Alright, Polytheists, Time to Hone Your Theological Debating Skills

Here is a portion of Augustine’s argument against polytheism, one of his earliest arguments found in de vera religione (on the true religion). Click here (part i) and here (part ii) for the full treatise. The part specifically against polytheism starts about chapter 69. He’s pulling heavily on, and to some degree misusing Plotinus and associated neo-Platonic philosophers, as well as Stoicism. I’m curious how you all as contemporary polytheists would respond to this and the arguments you would raise in debate with him refuting it. Go. ^_^

“There is another worse and lower idolatry which worships phantasms. Whatever the erring soul in its swelling pride can imagine, they hold as an object of religious worship until at last some conclude that nothing at all should be worshipped, and that men err who allow themselves to get involved in superstition and miserable servitude. But these opinions are vain. They cannot make themselves free. There remain the vices, and they are drawn towards the notion of worshipping them. They are slaves of desire in three forms— desire of pleasure, desire of excelling, desire of novel entertainment. I say that there is no man who holds that there is nothing he ought to worship, who is not the slave of carnal pleasures, or seeks vain power, or is madly delighted by some showy spectacle.

So, without knowing it, they love temporal things and hope for blessedness therefrom.” (Augustine, de vera religione, 69-71)

Edit:

To get the full thrust of Augustine’s rather circular argument, check out the links above starting about chapter 50. Keep in mind he’s twisting Stoicism and Platonism out of true.

Here is more: (1, 98.)

“If we cannot yet cleave to eternity, at least let us drive away our phantasms, and cast out of our mental vision trifling and deceptive games. Let us use the steps which divine providence has deigned to make for us. When we delighted over much in silly figments, and grew vain in our thoughts, and turned our whole life into vain dreams, the ineffable mercy of God did not disdain to use rational angelic creatures to teach us by means of sounds and letters, by fire and smoke and cloudy pillar, as by visible words. So with parables and similitudes in a fashion he played with us when we were children, and sought to heal our inward eyes by smearing them with clay.”

He’s not actually referring to amusements and popular culture here, but specifically to the diversity of the divine found in polytheism. For Augustine, it was vanity, a clinging to the physical world rather than to his God and Christ. This is the philosopher that later inferred essentially that Pagans were atheists (I don’t recall if he actually comes right out and says this but if all Pagan Gods are demons, and the Pagans reject his religion and Christ, then by extension they are atheists in his view).

If I’m not mistaken his whole twaddle about “phantasms” is a corruption of Plotinus and [Neo-] Platonic philosophy. You see it in later medieval theories of the senses with their ideas of how sight, memory, and the soul function.

And later:

“Let not our religion consist in phantasms of our own imagining. Any kind of truth is better than any fiction we may choose to produce. And yet we must not worship the soul, though the soul remains true even when we entertain false imaginations about it. Stubble, which is nevertheless real, is better than light fabricated at will by the vain thought of him who imagines it; and yet it would be madness to hold stubble, which we can perceive and touch, to be worthy of our worship. Let not our religion be the worship of human works. The work- men are better than their works, yet we must not worship them.”

The thing to realize here is that by ‘human works’ Augustine is in part referring to images of the Gods. I asked in my class the other day whether or not Tertullian (another church father whom we were reading) really believed that Pagans worshipped ‘idols’ without realizing that however enlivened those images may be, they were not the larger, more ineffable Gods or was he playing a rhetorical game to diminish the authority of Pagan religion in the minds of his listeners and readers? Obviously, if you know Tertullian the answer is the latter. I think Augustine is, much less coherently, doing the same thing.

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Posted on February 15, 2017, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Actually, that strikes me less as condemnation of polytheism and more akin to your “Big, Fat NO” post. The penultimate sentence is the crux of this, I think. The phrase “no man who holds there is nothing he ought to worship…” reminds me of the many SJW types.

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    • I didn’t post the whole argument — it’s about four more pages . this is the start of what he later develops in City of God as an argument against Polytheism. hell, christians were the first SJWs. LOL

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  2. Oliver Lightfoot (Thrasybulus)

    Actually, there’s not much here in the quoted passage that I would say I disagree with; for sure, there are those who ‘worship phantasms,’ and eventually devolve into, or cause others to turn toward, the sort of atheism he speaks of. Now, these ‘phantasms’ could be interpreted to mean a plethora a things, such as “archetypal polytheism” or the near-deifying of a human political system, etc, but he most assuredly means to equate the Gods with these sorts of phantasms, which is not a tenable position in this passage by itself.

    What would need to be done to show the falsity Augustine falls into here, is to set forth a reasonable case for why the Gods are not, in fact, any more phantasmal than Augustine’s God would be. I think Edward Butler does that sufficiently with the henadological approach, on the philosophical side (which also has the benefit of pointing out his misappropriation of the Platonic system), and there are collections of texts/lore/etc which lay claim to being divinely revealed like Augustine’s holy texts do (one example being Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, which internally claims to be inspired by the Muses). A claim to divine revelation (whether it is implicit or explicit), combined with a strong and clearly defined tradition (both religious and moral/ethical; also, I think claims to divine revelation are really contained within traditions, but just making a distinction between the two for clarity), combined with a philosophy which successfully preserves the ultimacy of each God as a clearly demarcated Individual, and Augustine’s criticisms against polytheism lose any bite they may have had in the first place.

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    • Fair enough. However with special pleading and copious editing, of the sort you’re suggesting, you can get anyone to say anything you want them to. The arguments leading up to this (and i posted links so you can read it yourself in english. I didn’t want four- five pages of Augustine here on my site) make it clear that he’s specifically denigrating polytheism by calling the Gods phantasms. This is a theologian who later posits that it is impossible to be both virtuous and Pagan. As so often, the battle lines take place with language. He’s taking what was in philosophy, an neutral, unproblematic term and weaponizing it.

      This is one of his earlier works. He later develops this significantly in ‘City of God.” I think it’s really important to pay attention to these back and forths that the ancients had because the same approaches and rhetorical tricks are employed today, especially in academia and interfaith crap.

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  3. If you start with the Old Testament, you wend your way through acknowledging other Gods, such as The First Commandment, which implicitly acknowledged Gods other than The monotheistic God. Then you get to Elijah and his duel with Baal. At that point, all Gods become fictional. So, how is Augustine to know if his God is fiction too,? Also, since Ag. Is going for orthodoxy, who decided that but man. Or other men, and how does he know which heresy is true unless someone else told him. In other words, which God is talking to him?

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    • I’m reading another book right now ‘Pagans and PHilosophers” by Marenbon and it really shows the circular reasoning employed by early Christian “thinkers” on just this point. Pagans were expected to use their natural reasoning to come to the conclusion that there was one God, accepted as a given by Christians of course, but one never thinks to reverse that equation. It’s incredibly solipsistic reasoning. I really sympathize with the educated Romans of the time, who must have been looking at this puzzled by the twisting of philosophy out of true, and the aberrant belief structure, and gross impieties of the Christians.

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  4. Since I can’t get to the website for the other parts of the piece on this device, I will respond to what you have quoted here.

    That he starts off with emotional appeals against idolatry is hysterical to me, seeing as how the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of idolatry as part of almost all of its celebrations and sacraments, including Mass itself, nativities and triptychs, as well as the veneration of the Saints and celebrations surrounding their feast days.

    “There is another worse and lower idolatry which worships phantasms.”

    Now, being unable to read the previous PDFs, and it having been some time since reading him, what comes to my mind is vaettir. My housevaettir shrine, for instance, would constitute an idolatry which worships phantasms. Given the etymology of the word, it would appear he is calling worship of our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir the worship of (ibid.) ‘mere image, unreality’. It is a rhetorical attack which amounts to ‘My God is real and your Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are not real or just images.’

    “Whatever the erring soul in its swelling pride can imagine, they hold as an object of religious worship until at last some conclude that nothing at all should be worshipped, and that men err who allow themselves to get involved in superstition and miserable servitude.”

    His central assumption here rings hollow, that the soul is in error when it looks about itself, and, seeing a world full of Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, understands They are,worthy of worship. Rather, my view is that it is the other souls who have erred, those that conclude that nothing at all should be worshipped. This line in particular, and those like it, indeed the exclusivity and reduction of the world’s Gods to One God, is why atheists have called monotheism one God away from being atheism.

    I am assuming he is using superstition in a mix of the older sense, ‘excessive fear of the gods’ and ‘religious belief based on fear or ignorance and considered incompatible with truth or reason’. What I understand him to be doing here is pointing his finger at polytheists and declaring that their ignorance, fear of turning from their Gods, and lack of reason, are why other people turn from God. That the polytheist’s worship of the Many and rejection of the One is ignorant and not ‘true religion’, and so turns people away from religion entirely.

    “But these opinions are vain. They cannot make themselves free. There remain the vices, and they are drawn towards the notion of worshipping them.”

    I find it interesting he uses this to make the point that even those who turn from religion are not free of religious behavior, as in his example with the vices. He makes the point that without a religion, to borrow from its etymology, to bind fast, that people bind themselves up with something else. In this I would agree with him: they cannot make themselves free.

    “They are slaves of desire in three forms— desire of pleasure, desire of excelling, desire of novel entertainment. I say that there is no man who holds that there is nothing he ought to worship, who is not the slave of carnal pleasures, or seeks vain power, or is madly delighted by some showy spectacle.”

    While limited in its scope here, I have little to disagree with.

    “So, without knowing it, they love temporal things and hope for blessedness therefrom.” (Augustine, de vera religione, 69-71)

    Considering the rise of atheism, particularly non-theistic and LaVeyan Satanism in which hedonism and this-world/materialistic views are expressly embraced, I would say this is true save for not knowing it.

    Where this gets especially thorny is when it comes to atheist Pagans, omnists, and monists. Part of my back and forth with Halsted a few years ago was over the words sacred and reverence being religious language and not understandable in truth, and unable to be used truthfully, by an atheist. However, the love of the temporal things, the dressings of our religion, is what they give over to when they embrace atheism and call themselves Pagans. As Augustine says above, “they love temporal things and hope for blessedness therefrom”. They desire our outer form, but deny the core of who and what we are.

    While I find Augustine cherry picking what he likes from those he follows, and his ultimate conclusions of Christian superiority or even position near to polytheism’s sophistication without merit, likewise his critique of our animism and idolatry, I find his exploration of atheism itself interesting and useful. However, I believe it needs to be in the forefront of anyone reading his work that he is positing we are the atheists, or otherwise lead people to it.

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  5. Black Metal Valkyrie

    That’s rich to hear a Christian hating on servitude when that is expected of all Christians towards their god.

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  6. Augustine is taking about himself. He is trying to convince himself that the Gods he was raised with are only figments. He is playing Super Monotheistic Guy trying to convince everyone that his conversion is the real deal. Why else would he be so preoccupied with people proving a negative? By asking them to prove their Gods, he is acknowledging their existence. He wants the Pagans to admit their disbelief so that he can be comfortable in his thinking. If the Gods were only fiction to him, then it wouldn’t matter what Pagans thought. He would know they were in error. By insisting that they confess their error, he is saying that their Gods are real.

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  7. Edward P. Butler

    I agree with some of the previous comments that you would have to be more specific about the parts of this text that constitute an argument against polytheism per se, because what I see here is essentially criticism of polytheists for using devotion to attempt to attain worldly benefits, rather than in a spirit of true piety. This, Augustine argues, leads ultimately to atheism, when people grow disappointed that they have not received what they desired. In its substance, this is the sort of argument you can find polytheists making for their own part. Simply calling the Gods “phantasms”, of course, does not constitute an argument and calls for no refutation in particular. Augustine presupposes that the Gods are false, and then proceeds to claim that since They are false, there is no benefit to accrue from worshiping them. But if you can be more specific about the passages in question, more could perhaps be said.

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    • ah Gods i know. i didn’t want to post four pages of Augustine here. This is the start of what turns into a rather solipsist argument about how polytheism is bad. I figured people could go to the links but i suppose i should have posted more.

      I’m having real difficult with it. I have a lot of purity taboos and …..it’s becoming an issue when I’m faced with a twisting of philosophy, or this type of corrupt theology. I read it and have to reread because my brain simply doesn’t want to take it in.

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      • Edward P. Butler

        I looked at the successive arguments in the PDF you linked, and I just don’t see an argument about polytheism here, as opposed to an argument about worldliness. But then I always have an overwhelming urge to skim Augustine, too.

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  8. I would have passed over it, but our teacher insisted that this was the start of his later fleshed out arguments against polytheism. i just can’t stand to read it in that much depth either. I”m having real aversion issues there. ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m sitting here today pouring over “contra academicos” and just have no idea what the hell he’s talking about.

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