Welcome to INDICAPOLYTHEIST (www.indicapolytheist.com), the latest initiative from the Center for Global Polytheist and Indigenous Traditions (CGPIT). The goal of INDICAPOLYTHEIST is to provide a platform for thought about polytheism by polytheists in both continuous and revived traditions. The term ‘polytheism’ is controversial, but we believe that it is necessary to face that controversy, and to engage the misunderstandings and the hostility toward having many Gods, rather than to hide from it with equivocations. Traditions that have many Gods have much in common, including most of all being persecuted for just that. The default religious orientation of the entire world before the imposition of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire was polytheistic. To have many Gods, to discover new ones, and to recognize the Gods of other cultures was simply part of being human. Now it is vital for humanity to rediscover the basic wisdom that the divine is inexhaustibly multiple, and that this multiplicity is not superficial, but as deep as anything we can conceive.

Thanks to centuries of oppression, those belonging to traditions with many Gods are frequently reluctant to accept the label of ‘polytheist’. This is understandable, when for generation upon generation even the most minimal degree of acceptance for their traditions, even in so-called ‘interfaith’ settings, has demanded constant assurances that they, too, accept the fundamental dogma that there is only one God. But what is this acceptance worth, should it undermine commitment to the Goddesses, Gods and spirits, sustaining relationships with whom has been the driving force behind all that these traditions have done? (Moreover, not many people are aware that not only is polytheistic worship far older than monotheism, the very term ‘polytheist’ is also far older than the term ‘monotheist’.)

The openness and radical pluralism of polytheistic civilizations has much to teach a world which struggles to accommodate its inherent diversity, a world which, moreover, needs urgently to learn to hear the voices of the non-human as well as the human. In this effort, the Gods have always been humanity’s most crucial allies. It cannot be enough to accommodate diversity by reducing all difference to the same, because this continues to treat difference as something to be eliminated. By honoring our Gods just as who They are, polytheists affirm instead the intrinsic value of the unique in its uniqueness, rather than solely in what it has in common. By recognizing the irreducible, simultaneous truth of multiple cosmogonies, polytheists affirm a more profound sense of what the cosmos is than those who would treat them all as, in effect, equal in their falsehood or merely partial truth.

INDICAPOLYTHEIST will provide a place for these discussions and more, through long- and short-form content, videos and interviews, to foster deeper understanding within and among our traditions of the beauty and transcendence of polytheism, to learn from one another as we deal with similar problems, and to build alliances to counter those allied against us. Our traditions are manifold within and without, but just in this lies our unity and our strength.

Two Models of Polytheism

[Originally published in Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology, ed. Michael Hardy (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2019), pp. 63-80.]


Polytheism, William James once said, is a term which “usually gives offense”.[1] Unfortunately, this is scarcely less true today than when he said it more than a century ago. Academic discourse having grown more subtle, however, in the interim, we are more likely today to encounter the claim that polytheism in effect never existed at all, or scarcely ever, than to meet with the direct denunciation of polytheism as ignorant, incoherent, and doomed to supersession. ‘Polytheism’, we are told, is a term that originates in Christian polemics and hence is ripe for deconstruction. This assertion is, in the first place, debatable, inasmuch as a cursory search of Liddell and Scott’s lexicon shows that forms of the word are attested as early as Aeschylus.

Beyond this, however, and as a rule of thumb, we ought to beware of the deconstructive tendency when it is turned toward the subordinated term in an opposition, and deployed in such a fashion as to strengthen the term which is already hegemonic. We live in a world in which monotheism is hegemonic, and has been for a very long time. In such an environment, it is entirely possible to find everywhere one turns the mere illusion of debate, in which both sides tacitly shore up the hegemonic ideology, however bitter their differences on matters that do not fundamentally affect the values and presuppositions shared by both sides. Monotheism, I would argue, is not merely an instance of such a hegemonic ideology, but is the paradigm of all of them, totalizing ideologies of every kind having been informed and shaped by monotheistic polemics spread throughout the world by Christian power both hard and soft, including in manifold secular guises. Under such circumstances, if we are to stake any claim to intellectual honesty and integrity, extraordinary care must be taken with any manifestation of genuine alterity to the hegemonic regime. And nothing could be more alien to monotheist hegemony than polytheism, certainly not atheism, with which monotheism in the hegemonic form it has assumed in the world shares many structural characteristics. Wherever polytheism raises its head to speak on its own behalf, it can expect only opprobrium, usually from every side in whatever debate is currently raging.

Let us, therefore, give the notion of polytheism some air to breathe. Rather than imposing upon it some constraining definition designed to close in and smother it as quickly as possible, let us say simply that wherever we find a cultural field in which a term easily argued to be translatable as ‘deity’ has a plural form, and license is given within this field for directing religious regard to such deities, whether at the same time by the same worshiper, or serially by them, or simultaneously by different worshipers, that we prima facie find here polytheism, whether present or past.

But then we shall shortly find this little Latin phrase weaponized against the notion of polytheism as existing on any but a surface plane. We shall be virtually buried in assurances from every direction, and on every basis, from the ostensibly ethnographic to the purportedly logical, that any multiplicity of deities in a given field is purely phenomenal, or merely historical, or a concession to conditions of embodiment, or to the demands of social accomodation, especially of the large population of the ‘unenlightened’. But inasmuch as there will be plenty of time for these voices to silence finally that of the Other, if they can, and given that they have already made their case over centuries and possess every organ of institutional authority, let us see if we cannot allow the phenomenon of religious regard for many Gods to articulate its own conditions of possibility, and if it is really so incoherent, to run on its own, unassisted, into whatever dead end supposedly awaits it.

In this effort, we possess some intellectual resources, and they are not meager, from Platonism, of which the entire Western tradition of thought has been termed a series of footnotes, at least when the religious affiliation of Plato and his successors is not at issue. For more important than that Plato should be Plato, is that Plato should be a monotheist. Indeed, in another of the merely apparent debates to which I referred above, no less a critic of Christianity and even of monotheism as Nietzsche refers derisively to Christianity as ‘Platonism for the masses’. This would, however, be news to the polytheistic Platonists whose intellectual opposition was so vigorous in late antiquity as to require the services of the state to silence it through legislation in 529 CE that prevented the unbaptized from public teaching. Only then did Platonism become safe for Christian appropriation.

In fact, Platonists had ranged themselves against monotheism going as far back as when they might first be reasonably expected to have encountered it. Plotinus, in the 3rd c. CE, already wrote against those, in his day an undifferentiated assortment of Christians and others we typically term ‘Gnostics’ today, who had in common that they “contract the divine into one”.[2] Efforts to make Plato himself out to have been a monotheist stumble over the simple fact that they require us to regard as Plato’s ‘God’ things that he never termed a God, such as the Idea of the Good from the Republic, while disdaining as unworthy of his sincere religious regard those actual Gods references to Whom fill the pages of his work.[3]

Moreover, these efforts toward a monotheist Plato demand that we regard his most dedicated interpreters from later antiquity, the entire tradition of systematic Platonism culminating in Proclus and Damascius, the last head of the Academy in Athens before its succession was terminated by force of law, as having perverted the tradition they alone upheld. For there was no systematic interpretation of Plato in antiquity that was not polytheistic, and modernity has not supplied one, inasmuch as systematic interpretations of Plato have been out of fashion since the philological turn in the study of ancient philosophy in the latter 19th century.

There is a model of polytheism which has, however, cast a spell upon modern interpreters to the degree that many of them will dispute that anything differing from it ought to be considered ‘polytheism’ at all. This model is readily identified in the poems of Hesiod and Homer, and can be conveniently characterized as a division of labor, or a balancing of prerogatives. Hence Hesiod speaks of the timai, the ‘honors’ or prerogatives of each God, which are allocated to them in the Olympian order established by Zeus after the resolution of the conflict of theomachy, and maintained by his powers of persuasion and his art of negotiation, though not without the potential for further conflict. The complexity of the Hesiodic or Homeric conception of such timai having been discarded, modern readers interpret the timai accorded to the Gods as essentially the same as the stereotyped ‘functions’ with which moderns are accustomed to identify the Gods, despite the fact that the very being of a God could hardly be something accorded them in such a process of mediation. This model, due to the disproportionate influence of the poets and tragedians on our image of Hellenic polytheism, and, in turn, of our image of Hellenic polytheism upon our notions of polytheism as such, is then presented most of the time as though it is the very essence of polytheism, both by polytheism’s detractors as well as by many who would defend it, at least in the abstract.

And yet we know from the careful research of those such as H. S. Versnel[4] that this model bears little resemblance to Hellenic polytheism as actually lived and practiced by worshipers. The typical worshiper petitions a God less based upon what that God’s ‘function’ might be, than upon their sense of proximity to that God, the density, so to speak, of the fibers connecting them to that divine individual, at least beyond the glancing, peripheral interaction. When they approach such a divine individual, they do so generally not as though addressing a being of strictly limited power, but rather one whose power is virtually unlimited. And when they petition a group of Gods, it is with a sense that these Gods act in concert or at least in harmony, for the most part, and not as a field of dynamically suspended oppositional forces, as attractive as this model might be to moderns to describe phenomena to which they think the Gods ought to correspond. Furthermore, when things go wrong, even in tragedy, the ancient worshiper does not tend to blame the conflict of divine prerogatives, so much as they speak of the inscrutability and infinite depths of each divine individual or of the divine categorically.

Platonists in antiquity, who were not under the spell of this division of labor or conflict of forces model either, say that a mortal soul cannot know the number of the Gods; that there is a floor on this number, which is provided by ontology—that is, in effect, by the division of labor—but a ceiling only in the sense that the number of Gods cannot be actually infinite.[5] (This is for reasons which do not have to do with theology, but with their conception of what an actual infinity means.) Beyond this floor and ceiling, however, mortals have no means to determine how many Gods there are. There are, that is, at least as many Gods as there are in a given pantheon. But there are probably many more, inasmuch as Platonists were not given to think that only one nation had received theophany, and while some Gods might have appeared under multiple names and guises in different lands, their general approach toward such claims was reserved. Plato himself uses the names of Egyptian Gods in his writings without making any claim that they are Greek Gods in disguise,[6] though he does not mind transmitting such a claim second- or third-hand with respect to Athena and Neith.[7] Later, Iamblichus (De mysteriis VII.4-5) would explicitly affirm the dictum that one should not translate the foreign names of the Gods in religious texts, and the view of pagan Platonists down to the end of antiquity seems to have been that the divine realm was made up of an indefinite multiplicity of living immortal individuals, the kind of entities who have proper names, rather than common nouns which may be translated from one language to another.

Moderns under the influence of the division-of-labor model, however, purport to know exactly how many Gods there are—somewhere around a baker's dozen—precisely because these are the number of divisions in an a priori intellectual model of the cosmos such as Jan Assmann, in his theory of ‘cosmotheism’, thinks to be the essence of polytheism. According to such a view, the point of polytheism is not contact with individual living immortals, not theophany, but cosmology, creating a map of the forces active in the cosmos. Again, Proclus, e.g., says that a mortal soul cannot know all the properties of any God (In Crat. §174, 97.1-5). But moderns purport to know just what each God does, because they have reduced their identity to that of some single, discrete power which is more or less easily defined, if not in a word, then at any rate in a paragraph.

As a result of the uncritical and almost universal adoption of this division of labor or conflict of powers model by moderns seeking to conceptualize polytheisms, ancient thinkers who do not regard this model as fundamental and feel free to critique it are taken as critical of polytheism as such, even in the absence of any explicit expression of intention on the part of those thinkers to place the Gods Themselves in question—indeed, even in the face of explicit denials that they are engaged in anything like this. A straw man of polytheism having been substituted for the genuine article, we miss the very point of what these thinkers were trying to accomplish.

For example, Plato in his Euthyphro makes a point of raising the issue of conflict among the Gods (7a & sqq.) in order to set the stage for his inquiry into the essence of holiness or piety. Such conflict is often considered to be inherent to polytheism and as implied, in particular, by the division of labor model, it being assumed that from out of this conflict some sort of equilibrium emerges. Indeed, this is frequently praised as the very wisdom inherent in polytheism, because it expresses ‘Nature’, and certifies the status of ‘paganism’ as ‘nature religion’. ‘Paganism’ even plays a heroic role in this Romantic view, affirming deities who are ‘immanent’—i.e., straightforwardly identified with natural forces and having no personhood or agency—against the ‘transcendent’ divinity of Christianity. Even beyond the fact that this view of ancient polytheisms responds entirely to modern issues and concerns, it leads to the erasure of polytheism insofar as the systemic unity of ‘Nature’ overrides any meaningful individuality for the Gods.

Sometimes, indeed, conflict is seen as necessary even to individuate the Gods, although persons such as ourselves, notably, are not generally thought of as needing to be in conflict in order to remain distinct from one another. In the dialogue, Socrates never directly questions that the Gods do have certain conflicting values, but he does encourage Euthyphro to think harder about how to understand this conflict. The outcome of this inquiry, which lies beyond this single dialogue in the Platonic corpus as a whole, is thwarted at the outset, however, if, in the general fashion of modern commentators, we assume that Socrates regards the notion that the Gods would have differing values as a reductio ad absurdum of the very notion of many Gods. The Euthyphro draws no clear conclusions from its arguments, but it is guided throughout by the tension between the Gods having unique agency, on the one hand, while also possessing an orientation toward some sort of general cosmic good on the other, a dialectic evidently too fruitful to collapse, and which is sustained by mainstream beliefs about the Gods which we have no good reason to think that Socrates and Plato do not share. Indeed, it is clearly possible for Socrates and Plato to conceive of Gods as distinct from fixed roles, or else the question of their choice or agency could never even arise.

Another example can be drawn from Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra (I. 24). The commentator is explicating the verse which defines the īśvara, or ‘lord’ who is the object of devotion, as “a distinct puruṣa [person] untouched by the vehicles of affliction, action and fruition,” (trans. Rama Prasad). That is, the God as object of the devotional regard is affirmed by the Sutra as constituted neither by any kind of limitation or lack (‘affliction’), nor by a particular pattern of activity or function (‘action and fruition’). The commentator stresses further that the īśvara is, in his “divinity … free from excess or equality. It is not exceeded by another divinity. Whichever is the highest, must be the divinity īśvara. For this reason, wherever there is the culmination of this divinity, that is īśvara,” (Rama Prasad, p. 42).

Īśvara is hence a state which corresponds to the highest positing of divinity; but īśvara is for some Viṣṇu, for others Śiva, for others Durga, and for others some other God or Goddess. Now unless we have presupposed that this difference of worshiping this or that īśvara is trivial, merely contingent, which would be to dismiss polytheism itself straightaway as merely contingent, then we must rather see the whole purpose of the text as in fact freeing the space for just such unique divine individuals as these, who are to be constituted not by their functions or relations, but just as who They are, similarly to how we ourselves are regarded as unique, and not reducible to what we do or to some way in which we can prove ourselves different from everyone else. With respect to equality, the commentator continues:


Nor is there any divinity equal to that [īśvara]. Because, in the case of equality, if one of the two equals says with reference to a common object of their attention, ‘Let this be new’, and the other says, ‘Let this be old’, then one thing only necessarily happening, unrestrained fulfillment of the wish is interfered with, and one becomes less than the other. Further it cannot be that two equals should at once possess an object desired by both. Because the wishes are contradictory. Hence he alone is īśvara whose divinity is free from equality or excess, and he is a distinct puruṣa. (Trans. Prasad, p. 42)


We should note that equality, as well as other fundamental relations like sameness and difference, likeness and unlikeness, are all negated in the First Hypothesis of Plato’s dialogue Parmenides from applying to the One,[8] or ‘Unity’ as such. In this fashion, the dialogue affirms that unity, that is, individuation, is not dependent ultimately upon relations. Absolute individuality is possessed by the Gods Themselves as exhibiting the highest mode of existence. Such an absolute individual, perfectly unique, would necessarily not be dependent for their existence as an individual upon being differentiated from others, nor would their uniqueness constitute in itself a substantive property that such individuals would have in common or that would render them equal, because the very sense of ‘uniqueness’ is that it is not a property that would form a basis for comparison. Indeed, in Plato’s Timaeus (41c), equality operates to separate two modes of divine production: the Demiurge explains that were he to create mortal souls himself, they should be equal to the Gods, but if they are created by the ‘Younger’ Gods, that is, by the Gods who operate entirely within the cosmos, and not partially within and partially beyond it,[9] then they shall be unequal with the Gods and, by the same token, equal to one another.

Returning to Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra, then we can see an analogy to these Platonic reflections. Vyasa refers to a common object of two Gods’ wish or will. It is the law of non-contradiction, as applied to this object of the Gods’ intentionality, that renders equality impossible for the God qua God, that is, for the God in Their highest expression, as īśvara or ‘lord’. Whatever is the state of affairs for cosmic beings cannot be attributed to the īśvara as the product of a divided will, of a division of labor, but must rather be regarded as the product of the total will of the īśvara.

We may compare this with Plato’s affirmation in the Republic (379c-380c) that the inhabitants of the guardians’ city must be taught to regard the Gods, strictly speaking, as the agents only of good in the cosmos, and hence not of everything that comes to be. This contrasts with Plato’s own project as stated in the Phaedo (97c & sqq.) to understand all things according to the good. This latter project obviously supercedes the narrower project of the guardians’ city. The difference between the two projects is essentially that the concept of what is good in the guardians’ city is simple and worldly, and cannot sustain esoteric inquiry into the goodness of apparent evils. The guardians, accordingly, will likely be taught a theology of divided wills and perhaps even a division of labor.[10]

A total will is by definition not a partial will and not a consensus or equilibrium of wills; but who is to say that polytheism must consist of a multiplicity of partial divine wills, and not instead of a multiplicity of total divine wills? Of a multiplicity of finite Gods, rather than a multiplicity of infinite Gods? It is this polytheism that corresponds to the vision of the unitary agency of goodness from the Phaedo, and the unitary agent(s) implied by it.

We see in this fashion how texts treated by modern commentators as involving critiques of polytheism itself can instead be seen as critiques of the supremacy of the division of labor model that the modern commentators treat as synonymous with polytheism itself. In the case of the commentary on the Yoga Sutra, it is clear that the author is interested in a notion of divinity in which a God would be a distinct ‘person’ (puruṣa) and an agent (implicit in the term īśvara) who is specifically not constituted according to such a division of labor. And we know that in fact, there were and are many such īśvara_s. This fact either signifies that the state of being īśvara defines a different model of polytheism, which is what I have argued, or that the multiplicity of īśvaras must be a mere contingency. But what would give a modern interpreter license to determine that an indisputable element of the practice of a religion is merely ‘practical’ and inessential?

If we are to avoid such interpretative arbitrariness, we must at least recognize the possibility that these authors are arguing instead on behalf of a different model of polytheism which they possess in their cultural frame of reference. This model is every bit as legitimately polytheism as the division of labor or conflict of powers model—indeed, more so, for the bhakti model is best understood as radical or unqualified polytheism, based on the pure and direct theophany of many unique Gods.


[1] William James, A Pluralistic Universe (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1909), p. 310.

[2] Enneads II.9.9.36-7; see also Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 16.1-11. On Plotinus’ critique of monotheism, see my “Plotinian Henadology,” Kronos Philosophical Journal Vol. 5 (2016), pp. 143-159.

[3] On Plato’s polytheism, see my “Plato’s Gods and the Way of Ideas,” Diotima: Review of Philosophical Research 39, 2011 (Hellenic Society for Philosophical Studies, Athens), pp. 73-87; see also Gerd Van Riel, Plato’s Gods (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

[4] See, e.g., Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[5] On this generally, see my “The Gods and Being in Proclus,” Dionysius Vol. 26, 2008, pp. 93-114, esp. pp. 107ff.

[6] Thoth: Phaedrus 274c; Ammon: ibid., 274d; Isis: Laws 657b.

[7] Timaeus 21e.

[8] Parm. 140b-d for Equality specifically.

[9] What Proclus terms ‘encosmic’ Gods as opposed to ‘hypercosmic’ Gods.

[10] For further commentary on the Republic, see my “Esoteric City: Theological Hermeneutics in Plato’s Republic,” Abraxas: International Journal of Esoteric Studies No. 5, 2014, pp. 95-104.

On the Gods and the Good

Each of us is one, but that very thing which each of us is, both of us are not; for we are not one but two. (Plato, Hippias Major 301d)

Don't you think it is the common good of everybody, more or less, for it to become evident how it is with each being? (Plato, Charmides 166d)

Near the end of a long career in which he had articulated his philosophical doctrines indirectly in the form of dialogues, and in private to a circle of students, Plato decided to make a direct, public statement in the form of a lecture that is known as On the Good. Unfortunately, it does not survive; we know its contents primarily from a memorable account deriving ultimately from Plato’s student Aristotle, who attended the lecture. Aristotle’s brief account dwells on the lecture’s reception, which was not positive. It was not that there was anything distasteful in Plato’s lecture; rather, it seems merely that it was very technical and confusing, and failed to speak directly to the issues his audience expected to hear about in a lecture on the Good. In particular, we are told that his extensive recourse to mathematics, and his final conclusion, that the Good is the One, or Unity, left his audience perplexed and, probably, bored.

There are certain aspects of this account which ought to cause us, before even attempting to reconstruct from Plato’s surviving works what he might have been saying, to question some assumptions so widespread in modern commentators as to go virtually unremarked upon and, certainly, unquestioned. These assumptions concern what in general Plato meant by ‘the One’. They are so widespread and unquestioned because they accord with the appropriation of Platonic thought by Christian monotheism, an appropriation which was by no means peaceful in antiquity. This struggle, however, is treated as a footnote in the history of philosophy, to the extent that the waning of Christian hegemony in the intellectual life of the West has led to no wholesale reconsideration of received notions about the sense and import of classical metaphysics. Modern thinkers, while distancing themselves from the monotheistic project per se, have nevertheless treated that project’s conception of the goals and sense of Hellenic philosophy as though it was more or less correct.

According to this view, when Plato spoke of the One, or of the Good, he was speaking of a singular item, either a singular item beyond everything, or a singular item encompassing everything. Scholars will plead that their interpretations are far more subtle and complex than this, but a radical alternative reading can, I believe, show just how profound is the distortion in our received understanding of the tradition of classical metaphysics. It is a simple matter to catalogue affirmations of polytheistic devotion in Plato’s works, and scholars have at last begun to offer unbiased accounts of Plato’s theology from the things he explicitly says about the Gods, rather than fabricating a theology for him conforming to modern prejudices.[1] What remains, however, is to address the obfuscation crucial to the entire project of the monotheistic appropriation of classical metaphysics, namely the meaning and significance of ‘one’ (τὸ ἓν) in Greek philosophy.

The necessity for such clarification arises immediately from the language itself. Like any similar expression in Greek composed of the neuter definite article in front of an adjective or participle—such as to ison, ‘the equal’, to kalon, ‘the beautiful’—to hen is ambiguous. Such terms can refer to a particular thing exhibiting a certain property, as long as the gender is appropriate, or to everything that exhibits that property, or to the property itself, what we would usually designate by a term like ‘unity’, ‘equality’ or ‘beauty’. This abstract aspect can be underscored by adding the term auto, ‘itself’, though it does not require it. It is in the nature of Greek to be able to form such expressions at will, and Greek philosophy takes every advantage of this. This ambiguity is not limited to terms with the neuter article, either. To use one notorious example, ho theos, ‘the God’, refers ambiguously to a particular God indicated in the context, or as a means to talk about things true of Gods in general, in which case it is freely interchangeable with hoi theoi, ‘the Gods’. A philosophical inquiry into to hen or auto to hen, therefore, is most naturally understood as an inquiry into the nature of unity, what it is for something to be one thing or one something.

In philosophy, one hears of ‘the problem of the one and the many’, referring to an entire genre of inquiry already well known by Plato’s time. In fact, Plato is already keen to distinguish serious or interesting problems of this kind from vapid ones. Thus, in the Philebus, Socrates speaks of certain one-and-many problems as “childish”, “glib”, and “a hindrance to discussion” (Philebus 14d-e).[2] In the Sophist, too, Plato speaks of “youngsters and elders whose learning has come to them late in life,” who “feast” upon trivial one-and-many problems (Sophist 251a-c). These specious treatments of the one and the many have as their common end, Plato says, that “the one is many and infinite and the many only one” (Philebus 14e) or that “each thing we posit as one we in turn treat as many and call by many names” (Sophist 251b). We see, therefore, that Plato is well aware of a tendency for one-and-many problems to be treated in an unserious way, a degree of critical insight that speaks to a development and refinement of the terms of this discussion over a period of time.

What, then, does Plato regard as a serious and worthy discussion to have about one and many? In the Philebus, Socrates explains that the interesting discussions come with respect to unities like ‘the Human’, meaning not this particular human, but what we call the species; or ‘the Bovine’; or ‘Beauty’; or, indeed, ‘the Good’ (15a). Plato makes clear in this way that he is interested in unities, ‘ones’, that lack a simple, unproblematic basis. The examples he offers proceed from the less problematic to those more so. Natural kinds like humans and oxen surely have something real to them; they reproduce themselves continuously and always show some common traits, amid much variation as well. A unit such as Beauty is more contested. It holds together sufficiently as a concept for us to talk about it, at least, and understand one another, though we take for granted that judgments of beauty are highly subjective. Finally, there is the Good—and we know to begin with that what is good for one thing is by no means good for another, so even if we might hope in the case of Beauty to arrive at canons of beauty, or, in a more sophisticated move, in rules for the judgment of beauty that allow for its subjectiveness, it’s going to be rather more difficult to figure out how to conceive a unity such as the Good, assuming that it’s really something more than just hot air.

Unities like these are problematic. At minimum, they pop up at different times and places, and with all sorts of variations that threaten their unity, while in cases like Beauty and Goodness their instances conflict directly with one another in non-trivial ways. But these problems clearly concern determinate unities and expect determinate answers, unlike the pseudo-problems of the ‘late learners’ and their ilk. How are we to get a handle on serious one-and-many problems? Plato’s answer in the Philebus is a method Socrates characterizes as both ancient and as “a gift from the Gods to humans” (16c, again at 16e), and which he says forms the basis of all arts and crafts. This method is based on the notion that “things ever said to exist are from One and Many, and have Limit and Unlimited inherent in them.” The method operationalizes this fundamental insight about beings. It works like this:

[W]e must always assume that there is in every case one idea concerning everything and must look for it—for we shall find that it is there—and if we get a grasp of this, we must look next for two, if there be two, and if not, for three or some other number; and again we must treat each of those units in the same way, until we can see not only that the original One is one and many and infinite, but just how many it is. And we must not apply the idea of the infinite to plurality until we have a view of the total number of it between infinity and one; then, and not before, we may let each One of all things pass on unhindered into infinity. (16de)

Let’s review this procedure. We’re curious about something; since we even have that much notion of it, we have some One to start with. Then we try to see if that one idea is somehow really two, or if not, three or some other number. It’s not an additive process. Rather, the initial One is either going to stay one, or its going to yield some distinct number: if it’s three, then it’s not two, apparently. It seems a bit like searching for the number that will divide another without remainder. Then the units that come from this process each get analyzed in the same way. Each One is one, and it’s also Many, that is, a discrete number, and it’s infinite, in other words, a continuum. The initial unity of the unit and its infinity or continuity mirror each other at the beginning and end of the procedure, while in between we have a discrete multiplicity. And Plato is quite clear that what’s wrong with the people drawn in by the spurious one-and-many problems is that they aren’t interested in discrete multiplicities, rather, “they put infinity immediately after unity; they disregard all that lies between them,” whereas it is a concern with finite multiplicities that distinguishes serious from vapid discussions (17a).

I’m not going to concern myself with the examples given in the Philebus of the method, things like finding the number of tones between two musical notes or devising an alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken language. Rather, I’d like to keep the focus on the most universal dimension of the method and think a little about what it means, all on its own, for the lecture on the Good. For one thing, we can see that any interpretation that would make Plato’s meaning in equating the One and the Good be that all things are one thing, and this is good would fall right into the trap Plato sees having caught his contemporary “wise men”, namely, becoming obsessed with the direct identity between the unity of the universe, on the one hand, and the infinity of things in the universe, on the other. Plato has thus, it would seem, already rejected a certain monism—and a corresponding monotheism—as at any rate not philosophically interesting, and so this interpretation of the meaning of the doctrine put forward in the lecture on the Good would seem to be ruled out at the start. In the method, ‘One’ is always some one, some one thing whose integrity or individuality we are testing, to see how it holds together, and what kind of discrete multiplicity or number (arithmos) can be elicited from it. This orientation is previewed early in the Philebus in an interesting fashion.

The Philebus begins from the question of what condition of the soul makes life happy. Protarchus, on behalf of Philebus, argues that it is pleasure; Socrates, that it is wisdom. Philebus, who leaves early, has made some sort of statement offstage, so to speak, concerning a Goddess. Socrates seizes upon this statement and says, “Let us begin with the very Goddess whom Philebus says is spoken of as Aphrodite but most truly named Pleasure [Hêdonê]” (12b). It is clear from what Socrates says that Philebus embellished his argument in favor of pleasure as the best disposition of the soul by stating that in upholding the primacy of pleasure, he was upholding the primacy of Aphrodite among the Olympians. He’s gone further, however, and apparently made some rhetorical claim amounting to the substitutability of the concept and the Goddess. Socrates takes issue with this, and proceeds to gently scold Philebus. Socrates says that for his own part, he possesses an awe in respect to the names of the Gods that is supreme and, indeed, superhuman; accordingly, Socrates says, “I call Aphrodite by that name which is pleasing [philon] to her” (12c). These words could even perhaps be read simply as “that name which is hers.”[3]

Similarly, later in the Philebus (30d) we read that “in the nature of Zeus a royal soul and a royal intellect emerges through the power of the cause”—i.e., causality, agency—“and in other deities other noble qualities, according to which each is called what pleases them [philon … legesthai].” Here there is a chain formed by the Gods’ agency or action, their emergent qualities, and the names or epithets they receive, which are at once ‘their own’ and those which ‘please them’. In the Cratylus (400d-e), similarly, Socrates states that it is evident that the names the Gods call themselves are true; while our own knowledge of them falls short of this absolute standard, nevertheless “there is a second kind of correctness, as is customary in prayers, that they be named whatever and from whencesoever pleases them [chairousin], and these we call them, since we know no other.”[4]

Philebus trifles with the names of the Gods in a way that is, according to Socrates, all too human, presuming to replace Gods with concepts. Socrates is going to analyze the concept of pleasure; he does not intend to subject Aphrodite to such an analysis. We can compare again a passage from the Cratylus, immediately following the one I quoted above, where Socrates states categorically that in the inquiry which is to follow, he will inquire into the human contribution to the names of the Gods, that is, into the results of the human cognition resulting from theophany, and not into the nature of the Gods themselves (Cratylus 401a). This is not solely a question of piety. Rather, we can see from the explanation of the divine method later in the Philebus that Gods and concepts are clearly different kinds of unit. Persons of all kinds, we know, can hold together in the kind of unity peculiar to a person as such contradictions that would disintegrate a mere concept. And indeed, in the course of Socrates’ and Protarchus’ discussion about the nature of pleasure, it appears that pleasures are sufficiently heterogeneous as to pull apart the apparent integrity of the notion of Pleasure.

And so, in the difference between Aphrodite and pleasure, we already have an illustration of the consequences of practicing the divine method, namely, we begin to discern different classes of unit, different kinds of ‘one’ with different kinds of integrity. When we consider the unity of a person, we know that certain sorts of manifest contradictions are consistent with their continued unity. Our friend changes in many ways, and may even have conflicting aspects enduring over time. Certain contradictions, however, would not be consistent with a corporeal person’s unity insofar as they have a discrete position in space and time. If we were to consider our friend, however, through the lens of the doctrine of reincarnation, then we would find that all of these restrictions have been lifted. My friend may have been a different kind of animal at some time, or a human with completely different traits. This, I would argue, is why Plato is so interested in reincarnation: because if we accept the thought experiment, it reveals a very important kind of unity: a unit the same while any of its particular attributes vary—an individuality, thus, beyond identity and difference.

This procedure of investigating unities, testing them, figuring out how they hold together, is at once the inquiry into the nature of unity itself or as such, the question What is unity? We are always also pursuing this when investigating the mode of unity possessed by this or that unit. So this investigation goes right on up to the unit that is Unity as such, or ‘the One Itself’, to hen auto. The nature of this unit is investigated in what may be Plato’s most important dialogue, the Parmenides. The investigation of the nature of unity in the Parmenides thus forms a crucial adjunct of the method outlined in the Philebus, and it also clearly gets us closest to what Plato could have meant by his statement that ‘the One is the Good’, because more than any other dialogue, it tells us what unity is in itself, and no dialogue is similarly forthcoming about the Good. What is primarily said about the Good Itself is in the Republic, which states that it is ‘beyond being’ or ‘beyond substance’ (epekeina tês ousias), a characterization traditionally explicated with reference to the account of the One in the Parmenides, for reasons that will become evident.

The Parmenides tells of an encounter between the young Socrates and the two great philosophers and life-partners, Parmenides and Zeno of Elea in Italy, who have come to Athens to celebrate the Panathenaia. Socrates engages Zeno with regard to Zeno’s famous paradoxes of plurality and motion, raising the notion of a theory of pure forms or ideas as a way of dealing with them. Such a theory is probably not to be attributed to Socrates alone, but seems to have been in the air, so to speak, especially in Pythagorean circles. The elderly Parmenides then proceeds to examine Socrates about the theory of ideas, showing a number of problems the theory faces, problems young Socrates is not quite ready to tackle. Parmenides acknowledges the necessity of something like the theory, though, simply so that we may orient ourselves in our discussions (what philosophers today call a heuristic device). But he says that it will be crucial to develop a rigorous dialectical procedure in connection with it. With regard to anything that one might take as an object of inquiry

if you suppose that it is or is not, or that it experiences any other affection, you must consider what happens to it and to any other particular things you may choose, and to a greater number and to all in the same way; and you must consider other things in relation to themselves and to anything else you may choose in any instance, whether you suppose that the subject of your hypothesis exists or does not exist, if you are to train yourself to see the truth perfectly. (Parm. 136bc, trans. Fowler)

In a sense, Parmenides advances here a kind of coherentism, or even holism of meaning, that is, it seems that understanding anything requires placing it in relation to many other things, or possibly everything else. We see right away from this that Parmenides does not seem to hold the hypothesis that there is only one thing in the universe, the thesis of ‘numerical’ or ‘existence monism’ often attributed to him. There are many things in the universe and their relations to one another are both complex, and worth getting to know. Parmenides agrees to provide a demonstration of the sort of procedure he is recommending, and suggests that “I begin with myself, taking my own hypothesis and discussing the consequences of the supposition that the one exists or that it does not exist” (137b). Parmenides thus characterizes his hypothesis, not as that all things are one thing, but that ‘the One exists’, that there is such a thing as unity itself.

I will not take up here the significance of this for our understanding of the extant fragments of Parmenides’ own thought.[5] Rather, I will confine myself to the results of the discussion Parmenides proceeds to have with a boy even younger than Socrates, who happens to be named Aristotle—not, unfortunately, the philosopher of the same name. In this discussion, Parmenides first posits that the One Itself exists, and what the consequences are for it itself. This is naturally the part of the inquiry which concerns us most insofar as it speaks directly to the nature of ‘the One’. Its result is that every property one tries to assert of the One Itself must be denied, because if the One is also that, then it is no longer One, no longer itself. The final result, in fact, is that the One Itself cannot even be, or be one (141e). This result provokes a certain incredulity, and so Parmenides makes a fresh start with his young interlocutor, and posits instead this time a One which is explicitly a being, with all that comes with that; and in this Second Hypothesis, as it is known, everything indeed comes in, because the One turns out to embrace every attribute that was previously denied it, and its negation. Neither in the First nor in the Second Hypothesis, then, is there room for the One Itself to be a singular item. In the First, the One Itself is nothing; in the Second, the One’s own unity disintegrates in contradiction.

It becomes crucially important at this point to defend Plato from the charge of paradox mongering, because this is the implicit interpretation demanded by the monotheistic appropriation of Platonism. On a straightforward interpretation, nothing either in the First or the Second Hypothesis could answer to the monotheist notion of a singular God, either in its transcendent or in its immanent form, that is, it is neither a singular item beyond all things nor a singular item encompassing all things. But if the result of the entire procedure is nothing coherent, then the monotheist gets to proceed on the basis of what came to be known as ‘negative theology’, a notion which, in fact, was born largely out of the necessity of dealing with this very problem. The ‘negative theology’ interpretation of the Parmenides would have it that the One really must be, and be one thing, only, as Wittgenstein would say, in a very different context, “in a queer way”. The negations and contradictions, on this interpretation, merely express our own inability to conceive the One Itself in its eminence. On this interpretation, we might say, the One is, and is one, to the hilt.

But another interpretation is possible, in which the One ‘is’ in a way much queerer indeed, but also more rational. For everything said with regard to the One in the First Hypothesis would be correct with respect to any individual conceived as absolutely unique. ‘But there isn’t anything that’s absolutely unique’, someone will object. Indeed; and thus we proceed to the Second Hypothesis, where we see how un-individual and un-unique, any one that happens to be, must be, just insofar as it is. Neither side of this opposition can be eliminated. The hypothesis that there is such a thing as unity itself just yields these two poles of austere and generous unity, as Mary M. McCabe has termed it.[6]

A unit, therefore, is in one sense austerely one, and is just itself, in the most inalienable fashion, and is also, in the other sense, wide open onto all other things. This is the nature of unity. Now, where have we heard something like this before? In the description of the divine method in the Philebus, only there it was formulated differently, stating that every unit was one, and also unlimited, but most importantly, was some discrete multiplicity. It is this latter part which the investigation in the Parmenides into the nature of unity itself leaves open. Let’s go back to the Parmenides, though, and consider a little further what we might make of the unity proposed in the First Hypothesis.

A truly ‘austere’ unit is utterly individual and unified, and hence utterly peculiar, that is, it is not comparable with anything else, for nothing about it can be considered separately from it, and potentially common with something else. Such a unit does not permit one to classify it. It is, of necessity, one of a kind, but one may not say that it has even this as a property, which would of course then render it not one. See, for instance, this passage from the First Hypothesis: after affirming that identity or sameness is “a nature separate from unity,” Parmenides states that “if the One was to be affected by anything separate from unity, it would be affected so as to be more than one, and that is impossible,” so “the One cannot be affected in the same way as another or as itself,” and cannot thus be “like another or like itself” (Parm. 140a). No unit works only like this, to be sure. But the kind that functions most like this austere unit is the kind of unit with a proper name, the kind of unit, namely, that isn’t a what, but a who.

Giving something a proper name is how we express its uniqueness, something we emphasize further by the categorical distinction we draw between ‘what’ and ‘who’. If I ask what something is, I expect to be answered with a term that expresses its real or potential commonality with some number of other entities, whereas if I ask who someone or somebody is, I expect to be answered with something designating this entity alone. Now, anything I can ask the who question about, I can also ask the what question about. On the other hand, we don’t generally ask the who question about just anything, but we recognize that one could give a proper name to a particular object of whatever sort.[7]

In this who-and-what, proper-name-and-common-noun practice, we see two fundamental aspects of anything’s unity. In proper-name unity, we zero in immediately upon one unique entity, whereas in common-noun unity, we as it were fashion increasingly fine nets in which to catch a smaller and smaller number of entities, until we get down either to one, or to a set whose members are indiscernible according to the criteria of the ‘net’ we’re using. We can’t reduce the proper-name unity to the common-noun unity, or else we break it. A proper name by definition is not supposed to apply to more than one being. In practice, of course, things may have the same name, but that’s not how proper names work in principle. And even when we happen to arrive at a net that sorts a category down to a set with one member, we can’t ensure that there couldn’t be more than one being in the set unless we turn the sortal term (the ‘net’) in effect into a proper name, and then we’ve broken that.[8] We can name a lion ‘Lion’ and mean just this peculiar one we’ve met, but the two uses of ‘lion’ no longer function the same way from then on, and we show this in English by using the capital letter.

So we have two aspects of unity, one that designates unique unity, and the other that designates commonalities of some sort. In later Platonists like Iamblichus, Proclus and Damascius, there is a set of prime units, called ‘henads’—a term that originates in the Philebus—who are unique, proper-named entities, namely the Gods themselves. These henads are ‘in’ the First Hypothesis of the Parmenides insofar as they are each a perfectly unique individual, while the classifications of them according to their properties yield the primary common terms for all of Being, which lies for its part in the Second Hypothesis.

We can see from the exchange near the beginning of the Philebus about Aphrodite that the distinction between proper names and common nouns was on Plato’s mind, even if, like other advanced issues in Plato’s thought, it was not discussed overtly or at length in the dialogues, but rather reserved for the private sessions of the Academy. And the issue of proper names is already in the Philebus linked to the consideration of the Gods, as well. If proper-named entities exhibit the primary modes of unity in primary fashion, what sort of entity best exhibits the formal properties of proper-naming? Certainly not ourselves, because so many kinds of whatness infuse our whoness as to overwhelm it, and to make our uniqueness, our proper-named unity, seem rather trivial by comparison. Indeed, it has been common enough, in the wake of the erasure of the very notion of a multiplicity of unique divine individuals, to attribute uniqueness as such purely to objects in space and time, or made out of some particular heap of stuff, or to things that can be uniquely designated conceptually, like the unique definition of a geometrical figure. To imagine a uniqueness beyond conceptual singularity, not inferior to it but superior, would in effect require us to imagine something like the Gods, even if we didn’t believe in such things. We would need to imagine individuals that could be both more peculiar, and more comprehensive, than mundane individuals can be. Such individuals would hold open the space of a positive or existential difference distinct from negative difference (heterotês).[9]

But if we conceive the Gods as unique in this way, how do we understand everything about them which they have in common: powers or potencies, including that of being a God, and relations with one another, some of which place them before or after one another in a pseudo-temporal sequence? These things can be taken so as to reduce the multiplicity of the Gods to some single unit. But it’s not only on account of polytheistic piety that we don’t do that ourselves, or shouldn’t. As philosophers, we shouldn’t do so because while that would make the Gods go away, it won’t make the problem of the nature of unity go away. We would still have to recognize the metaphysical reality of the two different kinds of unity. Even if monotheism was all there had ever been, and all that any of us knew, this metaphysical problem would not go away, we just wouldn’t have an example in the world driving us to work through it as polytheism does, so we would have to investigate it through thought-experiments. Indeed, without polytheism to spur philosophers on, the sensitivity to this problem languished significantly, even divorced from theological considerations, because it was so easy to treat what I have termed proper-name unity as only applying to entities deficient in common-noun unity, like spatio-temporal particulars that come and go all the time and can barely hold themselves together—which is why particulars conceived in this way feature prominently in the skeptical, unserious one-and-many problems Plato already complained about. Monotheists can think of their God as a proper-name unity, but as long as they want to make arguments for why there can be only one God based upon the whatness, the conceptual content attributed to this God, the distinction between proper-name unity and common-noun unity will be consistently and deliberately blurred by them.

Instead of dissolving the Gods into their common powers and relations, their common-noun unity, the Platonists, by contrast, developed complex accounts of the declination of these powers and relations from the metaphysically postulated uniqueness of each of these ‘henads’. This satisfies the demands of piety, offering many solutions to practical problems that arise in polytheistic devotion, and also satisfies the demands of philosophy, by providing an account of how the second kind of unity (common-noun unity) emerges from the first kind of unity (proper-name unity).

So that’s the trajectory of this doctrine in later antiquity; right now, we need to return to Plato himself and think about how the foundations of these ideas could have furnished him with the doctrine he presented in his lecture on the Good, and what that doctrine might have looked like. It is clear that Plato did not, in his lecture, discuss the Gods, at least not in a central way, or else it would certainly have been mentioned in the reports. Rather, he must have discussed how unity and the good operate generally, in all things. This probably took the form of a discussion about how, for each thing, its unity was its primary good. We know that a good deal of Plato’s discussion concerned mathematics and astronomy, though, and we have not discussed these matters at all up to now. What would the role of mathematics and astronomy have been in Plato’s talk?

With respect to astronomy, we know that in his dialogue the Laws, the importance of astronomy is that celestial motion is akin to “the motion and revolution and calculations of reason” (Laws 897c). Thus the role of astronomy in Plato’s argument would have concerned the importance of a certain kind of motion in the cosmos, namely the kind that holds things together and fosters their orderly coexistence rather than their dispersion and disintegration, both individually and in harmonious conjunction. Plato would have sought to demonstrate thereby the way in which a single principle, the principle of unity, could govern all things in a just manner. Truly universal justice cannot, however, be such as to impose itself upon things as something separate from them. Hence we read in Plato’s Timaeus that “The best motion is that caused by itself in itself, for this is most akin to the motion of intelligence and of the All, while motion by another is worse” (89a).

Plato wishes to show that souls that are ordered in the right way individually will, just by virtue of that, also act collectively in the right way; and the best of souls, “which are good also with all virtue, we shall declare to be Gods, whether it be that they order the whole heaven by residing in bodies, as animals, or whatever the mode and method […] Is there anyone who agrees with this view who will stand hearing it denied that ‘all things are full of Gods’?” (Laws 899b).[10] We can see that Plato is not concerned to privilege the Gods of one realm over the others. Rather, once we have shown the key role played in the heavens by a motion analogous to the motion of reason in the soul, then we recognize that this kind of soul, wherever it exists, in whatever form, embodied or otherwise, is divine to whatever extent, and is giving order not only to itself but to the whole cosmos in its peculiar way, from whatever its station. Plato is quite explicit about the plurality of the divine force: “[A]s soul thus controls and indwells in all things everywhere that are moved, must we not necessarily affirm that it controls Heaven also?—Yes—One soul, is it, or more than one [pleious]? I will answer for you—‘more than one’,” (896e).

The ‘motion’ of soul which interests Plato is circular motion, because rectilinear motion is more complex than circular motion and inherently finite.[11] Circular motion is essentially of two kinds, one in which something rotates in place, centering itself, we might say, and the other, in which something revolves around something else, orienting itself to that;[12] and souls will engage in both kinds of motion, integrating themselves and orienting themselves to the best things other than themselves.

Clearly things aren’t in general literally turning in circles around themselves and circling around other things, though some things, like the heavenly bodies, are, and hence the special interest in those things for the sake of the argument. This mechanical circular motion, however, is as it were a special case of a more general, metaphysical motion by which things are on the one hand centering the cosmos upon themselves, integrating it into themselves and giving internal order to themselves thereby, and at the same time recognizing the centrality of other things in other respects, and integrating themselves into the order of the totality ‘outside’. These two ‘motions’ are inextricably entwined. I cannot successfully compose myself as a human without a sense of humanity as such, and the place of a mortal being such as myself in the universe, and what is incumbent upon me as a result. In a polycentric universe everything is in one respect a center for all things, while in other respects it is at the periphery, and this to varying degrees and in diverse ways. With this recognition, the notion of an absolute center becomes unnecessary, as Giordano Bruno, himself a very astute Platonist, would see and apply to astronomy almost 2,000 years later.

That these circular motions are metaphysical does not make them any less real. On the contrary, Plato presumably felt that he had to introduce astronomy into his lecture on the Good in order to integrate the elements of motion and time into his account of the nature of unity and the kinds of unity in things. Things existing in time bind themselves together, individually and severally, through cycles, something which of course has been recognized since the dawn of civilization in every tradition. That the circular motions are metaphysical, in other words, does not mean they are merely metaphorical. Rather, they are, so to speak, motions of motions, in the way that many disparate motions are oriented to a common end, the goal of some process; and so too, in a futher move of formalization, such goal-oriented motions are in principle cyclical, even if in fact they are only carried out one time, or even remain incomplete, because just insofar as they are ideal, they could repeat. So here again, we have our two notions of unity. Our discernment of that which is formal in something, what I have termed ‘common-noun’ unity here, can be understood as that in it which is repeatable, and thus involves the notion of cycles in time, of something returning to presence or returning to itself, as souls do, whether they are rational souls, which reflect upon their actions and their nature, or irrational souls, who return to or revolve upon themselves by doing the things necessary to repeat themselves and therefore sustain themselves as individuals in and through the difference brought about by time or as species, replicating themselves through the individuals here at this or that time.

The final component of Plato’s lecture on the Good which I wish to analyze is the role of mathematics. What does mathematics mean for Plato, and why should the Good have so much to do with mathematics? To return to the Philebus, we find an important distinction between an arithmetic “of the people” and “of the philosophers” (Phil. 56d-e). In the former,

arithmeticians reckon unequal units [monadas], for instance, two armies and two oxen and two very small or incomparably large units; whereas others [i.e., the ‘philosophical’ mathematicians] refuse to agree with them unless each of countless units is declared to differ not at all from each and every other unit.

A similar doctrine is suggested in the Republic (526a), which speaks of ‘numbers’ in which the One is such that “each unity [is] equal to every other without the slightest difference and admitting no division into parts,”[13] and Aristotle (Metaphysics 1080a) attributes to Platonists a doctrine of ‘incomparable’ [asymblêtos] units alongside the conventional units of the mathematicians. Aristotle explains the nature of these units in this way:

if Two is first after One, and Three follows Two, and so on with the other numbers, and the units [monades] within each number are comparable (for example the two units in the first Two are comparable with each other, the three units in the first Three are likewise comparable, and so on with the rest of the numbers), but the units of Two Itself are not comparable with those of Three Itself, and similarly for any two such numbers (and so mathematical number is counted thus: one, and then two, the latter resulting by the addition of another unit to one, and three results by the addition of another unit to two, and similarly with the other numbers; but these numbers are counted thus: One, and then Two, the latter being composed of units distinct from One, and then Three, without including Two as a part, and so on with the other numbers).[14]

If we widen our perspective beyond the narrow sense that ‘number’ has for us, we realize that such an “incomparable unit” exhibits the mode of unity I characterized above as ‘proper-named’. For each of the attributes belonging to such a unit, which are here termed ‘monads’,[15] are peculiar to that unit, and not comparable to attributes in another, even in the case where these attributes are as similar as the two monads in the number Two and two of the three monads in the number Three. We see the usefulness of the recourse to mathematics here, inasmuch as it presents the case in the starkest terms possible. How much more so, then, must the attributes of Aphrodite, for example, be incomparable, in the Platonic view, with those of any other Goddess or God, be they ever so similar in our eyes?

When Aristotle discusses these matters, he is usually speaking about numbers in the sense we generally understand this term today, though not always. Hence, the discussion in On the Soul concerns the doctrine, held by Xenocrates, one of Plato’s earliest successors at the Academy, that the soul is “a self-moving number” (De Anima 408b32). Here, clearly, something broader than mathematics as we know it is intended. We will better understand what is at stake in these discussions by broadening our sense of what is meant by the ‘units’ and ‘numbers’ in them.

For example, how are units that are not comparable, and thus do not differ from one another, in that sense at least, to be distinguished from one another? Such units, we read in Aristotle, can differ only in position (thesis) (De Anima 409a20) or in order (taxis) (Categories 5a30) or in succession (ephexês) (Physics 227a19-21, 29-31). This is clearly true of the natural number series, but it is also true of incomparable units in the sense of unique or peculiar existential individuals, namely that we must distinguish them by their relations to one another, since their attributes are peculiar to them. If we think of position, order, or succession in ways that might apply to any sort of entity, rather than mathematical or geometrical entities alone, we will see that this wider sense looks rather like the kinds of relations exhibited by elements in a story or a picture. Indeed, ‘number’, arithmos, always has in Greek a wider sense than the purely mathematical. To this we may compare the now-obsolete sense of numbering or calculation that was once included in English words for narration, such as ‘tale’ and ‘tell’, from the same root as German Zahl, ‘number’.

The ultimate units, therefore, we may say, being unique in themselves, are distinguished by iconic and narrative relations with one another. And this is just the case with the Gods, for the Gods are not primarily understood by us as operating this or that function, which arises from comparison, but primarily as incomparable units, and we will tend to distinguish them, in addition to their proper names,[16] by referring to their familial relations with other Gods in their pantheon, or the other relations they display in the myths and iconography peculiar to them. The science of these relations, both those internal to the divine individual as well as those external, is then the true ‘theological arithmetic’, and a rich field for future inquiry. The significance of Plato’s remark that “the God eternally geometrizes”,[17] therefore, is not to accord a naïve dignity to a science the limitations of which Plato is also well aware, but in the primary institution of possible relations and spaces of relation through the originary, mythic acts of the Gods, acts the meaning of which transcend categorization to inform all the sciences on a primordial level.[18]

As I remarked earlier, it is very unlikely that Plato explicitly spoke of the Gods in his lecture on the Good. In a certain respect, this is because he didn’t need to. All around him temples hummed with the daily life of devotion, temples to the Gods of many nations. The noise and colors and smells of festivals were always in the air. That all of this could go away was inconceivable, even nonsensical. It is we who need to approach Plato’s thought from an explicitly polytheistic perspective, and by ‘we’ I by no means intend merely we polytheists, but we moderns generally. For whatever our intellectual project, it will run aground if the notion of the Idea remains trapped in the deadlock of form and matter, the legacy of the distortion consequent upon the monotheistic construct of a Platonism without the Gods.

In authentic Platonism, Ideas were always inseparable from the lives of souls, mortal souls like ours, but most importantly the immortal souls of the Gods, who do not suffer from our deficiencies. I have had little occasion to speak of Ideas in this essay, which would seem surprising under the conventional impression of Platonism as fundamentally concerned with these entities. In this, however, I merely follow Plato himself, who explains that as the Sun is to the things of the world, principle both of their very being and of their visibility, so is the Good to the Ideas, that by which they are and are known (Republic 509b). But the Good is the Unity of each thing, and so the study of the modes of unity enfolds and takes up into itself the inquiry into forms or ideas. The ultimate mode of unity, in turn, is the peculiar or unique; and the most unique of things are the Gods themselves. For the Platonist, this is how the priority of the Gods in and beyond the cosmos offers itself to our understanding.

* Lecture presented at the Polytheist Leadership Conference, Fishkill, NY, July 12, 2014.

[1] See, notably, Gerd Van Riel, Plato’s Gods (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).

[2] All translations from the Philebus and from the Sophist are by H. N. Fowler, occasionally modified.

[3] In accord with Homeric and other early poets’ usage of philon (see LSJ, φίλος, I.2.c.).

[4] The ambiguity of naming in the Cratylus should be compared to the account of naming in the Seventh Letter, in which the name of a thing, together with its definition, image, and the knowledge of it, form a single holistic totality in the soul (Epistle VII 342c) which at once exhibits the thing itself but also presents itself in tension, even opposition to it. The name has its privilege over the other elements of this system inasmuch as it corresponds to the ‘true name’ in denoting the object. This correspondence anchors the system by which a unique entity is joined to the totality of a language, but the ‘true name’ remains ‘ineffable’ simply on account of its irreducibility to this system.

[5] For an interpretation of the fragments of the historical Parmenides with which I am largely in agreement, though not necessarily with her reading of Plato, see Patricia Curd, The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

[6] Mary Margaret McCabe, Plato’s Individuals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 4-5.

[7] Although in ordinary language not all ‘whats’ are also ‘whos’, the capacity to universalize the ‘who’ function, and thus the mode of unity it represents, is essential to the pantheistic position. I would argue that this analysis shows that pantheism, just like monolatry and henotheism, is best understood on a polytheistic basis.

[8] Something like this is at stake in the Stoic Chrysippus’s paradox about identical twins ‘Dion’ and ‘Theon’.

[9] Plato says in the Sophist (255e) that “each thing is different [heteron] from the rest not on account of its own nature, but through participating in the idea of the Different.” ‘Difference’ here is not the source of individuation, but of diacritical or differential identity, what we might term structural identity, which is necessarily holistic and in that respect a unity subordinating the individual ‘natures’ that are distinguished from one another by it.

[10] Translations from the Laws are by R. G. Bury.

[11] See the ten kinds of motion discussed at Laws 893b-894c. The formula for generating linear motion from the superimposition of circular motions was first clearly articulated by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in the 13th c. CE (the ‘Tusi couple’), though anticipated in remarks by Proclus in his commentary on Euclid (In Eucl. 106).

[12] The two kinds of motion are described at Timaeus 40ab: the one, rotation, is “uniform motion in the same spot, whereby it conceives always identical thoughts about the same objects,” the other, revolution, is “a forward motion due to its being dominated by the revolution of the Same and Similar” (trans. R. G. Bury), the latter phrase referring to the motion of Identity which together with that of Difference is constitutive of the Soul as such (Tim. 36c).

[13] Trans. Paul Shorey

[14] Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle.

[15] This is likely the first indication of the systematic distinction later Platonists would draw between ‘henads’ and ‘monads’, terms which seem synonymous in the Philebus, although the discussion there is clearly less technical than the discussions within the Academy it permits us to glimpse.

[16] It is noteworthy that one of the maxims attributed to Pythagoras explicitly juxtaposes numbers and names: “What is the wisest thing? Number; but second, the one who put names to things” (Diels-Kranz 58c4, quoted by Iamblichus, Vita Pythagorae 82).

[17] As reported by Plutarch, Quaes. Conv. 8.2.1.

[18] On this primary collective activity of the Gods, see in particular “The Second Intelligible Triad and the Intelligible-Intellective Gods,” Méthexis 23 (2010), pp. 137-157. [Reprinted in Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus (New York City: Phaidra Editions, 2014).]

Bhakti and Henadology

[Originally published in Journal of Dharma Studies Vol. 1, No. 1, 2018, pp. 147-161.]


ABSTRACT: In henadological Platonism, the significance of ‘the One’ is understood to lie, not in an eminent singular entity, but in the modes of unity and the ways of being a unit. The science of units qua units is a systematic ground and counterweight to substance-based ontology, and manifests an organic bond with theology as the science of relation to supra-essential individuals or Gods. Because of the basic nature of unity relative to being, doctrines respecting unity tend to situate themselves as critiques of ontology; they exhibit both an analytical and a soteriological value. For its part, bhakti is not a mere sectarian movement but rather an inquiry at once speculative and practical into the nature of the relationship between the human and the divine. It bridges the diverse genres of ancient Indian thought (including the theophanic/cultic, the epic, along with diverse philosophical perspectives) and displays key commonalities with henadological Platonism. This paper begins the process of identifying these common themes with particular reference to the Bhagavadgītā. Chief among its themes is the distinction between structuring cause and structured mixture, which runs through Platonism from the Phaedo to the doctrine of principles, and which parallels the account of action in the Gītā as freedom independent of result, insofar as the latter pertains to the solidarity of worldly causality heteronomous to the agency of the ātman.


The suppression of polytheistic Platonism in late antiquity, culminating in the prohibition of public teaching by Pagans in 529 CE, was the necessary precondition for the successful appropriation of Hellenic philosophy, which had been born and nurtured in a polytheistic religious environment, into Christian monotheistic thought. This appropriation involved a particularly bold transformation in the relationship between the first principle in Platonic thought, namely Unity or ‘the One’, and Being. ‘The One’, which the Parmenides, the most authoritative text for the metaphysics of late antique Platonism, explicitly states neither is, nor is one (141e), is, for the tradition of thought which will follow upon the silencing of Pagan Platonism, treated instead as identical to the monotheist’s God, the ‘supreme being’. The resulting amnesia with respect to the function of the Platonic first principle as the principle of individuation and not itself an individual, and a principle of existence irreducible to being qua being, was to have profound consequences for Western thought, and for the Western reception of Indian thought.

Two recent articles by Vishwa Adluri, “Plotinus and the Orient: Aoristos Dyas” (2014) and “Philosophical Aspects of Bhakti in the Nārāyaṇīya” (2015), have urged a reconsideration of the parallels between Platonism and bhakti theory as represented in the Mahābhārata,[1] finding in the Nārāyaṇīya in particular a combination of elements that make it, and bhakti theory more generally, the optimal basis for the comparative study of Platonic (in the case of Adluri’s articles, Plotinus specifically) and Indian thought. The present essay seeks to contribute specialist knowledge of henadological Platonism to this project of forming a bridge between bhakti theory and Platonism through a henadological reading of what has been called “the principal monument to bhakti,” the Bhagavadgītā.[2] Unlike Adluri’s articles, the present essay takes Proclus as its model for Platonic thought, inasmuch as he represents the fullest systematic articulation of Platonism in antiquity.

The present essay seeks the most fruitful conceptual foundation for dialogue between these philosophical traditions, in particular with respect to the set of “problems … to be taken up in future research” as indicated by Adluri,[3] philosophical problems which concern the nature of the ultimate principle—the unity of the One and its relationship to multiplicities of diverse kinds—and the consequences for soteriology of the nature of unity. Accordingly, the Platonism upon which it draws is at once a synthesis and an explication of the tradition. Henadological Platonism is meant to reintroduce as a living philosophical position the fullest systematic expression Platonism achieved at the end of antiquity, as we find it especially in Proclus and Damascius, before it was subverted by Christian hegemony. The point of isolating pre-Christian Platonism for this endeavor is not historical, but systematic: the core issue of the relationship between ‘unity’ and ‘being’ simply cannot be perspicuously addressed in the new conceptual framework existing after the Christian onto-theological appropriation of Platonism, where ‘the One’ is no longer ‘unity’, but a single supreme being. Nor is my account of bhakti theory concerned with historical reconstruction, much less with textual intervention of the sort associated with ‘text-historical’ Indology,[4] but with pure speculative philosophical possibility, which requires a commitment to the integrity of the text and the traditions that intersect it.[5] Nor do I, of course, propose to exhaust the meanings of the terms and texts I explicate in Indian thought, but rather to open up a bridge based on potentialities which may not have received proper attention or emphasis due to the intellectual influence of hegemonic monotheism. A bridge can necessarily be traveled in either direction; I am traveling it from henadological Platonism to bhakti theory, but it should be evident that it might look rather different traversed from the other direction.

As an example of the spirit in which these matters have been hitherto approached for the most part, Paulos Mar Gregorios (2002) draws a polemically charged comparison between Plotinian Platonism and Advaita Vedānta, on the one hand, and ‘theurgical’ Platonism and bhakti, on the other, stating that “Plotinus did not wholly approve the growing practice of theurgy in his tradition. For a true Neoplatonist to practice theurgy is similar to a pure Advaita Vedantin practising a Bhakti cult in India. It is often done, but is very difficult to justify philosophically.”[6] It is anachronistic, first, to attribute to Plotinus any attitude toward ‘theurgy’ per se, inasmuch as the term does not arise until after his time; furthermore, inasmuch as the ‘theurgical’ or ‘hieratic’ tendency essentially accounts for all of the most well-known Platonists after Iamblichus’ time,[7] this severs Plotinus from his Platonic successors—with the exception, of course, of his latter-day monotheistic appropriators.[8] More relevant to the concerns of the present essay, however, is Gregorios’ alignment of the theurgical, or pro-ritual stance of the post-Plotinian Platonists with bhakti, and the invidious comparison he draws between both and the sublimity of Advaita, which alone embodies a philosophical position worthy of Plotinus, and vice versa, while ‘theurgical’ Platonism is seen, like Bhakti, as virtually anti-philosophical in its very essence, the former on account of its ostensible ‘irrationalism’,[9] the latter on account of its supposed basis in ‘emotion’.[10] Both are relegated to the plane of mere ‘practices’, without a meaningful theoretical viewpoint at all.

I wish to argue, by contrast, for a constructive affinity between bhakti theory and systematic Platonism in two crucial respects. In the first place, there is the conciliatory breadth of ancient Platonism, a philosophy in accord with the wider praxis of polytheism, which sought to incorporate the full range of religious practices and philosophical orientations into an embracing structure. Platonism had a unique aptitude to be the vehicle for this synthesis because it is capable of acknowledging diverse principles without loss. We see the same impulse toward incorporating philosophical and devotional imperatives in bhakti theory, which bridges diverse genres of Indian thought, including the theophanic/cultic, the epic, and the philosophical, and also seeks as early as the Gītā itself to incorporate diverse philosophical perspectives into a broader synthesis. Bhakti from this perspective is not a mere welter of competing sectarian movements but rather an inquiry at once speculative and practical, delving profoundly into the nature of the relationship between the human and the divine. And by the same token, henadological Platonism is recognized in this light not as the product of some late Pagan effort at theological special pleading, but as a similar grand synthesis of the intellectual and the devotional that seeks to do justice fully to each.

Second, in bhakti theory we find a counterpart to the most important structure in systematic Platonism, namely a first principle which is a principle of individuation beyond being, from which Being is emergent and upon which Being is dependent. This fundamental Platonic distinction between Unity (units) and Being—between henology and ontology—is captured in bhakti theory in the conceptual distinction between the object of devotion as Īśvara or Bhagavān, a divine person and free agency, as who, on the one hand, and as Brahman, as Being, or what, on the other, especially when it goes as far as to grant ontological priority to the former over the latter, such as when Kṛṣṇa states “I am the foundation of Brahman” (BG 14.27).[11] This is not to reify an opposition between Īśvara and Brahman: the perfection of Īśvara is expressed precisely in being the ‘supreme Brahman’, and much of the development of bhakti theory has taken place within the context of Vedāntic discourse centered on the inquiry into Brahman. But compare in this regard Sharma (1982), who identifies the Neoplatonic One with Brahman throughout and without argument, leaving no room for any meaningful distinction between the One and Being, whereas the latter is essential for grasping systematic Platonism. For a different model, we may look to the later antique Platonists, for whom Aristotle’s prioritization of substance and, ultimately, of thought thinking itself over the Platonic inquiry into unity and ‘number’ (i.e., henadology) corresponds to the differences in the goals Aristotle is pursuing, and does not prevent the reintegration of his thought into an overarching Platonic structure. The ability to center the inquiry upon Brahman, and prioritize it ontologically as a consequence, can be understood as a similar scope distinction within the polycentric intellectual and devotional economy of Hinduism.[12]

What henadology brings to the distinction between Unity and Being is just what bhakti brings to the distinction between Īśvara and Brahman, namely concreteness. ‘The One’ neither is, nor is one; what there are, in the ultimate sense, are henads, and then their relations and other activities and the cosmos emergent from them. In Western Platonism, once the supra-essential henads had been dismissed, there was nothing to prevent the distinction between unity and being, and hence between henology and ontology, from being rendered otiose, a mere gesture of so-called ‘negative theology’. Similarly, the value of the actually-existing, unique individuals who are the objects of bhakti is neither that of a mere jumble of contingent sects and emotional attachments, on the one hand, nor of monotheism as seen through a prismatic lens, on the other. Instead, bhakti is, as Biardeau aptly characterizes it, a ‘universe’,[13] that is, a kosmos of deities each recognized in their ineffable uniqueness. Bhakti is polytheism as the metaphysics of uniqueness.


It is the same to say ‘henad’ as to say ‘principle’, if in fact the principle is in all cases the most unificatory element. So anyone who is talking about the One in any respect would then be discoursing about principles … All the henads are in each other and are united with each other, and their unity is far greater than the community and sameness among beings. In these latter, too, [in beings] there is compounding of Forms, and likeness and friendship and participation in one another; but the unity of those former entities, inasmuch as it is a unity of henads, is far more unitary and ineffable and unsurpassable; for they are all in all of them, which is not the case with the Forms. These [the Forms] are participated in by each other, but they are not all in all. And yet, in spite of this degree of unity in that realm, how marvellous and unmixed is their purity, and the individuality [idiotēs] of each of them is a much more perfect thing than the otherness of the Forms… (Proclus, In Parm. 1048, trans. Morrow & Dillon, modified, emphasis mine).


Henadological Platonism understands ‘the One’ not as an eminent singular entity, but as the principle of individuation. Positing ‘the One’ prior to Being, in the chain of hypostases, is not a matter of subordinating Being to some further singular entity. Rather, it establishes prior to being a distinct mode of existence, establishing unity as the primary and originary attribute of each thing. To these Platonists, the procession of Being is not the emergence of many from one, a reading inherently attractive to monotheist interpreters, but rather the declension of many ways of being from out of one originary way of being. The primordial way of being is that of the henads, absolute ‘existential’[14] individuals who exist prior to Being Itself. ‘Henad’ simply means ‘unit’, and ‘henadology’ is the science of units qua units, and the ground of ontology, which is the science of beings qua beings. The terms ‘henology’ and ‘henadology’ may be used interchangeably once we grasp that inasmuch as the One Itself “neither is, nor is one” (Plato, Parmenides 141e), inquiry into the One (‘henology’) just is, necessarily, inquiry into units (henads). Henadology forms thus a systematic ground and counterweight to substance-based ontology.[15] Henadology also has an organic bond with theology as the science of relation to supra-essential individuals or Gods. Thus we find a systematic Platonism where polytheism was articulated through the doctrine of ‘divine henads’. And insofar as it posits unity—that is, existential individuality—as basic, henology easily situates itself as a critique of ontology exhibiting both analytical and soteriological value. For the manner in which the mortal individual is epistemically ‘saved’, we shall see, reveals in itself the structure of the other salvation, too.


So much, then, may be said concerning the situation of the primal henads and their communion with and distinction from one another, of which we are wont to call the one peculiarity [idiotēta], the other unity [henōsin], distinguishing them thus also by name from the sameness and difference manifested at the level of Real Being. For these henads are supra-essential, and, to use technical terms, are ‘flowers’ and ‘summits’. (Proclus, In Parm. 1049, trans. Morrow & Dillon, mod.).


Personhood, who-ness as distinct from what-ness, is a concept far richer than mere anthropomorphism. In English, we can only express ‘individuality’ negatively, as the negation of further divisibility of the particulars falling under infima species. This feature of the language lends apparent support to an ontology in which omnis determinatio est negatio, and an ‘individual’ is individuated purely in distinction from everything else, by repulsion, so to speak. Greek, by contrast, has the term idios for what is peculiar to a unique entity, and Platonists use idiotēs to refer to this property of ‘peculiarity’, which transcends sameness and difference, for these are differential, diacritical. It is telling, perhaps, that the technical terminology concerning positive individuation has so languished in English that we have only the pejorative ‘idiot’ from the Greek, while ‘peculiar’, from the Latin, has taken on a primary connotation of the strange. That idiotēs is used as a technical term to articulate the uniqueness of each divine henad as something beyond identity-and-difference expresses the fundamental character of polytheisms as religions of relation in the intersubjective sense.[16]

The concept of ‘person’ with which I am working is categorically distinct from that developed by Christian thinkers through the term prosōpon, which originally meant ‘face’ or ‘mask’, but gradually developed an extended use in Greek to refer to the diverse ‘roles’ one plays in life, and which was rendered by Cicero through the Latin term persona.[17] The essential difference between ‘person’ in this sense and the personhood to be inferred from the Platonic usage of a term like idiotēs is that the former refers primarily to what one is or does, and only by a tenuous extension to who one is in an absolute sense. Hence the Stoic Hierocles can say that brothers, for example, have from nature the same prosōpon, while Epictetus uses the term to elucidate ‘who one is’ entirely in terms of one’s relationships and social roles (De Lacy, 166). It is not surprising, in this light, that Christian theologians adopted prosōpon to refer to ‘persons’ differentiating a single God, precisely inasmuch as they did not wish these ‘persons’ to be individuals, to whom the possibility of intersubjective relations pertains, but rather relational terms within a self-relating godhead.[18] Idios, on the other hand, refers to what is peculiar to one, to what is inalienably or inescapably one’s own.

Prosōpon pertains to the domain of relations, and a theory of ‘personhood’ based upon it would necessarily be relational in a sense eliminative of the unique person: “In the Trinity, ‘person’ consists in pure relationality; persona est relatio … the agent is nothing; the activity is everything … there is no ‘I’ remaining behind the deeds and actions of the divine persons; their actions are their ‘I’.”[19] The technical development of the term within Platonic thought, by contrast, specifically affirms the priority of idiotēs to all relations so that the existence of both relations and entities in relation is secured—indeed, this is what is meant in a concrete sense by the priority of the One to Being. Hence in the Elements of Theology, we read that the henads transcend relation (schesis) (prop. 126), inasmuch as relation is a “qualification of being” (prosthesis tou einai) (prop. 122). In a detailed discussion of the status of relations among deities in his Parmenides commentary, Proclus explains that

we must remove from them any notion of bare relation, devoid of essence; for nothing of that sort is proper to the Gods. Instead of relativity we must apply the concept of self-identity, and prior even to this self-identity the existence [huparxin] of each entity in itself; for each [of the Gods] exists primarily ‘for itself’, and in itself is united to the rest [ta alla] … Such an entity There, then, is non-relational, though productive of a relation. (IP 936).


In prop. 115 of the ET the henads are said to transcend the hypostases of Being, Life and Intellect inasmuch as “these three, though mutually distinct, are each implicit in the other two.” Being, Life and Intellect, therefore, embody the relationality of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. They achieve their self-substantiation by returning, as parts, to their originating wholeness, whereas the ‘for itself’ of the henads, by establishing their existence prior to determination by their relations, saves them from being dissolved into a third term which would embody the being ‘for another’ of those relations.

The identification of personhood with divinity as such seems to be expressed directly in the Gītā’s affirmation that the very principle of divinity, as it were, the adhidaivata is puruṣa (30[8].4). Puruṣa has in many instances a semantic domain overlapping with that of Brahman, but it need not be a question here of an exclusive denotation. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, e.g., ‘unity’ and ‘being’ are convertible, the same in nature but diverse in concept, in accord with the proper, ontological scope of his inquiry, while the wider scope of henology permits it to recognize units who are at once supra-essential and also the highest (quasi-)class of beings.[20] That puruṣa can also, from a different perspective, be regarded as saguṇa Brahman, as Being qualified in this or that fashion, is no different from the fact that a Platonic henad is at once supra-essential and also a causal agent on one or more planes of Being. Nor does the fact that puruṣa can also refer to a singular individual with the ontological coordinates of the ‘Cosmic Man’ of RV 10.90 prevent us from discerning a personhood of which the latter forms the paradigm, much as the paradeigma of cosmic formation in Plato’s Timaeus, the autozōion or ‘Animal Itself’, is at once monogenēs, sole of its kind, and also the paradigm for the paradigms of individual lives which are the objects of irreducible existential choice in Plato’s Republic.[21]

Nevertheless, there are other terminological loci besides puruṣa that are available to render the sense of henadological theistic ‘personhood’ in different contexts, such as ātman, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to discern all of them. What ultimately matters is the potential for such terms to exceed determinations of essence and number, to express a priority over relations and class characteristics, in the service of a devotion linking a unique worshiper and a unique divinity. For the Platonist, the highest mode of existence, that of the henads, personhood ontologically prior to form, is in turn reflected in mortal singulars who are persons and posterior to form as participants in infima species. And so in the devotional encounter, whether as conceptualized in bhakti theory or in the writings of theurgical Platonists, through the principle that like is known by like, the worshiper affirms their own unique personhood, their own idiotēs, in the relation to the unique deity. The worshiper thereby themselves transcends those relationships constituted by identity and difference, likeness or unlikeness, those relations mediated by Forms. Such relations, even essential ones, are posited in this encounter as adventitious, external.

In henadology, the ontological ground for the liberation of unique personhood in the worshiper is given through the structural difference between two kinds of reversion, or epistrophē. The one is eidetic, through Forms or eidē. The other is theurgical, through participation in divine series.[22] While eidetic reversion requires passing through all the intermediary forms to reach the more universal principles, theurgic reversion is immediate for a member of any class of beings, because each plane of being is directly produced by the Gods. Similarly, in the Gītā Kṛṣṇa states that “I am equable to all creatures … but those who share me with love are in me and I am in them” (31[9].29), which appears contradictory; but this contradiction resolves itself in a henadological reading, insofar as the ‘sameness’ displayed by the God is relative to the class of beings, and hence mediated, whereas the relationship of the God ‘in’ the worshiper and the worshiper ‘in’ the God is existential and immediate. This latter relationship is the only one that can exist between utterly unique entities qua unique, insofar as there can be no form mediating this relation, to which we may compare the Gītā’s characterization of the ātman at 24.18 as aprameya, removing it from the register of justification through the pramanas. The Platonist understands the structure of the henadic manifold as all-in-each, as distinct from all-in-one, because mediation would render the individual unit less one. In the Gītā as well, of course, Kṛṣṇa invites Arjuna to see all the other Gods immediately in him (33[11].6), as well as the whole universe (33[11].7), a typical affirmation of what has been termed the ‘polycentric’ character of polytheism.[23] The henadological reading also permits Kṛṣṇa to state accurately and without contradiction that “all creatures exist in me, but I do not exist in them” (31[9].4), if the scope of this statement is understood to pertain to the difference between supra-essential individuals and ontic individuals. (A Platonist would likely arrange the formulations we have been looking at here in terms of the mereological structure of wholes ‘before-the-parts’, ‘of-the-parts’, and ‘in-the-parts’ (Elements of Theology, prop. 67).)

The question of the soteriological value of henology brings us to the role of personal agency, the person as cause. Kṛṣṇa’s reply to Arjuna in chapter two of the Gītā begins from the affirmation of the immortality of whatever is truly proper to the self through the independence of a causal agency from compresence of its opposite, affirming the Parmenidean principle that “There is no becoming of what did not already exist, there is no unbecoming of what does exist” (24[2].16), just as Plato’s Phaedo does in its final immortality argument. The Phaedo compares the role of fire, which is inseparable from causing heat, to the soul, which is inseparable from giving life (105b-106c). It cannot be a question here of a merely generic essence of soul. Instead, it is a matter of who is peculiarly alive in this living being. The salvific project of identifying oneself with what is immortal in oneself therefore coincides with the epistemic project of identifying a genuine source of agency in the self amid manifold alienating determinations—who acts in this being? Action, therefore, rather than ontic composition, is placed at the center of the problem of identity. Action is, of course, thematic for the Gītā. But for Plato, too, agency, action, is prior to form: Cause (Causality), in the doctrine of principles from Plato’s Philebus, is prior to form, which is Mixture and its elements, Limit and the Unlimited. So too, in his own account of the process of reincarnation in the individual soul, Plato explains that the order or structure of the soul, its taxis, is not to be found in the paradigms among which the soul chooses its life—this taxis arises instead from the choice itself, from the act of choosing (Republic 618b). In this fashion the who of the soul, the one who chooses, is distinguished from whatever the soul may become, and hence from ‘whatness’ altogether.[24]

This ontological doctrine is the highest sense of the primacy of action over its results. Action performed without concern for its result, a central theme of the Gītā, may thus be compared with action as praxis in Aristotelian ethical theory. In Aristotle’s ethics, however, actions are apparently by nature either praxeis—action that is autotelic, done for its own sake—or poiēseis, production. In bhakti theory, by contrast, it appears that the same actions can be performed either for the sake of their result or for their own sake.[25] Nevertheless, the two accounts can be seen as sharing a common implicit henological line of reasoning. That is, what is different about the action carried out for its own sake is its integrity, compared to the internal multiplicity of the action carried out for a discrete, separable end—in other words, the autotelic action is more one. In this way, action done for its own sake also conserves the integrity, the unity, of the agent.

Similarly, a God loved for their own sake, insofar as They are object and cause of this devotion, manifests an integrity superior to that of the God approached as embodying this or that form, or for the sake of some specific result. In Proclus (In Tim. I, 212.24-6), we read that we should become “one” (monos), integral in ourselves, which also entails uniqueness,[26] in order to associate with the deity who is ‘one’ in the same sense, albeit to a higher degree. The strict correspondence of mode of devotion to mode of individuation is stated programmatically as well in the Gītā: “A person … is what his faith makes him” (39[17].3).

Moreover, we see this correspondence embodied in the passage from 29[7].20-23, in which resort to the person of Kṛṣṇa is contrasted with those worshipers who, guided by desires and the constraints of their nature, have recourse to this or that deity in a rule-governed fashion for finite purposes. The concern of this passage from the Gītā, I would argue, is not to merely elevate one God over the rest—for would this not be banal?—but rather to elevate the devotion to Gods in Themselves, as unique divine persons, over that devotion seeking some discrete goal. In Aristotelian terms, I would argue that this passage from the Gītā affirms the primacy of praxis over poiēsis in devotion. The God as worshiped for some specific goal is necessarily worshiped in a ‘limited’ and ‘temporary’ fashion.

The choice with which we are ultimately presented is whether the multiplicity of objects of devotional regard in bhakti is a purely contingent, merely historical diversity of competing sects, each with its own pocket monotheism, as it were, or whether the integrity of the entire Hindu tradition can be understood on a different basis, one which is informed by the non-entitative understanding of ‘the One’ developed by polytheist Platonists, rather than the One of Christian philosophy. Is the Hindu tradition to be grasped as a field of externalities, of exclusive monotheisms competing to subordinate one another, superimposed upon a relic Vedic polytheism reduced to a sterile ‘cosmotheism’ of rigidly defined divine functions, or instead as a living polytheism which has continuously developed its self-articulation over millennia? Is the latter even to be thinkable?[27]

Keeping open the space for this kind of profound piety toward any God and toward each God in principle is the purpose of the polytheist’s resistance toward reductive classifications of their Gods, as we see when Socrates, near the beginning of the Philebus (12c), rejects the reduction of Aphrodite, a proper-named individual, to a concept such as ‘pleasure’. Similarly Plutarch criticizes those who are tempted to demonstrate their own cleverness by reducing the Gods to mere names of this or that faculty of the psyche,

affirm[ing] Aphrodite to be nothing but our concupiscence; that Hermes is no more than the faculty of speech; that the Muses are only the names for the arts and sciences; and that Athena is only a fine word for prudence … you see into what an abyss of atheism we are like to plunge ourselves, while we go about to range and distribute the Gods among the various passions, faculties, and virtues of men.[28]


It is by no means merely a question here of the psychologizing reduction of the Gods to mortal passions, but also, and more importantly, of the reductive classifications of the Gods to narrowly circumscribed ‘powers’ popular among moderns and routinely projected upon the ancients, such as when we speak of Aphrodite as ‘Goddess of Love’. While those who had some limited erotic end in mind might invoke Her in this regard, for the true devotee of this or any God, a devotee such as Sappho is of Aphrodite, any simplistic, transactional engagement with the deity is inevitably superseded by the attempt to establish a relationship with the divine person as such.

In this fashion, the bhakti relation to the God can also be seen to ontologically ground intersubjective recognition, which can spread to encompass the relationship to all beings as ends in themselves and not means. Otherwise, as in 29[7].20, the worshiper is constrained by their own nature, that is, by a restrictive experience of the svabhāva which constrains them and reciprocally constrains the Gods, too. Hence Kṛṣṇa affirms at 31[9].24f that “I am the recipient of all sacrifices and their master, though they do not really recognize me and therefore slip.” This ‘slip’ or ‘fall’ is directly linked to the classifications listed in 31[9].25: while bhakti involves the reciprocal recognition of oneself as a unique subject, and not as ‘falling under’ a class of object in a transaction, worship offered to a God qua Gods as a class of objects is offered in turn by a human as a human, that is, member of that class of objects, rather than by a unique individual worshiper as such. Worship offered to the God’s ‘Me’, the unique agent operating the first-person singular, confers the same status upon myself. In this fashion, the singular is ‘saved’ both in the epistemic, and in the soteriological sense.


Philosophy declares that the forgetfulness of eternal logoi is the cause of departure from the Gods and recollection [anamnēsis] the cause of reversion [epistrophē] to Them; the Oracles, however, <say that> the paternal[29] signs [sunthēmata] <are the cause of reversion to the Gods>. But these two are in accord; for the soul is constituted both from holy logoi and from divine symbols, of which the former come from the intellective forms and the latter from the divine henads. We are on the one hand images [eikones] of the intellective essences, and also idols [agalmata] of the uncognizable [agnōstos] signs. (Proclus, Eclogae de philosophia Chaldaica V, trans. mine)


For the Platonist, as we can see from the above quote, the soul is at once what and who. It is a what as the participant of forms and the result of the activity of ontic principles, while it is a who in intimate relationship to henads who are themselves unique persons. What philosophical insight is to the former, to the soul's whatness, to the process of understanding what it is to be a human, and all the forms entailed in that, ritual action, theurgy, is to the latter, to its whoness, to the project of becoming who one uniquely is, according to signs and tokens that may have significance for oneself alone. This corresponds to the ontological priority of metaphysical individuality over what is common (in Greek, koinos).

If we turn to the Gītā and look at it in this light, it, too, affirms an essential bond between ritual action— yajña, generally translated as ‘sacrifice’—and the constitution of the mortal soul. For if we take ritual action in its highest form as prescribed in the Gītā, as purified from seeking any goal separate from itself, yajña is revealed as the paradigm of action that does not bind the agent ontologically. In other words, we can see in the Gītā’s doctrine concerning yajña an affirmation of this same ontological priority of metaphysical individuality. The God, as well, as we have seen, may be grasped as more or less one depending upon whether they are worshiped for their own sake and as unique, or else for some desired result and hence according to membership in some class of Gods, or even simply in the class of Gods as such. The theory of yajña in the Gītā thus ties together with a unique depth of understanding the account of action and the account of the nature of personhood, both of the God and of the worshiper.

This conception of action between god and worshiper makes it possible, as well, for the Gītā to go beyond Aristotle’s account of praxis, by explaining how action in general, rather than only a specific class of actions, can be conceived as praxis. Kṛṣṇa states that “All the world is in bondage to the karman of action, except for action for purposes of sacrifice” (25[3].9); then we read that Prajāpati created creatures and sacrifice together (25[3].10). We can see yajña, in its highest form as Prajāpati intended it, as the coming together of Gods and mortals in ritual action, as inseparable from cosmic formation itself. Yajña would in this light be inseparable from the emanation of living beings, insofar as living beings are ends in themselves, and not means to any end. Their very ontological production is through praxis and not poiēsis. In the same way, for the Platonist mortal beings are affirmed in their uniqueness, beyond the cycles of formal production, in theurgic reversion upon the unique Gods.

The devotional relationship established through yajña, understood in this fashion, is explicitly intersubjective in character: “Give ye the Gods being with it, and the Gods shall give ye being. And thus giving each other being ye shall attain to the highest good” (25[3].11). Here the relationship itself is the supreme benefit. The transactional ritual economy is established on a plane just below: “Themselves enhanced in their being with sacrifice, the Gods shall give ye the pleasures ye desire: he who enjoys their gifts without return to them is but a thief” (25[3].12). This cycle of ritual, rain, food, beings and ritual (25[3].14), is the beneficent result of ritual action in its focus on concrete ends. This aspect of yajña is ontologically posterior to the relationship with the Gods which is its presupposition, but is not less important for that. Kṛṣṇa states: “This ritual action … originates from the Brahman … Therefore the ubiquitous Brahman is forever based upon sacrifice” (25[3].15).

Here the economy of result-oriented action and the products or results of that action is identified with Being (Brahman) as an integral system which the God transcends. The God transcends this system as akṣara puruṣa, as imperishable personhood. Akṣara here is a causal (or ‘transcendent’) negation in the same sense as we find in the works of Platonists.[30] For example, in speaking about Soul, Proclus explains, “when we say that the Soul neither has the power of utterance nor is silent, we do not say these things about it in the sense that we would about stones or pieces of wood or any other thing without sensation, but in the sense that it produces voice and silence in the living being,” (In Parm. 1076, my emphasis). The denial of perishability in the God’s personhood can thus be seen in addition to affirm the God’s causality with respect to all temporal production, including the soul itself as a being in time.

When Kṛṣṇa states simply “I am the foundation of Brahman” (36[14].27), we can understand Him as saying, too, that Brahman, ontic action which constitutes the unity of Being, is born from the God as person, from personhood, acting within this ontic system but irreducible to it. The separability, in principle if not in fact, of ‘existential’ personhood from Being[31] is in itself the power, in principle, to surrender all actions qua productive, that is, with respect to their results, to the constitution of the world, to Being in its unity. Hence in the Gītā it is said that “the wise … should do his acts … only to hold the world together” (25[3].25). Recognizing the constitutive role of poiēsis, productive action, in the world’s unity, constitutes the world in its integrity as well as discerning the individual’s irreducibility to these ontic systems. Thus the self lives off the leavings of yajña (25[3].13), which preserves the self’s unity, while giving over to the cosmos the productive, result-oriented aspect of action that belongs instead to the unity of Being, to Brahman. The good of the agent and of the cosmos can in this way be seen henologically, that is, that the goods of these things just are their respective unities, for as Proclus says, “If that which conserves and holds together the being of each several thing is unity (since by unity each is maintained in being, but by dispersion displaced from being): the Good, where present, makes a thing one, and holds it together in virtue of this unification,” (ET prop. 13, trans. Dodds, mod.).

Transmuting productive or poiēsis-action into praxis, into sacral action in the Gītā’s sense, is thus accomplished through knowledge: “the wise call that man a sage all of whose undertakings are devoid of the intention to achieve an object of desire, for his karman has been burned off by the fire of insight” (26[4].19f); “Just as a blazing fire reduces its kindling to ashes, Arjuna, so the fire of knowledge makes ashes of all karman” (26[4].37). That is, knowledge consumes the poiēsis dimension of action, leaving only its praxis dimension, consuming the eidetic, categorial, or ontic dimension and leaving the existential, the unique, which is ‘ash’, because it offers no further ‘fuel’ for cognitive appropriation. There is a potential in knowledge for a desire irreducible to the desire for any object, any whatness, for it is the desire instead for a who, and which is, just by virtue of that, desire by a ‘who’. This is beautifully encapsulated by Kṛṣṇa when he states near the Gītā’s end that “He who commits to memory this our colloquy informed by Law, he will offer up to me a sacrifice of knowledge, so I hold,” (40[18].70). In this fashion, bhakti theory encompasses at once the lawfulness and conviction-yielding power of the theoretical, as well as the desire of the dialogical or intersubjective relation.


Henology is above all non-reductive, insofar as it elevates the principle of numerical difference above that of being, but it is not nominalist, if by the latter we would understand the ‘anti-realist’ denial of any substantiality to formal or universal beings. Henology grounds the procession of Being, synonymous with form and universality, in the causal agency of the ultimate units (henads), at once affirming this mode of existence without treating it as absolute. Instead of a ‘One’ that undermines multiplicity, we have instead found a unity that is unities. Nor, despite the efforts of too many Western scholars, is Brahman the monotheist ‘God’, a totalizing, hegemonic individual. The roots of the concept of Brahman lie instead in Vedic divine utterance, in the continuum formed by hymns praising the many Gods. In an atmosphere of hegemonic monotheism, it is difficult for us to appreciate the sophistication that allowed the ṛṣis to discern the integrity of this continuum in itself, and make of it an object of reflection in and for itself, without thereby annihilating the personhood of the deities or of their worshipers. Through the emergence of bhakti theory it was made clear that the concept of personhood was not reducible to conceptuality. This intellectual achievement is timelessly affirmed in the Gītā, where one divine individual reveals that he contains the universe itself to another, mortal individual, who is able to receive this knowledge because of the relationship he has had since childhood with this, his Bhagavān.


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[1] On the Mahābhārata as “the principal monument to bhakti,” see Adluri and Bagchee (2016), pp. 91-103. My term ‘bhakti theory’ should be understood to have the same sense as Adluri’s term “philosophy of bhakti” as used “to describe the intellectual aspects of Bhakti, specifically its cognitive-theoretical insight into the relation of the One and the many,” (Ibid., p. 79 n. 2).

[2] Adluri (2014), pp. 77-8. On henadological Platonism, see especially Butler (2005) and (2008b). For a critical assessment of this interpretative tendency, see Perl (2010).

[3] Adluri (2014), p. 92.

[4] Of the sort criticized in Adluri and Bagchee (2014); see especially chap. 3, “The Search for the Original Gītā.”

[5] On the principles associated with such a hermeneutic, see further Butler (2016).

[6] Mar Gregorios (2002), p. 25.

[7] See the remarks of Damascius, In Phaed. I, 172, in which we may clearly count Damascius himself in the ‘hieratic’ tendency, given his strong affinities with both Iamblichus and Proclus.

[8] Moreover, Mar Gregorios conflates theurgy and Gnosticism (26), even though Plotinus’ reasons for criticizing Gnosticism are such as ‘theurgical’ Platonists like Iamblichus and his successors would have shared; in particular, the fact that the Gnostics “contract the divine into one” (Enneads II.9.9.36-7), i.e., that they were monotheists. More importantly, however, Mar Gregorios shows no grasp here of the theoretical basis of theurgy, on which see, e.g., Shaw (2014), Addey (2014); see as well Butler (2007), for the specific henadological grounding of theurgy, and Butler (2016) on the continuities between Plotinus and the subsequent Platonic tradition on the key points in this respect. It is also unclear what Mar Gregorios intends to convey by his claim that “most of [Plotinus’ successors] were Asians who put more emphasis on acts of worship than on mental or intellectual exercises” (ibid.). There seems little point in characterizing quintessentially Hellenized Syrians such as Iamblichus and Damascius, or a Phoenician such as Porphyry, or a Lycian such as Proclus as ‘Asian’ in any particular sense, much less the seemingly stereotypical one here.

[9] Viz. E. R. Dodds’ famous denunciation of Iamblichus’ De mysteriis as “a manifesto of irrationalism, an assertion that the road to salvation is found not in reason but in ritual” (1951, p. 287). For a perceptive assessment of Dodds’ attitude toward the later antique Neoplatonists, see Hankey (2007).

[10] On bhakti as ‘emotionalism’, see Adluri & Bagchee (2016), p. 88.

[11] Passages from the Gītā are as translated by Van Buitenen (1981).

[12] On the emergence of ontology through the inquiry into Brahman, see further Butler (2017).

[13] Biardeau (1994), pp. 88ff.

[14] ‘Existence’ as distinct from Being renders the terminological distinction in the later antique Platonists between huparxis, on the one hand, and einai, to on, or, most analogously, hupostasis on the other. Henadological Platonism may in this respect be very cautiously termed an existentialism.

[15] Etienne Gilson (in L’être et l’essence (Paris: J. Vrin, 1948)), who coined the term ‘henology’, seems to have been the first modern thinker to speak of an opposition between henology and ontology, which is further developed in the works of Jean Trouillard, e.g., L’un et l’âme selon Proclos (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1972); see also Hankey (1980); Schürman (1983). It would be fair to say, however, that modern authors, under the spell to varying degrees of the monotheistic appropriation of Platonic thought, which reifies the One and obscures its systematic function as principle of individuation, have not gone far enough in appreciating that the core of this opposition lies in grasping the metaphysical priority for henology of individuation (‘who’) to formal differentiation (‘what’).

[16] For polytheisms as ‘religions of relation’ I am indebted to Thrax (2015).

[17] De Lacy (1977) offers a thorough discussion of the term’s documented usage prior to Cicero and the use he makes of the concept (presumably following Panaetius) in De Officiis.

[18] The Christian usage is complicated by the tendency to translate hypostasis also sometimes as ‘person’ when referring to the Trinity, though properly ‘person’ has nothing to do with the sense of this term.

[19] Volf (1998), p. 67.

[20] On the sense in which the Gods form a ‘(quasi-)class’, one which does not conform to the rules of Platonic class-logic as laid out, e.g., at Elements of Theology prop. 21 and 66, see Butler (2008c).

[21] For more on this reading of the Platonic ‘paradigm’, see Butler (2014).

[22] On the two modes of reversion, see Butler (2007). See also Adluri & Bagchee (2016), where it is argued that “to use a Plotinian expression … Bhakti is best understood as a kind of reversion, simultaneously intellectual and experiential, in which the soul through insight into its relation to a greater totality comes to rest in itself,” (118).

[23] For a fuller account of the structural characteristics of the henadic manifold, see Butler (2005); on ‘polycentric polytheism’, see Butler (2008a).

[24] See the discussion of the philosophical significance of Plato’s recourse to reincarnation in Butler (2014). By contrast, choice plays only a very small part in Indian accounts of reincarnation; this, however, I would argue, has to do with the much narrower role reincarnation is playing in Plato. It should be noted that similar consequences of the doctrine of reincarnation for the philosophical question of individuation arise in Madhva, for whom the doctrine plays a crucial role in his argument for intrinsic difference (svarūpabheda) (see, e.g., Sharma (1962), pp. 196-203).

[25] Though a praxis be performed for some extrinsic end, it seems that it is still a praxis (Nic. Eth. 1105a30-35), and does not become production, since the genus of praxis and of poiēsis are different (1140b3-4).

[26] Because an integral unit can have no attribute by participation (Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 118), which means that all the attributes of such a unit are themselves unique and inalienable.

[27] Note in this regard the criticism of Malinar in Adluri & Bagchee (2016), p. 109 n. 59. Malinar seeks to reduce bhakti to the articulation of social power relations. In Malinar’s words, “the relationship between the highest god and a potential king is made the model of the new theological interpretation of bhakti which implies exclusiveness and subordination.”

[28] Plutarch, Amatorius 13, trans. Goodwin, modified.

[29] On the technical sense of ‘paternal’ here, see Butler (2016a), pp. 156-9. Briefly, the term designates the most primordial phase of activity of any God (including, as it so happens, Goddesses).

[30] For a programmatic statement of “negations … [as] causes of the corresponding assertions,” see Proclus, In Parm. 1072.19-1077.18. On ‘transcendent negation’ see also Martin (1995).

[31] ‘Existence’, as opposed to Being, which pertains to the henads as huperousios, ‘supra-essential’, translates the Greek term huparxis. Historically speaking, this is the origin of the priority of ‘existence’ over ‘essence’ which we find in Avicenna, et al. and then in modern ‘Existentialist’ thought, albeit of course this doctrine’s roots in polytheistic henadology were quickly forgotten.