Proclus and the Problem of Theomachy (I)

Proclus and the Problem of Theomachy (I)

How can one God oppose another? This is a common problem in the interpretation of myths that describe plots, battles and even wars waged by one God against another. Thus Zeus in the Illiad even commands the Gods to take up differing sides in the battle between Troy and the Achaeans: “For my part, I will remain seated on a fold of Olympus, where I will pleasure my heart in watching; but the rest of you go, until you come among the Trojans and Achaeans, and give your aid to either side, whichever each of you desires.” (XX.20-30, Trans. Caroline Alexander). When Proclus, the late Platonist philosopher and one of the most articulate polytheist metaphysicians of Greek Antiquity confronts this problem he in general sees the mythical oppositions of the gods as reflecting oppositions between the domains that they are responsible for. Thus, for instance, “the antithesis between Hera and Artemis represents the contradistinction down here between rational and irrational souls”. Each of these different domains is in itself good, and for Proclus each God is herself an ultimate good, and the poet portrays them as opposed simply because these goods are opposed. We have thus a way of how to interpret divine conflict when portrayed in myth.

But the problem becomes thornier when we move out of the domain of myth and interpretation and into the domain of divine activity in the world (or put differently, when we move from the interpretation of the myth of poets to the cosmic myth). Here we are confronted by Theomachy under the form of religious intolerance. How are we to understand the conflict between gods when it implies the destruction of the worship of one god by another? For instance, what are we to make of it when Christian monks assembled together in a great act of piety destroy the Serapeion? How could someone still hold on to the divinity both of the Christian God and also of Serapis? This problem is usually rejected out of hand: why would one want to hold on to the opposing claims to divnity in this case? Why correlate opposing religions with opposing divinities? Why not take the gods to be acting in concert, and only the humans to be opposed?

Proclus is motivated to explain away the apparent conflict of the gods in order to conform the interpretation of Homer to his Platonic understanding of divinity and thus to preserve the inspired status of Homer. But what is at stake in defending the truth of both Pagan and Christian religiosity? Nothing less than the credibility of the opposing religions. Because the very opposition of religions is often take as a sign of their falsity: if they oppose each other, and yet at the same time their claims to truth are similarly credible from an impartial perspective, then they cannot both true.Furthermore, the weakness of Serapis, who cannot defend his temple, and the cruelty of Christ, who destroys it, speaks against their divine power and goodness respectively and their opposition speaks against their divine infinity, making them out to be opposed, finite agents. (If Serapis lets his temple be destroyed, then his divine goodness seems compromised; If Christ is not the one who destroys it, this opens a troubling gap between Christ in his body the Church.)

In a series of posts, I want to reconstruct what would have been Proclus’ solution to this thorny problem. His solution goes through his own version of what I have called “The Conspiracy of the Good” in a conference I co-organized last year, the claim that moral wrongdoing is required by the Good as either an instrument or as a constituent part of it. I propose this speculative reconstruction as a pilot case for the fruitfulness of the Conspiracy of the Good in bridging between opposing viewpoints in religion. Just as I here reconstruct a Procline interpretation of Christian violence, which would allow the polytheist to recognize both the divinity of Christ and at the same time the evil of that violence, I believe that similar moves can aid the Christian in understanding both the evil of demonic rule say, and at the same time, the place of demonic rule within divine providence. And such strategies can be expanded beyond Pagan-Christian conflict, even to the point of embracing the conflict of militant atheism against religious viewpoints as a whole. And what is peculiar about the Conspiracy of the Good as a strategy is that it allows individuals believers to appreciate the sincerity and reality of opposing religious commitments, without the need to find some common ground of agreement that they might feel threatened by insofar as it appears to dilute their unique identity. By projecting our conflict in the heavens, we can achieve some measure of mutual respect on earth.

(Some might think this is anthropomorphism, but so would be to project upon the divine the human desire for peace and paradise. My starting point here is rather a desire to be able to take everyone at their word, to overcome the paradox of charitable reading, that commands us to be charitable to even opposing viewpoints.)

I will start off my argument by recapitulating the conspiracy of the good in Proclus. As we shall see, in Proclus the goodness of vice is an important part of his interpretation of Zeus’ call to the Gods to participate in war and also more broadly from his attempt to reconcile Plato and Homer, or rather Plato’s criticism of Homer with Plato’s praise of Homer. We shall see that in Proclus himself there is already a place for a divine engineering of human moral wrongdoing, so that if a religion corrupts its followers, say by making some of them fanatics, this is not enough to impute its claims to divine origin.

Second, I will give reasons to think that Proclus might conceive of Christianity in this way. He understands Christianity as unscientific and Christians as belonging to the eneducated masses, and furthermore he sees the denial of all gods but the highest to be a stumbling block in moral development. But furthermore, the Christianity that oppresses Pagan worship in his day is an Imperial Christainty, inherito of the mantle of Imperial Rome. But Imperial Rome, since the Augustan Era sees itself as the inheritor of Troy, and the promise of Zeus to a universal empire. We have the preservation of Virgil thanks to the explicit Christian adoption of this mantle. But in Proclus’ reading of the Trojan war, Troy and the gods that favor it stand for the irrational forms of life. It is more than plausible then, to take Christianity as just another incarnation of the divine conspiracy of the good already present in the Iliad.

However if the Christian religion is itself only corruptive, it would be hard to take it to be a divine phenomenon by Proclus. Thus, I will outline how the Procline wiseman might very well read the Christian Scriptures as having “a divine inner sense, but a demonic surface”, as Proclus reads Homer. In particular I will tackle how the exclusive monotheism and Trinitarianism of the Christians could be interpreted in an “allegorical” vein to indicate important theses defended by Proclus on the omnipotence of each God taken absolutely. I will also show where the many different levels of divine activity (intelligible, intellectual, hypercosmic etc…) described by Proclus might be found within the Scriptural description of God’s creative activity. Even this creative activity need not be at odds with Proclus’ cosmology of a perpetual world.

The presentation of different levels of divine activity in Proclus will allow us to turn to a further necessary question in a Procline recognition of Christ’s divinity: which level of divine activity is most appropriate to Christ? I will argue that it is a level of divine activity not explicitly discussed by Proclus: the constitution of mortal human individuals as such. Indeed, human individuals have no ontological subsistence for Proclus: that is why there is no scandal for him in the fact that the gods engineer life on earth such that most human beings will become vicious and end their lives unhappy. Since for him the only real moral agents are the immortal souls that animate human inviduals, the only considertation is how this process of corruption affects them. And since they have an eternal substance, the evil of temporary corruption cannot be significant. It is only when human individuals are taken as really existing that we have what appears to be a scandal. For this reason it is correct to introduce human individuality into Proclus’ontology together with a God that promises individual salvation, and indeed individual salvation through a means orthogonal to Proclus’ Platonist ethics, faith in the Cross. For as such, humans can have corrupt souls,as required by Proclus’cosmology, yet saved selves, in virtue of faith. Furthermore, that Christ should himself be incarnate as a mortal human, and that other humans should receive their salvation through participation in his body and blood is entirely in line with how Proclus understands the relation between a God and the field of being he constitutes.

In the conclusion of my series (how many posts and digressions it might take), I will then return to the violence of the monks that destroyed the Serapeum and show how a Procline philosopher could affirm the divinity of both Serapis, and also Christ that acted through the monks. I will then go one step further and argue however that if the monks themselves understood the situation according to a robust Conspiracy of the Good, they might very well oppose the temple of Serapis, but would not be violent towards it. The task would remain then, of reconstructing such a robust Christian Conspiracy of the Good.

Header image credit: John Martin - Illustration of Paradise Lost Book IV

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


christian-platonism Proclus Theodicy Evil Polytheism Theomachy

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