What Do We Know When We Know the Gods?

What Do We Know When We Know the Gods?

There is a text by Iamblichus, one of the great thinkers of late antiquity, known as ‘On the Mysteries’ (De mysteriis), which has much to recommend it to contemporary polytheists of whatever tradition. It itself sits astride several traditions. It is a series of questions and answers between two Syrians, Porphyry and Iamblichus, both of whom are also, however, steeped in Hellenic culture and especially in Platonic thought, and in addition, Iamblichus writes in the persona of an Egyptian priest, Abamon. The widest importance of this text does not lie in the answers Iamblichus presents to Porphyry’s questions, that is, as a compendium of doctrines. Rather, its widest importance lies in its nature as a dialogue of sorts—Porphyry doesn’t get to talk back here—between two very pious polytheists who are also great intellectuals and who have rather different ideas about how polytheism works. What is not in question between them, however, is that the Gods exist, and the importance they both accord to honoring them: it’s why they’re talking.

I’d like to focus this time on a brief passage in which Iamblichus talks about knowing the Gods. He responds to whatever Porphyry said (we can only reconstruct his questions from the way Iamblichus restates them):

You say first, then, that you “concede the existence of the Gods”: but that is not the right way to put it. For an innate knowledge [gnôsis] about the Gods is coexistent with our substance, and is superior to all judgment and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own principle, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good. Indeed, to tell the truth, the contact we have with the divine is not to be taken as knowledge [gnôsis]. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the uniform intertwining depending from the Gods [… lacuna] We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are Gods. (DM I.3.8, trans. Clarke, Dillon, and Hershbell, modified)

So we have here in the first place a strong rejection of the entire impulse to argue for the existence of the Gods, to take it as an hypothesis for which there might be evidence pro and con. But the reason for rejecting this impulse isn’t because it’s sinful, or because the Gods need our blind faith, it’s because the impulse misunderstands the kind of thing the Gods are, and the nature of the relationship between our minds and Them.

The term Iamblichus uses for ‘knowledge’ here, gnôsis, already refers to something higher, not only than everyday word-of-mouth, or doxa, but also than the kind of thought proper to philosophy, noös or ‘intellect’. Gnôsis in Iamblichus’ day generally refers to a kind of intuitive knowledge scarcely distinct from revelation, and indeed is often used to refer to just that. So a good deal of what is known about the Gods is indeed the product of gnôsis, but we don’t have a gnôsis that the Gods exist, nor is the contact, synaphê, that we have with Them in itself ‘gnostic’. This is because we are intertwined, sumplokê, with the Gods, and have an experience of them that, on its ultimate level, is dependent upon them, because it is not other than them, but instead is part of Their experience. It is not a case of ‘mystical union’ here, at least not in the hopelessly misleading sense that term has acquired in the hands of monotheistic polemicists. Rather, it is a simple case of acquaintance.

Our experience of the Gods on its most primal level is one with Their experience because we are experiencing one another. They are not mere objects in that encounter any more than the people or other animals whom we know are merely objects of our knowledge. First, of course, they are subjects in their own right; but even in their way of being objects for us, there is a different mode of ‘knowledge’ associated with such things. I could, in theory, compile a list of everything I know about somebody who is a friend of mine, but however complete it was, it would remain a description. Knowledge by acquaintance is irreducible to knowledge by description. Moreover, if all there was to experience could be encompassed by description, then the tissue of description would indeed be the ultimate object, the goal of knowledge as such—in a sense perhaps it is, given the ambiguities concerning the application of the term ‘knowledge’ to knowledge by acquaintance.

It is not a question here of the insufficiency of words to describe something. Let us suppose a completely adequate description, even if such a thing is actually inconceivable—indeed, it may be inconceivable precisely because it must presuppose the operation of acquaintance but cannot reduce it to descriptive terms—nevertheless, there is nothing in acquaintance to describe. (This is why, from another perspective, philosophers have correctly criticized the attempt to ground knowledge in acquaintance in any fashion too straightforward.) This is what Iamblichus means when he describes this experience as ‘uniform’, monoeidês. When I focus on this or that attribute of the person I ‘know’, I can ‘know’ that attribute in the other, objective sense; but knowledge as acquaintance is never of the pieces or parts of something, it is of someone, somebody, a difference we mark in our everday language. We ‘know’ somebody, in this sense, as a unity that transcends anything descriptive. We can even, in a thought experiment that has been carried out in fiction countless times, imagine still recognizing someone as the person whom we know though they be changed beyond recognition. So the answer, in this sense, to what we know in knowing the Gods is, nothing, because it’s a matter, instead, of who.

Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta, GA: Society for Biblical Literature, 2003).

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  1. We can even, in a thought experiment that has been carried out in fiction countless times, imagine still recognizing someone as the person whom we know though they be changed beyond recognition. So the answer, in this sense, to what we know in knowing the Gods is, nothing, because it’s a matter, instead, of who.

    I am by no means certain that I truly understood this essay, but what I just quoted sounds like a veiled Dr Who reference. *g*

    • I *am* a fan, but in all fairness, the Doctor hasn’t even been female yet, or a ginger. Empedokles said that he had been “at some time boy and girl, bush, bird, and a mute fish in the sea” (frag. 117 D-K).

  2. The Thracian

    According to some of the expanded Whoverse novels and supplements, the pre-Time Lord Gallifreyans were a race of red-haired polytheist-animist oracular cave-dwelling clerics, whose priests were called Pythia. Which more or less makes them Thracian.

    It also puts into context the Doctor’s commentary on not being a ginger: when he regenerates as a ginger, he will be regenerating as a proto-Gallifreyan (e.g. Thracian).

    Taking into consideration the ’88-’89 unfinished stories, and their subsequent treatments in novels (which included stories written by Moffat as early as the mid-90s), it is my personal theory that the Doctor is not only one of the three founders of Time Lord society on Gallifrey, and therefore significantly older than the 2000-ish years cited in present series, but is in fact also Thracian. Because everything is Thracian, originally. Everything. (This would mean that the “infant” Doctor seen in flashbacks and so forth is in fact not the Doctor’s earliest incarnation, but in truth just another regeneration… albeit as an infant Gallifreyan, instead of a full-grown lad. Presumably this infant grows into the elderly “First Doctor” (of the original series), and we assume that this is the start of his adventures. But what if there were billions of years of Thraking preceding that infantic regeneration?

    Which brings us back to your discussion of “what do we know in knowing the gods”. Truly, the correct question is not about “what”, but “who”.

  3. julianbetkowski

    I’m reading through Martin Buber’s I and Thou presently and I am sensing some echoes, though Buber ultimately moves in a different direction. I want to share a couple of passages that seem to agree with what Iamblichus is saying.

    Whoever stands in relation, participates in actuality; that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an activity in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. (Buber, 1996, p. 113)

    What the ecstatic calls unification is the rapturous dynamics of the relationship; not a unity that has come into being at this moment in world time, fusing I and You, but the dynamics of the relationship itself which can stand before two carriers of this relationship, although they confront each other immovably, and cover the eyes of the enraptured. (Buber, 1996, p. 135)

    Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou. (W. Kaufman, trans.) New York: Touchstone. (Original work published 1970)

  4. Your quotes from Buber coincide with one of the background motivations of my piece, namely a critique of the so-called “theological turn” of thinkers such as Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Levinas, the latter an enthusiastic reader of Buber’s, who each in their own way jump off from the concept of a para-epistemic “givenness” (in Marion’s term) as an opening, beyond ontology, onto the theological—which is of course for them, though, resolutely monotheistic and even explicitly Judeo-Christian. The notion of givenness, however, “acquaintance”, as I term it here, has implications that will not be confined within that project, implications I would argue are inescapably polytheistic.

  5. In my endless search to add more books to my wish list and potential near-future reading list, I happened to consider Iamblichus in this very translation you cited a few days ago…

    So, to be a huge simpleton, and attempting to summarize for the benefit of those who are as thick as me: essentially, what is at stake here is not epistemology, it’s actually personhood and inter-subjectivity, if you like. To experience the gods is not propositional knowledge, nor procedural knowledge, nor anything else, it’s (as you’ve said) acquaintance, and as Julian said (via Buber), the “I-Thou” experience. That is both profoundly mystical, in the sense meant by most people, and yet also profoundly personal and interpersonal, and yet no less deep or impactful because of that familiarity implied in “personal.” (It seems that too many folks, in seeking for the “transcendent mystical experience,” are looking for something impersonal and “above-it-all,” so to speak…which, if they really want that, they may as well pray to Great Cthulhu or Azathoth as much as “The One,” etc., as far as I’m concerned…!?!) Just because the gods are far-more-than-merely-human, that doesn’t mean they’re not persons, and therefore that our relationships with them are personal (as much as they may be with other non-human persons, e.g. domestic animals and pets, land spirits, actual features of the land, sacred objects, sacred images, etc.).

    • Exactly; the existence of the Gods is not a question of epistemology or of physics or psychology or anything like that. It’s primarily intersubjective and ethical, which also means, in turn, that the intersubjective and the ethical are themselves more fundamental than knowledge, and that the mystical is itself intersubjective and ethical. It also means, as you note, that this dynamic of acquaintance ontologically prior to knowledge plays out, mutatis mutandis, on every plane of being, and hence not only between us and the Gods, but also with other humans, other animals, and all sorts of other entities and substances, not in the same fashion, but analogously.

      • julianbetkowski

        There is a beautiful eurythmy in that. I’m increasingly excited for you writing here.

  6. A very interesting and useful essay that my brain will probably spend the next several days digesting. And on a side note, I know understand the difference betweek the Spanish verbs “conocer” and “saber”. Thank you for that too.

    • Thank you, and I agree that the distinction made in the Romance languages between verbs of knowing *something* and knowing *someone* is very useful in this respect. A useful way in which the discussion in this column could be extended, and perhaps I’ll do so sometime soon, would be to read in this light the consideration in Plato’s Theaetetus of recognizing a person versus knowing something.

  7. so. exciting.