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

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. http://polytheist.com/noeseis/2014/09/03/polytheism-and-metaphysics-i-divine-relation/, where the relation between Gods fundamental to the Timaeus cosmogony was read as such a case.

2 Trans. H. N. Fowler.

3 http://polytheist.com/noeseis/2014/11/04/polytheism-and-metaphysics-ii/

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 (http://thehouseofvines.com/2014/11/30/dead-and-dreaming/).

6 http://polytheist.com/speaking-of-syncretism/



  1. I wrote a story about Kronos in that Plutarch passage in one of the BA anthologies…! 😉

    I see all sorts of places where your ideas here could be usefully applied to both my own projects, and to some events in recent history…

    • There’s always more to be said about Kronos. I think that the nature of polytheism is such that where there is divine sovereignty, there is never just one, but rather one always gets these overlapping sovereignties or a multiplicity of sovereign perspectives, as it were, and it really just depends upon how well documented and preserved the tradition is for us to be able to discern them clearly. Sometimes comparative or etymological material can help us to reconstruct these minor or peripheral sovereignties, or we may just have to obtain gnosis of them. Sometimes there’s an important role for syncretism here as well, because it’s often in alliance or identification with Gods in another pantheon that a God on the periphery in the “mainstream” or “orthodox” theology shifts the center, so to speak. This generally corresponds to a different perception of center and periphery for the entire culture, as well, as virtual borders get renegotiated in the lived experience of a diverse population.

      With respect to recent history, I feel the need to stress that the account of justice here is purposefully thin. It is an attempt to begin thinking about what we might say about justice purely as polytheists. Within our actual traditions, we can and must say much more substantive things deriving from our theophanies and from interpreting our myths and rites.

      Thus, for instance, in Hellenic theology and in several other polytheist theologies there is a council of the Gods (boulê in Greek), which is an important precedent for human political praxis, but this sort of thing will not exist in every tradition. There *is*, however, a “publicity” to sovereignty in any polytheistic system simply qua polytheist, in that a God cannot be subsumed into a collectivity without remainder, and consequently They meet one another in what we may regard as a primordial public space, and this determines the notion of sovereignty at its core. There are mysteries of sovereignty, very highly developed in some theologies (Luc de Heusch’s The Drunken King, or the Origin of the State for example analyzes very rich theories of the formation of the state in several Bantu theologies), but this is one instance where the metaphysics of polytheism itself also contributes something on its own behalf, it seems to me.

  2. Thank you, Edward, for this thought-provoking post. I very much like the idea that porous borders between pantheons create the space for encounters between them.

    • I’m likely going to be writing more on that subject in the near future, as it so happens, and thank you, Isidora, for your wonderful Isiopolis blog, which has long been one of my very favorites.