This is part 2 of a two part series of articles on the nature of pagan monism, it's history and importance to modern paganism. Since I have written that I am a monist, I felt that it was important to define exactly what that was, and how I used it in my study and practice. Part 2 contains an historical narrative that shows how monism developed and evolved over time. I will be focusing on that evolution within Greek philosophy, but such a transition also occurred elsewhere, most particularly in India, where monism was perfected and retained its non-dual nature.
A Very Brief Historical Exposition of Greek Philosophy
The first Greek philosopher to propose a form of philosophical monism was the Ionian Greek, Thales of Miletus (624 - 546 BCE). He proposed what was known as a form of material monism, where the unifying attribute was proposed to be the element of water. While this was a new concept amongst the Greeks, it was not new to other cultures, such as Mesopotamia or Egypt, and it is likely that Thales, who was well traveled, may have acquired his perspective through the diffusion of ideas from other geographic cultures. (Thomas McEviley, in his book, proposes that the diffusion of ideas between different geographic locations occurred as readily as the dispersion of trade goods, and very likely followed the same pathways.)
Thale’s proposition is considered a semi-abstraction by modern philosophers, representing a kind of substrate monism, which is the hypothesis that reality has a foundational unity underlying all material manifestation. Thales chose water as his primordial element, but others who came after him proposed other elements, such as air or fire. The idea inherent in this hypothesis was that the primordial element changed its form and appearance through various processes (evaporation, condensation, contraction, etc.) to emulate the variety of different physical forms and substances. This new perspective represented a post mythological concept, merging the elements of both natural science and philosophic abstraction. However, it also retained a certain mythological flexibility along with its more material based hypothesis. Even so, this hypothesis took the idea of the origin of the material universe out of the mythic narrative involving the personalities and actions of deities to an abstract terminology. It was, in a word, the birth of philosophy out of religious and mythological discourse.
So substrate monism evolved, eventually losing its material form until that unifying attribute became Being itself. This occurred because if a material basis was ascribed as the source, then the very nature of that element became negated. For instance, if everything was based on the element of water, then the qualities of water ceased to be relevant or meaningful. This was also true no matter what physical attribute was ascribed to the source, whether water, air, fire, or all four elements - fire, water, air and earth - such as what Empedocles proposed later on. It was only when the substrate monism became associated with an attribute that was beyond any specific named entity or quality was it able to become established beyond logical refutation. That final determiner became the very nature of being itself, which was proposed as the unity underlying all things. In India, the substrate monism was called “brahman,” (with a small “b”) which means being, and in Greek, it was called “apeiron” (indefinite).
The process of demythologizing the concept of the One was started by the pre-Socratic philosopher named Anaximander (610 - 546 BCE) who proposed that the principle element was indeterminate, or as he named it, apeiron. Anaximander proposed that the One was unlimited and unbounded, thereby releasing its association with any quantifiable element or specifically identifiable thing, thereby making it a conceptual abstraction. Yet it was Xenophanes (570 - 475 BCE) who pushed the conceptualization of the One to its ultimate and conclusive definition. First of all, Xenophanes criticized anthropomorphism as a cultural or ego based projection, proposing that the One must be formless and contain no knowable attributes. He was the founder of Eleatic monism, which postulated that the One is coexistent with the world of the Many, but only the One is real.
Thus Eleatic monism was a kind of philosophic pantheism. He also proposed that the One is both the universal subject and object (everything that you see is the One, and everything that sees is the One). However, if the One is real, then senses that perceive the Many are actually experiencing an illusion. Therefore, knowledge of the Many cannot occur without introducing this error. The One is, the Many merely seem to be. Additionally, the One has two modes, formed and formless, but only the formless is real. The formed is the mechanism whereby the Many are created, therefore ensuring the integrity of the One. This is a distinction between the absolute (as the One) and relative being (the Many). Xenophanes proposed a world where the gods and humans both lived in a finite and illusory world similarly diminished by the transcendental One, being therefore a kind of psychic projection of themselves.
Once the source and underlying unity was defined as being, then a division occurred between that source as One, and everything else, which was called the Many. In order to establish a non-dual perspective, which was the underlying purpose to these hypotheses, it was important to signify one or the other as the true reality (they couldn’t both be real), and that made the corresponding other as unreal or illusory. Therefore, in India, the material world (the Many) was called Maya (illusion) and in Greek, Doxa (seeming) or Ananke (necessity), and these became personified as a kind of philosophical goddess in both systems.
It was further determined that the One was perfect, formless (yet conceptually spherical), static and unchanging, since the material world of the Many was constantly changing and mutating, although in a periodic and cyclic manner. The One had to be differentiated from the Many, so they assumed opposite qualities. The true reality was the transcendent One, and the illusory world of constant change was the material based Many. It was a polarity between Being and Non-being, but it had the unfortunate impact of negating the whole of the material world. There was also the problem of reconciling creation, where the One became manifested as the Many. Since the One was considered static and unmovable, and the Many was in constant motion, it was paradoxical to consider that somehow something static would be able to instigate the motion of the material world - something had to drive that which was in motion. Early thinking had postulated that the One actually existed in two states to enable creation of the Many, but this was quickly supplanted by the addition of a new quality.
Beginning with Pythagoras, the problem of how the static and unchanging One was able to manifest into the many was resolved through the use of intermediaries, in this case, the base-ten numbers, the four elements, and then later the triangle as the first perfect form (such as the tetractys, which is a triangle incorporating the numbers one through ten). Although Pythagoras considered the number 1 to represent the monistic godhead, the rest of the numbers established a kind of foundational mathematics that facilitated the creation of forms. These intermediaries were referred to as the Few, and they adopted both the static and changeableness qualities of the One and the material world. They were the drivers of the constant change of the material world. Later on, Plato would propose that the Few was also populated with the world of ideas (what Jung would later call archetypes), building a philosophical system that explained how the Many were formed from the One through the intermediation of the Few.
This model could thus be explained in the following manner.
One (static, contraction, formless, unchanging, transcendent, true reality, being)
Few (static and changing, primordial forms, expansion, prime mover, ideas, proto-being)
Many (changing, cyclic, driven, diverse forms, immanent, illusion, non-being)
There is a problem with this philosophical construct, and that is the fact that the material world is judged as illusory and without being. Since human beings who inhabit the material world seem to have aspects that could be considered relative to both that world and the true reality, one would have to propose that each human being contains within them an aspect of that source of all being. This element can be either considered illusory and ignored (as in Buddhism) or completely incorporated within one’s practice, such as in the Indian Tantras. Pagan magic (theurgy) would also follow the path established by Indian Tantra (in my opinion), but there is still the problem of how to engage with the material world when it is considered to be an illusion.
Another alternative philosophical perspective that contradicted and disputed the claim that the material world was illusory was inaugurated by the philosophical writings of Democritus (460 - 370 BCE). He proposed the opposite notion, that the material world apprehended by the senses was the only true reality and that the monist substrate was occupied by matter in the form of atoms. These two hypotheses were constantly at war with each other, since they represented two diametrical positions. Plato ended up being the one who lionized the former, and Aristotle, the latter. This dichotomy continues to this day, with those who are aligned to an occult or religious perspective in the west that is based on Platonism, and those who are aligned with a scientific perspective that is based on Aristotle. We can see it in the opposition of the modern philosophy of Kant and Locke, and it continues to trouble, more or less, adherents of either persuasion.
However, as a modern pagan, I find myself unable to fully adopt the original concept where the material world is judged to be merely an illusion. I have found both joy and sorrow living in a body in the material world, but I feel that all aspects of this sensory experience represent a greater overall good. Perhaps I am an optimist because nothing really tragic or devastating has ever occurred to me in my life. I have managed to avoid war, destruction and catastrophe in my life so far, but even so, there seems to me to be a kind of fundamental reality and even a preciousness associated with life in the material world. This, despite the fact that death is an expected outcome of life, no matter what is done to forestall or mitigate it in some manner.
One pre-Socratic philosopher that I haven’t mentioned so far is Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 - 475 BCE). He was known as the “riddler” because his writings were considered to be so obscure. Professor McEviley has speculated that Heraclitus made his break-through philosophical proposals with the help of a translated copy of several of the Indian Upanishads. He took an interesting stand in regards to the paradox of the One and the Many, using a logic defying approach that unites all opposites, including the opposites of the One and the Many. He stated that there must be a balance between the One and the Many. In this fashion, we might approach the nature of the Many as saying that it is both an illusion as well as real, depending on our momentary point of view. It could also propose that the One is static and yet also capable of moving and changing, representing the fact that any hardened definition about something that is highly abstract (and absolute) cannot be fully completely validated.
I believe that there has to be some kind of variance in our philosophical perspectives and opinions instead of proposing absolutes, and that any hypothesis only approaches the greater truth to a certain extent. What this does is to make any and all systems of philosophy and religion to be uncertain and not knowable in the absolute sense; that the absolute reality is essentially unknowable and unknown. I suspect that this approach allows for a greater overall flexibility so that we, as modern occultists, can accept both our occult metaphysics and modern science simultaneously without any dichotomy or dissonance.
We can therefore rejoice in the majesty and beauty of the material world, marvel at the advances of modern science and see the manifestation of Spirit in the wonder of nature. We can also change this perspective and see what is behind the material reality that is the domain of Spirit, and we can also personally experience the union of all being that connects everything into a single essential experience of one-ness. All of these perspectives are valid in their turn, and none of them can either contradict or negate the others. If any of them can be experienced in some manner and rationally determined, then they are as real as the solid material reality in which we live.
Yet pervading the manifestation of these many diverse and different perspectives is the One, which can only be experienced within ourselves, and then in the most exalted states of consciousness. The Few, as the archetypes of the unifying consciousness of being as it exists in the domain of the Many, is also important, since it represents the instruments through which the One is able to impact and shape the material world. We can use these instruments to manipulate the material world or to achieve conscious union with the One.
I think that the origin of monism is a human response to the overwhelming great variety of material things found in the world. It is based on the same ordering principle or impulse that drove the derivation of early astronomy, geometry and basic music theory. It is the desire to find that one unifying principle behind the multiple derivations of the material world. It is based on the concept that if everything is distinct and unique, then the greater world is unknowable, and that anything can only be known singularly and distinctly. As Thomas McEviley has stated so eloquently:
“The preoccupation with the Problem of the One and the Many expressed a desire to know the universe in some larger sense than that, by finding principles which would render every situation knowable with or without direct experience of it. Superficial diversity was to be tamed and made knowable by apprehension of underlying unity.”
This need to know and understand the unknowable is what drives modern science and also occult and various spiritual speculations. To achieve this end, seekers search out common attributes that can be used to determine the underlying structures or unity that generates a greater knowledge out of the apparent diversity of various phenomena. This is why I believe that acquiring a monistic spiritual perspective is so important, natural and has profound consequences.