Pagan Semantics

Deborah Kest


RD> OK, having some more thoughts about this. If there is/are one/two
RD> original 'creators,' the system would still be polytheistic if the
RD> original(s) created a bunch of gods/demi-gods and cut 'em loose so
RD> to speak-not assigning them roles in the grand scheme of the
RD> original(s)? If so, what would be a counter-example-something like
RD> Yahweh & Son and the angelic hosts? I think I'm following you, it's
RD> just a bitch to put into words, LOL!

It's hard to imagine an original creator with a grand scheme who would "cut 'em loose."

"Well, yes, I have this plan, you see. And things are going pretty well according to plan. But this demi-god was supposed to be in charge of the dinosaurs, and he really doesn't do his job very well. So I'm afraid I'm going to have to fire him, and let him shift for himself."

Just an extra force in the universe, which doesn't really play any role at all in the "grand scheme?" This would be rather contradictory if the Grand Poo-Ba were omnipotent and omniscient, for if he wanted things to work according to plan, he would always have the power to make them work.

But, much to my distress, I taught Neoplatonism in my sections this week. One of my students, (the only one who has displayed a mystical bent), has been to section every single time, and I was relying on him to defend the Neoplatonists. Figures this would be the only time he oversleeps.

The reason the Neoplatonists bother me so much is that they do have the different levels of reality schtick, with The One, aka "The Good" at the top of the ladder. Because the cause is greater than the effect, (the first premise which I don't accept), The One emanates from itself the next level of reality, Intellect. (I still don't understand how something which is in no way differentiated, entirely uniform, could cause anything. After all, isn't causation a process involving some sort of differentiation?) But, anyway, like the sun emanates the halos around it without diminishing itself, or without being anything other than what it is, so too does The One have great fecundity and emanates Intellect. Intellect is still unified, as a mind thinking upon itself. But insofar as it can have thoughts, it has differentiation within its unity. Intellect is the act of unifying. All of the things it thinks on are Platonic Forms, like Beauty, which unify all of the particular instances (of beauty) in our world, (and all other worlds which the World-Soul spins). But Intellect doesn't think of the particular, it thinks only of true Beauty, true Justice, etc. It is not separate from all of these forms, so the way it thinks is from the perspective of each form onto all of the other forms. So from Beauty it contemplates Justice and Equality, and from Justice it contemplates Beauty, etc.

Well, somehow in all of this pure thinking on itself, it too emanates another less perfect level of reality, which is Soul, explained as the higher Soul, or World-Soul, and the lower Soul, or our souls. The World-Soul is less fertile than the level before, so it can't manage to produce real babies, but "less real" babies, imitations of the Forms in the mind of Intellect. So it spins all of the myriad of combinations of Forms, aka our world.

This process of causality, where the effect is always inferior to that which causes it, continues down to the point where no causality is possible any more. This point is Prime Matter, which has no form left at all. As something approaches Prime Matter, it is less and less formed, less and less intelligible. Something is ugly not because it partakes in a form of ugliness, but because it does not partake in the form of beauty at all. This breakdown of order is responsible for what we call evil. According to Plotinus Prime Matter *is* Evil.

This would suggest that either The Good is responsible for Evil, or there is more than one principle in the universe, which would deny the premise on which The One is based. The way they try to weasel out of this problem is by saying that Prime Matter is the least real of all, or that it isn't real. That doesn't mean that evil doesn't exist, but it exists because of holes, which are in themselves nothing-ness. It's like Swiss cheese. Swiss cheese has holes, but the holes are in themselves not anything. You wouldn't say that Swiss cheese is made up of cheese and holes, but that there are places in the cheese which simply lack cheese. Holes can't make up anything. So too Prime Matter can't cause anything.

Well, anyway, the reason I laid the skeleton of the system out is because Neoplatonism would seem to be a system whose first cause was The One, and who followed necessarily according to a single principle, to produce a manifold which is, in a sense, independent of its "creator." But though there is order, there isn't a divine plan, in that The One can't have any goals. It just emanates from itself, from which all else is derived. The manifold is independent of The One because it isn't itself The One. While there are unifying principles which can only be derived from Unity itself, because they are not perfectly uniform, they are not part of The One. The One can't have parts!!!

So, are they monotheists, (The One), duo-theists, (The One and Prime Matter), polytheists, (all of the levels of the hierarchy of reality, which includes levels of spirits which I didn't spell out), or all of the above? One could argue for all of the options, since The One is responsible for all, (but then where does matter, the building stuff of our world, come from, if by itself it is evil), and since the efficient causes of every phenomenon we experience comes from the lower deities, not The One itself.

If I *had* to accept such a system, (which I don't feel myself obliged to accept at all, since the arguments which Plotinus and Proclus give are terribly flawed), I would be inclined to favor polytheism, since even though The One is the first principle, not everything is incorporated into The One. In fact nothing is, since that would violate its Unity. So, The One is sort of off by itself, just emanating, while the efficient cause of our world is the World Soul, and all of the levels of spirits can have their hand in our pie. It's my understanding that the Neoplatonic hierarchy of spirits is what much of magic is still based on today. Their nature isn't determined by The One, except insofar as they are caused by The One and this process of diminishing causation, which makes them worse than that which caused them. They have more unity than we do, being higher up the chain, but less than The One. So while they couldn't do terribly disunified things, they can still do somewhat disunified things, and thus aren't determined. If they aren't determined by The One, then they are powers unto themselves, and the ones which actually do stuff which matters to us.

> Well, the "specific group" would be neo-pagans, of course. But then
> the argument is circular, and I'm not surprised that you would be
> confused. I think there is such a thing as neo-pagans. They are
> defined, more or less, by a few distinguishing traits: polytheism,
> feminist spirituality, environmental spirituality, and belief in/use of
> magic. (This would be my starting list). (Again, none of the traits
> are either necessary or sufficient, except *maybe* polytheism, as
> sufficient, but not necessary.) So, if we start with the foundation of
> neo-pagans, then their reclamation would be of religions which resemble
> that which they seek.

RD> OK. It still sounds a little tautological to me! I definitely also
RD> think there is such a thing as neo-pagans, but the major identifier
RD> for me personally is that they define their religion *as* neo-pagan,
RD> which is also tautological...oh hell, my head hurts. Reminds me of a
RD> local GLAAD meeting a while back; roundtable discussion, topic: What
RD> Is A Lesbian? (After much discussion, the answer everyone agreed on
RD> was 'Anyone who says she is.')

I think the way to get out of the tautology is to differentiate between the questions "what are they" and "how are they identified." My foundation was that there *is* such a thing as a Neopagan, and I gave a rough description/definition. Your challenge was that *is* is dependent on *what we know to be the case*. If our knowledge is dependent on their self-identification as a Neopagan, we are back in the circle again. I'd like to break the circle by claiming that *is* is not dependent on what we know to be the case. There are Neopagans, separate from the issue of identification of Neopagans. The issue of identification is important for different purposes, but not to the purpose of whether there are Neopagans.

If we break the circle, and give rough starting definitions, then the reclamation would be of those religions which have traits which would fit those starting definitions. This means that if just anyone found something appealing from ancient times, and worked to reclaim it, it wouldn't automatically get the label "Pagan." The "just anyone" would have to fit the rough starting definition, or convince the rest of us to include them in a revised definition, before they would count as Neopagans, and their reclamation count as "Pagan." Furthermore, if a Neopagan wanted to reclaim something which had nothing to do with religion, that wouldn't count as Pagan either.

RD> Hmm, I don't think I was looking at it in terms of counting them as
RD> pagans. I seem to recall you'd questioned whether Hinduism had
RD> features that neo-pagans would find desirable,

Yes, but I had made the argument that the fact that they wouldn't apply the word to themselves wasn't sufficient to prove that we shouldn't apply the word to them, if they had the features which we thought of as Pagan. Since the purpose of our discussion is to better understand our own word, we are concerned with whether, as we use it, it fits them, whether they use it or not.

RD> and I was pointing out
RD> the beliefs/practices of different denominations that might be
RD> attractive to various neo-Pagan religions. But yes, I'd say the
RD> argument against counting them as Pagans is pretty much spot-on.
RD> If not originally a neo-Pagan word, it definitely *was* a western
RD> word, no? As to the second, I hadn't even considered it & it's an
RD> interesting point. I wouldn't say it was an argument in favor of
RD> counting them as Pagan, but there's a lot of truth in it!

Why isn't it an argument in favor of counting them as Pagan? If the major things which we use to define Paganism we share with them, and if their sects are closer to some of our "sects" than the sects of each respective religion (understood loosely) are to each other, why not?

Quote of the moment:
The three greatest men who ever lived were Eleanor Roosevelt.

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