Articles by Edward P. Butler

Edward P. Butler

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.

The Nature of the Gods (VII): Providence and Powers

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.

The Nature of the Gods (VI): Mundanity

Each henad, or member-unit of the set of ultimate units, must be regarded as containing infinite potency, simply because it exists, since there is an infinite potency between zero, nonexistence, and one, existence. But it does not seem to us that individual henads are omnipotent; instead they seem to form a hierarchy, in fact a multitude of hierarchies. The brief response to this discrepancy is that these hierarchical relationships, since they express the will of all the Gods involved in them, do not therefore contradict the omnipotence of each—on the contrary, they express a will to express that power in common fields of action. These common fields of action, however, raise an issue in themselves, and a different sort of hierarchy, upon which I want to focus in this essay.

The hierachy in question is a binary one arising from the primordial divine actions/relations which we know through myths. These actions/relations create a binary hierarchy inasmuch as Gods appear to have relations with some other Gods, and none with many others, although as henads, all are in each. Hence some Gods are in pantheons with one another, and there are myths expressing their relations with one another, while with a much larger number they appear to have no relations at all.

The significance of ‘appearance’ in this respect is not to be underestimated. Undoubtedly in addition to what and how things ‘appear’ to us there is much of which we are not and will never be aware. But the very purpose of myth seems to be, at least in part, a vehicle for the Gods to appear to us; and however small a portion of the totality our knowledge represents, the character of that knowledge must still be explicable. And the character of it is that surrounding each henad there is a sphere illuminated by relations with others, brighter where relations are more dense, dimmer where they are more sparse, and fading to essentially total darkness where no relations at all appear.

Let us posit that there are four kinds of relations among Gods. The first are generic, obtaining between all Gods simply qua Gods. The second are specific, obtaining between categories of Gods and expressing common dispositions; these can obtain across pantheons and are the basis of intellectual comparison between Gods. The third are peculiar, which obtain between individual named Gods and are expressed primarily in myths. The fourth are contingent, which exist purely at some time and place, such as the relationship of two Gods both worshiped by me. Between any two Gods, there either are, or are not, peculiar relations. Can we understand from the basic characteristic of the henadic manifold why this binary condition obtains, and what other consequences derive from it?

One could argue that the peculiar relations fall under the contingent relations. That is, one could argue that just as I happen, through whatever contingencies, to worship this or that God, so an entire culture, through contingent factors, comes to participate certain Gods, and certain aspects of those Gods, and it is this differential capacity for participation that results in the binary character of pantheons as discussed above. The problem with this explanation is that it seems to assign too much of the phenomenon of culture as the product primarily of contingent factors, and hence has the general result of downgrading the status of culture. This is undesirable on its own terms, but is also a symptom of the ontological problem of attributing too little of the form in which the Gods are manifest to Them, as opposed to their reception. At a certain threshold, if too little of the form of reception of the Gods is accountable to their own causality, then the reception itself becomes the primary causal agency, and religion becomes primarily a social and psychological question, as it unarguably and appropriately is for certain disciplines. Theology, however, by definition, cannot be such a discipline. Therefore, I would suggest treating the contingent relations instead as falling under the peculiar divine relations. That is, the compresence of deities in a ‘personal pantheon’ is a special case of their compresence in a cultural pantheon. This has the virtue of elevating the individual worshiper’s experience, rather than downgrading experience on the cultural level. The worshiper becomes a culture of one, so to speak, a genuine locus of divine action even if only obscurely understood, rather than culture becoming a mere assemblage of persons at a common place and time.

Given that all members of the ultimate manifold must be in each one, if it is indeed to be the ultimate manifold, how can a God be ignorant of any other? If the lack of expressed relation between all Gods is not to be understood in a manner that downgrades the diversity of cultures and excessively confines divine causality, then there must be a sense in which this unknowing is real, but also compatible with the real presence of all the Gods in each one. This unknowing need not, of course, be the same as human ignorance, but it may very well be a cause of it. And it must be an action in its own right just as much as the expressed relations between Gods are. For if there is something which belongs to a God, but to which Her relationship is purely tacit, this too must be Her choice, unless some special metaphysical faculty be posited to account for it beyond Her choice.

This unknowing seems analogous to the property of passivity implicit in the cooperative action of the Gods, and which I have previously traced back to the basic henadic property Damascius terms the ‘All-one’, which I interpret as the being-in-all of a henad taken as object, as opposed to the ‘One-all’, which is the all-being-in-each of a henad taken as subject. The ‘All-one’ character of a God accounts for Her presence at the periphery of a myth, a pantheon, or a worshiper’s experience at some moment in time. But how does peripheral being relate to apparent absence?

Leibniz, whose thought preserves many henadological insights which have been conveyed through him to modernity, speaks of the ‘confused’ perceptions which we must assume “if our body receives the impression of all other bodies … [E]ven though our senses are related to everything, it is impossible for our soul to attend to everything in particular,” and so “our confused sensations are the result of a truly infinite variety of perceptions.” Leibniz famously compares this to

the confused murmur coming from the innumerable set of breaking waves heard by those who approach the seashore. Now, if from several perceptions (which do not come together to make one), there is none which stands out before the others and if they make impressions that are almost equally strong or equally capable of gaining the attention of the soul, the soul can only perceive them confusedly. (Discourse on Metaphysics, §33, trans. Ariew & Garber).

In his Monadology (49), Leibniz connects this property of having ‘confused’ perceptions to the ‘passivity’ of monads relative to one another: “We attribute action to a monad insofar as it has distinct perceptions, and passion, insofar as it has confused perceptions.” This distinction, in turn, pertains to the difference between one monad and another “insofar as one finds in (the one) that which provides an a priori reason for what happens in the other; and this is why we say that it acts on the other,” (ibid., 50).

Much of what Leibniz says about his ‘monads’ is psychological in character, and therefore only applicable to henads insofar as its logical-metaphysical basis can be made explicit in suitably absolute terms. Perhaps the best way to use his psychologically-inflected formulations is to recognize the henadic causality implicit in the structure of the psyche. For if in Plato’s Timaeus we have a formalized account of the cooperative effort of Gods in a pantheon—any pantheon—then the result of this labor is soul, psyche, for this is what makes a cosmos, that is, a ‘beautiful organization’.

The Timaeus is already formalized—it is not itself a myth, as the figures in it have no names, only positions: paradigm, demiurge, mixing-vessel, the ‘younger Gods’. It is meant to apply to any pantheon. We can formalize it more radically than Plato has, however. I began this task in the very first column I wrote for this site. The relationship between demiurge and paradigm can be understood as standing in for any possible relationship between any two Gods, as long as we distill from this relationship its intelligible content, with its formative value for the cosmos and for the psyche. And so there is no significance to the singularity of demiurge or paradigm, and we may regard the entire divine field of a pantheon as structuring the cosmos simply by virtue of whatever divine relationships constitute that field. What is singular is the cosmic organization itself, which from within is necessarily the only one.

But not from the outside, where there are many pantheons, many cosmic organizations, and many ways by which the totality of things may be grasped as a cosmos. Are these ‘inside’ perspectives ‘merely’ human? No, because Plato does not posit that the Gods work upon an empty canvas. Rather, the field upon which cosmic formation happens is that of ‘disorderly’, ataktôs, motion (Timaeus 30a). This ‘disorder’, unless it is arbitrarily reified, resulting in a dualism that falls short in explanatory power, can only be the other order(s), or taxeis. The cosmogonic activities of the other pantheons, their kosmoi, thus, are like the waves that crash upon Leibniz’s shore, which sound to the ear of the psyche as an undifferentiated roar. Hence Proclus says of the ‘disorderly motion’ of the Timaeus that it “is illuminated by all the orders of the Gods prior to the demiurge” (In Tim. I, 387), that is, prior to the demiurge qua demiurge, though not qua God. Since this includes the primary henadic manifold, the order as members of which Gods are Gods, it is necessarily wider than any single pantheon. Hence it is the ‘confused’ totality of them all, which forms the background noise of each singular pantheon. This is the ultimate ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ of cosmic formation, but this ‘prime matter’ is pure relativity itself.

This confused totality can also be understood as the universal passivity of the Gods, by virtue of the convertability we see in Leibniz between passivity and confused perception, the latter being simply deferred causality, the reason for what happens in one being found in another. The ‘confused’ perception is thus simply what is not thematic, what is at the periphery, what has not been assigned its agency yet, or may never. Periphery presupposes centering, and hence this totality of the Gods cannot be a first principle, but must rather be a result. Hence Damascius calls it the Unified (hênômenon), which in its passive grammatical form refers to the unifying (heniaios) activity of the henads. This is not a confused totality out of which the Gods emerge, but rather the ‘noise’ of their eternal activity. But although it is a result, it is also in itself a ground, the ground of negative or passive individuation, such that beings will exist as a blend of positive individuation, like that possessed by the henads, each of whom is primarily unique, and negative individuation, in which things must individuate themselves through distinguishing themselves from one another against fields of sameness.

The Nature of the Gods (V): Number, Figure, Time

The set of the Gods is not formed by the class characteristic ‘God’, but by that of uniqueness, that is, by being units or henads, while the character of ‘godhood’ comes from the position of this set, the set of absolutely unique individuals, relative to all that is. The character of godhood in the henadic manifold thus expresses in the purest form Proclus’ maxim (discussed here) that ‘Gods’ are whatever things, in a given ontology, are “first according to nature”.1

In connection with the present discussion, I’d like to particularly note the deployment here of the notion of ‘firstness’, inasmuch as it invokes the distinction between ordinal and cardinal numbers. Ordinal numbers order things in a series—first, second, third—whereas cardinal numbers state how many of a thing there are—one, two, three. With respect to the term arithmos, ‘number’ in Greek, Jacob Klein has noted that in its basic sense arithmos “never means anything other than a definite number of definite objects”.2 The abstract or absolute sense of number seems to emerge from this concrete usage in a fashion not too far off from Gottlob Frege’s logical derivation of number from the relation of equinumerosity between sets. Hence, for example, there are three shotglasses on the table, and three tumblers of icewater, with the number three arising as something in itself from the capacity to say, e.g., “For every shotglass on the table there is a tumbler of icewater,” and the like, extending into the countability of sets themselves, so that there is one bottle of whiskey on the table corresponding to the one set of three shotglasses, and so forth.

Frege’s foundation of arithmetic on substantial set characters in this fashion led notoriously to a crisis in the very project of logicizing arithmetic due to the possibility, in dealing with sets and their memberships (or ‘extensions’), of generating sets based on paradoxical characters such as ‘The barber who shaves everyone in town who does not shave himself’. A member of such a set is a member precisely by not belonging to it. Paradoxes such as this were known to the ancients, the classical form arising from a remark attributed to Epimenides of Knossos (in Crete), to the effect that ‘All Cretans are liars’, which must be false in order to be true. And yet, as I have said, I see Frege’s procedure for deriving number from the power of forming sets of objects with some common character (being a shotglass on the table, being a tumbler of icewater on the table) as embodying a genuine insight.

The henadic manifold is the set of absolutely unique individuals, that is, the set of individuals who do not, in the ultimate sense, share any character in common. This arises from the integrity of henadic individuals, each of whom possess all her traits in an irreducibly peculiar fashion, so that while we may loosely speak of all sorts of common traits among Gods, in the strict sense no God has these traits in precisely the same manner as any other. More strongly, because of the ontological primacy of henadic unity over any other trait as such, each trait belonging to a God is, in the primary sense, not the same trait as the similar trait of any other God, not because the trait possesses some distinguishing qualitative character (though this will be the case as well), but simply insofar as it is Hers.

This property of the henadic manifold bears a clear formal resemblance to the paradoxical sets generated by the Barber or the Liar, but in the context of Platonic thought this is, as the saying goes, ‘not a bug, but a feature’. For the existence of such a set of ultimate units—whatever else we thought about the nature of those units—forms the precondition for reality as such, so that there is something, and hence something countable, rather than nothing at all. Furthermore, the unique individuals must be the first units counted, as it were, since any other set depends upon characteristics of greater semantic complexity.

In this fashion we see how cardinal number is grounded in the henadic manifold. What about ordinal number? (I am not concerned here with the question of whether cardinal or ordinal numbers are ontologically primary.) Here I believe we can usefully turn again to Damascius’ twin determinations of the henad as ‘One-all’ and ‘All-one’. We have seen in previous installments of this essay that these determinations encompass each henad’s potential to be either at the ‘center’ or ‘periphery’ of the henadic manifold; and from this I believe that we can establish ordinal number. Ordinal number is based upon the primary relationship of ‘succession’ or, so to speak, ‘nextness’. Now, it can be argued either that any unit counted as ‘next’ after another is at the periphery of the former, or vice versa, and hence that this relation, however construed, is at any rate one of the ways of a unit’s being peripheral to another.

A number of other relationships can presumably be derived from the ‘One-all’ and ‘All-one’ dimension of the henad, including, as suggested in a previous installment, the proto-temporal relationship of ‘now’ and ‘then’, as well as the proto-spatial relationship of ‘here’ and ‘there’; and obviously any hierarchical relationship can be reduced to these basic determinations of henadic existence as well. The categories of ‘firstness’, ‘secondness’ and ‘thirdness’ propounded by Charles Sanders Peirce as fundamental modes of being can also be derived from these henadic properties as (1) immediacy, (2) retention or primary association, and (3) mediation of experience respectively.

Traditionally, however, for Platonists the generation of figure is prior, in any event, to that of temporality, and perhaps to spatiality as constituted by ‘here’ and ‘there’.3 The primary henadic manifold cannot be determined as to number beyond the determination that its number is not infinite.4 Our remarks earlier about the nature of numerability show why: since there is no characteristic beyond ultimate uniqueness that defines membership in the henadic manifold, this set cannot be counted in advance, so to speak, of its constitution. This is the essential facticity of the henadic manifold: there are as many Gods as there turn out to be, though, in a transcendental move, Platonists assert that there cannot be fewer Gods than there are distinct processions of beings. This follows from the necessity of the existence of countable units prior to any counting of them, insofar as the latter involves forming sets based on characteristics of the units. (We may treat processions for our present purposes as categories in a kind of successor relation to one another.)

Figures may thus be understood as diagrams of the basic relations and as the primary ontic sets (i.e., the simplest sets after the henadic manifold itself). The line, hence, is the diagram of the relationship between two units in general and hence of the number two, the triangle the diagram of the relationship between three units in general, and so forth. In this sense, one may say that the ontologically primary figure of any type is the theophanic presentation of a relationship between the requisite number of henads; and I have argued elsewhere that Giordano Bruno, in his own speculative mathematics, presented just such a theory by means of complex diagrams each line of which embodied some mythic relationship between Gods.5 Bruno’s diagrams, insofar as they incorporate narrative, express the fullest procession of figure, which must includes projecting the figure in time, ‘drawing’ it, so to speak, in some given order so that one line succeeds another; and this is one way of stating the necessity of mythic narrative with respect to the henadic manifold.

The Nature of the Gods (IV): The Two Kinds of Group

If the form of multiplicity exhibited by the henads, namely, a multiplicity all of the members of which are in each one, is the primary and ultimate kind, then whatever other kinds of multiple there are must be derivable from it in their form. Two elementary kinds of multiplicity are known as homoiomerous (or ‘homoeomerous’) and anhomoiomerous (or ‘anomoeomerous’). (It is a problem to ascertain whether this is the only exhaustive division.)

Homoiomerous multiplicity is made up of parts that are alike (homoios), at least for structural purposes. An example of such a multiplicity is a body of water, insofar as we take it just as a collection of water molecules, or a flock of geese, insofar as we take it purely as a collection of individual geese. Anhomoiomerous multiplicity is made up of parts that are structurally unlike (anhomoios), and by virtue of this may be regarded as a structured multiplicity. An example of anhomoiomerous multiplicity is a face, insofar as we take it as made up of two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth, or a flock of geese, insofar as we take it as having the sort of structure we see when geese fly in formation.

The fact that the same multiplicity can be treated, now as homoiomerous, now as anhomoiomerous, indicates that these forms of multiplicity have a common ground, and I have argued that this common ground is the ultimate, all-in-each or polycentric form of multiplicity exhibited by henads. The emergence of homoiomerous and anhomoiomerous forms of multiplicity must therefore be traceable to differences internal to henadic individuals.

Stepping back from this technical analysis, we do see that divine organizations exhibit both of these structural potentials, but always interwoven with one another. Thus, a pantheon is a group of Gods, and in this respect homoiomerous, but Gods within a pantheon also perform differentiated functions, rendering the group anhomoiomerous. We cannot eliminate conceptually either of these aspects of divine organization, any more than we can eliminate one of these modes of multiplicity generally.

What is it in the nature of the ultimate units that makes it an ineliminable potential for such units to form both kinds of group, and furthermore in such fashion that any group, generally speaking, can always be viewed in either of these respects? That is, we can expect that a sufficiently close investigation will find structures discernible in the body of water such that it is not characterizable merely as molecules of water, but as molecules of water in this or that state, e.g., of motion, and differentiable on account of this; and we can expect that sufficiently close examination of a hierarchically structured social organization will also find moments expressing equality among citizens.

We can see this potential for these two different kinds of multiplicity in those two fundamental characteristics of the ultimate units that were discussed in part II of the present essay, and which were discussed by Platonists under various terms: Limit and Unlimited, Monad and Dyad, Existence and Power(s), among others, but which Damascius most helpfully treated as grounded in the basic character of the ultimate, polycentric manifold. Since all of the units of this manifold are in each one, each one has the character of being One-all and of being All-one. That is, each one is all the others, and all the others are it. Insofar as these conditions are not simply equivalent, but also distinct, depending upon whether we take a given unit now as the center, and hence as one-all, now on the periphery, and so all-one, they form the potential for the two kinds of groups discussed in the present essay, and with just the complex reciprocity we have already observed.

Insofar as each is ‘one-all’, henads form a homoiomerous multiplicity of units each of whom is the center. But since each can only be the center one at a time, each is also peripheral, or ‘all-one’. (We see at this point the potential for grounding temporality in the basic conditions of henadic existence, but will not pursue it at present.) But there is no single way of being peripheral, because the peripheries of different centers are different, even if it is a question of the same peripheral point, insofar as it is taken as the periphery now of this, now of that center. Each henad is also the center in a peculiar fashion, but this is given by the positivity of henadic individuality, not by the nature of centrality, because a center is not simultaneously many centers in the way that a periphery is simultaneously many peripheries. (Think of the difference between the many circles with a common point on their circumferences, and the many concentric circles around a single center.) We may say, in fact, that the all-one is the principle of differentiating centers according to their peripheries, and that through this principle, the henads form anhomoiomerous multiplicities of diverse kinds.

Centrality and periphery thus interpenetrate one another in a complex fashion. The nature of being-a-center is differentiated by the peripheries involved, and the nature of being-peripheral by the peculiar centers implied. It may be that units can be exhaustively determined by their relations, that is, from their periphery, but can they be given by their relations, however many or however much of their properties are explicable through these relations? For even a center, as an ideal, is posited through the circumference. In this fashion, we can imagine a circle whose circumference is everywhere, and its center nowhere. This is, indeed, what the intellect demands. But if every point is merely peripheral, then it is also fixed and arbitrarily determined to its position (or trajectory, velocity, et al.). The possibility of centering, of selfhood, can neither be eliminated from the system, nor restricted to a single one, because that single possible center could only be that point vanishing for itself, determined from and wholly dependent upon the points actually existing.

The Nature of the Gods (III): The First Intelligible Triad (2)

Having discussed in the previous part of this essay those aspects of the God which are entirely prior to Being, we now join the God in proceeding to be. The division between that which is beyond being (the epekeina tês ousias that is the locus of the Good in Plato’s Republic) and Being Itself lies within each God, in the form of the division between the God’s existence (hyparxis) and Her activity (energeia). In the terms Plato uses in the Philebus, this activity is the Mixture of Limit and the Unlimited resulting from the operation of Causality. That is, it is Being (or any being) as the intersection of discrete and continuous natures and the expression of an agency. With the transition to the third moment of the first intelligible triad, the center of gravity, so to speak, has shifted within the henadic individual, and it is no longer the dyad of Existence and Power(s), One-All and All-One that matters, but rather the opposition between agency and action, will and structure, subjectivity and objectivity. In henological terms, this opposition is characterized as between the Unitary (heniaios), that which unifies or imparts integrity, and the Unified (hênômenon), that which experiences unity as an affection or pathos.

Accordingly, Proclus states in his Elements of Theology (prop. 6) that:

“Every manifold is composed either of things unified (hênômena) or of henads.”

There is always already multiplicity, and multiplicities of multiples, but there are two primary kinds of multiplicity: the henadic kind, exhibited by the Gods, and the kind exhibited by beings in general. The divine multiplicity is unitary (prop. 113, “The entire divine manifold [arithmos] is unitary”), because it is made up of the primary units, which are themselves primary because of the kind of manifold that they alone can form, namely one in which all are in each, rather than all in one. Unified multiplicity, by contrast, is made up of units which are unified, each unit having its unity by virtue of some characteristic, a unit just as some kind of thing; and a manifold of things grouped according to kind is also itself made one through this ‘as’ structure, and hence is also itself ‘unified’. I have referred to these two kinds of manifold as polycentric and monocentric respectively.

But where could Unified multiplicity come from, if not from Unitary multiplicity, lest there be an infinite regress or logical circle of things unified? And hence, from purely formal considerations, Being come from the Gods? And where could this difference arise, if not first within each henad, each God Herself? Hence there is the Unitary and the Unified in each God. In this fashion, we distinguish between the God’s existence and her action, and do not confuse Gods with roles or functions. We recognize the God’s freedom, and do not see Her as merely a part in a cosmic machine fulfilling an alien destiny. We recognize Her agency, and do not reduce Her to Her manifestations or appearances, to what She has been, for Hers is to be. We recognize Her, in short, as subject and not solely as object.

However, we also recognize the converse of these, what She makes, which, since She is ultimate, is what She has made of Herself. In this fashion, the opposition between the Unitary and the Unified in each God is based upon the prior opposition between what Damascius calls Their ‘One-All’ and ‘All-One’ aspects, that is, the way in which each member of the polycentric or unitary manifold on the one hand has all the others in Her, while on the other hand is in all the others. But now there is one thing, a Unified to which the Gods lend themselves, which is the activity of each and the passivity of all. As the Gods are present to one another Their active and passive relations toward one another become concrete in their own right. This is what Being is: the totality of relations among the Gods, and by extension of all other things as well. And it should be emphasized that had we no conception of Gods, we would say the same thing concerning the ultimate units of whatever formal system, to which henology, as the science of ultimates, would apply.

Within the Unified, upon the plane of Being (for a treatment of which from a different perspective, see a prior column), therefore, the Gods step out of the radical equality They possess simply as Gods, and assume differentiated and hierarchical positions amongst themselves in pursuit of Their common work, the cosmos. They array Themselves as parents and children, as sovereigns and subjects, as partners and antagonists, as strangers and kin, all of these dispositions being purely relative to a common plane of action.1 Upon this plane, accordingly, there is high and low, center and periphery, doer and done-to. But “All that is unified is other than the One Itself” (Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 4). There is no approach to Unity through being more Unified, nor distance from it in being less. The ladder of Being, the scala naturae, is not absolute, but a matter purely of integration relative to diverse purposes.

This hierarchical disposition of things is the illusion essential to Being, the same that produces the mirage of a ‘One Itself’, when indeed the One neither is, nor is one:

“Every God is more universal who is nearer to the One, more specific as more distant,” (ET prop. 126).

This differential universality is a function of more or less numerous effects, which we may in turn regard as a greater intensity of power (ibid., p. 112.16-19), but nevertheless “each is a henad” (ibid., 18). Nothing—no one—can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ a henad. Rather, the scalar language should alert us to the ground of such hierarchies in the second moment of the first intelligible triad, the Infinite or All-One, the henad as continuum, which is power and the ground of every more-and-less, while the absolute, existential nature of a henad has its ground in the triad’s first moment, Limit or the One-All, the henad as fact, one who is here.

The Nature of the Gods (II): The First Intelligible Triad

If unique individuation1 is the principle of divinity, then the science of divinity, if there is to be such a science, will emerge from considering the fundamental characteristics of such a unit. We would tend today to call such a science ‘theology’, but the ancient Platonists were ambivalent, at best, about using this term in this fashion. ‘Theology’ for them always meant primarily what it had for Plato when he, apparently, coined the term: the discourse (or logos) about the Gods by poets and priests, not something that philosophers would or could do, at least not wearing their ‘philosopher’s hat’, so to speak. And right down to the end of antiquity, this sense of the term remained dominant: Proclus, too, uses ‘theology’ to refer to the primary texts of sacred traditions, and where he seems to introduce a new sense of the term, it is the exception that proves the rule.

We do not, in fact, know for certain that Proclus himself gave the name Elements of Theology (Stoicheiôsis Theologikê) to the text of his that bears this name for us. Even if he did, however, we must note how he positions this philosophical text relative to theology. Stoicheia are like the letters of the alphabet, having no meaning in themselves. And thus Proclus does not offer us either a theology, or the theology, but what he proposes to be the theological minima. It could be argued that what Proclus offers in the Elements of Theology is what philosophy after Kant knows as a ‘transcendental argument’, that is, an argument that proceeds from the existence of something back to what would make it possible, the phenomenon in question in the Elements of Theology being successful engagement with the Gods. It is by no means clear that such materials could constitute a science, and indeed there is a basic tension in the very notion of a science of the Gods, in the proper sense, because an Aristotelian science (epistêmê) concerns essence and what is universal, and if the nature of the Gods is existential and peculiar, then a science of Them would seem to involve a contradiction.

However, as I said of problems in the first part of this essay, contradictions are not necessarily things we seek to eliminate, because they can form the most secure ground. If the science of the Gods uniquely embodies the contradiction inherent to science itself, then this ‘theology’ grounds all the sciences, in a particular sense of ‘grounding’. This is not the sort of grounding which ‘theology’ as the term was understood in the Scholasticism of the Christian Middle Ages offered to the sciences, nor the sort of grounding which philosophers of early modernity thought to offer the sciences under this name. ‘Theology’ in these contexts refers always to the ultimate discourse of mastery, with the power to subdue all difference and resolve it into the Same, returning all things to the one self-identical thing which is the source of all identity. If ‘theology’ in our sense is to be true to theology’s original sense and hence to its own founding imperative, it cannot do this. Whenever it seems to offer such a grasp or potential for instrumental control, here we must stress for ourselves its radical emptiness, which alone secures for it the universality it claims.

Platonists discern three dimensions in the unit qua unit, which is to say, in the God qua God: a point nature, a continuum nature, and a formal nature. These are purely analytic ‘elements’, and are accordingly displaced straightaway by any constituents playing a part in a given theophany. They arise from reflection upon the basic situation of a multiplicity of units regarded as ultimate. Hence, let us imagine a set of points, each of which is for itself the center of a circle of which, for the others, it lies on the circumference. Hence the unit is a point insofar as it is the center, a continuum insofar as it is at the periphery. Needless to say, there is no absolute center or circumference, these being purely relative terms; but there is nothing relative about the structure itself of the polycentric manifold, which is the only possible structure for such a set of ultimate units.

Platonists call the first two moments of the unit’s triune nature, what I have called the point- or center-nature and the continuum- or periphery-nature, by various names. Often they use the terms Plato had used in his dialogue Philebus, namely Limit (peras) and Unlimited (apeiron); or they call them the Monad and the Dyad, the Dyad being known also as the More-and-Less, or the Great-and-Small; or they called them Existence (hyparxis) and Power (dynamis).

Each of these sets of terms is useful for a particular context. Existence and Power are frequent terms in Proclus, and are especially useful for thinking about the nature of the Gods, inasmuch as Existence refers to the peculiarity or uniqueness of each God,2 while Power refers to a God’s powers, which at once express Her unique nature, while also expressing a primordial otherness-from-self, inasmuch as different Gods can have powers in common, and the expression of powers by the Gods creates fields of relation among them.

Damascius, the last great philosopher of antiquity, denoted these first two moments by a novel set of terms referring to the basic condition of the polycentric henadic manifold, the units of which are all in each one. Accordingly, he referred to these first two moments as One-all and All-one. To understand this model, we can return to the image I offered above of the points which are at once centers for themselves and the circumference or periphery for the others. The One-all (hen-panta) is the God insofar as all the others are in Her, while the All-one (panta-hen) is the God insofar as She is in the Other(s).

In this way Damascius, who in his lifetime saw the effective closure of the Platonic academies by legislation that prohibited any not baptized as Christians from public teaching, and who, with several others, protested this action by crossing the border between the warring empires of his day and relocating to the Persian court, brings out most forcefully through this terminological innovation how certain concepts fundamental to Platonic thought for almost a thousand years by his time, were themselves grounded in the polytheistic experience of Gods, in the devotional experience which also joins us to him across the gulf of centuries. In the devotional encounter at its most intense and luminous, the God, each God, is not the bearer of some narrowly defined function, but rather is in that moment all, all Gods and all things.

How ironic that this very experience of the ultimacy of each God, which is the ultimate expression of polytheism as such, should be presented to us again and again rather as the shining through, so to speak, of monotheism through the fabric of polytheism! It is surely one of the great examples of what Nietzsche termed a ‘transvaluation of values’, in which monotheism claimed for itself, as though it was the proof of its own claims, the very experience in which the living Gods had always shown themselves in their full glory to their devotees, while redefining polytheism according to a new, diminished notion in which the Gods become no more than custodians of their petty offices, even to be defined by these narrow functions. This caricature of polytheism could even be celebrated, in the manner that any pluralism whatsoever will be celebrated as a relief from despotism. Certainly it is not the least among the virtues of polytheism that each of our Gods can shine on another’s horizon, and the choruses formed by our Gods in conjunction with one another, what we call ‘pantheons’, or, on a smaller scale, what we term ‘syncretism’, are Their great works. But relation and conjunction have Existence as their presupposition, and it is from this, the existence of the Gods given in the existence of each God, that our science of ‘theology’ begins.

(The third moment of the first intelligible, or noetic triad will be the subject of a future column.)