Message in a Bottle

Today, we remember Proclus, who died in Athens on this date, in 485 CE.

It’s quite possible, by mistranslating a few words here, a few key phrases there, for modern readers to ignore the Gods in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and so many of the other philosophers of antiquity. It’s quite possible, with only a little bit of squinting, to look past the deep and genuine piety that informed these great thinkers.

Not so, when it comes to Proclus. The Gods—who are at once the source and summit of all being, and the immortal divine persons we approach in prayer and devotion—cannot be ignored in Proclus’ work, no matter how hard you squint. Proclus thus provides us a vital key, which can open for us the brilliant and inspired words of Plato, and indeed of all the thousand years to Hellenic philosophy and theology, of which Proclus was the inheritor. And this is a vital key, in the most literal sense of “bringing to life” the tradition which has been handed on to us.

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No, we are not all trying to be monotheists.

(Vedānta, monism, and the erasure of polytheism)

All too often, it’s claimed that “Advaita Vedānta is a form of monotheism.” Or even that Advaita Vedānta is a better, more pure, more refined form of monotheism than its Middle Eastern competitors, Christianity and Islam.

No, Advaita is not monotheism. It is monism,* the view that “there is only one thing.” But if there is only one thing, there is no more reason to call that thing “God” that to call it “cosmos” or “human being” or “chair” or “river.” I mean no disrespect or impiety here, but simply an entry into the core Advaita notion of “neti, neti”, “not this, not this.” Any label, any category, always functions by distinguishing X from what is not-X or what is other-than-X; in other words, by splitting things into different groups based on their defining features. No predicates, no labels whatsoever can possibly apply to Brahman, the one reality, since there is nothing other than itself from which it can be distinguished. Even calling it Brahman is ultimately problematic, for the very same reasons: ‘Brahman’ is a predicate/label, too.

Rather, the plethora of Gods and Goddesses, just like the plethora of humans, chairs, rivers, and other things that seem to populate the world, are all of them ultimately unreal to the monist/Advaitin.

But this is monism, not monotheism.

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Apotropaic Offerings?

I recently encountered the practice of making so-called “apotropaic offerings”: offerings made, at some distance from the site of one’s primary ritual practice, to placate potentially disruptive beings.

Such offerings as described above are not a part of my own religious or spiritual practice. And looking in from the outside, something very quickly seemed “off” or not-quite-right about this. Hence this blog post, which I present in the spirit of (a) working out a bit more precisely my own understanding of why we make religious offerings, and how such offerings work; (b) clarifying exactly what my concerns are with the “apotropaic” practices described above; and (c) opening a space for conversation, where others might help me refine this understanding and/or resolve some of these concerns.

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Is Obedience a Virtue?

It is sometimes claimed that obedience, toward both Gods and humans, is a virtue. That seems wrong to me, and I’d like to explore the reasons why. As usual, I’m trying to develop my own understanding by thinking out in public in this forum, and I eagerly welcome respectful criticisms, objections, questions, and suggestions which might help me further my thinking on the issue.

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The Most Important Part

A few weeks ago, I was conversing with someone who trotted out the old line that “really” all religions are the same, because what they’re “really” about is giving us a sense of purpose and the greater good, encouraging us to behave and to become better people, and the like.

It’s so easy to forget just how common this kind of misunderstanding is.

After my initial shock (and thinking silently “really? really?!”), I tried as best I could, gently but forcefully, to point out that my interlocutor had missed the most important part: the Gods themselves. The singular, unique divine persons with whom we cultivate a relationship. A relationship of worship and devotion, and possibly with other dimensions and aspects as well, but at bottom, a relationship with a person.

While I don’t want to push this analogy too far, compare the case of marriage or committed romantic relationships among humans. While healthy marriages tend to produce certain ancillary benefits—contentment, material and emotional security, even longer life expectancy and less likelihood of getting sick—none of these is the point of such a relationship. Just imagine telling one’s partner that these things were what the marriage was “really” about, with no reference to the partner as a person! The point is relating intimately to one’s partner, for the unique, singular, wonderful individual that that person is. If those other benefits also happen to come along (and while it’s not the subject of this post, I’ve seen studies that suggest that they’re statistically likely), that’s nice. But that’s just it: they’re nice, but they’re extra. Those other benefits are not the point. Without an other person, we would not have a relationship at all, and without this other person, we would not have this relationship, in all its wonder and mystery and uniqueness.

So too, mutatis mutandis, for religion. It’s about relating to the Gods as the singular, unique, wonderful individuals that they are. To be sure, it often works out that when we do that, other blessings and benefits tend to come our way. But when someone says that those other benefits are what it’s “really” all about, they are asserting that the Gods themselves are not “real,” and this is nothing other than atheism.

To neglect the persons—the Gods themselves, in all their singular uniqueness—is to leave out the most important part.

Stoic Piety

In book XII of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:

People ask, ‘Have you ever seen the Gods you worship? How can you be sure they exist?’

i. Just look around you.
ii. I’ve never seen my soul either. And yet I revere it.

That’s how I know the Gods exist and why I revere them — from having felt their power, over and over.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.28 (trans. Hays)

There are at least two noteworthy things here. First, and most apparently, we see the deep and genuine piety of this Stoic thinker and ruler of the known world, expressed eloquently and movingly. Put this passage alongside others from the Meditations, including the beautiful words of thanks in book I, and we see beyond a shadow of a doubt that for Marcus, the Gods are real, powerful, active presences in his life.

Second, and more subtly, in the analogy to the human soul, we see the Stoic doctrine of the subtle fire which animates all of the more gross matter in the cosmos. On this view, the human soul is supposed to be sure a fire, permeating the body, giving it vitality and motion. When that fire goes out, the body is dead, meaning that it is no longer self-maintaining, no longer an organic unity. Likewise, at the level of the cosmos as a whole, it is the creative fire of divine intellect—so frequently identified by the Stoic philosophers with Zeus himself—which animates and brings to perfection the entire order of the universe, which is likewise a perfect unity. Marcus’ answers, then, are not mere arbitrary comparisons, for which others might just as well be substituted, but are rooted in a core doctrine of Stoic metaphysics.

It’s not my preferred mode of doing metaphysics. I tend toward a bit more transcendence, and I’m less eager to shoehorn all of what’s real into what’s material. Nonetheless, I can appreciate both the general Stoic approach, and the way in which that approach can ground a deep and genuine piety.

Iamblichus on the Discernment of Spirits

In book V, chapter 10 of De Mysteriis, Iamblichus gives us an elegant and straightforward method for distinguishing genuine Gods and Daimones from impostures.

We observe that the Demiurge provides us lower creatures with everything we need for our sustenance. So, why should he fail to do so, for the daimones? If their sustenance were adventitious, dependent on us (such that our neglecting them would somehow harm or disequilibriate them), then they would be inferior to us, and we would be superior to them, which is absurd.

We can conclude that any being which depends upon an offering is an inferior being, and not the God or Daimon to whom sacrifice is properly given.

As Iamblichus himself explains, “Each thing derives its nurture and fulfillment from that to which it owes its generation.”