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Edward Butler on Proclus, Part II: On (the Metaphysics of) Polytheism and Monotheism

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The conversation turns to polytheism and monotheism; stimulated by Perl 2010, cited below, we discuss the degree to which the difference between the two positions might disappear at the highest levels of ‘ontology’. Butler argues for a position which, on the level of philosophic religion, stands fast for the polytheist position; the reasons he gives would have made sense to Proclus. We then swerve Socratically toward the problem of universals and particulars, and how the Platonic/ist One is an attempt to account for the existence of ‘ones’ at all levels.

Back to the problem of poly-mono, we then consider some working descriptions. Polytheism to Butler is a framework for the encounter of divinity as it truly presents itself to humans in the world; it is a demonstrably-better world-view than its perhaps more famous competitor. Monotheism, by contrast, is a complex historical effort to marshal diverse forces – intellectual, social, &c. – to propose that there is only one god worthy of worship and to make that a living reality. We flesh this out with some case studies – The Emperor and Proclus. It emerges that Edward sees the monotheist project as something which is not fully played out in the living monotheist religions, which I think opens the door to something I have wondered about quite a bit, namely that there are a lot of monotheists by identity-lable who are pretty polytheist in their actual outlook. Edward is having none of it. We then discuss monotheism some more, and I adduce that, by the terms we are discussing, Plotinus is a monotheist; he’s not having that either. I feel like here the conversation gets slightly disconnected, as I am just fishing for some useful heuristic tools for the study of the history of ideas without having a horse in the race, while Edward is engaging with these concepts as part of a lived cultural intervention on his part. Nevertheless, I learned a ton from the discussion, so hopefully others will as well.

We finish by discussing the apophatic digital intervention at the beginning of Part I.

Interview Bio:

Edward Butler is an expert on ancient Platonist philosophy and a philosopher of polytheism. He has written a number of crucial pieces on Proclus’ metaphysics, notably vis à vis the henads, and much more; his academia page is required reading for those interested in this and related topics. He maintains the blog henadology, which contains much that will interest those interested in polytheism more generally, as well as high-quality discussions of the Platonists, largely in that context. He is Director of the Center for Polytheism Studies, formerly the Center for Global Polytheist and Indigenous Traditions, a Thought Center at Indic Academy, and serves on the advisory board of the journal Oscillations: Non-Standard Experiments in Anthropology, the Social Sciences, and Cosmology.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Proclus, Elements of Theology Prop. 133, trans. E. R. Dodds. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963: ‘Every god is a beneficent henad or a unifying excellence, and has this substantive character qua god; but the primal God is the Good unqualified and Unity unqualified (ὁ μὲν πρώτιστος ἁπλῶς τἀγαθὸν καὶ ἁπλῶς ἕν), whilst each of those posterior to him (μετὰ τὸν πρῶτον) is a particular excellence and a particular henad …. For not all the gods together may be matched with the One, so far does it overpass the divine multitude.’


Edward Butler. Plotinian Henadology. Kronos, 5:143-59, 2016.

Eric D. Perl. Neither One nor Many: God and the Gods in Plotinus, Proclus, and Aquinas. Dionysius, 28:167-91, 2010. We quote pp. 190 and 191.

Recommended Reading:

Edward Butler on the Metaphysics of Polytheism and Monotheism Recommended Reading