The Evolution of the Concept of God: From Hesiod to Plotinus

Picture 437Hesiod’s Theogony is a pre-philosophical recounting of the birth of the gods, describing how the gods, goddesses and titans created the intelligibly ordered kosmos. The principle of order framing all that exists makes possible man’s understanding of the world in which he lives, and allows Hesiod to render an intelligible account of the kosmos. The account of the birth of the gods and the generation of the kosmos in the writings of Hesiod is not the product of original speculation or invention, but rather a re-handling of myths already familiar to the Greeks.

The pantheon of deities that appear in the Theogony neither operate according to, nor abide by any principle that is of the nature of necessity, but act, instead, according to the dictates of anthropomorphized passions and desires. Unlike the later pre-Socratic philosophers, Hesiod does not attempt to account for the discernable principle of order in the kosmos in terms of a metaphysical first principle; however, it is the operative principle of order in the kosmos that allows Hesiod to describe and communicate the myths of the god’s activities, as well as the myths of the god’s dealings with humankind.

As a pre-philosophical account of the kosmos, the forces that brought the totality of existence into being remained unexplained by Hesiod; only nature, which is not a self-explaining fact, does he attempt to account for. The principle of order in the kosmos is not a result of the activity of the gods, but stands outside as a “causal condition” for how the gods act, or the end to which their activities incline. Even though Hesiod observes order in the kosmos, the question that was to later become imperative in philosophy, viz., “why something rather than nothing exists,” Hesiod gives no answer to. The phenomenal world is accounted for inductively through pre-existing myths only because it is an a posteriori fact that invites investigation.

Rather than the incidental deeds of so many gods, the divine exploits that comprise Hesiod’s account of the kosmos underwent a kind of gradual abstraction in the hands of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who posited in their turn one of the four elements, or a combination of those elements as being the arche of all things. Prior to Parmenides’ investigation of Being qua Being, the logical gap between a kosmos full of plurality and change, about which nothing can be meaningfully asserted or denied, and the necessarily immutable foundations of Being itself, went unnoticed by early Greek philosophers.

Parmenides begins his considerations of Being by rejecting myth, opinion, and man’s trust in the elemental world of appearances as erroneous views of reality. In place of a kosmos full of plurality and change, Parmenides holds that what exists, exists of necessity, and cannot be otherwise — anything that does not exist of necessity does not exist at all. Hence, Being qua Being must be a single principle that does not alter, is impassible and ungenerated; in other words, there must be sufficient reason for why something is thus and not otherwise, or else nothing positive can ever be established about any thing’s existence or essence.

Parmenides’ monistic principle of necessary Being is incompatible with the world of appearances, which is subject to generation and corruption. Because no single principle can give rise to plurality or change without ceasing to be what it is, Parmenides’ dualistic cosmology accounts both for what exists of necessity (Being), and what only appears to exist (the phenomenal world), but has no ontological status whatever.  The historical transition from Hesiod’s world full of gods to Parmenides’ conception of Being, which is the supreme reality, but not, properly speaking, any kind of god, underwent a full transitional step with Plato’s conception of the Good and the Ideas.

The demiurge in Plato’s Timeaus, who creates the world from pre-existing matter, is ontologically inferior to the Ideas, which supply the form or condition for what it is to be or exist as an object in the phenomenal world at all. Plato’s demiurge is neither the supreme reality, nor the ultimate principle of intelligibility, whereas the Ideas are the necessary condition for reality and intelligibility as such. Plato extends Parmenides’ ontological conception of Being to include the Idea of the Good, which is beyond, or higher than Being. The Good, according to Plato, must be postulated as the Idea of the Ideas, or the guarantor of the qualities of what it is to be an Idea. Neither the Good, nor Plato’s Ideas are gods as such, since the god who fashions the world in Timeaus does so because he himself is but one manifestation of the Good, and desires all things to be like him, which is to say, like the Good.

As respective contributions to a philosophical account of the foundations of reality or existence, the first principle of Being in Parmenides, and the Ideas in Plato’s account are nevertheless independent of the philosophic notion of god as exemplifying or providing the necessary conditions for ultimate reality. Aristotle’s conception of the prime mover, or unmoved mover, is arguably the first instance where the first principle is united to the concept of god, and god becomes the supreme uncaused-cause of reality.

This transition raised god, as a philosophic entity, to an explanatory object of the highest degree of intellectual refinement; and god, as an object of thought, became the culminating point for speculative philosophy rather than a step several times removed from the postulated first principle. A purely rational theology was made possible by Aristotle’s fusion of the first philosophic principle — Thought, in this case — with his conception of god as “thought which thinks itself,” establishing a single unified nature that is mirrored or manifested in the intellective soul of man.

By driving a wedge between that which is unchanging and imperishable, and that which is subject to the forces of generation and corruption, the metaphysical problems of Parmenides and Plato remained problematic to the degree to which the postulated first principle always preceded the method of investigation.

Aristotle abolishes this procedural distinction by collapsing the first principle into the concept of god, which renders god the terminal point of metaphysical speculations that begin with the material world as it is apprehended through the corporeal senses. His rational theology answers the question of why something rather than nothing exists by asserting the eternity of the kosmos; no act of creation or framing of the world from pre-existent matter was necessary, only the prime mover as the source of continual movement was required as the apex in a hierarchy of objects of intelligibility.  As a pure act of intellection, Aristotle’s god has no capacity to impart existence; hence the ideality of Though-thinking-Itself as an object of speculative philosophy.

Plotinus’ contribution to the concept of god involved subsuming in his hierarchy of principles Plato’s conception of the Good, Aristotle’s conception of Thought-thinking-Itself, and Parmenides’ conception of Being. Plotinus’ hierarchy of abstractions is crowned by the One, which is beyond Intellect and Being, and is thus not a philosophically intelligible object in any sense. As was the case with Plato’s conception of the Good that exists above the Ideas, Plotinus’ One is both the foundation and the apex of ultimate reality, while remaining beyond intelligible reality altogether.

As a modification of Plato’s conception of the Good, Plotinus’ One functions as the unity from which all unity derives its essence: “Whatever is not one, but multiple, needs something else. Its being needs unification.” Beneath the One is Being, “the self-sufficing and unflagging begetter of every being,” from which the One is wholly independent as the uncaused immanent cause of Being. Beneath Being is Intellect, which again is not constitutive of the One because “The One is not an intellective existence.”

As a crowning contribution to the Greek conception of god, the significance of Plotinus’ thought lies in the fact that his conception of the One was an attempt to overcome all philosophical dualisms. The One, according to Plotinus, stands as a single unified principle above all dualities, particularly Parmenides’ dualism of Being and non-being, and Aristotle’s intellectual god that takes himself as his own object of thought; the One is above Being and Thought, and above the duality of Being and Thought. Plotinus asks the question of “what is it to be?” His answer is, “that which exists, or is,” or that which gives structure to all reality while remaining motionless and beyond any reality whatever.


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