How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Last month I posted my reading of an interesting discussion by senior research fellow M. L. West about the nature of ancient Mid-East and Mediterranean world polytheism and how it appears to have evolved into monotheism in late antiquity.

This post continues the remainder of that discussion by West. It outlines how and why the philosophers moved the intellectual world to a position where monotheism came to be embraced as the most economical answer to “the big questions” of the day.

As in that previous post, I am discussing the first chapter by Martin West in Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede.

On the quest of the sixth and fifth century Greek philosophers West begins:

To invoke God as an explanation of phenomena is to confess that you do not know how to explain them rationally — unless, that is, you are prepared to supply a rational explanation of God. The Presocratics, however, did try to explain God. What they sought to eliminate from the world was not divinity as such but caprice and the arbitrary events which had formerly been ascribed to divine initiative. (p.30)

Guiding principles: Depersonalize and Economize

Rather than discard gods as an explanation, what these philosophers did was to depersonalize the gods of the myths. By depersonalizing them and morphing them into abstract principles they hoped to discover ageless and unchanging forces and powers and principles in place of the moody temperamentalism of human-like gods. They may retain the names of some of these gods for those abstract agencies, but at least such impersonal phenomena would be worthy of the label “god” in their view.

“Among the principles that informed these men’s theorizing were economy and coherence.” They valued the idea of a single cause over many causes. The fewer gods at the apex who could be deduced to be guiding all below the better, although some thinkers retained a small hierarchy of a few agencies at the top.

Thales (ca 624-547 b.c.e) — getting the abstractions right

West sees Thales as the one who began to emancipate such terms as “soul” and “god” from their conventional mythical applications.

To Thales, “everything was full of gods” or “there are gods everywhere”. He is said to have thought the magnet had “a soul” because of its power to move iron.

There is no evidence he sought to economize on the number of these abstract “gods” and “souls”. One step at a time.

Anaximander (ca 610-546 b.c.e) — the guiding uncaused Infinite

For Anaximander everything that exists was generated by a mysterious Infinite.

The Infinite

  • encompasses and guides everything — “steers” the universe
  • is eternal and unageing
  • is in perpetual motion

This perpetual motion of the Infinite

  • has no external cause
  • causes the formation of worlds within the Infinite
  • is the driving force of the universe

Aristotle understood Anaximander believed that this Infinite was a divine agency or element, “god”.

Concerning the numberless worlds that form and pass away within the Infinite, Anaximander believed these worlds:

  • were gods
  • were each a globular system, an earth at the centre and enclosed by a heaven
  • were not eternal but very long-lived
  • caused an imbalance, or “injustice”, within the Infinite

(West notes that one might thus conclude that the Infinite was the supreme god and the worlds were the sons of that god manifesting the chief god’s powers at the material level.)

The imbalance (or “injustice”/”unrighteousness”) caused by the worlds was corrected when

  • they were punished or corrected by the law of Time, (presumably another deity)
  • they accordingly perished and returned to The Infinite

Anaximander described his abstract principles in images of a personalized theological drama. World gods, or rebellious angels, had to be punished to restore the will of the supreme deity.

Anaximenes (ca 585-525 b.c.e.) — a Living first cause

Anaximenes replaced Anaximander’s abstract Infinite with infinite but material Aer. Like the Infinite it replaced, Aer:

  • was immortal
  • was in perpetual motion
  • produced worlds by its perpetual motion
  • produced gods

But this Aer was also a living substance, like the “soul” within us.


So far those principles that can be called ultimate gods, the Infinite and Aer, are:

  1. immortal
  2. endlessly in vital motion
  3. make things happen
  4. are mindless — with no suggestion of intelligent designs and planning, or care about what is happening

Xenophanes (570-480 b.c.e) — a Mind, and Unmoved Mover

Xenophanes ridiculed Homer’s and Hesiod’s gods for their anthropomorphism. Mocking the human practice of making gods in their own image, he said that if horses and cows could produce painting and sculpture, they would represent gods looking like horses and cows.

(West disagrees with Xenophon, saying such a proposition is by no means self-evident. People do, after all, represent gods also as animals; and who is to say a pet indoor cat would not think that god would be in the image of the human who provides for its well-being and all its physical conditions of existence. p.32)

Xenophanes famous slogan, One God, needs to be kept in its context:

One god, the greatest among gods and men

Thus Xenophanes “one god” was the same concept as discussed in the previous post, How Polytheism morphed . . . first steps: one god supreme in power and guiding will amidst the larger pantheon. Xenophanes spoke of these other lesser gods not revealing all the secrets there were to mortals. So he was not a monotheist, although he postulated a “one supreme god” who was an ultimate source of all.

This One God of Xenophanes:

  • was not like mortals either physically or mentally
  • sees and hears with his (sic) whole being
  • he shakes everything solely by the power of his mind and without effort
  • he remains in the same place, motionless

So for Xenophanes, it was not fitting for a supreme deity or ultimate cause to be moving about. Here we have the first appearance of the idea of the Unmoved Mover.

He has no moving parts yet controls all matter.

Heraclitus (ca 535-475 b.c.e.) — All knowing, guiding, fire-wielding Wisdom

Heraclitus introduced the idea of a divine sexless intellect. His ultimate divinity is not a male θεος but a neuter σοφον. This “one sophon”

  • a unitary (it is “one sophon”, εν σοφον) entity, a disembodied intelligence
  • independently existing Wisdom or Skill
  • knows everything
  • manages and directs — “steers” — the world by directing a fiery pulse through the universe — Zeus sending his thunderbolt, the traditional instrument of Zeus’ will (c.f. the related view of Heraclitus that the world is an ever-living fire.)

But Heraclitus was no monotheist. He also spoke of

Dike, the embodiment of the cosmic balance, and identified Dike with Eris, Conflict. Conflict was essential, Heraclitus suggested, for the maintenance of the cosmos.

Agents of Dike, Erinyes, monitoring the movements of the sun.

Polemos, king and father of all, the power that made some into gods and others into men, some slaves and others free.

Dionysus and Hades, saying they were one and the same.

gods and men honoring those slain in battle

people who prayed to statues being ignorant of what the gods really were

To be continued in future post . . . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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