This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?
Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.
But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.
The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.
GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?
Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?
Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.
Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.
Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.
GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?
Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.
With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.
GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.
In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.
Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.
GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.
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A friend just asked me what I was planning on reading in between school terms and looked positively shocked when I answered. LOL. Before the term ended (and after some of the crap that I dealt with here) I reached out to my friend Edward Butler for suggestions on what I should read to give myself a crash course in Plato and Aristotle (because I’m taking a course this coming term in philosophy — Intro to Augustine–and because, as previous posts have noted, it’s becoming more and more relevant to my theological work). He recommended some texts which I’ll share in a moment. An academic colleague and I also decided we’d each read the other’s favorite Euripidean play (mine is the Bacchae, his was Medea and talk about it when term starts again) so I’ll be doing that too.
I just want to say, before I continue, that it is crucially important for us to reclaim our philosophical traditions. Philosophy, Literature, the Sciences, Medicine, these things were born in the polytheistic world. In an effort to appropriate them, Christian scholasticism attempted to erase the Gods from the inventors and proponents of these disciplines. We see that in academia today with the dogged insistence by those who should know better that of course men like Plato and Socrates were atheists. Of course they couldn’t possibly believe in the Gods … when we have ample evidence that they did, quite piously in fact. There is an ongoing agenda of erasure and appropriation here and it’s high time we step up and stop it. Edward has been doing powerful work as a philosopher for years and years now (shout out to you, Edward, for your inspiring work). I”m sure there are others too. This year my goal is to better educate myself so that I can likewise do my part. For those of you unfamiliar with Edward’s groundbreaking work, check out his book here. He also has an academia.edu page and recently had a piece published for the general reader in “Witches and Pagans” in their issue on polytheism. go. read. This work is awesome.
Now the texts I’ll be reading over the next two weeks, for those who likewise might want to join me are (aside from Euripides’ “Medea 😉 ):
“Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals” by Richard Bodeus
“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” translated and with commentaries by Hippocrates Apostle
“The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics” by Joseph Owens
“Plato’s Gods” by Gerd Van Riel (there are some translation issues with this one, just minor things that annoy me, like translating τέχνη as ‘technique;’ and at one point he insists that the Greeks didn’t have a commitment to personal belief in religion (p. 12) and then spends the next six or seven pages contradicting that rather reductionist statement, as the evidence clearly DOES contradict it. That being said, it’s still a really good book).
Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Plato’s “Timaeus” (been a good 20 years since i’ve read either) and probably ‘Ion’ and ‘Euthyphro’ in the original Greek.
If anyone wants to add any suggestions, by all means do. I’m not a philosopher and I’ll admit to being rather nervous about taking a philosophy course this term, but it’s unavoidable for anyone wanting to work in theology and if this past term taught me nothing else, it taught me that immersing myself in Plato and Aristotle and really understanding them as polytheists is essential going forward.
i’m going to end with a quote from Plato’s Laws that I just love:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. (Laws IV, 716e).
I have the deepest respect for my colleagues like Edward Butler who are philosophers and polytheists. Until today, I had no idea of what you guys face every day, and the fight that you’re engaged in to reclaim our philosophical traditions from monotheistic depredation – and it is outright depredation.
I’m still stunned at what I experienced today. I was in a theology class and we got around to discussing Aristotle. We were each giving a brief presentation on what we’re going to write for our final papers and I was up. One of the students could not comprehend why I would not embrace Aristotle as a monotheist, paving the way for later Christianity. (Excuse me while I throw up). Another was convinced that ὁ θεòς in Aristotle was absolutely referring to a monotheistic God. Nothing I said about how the singular was common classical usage when discussing the particular manifestation of a particular God at a particular moment made a dent in their dogged insistence that the writers they admired from the ancient world must, of course, be monotheists. (No, sweetheart. Actually we have medieval scholasticism to thank for twisting and corrupting ancient philosophy in such a manner. Many of the philosophers were deeply pious). What some of these students did to henadology would make a polytheist weep.
Everyone else in the class was absolutely convinced that A) Aristotle, Plato, Cicero (and we mentioned one other philosopher but I don’t recall at the moment which one. I think it was a Roman, and yes, I know Cicero isn’t a philosopher per se but he came up in the conversation) were atheists or monotheists only paying lip service to religion which was B) only state run, no belief, no devotion, nothing of substance. And then I had to listen to them discussing the natural victory of Christianity. I had to listen to the blanket erasure of both my religious traditions and the philosophical schools that those religions birthed. It was revolting. I’ve seen complete lack of understanding of polytheisms as religions with their own theologies in Classics, but not to this degree. I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced the incredible blindness that I saw today.
This all started when I mentioned the “inherent plurality of polytheism” (it’s relevant to my paper topic). I think those words and concepts are pretty self-explanatory but apparently not. Not a single person in the class grasped what I meant, not even the professor. It was completely outside of their learned experience to consider ancient polytheisms as legitimate, richly textured, living faiths. They were absolutely incapable (not unwilling I think, but incapable) of seeing them as anything other than brittle state funded apparatuses and place holders for monotheism. I think I’m still in shock.
The current issue of BBI Media’s “Witches and Pagans” is all about polytheism and it is awesome. (1)
Of particular note is the article “Polycentric Polytheism” by Dr. Edward Butler. If I could hold every single Polytheist and Pagan in the world down and make them read this article, I would. Hell, I’d happily hold down every academic working in Classics or Religious Studies and make them read it if I could. It’s positively brilliant and provides a solid and thought provoking philosophy of polytheism that is both spot on and terrifyingly elegant.
I highly suggest picking up a copy of this issue just for Edward’s article. Read it, share it, discuss it, contact him and discuss it some more. It’s a very, very important piece.
1. Despite having the occasional article by authors who have no business writing anything whatsoever about polytheism, it is an outstanding issue.
I’m not sure why comments are closed on my article “Odin and His Masks.” I didn’t close them. At any rate, Edward Butler sent me this comment, not being able to post it there, so I decided with his ok to post it as a separate piece, so that people could continue the conversation here.
“This is a very fine post. To me the core of it is when you say that “in order to act upon that which They have created without transmuting it into something wholly other, there had to be a process of becoming.”
Proclus states in his Elements of Theology (prop. 131) that “Every God begins his characteristic activity with himself.” And so when, as you say, devotion gives the Gods “a point of focus upon which to solidify a Self for engagement,” we can say that in order to relate to us, They must create a vehicle for that relation which will in turn be implicated in it, a changeable vehicle in order to exert change on the plane of Becoming, because the divine power to exert change will begin from changing the God Himself. Hence there will be “masks”, because there has to be a separation of some kind between the God as unchanging and as changeable.
On account of this separation, we can see how these masks can be available for more than one God to use, as you suggest. But beyond that, we may say that we, as worshipers, are ourselves masks of the God, too. There is a notion in bhakti theory, bimbapratibimbabhāva, the relationship of a reflected image to its original, which is the idea that in devotion we become the reflection of the God, or rather discover that we always were. This sort of relationship is often used in Western religious discourses to emphasize our limited capacity to perceive the God, the attendant “distortions” in it or the “perspectival” quality of our experience of the God, but there is another side to it altogether, which has to do with what the God becomes in us. This is what, I would say, makes our peculiar experience valuable, and also enables us to talk about the Gods “changing” without getting confused about Their own status: we are the vehicle for the change. And this ties in with something you say later on, about aspects of the God that we could not possibly engage with. Some activities of a God are too universal in scope for me to be a vehicle of those processes, at least as “me”.
Profound indeed is this remark of yours, that “those Who carry the blessings of creation, Who choose for whatever reason to remain engaged with Their creations are mad, mad Gods.” For every property of the Gods there is, I would say, some effect in the cosmos, because the Gods are creative in every aspect of Themselves. I think that the madness of Gods, much like Their wrath, is immediately connected with Their creative dimension. Divine wrath would be no petty anger, but has to do with creating an order of beings, mortals, whose birth dooms them to death, and hence their very creation is an act of wrath. Something similar can be said about Their sorrow and Their laughter. Egyptian theology says that humans come into being from the Gods’ tears, while other theologians speak of the Gods’ sport or play in creating our world. In the same way, the madness of Gods is no mere breakdown, but creates something. Platonists see the dismemberment of Dionysos, for example, as that by which souls have diverse faculties within them, this differentiation being also a fragmentation and hence a kind of original madness, the dismemberment of Dionysos and the madness He causes being one and the same, the operation of His activity first upon Himself, and thence upon the rest of Being.” (E. Butler)