Parmenides and the armies of God: the pernicious influence of philosophical monism on the monotheistic religions

Recent weeks brought another low in the ongoing swathe of destruction engineered by the Islamic State, with the news of the destruction of priceless historical artefacts in Mosul and at Nineveh. Depressing as this is, adding to their reputation for barbarity already evidenced by their treatment of the peoples under their sway, an interesting article by Graeme Wood1 argues that these events are not necessarily evidence of the attraction of IS for psychopaths, social misfits and cultural Philistines, as we had readily assumed, but a logical necessity of their theological worldview; moreover, this worldview is shared by conservative and fundamentalist Muslims worldwide, the difference being one of the timing of these actions: now, or in some apocalypse of the indefinite future. This view, it should be said, is a minority one; most commentators view IS as predominantly a political phenomenon, responding to the power vacuum that has existed in the lands they have overrun, and their actions are almost universally abhorred by their co-religionists2. Whatever the case, for IS religion plays, or has come to play, an important role in explaining to itself and to the world outside why it does what it does.

Though the dangers inherent in religious doctrines are most clearly manifested within Islam at this present moment, this is only the most recent irruption of a tendency that is be found within all monotheistic religions. We have to look no further than Christianity to see a history replete with examples of genocide, oppression and wanton destruction of the past, or the Torah to encounter (at least a literary retelling of) such events in the history of Israel. While there is clearly a complex of causal factors that have triggered particular atrocities, I believe that monotheism itself, as a form of philosophical monism, provides sufficient justification in all cases. I will explore this idea with reference to the thought of Parmenides of Elea, one of the most original philosophers of the ancient world, then look at some of the developments that have mitigated the more extreme versions of monotheism, and discuss whether there might be philosophical foundations for a more intrinsically humane, less onerous form of theism.

Among the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, for one considered relatively obscure, none has been as influential as Parmenides. It is not an exaggeration to state that, through his influence on his contemporaries and particularly on Plato, he determined the course of philosophy in the West and the Arab world. Within the scope of a few fragments of a philosophical poem, Parmenides pushed a strain of pre-Socratic thinking – monism, the belief that all of reality is reducible to a single principle – to its extreme limit, creating the first known, recognisable example of a rationalist account of reality. Unlike earlier ontologies, that of Thales, for example, for whom the prime substance was water, or Anaximander, for whom the underlying principle was a hypothetical ‘indefinite’ (apeiron), Parmenides took existence itself – being – as the subject of his analysis.

Three of Parmenides’ conjectures are of particular interest to my argument:

  1. ‘To be thought’ and ‘to be’ are the same [thing]. (fragment 3, tr. Herman3)

Parmenides is not proposing a form of idealistic philosophy, such as that of Berkeley, in which all of reality is idea, or the concept of subsistence in Brentano, in which everything which we have awareness has a mode of reality; rather he is arguing that thinking is inescapably linked to being, what exists. What this means exactly is contentious, for clearly we can imagine things that we know do not exist, although it is usually interpreted to mean truthful thinking or rational thinking.

  1. It is not possible to say or to think that it ‘is not. (fragment 8, tr. Taran4, emphasis added)

The idea of the linking of thought and existence is developed in what is probably Parmenides’ central idea, the impossibility or inconceivability of ‘non-being’, non-existence. To us it seems merely a tautology that non-being does not exist, but the pre-Socratics were grappling with the fundamentals of human thought and one of these issues was the nature of the void. Again, we do not know exactly what Parmenides equated with non-being, but the force of this assertion was to have a lasting impact on the direction of subsequent philosophy.

  1. Being is ungenerated and imperishable, whole, unique, immoveable and complete. It was not one nor will it be, since it is now altogether, one continuous. (fragment 8, tr. Taran)

From the first two propositions, Parmenides is able to forge in unforgettable descriptive detail (remember this is poetry) an image of being – that which reason reveals actually exists (Aletheia) as opposed to the crude appearances of our senses (doxa). For Parmenides being excluded becoming, development or change, as they would all necessitate the acceptance of non-being; for the same reason he rejected any differentiation of division within being, creating the idea of being as homogeneous and indefinitely extended.

From the forgoing account of Parmenides’ concept of being, the similarity of this idea to the monotheistic idea of God as an infinite and eternal being is impossible to avoid. Whether this is a coincidence – an example of convergent thinking – or whether there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas in the ancient world, is unsure5. The origin of monotheism is usually traced to the Egyptian ruler Akenaten, who replaced the pantheon with the worship of the sun god Aten. Freud, of course, hypothesised that Moses was an Egyptian follower of Akenaten6, an intriguing idea, but one for which there is no evidence. What is known is that the Greeks had respect for Jewish worship, represented by the creation of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Torah, and certainly by the early Christian period the influence of Parmenides, via Plato and Plotinus, on the concept of God, particularly in Augustinian theology, is evident. There is a controversial opinion that Parmenides himself was a mystic in the vein of Pythagoras7.

Evidence of a direct link notwithstanding, Parmenides’ view of being is a useful hermeneutic tool to explore the monotheistic idea and the logical consequences that flow from it. Starting with proposition 3, being is all-encompassing, single and undifferentiated. There can be nothing that can represent being, because everything is a part of being and being is infinite: there is no non-being, no beginning to being and no end to being. The idea of the non-representation (unrepresentability) of God has been a feature of the monotheistic religions, and the principle point of differentiation with polytheistic ‘idolatry’. Ancient and modern Orthodox Judaism, Sunni Islam, and Christianity during certain periods (the Iconoclastic controversy, the Protestant Reformation) have all been censorious of particular representations of the deity, resulting in acts of religious and cultural vandalism, the sacking of cities and the suppression or murder of those who chose to worship through such means.

Parmenides first proposition, linking rational or correct thinking to being, understood in the context of his notion of being, as per proposition 3, leads to two corollaries: that being is the only thing that can make an appearance in our mind, since it is the only reality; and that the inability to see or to acknowledge this reality is evidence of error. A monistic view of the truth about God has underlain much of the development of monotheistic religion, particularly the desire to proselytise (including forced conversions) to demand obedience or submission (including by coercion), and to encourage continued belief through exhortation to the religious ideal (and the threats of social exclusion, damnation, or death, awaiting those who are unable to live up to it, or who abandon it).

Following closely on the first proposition, proposition 2 speaks of the impossibility of contemplating or speaking about non-being. For Parmenides this seems to have been an expression of the inconceivability, the unthinkability of non-being. But it is very easy to see how such a totalistic, self-contained and closed view could result in dogmatism, and there is little doubt that the history of monotheism has been plagued by dogmatism and disagreement. Rigidity of thought leads easily to schism, because of the total investment in a particular theological point of view and the inconceivability of the perspective of the other. The monotheistic religions have been marked by a history of schism, excommunication, mutual hatred between those with almost indistinguishable positions, and the persecution of supposed heretics, infidels and apostates.

I can foresee a possible objection to the thesis being proposed here, that the idea of God within the monotheistic religions promotes human barbarity. There are countless believers in one God around the world, but only a very small minority commit atrocities in the name of their religion and they are mostly condemned by their fellow religionists. However, the majority are disempowered as far as the exercise of religious authority is concerned. Where majorities or significant minorities are empowered, as religious parties through the democratic system (when they are not constrained through a secular constitution), through revolution or in rebellion against a central authority – and there are examples aplenty in the world today of all these – then almost invariably oppression and atrocities follow. Monotheism seems to give the believer a licence to bully, and power to be the trigger to activate that propensity.

Another problem is how to explain why, if the influence of philosophical monism on monotheism has been so pernicious, these religions have been so persistent and have also contributed positively to human development, by providing a stabilising and socialising effect on human communities over long periods of time. At one level the argument is not that monotheist belief is the cause of these atrocities, which always have some contemporaneous trigger, but that the totalistic worldview of strict monotheism, resulting in a type of mass solipsism, unable to comprehend any perspective outside its own ambit, has served as a justification for acting on our basest instincts. However, at another level it is possible that the monistic purity (in the Parmenidean sense) has been compromised in some ways in different religious traditions, and that may provide a clue to a more general principle of ameliorating religion-based power play.

In the Torah (Exodus 3:14) God reveals himself to Moses as ‘I am’ (YHWH, transcribed as ‘Yahweh’), a personalisation of being that introduces elements of separation and discourse into the human-divine matrix and breaks the continuity and lack of differentiation in being. This has had an enormous influence on Judaism through the ages and helped maintain a culture of interpretation and learned discourse. In Christianity the personal God of which Jesus spoke quickly became Hellenised into the God of theology; but Christianity always maintained a secondary focus of worship: Jesus, Mary, the saints and with Protestantism almost a reverence for the secular. Islam through much of its history had a rich culture of learning and interpretation, mysticism in Sufism and, within Shia Islam at least, illustration. But the widespread prohibition of symbolic depiction and the lack of secular law render Islam particularly prone to monistic purity in its concepts of God and truth.

In other words, what has taken the sting from monotheism is a weakening of the philosophical monism at its heart, by interposing and embracing elements in the religious life outside the closed logic of the Parmenidean concept of being. However, that concept remains unshakeably at the heart of the ideas of God and God’s truth of the three ‘religions of the book’, justifying acts of inhumanity against the ‘other’ when power and circumstances dictate.

Given the strong convergence between philosophical monism and monotheism, it is important to explore the validity of Parmenides’ arguments. The extreme position of his monism (which established within philosophy a trend to push arguments to their logical conclusions, however absurd those conclusions might be), has made the concept of being in the Parmenidean sense, foundational to all subsequent philosophy, but also open it up to critique. Some critiques were those of his contemporaries. Democritus developed his theory of ‘atomism’, in which each atom is a Parmenidean being, to reconcile the reality of being with the world of appearances. Heraclitus’ view of the world in constant flux is often taken to be a rejoinder to and wholesale rejection of Parmenides’ immobile and undifferentiated being. Modern critiques usually centre on the confusion of two uses of the verb ‘to be’, the existential and the predicative (the existence of something and the identification of one thing with another thing or quality), although there is also something gloriously incongruous in the denial of the world of appearances which, nonetheless, relies on reference to the world of our experience.

Parmenides had a valid insight into the nature of things, that there is an underlying unity to all of reality. However this insight is too unsophisticated to describe what we now know, either about the universe or the social worlds we inhabit. Parmenides’ equation of movement and difference with non-being has no basis in fact and is predicated on the rudimentary nature of scientific understanding of his day; development, change, chaos and the differentiated nature of things are integral to what is, as is structure and order. A more realistic concept of being would incorporate plurality and also interrelativity, the relationship among things, a notion which is curiously absent in the Western philosophical tradition. Both plurality and interrelativity are, however, found in Eastern thought, for example the principles of yin and yang which incorporate similarity, difference and unity. Eastern philosophy, which is highly integrated with its religions, also has strong notions of reality and appearance, or illusion (maya), but its notions of reality are more plural and relational and this seems to be reflected in a more ethical and humane perspective in the non-theistic and polytheistic religions. The Buddha, for example, taught compassion for the suffering of all things, not their subjugation or exploitation. Ancient Hindu wisdom upheld the principle of Tat tvam asi – ‘that thou art’ – a sentiment of empathetic identification without parallel in the monotheistic religions with their condemnation of otherness.

Despite the assertions of a vocal minority of militant atheists, spirituality is hard-wired into human nature, and religions have contributed immeasurably to human lives and institutions, and perhaps even human evolution. But the monotheistic religions in particular need to adapt to remain relevant in a world which is vastly different to that in which they emerged, and is on the point of becoming more so. First, they need to abandon their adherence to a monistic ontology that I have argued has been shown to be erroneous both inductively and deductively, and which underlies religious ideas in which unlimited conflict is incipient, and adopt a more pluralistic and relational idea of being, however they choose to express that idea. I am not suggesting that a pluralistic and relativistic notion of being would eliminate conflict, but it might in the long run weaken the religious justification for xenophobic hatred, murder and despoilation, and which, as a result, frequently fans the flame of conflict. Secondly, all religions need to accept and underwrite two principles that have driven human history and development, and that are the most fundamental expression of human spirituality: one is the desire for freedom through intellectual, economic, cultural and political empowerment; the other is curiosity about the infinite mystery of being, whether one wishes to approach that from a religious, scientific or aesthetic perspective.

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Notes and References

  1. Graeme Wood (March 2015). ‘What ISIS Really Wants’. The Atlantic. Online at: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
  2. Mehdi Hasan (6-12 March 2015). ‘How Islamic is the Islamic State?’ New Statesman, pp26-33.
  3. Arnold Hermann (2004). To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides: The Origins of Philosophy.   Las Vegas, NV: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 155-162.
  4. Leonardo Taran (1965). Parmenides: A text with translation, commentary and critical essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  5. John Pairman Brown (2003). Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture. Fortress Press.
  6. Sigmund Freud (1939). Der Mann Moses und den Monotheistiche Religionen (Moses and Monotheism, tr. Katerine Jones). Knopf.
  7. Peter Kingsley (1995). Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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One thought on “Parmenides and the armies of God: the pernicious influence of philosophical monism on the monotheistic religions

  1. Thanks Don – this is a fascinating exploration of some of the ancient philosophical roots behind aspects of the Abrahamic religions. Some of it is quite difficult for me to follow, as one with only limited knowledge of philosophy, but the thesis has a ring of truth about it. This certainly resonates with a key idea that has emerged from some discussions I have had with sixthformers at school about Science and Religion: that religious thought must be open to scrutiny, both by individuals as well as by religious authorities and communities, in a similar way to scientific thought. Just because a great man once said something does not mean it should not be questioned, tested and analysed.

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