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Philosophical Thought

Religio: Attention in the Archaic Religiosity

Pershin Yurii Yur'evich

Doctor of Philosophy

Senior Researcher, Military Institute of Physical Training

194044, Russia, Saint Petersburg, Bol'shoi Sampsonievskii prospekt, 63.

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Abstract: There is no one conventional definition of religion. Numerous definitions are synthesized under the “umbrella” definition of religion, proposed by a Christian theologian, who translated Cicero’s definition of religion in his own manner. Taken as a methodological ground, this distorted definition cannot serve as a key to archaic meaning of religion. Linguistic approach to the Cicero’s definition exposes latent meanings on the old word religio; one of them is attention, or care, another one is responsibility. They bring to us a residual archaic sense of religious practices, which represent the process of religious communication, but not binding. Moreover, the latent meanings drive us to the conclusion, that the archaic mean-ing of religion can be described as a scrupulous reproduction of the chronotope of successful theo-social communication, based on the feedback principle. The chronotope in its turn can be defined as a definite time and space context of actions with corresponding conduct, thinking, direction of attention and type of communication with divine entities.


theo-social communication, religious communication, feedback principle, attention

This article written in Russian. You can find original text of the article here .
Two meanings of the antique religio

In our attempts to define religion, we are condemned to failure. Numerous definitions of religion indicate the absence of a conventional one as well as the consensus on the definition of religion. One of the contradictions in defining religion stems from the etymology of the word religio. Cicero (106-43 BC) gave his definition of religio in his work De Natura Deorum [1], and later Lactantius (approxim. 250 –325 AD) interpreting Cicero’s definition, gave his own one. There is a great difference between Cicero’s and Lactantian definitions as they represent both controversial approaches to the essence of religion and religious reality.

Linguistic approaches to the problem of the proper meaning of religio

In his Natural religion M. Muller writes that Lactantius derived the word religio from religare (to bind, to hold back, to restrain with bonds): “We are born under the condition that, when born, we should offer to God our justly due services, should know Him only, and follow Him only. We are tied to God and bound to Him by the bond of piety, and from this has religion itself received its name, and not, as Cicero has interpreted it, from attention[2]. Muller compares the Lactantian definition with that of Cicero, who writes: “Those who carefully took in hand all things pertaining to the worship of the gods, were called religiosi, from relegere, as neat people (elegantes) were so called from elegere, to pick out; likewise diligent people, diligentes, from diligere, to choose, to value, and intelligent people from intelligere, to understand; for in all these words there is the meaning of legere, to gather, to choose, the same as in religiosus [3]. Having analyzed the etymology of religio Muller makes a conclusion that it originally meant respect, care, reverence. It is obvious that the theologian Lactantius paradoxically picked the very essence of the meaning of religio in the Cicero’s definition (attention, care) and it is this meaning contradicted his understanding of religion.

In A General History of Religions S. Reinach also states that religio comes from relegere (a vigilant care or religious care), as opposed to neglegere (indifference and negligence) [4]. E. D. Soper says that Cicero’s etymology of religio is rejected by many writers, who favor its Lactantian interpretation as to bind, but the latter derivation is doubtful and is not leading to any satisfactory definition of religion [5]. E. Benveniste made a brilliant analysis of etymology of this word and its meaning [6]. Among different meanings of religio he mentioned attention and care to ritual consonant to religiosusscrupulous, mindful, careful and attentive to cult. However, the real aim of our investigation is not finding the proper meaning and translation of the Cicero’s term, but explication of some crucial changes in the religious and theological paradigm. Care/attention and bonds represent two quite different principles of religious relations. To bind (bonds) mean (1) to establish one-way connection/communication with the divine and (2) elimination of such important and essential religious institutions as divination and sacrifice.

Religio: theo-social communication and feedback principle

Religio in Cicero’s interpretationcontains a residual archaic sense of the most exact, accurate, scrupulous reproduction of the chronotope (definite time and space context of actions with corresponding conduct, thinking, direction of attention and type of communication) of successful theo-social communication (with divine entities) based on the feedback principle. That is not possible without directing of utmost attention to what is done, felt and thought. This reproduction of theo-social communication takes form of living ritual because the reproduction and precise fulfillment of conduct models are accompanied by a great amount of attention and permanent mental return to these models, keeping them in mind, surveying their proper fulfillment. This permanent mindful mental recurrence to divine objects of communication (gods) and keeping them in unremitting attention becomes a mode of life, when reciprocal and careful returning, scrupulous checking of accuracy of actions/thinking, retain a man in the space of total responsibility and attention, which bring together the entire chronotope.

When determining religion as a theo-social communication, we base our opinion upon two main integral parts of archaic religious conscience, which the Cicero’s definition of religion latently contains. The first is an attention/care. The second is a combination of sacrifices and auspices. In other words – addressing to gods and their answer. This is the essence of the religious feedback principle.

Responsibility of the man reconstructing a chronotope of successful theo-social communication comes in the form of permanent doubt in thoughts, words, actions, permanent verification and checking them up, permanent searching and choosing correct actions. This activity requires a direction of attention, which simultaneously holds up both every separate thing and the whole volume and substance of the chronotope, in that way creating the space of strained attention.

Some anthropologists also show their understanding of the principle of attention permeating all levels of archaic religious conscience. As early as in 1885 H. Westropp [7] noticed a great role the primitive people attention played in their understanding of natural surrounding and language of nature. L. Levi-Bruhl described interesting facts of astonishing, phenomenal memory and attention of primitive people (“savages”). According to his description, their attention retained many insignificant facts in their succession [8]. We suppose it to be impossible without directing of the tenacious, dense attention at surrounding reality. W. Robbins with colleagues wrote about ardent attention of Tewa Indians to the world around and their capability to distinguish smallest changes in it [9]. R. B. Fox also said about striking attention and keenness of observation of the primitive people he investigated [10].

Perception is hardly possible without directing attention at the perceptible object. At the lowest level of perception, attention of the primitive people is excited/alerted and fastened to quite wide fragments of reality, fixing its slightest changes (or differences in the state of reality in every succeed moment of time). At a higher level of perception, S. Guthrie says, our attention keyed to objects [11]. Therefore, we may say that a primitive man, as R. Arnheim notice, was constantly scanning the world [12] while narrowing and widening the beam of hyper-alerted attention, and interpreting [13] both the surrounding world and its separate details. Such a concentration of attention by a primitive man at the space around himself is his tremendous effort of self-construction. This three-dimensional attention is the space of communication of the archaic man with the world (some researches say that the decreasing of the dissipation of the hominids’ attention in a repressive environment and the concentrating and control of attention are the conditions of the emergence of the primitive man [14],[15],[16],[17]). There would be no world without this space of attention.

Attention as a means of creation

Such a creation of the world by means of attention is the main idea in the works of E. Zolotukhina-Abolina, who considers the human “being-in-the-world” to be the being among things and creatures that we, possessors of senses and consciousness, “derived” or “extracted” from monotonous, continuous and objectless canvas of being [18]. So she thinks that the very possession of attention raise the man to the level of creating the world demiurge, for the selective perception-recognizing-learning of the world by concentrating attention at different aspects of the reality is akin to the process of creation. The process of such a creation, by the author’s opinion, resembles the removing unnecessary fragments of the stone while making a sculpture. First, we need a “stone” – a reality as a flow of different impressions. In this flow we find out all things of our reality – social and individual – by drawing attention at them. Creating of the world by attention, at the level of impressions, is mainly not realized. Here, according to the author’s opinion, we need a subject-object scheme, for the directed attention, its living beam presupposes some distance between the one focusing attention and the one the attention is being focused at. Picking up the discrete and calling our attention fragments of reality, the attention creates its own multiform objects out of the continuality of the universe. The objects our attention directed at automatically acquire the status of existing ones, and the subject of attention can choose different fragments of the reality [19].

But in case of the archaic conscience all statements made by E. Zolotukhina-Abolina party don’t work. The matter is, the modern man can “derive or extract from the monotonous, continuous and objectless canvas of being” only the objects he was taught to derive, and he ignores the other objects. When he gets accustomed to the familiar surrounding reality, he starts ignoring it. In other words, he loses attention and so he loses his presence in the being (da-sein in Heideggerian terms). The reality of the world is changing in such a way the man doesn’t want it to do, and thus it provokes the man’s attention. The modern man is the man with the atrophied attention and he doesn’t understand the seriousness of the world when the latter doesn’t seem lethally dangerous.

For the primitive/archaic man “the monotonous, continuous and objectless canvas of being” was extremely objectful, it didn’t invite his attention, it received the man’s attention in plenty, because the primitive man anticipated the dangers of the world and constantly kept a vigilant watch over it. Quite on the contrary, this “canvas of being” or the world paid its attention to the man; it constructed and bred the archaic man out of itself. The man was gathered by its attention; he responded and reacted to it, learning the world’s language of changes. Therefore, for the archaic man the “objectless canvas of being” was not objectless, it was full of objects, united by numerous connections-interrelations creating the total organism, the body of the being.


Returning to the theological and anthropological conceptualization, we may state, that Lactantius translated the word religio with the purpose of changing of the ancient model of spreading of attention (map of attention) inherent to the archaic religiosity. That means that he proposed a new model of attention spreading and thus marked the official birth of a new conventional religious reality corresponding to a new understanding of the artificial world, different from the primordial natural one.

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