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History, human possibility - and cocaine

05 March 2019

He may be a revered researcher, honoured with a three-day international conference centred around his latest book, and featuring in a television miniseries, yet Steve Mason is anything but self-satisfied. On the contrary, this professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures proclaims he is not proud of anything. ‘I feel like an impostor half the time because I don’t know anything, at least not anything tangible.’

Text: Annemieke van der Kolk, Communication UG / Photos: Daniel Houben

Steve Mason: 'Studying history enables us to understand the possibilities of human existence.'
Steve Mason: 'Studying history enables us to understand the possibilities of human existence.'

Why study old stuff?

Steve Mason, short brown hair, calm and friendly appearance, likes to put himself to one side to make way for history. The noise from behind the bar - Mason does not have his own office - almost drowns his soft and quiet voice. Yet, upon the question whether humanity can learn from history, he becomes animated: ‘History always has to justify itself. Why on earth would you study old stuff? We feel the need to say we can learn from history but I believe the better you know the past, the more you realize the same situations will never appear again.’ Mason is convinced that history will teach us nothing. ‘Instead, studying history enables us to understand the possibilities of human existence, to break free from our own narrow approach.’

Escaping the mould

Having just returned from Rome, he takes its first century remnants as an example. ‘To witness their historical methods of construction and how they structured their political life is amazing. Not that we should replicate that, it’s a different world altogether. But it is inspiring, and in such contrast to the narrow technocratic mould we live in today, governed by our own socio-economic political developments. It lifts the human spirit to be able to consider other possibilities, and it means we can think of new ways of living in our own situations.’

Ancient texts in the gym

Mason seamlessly connects his own discipline to modern political issues. Even in the gym, working out, he has ancients texts on audio. ‘Yesterday I listened to Plato’s Republic. It has a passage on justice, about how a person can fake being just if he has enough handlers to manipulate his image. This sounds like a recent newspaper opinion piece on, say, American politics. History gets you thinking and activated as an intelligent person in society. Not because it teaches you lessons, but because it’s damn interesting.’

History is like cocaine

Rarely does Mason raise his voice, use gestures or make jokes. What he stands for speaks for itself. ‘We think sometimes our problems are unique or that the world is going to hell. But just knowing the scale of problems that humans have dealt with before is an outside reference point. And that is what we need.’ After a brief pause Mason chuckles: ‘So, this is why this kind of work is so much fun. It’s like cocaine, but legal. But you should add that I’ve never done cocaine, so I wouldn’t actually know.’

Torn between belief and science

Raised as a conservative Christian in Canada, Mason soon became convinced that religion is the most important, considerably more important than making money or finding a job. His burning questions about the origins of Judaism and Christianity led him to university, where he studied religions from an historical point of view. ‘This was like a feast, but it also changed my view completely. I could no longer have this simple view of the divine truth that dropped out of heaven.’ In his recent book A History of the Jewish-Roman War, A.D. 66-74 Mason applies historical methods to the great revolt against the Romans which occurred 2000 years ago. ‘You then necessarily question many of the received traditions and some of them turn out to be spectacularly ill-founded. This is why I gave up religion in my twenties as I couldn't combine historical work with being religiously committed. To say you’re sure a Biblical event actually happened, as a matter of faith, and at the same time subject it to historical enquiry, splits you apart.’

Man of modesty

Although Mason dropped out of church, he thrived as an academic. But his world is more than just academia as he is often asked to participate in TV panels and documentaries. A Discovery television documentary called The Fatal Conflict - Judea and Rome in which Mason appears, will soon be broadcast in Europe. Again it becomes clear that Mason is a man of modesty and of science: ‘Of course taking part in a documentary is exciting and flattering, but you are interviewed for hours and only 30 or 60 seconds are broadcast in a way you never intended.’ However, for this particular documentary the makers promised Mason to faithfully contextualize what he has said. He hasn’t seen it yet, not even the trailer: ‘I can’t bear to watch myself.’

World government

For his book on the Jewish war, Mason was searching for why people reacted the way they did to the failure of the political system to protect them. ‘This is very relevant today. We have attempted to set up global institutions that can manage peace effectively, take the United Nations, but they are somewhat toothless. Countries such as the U.S., China, or Russia will not be told by anyone else what is in their interest. And this has deep roots: I have read incredibly keen quotes from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics about the relationship between power and justice. Their questions about the possibility of a world government are still relevant. In the European Union this is currently a central issue.’ Mason again stresses what he firmly believes: ‘Ancient texts do not teach us lessons, they do not show us the way out, but they help us think about the possibilities and limitations of human existence.’

Hope for humanity?

Can humanity reach a different level? ‘I don't pretend to know, I’m just a historian’, Mason smiles. ‘It hasn’t been proven yet, but I’m not saying it’s not possible. The question is what can you do to contribute?’

'Ancient texts do not teach us lessons.'
'Ancient texts do not teach us lessons.'
Last modified:30 April 2020 3.33 p.m.
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