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Polytheism and Ecology



The ecological wisdom of the world’s indigenous polytheisms requires a properly polytheistic conceptual framework as a bridge to the global philosophical and practical environmental discourse, in place of the conceptual frame currently applied to these traditions, which is reductionistic and explicitly or implicitly monotheistic. This frame distorts the insights of these traditions and indeed, embodies in itself an imminent existential threat to them. A new ecological vision, with a rigorous ethical criterion encompassing ecologies of nature, of culture and of the mind, emerges from principles of positive individuation and polycentricity intrinsic to polytheism.

The Christian God lays claim to the natural world in the mode of a thing created, and which is thus already positioned as a resource, over which humans are ultimately granted dominion, and due to the ontological closure of monotheism, this relationship of created to creator is the totalizing determiner of all beings. The most important thing about nature in that ecological consciousness which leads to natural things being saved and preserved, by contrast, is that natural things, whatever the involvement of Gods or other metaphysical principles in bringing them forth, also exist for themselves. In this paper, I wish to talk about how polytheism, the religious regard toward many Gods, either at once, serially, or potentially, sustains ecological consciousness. The environmentalist orientation of so-called “Pagan” religions is often expressed in the language of “immanence” and “transcendence”. But these terms are inadequate. Polytheisms are religions of immanence, but also of transcendence, of multiple centers and peripheries, of hierarchies that can reverse themselves, extend or contract. In this paper, I will be approaching the question of the value of polytheism for ecology from a very different perspective.

With due caution about assuming what can be said of one polytheism to be true of all of them, two famous quotes from early Greek philosophers express a certain idea which seems to be basic to polytheism as such: [2]

All things are full of Gods. (Thales, 7th-6th c. BCE)1

There are Gods even here. (Heraclitus, 6th c. BCE)2

Both of these quotes were understood by later philosophers in this tradition—Plato and Aristotle, respectively—as establishing, through the pervasive presence of the Gods throughout the cosmos, that the world was intelligible, through and through, and hence that if one applied oneself to the study of natural things, one would not only discern an order in their existence and activity, but an order that was beautiful in itself, and that would, furthermore, furnish a ground for inquiry in every other area—scientific, intellectual, moral and aesthetic—through the principles which shone forth in it.

Aristotle thus inserts this quote by Heraclitus into his book about the parts of animals, which though it might seem, he suggests, a lowly study, nevertheless bears divine illumination.

Divine illumination is everywhere because everything exists. The Gods shine forth in all things because all things can host Them. Being is widely, generously distributed. We ask how something exists, in the first place, not whether it does. The quote from Thales goes further than the one from Heraclitus; it is not merely that wherever we are, the Gods are too, but that all things are full of Gods. This fullness, this lack of void, is moreover not the overflowing abundance of one single deity, but a profusion of Gods themselves everywhere, multiplying, indeed, even what appears to be singular with other aspects and hidden dimensions. There is no concern here about one God overlapping another, or that they might be thus indistinguishable. They are primordially many, not differentiating themselves through negating one another, but being with one another.

This brings us to a third quote, the authorship of which is uncertain. [3] One author attributes it to unnamed ‘Pythagoreans’, another to Anaxagoras. It bears, surely, a resemblance to the latter’s thought, but probably did not originate with him:

All things are in all things, but in each appropriately.3

This maxim reciprocally implies the rejection of void. Each thing is one in its plenitude; each thing, we may say, is a way of all things coming forth. What distinguishes the Gods, therefore, from any other class of beings in this common condition of all things? All things are in all things, the maxim states, but in each appropriately. So there are different ways in which things host all others.

For a criterion suitable to determine what way of hosting all things is “appropriate” to a given being, we may turn to the philosopher Parmenides, who received his doctrine in a theophany from an unnamed Goddess in the 5th c. BCE. [4] Parmenides’ doctrine of being is a doctrine of presence. To the degree that something is present, it is, it has being, and vice versa. Presence, in turn, is positivity, and hence a plenum or fullness of being. “What is,” his Goddess explains, “holds fast to what is” (frag. 4). There is no room, in this presence of being, for what is not. And hence Parmenides stresses that “Never shall this prevail, that things that are not, are,” (frag. 7). That is to say, nothing is what it is, in the final analysis, on account of what it is not. Insofar as something is, it is “one” and “continuous” (frag. 8). Neither, therefore, does its history pertain to it: “Neither [its] coming-to-be nor [its] perishing has Justice [Dikē] allowed, relaxing her shackles, but she holds [it] fast,” (ibid., ll. 13-15). That which is, insofar as it is, stands fast in eternity with its justice. What is this justice?

Less being is accorded to things, we can see from Parmenides, to the degree that we must know them by negation, by denying other things. The degree to which something is known positively, is the degree to which it exists more, or we might say, more perfectly, or with more justice. What distinguishes the Gods, such as the one who speaks to Parmenides, is the ability for each one of Them to host all other things positively, to do justice to them.4 This is the same as to say that the Gods exist in eternity, but can grant meaning to those who come to be in time. Parmenides’ criterion allows us to judge for ourselves, with respect to a being, the degree to which things can be present to it and through it in their positivity, or must be distinguished negatively from one another and from it.

[5]There is a wisdom in language which distinguishes positive and negative presence, namely, the distinction between proper names and common nouns, between what and who. When something is present to us with maximum intensity, we say that it is not something but someone. This, in turn, is the use of ‘one’ which we find throughout ancient We call someone by a proper name; they are thus ‘who’ rather than ‘what’, or at least they are not solely ‘what’. Every who, every person, is also a ‘what’ in a host of respects. But whatness, or ‘essence’, as it came to be called in the Aristotelian tradition, is shot through with negation, and hence with nonbeing in Parmenides’ sense. Everything, insofar as it is something, is what it is in virtue of what it is not; but everyone, insofar as she is someone, is who she is just in virtue of herself.

[6]The Gods are such persons to a superlative degree, simply because They are present to us as Who and almost not at all as Plato explains that the Gods have not been inferred from any reasoning (Phaedrus 246c-d). We know Them, rather, as They wish. We see this especially where Plato speaks of the names of the Gods (Philebus 12c, 30d; Cratylus 400d-e), where he consistently uses the terminology of what is pleasing (philon; chairô) to the Gods.

[7] The names of the Gods are, first and foremost, and whatever they may mean, those names which express our relationship with Them, the names which we call Them in ritual and devotion, and to which They respond, and bless us with Their presence.

[8] These are proper names, and their conceptual content does not pertain to this function of designating who rather than what. The concept of ‘who’, of positive individuation, shelters the relationship with such beings from reduction to mere resources. Moreover, for the God, it is always possible to perceive other things as ‘who’, because the Gods are not themselves defined by whatness, by essence. As unique individuals Themselves, they can host all things in their own uniqueness. Plato recognizes this superlative uniqueness when he states that “Each God is the most beautiful and the best thing possible” (Republic 381c).

The ecological force of positive individuation is twofold. First, of course, it is to existing things that we are morally accountable. This is not to say that species, in addition to individuals, are not intrinsically valuable. Far from it; for an individual has vested a great deal of their being in what they are. The appearance of a being as a certain kind of being is the single greatest project of their existence. Every living thing strives to become both what and who they are. But it is by understanding its role in whoness that whatness becomes intelligible and, moreover, acquires its ethical significance.

[9] Second, positive individuation affords us a criterion of value. Here, the concept of compossibility becomes useful.5 All things are in all things, but in each appropriately (oikeiôs). There are different ways in which a thing is host to everything else: more passively or more actively; more distinctly or more diffusely; more positively or more in the mode of negation. This sense of the appropriate, the oikeios, is in turn at the heart of ecology. Ecology is the science of the ability and necessity of things to coexist with one another in, as it were, a common dwelling (oikos). The ecology of things is the inquiry into what they are compossible with, what makes them possible, what permits them to be possible, and what they in turn make possible and permit to be possible.

This ecological criterion is, accordingly, wider even than that of nature or the living narrowly conceived. [10] Philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari thus spoke of three ecologies, namely, environmental ecology, which pertains to things insofar as they are natural beings, i.e., come forth in time and space, which is the primary positive presence of things; intellectual ecology, which pertains to things insofar as they come forth in the mind, which is primarily the mode of negation, of discerning ‘what’; and social ecology, which pertains to beings insofar as they form a community synthesizing positive and negative presence. In each of these ecological domains, if we apply the criterion of compossibility, we discern how the ecological disposition in one domain impacts the others.

Christianity provides an example of damaging ecological impact through the radical reduction of compossibility. For Christianity, there is no God but one, with all other things in the single relationship of created object to Him, a form of ‘seriality’6 in which beings relate to one another not directly, but only through His mediation. Lynn White calls Christianity “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen,” which “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature.”7 Note, however, that this is a privilege accorded to humans through their whatness, through the reified essence of humanity that embodies God’s will for them, and thus subjects humans as well. “In Antiquity,” White explains, by contrast [11] every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men … By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

It is very deeply ingrained in our contemporary life that, aside from the evolutionism which relegates polytheisms to the class of ‘primitive’ religions, all religions are essentially equal. Part of this argument is supplied by the notion that, where a religion has been supplanted—and, let us be candid, this has always been of polytheisms by monotheisms—it has been done without loss, because of the subordination which supposedly permits indigenous divinities to live on in diminished form. But White sees that this subordination entails a completely different ecological structure. A saint is not a God, nor is he a nymph or a satyr, for a saint is strictly human, and hence does not hold space for what is truly other than us and irreducible to our projects. As White puts it, “Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”

A radical change in intellectual ecology, namely, the new conception of the class of divinities, contracted to one, brings about a collapse of whoness into whatness, resulting in a dramatically diminished compossibility of natural beings. For whereas Thales and Heraclitus, in the quotes from which I began, secured the intelligibility of natural beings by the pervasive presence of Gods in and among them, here, every relationship between the divine and the natural world, and every act of apprehension and of knowledge, serves to render natural beings ready for exploitation. This includes, of course, humans themselves insofar as they, too, are considered as natural objects, which the Christian intellectual ecology demands insofar as it frames them exclusively as created things.

This transformation in intellectual ecology thus immediately impacts natural and social ecology. Indeed, no less than the animism of nature, polytheisms have always entailed as well an animism of the social. [12] For every disposition of power, there was some divine principle advocating on behalf of the subordinate or marginal and possessing the potential, however seemingly constrained by the forces maintaining a given social order, of upending the hierarchy and claiming the center, rather than the periphery, of the social field. While there is no magical solution to social agonism, the activity of Gods throughout the social domain, just like their presence throughout nature, acted as a check to the degree that some unexpected agency, it was known, could always assert itself from the periphery.

Due to the polycentricity of polytheism, no polytheism enforces total closure upon the social or intellectual field. In this fashion, polytheism secured a space for critique, and for open-ended negotiations over social power. The extraordinary stability of polytheistic civilizations over long spans of time ought not be interpreted as indicating that they were static and unchanging, but rather that their cultural ecology was able to recognize and reproduce itself amidst change. The center might shift, and the composition of the pantheon transform over time, as we can see in every case in which there is sufficient historical documentation, but this transformation does not render the offspring of its earlier stages unrecognizable to their forebears or vice versa. Rather, it is the nature of these traditions to carefully knit together the old and the new. This is an aspect of cultural and intellectual ecology that suffers particularly from the depredations of an historicism seeking to impose its linear narrative upon such traditions at the expense of the hermeneutical values by which they sustain themselves. It is vital for such traditions to be able to read their past in their future, and their future in their past.

[13] Polytheism, the open-ended multiplicity of the divine, nourishes all three ecologies, not because polytheisms are “nature religions” in a basic sustenance relationship with their natural environment, but because polytheism keeps the channels with the divine open, so that humans and other mortal beings need never meet changing natural, social, and epistemic conditions alone. And so just as we recognize our vital self-interest in preserving indigenous knowledge about the natural world, we need to accord the same importance to preserving the names of indigenous Gods and the formulae by which They are called, and maintaining the conditions for their communities of worshipers to stay in contact with Them, or to create the conditions for reestablishing that contact if it has been sundered; for it is not the Gods who are diminished when we lose touch with Them, but ourselves.

*This paper was presented at the Indic Academy International Online Conference on Indigenous Environmentalism, May 17, Numbers in brackets refer to the corresponding slides in the accompanying file.


1 DK 11 A22(b), Aristotle, De Anima i.5, 411a7; Plato, Laws 10, 899b. Quoted by Aetius as “the All is full of daimones” (DK 11 A23, Aet. I 7, 11).

2 DK 22 A9, Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium i.5, 645a17-23.

3 Proclus, Elements of Theology §103; Syrianus, in Metaph. 82.1ff.

4 On this, see further my “Bhakti and Henadology”, Journal of Dharma Studies 1.1, 2018, pp. 147-161.

5 See further my “Hercules of the Surface: Deleuzian Humanism and Deep Ecology,” in An (Un)Likely Alliance: Thinking Environment(s) with Deleuze/Guattari, ed. Bernd Herzogenrath (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), pp. 139-158. A similar argument is made by Pauline Phemister, Leibniz and the Environment (New York: Routledge, 2016), who references (p. 31, n. 45) a review of mine that was a forerunner of that essay (“Review of Spinoza and Deep Ecology: Challenging Traditional Approaches to Environmentalism by Eccy De Jonge,” Metapsychology Online Reviews, 9.45, Nov. 2005).

6 Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, trans. Bains and Pefanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 20; Gary Genosko, in Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Pindar and Sutton (London: Athlone Press, 2000), pp. 125-8.

7 “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science Vol. 155, No. 3767 (1967), pp. 1203-1207.


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