The Nature of the Gods (VI): Mundanity

The Nature of the Gods (VI): Mundanity

Each henad, or member-unit of the set of ultimate units, must be regarded as containing infinite potency, simply because it exists, since there is an infinite potency between zero, nonexistence, and one, existence. But it does not seem to us that individual henads are omnipotent; instead they seem to form a hierarchy, in fact a multitude of hierarchies. The brief response to this discrepancy is that these hierarchical relationships, since they express the will of all the Gods involved in them, do not therefore contradict the omnipotence of each—on the contrary, they express a will to express that power in common fields of action. These common fields of action, however, raise an issue in themselves, and a different sort of hierarchy, upon which I want to focus in this essay.

The hierachy in question is a binary one arising from the primordial divine actions/relations which we know through myths. These actions/relations create a binary hierarchy inasmuch as Gods appear to have relations with some other Gods, and none with many others, although as henads, all are in each. Hence some Gods are in pantheons with one another, and there are myths expressing their relations with one another, while with a much larger number they appear to have no relations at all.

The significance of ‘appearance’ in this respect is not to be underestimated. Undoubtedly in addition to what and how things ‘appear’ to us there is much of which we are not and will never be aware. But the very purpose of myth seems to be, at least in part, a vehicle for the Gods to appear to us; and however small a portion of the totality our knowledge represents, the character of that knowledge must still be explicable. And the character of it is that surrounding each henad there is a sphere illuminated by relations with others, brighter where relations are more dense, dimmer where they are more sparse, and fading to essentially total darkness where no relations at all appear.

Let us posit that there are four kinds of relations among Gods. The first are generic, obtaining between all Gods simply qua Gods. The second are specific, obtaining between categories of Gods and expressing common dispositions; these can obtain across pantheons and are the basis of intellectual comparison between Gods. The third are peculiar, which obtain between individual named Gods and are expressed primarily in myths. The fourth are contingent, which exist purely at some time and place, such as the relationship of two Gods both worshiped by me. Between any two Gods, there either are, or are not, peculiar relations. Can we understand from the basic characteristic of the henadic manifold why this binary condition obtains, and what other consequences derive from it?

One could argue that the peculiar relations fall under the contingent relations. That is, one could argue that just as I happen, through whatever contingencies, to worship this or that God, so an entire culture, through contingent factors, comes to participate certain Gods, and certain aspects of those Gods, and it is this differential capacity for participation that results in the binary character of pantheons as discussed above. The problem with this explanation is that it seems to assign too much of the phenomenon of culture as the product primarily of contingent factors, and hence has the general result of downgrading the status of culture. This is undesirable on its own terms, but is also a symptom of the ontological problem of attributing too little of the form in which the Gods are manifest to Them, as opposed to their reception. At a certain threshold, if too little of the form of reception of the Gods is accountable to their own causality, then the reception itself becomes the primary causal agency, and religion becomes primarily a social and psychological question, as it unarguably and appropriately is for certain disciplines. Theology, however, by definition, cannot be such a discipline. Therefore, I would suggest treating the contingent relations instead as falling under the peculiar divine relations. That is, the compresence of deities in a ‘personal pantheon’ is a special case of their compresence in a cultural pantheon. This has the virtue of elevating the individual worshiper’s experience, rather than downgrading experience on the cultural level. The worshiper becomes a culture of one, so to speak, a genuine locus of divine action even if only obscurely understood, rather than culture becoming a mere assemblage of persons at a common place and time.

Given that all members of the ultimate manifold must be in each one, if it is indeed to be the ultimate manifold, how can a God be ignorant of any other? If the lack of expressed relation between all Gods is not to be understood in a manner that downgrades the diversity of cultures and excessively confines divine causality, then there must be a sense in which this unknowing is real, but also compatible with the real presence of all the Gods in each one. This unknowing need not, of course, be the same as human ignorance, but it may very well be a cause of it. And it must be an action in its own right just as much as the expressed relations between Gods are. For if there is something which belongs to a God, but to which Her relationship is purely tacit, this too must be Her choice, unless some special metaphysical faculty be posited to account for it beyond Her choice.

This unknowing seems analogous to the property of passivity implicit in the cooperative action of the Gods, and which I have previously traced back to the basic henadic property Damascius terms the ‘All-one’, which I interpret as the being-in-all of a henad taken as object, as opposed to the ‘One-all’, which is the all-being-in-each of a henad taken as subject. The ‘All-one’ character of a God accounts for Her presence at the periphery of a myth, a pantheon, or a worshiper’s experience at some moment in time. But how does peripheral being relate to apparent absence?

Leibniz, whose thought preserves many henadological insights which have been conveyed through him to modernity, speaks of the ‘confused’ perceptions which we must assume “if our body receives the impression of all other bodies … [E]ven though our senses are related to everything, it is impossible for our soul to attend to everything in particular,” and so “our confused sensations are the result of a truly infinite variety of perceptions.” Leibniz famously compares this to

the confused murmur coming from the innumerable set of breaking waves heard by those who approach the seashore. Now, if from several perceptions (which do not come together to make one), there is none which stands out before the others and if they make impressions that are almost equally strong or equally capable of gaining the attention of the soul, the soul can only perceive them confusedly. (Discourse on Metaphysics, §33, trans. Ariew & Garber).

In his Monadology (49), Leibniz connects this property of having ‘confused’ perceptions to the ‘passivity’ of monads relative to one another: “We attribute action to a monad insofar as it has distinct perceptions, and passion, insofar as it has confused perceptions.” This distinction, in turn, pertains to the difference between one monad and another “insofar as one finds in (the one) that which provides an a priori reason for what happens in the other; and this is why we say that it acts on the other,” (ibid., 50).

Much of what Leibniz says about his ‘monads’ is psychological in character, and therefore only applicable to henads insofar as its logical-metaphysical basis can be made explicit in suitably absolute terms. Perhaps the best way to use his psychologically-inflected formulations is to recognize the henadic causality implicit in the structure of the psyche. For if in Plato’s Timaeus we have a formalized account of the cooperative effort of Gods in a pantheon—any pantheon—then the result of this labor is soul, psyche, for this is what makes a cosmos, that is, a ‘beautiful organization’.

The Timaeus is already formalized—it is not itself a myth, as the figures in it have no names, only positions: paradigm, demiurge, mixing-vessel, the ‘younger Gods’. It is meant to apply to any pantheon. We can formalize it more radically than Plato has, however. I began this task in the very first column I wrote for this site. The relationship between demiurge and paradigm can be understood as standing in for any possible relationship between any two Gods, as long as we distill from this relationship its intelligible content, with its formative value for the cosmos and for the psyche. And so there is no significance to the singularity of demiurge or paradigm, and we may regard the entire divine field of a pantheon as structuring the cosmos simply by virtue of whatever divine relationships constitute that field. What is singular is the cosmic organization itself, which from within is necessarily the only one.

But not from the outside, where there are many pantheons, many cosmic organizations, and many ways by which the totality of things may be grasped as a cosmos. Are these ‘inside’ perspectives ‘merely’ human? No, because Plato does not posit that the Gods work upon an empty canvas. Rather, the field upon which cosmic formation happens is that of ‘disorderly’, ataktôs, motion (Timaeus 30a). This ‘disorder’, unless it is arbitrarily reified, resulting in a dualism that falls short in explanatory power, can only be the other order(s), or taxeis. The cosmogonic activities of the other pantheons, their kosmoi, thus, are like the waves that crash upon Leibniz’s shore, which sound to the ear of the psyche as an undifferentiated roar. Hence Proclus says of the ‘disorderly motion’ of the Timaeus that it “is illuminated by all the orders of the Gods prior to the demiurge” (In Tim. I, 387), that is, prior to the demiurge qua demiurge, though not qua God. Since this includes the primary henadic manifold, the order as members of which Gods are Gods, it is necessarily wider than any single pantheon. Hence it is the ‘confused’ totality of them all, which forms the background noise of each singular pantheon. This is the ultimate ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ of cosmic formation, but this ‘prime matter’ is pure relativity itself.

This confused totality can also be understood as the universal passivity of the Gods, by virtue of the convertability we see in Leibniz between passivity and confused perception, the latter being simply deferred causality, the reason for what happens in one being found in another. The ‘confused’ perception is thus simply what is not thematic, what is at the periphery, what has not been assigned its agency yet, or may never. Periphery presupposes centering, and hence this totality of the Gods cannot be a first principle, but must rather be a result. Hence Damascius calls it the Unified (hênômenon), which in its passive grammatical form refers to the unifying (heniaios) activity of the henads. This is not a confused totality out of which the Gods emerge, but rather the ‘noise’ of their eternal activity. But although it is a result, it is also in itself a ground, the ground of negative or passive individuation, such that beings will exist as a blend of positive individuation, like that possessed by the henads, each of whom is primarily unique, and negative individuation, in which things must individuate themselves through distinguishing themselves from one another against fields of sameness.

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