Classical Theism: The Other Side of the Story

I. Introduction

Feel free to skip to Sections II-III if you’re just here for the arguments. This section introduces the topic and some key terms, especially for those who may be new to this.

If you’re still here, welcome to the debut of this series!

I often hear in law enforcement that every story has three sides to it: what he said, what she said, and what really happened. By this logic, you’d think there’d be a fourth side as well – what it sounds like happened to the officer. Whatever lesson there is in that, one thing is for sure, there’s at least two sides to every story!

In this installment we will be looking at a story that classical theists tell about polytheism. Specifically, the story they tell about its philosophical integrity.

One could undoubtedly devote entire pieces to other such stories, such as those about the history of polytheism, its ethical impact on society or even its soteriological value. And work like that is needed, for how often is polytheism represented as a primitive or regressive stage in the evolution of religion; or as permissive and even encouraging of the most appalling forms of hedonism, or as being so concerned with this life that it utterly fails to prepare anyone for the next?

But defining a position should come before defending it, and so, should one focus on constructing a positive account of polytheism, as opposed to merely denying such allegations as these, then alternate stories to those mentioned above eagerly present themselves. For another time, perhaps. These and other such topics will not be our focus here.

To begin, then, let’s get a handle on what classical theism is.

By classical theism, I shall mean that allegedly historical form of monotheism according to which God is understood in terms of being metaphysically ultimate reality. I say allegedly historical because sometimes thinkers are listed as belonging to this tradition who were not, even remotely, monotheists. 1  Be that as it may, the point, I suppose, is that ‘classically’ minded thinkers of every religious background tended to look for and understand the divine in terms of metaphysical ultimacy rather than in terms of a more contemporary conception, like a hypothesized explanation of more localized phenomena.

Accordingly, this whole way of looking at God involves its own way of conducting philosophy of religion and natural theology. One does not posit metaphysically ultimate reality as a hypothesis, nor amass evidence on its behalf. It matters not how propositionally simple its description can be articulated, let alone how it fares in explanatory competition with alternatives: there are no alternatives; no more, at least, than non-being is an alternative to being. Instead, classical theism boasts of having captured in theory, and with the full force of necessity and certainty that comes through metaphysical demonstrations, what must be true of the world, no matter what else we go on to discover about it.

Classical theism contrasts sharply with approaches that do not view God as ultimate, but as more of a (privileged) constituent of reality.

I have variously and semi-humorously characterized this latter approach as having become a kind of cryptozoology wherein a God is like a supernatural creature roaming the universe, whom the philosopher tracks by finding her cosmological footprints. At some point, I shall have need to address this newer paradigm in relation to polytheism.

But, unlike these latter thinkers, classical theists had far more to say about polytheism, and so we shall begin with them.

My purpose here is to let the classical theist tell her side of the story about the philosophical integrity of polytheism, and then, perhaps for the first time for many, tell another side.

II. One Side of the Story

To the classical theist, a polytheism posited at the level of metaphysically ultimate reality is absurd. It’s not that it’s unnecessarily complicated, or that the evidence just isn’t strong enough for it, or even that it is simply hard to believe in today’s day and age. It’s that polytheism involves a contradiction.

They take themselves to have reasoned to a metaphysically reality that is ‘ultimate’ in the sense that everything else is premised upon it. That there is an ‘it’ here, or something that answers to these descriptions, in whatever appropriately analogous sense, will turn out to be one of the most important things to remember for our purposes. They take themselves to have discovered ‘someone’ specific, so to speak, though they may not be able to say much at all about ‘him’ without special revelation—or indeed, be able to know his essence at all. They only know of him, as one knows a cause from its effects.

It is not that he is a constituent of reality, or one being among others, any more than any principle can be one of the things it is a principle of. It’s just that there is something to which these attributes are made, something these descriptions refer to. There is an ‘it’, in some perhaps analogous or exemplary sense, which has the integrity of being that upon which all things depend; it’s a real ‘thing’, with its own unity or identity. They take themselves to be affirming something which atheists deny.

Having arrived at this singular unity, they go on to deduce the absurdity of trying to multiply it.

By introducing plurality into this ultimate reality, it is thought, polytheism makes it so that there no longer is an ‘it’ around for all things to be premised upon, but rather several or more ‘its’ which reality will variously depend upon in different ways, so that no single principle of being remains. Any attempt to plurify ultimate reality, or to divvy its unity out to a multitude will contradictorily involve saying of one that it is not-one, but many.

Classical theists find a number of contradictory implications in positing a polytheism at the level of ultimate reality. One popular thread of reasoning finds it impossible to distinguish one God from another:

“Should we say, then, that there are many Gods, we must recognize difference among the many. For if there is no difference among them, they are one rather than many. But if there is difference among them, what becomes of the perfectness?,” (John Damascus, 1.5)

“If then many gods existed, they would necessarily differ from each other. Something therefore would belong (conveniret) to one that did not belong to another. And if this were a privation, one of them would not be absolutely perfect; but if a perfection, one of them would be without it. So it is impossible for many gods to exist,” (ST. I.11.3)

Another widespread line of thought finds it impossible for two Gods to both be Supreme:

“Suppose that two Supreme Beings exist. If one depends on the other he who depends cannot be supreme. If both are independent neither is the Supreme Being, for each has no power over the other,” (Ward, 109) 2

But whether we limit ourselves to the popular forms or not, it is surprising just how many numbers of ways classical theists (particularly in the Scholastic tradition) deduce a contradiction in polytheism at the level of ultimate reality. So many, in fact, that it would be impossible to address all of them in any respectful way short of a tome, and certainly not in a blog post. 3

To take only two better known scholastics as an example, I count no less than 20 arguments that John Duns Scotus has with polytheism in his Ordinatio, Second Distinction, First Part, Question 3., and nearly the same amount that Thomas Aquinas has with polytheism in just his Summa Contra Gentiles, I.42. That isn’t to count those given in the latter’s Summa Theologiae, De Ente et Essentia, or any given others of his many works. The sheer number of independent arguments against polytheism given by classical theists from all religious stripes and generations will understandably strike polytheists as daunting and intimidating.

Indeed, the impression is that if classical theists made anything abundantly clear it is that polytheism at the level of ultimate reality is absurd.

But appearances can be deceiving.

III. Another Side to the Story

It’s absurd, classical theists will argue, to plurify what is singular. This singular thing could be Being, Infinite Power, Goodness, Necessary Existence, Divinity, etc. etc. Whatever they have reasoned their way to and found to be ‘there’, or true of what is ‘there’.

But…who told them this is what polytheism does? Who said that it would plurify one thing, as if its members would be unified by some singular external principle?

Indeed, given what they tell us about the divine, such as that it is utterly simple, we should not be plurifying something that isn’t itself a God, lest we instead speak of composite beings and so not about ‘Gods’ after all, or even in the first place!

The assumption behind all these classical theist objections to polytheism is that polytheism would plurify the unity of some one thing. But not only is this assumption gratuitous (and bizarrely so!) but it’s mistaken on even their own grounds!

We should not think of Gods as instantiating some property, feature or ‘thing’. That’s not what they have in common. Otherwise, they aren’t Gods after all.

For all this, we have classical theists regularly talking like this:

“for there to be more than one thing of a kind requires that that thing have metaphysical parts like genus and specific difference, or matter together with the species essence that the matter instantiates, and that in turn entails having potentiality. But God, being purely actual, is devoid of potentiality. Hence, he cannot have parts of the sort in question, and therefore, he does not belong to a kind of which there could be more than one instance. He is, accordingly, unique, so that the theism to which the arguments defended in chapters 1 through 5 lead us is a monotheism,” (Feser, 187)

“A being, however, is said to be unique, when there cannot be or at least are not other beings of the same species or genus,” (Garrigou-Lagrange, 300-01)

And so they get things exactly backwards! You can’t start by assuming there would a ‘kind’ to which many Gods belong, and then deduce the absurdity of transcendent reality belonging to a kind! That’s a manufactured problem. They’re deducing that polytheism is absurd by assuming that monotheism is true! We never say the transcendent is categorizable. They did!

But only when they have polytheism in mind. Otherwise, they say God cannot belong to any category, genus or species.

Even in that case, though, as I have argued, it follows a fortiori that he cannot belong to any category, genus or species as its only member! So, he cannot be ‘the only’ God.

In either case, then, monotheism is in dire straits.

The classical theist’s failure to really consider a plurality of what is divine here is symptomatic of a wider tendency to do the same across the board. For example, objections that two Gods could not differ lest one lack some perfection the other has; or that two Gods cannot both be infinite, lest one lack what the other has; or that…etc. All such pieces of reasoning say they are talking about Gods, but then go on to talk about things that are subject to deriving their identities from their properties, or which are composite, or in any number of ways not divine after all.

They will devote trees worth of pages pouring over complicated philosophical matters, but not one moment on what if each God were First. What if each God preceded all relation. What if each God were differentiated by her identity. What if…etc.

I recall asking Feser this:

“Monotheism asserts the proposition that “Only one God exists.” In quantifying the amount of Gods that exist, this proposition treats of a plurality of “Gods.” In denying existence of all but one in this plurality, monotheism separates Gods from “existence”, and thus treats of a plurality of abstractions, or “essences” as Thomists may say. It would seem, therefore, that monotheism is committed to a view on which a God’s essence is separable from his “existence.” But, for Aquinas, the essence of God just is his existence. Was Aquinas thus not a monotheist? If not, what was he?”

He took this to be me confusing grammar with reality. But it’s the monotheist proposition that is quantifying the number of Gods that exist. So, if he was right about confusing grammar with reality, so much the worse for monotheism!

In any case, he says in response that “[s]ince these notions don’t apply to God, it follows that there is no way for him to be merely one instance of a kind of thing. There is no genus or general class to which he belongs. He is of his nature unique.”

So, as I said, because there cannot be anything for God to be the only one of, he cannot be the only one of anything.

Monotheism is bunk, people.

Indeed, Aquinas recognized that we cannot say the number of Gods is one: “’One’ which is the principle of number is not predicated of God, but only of material things,” (ST I.11.3) All he can say is that God is/has unified or undivided being. That is, that he is metaphysically one.

But, of course, just because, say, YHWH is one does not mean that Poseidon isn’t. So, they can either try to oppose polytheism and invoke numerical unity, thus sacrificing divine transcendence, or they can be in harmony with polytheism and merely say of their God that he is undivided.

That is, monotheism can either be materially equivalent to atheism or trivially compatible with polytheism.

Now, the classical theists might ask at this point what the principle of plurality is supposed to be then? If it’s not some singular thing which unifies the Gods as a group, such as a divine nature or property they all have in common, then what is it?

But what a striking admission this would be. To acknowledge that the prolific literature they produced on polytheism never once entertained this question. That they never held the idea of different Gods to the standards of divinity they proposed, and so never actually considered the philosophical integrity of polytheism. Instead, they spent this entire time burning straw men and asking everyone to go along with it.

As my readers will know, I have a whole account of polytheism waiting to step into this conversation. But let this suffice for now.

I will leave you with one argument in closing, hopefully to peak your curiosity. Consider this as a way of modelling divine plurality which, unlike the classical theist’s model, isn’t intrinsically at odds with the very notion of divinity:

Let a plurality =df. what forms when individuals have something in common. (D)

Assume Divine Simplicity; that God is a way of being whatever it has. (A)

  1. If there is a plurality of Gods, they have something in common. (From D)
  2. If they have something in common, they are each a way of being it. (From A)
  3. If they are each a way of being it, then they are each a way of being one another. (Ex hypothesi)
  4. Therefore, if there is a plurality of Gods, they are each a way of being one another. (1-3, H.S.)

IV. Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground in a little amount of space. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of the beast with posts such as these. However, I hope to have accomplished at least two things. First, I hope that I represented classical theism as accurately as possible. There will always be summarizations, and unmentioned subtleties. Moreover, ‘classical theism’ is an academic category; a recognition of a broad pattern across diverse thinkers. It’s not really a demographic. Descriptions of classical theists as a group, then, come with the appropriate grains of salt. However, I was a classical theist for years myself, a Thomist in fact, and I know the pains of being misunderstood. Second, I hope that I have helped the reader to see that there is another side to this story. It’s not the only other side, nor even the whole of the side I have brought up. I’ve only but cracked the door ajar, and positive accounts of polytheism will fill in all the blanks you may be wondering about.

For those of you who are wondering what I think that positive account looks like, I’d recommend checking my book out, as well as this summary post. Perhaps even more so, I recommend the works on polytheism of Dr. Edward Butler.

But whether one pursues this any further or not, I believe it is sufficiently clear by any fair standards that the objections of classical theists to polytheism are not anywhere near as obvious as they may otherwise have seemed. Not one of them, I contend, is dialectically successful.

I once again would like to extend an invitation for thinkers to reconsider polytheism, as well as to bring their insights and creativity to the table.

Thank you for reading!


[1]: For whatever reason, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus are regularly identified as ‘classical theists’ and even as ‘proto-monotheists’. On Plato’s polytheism, see Gerd Van Riel’s 2013 ‘Plato’s Gods‘. For Aristotle’s polytheism, check out Richard Bodeus’ 2000 ‘Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals‘. On Plotinus’ polytheism, see Edward Butler’s 2016 ‘Plotinian Henadology‘.

[2]: Call incoherent or logically impossible actions ‘asdlkfjasd;’. Ward humorously assumes that if a supreme being cannot asdlkfjasd;, such as having power over one who is supreme, then she is not herself supreme. I wonder if he endorsed the ‘rock-too-heavy-to-life’ objection to omnipotence as well.

[3]: In addition to these, there are related sorts of arguments which are less metaphysical, but still go for absurdity. Augustine, for example, argues that the tendency in polytheism to increasingly posit more Gods over time is an indictment against their status as truly divine, (City of God, I.2)


One thought on “Classical Theism: The Other Side of the Story

  1. Having often mused on the individual identities of gods, but also their apparent ability to share identities, I find your “… if there is a plurality of Gods, they are each a way of being one another” usefully thought provoking.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s