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 Metaphysics (I): Divine Relation

To recognize how fundamental polytheism is to Plato’s metaphysics, one need only reflect on the Timaeus, in which the cosmos itself comes to be from one God beholding another God. One must let go of the notion that the significance of this lies in these being some particular Gods; approaching the text in this way is a monotheistic hangover, and a deafness to metaphysics, but it’s curable. Metaphysics is all about forms, and it has no force of its own but the unforced force of being itself. A formal structure or formula is active over however wide a field to which it can apply, that is, over however much it expresses formally. A form as such therefore is most potent when taken at its most universal or abstract, while in its specificities its activity is more localized. Hence in the truly cosmogonic application of the formula of Demiuge and Paradigm in the Timaeus, these are any two Gods in any conceivable relationship with one another, every relationship in any myth you can think of. Every myth, understood in this way, is cosmogonic. Beholding is to be taken as the universal relationship here because consciousness, awareness of appearing, can accompany any action whatsoever, and therefore it represents or formalizes any action.

Nor need the cosmogonic relation be a relation between just two Gods—a concrete relationship involving any number has the same value. By ‘concrete’, I mean that a merely categorial relationship, class membership, won’t do, except insofar as that intellective act by us is traced back to its conditions of possibility, which lie in concrete cognitive acts of the Gods themselves. Membership in a class such as the class of all Gods is not the same logically as, for example, being an Olympian, which is a concrete relationship among individual Gods, and thus ontologically prior to formal classes. A cosmogonic relation can also consist in one God relating to Him/Her/Eirself as Another. Monotheists have obviously taken advantage of this possibility in order to make use of Plato’s Timaeus, though not without some discomfort, but polytheistic theologies have always been capable of this move as well.

In Egyptian theology, when Atum masturbates in the precosmic waters, there are immediately five, at least, who emerge from His solitary act: Atum, who has affirmed Himself in the chaos, Nūn, from which He distinguishes Himself; His children, Tefnut and Shu—ejaculate/cosmic substance and void/cosmic space; and Atum’s hand, Iusāas or Nebet Hetepet (‘Mistress of Offerings’) or Hathor. In Heathen theology, Odin sacrifices Himself to Himself to receive the runes, that is, to render the cosmos intelligible. Atum and Odin both in some sense sacrifice an Eye: Odin sacrifices His eye to Mímir’s Spring (cp. English memory), while Tefnut, known as Atum’s ‘eye’, which is also His ‘agency’ (two senses of Egyptian irt), becomes alienated from Him in the Nūn, and returns to become the uraeus cobra on His forehead, symbol of all the forces that defend cosmic order. In this way, both Gods have made independent an element of Themselves, a ‘vision’ in which all beings, as a result, participate, a sight no longer subjective but objective or intersubjective.

The cases in which the cosmogonic relation is internal to a single divine individual are thus in some way those in which the focalization, or viewpoint quality, the subjectively oriented nature of the relation is emphasized. But this serves the purpose of making the entire field of relations objective. Hence the point of these myths is still the fundamentality of relation, even if it is a relationship between potencies in a single individual. Thus the cosmogonic relation is framed in the Timaeus as an intersubjective relation, and this is its primordial state, because the intersubjective relationship is the richest in content, and it is from the intersubjective relation that everything requisite to cosmogony can be inferred. This becomes especially apparent when in the Phaedrus Plato speaks of the divine symposion. The symposion, alongside its richly specific Bacchic associations, is also a formal structure, standing for any place where the Gods, in being together with one another, behold in each another all that truly is and all virtue, a vision which spills over to dazzle and inspire the souls of mortals.