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)
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.
“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.