Tag Archives: West: Towards Monotheism

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: philosophical moves, 1

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. read more »

How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps

m-typesOne of the more intriguing books I read not many years ago was Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. Its opening chapter by Martin West looks at some of the earliest signs of the transformation of polytheistic religions into monotheistic thought. He begins with Greek and “Near Eastern” (sic) literature.

The essence of polytheism is that the many gods have independent existences, rarely crossing each others paths as they are respectively called on by devotees to help out with their special talents. A thief would call on a god of thieves for blessing, not the god of justice — unless or until he was himself wronged. The Homeric hero Odysseus was persecuted by the god Poseidon but regularly protected by Athena. The Bible narratives likewise point back to the time when Yahweh was among many gods with his own distinct provenance:

You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us (Judges 11:24)

But Homer, West argues, also introduces readers to something contrary to true polytheism. The gods meet in council and subsume their individual wills to their exalted chief, Zeus. read more »