For Assmann, Against Butler

This follows on from my previous post, Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion. To recap, here’s Jan Assmann on the pagan translatability of gods:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

Assmann refers to this common ancient pagan view as cosmotheism. Edward Butler objects:

The status accorded to “function” in the theological mode of interpretation offers a contrast between it and hermeneutic of “translation” discussed by Jan Assmann. Within the “translation” paradigm, functional equivalences between deities of different national pantheons, or even within the same pantheon, are treated as indicating that different names signify the same small set of deities, or the differentiated potencies of a single divine substance. For the “theological” mode of interpretation, by contrast, function derives from identity, and not identity from function. In this fashion the theological mode of interpretation seeks to avoid yet another form of reductionism, which we might label the “cosmotheistic” reduction, after the “cosmotheism” Assmann sees as the historical outcome of the translational hermeneutic of myth. In the “cosmotheistic” reduction, a unitary cosmotheistic philosophy effectively displaces the theologies of diverse cultures, whose particularity is treated as mere materiality. Such an approach, because it dualistically posits a substance or substances prior to or underlying the Gods themselves and external to the myths themselves, could never be regarded as the primary mode of mythological hermeneutics, if indeed it is even to be regarded as a way of interpreting myths, and not rather as a method of demythologization.

Actually, Assmann is describing ancient pagan polyaletheia. It’s straightforward: the Greeks had a perspective on the divine, and the Romans had a perspective on the divine, and one can translate between the two perspectives on the basis of the functions of the gods, in a way that rather implies that the identity of the gods derives from their function, and indeed this is exactly what the Romans and Greeks did, as well as many other pagan cultures.

Butler reveals his monoaletheia here, asking the monoalethic question, roughly, regardless of any “perspectives” or points of view or whatever, what’s the actual objective truth? Surely this translation approach implies that the underlying objective truth is atheistic and demythologising, positing some substance that is separate from and, worse, prior to the Gods?

But in the polyalethic mode, there is no one “underlying objective” truth; there are only more perspectives. It’s perspectives all the way down. This point can be difficult to get across to people who are used to thinking monoalethically, so let me make a comparison. Assmann’s perspective on religion is an anthopological one, and in that perspective one can ask, how and why do people believe in gods? Likewise, a developmental psychologist might ask, how and why do people believe in other people? In both cases, there is no proof, and Occam’s razor suggests atheism in the one case, and solipsism in the other. In these perspectives, the answers lie in the psychology of belief: we’re simply predisposed to believe in the real existence of other people, and (albeit much more weakly and variously) predisposed to believe in the real existence of gods.

In both cases what actually matters is presence: people are present in our lives as beings like ourselves, so we enter a perspective in which people in general exist. Likewise, for those of us for whom gods are present in our lives, we enter a perspective in which gods exist.

If we come across an atheist, or if we come across a solipsist, there is no argument we can make with them to change their minds. There is simply a difference of perspective and that is all. In this way, the presence of gods can be as well-founded as the presence of other people: there is no implied “underlying atheism” anymore than an “underlying solipsism”. Our ideas, our truths, are always within a perspective. The monoalethic mistake is to look for the one singular objective underlying truth against which perspectives can be measured, but such a thing is not meaningful, rather it becomes… one more perspective.

In Assmann’s case, his anthropological perspective does not deny or displace the religious perspectives of the cultures he examines, and does not therefore demythologise. Likewise, the Sun is both the god Helios and a hot mass of “metal” larger than the Peloponnese1, the one perspective does not deny the other.

It’s worth noting here that Assmann is pretty much just doing anthropology, reporting on interpretatio as a phenomenon apparently common to many different European and Near-East pagan cultures. It’s this observed commonality, only, that is the basis for the wide applicability of his cosmotheism.

Butler is defending an intricate philosophical/theological system, albeit one rooted in the ideas of philosophers of late antiquity. As a perspective, Butler’s Neoplatonism would need no justification: it can be one more way of thinking of the gods, and indeed the world, among many others. But as a claim to objective truth, statements about “units” and “dyads” seem arbitrary and unfounded as a starting point and difficult to justify against opposing statements.

Butler calls his main theology polycentric polytheism:

We see this inclusiveness of each God in the practice of many polytheists. A polytheist does not call upon a God merely for concerns relating to a narrow function. Aphrodite’s most intense devotees do not call on her merely as “Goddess of love,” for example, but as Goddess of everything, at least potentially. At the cult centers of ancient deities, we often find the Gods and Goddesses worshiped in this expansive manner. We also see this pattern in modern day Hinduism, although it is often misinterpreted by Westerners under the influence of hegemonic monotheism as “monism” and denying the reality of the many Gods.

We can rescue Butler’s “polycentricity” from its absolutism by treating it as polyaletheia instead. In this view, a god may be associated with a particular perspective, within which one may view all other gods. It is precisely as the Goddess of Love that the intense devotee of Aphrodite can see the whole world, and all the other gods, in terms of erotic love. It is the function itself that has expanded, and the intensity of devotion brings one closer to, not further away from, Love as a human and natural phenomenon.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. Anaxagoras’ description. The great god Helios is actually composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium (his namesake element), not metals even in the astronomical sense, but not a bad guess.

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