A Response to Edward Feser

I first met Proclus through the writings of Edward Butler. I still remember reading Edward’s Polytheism and Individuality in the Henadic Manifold for the first time. He says

“In his Platonic Theology, Proclus states that ‘all that have ever touched upon theology have called things first according to nature, Gods; and have said that the theological science concerns these.’ He goes on to explain that since, for some, what ranks first is the corporeal, the Gods are for such as these a certain kind of body. Proclus intends the Stoics here. Others, he continues, regard soul as primary. For these, the best souls are Gods. These are apparently Anaxagoreans. Others again place intellect before all else, and these, he explains, consider theology and the discussion of intellectual essence as one and the same. These are Peripatetics.”- Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus, pp. 6-7

Even if it turned out that Proclus was wrong in the details, it struck me as so clear that he was right in principle: they have been called “Gods” who were thought to be first according to nature. This insight would forever change how I thought about theology.

As I considered the question of what is first according to nature, my mind oscillated between wondering what is the one thing true of all things no matter what they are, and what is it that makes this one thing true of everything? In other words, I wanted to know what the one group was that was so big it actually included everything, and what was it that made things belong to this group? Both questions got at a different sense of ‘first according to nature’. Answering the first question would tell me the one respect in which everything is a participant and thus what is “first” in all participants simply because of what it is. Having understood that, I could then try to grasp what makes everything to participate in this, and thus what is beyond every participant and everything participated in, or “first” unqualifiedly, simply because of what it is.

I realized that because I was at the time broadly convinced of Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics, I had implicitly already answered these questions. With respect to the first, I was committed to saying that the one thing true of all things, no matter what they are, is that they have being. In other words, it wouldn’t matter what we were talking about: real or imaginary, actual or merely potential, physical or mental – however you cut it, in order to be a “thing” of any sort, one had to first “be.” Out of everything in which things can participate, being is “first.” But, if being is the one respect in which everything is a participant, then what makes everything to be a participant of being, whatever else we might say about it, is quite simply the principle of being. By grounding being itself, this principle grounds every being, and so, everything other than itself. It is thus not part of everything, but the very foundation upon which everything rests, at every moment that it “is.” The principle of being is beyond every participant and everything participated in, or “first” unqualifiedly, simply because of what it is, and so “God.”

But, I came to see through the works of Platonic thinkers such as Proclus and Edward Butler that the one thing true of all things is not that they have being, but that they are individuated. Even more fundamental to a thing than having being is having unity or being individuated, since even being must itself be individuated as being in order to be being! (See this post for expanded arguments to this effect)

As such, the one thing true of all things, no matter how different they are from each other in other respects, is that they are individuated. In other words, it wouldn’t matter what we were talking about: real or imaginary, actual or merely potential, physical or mental – however you cut it; nothing could be anything unless it were individuated as such. Out of everything in which things can participate, unity is “first.” But, if individuation is the one respect in which everything is a participant, then what makes everything to be a participant of unity, whatever else we might say about it, is quite simply the principle of individuation. By grounding individuation as such, this principle grounds every individuated thing, and so, everything other than itself. It is thus not part of everything, but the very foundation upon which everything rests, at every moment that it is individuated. The principle of individuation is beyond every participant and everything participated in, or “first” unqualifiedly, simply because of what it is, and so “God.”

On the former, Thomistic view, unity does not precede being – implying either that unity and being are the same thing considered from different perspectives, or that they are not, and unity arises out of being. As a consequence, the individuality and being of God are either the same thing considered from different perspectives, or they are not, and his individuality arises out of his being. But, this latter position is rejected by Thomists and impossible at any rate, at least insofar as there could be no God to have individuality arise within unless he were already individuated as “God” in the first place. The former position, however, is adopted by Thomists. For them, there is no real difference between being ‘who’ God is and being ‘what’ God is, and so it makes no sense on their view to say that there are many Gods: by each being ‘what’ God is, or in having the same “divine” being in common, they would each be ‘who’ God is and so fail to be different deities.

This position, however, is not coherent, at least inasmuch as God could not be one in whom there is no real difference between unity and being unless he were individuated as such, thereby having his unity as one with no real difference between unity and being contradictorily precede his being one with no real difference between unity and being.

On the latter, Platonic view, unity does precede being and as a consequence, God is not ‘who’ and ‘what’, or neither, but only ‘who’. On this view, it makes no sense to say there is only one God: there is no divine “being” or ‘what’ that could be had by any amount of ‘whos’, let alone by only one.

Thomist responses to polytheism have assumed that in order for there to be a plurality of Gods, each would need to be ‘what’ God is: why else but some common feature would we call them each by the same name? But, this is an appeal to the model of plurality found among beings; one in which several or more ‘whos’ form a group because they have some ‘what’ in common. If being were first according to nature, then perhaps this appeal would be understandable, although it would still be question begging to do so in objecting to polytheism: if unity is first according to nature, then it is a categorical error to hold pure ‘whos’ to a standard that only applies to mixtures of ‘who’ and ‘what’.

In either model of plurality, there is something in common between individuals: some one thing said of many. But, where they are pure individuals, or ones beyond every category of being, there is nothing to be in common between them but those individuals themselves. Just as the commonality itself differs between the ‘what’ and ‘who’ models of plurality, so too does the manner of commonality: where the one thing said of many is itself an individual, the manner in which he or she is said of others is not as a ‘what’ – such as a predicate – but as a ‘who’.

Which Gods out of all the Gods are the commonality between the others depends on the specificity of the plurality. The most inclusive of divine pluralities is that of the Gods as such, and so the one thing said of many, by which each is called “divine” in the first place, is not any one deity in particular, but each of them.

This latter model has been called ‘polycentric’ by Edward Butler, since it has many centers or grounds, as opposed to ‘monocentric’ plurality, which has just one center or ground.

To my knowledge, no Thomist has yet interacted with polycentric plurality, and so no Thomist to my knowledge has yet interacted with polytheism.

This came as a disappointment when I read Thomist philosopher Edward Feser’s much anticipated book “Five Proofs of the Existence of God.” Feser is renowned, not only for his efforts to interact with contemporary ideas and objections to his positions, but for his remarkable clarity. His book sold out on Amazon immediately, and many of us who pre-ordered it were met with a mile long line of backlog. I thought about waiting, but I’ve never been one for patience, so off I went to Ignatius Press and had it that week.

All the hype excited me: finally! – I thought – someone like Feser interacting in an updated way with polytheism! After all, there’s an exclusivity that comes with contemporary usage of the term “God” so that part of showing that “God” exists is showing that polytheism is either false or incoherent. So of course a book that is supposed to contain five proofs for God, be unusually thorough, and written by Feser will have a lot to say about polytheism! It’s not that I hoped Feser would succeed, but that by addressing polytheism, he would help the idea enter wider circulation.

But, I don’t think it says a word about polytheism.

That statement will undoubtedly sound absurd to those who have read the book. Did I just…miss premises 15-18 of the first argument? 10-13 of the second? 19-21 of the third? 6-8 of the fourth? Or 19-21 of the fifth? What about all the surrounding discussions in each of these sections, or the separate section between pp. 184-189 devoted to discussing the unity of God?

The truth is, I read all of that. But, what I didn’t read was a word about polycentricism. Feser just assumes without argument or explanation that polytheism would involve positing many instances of a single kind, and proceeds to argue that “God” cannot belong to kinds, much less be one of several instances of one.

Feser does well in every other respect, as always. But, his case never gets off the ground, and won’t until he confronts the Platonists.

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