Pre-classical Greek polytheism, in practice and in poetry, promotes the idea that religion itself is inconsistent. Piety to one deity comes into conflict with piety to another, symbolizing a chaotic and challenging human condition. The late fifth and fourth centuries BCE, however, saw the advent of written prose speeches and dialogues and, at the same time, a movement toward a more transcendent and unified view of religion. Are these two trends related?
Through an intertextual, close rhetorical study of Plato’s Phaedrus and Isocrates’ Busiris, I argue that they are. The advent of circulated prose documents exposed inconsistencies native to polytheism to scrutiny from rival philosophers in the context of a litigious Athenian culture that had already executed Socrates on charges of impiety. This prompted an allegorical debate between Plato and Isocrates about the value of written communication that had its crux in contention over the definition of piety. Both of these influential writers’ attempts to find an intellectual high ground in the debate contribute to a trend toward a more transcendent and unified religion in ancient Athens. A few centuries later, the Graeco-Roman world would adopt the thorough transcendence and unity of monotheism.
While one would not want to draw too strong an analogy with our own context, this study serves as a reminder that new forms of dissemination can expose religious discourse to cultural forces that demand response. The response can change religion significantly, creating new religious paradigms and undermining older traditions.