Thinking about a myth, we can choose to focus either on the Gods and other beings involved in the narrative sequence, or on the sequence itself, on the actions in it, and by this choice, make either the former, or the latter, primary. Concerning ourselves with the persons in the myth, we relate it to other myths involving those same persons, whereas concerning ourselves with the actions, we relate it to myths where the same or similar actions involve different persons. Similarly, thinking about a ritual, we can choose to focus on the God(s) invoked, and the relation between Them and the ritual operator, or we can focus instead on the form of the ritual action, which might be performed similarly for diverse Gods. In treating the action as primary in such cases, we establish or recognize a singular plane transversal to the agents involved. This transversal plane, the plane of action, provides the basis for ontology, the inquiry into the nature of being.
Hence Aristotle, who in the Hellenic tradition has given the most thought to being qua being (to on hē on), orients himself according to ousia, which in the later European tradition has sometimes been translated as ‘substance’, sometimes as ‘essence’, and has acquired many associations for us in those forms, most of which have little to do with its proper nature. Ousia is, in the first place, the participle formed from the verb einai, ‘to be’. Thus ousia is truly ‘be-ing’ or ‘beingness’, so to speak, which is not static, but the primary form of action. The first and constant action of whatever is, is simply to be, that is, to be what it is. For with being, comes whatness. I have discussed elsewhere the distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of things;1 building on those discussions, we may see whatness as expressing the actions basic to things.
In an authentic understanding of Hellenic philosophy, the inquiry into ‘being’ always sends us back to the things themselves, and the way(s) they are, rather than to something we might label ‘being itself’. Being Itself would, in any event, be a being, and we would still need to grasp its way of being. The Greek phrase which is most strictly translated as ‘essence’ in later thought (ousia is also translated as ‘essence’, a bit more loosely) is to ti ēn einai, which literally means, ‘the what it was to be <something/what it was>’. In other words, something’s ‘essence’ is its extended act of being. The past tense here has a broader sense than merely temporal. A thing extending itself, whether in time, or in relation, or in analysis or synthesis, acquires through this extension its ‘essence’, its characteristic way of being what, or who, it is. At the same time, the past tense here reminds us that nothing is wholly reducible to its actions or its relations, because these are in a sense in the past, whereas the agency of things, unpredictable in principle, is their future; and this is especially true of the Gods, who are the freest agents.
The theological basis of ousia can be discerned in Aristotle from the very definition of metaphysics which guides his inquiry: ‘first philosophy’, that is, metaphysics, will be either that which seeks to know the nature of the best objects, and hence the Gods and the way They are; or that which inquires into the best way of knowing any object, which would be how the Gods Themselves know things (Metaphysics 983a5-10). Similarly, the various schools of Vedānta ground themselves in the concept of brahman, which is at once action, coming from the root bṛh, ‘to grow’, but also specifically divine action, in that brahman, which in the later philosophical tradition means, loosely speaking, Being, means in the Vedas ‘prayer’, that is, it refers originally to the transversal plane of invocation itself—for just as the fire receives offerings to many Gods alike, so too the flow of devotion is the medium in which the many Gods are encountered, and this original sense is never withdrawn in the later speculative tradition, which rather founds itself upon it.2 Hence, neither in Hellenic nor Indian metaphysics is the nature of being primarily a being, but rather the way of being; and in both of these high theoretical traditions, this nature is sought through engagement with the Gods, and through intellective reflection upon this engagement.
Similarly, in the dominant traditions of Chinese metaphysics, what grounds ontology is the ‘way’ (dao) things are (for Daoism), or principle (li 理) as such (for Neo-Confucianism), that is, the order in the way things are, and hence, again, the plane of action transversal to the many things and the many Gods, rather than a totalizing entity itself. But when sensible and quite straightforward precautions are taken against treating this plane as a thing in itself and supreme being, as in verse 1 of the Daodejing of Laozi, which states that the dao which is named, i.e., treated as a discrete term, is not itself the principle, this is treated as paradox-mongering, as though there is a Dao with all the characteristics of a discrete term, save that it is mysteriously unnameable. To attribute such a feeble and unphilosophical doctrine to any great thinker ought to be recognized immediately as a breach of hermeneutical charity, but it will surprise no one familiar with the incapacity or unwillingness of modern scholars to grasp the equally straightforward denial of existence or singularity to the Platonic One, which “neither is, nor is one” (Plato, Parmenides 141e). We are told this is to be taken as that the One actually very much is, and very much is one, only in a very mysterious way, and in fact that this mystery, rather than anything intelligible, is the entire point of the doctrine. In this fashion, Western monotheist intellectual hegemony at once appropriates such doctrines by rendering them ideologically compatible with monotheism, severing their ties to the polytheistic traditions that gave them birth and never ceased nourishing them throughout their history, and at the same time strips these doctrines of their intelligibility, ensuring that the authority of reason shall remain solely within its own hands. Efforts will persist, undoubtedly, to find ever new ways in which to colonize non-Western metaphysical systems and make them safe for monotheism. The project of interpreting the prime term in Chinese metaphysical systems as a Spinozist substance or a substantified flux à la Whitehead’s ‘process metaphysics’, for example, has recently expanded, to attempt the annexation of Nahua (‘Aztec’) metaphysics and the alienation of it from Nahua polytheism.3
Aristotle never takes the Gods as his subject of inquiry, never asks, that is, ‘What was it for a God to be a God?’, but rather refers to mainstream positions in Hellenic theology as support for theses in physics and metaphysics.4 This approach, which is the common course of development, I would argue, of speculative or theoretical traditions of ontology in all of the polytheistic civilizations I have studied, is easily misinterpreted by modern readers as a turning away from the Gods. Beyond merely recognizing this methodology, however, and guided by the Platonists’ affirmation that the Gods Themselves are hyperousios, or ‘beyond ousia’, we may ask whether there is an intrinsic limitation to ‘whatness’ embodied in its very ‘was-ness’, so to speak. That is, does not the very separability in the mind of the action-character of action from the agents involved, which grants to this transversal plane its relative autonomy and is the condition of the possibility of ontology, also institute and enforce, at the same time, the limits of ontology, and especially insofar as we are concerned with the Gods, that is, with the ultimate things? A line of thought similar to this led in the late 20th century to a ‘theological’ turn in French phenomenology, which sought a breakthrough from the ‘givenness’ (Gegebenheit) of things as they are, to what (or who?) gives them,5 but its results were decisively impaired inasmuch as the researchers involved could not resist using the inquiry merely as a means to acquire the status of philosophical results for as much of Christian theology as the market, so to speak, would bear. It is no accident that a fresh attempt by monotheists to appropriate the philosophy of the supra-essential, which was historically and inherently a polytheistic project, should end once again in impasse, as it did at the end of the tortured course of medieval thought. I would not claim that polytheists alone can make progress in the phenomenology of that which lies beyond essence, but I do believe that progress in this project, when and if it arrives, will of necessity take the form of a doctrine radically more congenial to polytheism than anything undertaken so far in the modern era.
Links to the previous columns in this series:
- Polytheism and Metaphysics I: Divine Relation
- Polytheism and Metaphysics III: Divine Production (I): Hermeneutics
- Polytheism and Metaphysics III: Divine Relation (2): Justice
- See, e.g., “On the Gods and the Good,” Polytheist Leadership Conference, Fishkill, New York, 7/12/14 (https://henadology.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/on-the-gods-and-the-good-final.pdf). ↩
- See, e.g., A. Sandness, “On Ṛtá and Bráhman: Visions of Existence in the Ṛg-Veda,” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 88 (2007), pp. 61-80; L. Renou, “Sur la notion de bráhman,” in L’Inde fondamentale, Études d’indianisme réunies et presentées par Ch. Malamoud (Paris: Hermann, 1978), pp. 83-116. ↩
- James Maffie, Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2014). For a less tendentious approach to Nahua theology and philosophy, and which does not, in particular, seek to erase the entire category of deities from it, I recommend Molly H. Bassett, The Fate of Earthly Things: Aztec Gods and God-Bodies (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015). ↩
- On this reading of Aristotle, see Richard Bodéüs, Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, trans. Jan Garrett (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000). ↩
- See the critical discussion by Dominique Janicaud in Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate (New York City: Fordham University Press, 2000). ↩