Polytheism and Science (I): Coagulation

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.

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  1. Another great piece, thank you for sharing Dr. Butler. Approaching this from a more Peripatetic perspective, it seems there could be nothing of which to call ‘coagulation’ if no potency were activated, except perhaps equivocally. But, in a primordial instance of such solidification, what could activate this potency but another god, and so on to infinity? It seems, pardoning the bottle-necking I’m having to do, that divine coagulation proceeds from the primum movens.

    • Edward P. Butler

      One really can’t approach this from an exclusively Peripatetic perspective, though, insofar as from a Neoplatonic perspective, Aristotle’s “prime mover” is anything but “prime” in the system-wide sense. The entire Aristotelian system–if indeed we can call it such, the notion of Aristotle having a “system” independent of Platonism really being an invention of the Middle Ages–has a very narrow scope of applicability for Platonists, consisting roughly of the psychical plane and a restricted set of intellective functions. Hence, the Aristotelian notion of a dynamis as something in need of actualization, and hence passive in nature, applies to entities inferior to the Gods. The activity (energeia) and potency (dynamis) of beings are equally inferior to the Gods; moreover, the potencies of the Gods are, like the Gods themselves, prior to being (hyperousios), and hence prior to and causative of potencies in beings; and a God’s powers and activity are both dependent and inferior relative to that God’s existence (hyparxis). The Neoplatonic doctrine of divine dynameis is thus quite different from the Aristotelian conception of ontic dynameis. We can already see this in nascent form in the way Plato discusses divine potencies, which are in effect the original “Platonic forms”. Such potencies are not mere “potentialities” or “possibilities” but rather eternal properties or virtues of divine individuals who actualize them eternally through Their own wills and activities, both within the cosmos and prior to it. The “coagulation” of powers Damascius is speaking of is, hence, the emergence, through the action of a God, of separable potencies from out of the indivisible existential unity of Her person. Such action occurs in a context of other Gods, of course, and is relational in that respect; but the Gods are primordially active, even in relations that, for beings, would be passive. This primordial activity of each God is the supra-essential correlate of Aristotle’s ontic priority of activity over potentiality.

  2. Thank you Dr. Butler, it seems to me that your position is actually largely in agreement with the Scholastic Aristotelianism my comment ‘bottle-necked’. Aristotle himself didn’t quite make room for the analogous predication needed here, but I think his medieval followers did.

    To clarify, if I may word things a little more familiarly, just as you say the Gods precede “hyperousios”, the Prime Mover would precede ens commune, and because of this, nothing attributable to hyperousios or ens commune may be attributed to the Gods or the Prime Mover in a univocal sense. But, they may be attributed analogously, as hyperousios and ens commune are fundamentally imitative of superior correlates in what is divine. As you say the Gods are primordially active, a Scholastic might say the Prime Mover is ipsum agere subsistens.

    It seems the Christian Scholastics would find little more than semantic quibbling to disagree with you here on “coagulation.” However, in my efforts to swerve Scholasticism toward Paganism, I’ve become convinced of a radical theory of divine simplicity, which is probably where my difficulty is coming from. But, that’s a complicated can of worms to open.

    • Edward P. Butler

      Hyperousios means “prior (superior) to Being” (hyper to einai). The problem with what you are trying to say here is very simply that activity (or “actuality”), energeia is the third and lowest moment in the Gods’ manifestations, posterior to Their powers (dynameis) and Their existence (hyparxis), respectively. For Proclus, the third moment of divine manifestation, actuality, is even ontic, in some respect, rather than supra-essential (hyperousios); Damascius differs with him on this. But in any case, you can see that it is quite impossible in any straightforward sense to say that the Gods’ powers depend upon some prior actuality. I was being generous in granting actuality as an analogy of hyparxis; strictly speaking, we should only say that the God’s actuality is a reversion (epistrophê) upon Her hyparxis, in accord with the understanding of the three moments of the God’s manifestation as remaining, proceeding, and reverting. This triadic analysis, deriving as it does ultimately from the “Promethean method” in Plato’s Philebus, primarily governs the Neoplatonic use of the term dynamis here, not Aristotle’s doctrine of dynamis. If you wish to claim that it is only retrospectively, through beings participating the Gods’ energeiai, that the dynameis emerge, you will have to contend with the fact that the God’s dynameis are, nevertheless, caused solely by the God’s radical existential individuality and are to that degree themselves supra-essential. This is a property that the Gods’ powers share with nothing else, namely that of being caused solely by the Gods Themselves. On all of these matters, I suggest that you consult my published work, particularly my articles from Dionysius 23 and 26 and from Méthexis 21.

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