Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pagan Cosmology: not quite random thoughts on Platonism, polytheism, monism, and so forth

Toward the beginning of Plato's famous treatise on Pagan Cosmology, Socrates says to his friend Timaeus (after whom this dialogue is named):
Socrates: Bounteous and magnificent, methinks, is the feast of speech with which I am to be requited. So then, it will be your task, it seems, to speak next, when you have duly invoked the Gods.
To which Timaeus responds:
Timaeus: Nay, as to that, Socrates, all men who possess even a small share of good sense call upon God always at the outset of every undertaking, be it small or great; we therefore who are purposing to deliver a discourse concerning the Universe, how it was created or haply is uncreate, must needs invoke the Gods and Goddesses (if so be that we are not utterly demented), praying that all we say may be approved by them in the first place, and secondly by ourselves. Grant, then, that we have thus duly invoked the deities.
Here is the original Greek:
τελέως τε καὶ λαμπρῶς ἔοικα ἀνταπολήψεσθαι τὴν τῶν λόγων ἑστίασιν. σὸν οὖν ἔργον λέγειν ἄν, ὦ Τίμαιε, τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο, ὡς ἔοικεν, εἴη καλέσαντα κατὰ νόμον θεούς.

ἀλλ᾽, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῦτό γε δὴ πάντες ὅσοι καὶ κατὰ βραχὺ σωφροσύνης μετέχουσιν, ἐπὶ παντὸς ὁρμῇ καὶ σμικροῦ καὶ μεγάλου πράγματος θεὸν ἀεί που καλοῦσιν: ἡμᾶς δὲ τοὺς περὶ τοῦ παντὸς λόγους ποιεῖσθαί πῃ μέλλοντας, ᾗ γέγονεν ἢ καὶ ἀγενές ἐστιν, εἰ μὴ παντάπασι παραλλάττομεν, ἀνάγκη θεούς τε καὶ θεὰς ἐπικαλουμένους εὔχεσθαι πάντα κατὰ νοῦν ἐκείνοις μὲν μάλιστα, ἑπομένως δὲ ἡμῖν εἰπεῖν. καὶ τὰ μὲν περὶ θεῶν ταύτῃ παρακεκλήσθω.
Socrates refers to θεούς ("theous"), the plural, masculine accusative of θεός ("theos"), "God". In his direct reply, Timaeus refers to θεὸν ("theon") (singular masculine accusative), θεούς ("theous") (pl masc acc), θεὰς ("theas") (pl fem acc), and then again to θεῶν ("theon") (sg, masc, acc). In other words these two fifth century BC Pagans make no (or vanishingly little) distinction between:

1. God (theos)
2. Gods (theoi)
3. Gods and Goddesse (theoi, theai)

And this is not just some random passage from just any old bit of classical Greek literature. This is from the pious invocation, at the urging of Socrates himself, leading into the most complete and definitive statement of classical Pagan theology.

Some hint at the importance of the Timaeus is indicated by the fact that almost eight centuries after it was written it served Julian as the model for the Pagan world-view which he contrasted, in his Contra Galileos, with the pathetically incoherent Christian attempts at cosmologically exegesizing the Jewish scriptures. And more than a century after Julian, Timaean cosmology was central to the philosophy of Proclus and the other Pagan diehards at the last remaining openly functioning Pagan institution of the ancient world: Plato's Academy in Athens.

It is crucial to realize that the Timaeus also formed the basis for the cosmology of the Stoics (in addition to that of Platonists), and, moreover, that this cosmology was largely derived in the first place from Pythogreanism. This clearly indicates that the Timaeus is not some sectarian exposition narrowly representing one school of thought, but a masterful summation of a broadly inclusive Pagan cosmology.

Returning to the specific passage quoted above: What is the significance of the way in which Socrates and his young friend appear unconcerned with drawing bright lines between singular, plural, masculine and feminine references to the divine -- distinctions that loom large in the small minds of those deemed by Julian "the creed making fishermen"??

A partial answer to that question was given by Gilbert Murray back in 1912, when he wrote the following, concerning the religious views of ancient Greek philosophers:
Indeed a metaphysician might hold that their theology [that of the Pagan Greeks] is far deeper than that to which we are accustomed, since they seem not to make any particular difference between hoi theoi and ho theos or to theion. They do not instinctively suppose that the human distinctions between "he" and "it", or between "one" and "many", apply to the divine.
[Four Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray, 1912, p. 90. Or p. 67 of Five Stages of Greek Religion, first published in 1935.]
Unfortunately, Murray still manages to mangle things badly by insisting on embedding this observation in a stupid attempt to argue that the ancient Greeks, or at least the intelligent and philosophically inclined ones, were actually monotheists, or "near to monotheism", after all. That, of course, flies directly in the face of the fact that Murray himself has acknowledged: namely, that the ancient Greeks understood the falseness of the dichotomy that pits "the one" against "the many" -- and monotheism is rendered meaningless unless it means reverence for one and only one God, which, in turn, requires the explicit rejection and denigration of all other Gods -- or even a denial of their existence as Gods.

In his essay Monotheism and Polytheism (written nearly a century after Gilbert Murray's quote above), Egyptologist Jan Assmann sheds some light on this matter, as follows (emphases in bold have been added):
What is polytheism?

"Monotheism" and "polytheism" are recent words, not older than the 17th century CE, and they have different statuses. Monotheism is a general term for religions that confess to and worship only one God. "One God!" (Heis Theos) or "No other gods!" (first commandment) -- these are the central mottos of monotheism. The religions subsumed under the term polytheism cannot, however, be reduced to a single motto of opposite meaning, such as "Many gods!" or "No exclusion of other gods!" On the contrary, the unity of oneness of the divine is an important topic in Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek and other polytheistic traditions. Polytheism is simply a less polemical substitute fo what monotheistic traditions formerly called "idolatry" and "paganism" (Hebrew aboda zara, Arabic shirk or jahilila). Whereas monotheism consitutes a self-description of religions subsumed under that term, no such self-description exists for polytheistic religions. Monotheism asserts its identity by opposing itself to polytheism, whereas no polytheistic religion ever asserted itself in contradistinction to monotheism, for the simple reason that polytheism is always the older or "primary" and monotheism the newer or "secondary" type of religion. Monotheism is a self-description, polytheism is a construction of the other. However, although polytheistic religions include a concept of divine unity, these religions undoubtedly do worship a plethora of gods, which justifies applying a word built on the element poly (many) to them. Unity in this case does not mean the exclusive worship of one god, but the structure and coherence of the divine world, which is not just an accumulation of deities, but a structured whole, a pantheon.
[Religions of the Ancient World, ed. Sarah Iles Johnston, 2004, p. 17]

To be continued ....


SiegfriedGoodfellow said...

Well-said, well said! This is such an important point. The importance of distinguishing true debates from false ones is critical lest all our channels of discourse be clogged by polemics with all flame and no light! I have argued for similar on my blog. The unity of the Gods is in community, not in singularity.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

"The unity of the Gods is in community, not in singularity."

Yes, absolutely. And there is also the issue of the nature of the Cosmos. Is it randomly composed of disconnected fragments, or is there an order, even a harmony, of which both humans and Gods are a part? And on a less cosmic scale, the same question applies to each of our lives -- are these series of randmom events, or is there some meaning and purpose not just to Life, but to My Life?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post, and interesting look at the Greek text. I love it when you talk about our religions; the discussion of Islam was getting a bit overwhelming.

"Unity in this case does not mean the exclusive worship of one god, but the structure and coherence of the divine world, which is not just an accumulation of deities, but a structured whole, a pantheon."

I think this quotation sums up polytheism quite well! (Go Sarah IJ!)

Anonymous said...

This makes sense to me. Thank you for articulating it.

Arturo Vasquez said...

To summon the spirit of Bill Clinton's "what is is"...

If Christianity had any real traction metaphysically, it was due to what it could lift from paganism. Indeed, Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius would lift the Neoplatonic concept of "all things are full of the gods" and replace it with "all things are full of angels". Dionysius's angelic hierarchies were lifted from the pagan system and taken seriously because they were thought to come from a disciple of St. Paul, even though they emerged four hundred years after Paul's death.

Even rumors of ancient Israel's monotheism are somewhat exaggerated. One of the words for the monotheistic god of the Hebrews was plural (elohim), as in the beginning of Genesis, when God says "let us make man in our own image". Indeed, for Christian ears, the idea of the "unity of the Gods is in community" sounds a lot like Trinitarian theology, and the idea that all humans are to partake of the divine nature.

Indeed, we Catholics in our more traditional manifestations seem to have all of the pagan bells and whistles, and would make many of your readers look like Quakers by comparison. I would be the first to concede differences, but a few distinctions should be in order.

It sort of boils down to what your definition of a god is. I think along with the text cited that particularly since the Enlightenment, monotheism and polytheism have been reified into neat categories that might not correspond to real life.