Posted by: aediculaantinoi | August 13, 2013

One of the problems with Monism (and, yes, there are more than one!)

I have been wanting to write this particular post since late July, after I had a chat with Michael Sebastian Lvx (and even more so just after I met and spoke with Aine Llewellyn), but as a result of another recent post, it has now become something of a priority…and thus, what I was originally going to talk about is going to be supplemented by some further thoughts as well in relation to that other more recent post.

The post to which I am referring is Frater Barrabas’ “From Polytheism to Monism: A Natural Progression.” Go and read it…

I’d comment, briefly and initially, that I don’t think he’s actually portraying some of the things he mentions particularly accurately, including the Egyptian concepts he discusses; and, I think he’s mistaking syncretism and super-syncretism for monism, when it isn’t either and need not be interpreted in that fashion–although, because it is both popular and easy to do so, his making that choice isn’t necessarily unexpected.

Now, I personally don’t care what Frater Barrabas’ personal beliefs happen to be, or how he arrived at them, or how he interprets various sources to be in accord with those choices he’s made. I do, however, disagree with the notion that to “progress” from polytheism to monism is “natural” (and therefore “right” and “good”!), or that it is the result of anything other than interpretive choices on the part of individuals who choose to espouse that viewpoint (on which, more in a moment); likewise, I also strongly object to the notion that, as Frater Barrabas suggests, other pagans should consider this viewpoint and see how it could make their own religious viewpoint stronger, or that a “philosophical” approach rather than a “mythic” one is in any way better than various other possibilities out there. And, I cannot in any way endorse the notion that “worship” is no longer useful at any point in one’s polytheistic practice; because I am a devotional polytheist, and there is a long-standing tradition in bhakti practice in India that is also monistic (though by no means utterly necessary), I likewise can’t imagine how it is that F.B. arrives at this assertion, considering the esteem he holds the Indian practices in as precedent for his own viewpoint.

It is intriguing how much time Frater Barrabas spends in that post talking about how monotheism does its reasoning wrong, ultimately, and how it is a kind of misunderstanding of monism (because, of course, monism is the “superior” category from which other things are deviations or misunderstandings!), because this kind of monistic viewpoint and the way that Frater Barrabas seems to be arguing it is quite monotheistic in its implications. The notion of the “evolutionary view of religions” is a common one amongst monotheists, and it is likewise intriguingly ironic how often those who espouse that viewpoint also often don’t “believe in” the biological theory of evolution, while themselves taking the “evolutionary view of religions” as not a theory at all, but a self-evident fact. This theory goes, in brief, that “primitive” humans are animists, and as they get more evolved and socially advanced, they become polytheists, then they go through an intermediate phase of philosophical questioning of religion and begin moving toward monism, and then they eventually “see the light” and become monotheists, which is seen as the pinnacle of religious development. Of course, this ignores the rest of the trajectory of such thinking, i.e. that then eventually monotheists, after another period of “philosophical enlightenment,” then often become deists and then atheists. This evolutionary view is not in any way necessary, nor even is it a good overview of history and historical actuality. But, what it does share in common with Frater Barrabas’ viewpoint, as far as it has been espoused at this stage, is that it presumes that there is this “natural progression” from one viewpoint to the next, which is always assumed to be “more advanced” because “more true” than the last, and that those who don’t “cop on” and get with the program in becoming more advanced and moving along this projected progression are, therefore, not as good as they “ought” to be. And to that, I simply have to say “No, absolutely not.” Monism, from most instances in which I’ve seen it deployed, does not lead to a greater respect for difference, it leads to a greater contempt for those who do not wish to see the “underlying unity” that only monists seem to think exists and all of the rest of us are “deluded” for not seeing. Because all of the diverse world’s manifestations are seen as illusory in this view, despite no empirical evidence for the contrary “unified” view which monists assume and believe exists, then makes anyone who has any interest in the very real and day-to-day differences that exist in all phenomena–including spiritual phenomena–just that much more “wrong” in the monistic view leads to a certain sense of monist arrogance that I find to be the case more often than not. Anyway…

I’m reminded of something that my Anomalous Thracian colleague recently said about the notion of the “godhead” that is similar to what F.B. is discussing as the “parent” and “child” of any and all distinct deities (and, for that matter, everything else!) that may exist. Imagine someone gives birth to triplets, who are non-identical. Is the placenta they came wrapped in a different human being? And, I would add: is it superior to recognize the pre-eminence of the placenta rather than the distinctiveness of the three children that emerge from this situation? Hmm…

There is a very big difference between a notion like “everything comes from (or goes back to) one thing” versus “everything is one,” and I have found that a lot of monists don’t usually understand the subtlety of this distinction. It does not take a monistic viewpoint to see that there may be divine potentials inherent within each individual human. If all of these monistic notions of union were as “obvious” as they seem to think they are, then why does there have to be these further notions of “the veil of illusion” and so forth that all essentially amount to special pleading as to why some people “get it” and other’s don’t? That’s a question none of the monists have every really answered adequately, to my knowledge, at this point…

But, the problem with monism that I wanted to address originally, and which was annoying me more in late July than the present matters, is that monism is a philosophical choice that is often adopted in order to relieve the necessity of getting the details on the differences between things correct, and doing adequate research on and accurate accounting of those differences. If everything, ultimately, “is one,” then to pay any regard at all to those differences would be a further indulgence in the “illusion” of separateness and difference. So, because anything that might be considered wrong or faulty from within the viewpoint of “convinced by the illusions” is by definition “incorrect” from the monistic standpoint, all gets subsumed in the monistic view to being, still, “just one,” which more often than not almost gives license to getting things wrong than to actually paying attention to matters like historical facts or individual opinions–monism trumps all, ultimately.

It’s unfortunate, I think, that this kind of philosophical argumentation does get adopted because it is so easy, and so apparently undeniable and cannot be argued with–monism provides its own justification for feeling superior and non-threatened by other viewpoints and any and all material that they can muster to their own defense, because it’s already right and anyone else is deluded and will eventually be as enlightened as one is oneself because that’s how it works…

There is nothing intellectually superior or philosophically rigorous to this kind of thinking, nor is it any more “right” than any other possible viewpoint out there, especially since there is absolutely no factual or scientific proof that monism is true, outside of very bad and reductionistic readings of certain physicists done by (imagine that!) monistically-inclined individuals. Physics itself has not been able to narrow down the universal forces to any less than four distinct ones at this point (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the attempts to bridge the quantum level with the macro-level in these forces to produce a “unified field theory” have thus far been totally impossible and mostly untestable; and on the subject of matter itself, there’s still six different quarks, not one or even two or three or four. Diversity, from the study of nature outside of notions of “illusion” or anything that can’t be understood only in the imagination, looks to be more the norm rather than the exception, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with accepting that as perfectly reasonable at this stage.


Responses

  1. Gods, I’m glad you’re here to read that crap and respond, because I can’t stand it for a minute. I won’t even engage with such lazy thinking. I would despair if I thought that nonsense had any gut level appeal for people, but I just don’t think that anybody becomes part of this movement, even at its fringes, just so that they can become another cookie-cutter monotheist.

    • I was particularly interested in what your response might end up being…! ;)

      • It was having those arguments going way back to the days of dial-up internet (e.g., with HON people over the correct understanding of the generic use of the term “Netjer”) that gave me insight into the basic logical fallacies and metaphysical blindness that form the substance of the “monist”—sic; it’s just monotheist—position; when I figured out that Platonism, correctly understood, was the most potent weapon against it, everything fell into place. But I have no appetite to still be engaging in those arguments with fellow pagans, 20-some-odd years later; I’m busy reclaiming classical metaphysics.

      • Keep doing that! We appreciate it! ;)

        I had no idea these conversations had been going on that long…which is unfortunate, certainly, since they weren’t “right” then and they’re still not “right” now…mostly because they’re one of the biggest rhetorical dead-ends I think there’s ever been in theology, philosophy, or anything else!

        (Not to mention how ethically dodgy it gets very quickly to maintain monism as the reality…if everything really is one, then that means that people who are upset when they’re raped just “don’t get it” and don’t get that this other person obviously just realizes that the two people are actually one…And while no one rolls out such examples when they talk about the merits of monism, they’d have to admit that such is the reality if monism really is what it claims to be. There is a kind of rapist mentality at the root of monism in general, it seems: “you don’t want me/agree with me now, but eventually you’ll come to your senses…you’ll have to, because there is no choice, and the one reality which is reality already has you as part of it whether you object or not.” I’m not really a fan of anything that has that sort of mentality…)

    • (I’m replying up here because it won’t let me reply to the actual comment I am referencing)

      >(e.g., with HON people over the correct understanding of the generic use of the term “Netjer”)

      This has been a misgiving of mine for a long time and a big reason I am independent. I have not seen the word ever used that way. I don’t have a problem with innovation, but that use of “Netjer” just did not sit well with me. Worse when it is used in the phrase “Names of Netjer”.

      Also:

      >when I figured out that Platonism, correctly understood, was the most potent weapon against it, everything fell into place.

      How can I come to correctly understand Platonism, in this sense? Are there resources to suggest, advice for me to keep in mind when reading Plato and Platonists, that sort of thing?

      • RE: Platonism – I’d like to second that request about additional resources/information.

      • Yeah, I have to admit that the first time I saw HON people using the phrase “Names of Netjer” I was profoundly disturbed, felt it was at once impious, and deeply intellectually dishonest to allow unscholarly acolytes to believe this phrase came from Egyptian texts! But they don’t seem to use that phrase much anymore, at least from an outsider’s perspective, and I have very positive interactions with people from the HON, and with Rev. Siuda, and have a lot of respect for the organization she’s built.

        On Platonism, my own work is rather technical, but two books I’d recommend to get some sense of what is possible are Mary Margaret McCabe’s Plato’s Individuals, which argues that the central theme in Plato’s thought is the problem of unity, in the sense of units. The best antidote to the misreading of Plato’s “One” as being anything like the monotheist’s deity is an understanding of the actual work being done by the concept of unity in Platonic thought. The other is Richard Bodéüs’s Aristotle and the Theology of Living Immortals, which does an amazing job of showing how the notion of a monotheizing onto-theology in Aristotle was manufactured out of whole cloth to serve the interests of Christian apologetics, and that in fact Aristotle explicitly affirms the mainstream Hellenic theology. If you’re interested in the Presocratics, I’d recommend Patricia Curd’s The Legacy of Parmenides, which argues that when Parmenides talks about unity, it is a matter not of “numerical monism” but of “predicational monism”, which again goes to the actual use of talk about unity by classical philosophers, deliberately obscured by the later Christian appropriation of these thinkers.

      • Thanks for those! I’ll see if I can get a hold of some of them in the not-too-distant future…

    • One cannot say that multiplicity alone is the 100% correct perspective. That is to deny the existence of unity, which exists (take yr pick, quantum mechanics maybe.) Platonism as pluralism is also not Platonism, even though it might be Willy James. Platonism, however, does not deny a pluralistic universe as many monotheists would like us to believe, just as it does not deny a unified universe. The classic arguments between Pluralism and Monism, late 19th and early 20th c., however, were based on Aristotelian conceptions of Substance, and it was with Substance philosophy that Aristotle tried to replace Platonic Forms/Ideas. Medieval Christianity was in love with A. and understood little of Plato so that is how those ideas got into the Western philosophic mainstream. And thus Descartes and thus Heidegger (and as an aside here any of those of the New Right who extol Mussolini, Hitler, or Anders Breivik cannot be Platonists either, even though they may say that they are. Plato hated tyrants.) But Aristotle did not understand, perhaps willfully, Plato’s metaphysics. In order to comprehend Platonism properly try reading Cassirer and Natorp on Function vs. Substance and then look at Plato’s Forms again. They are not Substances. Also try that great 20th c. Platonist J. N. Findlay, who uses the term Meanings to equal Forms in his work. I’ve read McCabe, and in fact will soon re-read Plato’s Individuals, but I don’t believe that Unity as Units is the whole answer, even though it’s an intriguing thesis. I’ve come to something other that neither denies unity nor multiplicity in my Platonic/S’aivite senses of things.

  2. Fabulous post my friend. From first learning about it monism has always bothered me a bit and seems to run into logical problems very similar to those monotheism runs into. Plus, I very often seem to see monists neglecting any worship of the gods at all and instead just talking and talking and talking and. . .
    Quite glad I decided to follow your blog this morning.

    • Thank you for following it! Glad to have you aboard, as it were! ;)

      Indeed, it almost seems like monism is a great (pseudo-) philosophical tool that gets used to justify all kinds of errors, including the need to do worship of any sort, or to do anything other than yammer on endlessly about monism and “The One” and so forth…

      As I wrote in another post a while back, I suspect that “The One” that monists claim to be experiencing is actually the “Human Totem,” i.e. the collective ancestor of our entire species and all of its experiences and thoughts and so forth…which does, indeed, seem very “big,” but to mistake that for an actual deity, much less a divine force that underlies all things…well, that’s kind of the classical (and, dare I say it, “Christian”) definition of idolatry, since there is a fundamental mistaken identification underlying such an assertion.

      • Yes, though to be completely fair I do know a *few* monists who are very pious and very devoted to their Gods, even if they do seem them as extensions of ‘The One’. Definitely going to have to check out your Human Totem post, the concept seems interesting.

      • Indeed, there is nothing which says that monists have to comport themselves in that fashion; but, far too many of them do, which makes it bad for the monists who don’t act that way, or who don’t actually take those further steps in deciding to believe that they’re the only ones who are right and that everyone else will cop on once they’ve become “more enlightened” like they are, etc.

      • Your reference to the “Human Totem” reminds me of a similar argument Galina Krasskova makes about the original common ancestor (“Mitochondrial Eve”) as experiential locus of the monistic sentiment. I must confess to having less respect for the monist’s recourse to experience; I see in it no more than what Freud referred to as the “oceanic feeling”, i.e., an expression of infantile narcissism. You are quite correct to point to the ethical danger represented by any metaphysics which treats as illusory the difference between myself and the other, and this is one of the reasons why the “monist” position, which vaunts its supposed philosophical credentials, is actually a dead letter in any serious philosophical discussion.

      • I suspect you’re right on that “oceanic feeling”: it’s quite literally nothing to fax home about, since it is in essence just a regression to a thoughtless and wordless state…if the pinnacle of one’s spiritual experiences is to in essence be equivalent to an infant, then that doesn’t say much about the quality or usefulness of such experiences for dealing with, you know, anything other than sucking on someone’s breasts. (And, to be quite honest, the loudest proponents of this are straight men who are goddess worshippers…so, hmm.)

        But, in the event that such an experience does have some sort of identifiable entity behind it, my theory and Galina’s seem to be pretty similar, so there we are.

  3. You deserve a laurel crown for such a balanced and reasoned but wise and insistent response. Kudos to you, my friend. I sure as hell couldn’t have written this.

    • You, to me, dear friend, are too kind. ;)

  4. There are not enough Golden Calfs to warrent a ‘Holy Cow’ to Fr. Barrabas’ analysis. I actually had an interesting conversation with our Anomalous Thracian colleague in which we were talking about the peculiar, ill-understood, concept of Godhead in contemporary Gnosticism. Myself, personally, I tend more toward the concept of Godhead as a ‘ground of being’ as talking about God is relatively meaningless. In this regard, Gnosticism is fundamentally non-theistic, although being limited human beings it’s nice to put a face on things on occasion.

    • Right–and, in fact, the “placenta isn’t a person” analogy that our Thracian colleague made was specifically in relation to the godhead notion…

      And, in response to the first part of your comment: that reminds me, the Holy Herd is getting rather thin, I must remember to get some more cows for the bull to…well, you know: bull. ;)

  5. What amazes me is that someone like Frater Barabbas, who likely identifies as liberal, progressive, and inclusive in his secular life, cannot recognize the Western, intellectual, Eurocentric, bigotry that underlies his position. He cannot recognize how his assumption that “mono-whatever” is superior to other forms of religious practice is the legacy of a worldview that disregards all other religious views as either superstitious nonsense or demonizes them altogether. It never occurs to him to even question the validity or grounds of his assumptions or that there could be good reason for doing so. Frater Barabbas displays a virulent single-mindedness that has been inherited from monotheism: the compulsion to say “this OR that” rather than “this AND that AND that over there.” In looking across the polytheist cultures of the ancient world and contemporary indigenous peoples, it is clear that some cultures that worship Gods, ancestors, and nature spirits ALSO had a concept of underlying universal unity such as is found with monism. Yet in these cultures, both views were reconciled and incorporated into a comprehensive system of belief; it was not either mon(othe)ism OR polytheism, but rather actual monism AND polytheism. For some of them, there was a divine “Source,” but that “Source” did not preclude the desirability and necessity of interacting with the divine beings who were younger and closer humanity in scope and scale. Everything has a purpose and a role to play. Frater Barabbas’ inability to recognize his own position is perhaps the most monotheist thing about him. I am curious about something, though. Does it seem to anyone else who reads stuff like this that people like Frater Barabbas are writing from a position that the God/s aren’t actually real enough to meaningfully interact with? I look at these quasi-pagan philosophies of religion and it seems to me that they spend an awful lot of time coming up with a notion of Deity they are willing to believe in; one which mitigates the uncertainty that comes from a paucity of personal experience with the Gods and their lack of willingness to build relationships with Them. It almost feels like this philosophy is one of “hedging bets.” Implicit in his view is the assumption that religion is really just a gigantic mental exercise, as if the purpose of religion is find a self-satisfying personal philosophy and not to connect with the Divinities.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! (And also, hi!)

      Yes, I agree, I think that’s exactly what is going on there, and in his specific statement that all accounts of “gods with characteristics” (i.e. actual deities) are based on “myth,” whereas his “over-god” from which they all come and back into which they (should) go has no characteristics, cannot be conceptualized, cannot be related to via worship, and is thus only approachable in “philosophy” and thought (even though, if it is as he said it is, then it also cannot be thought either).

      There’s probably no point in even trying to discuss these things with such individuals, but anyway…

      • I’m thinking you people did not read clearly what the Frater said. The One is not an “over-god” and cannot be any kind of god. But the Gods issue from the One and are themselves Ones as Mr. Henadology should be able to tell you. This is one of the tenets of the Platonic philosophies of Iamblichus and Proclus (where the term henadology comes from.) As to Eurocentric bigotry, Frater Barrabas distinctly said that he took his cue in his belief from Thomas McEvilley’s book The Shape of Ancient Thought, a very large and interesting text comparing ancient Western thought with Eastern. There is no bigotry there. Quite the opposite. Also the Frater’s perspective is as much like the Advaitic conceptions in Indian philosophy, as it is anything else. Finally, it is common among philosophers to pay more attention to rational discourse than to mythic. Plato was such a philosopher, as were and are many Indian thinkers. Doesn’t mean they are wrong, just doing their own thing.

      • If you want to discuss these matters here, you’ll have to be more respectful than referring to myself and others as “you people” and to Dr. Butler as “Mr. Henadology.”

        You’re obviously of a different opinion on these matters, which is fine; but don’t come here to tell us that we’re wrong either. We have our stated preferences, we have our reasons for thinking these things, and we find alternative arguments lacking in a variety of ways, as explained above and in the comments.

      • “If you want to discuss these matters here, you’ll have to be more respectful than referring to myself and others as “you people” and to Dr. Butler as “Mr. Henadology.” Didn’t really mean any disrespect – “you people” because I was speaking to more than one, “Mr. Henadology” because that is the way he identified himself. If you have differing opinions on this subject, that’s also fine with me. Just pointing out what appear to me to be some holes in the arguments.

    • >In looking across the polytheist cultures of the ancient world and contemporary indigenous peoples, it is clear that some cultures that worship Gods, ancestors, and nature spirits ALSO had a concept of underlying universal unity such as is found with monism. Yet in these cultures, both views were reconciled and incorporated into a comprehensive system of belief; it was not either mon(othe)ism OR polytheism, but rather actual monism AND polytheism. For some of them, there was a divine “Source,” but that “Source” did not preclude the desirability and necessity of interacting with the divine beings who were younger and closer humanity in scope and scale. Everything has a purpose and a role to play.

      That was well put.
      I don’t rule out some sort of universal unity or Source (but have personally experienced neither– my strongest religious experiences to date have been with very specific gods), but, as you put it, I am still a polytheist, and consider interacting with the gods as good and necessary.

      The way I treat such concepts of unity is as follows: It is 100% true that we are living on a giant ball of rock flying around a giant ball of nuclear fire, itself flying through space. It’s also almost 100% irrelevant. More relevant to me are my parents, my grandparents, my friends, my SO, etc.

      I’m confused, though. Does this make me a monist and a polytheist? A polytheist and not a monist? I’ve seen monism used in ways that ignore the differences between the gods, and I’ve seen it used in ways that respect those differences.

      *scratches head*

    • This is so well said. One can of course be both polytheist and “monist”, since monism is an ontological position that really has nothing inherently to do with one’s theistic position, but seems to us as though it should, due to the Christian project of conflating ontology and theology (the result often being termed “onto-theology”). Atomists believed that everything was ultimately atoms, but they didn’t worship the atom, they worshiped the Gods made of atoms. (Some of them didn’t think that the Gods were interested in being worshiped, but that didn’t have anything to do with their being made of atoms.) Stoics believed that everything was ultimately a peculiar kind of fire, but they worshiped the Gods, albeit the matter is a little more complicated with them. The point is that there is no natural connection between how many kinds of ultimate substance one says exists, and how many Gods one says exists. Platonists, as I’ve often said, do in my opinion interfere the least with polytheism, because they say that there is one kind of ultimate substance—monism!—but that ultimate “substance” is simply individuality, with the Gods being pure individuals and things posterior to them ontologically being less pure in their individuality.

  6. […] most popular recent post I’ve made here has been on monism. The spike in popularity it had was even before it was included in the Pagan Voices post on The […]


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