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.

Polytheism and Science (II): Parmenides

Parmenides of Elea in Southern Italy (fl. early 5th c. BCE) is commonly reckoned as the father of the mainstream tradition of ancient Hellenic philosophy, which was appropriated, at no small cost all around, by Christian and Muslim monotheists in the Middle Ages, to form, as Christian ideological hegemony waned, the core of the major European philosophies of the modern era—Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel—and which continues, albeit greatly problematized, to provide orientation to contemporary philosophy. This intellectual paternity of Parmenides has largely to do with his pioneering articulation of binary logic. What I would like to discuss here is the way in which Parmenides grounds binary logic in the theophany recounted in his poem, and, through this, how in general binary logic is rooted in polytheism.

The binary logic of Parmenides is not like the binary classification system particularly associated with the Pythagoreans in their famous table of opposites, and which is recorded by Aristotle (Metaphysics 986a22): limit/unlimited; odd/even; unity/plurality; right/left; male/female; rest/motion; straight/crooked; light/darkness; good/bad; square/oblong. Parmenides’ binary logic undermines the primacy of classificatory binarism like the Pythagorean table, and in the process, also establishes the very principle of metaphysical foundation by recourse to more radical principles. Parmenides’ ultimate binary—Being, which absolutely is, and Nonbeing, which absolutely is not—is indisputably more radical than the Pythagorean opposites. From this foundation, which is put forth in the first part of the poem, known as the Way of Truth (Alêtheia), the other kind of binary can be incorporated, and a version of this sort of oppositional cosmogony appears in the poem’s second part, the Way ofDoxa, or Appearance, in which ‘light’ and ‘night’ provide the dyadic substance of what appears. Clearly these are chosen, rather than any of the other opposites, because they are inherent to phenomenality, to appearance itself, which is permeated with evidence and with obscurity together (frag. 9.3).1 To be ‘apparent’ has a double meaning: it embodies the truth of what appears, but purely as it appears. It is only insofar as we fail to respect the logic of appearance itself that the other meaning comes into play, the sense of being merely apparent, and hencenot true.

Parmenides’ poem begins with a dramatic account of a spiritual journey he made in a chariot “upon the renowned [literally ‘of many words’, polyphêmon]2 road of the daimôn,”3 with an escort of Sun Maidens (Hêliades), who lead him to the House of Nyx (Night). I will not comment here on the significance of Parmenides’ soul-vehicle, the importance of mortality for Parmenides’ thought having been the subject of a recent study.4 Rather, I wish to emphasize the motif of revelation. The chariot arrives at the Gates of the Paths of Night and Day, at which point the Sun Maidens have “pushed back with their hands the veils from their heads,” (frag. 1.10). The Sun Maidens have thus doubly disclosed themselves, by “leaving the House of Night for the light,” and by unveiling. The Sun Maidens persuade Dikê, Justice, to open the gates.

At the house, Parmenides is received by a Goddess (thea) who is not otherwise named. Since She refers to “our house”, it would make sense to regard Her as Nyx, the ultimate oracular Goddess in Hellenic theology. Proclus, however, with an utterly mysterious specificity, refers to her as “the nymph Hypsipyle” (In Parm. 640), by which we should probably understand an epithet, “nymph of the high gate,” as gates (pylai) are repeatedly mentioned in frag. 1; but nothing more can be made of this. The rest of Parmenides’ poem consists of this Goddess’ speech to him, through which She promises that he will “learn all things, both the steadfast heart of well-rounded/well-lit5 truth, and the beliefs [doxa] of mortals, in which there is no true trust. But nevertheless you shall learn these things as well, how the things which seem [dokounta] had genuinely to be, permeating all things completely,” (frag. 1.28-32). The Goddess’ words at the end are ambiguous, and have occasioned much discussion, but what is indisputable is that Her teaching will include both a doctrine of truth and a doctrine of doxa, that is, of semblance, appearance, or belief, which are in one sense inherently untrustworthy, but also express a necessity of their own. What seems to be, may not truly be, but it does trulyseem. Doxa are genuine, dokimos, in that respect, in a play on words, and can thus sustain an account worthy of the Goddess. We are reminded again of the epistemological force of polytheistic affirmations that “All things are full of Gods” (Thales): there is an intelligibility appropriate to anything, however intrinsically obscure, whether in the depths of nature, or in the depths of the human mind, or on the fleeting and fluctuating surface of events.

The maidens from the House of Night enter into the light and push back their veils: what is common to the paths of Truth and of Appearance is disclosure, disclosure of Truth as true, of Appearance as apparent. Theophany is the real beyond the distinction of truth and appearance, but far from being “a single, undifferentiated unity,” as Gallop claims—utterly without justification but typical of modern scholarship—there are plainly many individuals there: the Sun Maidens, Nyx, Dikê, ‘Hypsipyle’, the Daimôn of frag. 12, Erôs, the indefinite totality of “all the Gods” mentioned in frag. 13, and others of whom it is less clear whether they are to be taken more as concepts than as deities, such as Anankê and Moira. Like Parmenides himself as the mortal subject of theophany, these Gods are the basis or support in the real for the dialectical testing or elenchos (frag. 7.5-6) embodied in the Goddess’ discourse, and must be, lest the latter undermine itself in paradox.

In this respect, we glimpse already, at the very beginning of Hellenic philosophy, something that will be explicitly articulated at its culmination: a domain prior to Being—for Being belongs to the Way of Truth in Parmenides’ poem. Just as in the Platonists of late antiquity, this domain beyond Being is that of the Gods, of individuals prior to essence, for essence is the product ofkrisis, of judgment, it is what has been tested through the elenchos the Goddess describes. This term, elenchos, or ‘refutation’ is used as well to refer to those dialogues of Plato’s which arrive at no definite solution, but in and through which concepts articulate themselves and things, as it were, argue for their being. But beyond truth and appearance, there is what simply discloses itself. This primordial disclosure is the primary activity of the Gods, it is theophany itself, and since theophany is the primary moment of ontology, along with theophany features basic to manifestation as such—logic, number, geometry—are imparted in their purest forms.

Binary logic, the it is or it isn’t, is the keystone of the Goddess’ discourse, and what She primarily wishes Parmenides to understand. In the form of on/off, or one/zero, it is also literally what the digital world, with its ‘logic gates’, is made of. But the binary nature of the Way of Truth is not like the binaries of the Pythagorean table. The opposites on the table are enantiomorphs, at once excluding and depending upon one another, but the Way of Truth cuts across them, for each in its way is, and on the Way of Truth there is only “that [it] is, and that [it] cannot not be,” on the one hand, and “that [it] is not and that [it] needs must not be,” (frag. 2) on the other. The traits of necessary being are woven all through things, and yet by coming to recognize these traits in their own right, they coalesce together, “because the same thing is there for thinking and for being” (frag. 3) and “things which, though far off, are yet firmly present to the mind” are not separated from one another—“you shall not cut off what-is from holding fast to what-is” (frag. 4).

The Way of Truth, therefore, is at once a criterion applied to each thing, and also produces something itself “ungenerated and imperishable, whole, single-limbed, steadfast, and complete … [it] is, now, all together, one, continuous” (frag. 8.3-6). On the Way of Truth we discover Being Itself, which is manifest along with everything that manifests itself. By thinking it, it is. It is not discovered in the sense that it was there, and then we found it, nor is it produced in the sense that it comes to be: in thinking, it is. A series of further determinations of being itself follow: it is indivisible (8.22); a plenum (24); a continuum (25); without beginning or end (27); unchanging (29); limited (31), but complete and lacking nothing (32-33); equal to itself in every way (49). It is being itself that is named, She explains, by all the things mortals posit as coming to be and passing away and changing in whatever fashion (38-41), which is to say no more, and no less, than that insofar as generation and destruction and transformation and mixture are, they are being; and this means that they are what being is, while being is not what they are—and it is this insight, the recognition of this asymmetry, which provides the transition to the cosmogony of appearance.

Dikê’s appearance in frag. 1 and again in frag. 8 (14-15) underscores that it is the Gods who, through Their presence in each of the poem’s sections, unite the multiple ‘paths’. But it must be remarked that modern commentators in general have not seen in the Gods any particular clue to the notorious difficulties of Parmenides’ poem, nor frankly taken account of them as anything more than allegorical decoration. But even if all of the Gods in the poem were reduced to conceptual equivalents, Parmenides’ logical insights would still be bounded by an irreducible field of forces, of mortality, agonism, and revelation; it would merely lack the secure grounding of entities whose manifestation, rather than bearing reference to Being, as beings do, is primarily productive of Being.

(The Greek text of Parmenides’ fragments, together with an English translation by John Burnet, are available from this site:

Polytheism and Science (I): Coagulation

According to the Platonists, the procession or emergence of being begins with a distinction within a deity, any deity, between Their existence (hyparxis) and Their power(s) (dynamis/dynameis), that which Damascius characterizes as “the very first of all distinctions and which is all but absorbed in indeterminacy, so that the second seems to be the power of the first, a power coagulated in existence,” (De principiis I 118.11-14 Combès-Westerink). The term here translated as ‘coagulated’ is sumpepêguian, a word we see, for example, used in the Iliad (5.902) to refer to the way that fig juice coagulates milk as it is stirred into it, part of the process of making cheese. This coagulation, within the fluid medium of a God’s essentially unique existence, of distinguishable powers, is what allows for Being to be grasped and understood, and in the Platonic account, is what makes philosophy, mathematics, and science in general possible.

Fundamental ontological processes, by definition, are taking place everywhere and all the time. Hence the coagulation of which Damascius is speaking, and which is the beginning of Being, is immanent to concrete acts of thought we can, in principle, perform at any time. One situation in which we can experience the coagulation of power(s) from existence is in every hymn to a God, as the hymn predicates of Them powers, perfections, or virtues, sometimes in the simple form of epithets which are basically adjectives, sometimes in the complex form of attributing actions or relations to Them. This ontological function is of course particularly present in the hymn to the degree that the hymn is dependent primarily not on other texts, but on direct, originary theophany. In this process, a God’s powers coagulate in the medium of Their presence, becoming partially separable in thought from the totality of the God’s nature, while still sharing in it. In this fashion the concept, in its true potency, is born. For powers identified and experienced in a God are experienced beyond the limits those powers would have as present in mortals. We do not yet have to take up the question of whether a God’s powers are, just by virtue of being a God’s, ‘infinite’ as such, or whether they are constrained by that God’s other powers, or by the powers of other Gods; it is enough for our present purposes to recognize that a God’s powers are experienced as indefinitely beyond the constraints associated with the mortal powers analogous to them. It is such powers that ‘coagulate’ in the hymn.

From powers experienced beyond mortal limits a certain kind of concept, in turn, becomes possible. There is a difference between concepts formed passively from experience and concepts which can structure experience in a more radical fashion. We can see examples in the elemental concepts of the earliest Hellenic philosophers. Water, in order to become a ‘principle’, an archê, for the great early Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Thales, if we are to credit Aristotle’s account of his thought (Metaphysics 983b21-28), has become something which is also not water, because archê-water—that’s my term, not Thales’ or Aristotle’s—has the power to transform itself into all the things around us, things which do not share any single consistent quality of water, though they all share this or that watery quality, one thing its translucence, another thing its flowing motility. In fact, water in the everyday sense must be regarded as categorically distinct from archê­-water.

Perhaps Thales came to his archê-water concept, Aristotle says, “by observing that all food is moist and that heat itself is generated from the moist and is kept alive by it … and because the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and water is the principle of moist things,” (trans. H. G. Apostle). But archê-water, if indeed everything we see around us has come to be from out of it, if it is a universal valuation, as Heraclitus says in turn about his archê-fire—“All things are exchanged/requital [antamoibê] for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods,” (frag. 90 Diels)—embodies a leap beyond what can be gathered and inferred from ordinary experience of moisture. Archê-water operates as a divine power does, everywhere and in all things, and Aristotle recognizes this, too, when he says that “some think”—e.g., Plato (Cratylus 402b, Theaetetus 152e, 180c-d)—“that the ancients … who first theologized, also conceived nature in this way, for they made Okeanos and Tethys out to be fathers of generation, and the oath of the Gods as being by water, called by them Styx,” (983b28-34). There are some, too, who see in Thales’ reported sojourn in Egypt the possibility of his having been influenced by Egyptian theologies. History, diffusion and influence, is not the point here, though, but rather that functionally Thales’ ‘water’ is more akin to the watery powers of Okeanos, Tethys, or Nūn, than it is like H2O, though it encompasses H2O as well as much more. And without the liberation of the concept from the constraints of mundane experience, the scientific concept in the modern sense would never have been possible. (Much would still need to be said about the difference between the Greek concept of epistêmê and our conception of ‘science’ which descends from it.)

Nor is this process only to be observed in early physics or natural philosophy, but is equally evident with respect to mathematics, which for the Pythagoreans was directly linked to reflection upon the powers of the Gods, and logic, the discovery of which in Parmenides is embedded in a theophany which is not incidental to it, but is rather its essential context. Modern commentators have inevitably, in attempting to grasp the genesis of these disciplines in ancient polytheist thinkers, either separated these theological concerns from their proto-scientific activities, as though these were in some tension with each other, or have used the presence of polytheistic theologies in these thinkers as proof that their concepts had failed to cross a crucial threshold of scientificity. A perspective informed by polytheistic metaphysics can, by contrast, restore the integrity of ancient thought. Moreover, in restoring the continuity between polytheistic theologies, wisdom traditions and the beginnings of scientific speculation, the polytheist can correct an excessively Eurocentric account of the development of the sciences, because the fundamental intellectual and ontological basis of the sciences is seen to exist in every culture, though historical contingencies have led to certain aspects being developed further in some cultures than in others.

By recognizing that Thales is not simply talking about ‘water’, or Heraclitus about ‘fire’, in the narrow sense, we recover for these doctrines, as for other doctrines of ancient physics, a perennial relevance which the scientific concepts, which are in certain respects their descendants, cannot render obsolete. Thales was not saying antiquated and incorrect things about H2O; he was thinking about a pancosmic function of which H2O is only one instance—indeed, of which H2O is, properly speaking, a symbol, and the relation between symbol and a living totality is analogous, whether we are speaking of H2O and archê-water or of some attribute or function of a God and Their living totality, like love and Aphrodite or queenship and Hera or prudence and Athena. That is, romantic love is to love as a cosmic principle, archê-love, as we see it in Empedocles, as archê-love is to Aphrodite. Aphrodite is not a symbol for love; love is a symbol for Aphrodite.

Thales also said that all things are full of Gods (quoted by Aristotle, De Anima 411a7, and by Plato, Laws 899b). Aristotle elucidates a story about Heraclitus to the same effect:

In all natural things there is something wondrous. There is a story which tells how some visitors once wished to meet Heraclitus, and when they entered and saw him in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove, they hesitated; but Heraclitus said, “Come in; don’t be afraid; there are Gods even here.” … In the works of nature purpose and not accident is predominant; and the purpose or end for the sake of which those works have been constructed or formed has its place among what is beautiful. (De Partibus Animalium 645a18–27, trans. A. L. Peck, mod.)

‘Purpose’ here does not have the banal sense of a plan external to the things themselves, as though things existed for their value to something else, but rather of the organic unity of each organism as such, to the preservation of which all of its parts are dedicated: “Just as in discussing a house, it is the whole figure and form of the house which concerns us, not merely the bricks and mortar and timber,” (ibid., 645a33-34). The presence of the Gods to the cosmos, everywhere and all through it, allows us to appreciate the value things have in and of themselves. The principles active in each and every thing, because they are pancosmic in their activity, make of each thing a cosmos in itself; and this quality of being a cosmos in itself, rather than this or that principle in particular, is how things primarily partake of the nature of the Gods. Such a thing can be studied and understood, it is intelligible all through itself, and there is nothing we can learn about the world which is not at the same time learning something about our Gods.

What Do the Gods Know When They Know Us?

‘Like is known by like’ is an ancient and widely applied axiom in Hellenic thought,1 and some similar axiom probably can be found in many other traditions of thought—albeit we must always remember that being widely held is no index of truth. Rather, axioms must be assessed by the value of the system(s) that can be generated from them. In some sense, to say that like is known by like is the same as to say, with Parmenides, that “the same thing is there for thinking and for being,”2 because we recognize that the thinking of something belongs to the same substance as the being of it.

Another Hellenic axiom is that the Gods know things in the best way it is possible to know them. The notion which founds metaphysics, according to Aristotle, is two-sided.3 On the one hand, it is the aspiration to know the best things, on the other hand, to know things in the best way. For Aristotle, both of these paths lead to the Gods; the former seeks to know about Them, insofar as They are the best things, while the latter seeks to know things in the way the Gods do, for this would be the best way in which to know them. But we can see how the double-sidedness of metaphysics also follows from the axiom that like is known by like, because we would have to know the Gods by learning to know things in a godlike way. But this also implies that our knowledge of the Gods is at once, in some sense, Their knowledge of us.

Moreover, Their knowledge of us must be at once of what is best about us, and of what we truly are. And if the God’s knowledge is a unity, then the best that we are must also be the truth about us, and be what is most real and accurate about us. It can’t just be a portion of me, some particularly valuable trait of mine, because the God, as a whole and a unity Herself, would know me as a whole and as unified myself; and this totality and unity of myself must also be the best me. It cannot be a potential, that is, what I could be, with sufficient effort, because the God, as an actuality Herself, would know me as an actuality, and not as a mere potential. So the best me, who is known to the God, must be the totality and actuality of myself, and this is better than any part of me or any potential I might have. Understanding the parts and potentials is valuable, but would fall below the level of divine knowledge qua divine.

The God, as an end and not a means to an end, must know me as an end in myself and not a means to an end, not, that is, as a mere instrument or vessel. The formula of ‘an end and not a means’ is familiar from Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, but the terminology of ‘end’ in this sense is thoroughly Aristotelian.4 of a body with organs” (De Anima 412a27-29), where the term organikos is from organon, an instrument or tool. The soul, then, is that by virtue of which an end-in-itself arises from instrumentalized parts.] An end or goal is telos, and something which operates as an end in this sense throughout the whole of its being is an entelecheia, a term which also embodies the sense of being teleios, complete or perfect, or as a process, accomplished or fulfilled, and telos and teleios are also the roots of many terms having to do with sacrality. In the case of a God, this fulfillment or accomplishment in process would be a perfection at every moment in the process, rather than a coming-to-perfection at some point. In the same way, the sacral terms sharing the telos or teleios root refer at once to the perfection or accomplishment of a process, and to the event culminating it. But the event as culmination is the purest individuation of the event as such, and so what is teleios or perfect is the event qua event. In this fashion, the Gods can be with us in process without being, like artifacts, the mere outcome of a process. They can be with us in process without being, by virtue of that, ‘imperfect’. And as known by Them, we are also perfect in process, which does not negate the worldly sense of the processes by which we seek to become more perfect, but it does subordinate these processes in which we instrumentalize or objectify ourselves to the pure evental experience of us in the now.

Finally, the God, as a unique individual, must know me as a unique individual primarily, and only secondarily as this or that type or kind of being. The God, as a perfect intellect, does of course know what a human is, and knows me as a human, but She is a God prior to being an intelligence and so She knows me in my uniqueness prior to my species-nature. This applies necessarily to every other kind of entity as well, every other species. To look at it another way, this follows from the Gods’ knowledge of the species itself as a unique individual in its own right, which requires that the relation between me and my species be real, and hence that both terms in the relation be real. A species or other ‘form’, as known by the Gods, therefore is known also as perfect-in-process and evental, as opposed to the way in which these entities are generally conceived in doctrines that are spuriously described as ‘Platonism’, but which have subtracted the Gods from their account, and therefore removed from the cosmos that divine knowledge which perfects everything in knowing each thing in its perfection.

What are the implications of this for relationships with the Gods which do not have these characteristics, in which the worshiper is objectified or instrumentalized? If these were the only options for how the worshiper could relate to the God, then we would have to accept that there was a more adequate knower than the God, that some other class of entity has knowledge superior to the Gods, not merely with respect to some accident, but with respect to the essence of a being. Rejecting this conclusion, it follows that such relationships can only manifest particular potencies of a God, and that a different relationship between the worshiper and their God, established on different terms and with different practices, is possible, not as a matter of idle speculation, but a priori.

Polytheism and Metaphysics (III): Divine Relation (2): Justice

Plato’s conception of justice is another point at which we can see the fundamentally polytheistic nature of his thought.1 What is justice, for Plato? Without much effort, of course, we could say that it is the state of participating in the form Justice; but why do Platonists answer a question in this unhelpful fashion? In fact, this answer’s value is precautionary. In the Phaedo (100d), Socrates explains that the safest answer to a question such as “What makes a thing beautiful?” is to say that “Beautiful things are made beautiful by beauty.”2 Such an answer is safe in light of what Socrates has already explained about his youthful intellectual vagaries (96a sqq.), because it avoids any reductionism, such as when somebody would explain Socrates’ sitting by talking just about his bones and sinews and joints (98c-d), rather than about his decision to undergo the capital sentence ordered by his fellow citizens, instead of fleeing (98e-99a). There’s nothing wrong with bones and joints, but such an explanation doesn’t answer the question we’re probably asking about why Socrates is sitting in just the situation he is.

The value of an answer in terms of ‘forms’ is that, precisely in its emptiness, it holds open a space within the account about how, e.g., beauty or justice comes about, so that nothing in that explanation ends up eliminating what it was seeking to explain in the first place, so that explaining something doesn’t turn into explaining it away. Here we see again a characteristic basic both to Platonism and to polytheism, as I have argued previously: non-reductionism.3 So the just is just in the first place because of Justice, but that still leaves us to explain everything about how justice works, and in that explanation, we encounter again the impulse against reductionism. The Republic, which is primarily concerned with the nature of justice, basically arrives at the answer (443d-e) that justice is the situation in which each of the forces in the soul, where Plato thinks justice primarily is for us, does what it peculiarly does, and doesn’t usurp the function of any of the others. How many and what forces there are in the soul, and what specific relationship Plato argues they ought to have with one another, is less important than that the soul will be in a just state when its parts have a relationship among them that allows each of them, and the soul as a totality, to flourish. Justice is the relation among several things allowing each to flourish as what it is, given that this requires acknowledgment of the whole field in which these things operate.

A key issue that arises in such a field of forces is at what point, if ever, a force reaches a limit in its ability to govern itself and needs to submit to the authority of another force. This is the moment of ‘sovereignty’. There is a paradox here, however. Insofar as an agency could recognize such a need, it is already governing itself, and arguably needs no other; whereas if it cannot recognize such a need, then the authority imposed upon it has dubious legitimacy, if any. In light of this aporia or impasse, the sovereignties established by the Gods amongst themselves within the diverse pantheons can only exist on an ontological plane subordinate to their autonomous agencies. A paradox, an impasse, establishes a new space, because its ‘solution’ is in one respect no solution at all, but in another, it is solved, albeit only on different terms. In this way an ontology of ‘levels’ or ‘planes’ is produced.

Different polytheistic theologies exhibit different models of order among the Gods, different ways of carrying forward the formal principle of a just disposition of forces into the aporetic territory of sovereignty, where no discrete solution without remainder is possible. Instead, there will always be contestation. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus is able to establish a stable Olympian order by recognizing each God’s timē, ‘honor’ or prerogative, the domain in which He recognizes Their authority, so as to minimize conflict.4 Hence, unlike the divine sovereigns who came before him, Zeus operates frequently by persuasion. And yet His reign is marked by conflict, including revolts on the part of those closest to Him. This level of conflict is actually built into Zeus’ model of sovereignty: if it weren’t, it wouldn’t happen, because things don’t just happen to the Gods.

The sovereignty of Ouranos, by contrast, was—and is—force. It remains true that persuasion is not effective in the case of destructive natural forces, but only a greater force. There would be no justice in failing to recognize the autonomy and reality of such natural forces on their own terms, that the physical world, for example, is real and has its own laws. Justice would also require recognizing that there is something that speaks for these forces in a language we may speak as well. Taking a wider perspective, everything may be regarded as a force of some kind (as I have, indeed, already done in this essay), including reason, without overt reduction, and in this regard Ouranos’ sovereignty is uninterrupted. The sovereignty of Kronos is calculation, and its breadth is not to be underestimated. Whatever is done for any other reason can also be understood as the product of calculation; and indeed, what else do we mean when we say that something occurs for a reason, as we have done in the case of Socrates sitting in jail? Kronos, too, is more than this, He is also the dreamer, as in a beautiful passage from Plutarch (The Face on the Moon, 941f-942a), and calculation and dreaming make a totality in Him.5 Each of these sovereignties has that which they successfully comprehend, and that which passes through their net.

Part of the stability of Zeus’s model of sovereignty, which consists in balancing and harmonizing the diverse timai of the Olympians, is that it incorporates its own future, in a certain respect, and even its own failure. Zeus has, in addition to co-sovereigns such as Poseidon and Haides, and a sovereign Queen in Hera, a successor, Dionysos, who never reigns—or does He, sovereign of revolution and transformation? In another sense, Zeus’s reign is stable because it never begins at all, since Aphrodite continues to wield the sovereignty She inherits from Ouranos throughout the Olympian realm, and over Zeus Himself. Zeus’s sovereignty includes the transgression of His authority. He is stolen from and defied, and there are consequences, but myth is not the plane of approximation and compensation, but the plane of law in itself, and therefore the thefts and transgressions against Zeus are themselves part of His law, that which by slipping out of His hands returns, in another sense, to His grasp.

Since Olympian sovereignty is aporetic from the very top, why should we be surprised that Hellenic myths involving human kings virtually always concern their downfall? The Persian Epic of Kings, the Shahnameh, is likewise full of stories of kings falling from grace, losing the xvarenah (or farr) that once shone upon them, and the revolutions that follow. The Chinese Feng Shen Yen I concerns the establishment, in a massive cooperative effort transforming large numbers of humans and Gods, of the principle of the ‘mandate of heaven’ (tian ming) by which human political institutions acquire legitimacy and are deprived of it.

Polytheistic theologies from cultures with stronger institutions of state power than the Hellenic poleis (city-states) still recognize an aporetic quality to sovereignty. The ways in which they work out the problem of sovereignty, however, resemble the way in which these themes play out in Hellenic theologies only as much as they differ. In Egyptian theology, for instance, we see this sort of moment when the cosmic sovereignty is awarded, not to the strongest, Seth, who secures the cosmos itself against entropy, but to the weaker, to Horus, the child of mortality. We may say that this is because this weaker principle will not survive under the reign of the strongest, whereas the strongest will survive under the reign of this weaker force. It would be far too easy to regard mortal beings as merely things that wear out and break down and are washed away by time, and this would be all there was to say under the reign of the strongest, as hitherto defined. Hence a new kind of strength is recognized, and a new form of authority in addition to the old, not replacing it. Once again, Socrates does sit on account of having bones and joints, but also for reasons.

Reaching further, if sovereignty is aporetic in itself, then it is the crisis of systems of governance that most embodies that aporetic character of the principle itself. This may be one way to articulate the virtue systems of governance such as democracy possess over those which are superficially more harmonious. There were in antiquity, of course, already peoples who would have no kings among them, and this is a kind of sovereignty we need to inquire into most particularly. Another line of inquiry which should be a priority for further research, lies in better understanding the theologies of stateless societies. What forms of order exist among Gods, when They form no state?

Justice, then, is ultimately that system of relations within a plurality that preserves the plurality in operation, a harmony in which no voice can be silenced. Justice demands a harmony within ourselves, a harmony among ourselves and all the other mortals, a harmony among ideas, a harmony between ourselves and the Gods, and is itself established first and foremost by the Gods as a harmony among Themselves. And there’s not just one harmony, obviously. Diverse tonalities incorporate elements that are dissonant to a differently trained ear. These elements would be present in the other tonal systems, but as accidents, or as differences below whatever threshold the system sets for what is significant.

The examples I’ve given of theological justice are of justice established within a pantheon. But what is the nature of justice between pantheons, and hence between the human cultures of which pantheons form the theophanic infrastructure? There is no pantheon of all the Gods, albeit this is what ‘pantheon’ means, because there is no theophanic relation incorporating them all, as opposed to the taxonomic classification of being-Gods. Hence there is not a justice existing among Them of the kind They have established in the spaces of myth and through language and symbol and rites. Where are all the other Gods, within a pantheon? In a sense, They are outside its justice, as its ‘matter’, the remainder relative to the works of formation constituting it. But there, too, are the Gods belonging to that pantheon, insofar as They transcend their role in those works.

A culture, a pantheon, is not a narrow place; unbounded by time and space, each encompasses all things. Polytheists know well that there is nowhere they could go where they cannot find their Gods, and that They do not need to take on different identities to do so, though They can. To the degree that they have borders, the borders of pantheons are porous, and given time and worldly circumstances, every kind of encounter and alliance occurs.6 Indeed, it could be that the very reason why pantheons have borders is so that there can be these spaces of encounter. The space between pantheons is not the property of the kind of totalizing synthesis that determines a priori that the many, many Gods are just masks or aspects of whatever number seems suitable to all recognized purposes, usually a baker’s dozen or so, but rather the space of encounters which have no overriding goal. Justice between pantheons seems to depend in some sense therefore upon us, insofar as it lies in our power to recognize the existence of Gods other than our own, and to be the place where these encounters occur, for just as the Gods are not mere parts dependent upon the whole each pantheon embodies, so too we are not merely the products of a given culture or nation or historical line, but the possibility of something never seen or imagined.

1 Cf., where the relation between Gods fundamental to the Timaeus cosmogony was read as such a case.

2 Trans. H. N. Fowler.


4 Zeus’ balancing of timai should not be reduced to a division of labor. The accomodation arrived at by the Olympians in the Theogony is in the first place an intersubjective recognition among Themselves of who They are, and not an assignment of tasks or a designation of roles.

5 I am grateful to my colleague Sannion at The House of Vines for calling this passage of Plutarch to my attention recently (


Polytheism and Metaphysics (II): Divine Production (1): Hermeneutics

Just as polytheism is the theology of relation,1 by that very fact it must be the theology of positive divine production. That which the Gods generate must have its reality and its relative autonomy, indeed, its own causal efficacy, or else Their act of production has been impotent. That which the Gods make, They release into genuine being.

In itself, this already means that our own human intelligence and our autonomous ethical judgment must operate to their fullest capacity in the encounter with the Gods, even when at the same time other faculties of ours, of a different, intuitive character, also come into play in that encounter.

For the Gods to really exist as producers demands that their products really exist too, and not as mere illusions or semblances of being. Any communication delivered from the Gods to us thus possesses a necessary surplus above and beyond its reception. Our understanding of it cannot be without remainder, because it is not identical to us or to the Gods. Moreover, in existing between the God and ourselves, our understanding of the theophany is a cooperative work between us. Our own being does not permit that we are wholly passive in receiving it, nor does its being permit that another understanding of it, another interpretation, is not always possible. In this respect, furthermore, there is never only ourselves and the God in the interpretive encounter, but always some other, not present but potential, who would hear and understand differently.

Theophany—the revelation, appearance, manifestation, intervention of the Gods—is, then, that which demands interpretation. In turn, whatever truly demands interpretation, in an existentially decisive sense, is theophany, for as Proclus puts it, whatever a person posits as primary according to nature (ta prôta kata physin) is what the Gods are for such a person.2

Proclus’ argument goes on to show that any theology that makes the divine out to be anything other than the persons of the Gods, the very individuals that the Gods are, is reductionistic. Only the Platonic position is essentially non-reductionistic; this is the theology of ‘radical’ polytheism, insofar as it posits the unit as primary, and hence the Gods are units, and units of the primary kind, namely unique units or ‘whos’, as opposed to ‘whats’, as I have termed it elsewhere.

Whatever a person takes as primary is going to demand of them an interpretive labor. In a reductionist ideology, or in the reductionist moments internal to non-reductionist thought, this will be the labor of reducing the diversity of merely apparent phenomena to fewer really existent principles. In non-reductionist thought, however, the labor of interpretation will instead be the labor of generating from really existent principles further really existent things.3 The labor of interpretation within polytheistic thought, therefore—for polytheism is the only truly non-reductionistic method of thought, I would argue—is additive, and a direct continuation of the process of divine production itself, which the polytheist conceives as the releasing of things by the Gods themselves into their own genuine being. The Gods do not, in other words, act only through intermediaries, but are available directly at every level of the cosmos as well as through the ongoing activity of powers they have already released into being at every stage.

Theophany thus demands interpretation, not because we are merely human, but because the Gods exist and are really Gods. The Gods stand behind and beyond intelligence, and therefore knowing them requires a process that goes beyond and behind what is given explicitly and exoterically, in no matter how intimate an encounter. This is true even of our fellow mortals, of whom we recognize that there is always more significance in what they do than even they themselves can understand. Where we generally think of this in our fellow mortals as a product of a certain incapacity, however, I would not attribute any incapacity of this sort to the Gods—nor, in the absolute sense, to ourselves either. It is not that the Gods are unconscious of themselves. The opacity, rather, is generative, it is the demand to produce more meaning, to carry forward the divine impetus. And so we go behind and beyond by going forward, by producing something new, something additional to what was imparted to us.

The Gods as Gods are productive, generating form and bringing new things into the world, and therefore the interpretation that comes from theophany necessarily manifests a further stage of their activity beyond the passive and literal reception according to preexisting habits and cultural norms. This has a particular relevance for theophany via mantic work, divination. When we take what is received through the mantis literally, passively, at best we enter into spiritual communion with them, that is, we share in the spirit through which the mantis experiences their God, or, when we divine for ourselves, we continue ‘in the spirit’ we have established between ourselves and the God through the whole tenor of our previous practice. But it is when we apply active interpretation, hermeneutics, to the mantic utterance, rather than resting with either the literal or the received interpretation of that utterance, that we approach the mantic event afresh as itself a divine production, for then we gain the opportunity for the Gods to foster in us a new and distinct connection, which is like the beginning of a new tradition, though it may well never proceed that far. Releasing the mantic utterance into being in its own right, with the causal efficacy to continue to provoke interpretations, is therefore to sustain its divinity.


2 Proclus, Platonic Theology, book 1, chap. 3 (Saffrey and Westerink, eds.).

3 In addition, although Proclus does not mention them, there are ideologies that are not reductionistic so much as fundamentally aporetic, that is, issuing in some basic, global doubt or impossibility of solution (from Greek aporos, lacking resource, or a way forward, or a way out of an impasse). Such ideologies are not necessarily unstable for their aporetic character. In fact, it is far more stable for an ideology to own its aporiai, its moments of aporia, than to blunder ahead with insufficient resources, which results in crude attempts to make reality fit a narrow framework. The aporetic ideology, then, just like the reductionisms, recognizes the basic role of interpretation; it sees its ultimate outcome as negative, however, demanding a lack of closure to the interpretive engagement. In this respect, the aporetic ideology is closer to polytheistic thought than any reductionism can be, but where the aporetic posits the negative lack of closure, the polytheist affirms the positive, i.e., additive, lack of closure.

What Do We Know When We Know the Gods?

There is a text by Iamblichus, one of the great thinkers of late antiquity, known as ‘On the Mysteries’ (De mysteriis), which has much to recommend it to contemporary polytheists of whatever tradition. It itself sits astride several traditions. It is a series of questions and answers between two Syrians, Porphyry and Iamblichus, both of whom are also, however, steeped in Hellenic culture and especially in Platonic thought, and in addition, Iamblichus writes in the persona of an Egyptian priest, Abamon. The widest importance of this text does not lie in the answers Iamblichus presents to Porphyry’s questions, that is, as a compendium of doctrines. Rather, its widest importance lies in its nature as a dialogue of sorts—Porphyry doesn’t get to talk back here—between two very pious polytheists who are also great intellectuals and who have rather different ideas about how polytheism works. What is not in question between them, however, is that the Gods exist, and the importance they both accord to honoring them: it’s why they’re talking.

I’d like to focus this time on a brief passage in which Iamblichus talks about knowing the Gods. He responds to whatever Porphyry said (we can only reconstruct his questions from the way Iamblichus restates them):

You say first, then, that you “concede the existence of the Gods”: but that is not the right way to put it. For an innate knowledge [gnôsis] about the Gods is coexistent with our substance, and is superior to all judgment and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own principle, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good. Indeed, to tell the truth, the contact we have with the divine is not to be taken as knowledge [gnôsis]. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the uniform intertwining depending from the Gods [… lacuna] We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are Gods. (DM I.3.8, trans. Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell, modified)

So we have here in the first place a strong rejection of the entire impulse to argue for the existence of the Gods, to take it as an hypothesis for which there might be evidence pro and con. But the reason for rejecting this impulse isn’t because it’s sinful, or because the Gods need our blind faith, it’s because the impulse misunderstands the kind of thing the Gods are, and the nature of the relationship between our minds and Them.

The term Iamblichus uses for ‘knowledge’ here, gnôsis, already refers to something higher, not only than everyday word-of-mouth, or doxa, but also than the kind of thought proper to philosophy, noös or ‘intellect’. Gnôsis in Iamblichus’ day generally refers to a kind of intuitive knowledge scarcely distinct from revelation, and indeed is often used to refer to just that. So a good deal of what is known about the Gods is indeed the product of gnôsis, but we don’t have a gnôsis that the Gods exist, nor is the contact, synaphê, that we have with Them in itself ‘gnostic’. This is because we are intertwined, sumplokê, with the Gods, and have an experience of them that, on its ultimate level, is dependent upon them, because it is not other than them, but instead is part of Their experience. It is not a case of ‘mystical union’ here, at least not in the hopelessly misleading sense that term has acquired in the hands of monotheistic polemicists. Rather, it is a simple case of acquaintance.

Our experience of the Gods on its most primal level is one with Their experience because we are experiencing one another. They are not mere objects in that encounter any more than the people or other animals whom we know are merely objects of our knowledge. First, of course, they are subjects in their own right; but even in their way of being objects for us, there is a different mode of ‘knowledge’ associated with such things. I could, in theory, compile a list of everything I know about somebody who is a friend of mine, but however complete it was, it would remain a description. Knowledge by acquaintance is irreducible to knowledge by description. Moreover, if all there was to experience could be encompassed by description, then the tissue of description would indeed be the ultimate object, the goal of knowledge as such—in a sense perhaps it is, given the ambiguities concerning the application of the term ‘knowledge’ to knowledge by acquaintance.

It is not a question here of the insufficiency of words to describe something. Let us suppose a completely adequate description, even if such a thing is actually inconceivable—indeed, it may be inconceivable precisely because it must presuppose the operation of acquaintance but cannot reduce it to descriptive terms—nevertheless, there is nothing in acquaintance to describe. (This is why, from another perspective, philosophers have correctly criticized the attempt to ground knowledge in acquaintance in any fashion too straightforward.) This is what Iamblichus means when he describes this experience as ‘uniform’, monoeidês. When I focus on this or that attribute of the person I ‘know’, I can ‘know’ that attribute in the other, objective sense; but knowledge as acquaintance is never of the pieces or parts of something, it is of someone, somebody, a difference we mark in our everday language. We ‘know’ somebody, in this sense, as a unity that transcends anything descriptive. We can even, in a thought experiment that has been carried out in fiction countless times, imagine still recognizing someone as the person whom we know though they be changed beyond recognition. So the answer, in this sense, to what we know in knowing the Gods is, nothing, because it’s a matter, instead, of who.

Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society for Biblical Literature, 2003).