Polytheism vs. Classical Theism

On Jan 8th, I had the pleasure of speaking with John Buck on Dry Apologist’s YouTube channel about polytheism and Platonism. Dry Apologist was a gracious host, and John is bright, charitable and an excellent active listener, which made for an enjoyable, meaningful and engaging discussion. You can check the discussion out at the following link: https://youtu.be/ZeHCgQiwhNc

There were many things I intended to say going into the stream, and just as many things I wish I had said afterward. Hindsight is 20/20! And this is especially true for those of us who are better at writing than at speaking. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of those thoughts, especially about ‘The One’.

Going into the stream, I wanted to present Platonism as the major game in town for polytheists, just as Naturalism might be thought of to be for atheists. But I would be doing this for an audience who probably had no familiarity with actual Platonism – that is, the school as it was and is understood by its practitioner’s vs how it is characterized by its detractors, or what goes by the name nowadays, however fractional the two actually resemble each other.    

Since the title was Polytheism vs Classical Theism, my idea was to get all this info across by contrasting Platonism with Scholasticism in a fair, clear, and memorable way. I chose to do this with labels. The Scholastics, for example, think of the First Principle in causal terms whereas the Platonists think of it in constitutive terms. Consequently, the Scholastics reason to and about the First Principle with causal (cosmological) arguments whereas the Platonists reason to and about the First Principle with constitutive (mereological) arguments. And the contrastive labels could just continue from there. For example, due to its whole way of looking at the First Principle in causal terms, the Scholastic will explain reality in terms of creation, whereas the Platonist, for respective reasons, will explain reality in terms of emanation, or stratification.

These labels hopefully would not only give people a sense of things, but also impress on them that when Platonists talk about the Gods philosophically, they are talking about the First Principle, and not the anthropomorphic caricatures commonly associated with polytheism or “pagan” Gods. It would also, I hoped, convey to the audience that there was a whole polytheist system of thought out there.

With regard to this latter point, I had also wanted to get into the history of Scholasticism. This, I think, is important because after the Platonic Academies were shut down under the Christian emperors, the Platonic worldview was eventually transmitted only in piecemeal and through the texts which happened to be preserved. But so little of this made it to the Scholastics. The result was a deeply misinformed characterization of “Platonism” as well as a historical narrative that has since been all but completely overturned. For example, the deeply metaphysical and systematic way of thinking about the world and the Gods is actually Platonic in origin, not Scholastic. And many of the so-called classical theists of antiquity were blatantly polytheist – such as Aristotle and Plato. This latter uncontroversial point was made controversial, among other reasons, by an ignorance among medieval thinkers that the term ‘God’ was used by the Greeks in a generic or collective sense of all that is God/divine, not as sort of name designating a numerically singular object. And this ignorance, however useful in the strengthening of a monotheist narrative, was grandfathered from one generation of scholars to the next, until we have at long last saw it for what it was. However, I digress.

With these well intended goals in mind, I attempted to summarize a Platonic take on reality. I wanted to illustrate the holistic, constitutive, mereological, stratifying vision of things that Platonists saw. I did this by speaking of reality as being layered, implying a gradation of increasingly generalized ways of being. Each layer corresponds to a sort of ‘formal’ description of things, so that at every layer what we have is a plurality of objects which have some feature or property in common, and it is in terms of this common denominator that they can all be understood. For example, physics describes objects in quantitative terms. That is, it looks at things qua quantitative, or, in other words, in this formal respect. This isn’t to say that these objects aren’t also qualitative in any respect, just that whatever other such respects there may be, those are not the ones considered by physics.

So, there is this structure of plurality we assume and utilize all throughout the layers of reality, wherein many objects are considered under one heading – the formal trait or respect in which they are one. This type of plurality is called ‘monocentric’ because it involves one (mono), exclusive center of the plurality.

But the process of formalizing things in increasingly general terms eventually runs into a problem: when we get to the most general layer of all things; that most inclusive, fundamental way of being anything whatsoever, we want to continue speaking in a monocentric, formal way, but we can’t!

There no longer is a form available for all things to be described in terms of. Otherwise, there would be something outside the totality of all things (which is strongly logically impossible); namely, the form in terms of which all things can be conceived. So, we reach a point where the monocentric structure of plurality breaks down, and reality must necessarily be arranged differently.

I claimed, with the Platonists, that this layer of reality is, for lack of a better term, at the level of numerical identity. The Platonists called it unity or ‘henos’ in Greek. This is the respect in which something is one, individuated, thing. Here is where something has the integrity of being itself, a sort of substantiveness whereby it is holds together as an individual.

This is the most fundamental way of being in any sense anything whatsoever: absolutely anything and everything is ‘one’ in this sense. All things have ‘identity’ as themselves; they are individuated as whoever or whatever they are. Even Being Itself is one in this ‘metaphysical’ sense (Cf. ST I.11.3.r-obj3).

We try to pick out the formal feature of things at this level of reality and call it ‘one-ness’ (or what the Platonists call ‘The One’). This is supposedly ‘the’ respect in which everything is conceivable.

But this quasi “form” of Self for all selves is paradoxical; because, as Plato said, the One “neither is nor is one,” (Parm, 141e). That is, one-ness cannot itself be a one! Otherwise, it would not be the principle of individuation or uniqueness, but only an example of it. Think about it. The principle of ones cannot itself be another one, anymore than any principle can be an example of that of which it is supposed to be the principle. So, the One itself is nothing at all.

As the Platonists realized, formal descriptions of monocentric structures broke down at this deepest level: the totality of all things could not have in common something outside itself, since nothing is outside of it. Rather, the commonality of all things must be internal to this totality. Only, it cannot be anything in particular that is internal to the whole, lest the One itself be a one.

So, if it must be something – since there are ones – but it cannot be anything in particular, then it must be something imparticular. That is, it must be the arbitrary One. It is itself nothing, anymore than the arbitrary dog is itself a particular dog. Rather, it just stands for the arbitrary One, each of whose identity is such as to function like the form of Self for all selves.

The breakdown of monocentric plurality at this level makes sense then, not only because it is strict logically impossible for the center of unity for all things to be outside of all things, but because the center unity for all things cannot be any one thing in particular. As such, the Platonists reasoned to a sort of plurality that was appropriate for this level of reality, one we can call ‘polycentric plurality’.

The ‘Ones’ in whom all things subsist are identified by the Platonists as the Gods, and worshiped as such.

As the reader can imagine, the Platonists think of Gods in even grander terms than the Scholastics think of God. Indeed, to the Platonist, the Scholastic deity is no deity at all. Pure Act, or Ipsum Esse Subsistens is a creature in the monocentric structure of Nature; a postulate of a philosophical field wholly other than what we might think of as ‘Natural Theology’.

Polytheism is far stronger than a superfluous multiplication of deities: it describes the very structure of reality in a fundamentally different way than it would be on monotheism or atheism.

In fact, according to the Platonic vision, monotheism and atheism don’t make sense in a deeply troubling way because they purport to speak of highest reality but do so in terms of monocentric pluralities.

Theism just is polytheism.

This is the profound polytheism of the Platonists, which resembles almost nothing of the caricatures of Gods flouted by culture and academia. This is the theoretical framework which secures polytheism of any sort, so that traditions and experiences can flourish without ever fearing the possibility of being re-interpreted in monotheizing or atheizing terms.

I could continue forever on this, but I think this may suffice for now. I hope to attend other channels, and perhaps someday to even debate this matter in person. But if all I’ve done is peak your interest and given you a reason to maybe reconsider the merits of polytheism, then I will be deeply content.

If you’d like to see more of this in the meantime, consider checking out my book Polytheism: A Platonic Approach, as well as the posts on this website.


One thought on “Polytheism vs. Classical Theism

  1. Pingback: Classical Theism: The Other Side of the Story | The Analytic Pagan

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