The Nature of the Gods (II): The First Intelligible Triad

The Nature of the Gods (II): The First Intelligible Triad

If unique individuation1 is the principle of divinity, then the science of divinity, if there is to be such a science, will emerge from considering the fundamental characteristics of such a unit. We would tend today to call such a science ‘theology’, but the ancient Platonists were ambivalent, at best, about using this term in this fashion. ‘Theology’ for them always meant primarily what it had for Plato when he, apparently, coined the term: the discourse (or logos) about the Gods by poets and priests, not something that philosophers would or could do, at least not wearing their ‘philosopher’s hat’, so to speak. And right down to the end of antiquity, this sense of the term remained dominant: Proclus, too, uses ‘theology’ to refer to the primary texts of sacred traditions, and where he seems to introduce a new sense of the term, it is the exception that proves the rule.

We do not, in fact, know for certain that Proclus himself gave the name Elements of Theology (Stoicheiôsis Theologikê) to the text of his that bears this name for us. Even if he did, however, we must note how he positions this philosophical text relative to theology. Stoicheia are like the letters of the alphabet, having no meaning in themselves. And thus Proclus does not offer us either a theology, or the theology, but what he proposes to be the theological minima. It could be argued that what Proclus offers in the Elements of Theology is what philosophy after Kant knows as a ‘transcendental argument’, that is, an argument that proceeds from the existence of something back to what would make it possible, the phenomenon in question in the Elements of Theology being successful engagement with the Gods. It is by no means clear that such materials could constitute a science, and indeed there is a basic tension in the very notion of a science of the Gods, in the proper sense, because an Aristotelian science (epistêmê) concerns essence and what is universal, and if the nature of the Gods is existential and peculiar, then a science of Them would seem to involve a contradiction.

However, as I said of problems in the first part of this essay, contradictions are not necessarily things we seek to eliminate, because they can form the most secure ground. If the science of the Gods uniquely embodies the contradiction inherent to science itself, then this ‘theology’ grounds all the sciences, in a particular sense of ‘grounding’. This is not the sort of grounding which ‘theology’ as the term was understood in the Scholasticism of the Christian Middle Ages offered to the sciences, nor the sort of grounding which philosophers of early modernity thought to offer the sciences under this name. ‘Theology’ in these contexts refers always to the ultimate discourse of mastery, with the power to subdue all difference and resolve it into the Same, returning all things to the one self-identical thing which is the source of all identity. If ‘theology’ in our sense is to be true to theology’s original sense and hence to its own founding imperative, it cannot do this. Whenever it seems to offer such a grasp or potential for instrumental control, here we must stress for ourselves its radical emptiness, which alone secures for it the universality it claims.

Platonists discern three dimensions in the unit qua unit, which is to say, in the God qua God: a point nature, a continuum nature, and a formal nature. These are purely analytic ‘elements’, and are accordingly displaced straightaway by any constituents playing a part in a given theophany. They arise from reflection upon the basic situation of a multiplicity of units regarded as ultimate. Hence, let us imagine a set of points, each of which is for itself the center of a circle of which, for the others, it lies on the circumference. Hence the unit is a point insofar as it is the center, a continuum insofar as it is at the periphery. Needless to say, there is no absolute center or circumference, these being purely relative terms; but there is nothing relative about the structure itself of the polycentric manifold, which is the only possible structure for such a set of ultimate units.

Platonists call the first two moments of the unit’s triune nature, what I have called the point- or center-nature and the continuum- or periphery-nature, by various names. Often they use the terms Plato had used in his dialogue Philebus, namely Limit (peras) and Unlimited (apeiron); or they call them the Monad and the Dyad, the Dyad being known also as the More-and-Less, or the Great-and-Small; or they called them Existence (hyparxis) and Power (dynamis).

Each of these sets of terms is useful for a particular context. Existence and Power are frequent terms in Proclus, and are especially useful for thinking about the nature of the Gods, inasmuch as Existence refers to the peculiarity or uniqueness of each God,2 while Power refers to a God’s powers, which at once express Her unique nature, while also expressing a primordial otherness-from-self, inasmuch as different Gods can have powers in common, and the expression of powers by the Gods creates fields of relation among them.

Damascius, the last great philosopher of antiquity, denoted these first two moments by a novel set of terms referring to the basic condition of the polycentric henadic manifold, the units of which are all in each one. Accordingly, he referred to these first two moments as One-all and All-one. To understand this model, we can return to the image I offered above of the points which are at once centers for themselves and the circumference or periphery for the others. The One-all (hen-panta) is the God insofar as all the others are in Her, while the All-one (panta-hen) is the God insofar as She is in the Other(s).

In this way Damascius, who in his lifetime saw the effective closure of the Platonic academies by legislation that prohibited any not baptized as Christians from public teaching, and who, with several others, protested this action by crossing the border between the warring empires of his day and relocating to the Persian court, brings out most forcefully through this terminological innovation how certain concepts fundamental to Platonic thought for almost a thousand years by his time, were themselves grounded in the polytheistic experience of Gods, in the devotional experience which also joins us to him across the gulf of centuries. In the devotional encounter at its most intense and luminous, the God, each God, is not the bearer of some narrowly defined function, but rather is in that moment all, all Gods and all things.

How ironic that this very experience of the ultimacy of each God, which is the ultimate expression of polytheism as such, should be presented to us again and again rather as the shining through, so to speak, of monotheism through the fabric of polytheism! It is surely one of the great examples of what Nietzsche termed a ‘transvaluation of values’, in which monotheism claimed for itself, as though it was the proof of its own claims, the very experience in which the living Gods had always shown themselves in their full glory to their devotees, while redefining polytheism according to a new, diminished notion in which the Gods become no more than custodians of their petty offices, even to be defined by these narrow functions. This caricature of polytheism could even be celebrated, in the manner that any pluralism whatsoever will be celebrated as a relief from despotism. Certainly it is not the least among the virtues of polytheism that each of our Gods can shine on another’s horizon, and the choruses formed by our Gods in conjunction with one another, what we call ‘pantheons’, or, on a smaller scale, what we term ‘syncretism’, are Their great works. But relation and conjunction have Existence as their presupposition, and it is from this, the existence of the Gods given in the existence of each God, that our science of ‘theology’ begins.

(The third moment of the first intelligible, or noetic triad will be the subject of a future column.)

  1. ‘Individual’ is an unfortunate term which English requires us to use for what Greeks, e.g., simply call ‘one’ or ‘unit’, terms which have none of the connotation of a negation of division, as does the English term, or a corresponding Greek term such as atomos, literally ‘uncut’, from which we derive our term ‘atom’. It is no accident that English, which came of age with respect to its conceptual terminology during the era of monotheist hegemony, should lack a term for positive, as opposed to negative individuality. Positive individuality, insofar as it grounds ontology itself, certainly entails every power thinkable of multiplication, division, etc.
  2. Note that ‘existence’ (hyparxis) here is not the same as ‘being’ (einai, on), the latter being the final product of the Gods’ activity. ‘Existence’ here has a sense common in some ways with the way this term is used in modern ‘existentialist’ philosophy, namely in its emphasis on uniqueness. This is the result of a complicated genealogy that estranged the concept of ‘existence’ from its original Platonic sense, in which the ultimate ‘existential’ individuals were the Gods, while retaining certain traces of the term’s original function.



  1. Very interesting, and so important to realize! (Take that, so-called “monist polytheists,” wannabe theurgists, and supposed neoplatonists!)

    • Take that? This is a superb piece of polytheist religious philosophy, and it presents a clear alternative to the “all gods are one god” viewpoint. However, that viewpoint isn’t monism. Monism is not an argument about the nature of the gods, but about the stuff or substance of which reality is made.

      • Sorry for the delay in reply. I think that this dispute can be resolved by recognizing that you are both correct. “Monism”, properly a philosophical doctrine, has been illegitimately claimed recently as a religious position. This misleading coinage is what my colleague refers to, hence eir use of scare quotes. To affirm that there is a single substance of things, or a single principle of things, which is monism, does not of itself imply that this single substance or principle is itself to be the object of religious regard; much less does its existence entail that the Gods should as a result be no longer objects of religious regard, or objects of lesser religious regard. The appropriate term for a person who believes that there is a sole object of proper religious regard is, I would argue, “monotheist”.

  2. You just made my head explode. I’m going to have to read this several times before I gain an understanding. This is above my pay grade. Do you have the cliff notes?

    • I think you misspoke… this is not a 6 minute read. This is worth rereading 6 times for 60 minutes. You’re intellectual chops are beyond reproach.

  3. Not speaking for Edward Butler here, but I think this IS the cliff notes version.