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 (I): The Problem and Purpose of Reduction
When polytheists use terms translatable as ‘God’, in whatever language they are speaking—speaking at the moment not with regard to the substance of such terms, but to their common designation of an object of the highest religious regard—and are not referring to some particular deity elsewhere identified by a proper name, they are not speaking of a singular ‘super-God’, but of the characteristics constitutive of ‘godhood’, of the nature of ‘the divine’ or ‘divinity’, if you will. We see this usage of the unmarked singular term for deity in a wide array of historical polytheisms, and there is no reason to think that it is not universal, inasmuch as it is basic to thought itself to discern classes of entity and denote them with a collective term, a practice which does not by any means render such class terms unproblematic in their singularity and in their value. But problems are not necessarily things we seek to eliminate, and the problematic status of universals has proven productive in all the crafts and sciences since the method of generating them “was cast down from somewhere among the Gods by a certain Prometheus together with a certain most brilliant fire,” (Plato, Philebus 16c).
Precisely because polytheists do not cut off the question concerning the nature of the Gods by vesting godhood in the proper or superlative sense in a single God, the nature of divinity has stimulated higher thought in every polytheist civilization. This is why philosophy and the other sciences were born in polytheist civilizations and were nourished by them. Thought feeds on difference and thrives when confronted with diversity. With respect to the nature of the Gods themselves, there is a special problem, due to the ultimacy of the Gods as a class of entities, which seems to be something basic in their nature. As Proclus puts it, “All those who have at any time been occupied with theology have termed ‘Gods’ those things which are first by nature,” (Theol. Plat. I 3, p. 12 Westerink). That is, people spontaneously think of the Gods as being first, not (or not only) chronologically but in terms of power or perfection or whatever other factor allows us to establish a hierarchy kata physin, ‘according to nature’. So there is not only the problem of what is the nature of the Gods, but also that this nature, when found, will also be somehow primary among the other natures, among the natures of other classes of things. And so theology is always already going to be cosmology, because an account of everything is somehow going to be implied in the account of the nature of the Gods. Perhaps it is true that in order to know anything, one must know everything; but in the case of the Gods this is apparently more immediately and concretely the case than with respect to any other class of objects.
So the problem of the nature of the Gods is going to be the problem of first principles as well. Proclus goes on, in the chapter quoted above, to mention a number of schools of thought concerning the Gods and the first principles implied by them. There are those who think that only bodies of different kinds exist, and for these, the Gods must be made of some special kind of material. Others recognize the existence of soul, and its essential dignity, and conceive the Gods accordingly as a special variety of souls or as certain powers of the soul. Others discern in intellect the first principle of things, and so the Gods for them are intelligences or powers of intellect or what we might call forms. To all these, Proclus posits the Platonists as superior, because they recognize a principle beyond these in its breadth and simplicity, namely the principle of individuation. For prior to any other fact about a thing, even whether it exists or not, is the fact that it is one, or else we couldn’t speak of it at all. Even something impossible, like a square circle, is one thing, to the degree that it is anything at all.
The Platonic solution thus at once allows everything, wherever it may be in any sort of hierarchy, to really exist just as whatever it happens to be, and also allows the problem of the nature of the Gods, if what is truly fundamental about Them is their individuality, that is, the uniqueness of each one of them, to lie at the absolute outer limit of the whole system of cosmology, of natural types, however that should be formulated.
Therefore, different principles may operate, in a cosmological sense, as ultimate or first principles, without implicating the Gods or requiring them to underwrite or guarantee the validity or exclusivity of that cosmological hierarchy. The Gods are, in this sense, beyond hierarchy, and we see this in the fact, recognized by all polytheisms in one way or another, that, as Thales put it, “All things are full of Gods,” or, as Heraclitus said, that “The Gods are present even here,” that is, that the Gods are active everywhere and among every class of beings. This is something that the Platonic approach can more directly accommodate than other approaches, it seems, insofar as the latter preserve some binary distinction as ultimate: the different kinds of matter, of which some kind is divine and the others are not; the distinction between the living and the nonliving, or between different powers of soul or ranks of souls; the distinction between form and content or between a form and its instances or between subject and predicate. Everything, irrespective of anything else about it, is something, that is, is one. This is the power of the concept of unity, which centuries of misconception have led us to treat in primitive fashion either as the power of some One, or as the power of fusing everything into one single thing, Scylla and Charybdis of transcendent and immanent monotheism.
Correctly understood, however, the priority of the concept of unity makes of the Gods the guarantors of the ultimate existence of each thing and each kind of thing. In the subsequent parts of this essay, I wish to treat of what can be said more specifically about the nature of the Gods from positing their unity or individuality as primary. For now, however, I would like to conclude by considering the other candidates mentioned by Proclus, and the way in which these conceptualizations of the Gods are still with us today, each of which is not only a means of conceiving of the Gods, but also of the ultimate nature of all things—each one, therefore, is not just a theology, but a cosmology as well. Each one, as such, is also fundamentally useful for something, answers to some purpose or need, and therefore is not to be rejected, but incorporated into a comprehensive understanding of the nature of things.
The materialistic conception of the Gods corresponds to the materialistic conception of everything. This conception has been very fruitful indeed in the progress of the natural sciences and in the achievements of technology. The conception of the Gods corresponding to the materialistic worldview may be as crude as that they are an advanced race of alien beings, or as sophisticated as that they are essentially nothing other than the social practices and expressions of devotion and belief directed toward them. On the other hand, there are conceptions of matter applied by the ancients to the Gods which are not reducible to ‘matter’ as conformable to the methods and goals of modern natural science or amenable to technological exploitation, such as aithêr, ambrosia or ichor, or the theophanic minerals Egyptian texts incorporate into descriptions of the flesh of the Gods. A sufficiently anomalous conception of matter can accommodate almost any phenomenon, but materialism, however exotic, has the universal restriction of only being able to deal with phenomena as such—that is, just that which appears insofar as it appears.
The psychologistic conception of the Gods corresponds to the view of reality as essentially constituted in psychical experience, so that the elements of being are nothing other than elements of psyche. And after all, nothing is separable, for us, from a psyche experiencing it. The notion of the Gods as aspects of psychical substance, or as psyches of a given kind, has many manifestations. Plato himself treats the Gods as the best of souls, at least in his written works. We are familiar, of course, with those today who regard the Gods as psychical ‘archetypes’, that is, as nothing other than the causes of certain psychical dispositions in humans. But much mundane polytheist practice also treats the Gods as, in effect, souls, and it is particularly in such contexts that practitioners find it unnecessary to draw any sharp distinction between ‘Gods’ and ‘spirits’ or ‘powers’. In practical contexts like these, the Gods may simply be regarded as the most powerful in a continuum of power among different incorporeal agencies that includes ‘spirits’ of diverse kinds as well as the souls of living and deceased mortal animals. Psychologism is almost inseparable from a higher materialism.
The intellectual conception of the Gods corresponds to the view of reality as constituted by formal patterns, in which the distinction between form and matter, or ‘hylomorphism’, appears in its sharpest form. It is a very powerful mode of thought, but its restriction lies in the requirement that individuation be negative, as we see in Spinoza’s axiom “All determination is negation,” or Leibniz’s axiom of the identity of indiscernibles. Thus the intellectual conception of the Gods leads to the reduction of the Gods’ persons to their functions or activity. Where unity is a principle in itself, by contrast, individuation is by definition positive, rather than differential.
Because the Platonic positing of ‘unity’ or individuality/uniqueness as the principle of divinity as such undermines the hierarchical organizations characteristic of cosmology, it resists identification with any cosmology. In this way it is most importantly distinct from the intellective conception of the nature of the Gods, which can, by contrast, be identified with each theophanic cosmology sequentially, but cannot stand apart from them or thus generate an effective space of mediation between them. We see this on a mundane level in the intellectual identification of Gods with one another based upon their functions or activities, which is instrumentally valuable but existentially precarious.
The root of this limitation, however, lies in the very power of intellective reduction, because intellective analysis recognizes in the elements of a theophanic cosmology (any ‘creation myth’) the very elements of the conceptual set adequate to that theophany’s (self-)understanding. The intellectual tools for grasping any theology are given by its Gods, their environment, activities, equipment, etc. Each such theology thus offers in itself a complete grasp of the cosmos; and since Platonic henology supplies no cosmology of its own, it does not compete with any of these. In turn, it is only the grasp of Gods as unique individuals that can provide the basis for a universal account of the nature of ‘Gods’ as such.
Any reductionism is instrumental, serving some purpose, and establishes a hierarchy of ‘natures’ relative to that nature which is its goal—in the examples given by Proclus, mastery of materials, development of psychical potencies, and discrimination of forms, respectively. In this sense, it is not clear that the ‘reduction’ to unities is really a reduction at all; certainly it is not a reduction in the numerical sense. In seeking to grasp how a thing is one, in what its unity consists, we must take into account everything about it, and therefore unity is prior to any distinction between essential and inessential characteristics. At the same time, the discernment of essences depends upon the ability to designate these very essences as units of some kind, as well as to recognize in the unity of other things their positing themselves in relation to such an essence, as when activities tend toward an ideal, or when organisms orient themselves toward a form of their species, however processual these ideal units may in fact be. All of the terms involved in such a relation have and are defined by their different unit-characters, that is, they are each unique and also units of different kinds, and this tension between uniqueness and the emergence of kinds is basic to existence itself.