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(From an exchange on Twitter)

A key reason that polytheisms will never be regarded by some as "proper" religions is because the full potential of a polytheistic field need not be present for any given individual worshiper. That is, the polycentricity of polytheism is for many worshipers a practical possibility, but is not thematized by them. Many worshipers may worship a single God and regard the other Gods in the field as somehow dependent upon their chosen deity.

 There is nothing deviant about this sort of exclusive focus occurring within a polytheistic social field, nor is it evidence of some tendency for the field to transform into monotheism. 

These are not "pocket monotheisms" because they tacitly presuppose that other Gods, who exist for them in a dependent status, can be and are experienced by others as at the center.

  Where the polycentric polytheistic field is thematized as such, we have the perfection of a philosophical discourse about religion, but this perfection is not a condition for the existence of polytheism as such, or for its essential polycentricity.

Q. What is thematization here?

A doctrine that is thematized by somebody is explicitly held by them and articulated at least to some degree, as opposed to a doctrine that shows itself implicitly in their behavior.

To āṅgīrasa śreṣṭha (@GhorAngirasa

): It was our discussion that brought home to me how important a point this is. It goes to the fundamental difference in *kinds* of religion that we are dealing with between monotheism and polytheism, which many recognize, but conceptualize in varied and often inadequate ways.


: A problem is that, the tacit presupposition "that other Gods, who exist for them in a dependent status, can be and are experienced by others as at the center" is not recognized as adequate in itself to fully justify the legitimacy of polytheism. Questions along the lines of, "Where is this recognition actually mentioned?" will arise. The monotheists and closeted monotheists will then argue that there is no such recognition and what one calls polytheism is simply an assemblage of "wannabe monotheisms".

Quite true, but this needs to be attacked, because the result is to treat the total polytheistic field as radically *contingent*, that is, as the result of purely contingent historical differences in affiliation, mere "sectarianism".


: Absolutely. It is just that our thinkers & leaders are yet to fully grapple with this depth of discourse. Many of them would not be able to formulate a decent explanation of why this tacit recognition is more pronounced than one would give credit for & is indeed adequate.

Yes, precisely, and this is the erasure of polytheisms as religions, that they are conceived as mere material assemblages that necessarily disintegrate under analysis. This means that only credal faiths can count as "religions".

 It shouldn't be so difficult to demonstrate that the degree of intimate entanglement that we see between diverse sects in a common polytheistic field, even where they display strong "single-pointedness", goes far beyond that of a congery of "wannabe monotheisms".


: Right now, I can easily think of two examples: 1. Of a dramatist-philosopher-logician from 10th century, jayanta bhaTTa whose work serves as a prototype for the religion/counter-religion distinction and also alludes to the 'tacit recognition' we speak of. 2. nAvalar, a devout and orthodox shaiva teacher from shrI lanka who had to contend with western missionaries attacking shaivam. In a certain polemical treatise, he raises a question often asked by the Padres, "Why do you attack only us when there are others within your own religion who believe in gods other than shiva (viSNu, etc) as supreme?" nAvalar proceeds to answer along the lines that these deities are recognized by his own deity & therefore worshiping them is no fault, while the "god" of the padres is not recognized; again, alluding to the 'tacit recognition' idea. Sure, both answers/models can definitely be improved. However, I was just citing these to highlight the resources available.

There is also the possibility, of course, that just as Platonism properly understood demonstrates the explicit, and not just tacit, recognition of the polycentric field, that this recognition is present in Indian philosophy as well, viewed properly.

kashcidvipashcit (@kashcit): 

"Official mention problem": Can be answered with http://

A very thoughtful piece. It makes me wonder when the term "polycentricity" was first applied to Hinduism; I first encountered it in a book by Diana Eck from 1981, but I doubt she originated the usage.

 Of course, Max Müller says that to refer to "Gods" in the plural is as senseless as to speak of many centers of a circle. 😄

@GhorAngirasa: Julius Lipner might have been earlier.

 He certainly made much use of the term. At a lecture he gave in my home country, siMhapurI, recently, he did subtly contrast the tolerance of a complex, diverse Hinduism with the narrowness of monotheisms but was not comfortable about describing Hinduism as polytheistic but as beyond both poly and mono theisms.

I would say that those who have used the term in the past have more often than not wished to use it in this fashion, thinking thereby to evade the inescapable historical confrontation between monotheism and polytheism.

 Unless it is recognized that polytheism has in fact always been polycentric, this confrontation is inevitably staged on ground that favors monotheism.


: Forgive my ignorance: Did the Hellenes consider anyone other than Zeus supreme at all?

Empedokles clearly considers Aphrodite supreme. Local cult elevates the God who is its focus to a supreme or virtually supreme status. See H. S. Versnel's extensive work on this phenomenon.

 Also, in the Hellenic theology according to Proclus and subsequent Platonists, Zeus occupies a position that is pivotal, but rather far "down" in the procession, corresponding to his place in the theogonic "timeline". We can say that for Orphics Dionysos transcends Zeus's authority, or brackets it without displacing it. Often this is how polycentricity works, by recourse to different forms of ultimacy, weaving a network of meaning in this fashion.

 The conservation of diverse modes of cosmic authority and metaphysical ultimacy by polycentric polytheisms is essential to the fundamentally pro-cosmic standpoint of these religions.


: This calls to mind the benefits and dangers of calling hinduism a religion -  
… I wonder if "cultural ethos" might be a better category for use by us.

No, I think that is utterly the wrong approach. A "cultural ethos" will not be regarded as continuous over changes of lifestyle, and inevitably will be regarded as leaving space for a "proper" religion atop its welter of mere customs and folkways.

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Q: The question "What do you believe in?", when asked to a polytheist, intuitively feels like a question that does not allow for proper articulation of a polytheist position. Perhaps it is because this question privileges orthodoxy over orthopraxy, but I don't think that could be the core objection to this question. Or I may be wrong here, and this may be a perfectly fine question.

My question is: Does the above question have any assumptions that would privilege a monotheist position, or does this question not carry any philosophical "baggage"?

A: This is a very good question, and one to which different polytheists will definitely give different answers. Certainly when a Christian or a passively-Christianized person asks us what we "believe", or "believe in", there are preconceptions behind the question that are at odds with the nature of our religions, which are not credal. But it is not that there is nothing in which we believe, in another sense, because we do "believe in" our Gods. That is, we believe Them to be real, and to be good, and to be active, somehow, in the cosmos. At the same time, however, we know that even many of those who worship the same Gods as we do may have significantly different ideas about Them, and that isn't a problem for us, typically, though in situations where stress is being placed upon the entire system (e.g., by attempts to undermine it from the outside) it may become more important to articulate what are at least "mainstream" beliefs for us and what are not.
Coming from an intellectual background in Platonism, I am not inherently uncomfortable with the language of "belief". Usually this word is used to translate Greek pistis, which is also frequently translated as "faith". Many people assume that this is a strictly Christian concept, but it isn't. Plato already in the Laws (966c) speaks of "faith [pistis] in the Gods". In fact, for late antique pagan Platonists pistis was one of the cardinal virtues. Ironically, it may have been partly in reaction to Christians, who were characterized as "impious" (asebês) or even as "atheists", that this virtue began to be especially emphasized, whereas earlier it was enough to be "pious" (hosios), which the average Hellene would have understood in terms less of belief than of action: doing what was considered ritually appropriate at key moments, and not manifesting contempt for the Gods. Plato, however, as we can see from diverse works, was already trying to push this in the direction of demanding that at least people who were to be in positions of authority in society ought to hold some proper beliefs about the Gods and have some ability to justify these beliefs through rational argumentation, as well (see, e.g., the discussion surrounding the aforementioned passage in the Laws). At the same time, he also recognizes that there is much we do not grasp about the Gods (see, e.g., Phaedrus 246c-d), and this is not destructive for him of piety or of belief. We should try, in his view, to hold beliefs about the Gods that would be pleasing to Them and that are true, so far as we can ascertain, and he clearly believes that this is possible; and we ought to believe as well the things that follow logically from these beliefs, and live accordingly.
Some polytheists will say, however, that "belief" or "faith" connotes a kind of dubious position, a state opposed to knowledge and experience, and therefore assert that we ought not to use such language. I can understand this, and in colloquial contexts I often do this as well. For obviously I am not awaiting "proof" of the existence of the Gods; I have it, to the degree that I ever sought it. I can well understand how polytheists would find all such talk completely irrelevant to their religious life. And indeed, these terms in English are distorted and perverse in their usage. We are also not commanded by our Gods to believe certain things at threat of punishment. But to say that we don't have beliefs is not correct, either. This makes it sound as though we simply perform rituals mechanically, and even if this is true sometimes it obviously has never been normative in any polytheism. Polytheisms honor knowledge, not in opposition to belief, but in continuity with it. And this is the original sense of pistis, which comes from peithomai, to be persuaded. Pistis is allowing ourselves to be persuaded by our experience; it is to be open to the Gods, rather than cloaked defensively in skepticism.
So as to whether the question of what we "believe in" would privilege a monotheist position, I would say not necessarily, but to your other question, of whether it carries "philosophical baggage", obviously I would have to say that it does. But then, as a philosopher I think that most questions carry such baggage, and that it is frequently not possible to avoid dealing with such baggage at least to some degree. For me, however, there is no harm in saying that I "believe in" my Gods, if it does not lead to my interlocutor haggling about whether my belief is sufficiently justified for them. For it is better that a person believe in the Gods, while not fully understanding that belief, than that they should disbelieve; but it is also better that a person should try to understand their belief than not to try.
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These are the passages from Philo of Alexandria (d. c. 50 CE) where he uses forms of polytheos/polytheia. Philo appears to be the earliest author to use the term "polytheism" in a polemical sense:

By his account of the creation of the world of which we have spoken Moses teaches us among many other things five that are fairest and best of all. Firstly that the Deity is and has been from eternity. This with a view to atheists, some of whom have hesitated and have been of two minds about His eternal existence, while the bolder sort have carried their audacity to the point of declaring that the Deity does not exist at all, but that it is a mere assertion of men obscuring the truth with myth and fiction. Secondly, that God is one. This with a view to the propounders of polytheism, who do not blush to transfer from earth to heaven mob-rule, that worst of evil polities. (On the Creation §61)

Those who ascribe to existing things a multitude of fathers as it were and by introducing their miscellany of deities [to polytheon] have flooded everything with ignorance and confusion, or have assigned to pleasure the function of being the aim and end of the soul, have become in very truth builders of the city of our text and of its acropolis. (Confusion of Tongues, §28/144)

such again as love polytheism and pay all honor to that fellowship of deities [ton polytheon thiason]—these are the children of the harlot who knows not the one husband and father of the virtue-loving soul (On the Change of Names, §37/205)

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I have anonymized my interlocutors in this exchange and edited them; their words are italicized, mine are labeled “EPB”.


EPB: Quote by someone in a Hellenic polytheism group on Facebook: "I believe all the gods of my religion are real distinct and individual beings. The gods of other religions I mostly view as being the same gods as my own just with a different cultural flair." Gods, that's just so dumb.

Can you elaborate please.

EPB: Well, for one thing because if the content of the other person's religion is mere "cultural flair", then the same goes for the content of your own religion. You can't hold that everybody else has wrappers and you alone have the candy. You end up holding that even the names and attributes and rites of your own Gods are mere wrapping as well. It's a rapid slide toward skepticism and relativism.

But sometimes Gods are shared by different cultures right? For example, Indra -> Zeus ->Thor. It's the same God but with different cultural embellishments?

EPB: No. For one thing, this isn't even stated coherently. Indra may resemble Zeus in some respects, but the argument of "sharing" is made on account of the etymological resemblance of Zeus and Dyaus. Thor, for his part, may resemble Zeus and Indra in certain respects, but etymologically it is rather Tyr who is supposed to be cognate to Zeus and to Dyaus respectively. But all of these comparisons are hopelessly shallow and arbitrary. Moreover, not all religions have the close linguistic relationship of the Indo-European language family. People who talk like this about all the Gods being the same usually have pitifully little familiarity with any religions outside the Indo-European sphere.

I do agree that outside the IE family, the gods don’t have much resemblance. But you are saying that though Zeus & Dyaus may be etymologically similar, that they are different deities? Unlike say Ganesha & Japanese Kangiten actually being the same deity?

EPB: I can't say I know for certain if Zeus and Dyaus are different, but I see no reason they couldn't be, despite etymological relatedness of their names. Their roles in their respective theologies are sufficiently different that it's hard to see what is gained by identifying them.


“Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so… there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations.” —Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 67

EPB: Plutarch always had some bad metaphysics. Notice how here he allows the material to determine the spiritual. It's not unrelated to his naked dualism, a very un-Platonic position. These kinds of issues are why Plutarch had virtually no real influence on later Platonism. In the Hellenistic era, Greek thinkers were confronted with more religious diversity than they had ever encountered before. It forced them to dig deeper with their metaphysics. Some, like Plutarch, stopped at shallow solutions. Eventually, a more profound view prevailed. Plutarch dies in 127 CE. By the time Plotinus dies in 270 CE, the conceptual map of Hellenic philosophy looks quite different. We could say that Platonism's center of gravity had shifted from the Timaeus to the Parmenides, from a predominantly hylomorphic metaphysics to a henological one.


I'm having a discussion with somebody in the Hellenism Reddit … It's one of those threads in which I'm trying to explain to somebody that Hermes and Mercury are not the same deity and the limitations and uncertainty involved in deity correspondence lists.

EPB: It's an issue that concerns me a great deal. There is a deep theoretical background to this issue, and that's what is difficult to convey economically. A key element is the idea that there should be a proportion and continuity in the Gods' manifestations, so that the culturally-specific appearances should be relatively congruent to the divine reality, lest we introduce skepticism into the whole relationship with the Gods. This was an issue I already spoke of in my dissertation. Another element, which often comes up in connection with Assmann's "cosmotheism", is the intellectualism inherent in valuing our comparative criteria over the primary data of theophanies. Finally, there is the question of an adequate conceptualization of what a pantheon is. If it is merely an expression of material variation, then polytheism as such is just materialism. I have argued, instead, that in the later antique Platonists pantheons are expressed through the concept of noetico-noeric (or "intelligible-intellective") manifolds, ideal structures which are, however, ontologically prior to intellective classes. These intelligible-intellective manifolds are the primary expression of the Gods' experience of one another, of Their sociality, so to speak. And this is essentially what a pantheon is: a group of Gods who live and work together. Some doubtless find the idea naïve, but it is remarkably powerful, both in the Platonic system, but also in broader application, because besides illuminating theological questions, it offers an ideality for a kind of manifold irreducible to intellectual classification.

It is hard because so many people have made arguments for divine universality/cosmotheism that one has to make an enormous hedging statement to account for that baggage before acknowledging that some gods may be in multiple pantheons, but that it doesn't matter per se.

EPB: Yes, one has to distinguish in this connection between broad "cosmotheistic" statements of universality, and how syncretism actually worked historically on the ground, and still does. People try to argue that one needs the former to explain the latter, and this is clearly false. If there needs to be a global metaphysical doctrine to explain how syncretism is possible, I argue that it is both more historical and does less violence all around to posit that all Gods are in each God, and preserve the distinction of pantheons. But then this is another massive load of metaphysical baggage to bring into an argument. Sometimes it seems to me that there are just people who are worried about there being too many Gods, and people who aren't. I'm not sure that there needs to be a global theory to explain syncretism. The all-in-each doctrine is there in Platonism anyhow, and so I use it, because otherwise people will act as though there is this soft-polytheism-shaped hole in the theory, and there isn't. The force of it is essentially negative: it says that any two (or more) deities could be syncretized with one another, but that comparison has absolutely nothing to do with it, it's a completely revelatory, sui generis phenomenon each time.

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In response to an inquiry today about Xenophanes, I discovered that a particular testimonium, which has been part of the transmitted corpus pertaining to Xenophanes since the time of Zeller and Diels, has been suppressed entirely from the new Loeb series on the Pre-Socratics. (The volume in question is Loeb Classical Library 526, Early Greek Philosophy, Volume III, Early Ionian Thinkers, Part 2.) 

This text also happens to undermine the conventional wisdom about Xenophanes as a "proto-monotheist". I offer here my own rendering of the passage, which I consider to be quite important: 

He [Xenophanes] declares also concerning the Gods that there is none supreme (hēgemonias) among them; for it is not pious (hosion) that any of the Gods should have a master (despozesthai); and none of them needs (epideisthai) anything at all from any; and that <a God> hears and sees as a whole (katholou) and not by particular organs (kata meros). 

(Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica book I, chap. 8; Diels, Doxographi Graeci 580.14-16)

Xenophanes was critical of anthropomorphism and of thoughtless doctrines concerning the Gods. He speaks of the unity of Being, and of a certain categorical unity of divinity, and of a divine intelligence apparently shared among the Gods, and these are things which have made him useful for monotheistic appropriation, but had history been different he would not have been seen in such a light, because these things would not have been seen as in contradiction to polytheism. Even where he holds positions that would have been outside the mainstream, for example denying divination, these are critiques within polytheism and cannot without anachronism be treated as constituting a break from it.

Criticizing anthropomorphism is by no means to oppose polytheism. Moreover, it's not clear that Xenophanes is even being that critical of anthropomorphism; he merely seems to be saying that this is what people initially assume about the Gods, that it's natural to do so, but that if we accept that They are incorporeal then a lot of the anthropomorphism drops away as unnecessary. Moreover, to say that there is in some sense an intelligence shared by the Gods is no different ultimately than saying that the Gods agree on many things and perceive many things in the same way due to Their similar station. (In other words, objective idealism…)
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Here is the famous passage from Hermias' Phaedrus commentary with the esoteric interpretation of the Iliad. This was obviously fully worked out somewhere, but we don't possess it:

"It will be convenient to set out the interpretation of Helen and Ilium and the war between the Greeks and Trojans as well [at this point] ... Let us, then, understand Ilium as the generated and enmattered region, having got the name 'Ilium' from 'mud' (ilus) and 'matter' (hylē), in which there is also war and faction. The Trojans [will then be] the enmattered forms and all the life-styles associated with bodies, which is why the Trojans are said to be aboriginals (ithagenēs), for the life-styles associated with bodies and the irrational souls all treat matter as belonging to them (oikeios). And the Greeks [will be] the rational souls travelling from Greece, that is to say, from the intelligible [realm], into matter, which is why the Greeks are called 'latecomers' (epēlus) and overcome the Trojans as belonging to a superior order. Battle breaks out between them over an apparition (eidōlon) of Helen, as the poet says: 'Thus it was over an apparition that the Trojans and the noble Greeks hacked the bulls-hide shields covering on another's breasts' (Il. 5.451-2), where Helen signifies intelligible beauty, which is a kind of 'attractor of intellect' (helenoē) that draws the intellect to it. An emanation of this intelligible beauty then has been granted to matter through the agency of Aphrodite, over which emanation of beauty the Greeks fight as though over a human being. And some, prevailing over matter and successfully rising free of it, depart to the intelligible [realm], their true homeland, while others are held fast in it, which is the life of the many. Accordingly, just as the prophet in the Republic foretells to the souls how they may be led upwards and the thousand and ten thousand year cycles of souls, so too among the Greeks does Chalchas foretell [their] return after ten years, the number ten bearing the mark of a perfect period. And, just as during lives some souls are elevated through philosophy, some through the art of love, others through their kingly or martial [character], so too with the Greeks do some succeed through practical wisdom (phronēsis) and others through their martial or erotic [character], and the journey home is [correspondingly] different [for each of] them," (82,16-83,12, trans. Baltzly & Share).
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Today somebody on Twitter told me that according to Some Academic, "there no *arguments* in Plato for polytheism, only *arguments* for there being One highest God," and asked "Is this true?" Here is my reply:

There is no argument in Plato for "there being One highest God." None whatsoever. There is absolutely no argument in Plato that there is only one God, or that there is one "high God" and the rest somehow of a lesser status ontologically.

The person you mentioned is most likely treating terms like the One Itself of the Parmenides, or the Idea of the Good in the Republic, as if they refer to a God, when Plato never characterizes them in this fashion.

Or perhaps he is thinking he can treat the demiurge of the Timaeus as a lone God, when in fact he is a member of an indefinite number of other Gods—and no, I am not referring to the "younger Gods" of the same dialogue, but to the indefinite number of "eternal Gods" at Tim. 37c.

He, of course, ignores the countless, constant affirmations of polytheist piety in the dialogues as if they count for nothing because they are not "arguments", which is indefensible. What is not problematic is not the subject of argument.

Let's look at Book X of the Laws, which features an extended argument for all kinds of properties possessed by "the Gods", always in the plural. At 896e, the Athenian asks whether the "indwelling soul" that controls all things is "one single soul, or more than one," only to immediately state, "I will give the answer for both of you: by more than one."

We see thus that the multiplicity of the Gods is not even an issue worthy of consideration for Plato. And this is evident from remarks further on at 899b. Here, he states that "souls good with perfect goodness have proved to be the causes of all. These souls we hold to be Gods, whether They direct the universe by inhabiting bodies, like animated beings, or whatever the manner of Their action. Will any man who shares this belief bear to hear it said that all things are not 'full of Gods'?" (Referring to Thales' famous quote that "All things are full of Gods.")

Note that the perfect goodness of the Gods here echoes Plato's criterion for poetry about the Gods at Rep. 381c, demanding that we regard each of the Gods to be "the most beautiful and the best thing possible". And lest we should think that these Gods are not the traditional Gods, we have only to look to the Phaedrus, where the Olympians are explicitly named as the very Gods whom souls follow before birth, enraptured by Their beauty for the whole of their following embodied lives.

There are many other ways that this case could be made; this was merely the first one that came to mind. Now it's my turn to ask a question: Isn't it about time that those who would make of Plato a monotheist produce their evidence, and make their argument based on something more than an arrogant pretense of "common knowledge"?
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Monotheism is Atheism, and some thoughts on Vedanta (from Twitter)

Sometimes one has to go where the fight is, not try to sublate the opposition. The fight over the term "polytheism" is one of those cases.
Eventually it will be understood that theism just *is* polytheism, and that monotheism properly understood is atheism.
Monotheism isn't just choosing one God and ignoring the rest, polytheists do that all the time. It's denying the others.
Even where monotheism claims to "absorb" the other Gods (i.e. immanent monotheism or "pantheism"), it does so by imposing dualism.
Or else "pantheism" is simply a polite term for polytheism, as Hegel already recognized at the height of this term's popularity.
Deny any divinity, and you deny all divinity.
All atheists recognize monotheism's iconoclasm as a decisive step toward their position, all see monotheism as more "evolved".
The historical disintegration in the West of monotheism into intellectualism, psychologism, and historicism is not accident, but telos.
It came about through the foreclosure of the space proper to theism as such, a space of ongoing theophany, multiplicity, manifestation.
Someone raised the issue of a supposed opposition between polytheism and advaita; as far as I can see, it doesn't exist.
To reduce what advaitins are saying to a head count of Gods seems to me an absurdly banal, and hence uncharitable reading.
This would be true even if one didn't give a damn about polytheism, but merely that philosophers be read as saying something of *interest*.
I've long said about the Platonists: if you don't care about polytheism, maybe you care about philosophers not being nonsense or trivial.
How I read it, the issue between advaita and dvaita is whether in theophany there are two terms or only one.
The issue of how many Gods there are doesn't arise. Nobody need accept my reading, I'm not an authority. But the possibility opens doors.
A reading of Vedanta that does not pit it against polytheism preserves the integrity of a tradition otherwise divided.
Make no mistake, there is no disinterested account of these issues in the West. Sundering praxis from philosophy in Hinduism is the goal.
Once we realize it's not a head count, the true philosophical issues between advaita and dvaita actually *appear*, and become fascinating.
Otherwise, it's easy for Westerners to dismiss Vedanta because it's treated as a religion in itself.
This was already done with so-called "Neoplatonism" in the West, this is how I can recognize the tactic so readily.
This was also done with Confucianism. In general, only the West is supposed to have philosophy, everybody else just has religions.

A knowledgeable advaitin recognises the Godly assemblage at the General Plane. The Absolute Plane doesn't concern anything let along this. To expand, when Bhashyas were written, nowhere is there a denial of Devas like Indra Mitra Varuna Agni etc. The vyavaharika satya is subject to all injunctions of Dharma Veda and Devata. The Absolute Plane need not concern itself with Poly-Mono concepts at all.

Indeed; but to extent there is a hierarchy, polytheism is superior because it does not say "This God is real, that one not."

True. Indeed, and not only that, Polytheism is sound in that it takes the pulls from the devotee rather than push into them. What I mean is that, there is credible conscious mapping of the Devotees' conception into the Divine rather than an instruction.

Yes, and a proper respect for the entire plane of manifestation.
If all things were equal, nobody in their right mind would claim Hinduism doesn't have many Gods. But I get why people do it.
They're playing respectability politics, plain and simple.

Conversely, I would say that monotheism, properly practiced, recognizes all Gods as God, and cannot exclude any divinity.

That's just recognizing that "God" is a class term, which polytheists have understood since the beginning of time.

Not necessarily. It could be worship of the One (Brahman, Being) of which/whom all gods (and everything else) are manifestations.

Being is the manifestation of the Gods, the Gods aren't manifestations of Being.
I have to say that I am not particularly interested in talking to monotheists about this stuff.
They have nothing to say I haven't heard.
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Polytheism is Theism, Monotheism is Atheism (from Twitter)

Polytheism is theism, monotheism is atheism.


IIRC, in the original Greco-Roman sense, abstaining from worshiping the Gods was seen as atheism, thus Jews/Xtians were considered atheists.

Yes, this is one part of it: Xtians were called atheos because *there were Gods they denied*.
This is the ancient logic—polytheists didn't deny the existence of other people's Gods.
Going deeper, though, there is an issue here about the nature of religious experience. Experience is primarily positive in character, including theophanic experience.
Hence I can experience a God, even a God who is all things; but I cannot *experience* that this is the only God.
(As a friend points out, "Even in math 'unicity' is something very hard to prove.")
Monotheism thus reveals itself as primarily a negative moment of disqualifying or modifying an experience.
This movement of negation, if followed through, results in atheism via a process of reasoning such as Hegelian absolute idealism.
Hence I would argue that even the theism of Abrahamics ultimately requires the acknowledgement of the possibility of polytheism.
I see the construct of monotheism as a Faustian bargain these faiths have made; not to say I imagine them backing out of it!

What did they win? What did they lose?

They won a notion of intellectual inevitability and rational mastery; they lost their God, if that matters to them...
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Elements of Theology, prop. 13: “Every good is unific [henôtikon] of what participates it, and all unification [henôsis] is a good, and the good is identical with the one. For if it belongs to the good to conserve all beings (and it is for no other reason than that all things desire it); and if likewise that which conserves and holds together the substance of each several thing [tês hekastôn ousias] is unity (since by unity each is sustained, but by dispersion displaced from being): then the Good, wherever it is present, makes the participant one, and holds it together in virtue of this unification. And secondly, if it belongs to unity to bring and keep each thing together, by its presence it makes each thing complete [hekaston teleioi]. In this way, then, the state of unification is good for all things,” (trans. Dodds, modified).

We can see from this entire passage how the goodness of unity for Proclus is a matter of individuation. Note the repeated uses of the term hekastos, “each”, for example. “Unity” is what makes each thing one, and this is why unity is the good of each thing. Nor is Proclus doing anything revolutionary here; he is simply speaking of “unity” in the sense the Platonic tradition has done since its beginning, and which is rooted in the ordinary language sense of “one”, hen, in Greek, which is the property of a thing being one thing, what we in English term individuality or individuation.

Now, as I always take care to point out, the individuation of beings does also require, for its perfection or completion (teleiotês), the participation in forms which, because they too have the unities appropriate to them, takes beings also out of themselves, and hence the essential and unavoidable ontological importance of individuation does not mean that the system promotes the mindless, egotistical self-assertion of the empirical self.
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Phaedrus 249bc: A human "must understand a general conception formed by collecting into a unity by means of reason the many perceptions of the senses; and this is a recollection of those things which our soul once beheld, when it journeyed with the God and, lifting its vision above the things which we now say exist, rose up into real being," (trans. Fowler). 
Now, we know from the testimony of Diogenes Laertius (3.15) that Plato did in fact extend this capacity to animals, grounding their ability to incarnate as humans not on the narrow ground of their having previously "fallen" from human status but on capacities virtually coextensive with being a living thing in the first place. Now, if this capacity is indeed so widely held, then we might think about it in a less "cognitive" fashion altogether. Isn't the first general conception collected together into a unity from the flux of experience the conception of the integral self, personal identity as such? The Stoic concept of oikeiôsis is useful here: creatures first "appropriate" themselves as something to sustain and foster, and then add wider and wider circles of concern from there.
Jumping over to Aristotle, and the problem of the content of the "thought thinking itself" which is at once the divine way of being and the reason why things go round in the cosmos, what if thought "thinks itself" whenever it cognizes a self-identical property? And the first such is the moment of the self-appropriation of the individual, I=I (but not necessary to be thematized in this fashion, if we accept the Platonic position reported by Diogenes).
The proper attribute of the prime unmoved mover would thus extend essentially to all living things, beginning in each case from the moment of self-appropriation. In this fashion, the activity of the prime unmoved mover can be understood simply as the intellectual individuation of living things, which move themselves so as to sustain and expand their self-integration to the best of their capacity. This aligns the prime unmoved mover better with the Platonic first principle, as its expression on the intellective and psychical planes. (That is, thinking about it this way has helped me to see how the prime unmoved mover is also a principle of individuation, albeit of course in a more specialized manner than the first principle.)
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A friend on Twitter called my attention to a quote from 19th c. Indologist Max Müller on the polycentricity of Vedic religion. Müller contrasts the "septarchy" of early Greece and the "Teutonic nations", in which "several great gods" held sway, giving way in Greece eventually to the "monarchy" of Zeus, to the situation in India:

"In the Veda, however, the gods worshipped as supreme by each sept stand still side by side. No one is first always, no one is last always. Even gods of a decidedly inferior and limited character assume occasionally in the eyes of a devoted poet a supreme place above all other gods. It was necessary, therefore, for the purpose of accurate reasoning to have a name, different from polytheism, to signify this worship of single gods, each occupying for a time a supreme position..." (My emphasis).

Here you can virtually see the very moment in which Müller decides that polycentricity, long observed in polytheisms, requires a term other than polytheism to designate it. The task is to understand the motives for this at just such a time.

Müller finds value in Hinduism which the West desires to appropriate for itself, hence Hinduism must be regarded as never having been polytheist, or having "transcended" polytheism at some suitably early point. Indologists will occasionally find it useful to affirm Hinduism as polytheistic at certain moments--when affirming a primordial "Indo-Germanic nature religion" <sic>, or maligning degenerate "sectarianism"--but on the whole it is the monotheizing project that they have endorsed.

This monotheizing project of interpretation, in fact, could be regarded as almost synonymous with the rise of "Indology" as a well-defined discipline. For modern Western scholars, to find value and truth in a religion just is to discover that it is really monotheistic. In any given field of study, then, scholars of religion will establish certain dynamic axes of opposition between the good monotheistic "tendency" and the evils of polytheism.

Polytheism here can be posited either as primitive ignorance, stubbornly reasserting itself from time to time, or as some kind of sinister degeneracy arising in deliberate opposition to the vision of Truth. Historicist or racist fever dreams of whatever kind can then be plugged into this structure, and whatever group is to be valorized at a given moment for whatever reason allowed to carry the torch of monotheism.

It should be noted, too, that when German Indologists treat their primordial "Indo-Germans" as polytheistic, it is always presented in fact as a pantheist "nature religion" where the Gods are mere cosmic functions, of which we see a modern version in Assmann's "cosmotheism". In this permutation of the Indological mythology, the "cosmotheism" of translatable functions represents a proto-rationalism, contrasted with the degeneracy of bhakti sects worshiping mere "personal" Gods. Assmann's Egyptologically-flavored version of this ideology even opposes this "cosmotheism" to monotheism, where it is really a matter of a rationalist monotheism (i.e. pantheism) being opposed to a monotheism that has not realized its potential.

In this light, Assmann's whole argument resembles pretty closely the old Protestant cant against Judaism, which has been shown in The Nay Science to have thoroughly infused Indology as well. An interesting dimension of this ideology is that Judaism ends up counting as a kind of "pagan" religion, to the degree that it does not "advance" toward the universality of Christian monotheism, which itself must in turn shed its Catholic "paganism" to become the True Faith.

Indeed, it is not hard to see in this light how the logic of monotheism leads beyond Protestant Christianity as well, to "scientific" atheism, which upon the foundation of materialism attains to the universality that purely religious monotheism could not. It is crucial to recognize that every stage of this ideological process remains active in scholarly discourse; in this fashion, the illusion of a robust debate can be easily maintained and the original project of suppression and erasure of polytheism reinforced at all times.
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"The ways by which philosophy leads us upwards can be thought of in analogous terms [to the Bacchic initiatory rites], though the conjunction [sunaphē] they produce is not precise [akribē] compared to the ineffable union [apporhēton henōsin] [in the initiatory rites]," (Damascius, In Phaedonem 168.13-4; trans. Westerink, modified). Note here the term akribēs, "exact, accurate, precise". Because the Gods, being henads, are unique individuals, and philosophical concepts are universal, the rites which descend from the former are more akribēs than the way of ideas, which has a generality by comparison. The "ineffable union" is not a dissolution in the God for Damascius, but a mode of unity which is "ineffable" because predicates cannot in the strict sense attach to what is completely unique, that is, to the God and to me, each in our stark and utter uniqueness in the scene of initiation. 

This passage reminded me in turn of one from Proclus (PT V 35. 127. 8-12), where he contrasts the "indefinite and common [aoristou … kai koinēs]" philosophical doctrine to the "Greek tradition [phēmēn]," in order to "demonstrate that he [Plato] as far as to the very names follows the theologians of the Greeks." Proclus is not characterizing somebody else's philosophical doctrine here as indefinite and common, but rather his own, and indeed anybody's. The "particular", in the henadic sense, is higher than the universal.

Compare this passage from Plato: "For he must do one of two things; either he must learn or discover the truth about these matters, or if that is impossible, he must take whatever human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking upon it as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers, unless he can sail upon some stronger vessel, some divine revelation [logou theiou tinos], and make his voyage more safely and securely," (Phaedo 85cd, trans. Lamb).

Such passages speak to the question of the soul's salvation through philosophy alone, i.e., in the absence of participation in a God proper. Philosophy offers a "way up" (anodos), through participation in the Gods' activities (energeiai), but arguably no further. It is not clear that philosophy reaches unaided to the powers (dynameis) of the Gods, strictly speaking, insofar as these are like the persons of the Gods, supra-essential. Certainly, with respect to the existences (hyparxeis) of the Gods, philosophy unaided can know that such entities are there to be found, but They are present to it as "objects x", so to speak, represented by the cypher of the "One Itself". So the philosopher unaided has a "way up", and for Damascius could achieve a vague conjunction with divinity generally. The question remains of just what this vague participation in divinity in general, the aroma, so to speak, of the Gods, without Their presence, means for the unaided philosopher. We can be certain, at any rate, that it was not an experiment that the Platonists wished their successors to have to undertake.
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Bryant recognizes that there are multiple Gods worshiped by different bhakti sects, and that there is a reciprocity such that, e.g., not only is what is said about Kṛṣṇa by his bhaktas said (mutatis mutandis) about Śiva by Śiva's bhaktas—i.e., that he is the supreme being and contains all things, and even created the other Gods for his purposes, etc.—but also that what is said about Śiva, e.g., by Kṛṣṇa's bhaktas is structurally identical—objectification and subordination, on the one hand, but also, at other times, veneration—to what is said about Kṛṣṇa by Śiva's bhaktas. But he thinks that this very multiplicity is necessarily not polytheism, because he has a straw man of polytheism in mind. Ironically, however, the way in which he describes polytheism is that there would be multiple Gods "ontologically equal". And yet, what is the reciprocity between these sects but ontological equality? He has suppressed the ontological dimension of this reciprocal field, however, effectively downgrading it to the level of mere historical contingency, or psychological disposition (despite seemingly recognizing that there is a "divine relationship" in bhakti which is irreducible to psychology). Or, alternately, he reifies a supreme being over all of these objects of bhakti, using conceptual materials doubtless supplied to him by the texts, but put to an unfortunate use by him, because it subordinates everyone's actual Īśvara to this Other, thus putting the actual moment of devotion in bhakti under erasure, because now no deity is at the center, so to speak, but rather they are all at the periphery. This is the polar opposite of what I have termed "polycentric" polytheism. It is, instead, a kind of acentric monotheism that is I think very intellectually satisfying to a certain Western sensibility.

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"Philosophy declares that the forgetfulness of eternal logoi is the cause of departure from the Gods and recollection [anamnêsis] the cause of reversion [epistrophê] to them; the Oracles, however, the paternal signs [sunthêmata] . But these two are in accord; for the soul is constituted from holy logoi and from divine symbols, of which the former come from the intellective forms and the latter from the divine henads. We are on the one hand images [eikones] of the intellective essences, and also idols [agalmata] of the uncognizable [agnôstos] signs." (Proclus, Eclogae de philosophia Chaldaica V, trans. mine)

A key text of Proclus' for the doctrine of two kinds of reversion, intellective (or, as it were, philosophical) reversion upon logoi and forms, on the one hand, and theurgic (esp. ritual) reversion upon symbols and other supra-intellective tokens, on the other, both of which leading us back to the Gods Themselves. Note the dual status of the soul here as participant of forms, and hence a "what", and as idol, a unique "who". A corollary of this is that formal reversion is step-by-step, up the chain of ontic hypostases from more particular to more universal forms and principles, while theurgic reversion is, at least potentially, immediate, because we can revert upon supra-essential Gods who directly illuminate our plane of Being. On "paternal", see the Appendix to my recent article on Plotinus. This technical term refers to the most primal level of activity of any God—including Goddesses. These are where the most effective synthêmata come from, which come from individual Gods and are existentially individuating for mortals.


"The soul's mode of ascent is two-fold: one occurs by ascension to Being and by purification from the realm of generation—and this is the mode provided by the bonds of Ploutôn after death. The other is achieved by elevation prior [to death] through the purification of Hades and by the soul's abiding by the life there and traversing thoughts [tôn noêseôn peripolein]—and this is the way perfected by the bonds of Kronos through the connection of Zeus. Having left a trace [ichnos], as it were, in the intelligible realm, the soul there passes through the extent of the intelligible realm and observes there blessed sights, as Socrates teaches in the Phaedrus (247d)," (Proclus, In Cratylum §162, trans. Duvick, mod.).

A very interesting text. First, we see the rather inferior status of "ascension to Being"—it is what happens in any event. Second, there is the role of devotion to Hades during life, which is a way of life and of thought, and works together with Zeus and Kronos. Finally, there is the notion of the soul leaving a "trace" in the intelligible. We encounter this term ichnos occasionally in Proclus, where it seems to have the sense of a trace of the supra-essential in Being. This is perhaps something intelligible about the self grasped through theurgic reversion (see the passage I posted earlier from Proclus' commentary on the Chaldean Oracles), a kind of partial formalization of the psyche, somewhat akin to what happens to heroic souls, though in a weaker sense.

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To the extent that he knows himself and all the other divine genera together, partakes of them all, and is distinguished according to existential peculiarity [kata tên idian huparxin], each of the Gods supplies subsistence [hupostasin] to the divine names, which are incomprehensible and ineffable to us, inasmuch as all of the intellectual and divine entities exist in us psychically. Yet, if intellections exist in the soul not in a mode corresponding to the intellect, but like an image and in subordination, the soul will become all the dizzier by thinking purely [eilikrinôs] about the Gods, but it is only imagistically [eikonikôs] that it can entertain conceptions about the essence and about the nomenclature of God. (Proclus, In Crat. 135, trans. Duvick, modified).

This quote establishes that the very names of the Gods are not mere cultural constructs, but are themselves rooted in the Gods' supra-essential existential individuality—all of the names in each God, no less, the same as how the Gods themselves subsist—and have themselves an intellective reality beyond the imagistic conception of them, that is, the names are not of the status of mere images, but are themselves a Reality apprehended through images.

The presence of the names of all the Gods in each God is presupposed by the presence of all the Gods Themselves in each God. So the significance of the quoted passage is not to establish the latter point, which is at the foundations of the entire system. Rather, the quote's significance is for what it says about the ontology of divine names.

All the names exist in each God; therefore there is an adequate divine cognition of every name, which our souls approximate through letters and sounds, as well as through our etymological inquiries, which also share this imagistic status relative to the divine cognition of the Gods' names. This is in sharp contrast to an approach that states that the names of the Gods are like matter relative to the divine forms of the Gods, and it sets clear limits to translation. This is all of a piece with the rejection of any intellectualistic reduction of the Gods to forms.
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A friend recently asked me for an overview of μέθεξις, "participation", in Plato; I thought I'd share my response here:

On methexis, I would say that treating it exclusively or even primarily as mimesis ("imitation", e.g., the relationship between an image and that which it portrays) is indeed shortsighted from a properly Platonic perspective.

In the first place, methexis has an almost heuristic value in Plato's work. It is essentially the "safe" approach to epistemic problems counseled by Socrates in the Phaedo, which is extensively problematized in the Parmenides, and in the Philebus is revealed to be supervenient upon a more ontologically primitive process of imposing limits upon continua.

We find that the theory of participation in forms is also supervenient upon two very important forms of experience. The first is the erotic relationship explicated in the Phaedrus and the Symposium (I've written about this in "Plato's Gods and the Way of Ideas"). Here, the primordial experience of divine beauty causes us, to varying degrees, to draw forth ideality from our experiences of mortal beauty and love, as a recollection, ultimately, of the Gods, and of the God whose beauty marked us before our incarnation, but expressed through the triangular relationship with other mortal beings through the ever-receding "form".

The other is presented in the Timaeus (I've discussed this in "Animal and Paradigm in Plato"; see also this piece I wrote for Polytheist.com). Here, we have the primal gaze of one God upon another (the same as in the symposium of the Gods discussed in the Phaedrus), from out of which arises the impulse to share the experience of beauty by giving order to other things, essentially by viewing everything through the lens, so to speak, of the God who is the object of the gaze. In this sense, the encounter between the Demiurge and the Paradigm is the divine equivalent of the erotic encounter between mortals in the Phaedrus and the Symposium—both are productive of "form" and of the "participation" relationship in the flux of time.

It is important as well to note that in the Timaeus, there is evidently only really one form, strictly speaking, namely "Animality". The other forms are ultimately dependent upon this root of all form and derive their sense from their relationship to the basic project of being animal. Every true form is ultimately a way of being alive, of being sentient in time.
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In my recent article on Plotinian henadology, I quote and discuss a passage from Ennead V.8.9 which displays key traits of the polycentric manifold of divine henads as present in later Platonists such as Proclus. Earlier in the same text, there is another moment at which Plotinus attempts to articulate polycentricity, this time with respect to Soul and the manifold of souls, and which it is useful to examine and compare with the passage about the divine manifold.

Plotinus’ concern here is the cosmos as such, upon which he wants us to carry out a sort of structured meditation:

Let us then apprehend in our thought this cosmos, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can, so that when any one part appears first, for instance the outside heavenly sphere, the imagination of the sun and, with it, the other heavenly bodies follows immediately, and the earth and sea and all the living creatures are seen, as they could in fact be seen inside a transparent sphere. (V.8.9.1-8)

By stressing this cosmos, Plotinus wants us to understand that he means the visible cosmos all around us. We want to arrive at a conception of the cosmos as one thing, while at the same time ensuring that each of its parts remain what they are without confusion [μη συγχεομενου]. This is an ancient principle in Hellenic thought, as we can see from Orphic frag. 165 (Kern), in which Zeus inquires of Night, How shall by me all things be one as well as each distinct? Proclus expresses in almost the same terms as Plotinus this epistemic goal with respect to the manifold of the divine henads in his commentary on the Parmenides:
And yet, in spite of this degree of unity in that realm, how marvelous and unmixed is their purity, and the individuality of each of them [the henads or Gods] is a much more perfect thing than the difference of the forms, preserving as it does unconfused [ἀσυγχυτα] all the divine entities and their proper powers distinct, (In Parm. 1048.16-20).

Nihilistic appropriations of this principle during the era of monotheist hegemony have so distorted its significance that not only does the recognition of oneness alone remain as a goal, but the active repression of distinction and uniqueness is seen as a means to its realization. Returning, then, to this principle with eyes cleared, how, then, do we conceive the unity of the cosmos without ‘confusing’ or ‘mingling’ the units which compose it? Plotinus explains that we do so by making sure that when we think of one of these units ‘first’, we bring all the others in along with it. Here again, we see the fundamental structural characteristic of a polycentric manifold: all of its elements are present in each. This alone permits each element to be a perfect individual, as opposed to being mingled, confused, blurred into one thing. Plotinus is concerned here, not to extinguish the uniqueness and individuality of things, to drown them in an oceanic feeling of unity, but to unfold these unique beings all around us, to unpack the relations implicit in each one and bring them forth in our minds.

But such a manifold, in which instead of all in one, all are in each, presents certain challenges to mundane, discursive thought. Here is where Plotinus stretches his descriptive powers to the limits in interesting and difficult ways, in his image of a transparent sphere. Now, we might at first be tempted to simply identify this sphere with the ‘heavenly sphere’ he has mentioned just above. But there is not just one such sphere, or a single hierarchy of spheres, as we are familiar with in astrological discussions of the planetary spheres. Rather, when any one part appears first, we are to imagine it as such a transparent sphere, into which we may gaze and see all of the others, whether the part we take first is the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, or any of the living creatures within the cosmos. It is this characteristic of Being, indeed, that enables Parmenides to say It is all one to me where I am to begin; for I shall return there again, (frag. 5).

Indeed, we can see that the spherical nature Parmenides attributes to that-which-is as such (frag. 8.43ff) is effortlessly applied by Plotinus here to any being to which we might turn our attention. Peering into a being, so to speak, with the mind’s eye, we are to discern in it, as though it were a transparent sphere, all other things. We obviously have here an image closely comparable to that of Indra’s Net, which I discussed in a recent essay. The reflectivity which permits each jewel in Indra’s Net to reflect all the others is replaced here by the transparency which allows all the other cosmic beings to be discerned in each one. The fact that each being is a sphere also suggests the image of the sphere whose center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere, known from a medieval Hermetic apocryphon. Each being is the center of all things for itself, equal to itself from every direction, (Parmenides, frag. 8.49). Where a being appears to be off-center in one respect, for example being dependent upon principles prior to it, the ‘sphericity’ of its being allows us to expect that this will be compensated in some other respect.

Hence, for example, Aristotle speaks of things which are not prior in a hierarchical ontological sense as being nevertheless prior for us, in the order of knowing:

Instruction is acquired by all in this manner: through the less known by nature to the more known by nature … the purpose is to start from what is more known to the individual and proceed to make known to the individual what is known by nature. Now what is known and first to each individual is often known slightly and has little or no being. Nevertheless, from what is poorly knowable but knowable to oneself one must make an effort to know what is generally knowable, proceeding, as we stated, from what is knowable to oneself. (Metaphysics 1029b, trans. Apostle)

Plotinus’ image, however, places this core Aristotelian doctrine in a wider context, because there is not merely the single center toward which Aristotle has beings, recognizing themselves as lying on the periphery, making a pilgrimage. (‘Theory’, theôria, we should recall, comes from a word that referred originally to making a pilgrimage to see a God at their temple or participate in their festival.) There is also the recognition that the starting-points of these pilgrimages are centers in their own right, just as starting-points. (The term archê, which we translate as ‘(causal) principle’ literally means a starting-point.) This is itself the pilgrimage from epistemology to ontology, from the theory of knowledge to the theory of being. Beings, in taking up for themselves the presuppositions of their being, redeem this centrality by affirming themselves as the presuppositions for Being to be known.

(It is in this light, as well, that we must understand a remark of Plotinus’, reported by Porphyry, and often mistaken as a manifestation of irreverence toward the Gods: Amelius was scrupulous in observing the day of the New Moon and other festivals, and once asked Plotinus to come along, but Plotinus refused, saying ‘It is for Those to come to me, not for me to go to them’. What he meant by this exalted utterance we could not understand and did not dare to ask, (Porphyry, Vita Plotini 10.34-8).)

To continue with Plotinus’ meditation:

Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it, either moving or standing still, or some things moving and others standing still. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself, and do not try to apprehend another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, but calling on the God who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, and all the Gods within him, he who is one and all, and each God is all the Gods coming together into one […] (V.8.9.8-17)

Plotinus’ description gets fairly hard to follow here, but the way I read it is that he is trying to convey the idea of multiple spheres with different centers occupying the same space. This is why he stresses not imagining another sphere smaller in mass than the original one, and indeed instructs us to take away the mass [ὄγκον] altogether. It is at this point, notably, that Plotinus begins the transition to the following section, about the polycentric manifold of the Gods, as opposed to that of the cosmos, by urging one to call on the God whose causality is embodied in the polycentric sphere one is trying to envision. It is not a question here of some singular God who stands in opposition to the multiplicity of the cosmos, but rather of a polycentric manifold of Gods—each God is all the Gods coming together into one—which grounds the polycentric manifold of cosmic beings.

Why does Plotinus just at this point, where the picture of the polycentric cosmos becomes especially difficult, urge us to call upon the God—any God, really? It is because the consciousness of things is essentially differential or diacritical. ‘Things’ qua things or in their bare ‘thingness’ just are the negative space carved out by difference or negation. A thing in this sense is just the negation of everything else. This is the negativity to which polycentric holism brings us in epistemology, as reflected in the doctrine attributed to Speusippus, Plato’s first successor as head of the Academy, for which, as Aristotle recounts, to know any one thing is

to know all the things that are. And yet some say that it is impossible to know the differences between something and each other thing while one does not know each other thing, and without the differences one cannot know each thing, for a thing is the same as that from which it does not differ, and it is other than that from which it differs. (Posterior Analytics 97a)

But then is the Academy under its first appointed head committed to skepticism? If not, it must be because there is some class of beings for which this circle of knowing a thing through all the other things is not vicious, but virtuous. And what else could this be, given the importance of dialogue in the Platonic enterprise, than the community of intelligences, or better yet, the community of living beings capable of recognizing one another and bearing ethical responsibility toward one another? For each member of a society presupposes the totality, a totality, however, which is nothing other than its members. This is not the totality of citizens occupying their differential functions, their classes or roles, but the totality of reciprocally recognizing ethical subjects, of partners in dialogue or simply in the enjoyment of one another’s presence, as at the divine symposium of the Olympians of which Socrates tells us in the Phaedrus.

Such is the sole kind of manifold which can support polycentricity without the paradoxes that afflict a polycentric manifold of mere things. For as I discussed above, with things qua things the hierarchy of being looms too large. Parts presuppose the whole, and it seems an extravagance to see the part at the center and the whole at its periphery, unless we have already anticipated Plotinus’ move, and supplied ourselves with the understanding that the parts in question are sentient, they are viewpoints for themselves. As viewpoints, the parts constitute the whole for themselves, and hence make the transition, at least nascently, from cosmic to divine multiplicity, that divine multiplicity that requires no unity other than the unity its members are capable in this fashion of constituting and experiencing within themselves and among one another—for the One neither is, nor is one, (Plato, Parmenides 141e).
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(I wrote this at the request of a friend, and decided to post it here so that others can see it, since it doesn't quite rise to the level of a paper that I might use in a formal setting.)

Julian's hymn needs to be understood within the framework of polycentric polytheism. Julian is attempting to articulate the ways in which the deity to whom he is devoted, Helios, is ultimate, even though he’s doing it within a conceptual structure (Iamblichean Platonism) in which Helios is actually situated quite far down in the hierarchy that expresses the procession of Being. Assuming that the hypostatic hierarchy in Iamblichus is the same as that which we see expressed more fully in Proclus, Helios is active on the hypercosmic plane, just below the intellective plane where, e.g., Zeus and Hera have their primary activity. As such, Julian has to think about ways in which an intermediate status—or even one somewhat lower—can be understood to actually be supreme. Another part of his strategy is also to elevate Helios' position as much as possible by having Helios displace Zeus to some extent as primary demiurge of the cosmos and focal point of the intellective order of Gods, effectively promoting Helios from his hypercosmic position. Julian does this very intelligently, however, by arguing not for a different role for Helios, but rather that if we properly understand the role Helios is presently understood to have, we will see that it is really the crucial role.

In this, Julian follows in the footsteps of earlier polytheistic theologians in Egypt and in India, to name two especially notable examples, who use hymns to a given deity to demonstrate how that deity's functions can be understood as the ultimate ground of reality. Hence, in a hymn to Ptah, Ptah's special province, the function of speech, is seen as the nature of reality, and Ptah thus as the ultimate God, while in a hymn to Khnum, Khnum's primary field of action, corporeal form, is argued to be the essence of things, in particular, of the statues of all the other Gods, and Khnum therefore as the supreme God. The Rig Veda speaks of Agni as supreme in the sense that the sacrifices to all the other Gods pass through the fire, which is his, while treating Vac as supreme in the sense that the hymns to all the other Gods depend upon voice, which is hers. The Bhagavadgītā sees in the nature of Kṛṣṇa the nature of reality, while the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad sees reality in the nature of Śiva. The fact that such texts rarely affirm the reciprocal potential for affirming the ultimacy of the other Gods is a problem for modern polytheist polemics, but it was not a problem for ancient authors working within an environment in which this reciprocal polycentricity was natural and largely unthought.

(It should also be noted the degree to which this sort of effort of thinking about the ultimate nature of reality in diverse different ways fostered the development of philosophical thought in these cultures.)

The other major element that needs to be understood with respect to Julian’s work is his tendency, though not entirely consistently, to conflate the One with Being, which can make his thought appear somewhat more monotheistic to us than he, I think, intends. This may be due to shortcomings in Julian’s philosophical instruction, or because Platonic doctrine on the One was not so comprehensively articulated as it came to be in the subsequent generations, or Julian may have been attempting to make his pagan system look more like Christianity, or to streamline polytheism into a more top-down structure that could compete more effectively with Christianity on an institutional level.

I’ll proceed now to some comments on individual passages. (Translations by W.C. Wright.)

132d: "whether it is right to call him the supra-intelligible, or the Idea of Being … or the One, since the One seems somehow to be prior to all the rest"—we see here, as elsewhere in the piece, that Julian is uncertain of how to draw these philosophical distinctions, or finds them not too important.

135c: "the fact that he is established as king among the intellectual Gods, from his middle station among the planets"—here Julian seeks to use the centrality of the visible sun to argue for a higher position for Helios on the invisible plane of the higher principles than Helios has in the 'orthodox' Platonic system.

136a: Regarding the slogan Julian quotes about Zeus, Hades, Helios and Serapis, variations on this acclamation with one, two, and three members, or varying members, are well known and have been discussed especially by Versnel in Ter Unus. He argues that

"The essential meaning of the heis theos formula … is not a syncretistic confession of the unity or identity of the gods mentioned: on the contrary, it is an acclamation emphasizing the exceptional character and the greatness of the god or gods invoked. In other words, it represents the elative, not the unifying force of the word heis," (p. 235).

Given this, Wright's translation of "three gods in one godhead" is extremely misleading. At most, we could translate the slogan as "Sarapis is Zeus, Hades, and Helios in one," with no strong sense of identity at all, but the sense more that "Sarapis is as good as Zeus, Hades, and Helios put together." Julian uses the slogan for his own purposes, chief of which, again, is to elevate Helios however he can.

137a-c: Julian uses a subtle exegesis of the Odyssey and the Iliad to argue that Helios is not subordinate to Zeus or to Hera.

138d-139a: A lengthy discussion of "middleness", mesotês, in order to explain how a God who is "midway between the visible Gods who surround the universe and the immaterial and intelligible Gods who surround the Good" is nevertheless the supreme God. Again, at 141b, Helios is admitted to be "midway between the intelligible and the encosmic Gods," but this is, Julian has argued, actually the supreme position. At 156c, Helios is "midmost of the midmost intellectual Gods".

139c: Positing "a sort of binding force in the intelligible world of the Gods, which orders all things into one" permits Julian to see an analogy with what Helios does on the lower, cosmic plane, but also demonstrates that the unity of the intelligible Gods is not simply given for him.

141d: "King Helios is one and proceeds from one God, <that is,> from the intelligible cosmos, which is one"—Julian's awkward phrasing here seems like an attempt to convey that the unity of the Gods lies in their being all in each one; but all that matters for the purposes of this hymn, of course, is that they are all in Helios.

142c: "We must assume that what has just been said about his substance applies equally to his powers"—here and elsewhere in this piece (e.g., 145c) Julian seems to analyze a God into three phases of substance (ousia), power, and activity, unlike later Platonists like Proclus who speak instead of a God's existence (hyparxis), power, and activity, with ousia being on the level of the God's activity. This could help to explain Julian's tendency to conflate the One and Being, since ousia implies being. Julian never seems to use in this piece the terminology of supra-essentiality (hyperousiotês), which for Platonists like Proclus positions the Gods unambiguously prior to Being.

143b: Gods who are "akin to Helios" and "of like substance" serve to "sum up the … nature of this God," in whom "they are one"—this is the basic procedure of the polycentric hymn, i.e., since all the Gods are in each one, one may take all the other Gods as unfolding or articulating the chosen deity's nature, especially ones whose activity is related to hers narratively or that is similar to hers.

144a-b: Apollo "is the interpreter for us of the fairest purposes that are to be found with our God," articulating the nature of Helios just as Helios, in a hymn to Apollo, could be understood to articulate the nature of Apollo. Note also the argument here: "Helios, since he comprehends in himself all the principles of the fairest intellectual synthesis, is himself Apollo the leader of the Muses"—because Helios does what Apollo is said to do, Helios is Apollo. This kind of reasoning only applies where we are from treating the nature of all the other Gods purely as intelligible contents within our chosen deity. We see the same thing in Egyptian hymns, when the names of other Gods are taken semantically in order to treat them as "names" of the God being hymned at the moment, e.g., "You [God X] are hidden in this your name of 'Amun'," where the name of the God Amun is being used for its meaning, which is 'hidden'. The sentence thus reads, literally, "You are hidden in this your name of Hidden." This would be a meaningless tautology unless the independent identity of Amun is in fact taken as given. Julian takes this exact approach at 148d, where he speaks of "the other names of the Gods, which all belong to Helios".

144b: "though one should survey many other powers that belong to this god, never could one investigate them all"—compare Proclus' statement in his commentary on Plato's Cratylus, speaking of Apollo, that "the entire multitude of Apollo's powers is incomprehensible to us and indescribable. Indeed, how could human reason ever become able to grasp all the properties together, not only of Apollo, but of any God at all?" (In Crat. 97, trans. Duvick).

144b-c: Helios has "an equal and identical dominion" as Zeus, "shares … imperishableness and abiding sameness with Apollo," "shares … the dividing function … with Dionysus"—we see that despite the ability to think of Helios, for the purposes of the hymn, as expanding to encompass all the other Gods, Helios is also for Julian still situated in an environment in which the Gods are irreducibly many.

145b: Helios "bestows … on all the intellectual Gods the faculty of thought and of being comprehended by thought"—Julian often in this piece seems to draw particularly on account in the Republic of the analogy between the sun, the cause both of the being of mundane things and of their knowability, and the Idea of the Good, in order to promote Helios to a higher position in the intellective order of Gods than do other Platonists, who place more emphasis on the account of the demiurge in the Timaeus, traditionally identified with Zeus.

147d: With respect to Okeanos, Julian does the same thing we have seen him do earlier with other Gods, namely, use a definition of the God's principal activity as a middle term to identify them with Helios. Here, because Helios girdles the poles, he does what, on one definition, Okeanos does, and therefore Helios can also receive the attribute Homer accords to Okeanos of "father of all things", even though this attribute is actually only related to pole-girdling if we presuppose the individual integrity of the God Okeanos.

149b-d: Julian's doctrine with respect to Athena is interesting and quite technical. She comes forth "whole from the whole of him, being contained within him," but seems more distinct from Helios than Zeus, who Julian says he believes to be "in no wise different from Helios," or Apollo, who "differs in no way from Helios", because Athena must "bind together the Gods who are assembled about Helios and bring them without confusion into unity with Helios." Note that "without confusion" (dicha synchuseôs), literally, "without mixture", entails that even in union with Helios, the other Gods remain distinct. Proclus uses almost the same language to speak of the unity of the henads with one another, in which they are "unmixed" (amigês, asynchuta; In Parm. 1048), because all are in each, rather than all in one. Hence what is said by Julian of Helios here could be said of any other God, in principle. The special role of Athena in bringing the Gods in this fashion into unity with Helios points again to the irreducible role of other Gods for Julian even in the midst of his monolatrous meditation upon Helios.

150b: Aphrodite, like Helios himself, is "a synthesis [synkrasis] of the heavenly Gods", and like Athena, an irreducible "joint cause [synaitios] with him".

151a: "Helios holds sway among the intellectual Gods in that he unites into one, about his own undivided substance, a great multitude of the Gods"—Julian's claim for Helios here is a bit less sweeping than at some other points in the piece.

156d-157a: Helios "fills the whole heavens with the same number of Gods as he contains in himself in intellectual form"—that is, the presence of the other Gods in Helios enables him to bring them to visible form in their diverse ways, enabling him to express his own unique kind of ultimacy, which lies in the ubiquity of visible form through the solar agency.

158a: Julian explains here his task: "to compose a hymn to express my gratitude to the God … to tell, to the best of my power, of his essential nature [ousia]." The ousia or 'substance' of a God contains all things, and so what we can discern of that substance will encompass as many other Gods as the activities of whom we can grasp through that substance.
endymions_bower: (scribe)
Seems I've been tweeting a lot lately, but not Storifying much. Anyhow, here's a thread from today:

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