical norm. And, third-century BCE through first-century CE Jewish and Christian texts pick up on the idea of natural law! In short, then, Stewart constructs a misrepresentation of Jewish and Christian traditions so they can neatly and easily contrast with Greek traditions. (See, for example, “The Sibylline Oracles,” Josephus’s histories, and John Barton’s Ethics in Ancient Israel.)

In chapter 11, he explores subjectivity in Matthew. In addition to the previous criticisms, this chapter is surprising because he draws from Kierkegaard rather than biblical scholars to explain the notion of offense. Why draw from a nineteenth-century philosopher rather than biblical scholars when discussing the Gospel of Matthew? Even if his goal is a philosophical history, he misses a wealth of scholarship that would speak to his research interest.

In the final chapter, Stewart offers a range of concluding thoughts of his history of so-called Western civilization and subjectivity. The heightened version of subjectivity in the modern world—something that would have been progressive in the ancient world—creates a problem. Whereas in the ancient world one “enjoyed a sense of immediate belonging in their world with traditional values and customs, we moderns, wallowing in alienation, can never hope to re-establish this” (358). So, while the modern world was able to develop legal institutions and individual freedom, it developed simultaneously increasing alienation and isolation. Such alienation and “breakdown of traditional values and institutions” (359), he suggests, engenders a societal challenge to self-identity formation. To deal with this problem, social media emerged as a tool for identity formation, albeit one “constantly on him- or herself and not on the external world” (364). This self-obsession on social media he calls narcissism. And since social media is not the “real world,” he doubts social media can solve the problem of alienation. He links this issue to the rise of relativism and the disappearance of truth, a world in which a fictional self-image answers the problem of alienation. So, Stewart claims, it appears we live in a post-truth world. The rise of relativism, alienation, and extreme subjectivity thus yields more people seeking group identity, such as nationalism. Therefore, Stewart suggests a balance between extreme subjectivity and communal identity. We should seek this balance via reflection on the history of Western civilization.

Now, the acute reader will see that I spent more time summarizing this chapter, the conclusion, than any other chapter. The reasons are threefold. First, unlike the other chapters, the conclusion provides a clear through line and coherent, cogent claims. As such, I can effectively engage with his arguments, observations, conclusions, and logic. Additionally, his take on subjectivity is thoughtful and interesting and could stand apart from the book, as it does not rely heavily on the discussion in chapters 2–13. Therefore, I do not suspect it is rooted in nonfactual information, as much of the other chapters either are or may be. Lastly, the final chapter is worth engaging with because the ideas are interesting. So, in the next few paragraphs I analyze Stewart’s logic and conclusions. Admittedly, I disagree with most of his logic and conclusions, but they are not entirely wrong. Instead, I interact with his arguments to refine and nuance his ideas.

Stewart first highlights how shifts toward extreme individualism engender individual alienation. Indeed, extreme individualism can engender and increase isolation. Where I take issue is the strong distinction he makes between communalism and individualism. While individuals may no longer turn toward the government or authority figures since they do not always represent the individual, the implication is not that people necessarily turn inward, diminishing “the traditional sense of solidarity, community, and civic obligation” (358). Rather, people seek different communities and solidarity groups. Such groups, though, are not as apparent, perhaps because they are smaller, more localized, disconnected from powerful institutions, and less public. So, while folks may turn inward, Stewart’s grim picture of communal externalism versus individual inwardness seems to focus on the spectrum’s extremes, not tapping into the grey zone. Taking the extremes as a clear dichotomy appears yet again in his contrasting the ancient with the modern. While ancients may have been more communal and relied on tradition in a way that we might call uncritical, it is not as if ancient people never felt alienation, as is evident in various Mesopotamian literary texts, Job, Psalms, and, I suspect, other ancient literature from around the world.

Furthermore, if we accept that modern people struggle more with self-identity than ancient people—itself a dubious claim—social media, Stewart argues, enables self-identity construction but also gives rise to highly internalized, individualistic, and narcissistic people, since he perceives social media as mainly for constructing a self. On a few fronts, Stewart is undoubtedly correct. Social media can increase isolation and alienation; it is a tool for self-identity construction. But his representation of social media and self-identity formation is far too simplistic. For instance, his suggestion that the rapid development of social media is a “testimony to the important need that it fills” (364), namely, to be part of something and not alienated, fails to interrogate the why. That is, did social media emerge because it purportedly solved the modern alienation and self-identity problem? Or did social media create the problem of alienation and self-identity formation so that it could then offer a solution? Or is another explanation possible?

Equally in need of nuance is his representation of social media as primarily a narcissistic, self-identity platform. While he is correct that social media is about identity formation and can (but not always!) lead to narcissism, this representation is not always true. In my experiences with Twitter, for example, my constructing a self-identity via the platform is also a means to network—or rather socialize—with others in my field of study. Likewise, my wife has found many social groups on Facebook that make her part of a community, of something larger. Therefore, social media is not all about the individual; social media also involves socializing, networking, and engaging with others, albeit digitally.

With this nuanced understanding of social media, I can thus interrogate what Stewart calls the external, real world and the inward, online world. If we understand social media as a real social interaction, then the boundaries between the online and real world become less clear. For even if people stare at their phones, they also discuss content. And as my wife noted, people used to interact with file cabinets, multiple notepads, newspapers, magazines, books, media, and crossword puzzles; however, those tools and activities are now available via a single material object. As such, how we engage with the single material object frequently is just as “inward” as how people used tools and materials 30 years ago. So, if anything, social media is a place where people create content, discuss real life, and engage with the same things they did 30 years ago, albeit via a single material object, such as a phone or computer. Thus, Stewart should further nuance the connection between the virtual world and the nonvirtual world instead of viewing them as a dichotomy.

He continues by suggesting social media leads to a fictional version of one’s self online. As such, whereas in what he calls real life one is special by “verifiable skills, talents, personal qualities, experiences” (368), and more, the online world is about persuading others that you are special. Fictional selves then give rise to relativism and the idea that factual bases do not exist. Of all Stewart’s arguments in this chapter, this section is the most problematic. For from his sharp distinction between the real world and the online world arises the distinction between an online fictional self and a real-world self. These categories are highly problematic, especially the idea that the online and real worlds function differently. Consider, for instance, the role of speech. Even if an individual has no experience or knowledge in a field, people often perceive loud and intense speakers as bearing more authority than a soft-spoken expert. Consider the COVID-19 world, for instance: people frequently turn to congress people as authorities on infectious diseases because said congress people speak from a position of authority and power. Yet, those people often have no training, skills, experiences, or expertise with infectious diseases! Instead, people perceive them as authoritative because of their self-representation as (fictional) experts. And social media is the same! Via careful rhetoric individuals can represent themselves as critical and knowledgeable without a lick of criticism or knowledge. In both cases, an individual self-represents via persuasion, not skills or knowledge. Thus, to distinguish strongly between real life and social media in terms of real skills versus fictional skills strikes me as short sighted. And though I will not discuss this point ad nauseam, many parallels between real life and social media are evident: representing one’s self as an artist via Instagram versus an art gallery or as a rhetorically witty person via Twitter versus in debates; emphasizing different aspects of once identity based on their location is social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook group, private chat, etc.) versus the real world (public meeting; home with family; out with a friend; etc.). In both the real world and online world, people select and front aspects of their selves to construct an identity. Thus, the claim that the real world is about being and the online world is about persuading does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, we always persuade others about our identities.

As such, his argument that fictional selves or social media give rise to absolute relativism is on weak grounds. Even if we accept his claim about relativism—which seems overly simplified to me—that the construction of fictional selves necessarily engenders this relativism does not logically follow, especially since his understanding of social media and self-representation is fraught with misunderstandings about how it functions. Moreover, his description of relativism yet again falls into a framework he uses regularly. Rather than identify the nuance and describe a spectrum, he focuses on the extremes of the spectrum: modern versus ancient, internal versus external, fact versus nonfact, relativism versus objectivity.

He concludes by suggesting that we must strike a balance between objectivity and subjectivity. While I do not disagree, I cannot help but wonder, “Is this idea not what many others have already said in different words, what humanities scholars do on a daily basis?” In other words, he develops what may be a recycled conclusion through a series of extremes. Rather than claiming a broad unity between objectivity and subjectivity, his argument would be more effective pedagogically had he demonstrated how to function within that framework. (Recall that he envisions undergraduates using this book in a classroom.)

As the reader may have guessed, I was not a fan of this book. The idea is interesting and important, but Stewart does not execute it well. And the book is not coherent or cogent, save for the last chapter. And even this chapter was chock-full of overly simplified paradigms and misunderstandings of how social media works. So, folks researching issues of subjectivity should engage with this book if they seek specific content. But on account of the lack of coherent and cogency, use of outdated scholarship, wrong facts, and overly simplified discussions, I do not recommend this book for courses or casual reading. And while Stewart is clearly an accomplished scholar, it seems best that he continue to focus and work on Hegel, Kierkegaard, and other philosophers, not ancient literature. Unless another book comes along or Stewart writes a more critical and academically rigorous volume on subjectivity in the ancient world, folks are better off reading older works on subjectivity.

[1] The following are examples of the incorrect information that Stewart offers: he claims that Abraham would have know the flood narrative because he was from Ur (38), but biblical scholars view Genesis as a myth and etiology, not history; he describes prayer as a form of sorcery (45); he frames Genesis 1–3 as describing the Fall, which is more of a Christian tradition than a close reading of the text; he describes Noah as the first patriarch (61), which is problematic; he mentions sin in Gen 1–3 even though sin does not appear until Genesis 4; his references for Job are outdated; he appears to read the Hebrew Bible as representing a monolithic religious tradition, though he does not explore much outside of Genesis 1–11 and Job. While I saw more examples in other chapters, I do not care to list all problematic claims here and instead focus on the broad, systemic issues that I identify I the review.