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Some Advantages of Polytheism

All (or nearly all) nf us in our post-Christian civilisation are

inclined to be rather complacent and unreflecth'e about
monotheism. 1 This .i s true of both those of Protestant and strictly
Biblical tendency and those of Catholic tende ncy, and both of
believers and unbelievers. Even 1hose. who think that the ques tion
.. G~)d or no God?" has been settled decisiveh in favour of the latter
alternative, or that it has no practical importance and is
unprofitable to discuss, are generally disposed to thin k that the
question " God or the gods?" was settled long ago in favour of the
monotheist suppos)tion, and, even today, many of us are still
inclined to think of it as an ''either-or" question. Either you
worship one C od or you worship a lot ofidols. (The way in which
Catholics and Orthodox still talk about the idolatry of the heathen
is sometimes quite e mbarrassing to a historically minded person of
Catholic tendency.)
This sort of monotheisl complact:nC)' is becoming more and more.
difficult to maintain as we become more and more vividly aware of
olher religious traditions than the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic,
n otably that of Tndia. But there is enough <>f it around still to be
worth disturbing, and I propose here tu attempt to d isturb it. I shall
do so by considering one or two points about t he most powerful
polytheism within our own tradition, the Hellenic, which has
influenced that tradition in many important ways. The Greeks in
the end found it perfectly possible to combine this with
monotheism, to believe in God witho ut ceasing to believe in the
gods. If lam to be taken as r ecommending anything in this essay, it
is somethi ng like this that I am recommending, n ut a futile
nostalgia for temples, idols and sacrifices. I have sometimes been
sufficiently irritated by tbe wa)r Christians talk about Greek
heathenism to think about setting up in my garden a statue of
Priapus or of Diana of the Ephesians (you can still buy quite good
ones of her at 'EpheSLLs). But [have never actually done so. I shall
begin with a look at pre-philosophical Greek pol ytheism, of the
sort which we can kno\v and understand best from the Greek

1. Wil liam james was a nutable exception. See the conclusiLm of his
Pastscnpl to Thi \lnrieti<" vf Rrli,'ii11us l:xpn-ienrl' (?P 409.5ooin thr Fontana
edition) His argument in \ Pluralistic U1ivl't5< leaves room fur polytheism
as a seriuus possibili.ty, as ht> himself clearly rerngruzes [p. 140 af the
Harvard edition).
D1011ysius, Val \I, D~c. 1981. pp. lBl-188

poetc;: though when we read them we should alway5 remember

what" c- are !>ll oflcn !rul) told, that lhi!. ''as a reHgion of \,orship.
not nf behet. Cult was primarv, myth was secondary, and one
could interprd cull and myth as one pleased. Platll and Clth(r
philoc;()pheri; critici~ed thti poets' stories severely, and we have
been inclined tu rep0al their criticisms iather uncritically, and
without noticing ht.'~' much the philosophers took over from the
old n~li)!iun, and ho"- th~v simply assumed that pvlytheistic cult
11l'luld .:onlinue to provide tht? religious em;wnment of the
ordinarv man as it did d own to the end oiantiquitv, and beyond,
in more or less Ch ristinniL.ed forms. But for some time now
classkal -;cholars have been pointing o ut forcibly that, despite the
philosophers' criticism, there was a grc-at deal in the old poetic
religion worth sl.'riously considering. So let us take a brid loC>k at it.
It was a religion which recognised many divine powers in one
divin~ universe. The uni ty of the divine is often very much in the
background, but it i& always there. The universe is something
given, for gods as well as men, not the product of a divine creation.
T he old c;tories of its beginnings are s tories of birth, not making.
The Jcti.>ns of the mimr pcmers withi n the o ne universe are
various and often unexpected. They can clash and conflict and do
not appear to serw any great obvious overriding purpose. The
powers do not seem necessarily friendly to man, though people
often fdt that, especially, their local gods and the gods of th eir
personal devotion were kind ly disposed towards them, and one
could love as well as fear the gods. Any moral concerns which the
gods may have appear at best spasmodically and are not always of
a sort very comfortable to man: they visit the sins of th;;: fothe.rs on
the children in strange mid terrible ways, and they punish more
certain ly than they reward. The world of U.e old gods is a hard and
dangerous world ::ipprchcnded unflinchingly by their wors hippers
in all itc; hardness and danger. But it is not a bad world and the
gods are not evil, bul beautiful and delightful to contemplate, as
well .1s terrible The ancient Greeks were not a gloomy people,
oppress~d by rt'ligious fear and depression. Nor in their hard
world were they often quite as hard and cruel to each other a!"
Mediati\al and Reformation Christians. Perhaps they were kept
from gloomy and cruel fanaticism by the way they inc;tinctively
undt>r<.tnod the lime uf their divine world. Under all the changes
and ch11ncl'S uf divinity lies the rhythm which is the expression of
the unit~ of the divine cosmos., the rhythm of the seasons, of day
and night, of birth and death. Those who have this rhythm in them
as the Greeks had i t are nm optimists or pessimists: they can
al\, avs lullb. al things cilh~r way up. liow sad that winter follows
Som~ Advantages of P\1lytlwi~m 183

Fall! But hciw won derful that sprin g folkiws winte r' H ow ~ad tha t I
mu::;t die! But ho'~ ha p py thn l my gra ndchildren haw been burn'
The city is destroyed and the fr uit-trees cut d own . H 0w terri ble'
But nt::~ cities will be built and new tr<!es planted uf course to be
des troyed in their turn; and so it will go on.
The philosophers, trom P lato onwards. with some impo rtant
LXcL'ptiuns, \\'anted l o see in the world a more unified order a nd a
more explicitly good d iYine p u r pose, This led them into a good
deal ~if ra ther u r1c,1 n vincin g a nd d ecid('dly anthwpncentric
teleological explanation , wh ich to nk its most exaggerated forms in
the thuugh t uf t he Sto h:s. Aristotle does no t seem tu have go ne this
way. His un ivcrst' has the uni ty o f a great machi ne , wlth all
biological processes de pend ent o n the movements of the heavenly
spheres- But the td t'ology in which he and his successor
Theophrastus seem to ha ve bee n interested was the kind of limited
teleology mo dern biologists admit, the appeara nce of pm:p ose-
built design withi n a particular sped es tend ing to the end s of tha t
species. And it is interestin g for o ur p resen t purpos<::s to note that
i hc Epici,.JTeans. w hos;e conviction of the meanin g lessness of reality
has been so a ttractive lo many mod erns. ~,ere the must explici t a nd
conscious polytheists o f antiquity. There is no one divinity behind
the many gods in whom they firm]y believed: clnd th~ idea of
d ivine purpose is for them .1 terri fying del usion . But even th e
mainstream Stoics and Platnnis ts w h o insis t most str ongly on th e
un ity of the d ivine and the one good divine p urpose make room for
d ivine p lura lity in the unity . They did n ot r epudiate the god s for
the sa'ke of G od (Lis ear ly Christia n wri te rs nolcd freq ue ntly and
in digna n tly). The ei<:p lica tion nf divine in telligence wh ich t hey see
as the orde r of th is wo rld is a harmony of clash a n d co nflic!, a n
c>ndless tensio n between war rin g oppGsites. An d the world-o r der
moves wi th the old seasonal, alterna ting rhy th m , the rh yt hm of a
danct> rather than a ma rch to a goa l. The greatest of ancien t
theodicies, the treatise o f P lot inus 011 Providence2 remains
s urprisingly dose in its Yisiu n of t he wo rl d to the spirit of the great
tragedians. Plcitin u s is by n o means anthro pocenhic in his outlook.
He d isplays the beau ty and terror ofour l<'.Or!d mag nifice ntly. And,
though he considers carefully several solutio ns to tht' problem o f
evil he seems in the end by n o mea ns convi nced t hat he has solved
\'\"hat a re we to make l) f thi s ancien t H ellenic religious vii:!'\\- of
the world now-a-days? We must begin , if we are honest, by
adm itting its extraordinary clear-sightedness. It is a vision of the

2. Ul:!-3,[47-481.

world 1,hich is true to our day -tL1-day expcrh:nc"' of ii, and a t least
less difficult to re1."'0ncile 1,-ith the discoveries of modern science
abt1ut it than a c:;1n1pl"'- minded monutheism. Even if we retain any
sen~<:' t i f a di\'ine prescncl.' in the wo rld, ,,.e ha ve tci adm it that it
manitec;t<o 't,elf in innum... rabh various, apparently clashing and
ontlkt1ng. 011tm tn~rulably odd and horrifying ways. Di\;ne
unity. not divine plurality requ ires an e ffort of reflection and faith
to attain ii; ami, when atlaint:d, it does not n ecessarily exclude
plwality A~ for whether we can o r sh.ould have a sense. of divine
pn?$en.:i~ in the 1~ urld. I l'.annol argue convincingly against those
whu say we c,1nnot and c;hould not: perhaps nobod v has ever been
able to 1 can only :.a~ that awareness of G od in the natural world is
the heart and foundation of any religion I have, and that m o re and
more people, including many who a rc no t in an y way formally
religious seem to be coming to the same awar eness (th ere ha ve
always been a good many): it is to them that I am speaking:
evcrvbudy cannot splak c1cceptably and understandably to
everybody. ThC"lc;e of u s w ho ha\'e this awareness should recognise
that the old polytheisms. and, for most of us, especially the
Helle nic, can convey the sense of the unhersal divine presence
and the holiness of the world with incompara!bll' poetic force. As
Plotinus say!>, expandjng what Soph ocles said about his beloved
native Vlllage, Coll'nus, tv appl) to the who le universe: -
" All tll~ plan' is ho ly, and then.' Is no thing which is witho ut a
share ofsouf."!l
AnJ this recngnition may bring \Vith it a content \\'ith the H ellenic'
awaren\?<;i: c1f the movement of the un iverse as rhythmic.:, as a
danct \\ hit:h ts so close Lo wha t seems to be the basic time -
experience of all lhing things. t hat of the alternation of light and
dark: and a diswntent with and disbelid i11 t he al ternative linear
understanding of it as the march of 1.1ne purpose irresistibly
\in\' ard to a glMiuus 11r ho rrifying futur~, which . if it .:ould in any
way be demonstrated, wo uld perhaps provide some su pport for
intransigent Judaeo-Chri~tian monotheism and the anthropocen-
lrism 1\ luch usuall) accumpanics it: though it seems to sun'ive and
flourish rnry well in completely secularized forms. Some of us are
begirrnin~ to 5<'<' this as no t only probably false but dangero us, in
;;;o far a.; it 10\itcs us tn sucrifice not only our own past and present,
but that uf our planet. to an :.ncreasin gly d ubious future. Nobody

3 Snrh,'<.1.-s 1 dwr> "' \ ....!111!> :.-11.:p. 16. Plutinu:; 011 W/111/ l\n.' 1md
l\'/rr11i-. t.t11111' ~11/~ 11! ["ii I 14 3h-37 mv rranc;latinn from tht: Lnt?b Pltlti11us.
Vol. I 1~ 'I~
Some Advanta ges of r\1lvthei5m 185

has shown this danger be tte r than Hans Jonas in h is gr~t work of
moral philosophy Das Pri112ip V~ran tivortrmg 4 The austere argu-
ment of this book d oes not start from or rl'quire any metaphysical
or reUgious presuppositions: and it is concerned with secular, not
religious versions of eschatolugical hope particularly, though not
exclusively, \'\'ith E. Bloch's Oas Prinzip Hoffmmg . 'But, perhaps for
these vl'ry reasons, it provides an exceUent foundation for a
critique of theologies of hope.
In developing the theme which has begun to a ppear of the
i mportance of a polytheistic elemen t in religion for personal piety, I
shall start from the other end of the Ht>llenic religious iraditJon,
with a look at the polytheistic element in the monotheism of the
great Neoplatonists. This took hvo successi ve forms. The first is to
bl' fou nd in the great th.hd-century Neopla tonist, Plotinw;, and his
pupils. Plotinus sees the multiplicity of the gods appearing in the
eternal outgoing of divine life into multiplicity from the One, the
self-diffusion of the Good first into Divine Intellect and then in to
universal Soul. The foll!-)wing passages give a very dear idea of
how he interpreted iraditional polytheis m, and the last, from his
treatise Against /he Gnustics, shows how vigorously he was
prepared to maintain it against an intiansigent and exclusive
monotheism. He says 0 Nous, the Divine Intellect " For he
encompasses in himself all things immortal, every intellect, every
god, every soul .. : 1 s and he prays " May he come , bringing his own
universe w ith him, with all the gods within him, he who is one and
all, and each god is all the gods coming together into one: they are
different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are
all one: or rathe r the one god is all: for he does not fail if all become
wha t he is ... 6 And in his great challenge to the other kind of
monotheism h e savs:
'Jt is not contracting the divine into tme but show;ng it in that
multiplici ty in which God himself has shl1wn it wluch is proper
to those wh o know thl' power of God, inasmuch as, abiding
who he is, he makes ma n y gods, all depending upon himse lf
and existing Lhrou.ghhim and from him." 7
The later Neoplattm1sts who maintained an intellectual opposi-
tion to Chris tianity from the age of Constan.tine tu t.be age of

4. Frankfurt, lnsel Verla,.i, 1'J79.

5. Un the Th ree Primary Hypostast>; , \/1 trn, 4 10-1 L
~ ()11 thelntelligibl<' Brnuty, V8 (31] 9, l4-1CJ.
f. Ag11insl I/iv G11us1ic;. !f 9 [3 3] 9, 37-39: all traru; lath>ns Crom J>lolin u s are
my own.

Justinian were not Siltisfied "ith PloUnus' placing of che gods. No

doubt with some anti-Christian intent. they wanted to place the
many gods whom they devoutly worshipped (not t)nly lhe gods of
tht:? Hellenes, but the gods of all mankind as far as they knew them)
more nearly on the level of God, the First Principle, the One l}r
Good Himself. So there e\'olvcd in the fifth-centurv Platonic
school of Athens the remarkable doctrine of the Henads. As our
cone-em here is with the rdigiot1S driving-force behind the
evolution of the dCletrine rather than w ith the details of late
:'\:eoplatonic theology, I shall not tllustrate or d iscuss the appalling
complexities of the doctrine as it appears in the voluminous works
ot the great fifth century Athenian philosoph er Proclus. l shall
quote a simple statement of it from the sixth century comm entator
Simplicius, and add the most p enetrating comment I know on its
importance for the personal piety o( these last He!Jenes- Simplicius
in his commentary on the EnchiTidion of Epictetus says, "The
Good is source and principle of aU beings. For that w hich all things
d esire, and to which all things reach up, this is the principle and
the goal of aU things. And the Good brings forth all things from
himself, the first and the middle and the last. But the first, the
beings close to himself, he brings forth like himself: one goodness,
he brings forth many goodnesses: and one Simplicity, and the
Henad (or Unity) above all henads. he brings forth many henads:
and one principle, many principles." 8 1vfy comment comes from A.
J. Festugiere, one of the great French Catholic scholars who have
done so much to increase our understanding of t!hese last
anti-Christian thinkers of antiquity. H e says, s peaking of the
rehgion o( Proclus: " The same religious soul who aspires to this
Unknown God aspires also to a more immediate contact wi th more
acce..~ible, less ~eparate forms of the Divine. From this comes the
tender devotion of many Christian mystics to the Virgin. And 1
explciin to myself in the same way, in the case of Proclus. his lender
devotion to Athena There is nothing there, I repeat, which
surprises me: or rather, this piety seems natural to me, as the
necessary complement of intellectivc contemplation."9 Perhaps in
his last words Fcsrugiere sugge~ts an inappropriately sharp
disjunction benveen affecti\e piet)' and i.ntellectual contemplation.

i:I. C"11111111r1t111111< in Lp1trtf1 l-11r/11 riclirn p . 5, -l- lJ Dubncr. mv own

tran~l n ti,,n
9 Prt" !ui. 1tl lc1 rdisiun lrJditiono=ll1" in Mt'/1111gcs P1sam11/ P11rl!> 1966 rp.
rn rtt1tfo: dt Phil1'1S1l1J/11, ~r.-u111e, Pans 1971 pp. 575-584. Quot<'d in the
1ntrndud1on tl" Pnidp'< Th;rilrgie Pl.1t.m1cierml' Ill ed. S11ffrey-Weslerl11I..,
P.iri~ 19711, p LXXll: my '"'"' translatilm from tlw French
Scme Adva ntages uf Polytheism 187

There is plenty of hard dry thinking in the t heology of the henads,

arid a deep and passionate dffective piety drives on the search for
t he Lnknowable One. But on the whole t:his seems very just, and
an e>.celknt example of the right way tu talk abou t o ther peoples'
religion. These last Hellenes wanted to find the divine presences
that they and theiJ ancestors and all mankind had known and
loved in their cities and villages, their trees and springs and rivers
and ml)ttntains. all together yet still distinct with the One. to mt'el
lhe lJnknowablc in the likeness of many familiar frie nds.
There are, perhaps, more people in our own time than in any age
since the fourth century A. D . who can understand and respond to
the message of this defence of polvtheisn.1 by the last Hellenic
mono theists. As one of them, r sho uld like to end by rellecting on
what it niight say to us in om present circumstances. There is
much in it, as Ft:stugiere recognised, which has survived in the
simple piety of Catholic and Orthodox people, and much that can
be gro unded in a perfectly traditional theulogy of the universal
activity of t he Logos: and we should not let any of this go. But we
may have to expand our belief in Divine plurality and make it less
church-bounded and man-centred. 10 We need to understan d that
if we are to think of God as " having descended" (iis we
inadequately and im1ccurntely say) into history, as being present
and somehow deeply involved in our contingent changes and
chances and joys and pains, we mu;;t think of him as "descended'.
everywhere and at all times. This h.e can only be. while still being
God, if unbounded plurality as well as unity is somehow grounded
in hi:- transcende nt and eternal nature, K hich is beyond the
o ppl' Si tion of one and many, as it is beyond all s uch dialectical
oppositions a nd therefore unknowable. Ou r time has been on e of
enotmous development in our critical understanding o(history, of
the problematic character o f much h is torical e\liden.ce, of hist9rical
difference and distance, of the historical limi:tatio n and relativity of
o u r own thoughts a nd beliefs. Many Christians, inc.ludi.ng some
who talk glibly abou t ''history", do not seem to have seen the real
implications of this. Bul to those of us who have it seems that if
God " descended" once for all, in one partkular time and place,
into histury, he would be limited by history and alienated from us
by history, and his descent would. become. no t a ground of faith
but an evi:rlastingly disputed histo rical problem.

10. A_crwst con \'inci.n~ and '"~ 11 d<lt;umented accout1l of hu1v Calhlllk
pt~ty in the West m<Jved a way from the fo rms and spirit of th'1 old rl:'I igion
to become church-bounded and man-crntrcd is Peter Rrnwn ', Tlir Cu lt af
Tl1r Sninls !Chicago and 1..<' nd~1n 19&.I).
Anolh<!r c.haia ... teristiL of our Lune of course has been the
enormou:. increase in our knowledge of the unintse and our
power to damage it. \'\ic' know now how little room man occupies
in cosmic space and timc how comparatively insignificant the
durahon m our species ha'> bl'en even compared with the history o(
life un ....arth: and we krn:w. that Western man ocrupies a much
more modec;t place lil human histurv Utan 1\'c u:;ed to thinl-. . Bul we
a lso kno1v thal w ... may now ha,e power, in whatever remnant o f
cnir c;hort span ma' be left to us, to do irreparable harm at kasl tu
uur llh n small planet. This knowledge and this p0wer c;ccm to
require a ne w degree of awareness of the holiness of all things, of
clivine pre!>ences yuite o utside man and his histc..iry, as well as of
God's epiphanies in the gods of nther men . \'\1e may perhaps be
being called more urgently than ever befon: to .a very difficult sort
of humility, which , if we ever attained to a decent measure of ii,
might esrablish our unique spiritual greatness dmong th\.' beings
W<' know by o ur very capacity of denial of that unique greatness.
This is the humility of putting ouri.elves out of the centre of the
picture, of no longer supposing that all the lives of earth and all the
gala>.ies and all God's purposes conveTgt: on our utllure or our
religion or our species or our future. This is difficult to do properly.
It is easier to proclaim that we arc nothings before God or
miseraqle sinners before God, often in a way w h ich e nhances our
own importance, than to accept quietly that in the divine s ight we
may bcinsignificant somdhings in a ver y small cornl'rof space and
1am not recommending a return lo H ellenic polytheism, e ven of
lhc late Platonic kind, m the manner of that great a nd good, but
rather cranky, man , the F.mpcror Julian. That St)rl of archaizing
and nostalgk attempt to return to lhe past, Christian o r pagan, is
always !utile and un real . But. it we find, as I have dont: that the
polytheists have a good d1;:al lo say to us which is relevant to the
contemporary needs of \\'hich I have jus t been speaking; !hen WI!
shall do well to l..ecp their theology and their gods in our thoughts
and in our prayers, in the way which seems appropriate to each of
us It is no t b} o nt! path only lhaL so great a mystery can be