A practicing polytheist for over 25 years, Edward Butler received his doctorate from the New School for Social Research in 2004 for his dissertation “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”. Since then, he has published numerous articles in academic journals and edited volumes, primarily on Platonism and Neoplatonism and on polytheistic philosophy of religion, as well as contributing essays to several devotional volumes. He also has a strong interest in Egyptian theology, and has written entries on over 150 Egyptian deities for his “Theological Encyclopedia of the Goddesses and Gods of the Ancient Egyptians”, which he hosts on his site, Henadology: Philosophy and Theology, where more information about his work can be found.
One can do henology without Gods, that is, purely as an inquiry into the nature of units as units and into the unit-nature of beings, without acknowledging that there are perfect henads prior to being, about whom it makes no sense to ask if they are, or are not. In such a henology, this status would exist only as an as-if quality of things. Such a henology recognizes the Pythagorean axiom that ‘All things are in all things, in each appropriately’; but it finds no way for all things to be in anything in a way which does not thereby render that thing’s own unity dependent upon everything else. Henology without Gods thus resembles the Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’, which affirms the reciprocal dependency, and hence ontological emptiness, of all units because all are in each.1
The presence of the divine henads or Gods in henology does not merely add another class of entities to any ontology generated within it, however: it transforms any such ontology, rendering it positive in its entirety rather than negative. The difference between negative and positive individuation is essentially that between what and who.2 Any unit may be specified down to any degree of precision by describing its characteristics in finer and finer detail, and in this way it may be distinguished, in principle, from every other unit. The negative or dependent individuation, however, can only yield a ‘what’, a substance answering to its specifications, its essence;3 and any ‘what’ can in principle be repeated, duplicated, iterated, simply because we can provide specifications, conditions for it to be what it is. In order to maintain the units’ distinction, new distinguishing characteristics will need to be supplied, and we cannot be certain they are forthcoming. Two units thought to be distinct may thus turn out to be the same. Positive individuation, by contrast, yields a ‘who’, which does not depend upon differentiating itself from the rest in order to be what it, uniquely, is. Even were we to imagine another like it in every specifiable attribute, we could conceive such a unit conserving its difference prior to specification of a distinguishing attribute for it.
Positive individuation can be understood in one way as the maximum of negative individuation, that is, as infinite difference, so that if we require another attribute to distinguish two units converging toward indiscernibility, we know a priori that another shall always be available, and another. This is a kind of infinite power. But we can, in turn, also understand positive individuation as qualitatively different from negative individuation, and in opposition to it. In this respect, then, every unit would be in one sense a ‘who’, in another sense a ‘what’. Seen in this light, the process of understanding things causes their ‘who-ness’ to recede in a certain way and their ‘what-ness’ to expand, because we learn what makes a thing what it is, a process that could be compared to creating its portrait, a duplicate increasingly faithful as we discern more and more details.4 We could never reach bottom, so to speak, in this process with any unit; which brings us back to the notion of positive individuation as negative individuation raised to an infinite power.
This power of maximal peculiarity is the very quality of divinity in Platonic thought. Furthermore, divinity conceived in this fashion is not a trait that remains with the Gods Themselves, but is necessarily distributed throughout all beings insofar as they, too, are whos and not merely whats. For beings, however, we may think of this inexhaustibility of the unit’s distinctiveness as experienced as the uncertainty or undecidability of having reached the point of identity in a converging series of apparent doubles. The incompleteness, for any being, of grasping its what-ness (its ‘essence’, to ti ên einai, ‘what it was for a thing to be’), not just for minds such as ours, but in principle and hence for any mind, is the sign, as well, of its divinity. This divinity distributed to all things is what has been termed providence or by equivalent terms in diverse traditions. It has the effect of a providence of the Gods toward individual beings because it is at once the essential divine nature and also provides the ontological ground for a peculiar destiny of each being, a destiny distinct both intelligibly, and with respect to its goodness, from that of units more comprehensive, such as the species to which an individual animal belongs.
If we take up again, however, the viewpoint for which positive individuation is the maximum of negative individuation, then we can see another way in which divine providence operates, this time without a direct connection to the divine nature, which is peculiarity, but instead through universality. For all of the elements of a thing’s essence other than the essence of peculiarity, which is the divine nature, partake of the nature of the Gods for their own part. That is, the species of things and the virtues and qualities individuals instantiate have their own being and their own good, and are divine as the peculiar things they are. When things embody these other beings, living in and through them, they participate in the divine through them in addition to what I have termed their peculiar destiny. One result of this is that persons and things are not dependent upon immediate sanctification in order to manifest goodness and virtue, possessing their ‘secular’ good, so to speak, through the forms in which they participate.
But the incompleteness or undecidability of something with respect to its essence, in addition to being its providence or peculiar destiny, is also its matter, as that which simply expresses the point at which formal specification exhausts itself. A faulty understanding of Platonic thought, which arose from the necessity of denying individuation to incorporeals other than as essences, lest the divinity be multiplied, resulted in an excessive dependence upon the notion of matter, and of hylomorphism, or the dualism of form and matter, in order to fix an end to the process of specification for individuals without invoking the notion of positive individuation. In this fashion, we might say that the matter of things was conceptually substituted for their providence, and materialism designated as the successor to monotheism, should monotheism’s grasp slip. And this is indeed what has occurred, as essence has been taken up exclusively by the natural sciences, on the one hand, while a henology without Gods has found a home chiefly in the school of thought known as Existentialism, the name of which preserves the opposition between ‘existence’ (hyparxis) and essence that was key to Platonic theology and its polytheism.