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Philosophy and Monotheism, Politics and Democracy

In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods.  Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament).  This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods.  The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s).  Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples.

This shift Assmann calls the Mosaic distinction because it is in the writings of Moses that the charge to have no other gods is laid down, a charge that begins as a charge to claim Yahweh to the exclusion of the other gods and develops into the view that Yahweh alone is a god and none of the others are.  There is the danger, which critics raise in response to Assmann’s book Moses the Egyptian, that Assmann addresses in this book, that the “Mosaic distinction” is anti-Semitic. This conception of monotheism seems to blame the Jews for a historical, political and religious shift that was ultimately intolerant, blaming the victims for the intolerance they suffered and blame them for ushering in a more violent world.  Assmann argues that this sense of exclusivity and intolerance would be the Jewish self-understanding (17).    Assmann writes:

[Under polytheism] Other peoples’ religions were felt to be basically compatible with one’s own.  This is not to say that the peoples who felt this way refrained from violence in their dealings with each other, nor that violence first entered into the world with the Mosaic distinction.  It simply means that political violence was not theologically sanctioned, at least not in the sense that those who followed a religion considered to be false had to be converted by the sword. (18)

And then:

My aim is not to criticize monotheism but to venture a historical analysis of its revolutionary character, its world-transforming novelty.  In this context, it is of decisive importance that the consolidation of monotheism is depicted in the monotheistically inspired passages of the Bible in a sequence of massacres.  I am speaking here of cultural semantics, not the history of real events.  Monotheism, in other words, is aware of its inherent violence and emphasizes the revolutionary shift that its consequential introduction brings about (22).

Assmann argues that the Egyptian response to Jewish monotheism cannot be blamed on the Jews, but rather follows from an Egyptian anxiety of a return of the repressed:

Manetho tells of an Egyptian priest by the name of Osarsiph, who at the time of Amenophis III (the father of Akhenaten, whose name was erased from the king-lists) made himself the leader of a group of lepers.  The king had interned these lepers in concentration campus and consigned them to forced labors.  A prophecy had warned him that the lepers would defile the land and in this way prevent him, King Amenophis, from seeing the gods.  Osarsiph negotiated with the king, obtaining his permission to relocate to the old Hyksos capital of Avaris in the eastern delta.  There he organized his people into a leper colony and made laws for them.  the first was not to worship the gods, the second not to spare any of their sacred animals nor to abstain from other forbidden food.  The third proscribed association with outsiders.  Finally, we read, Osarsiph took the name “Moyses.”  This is the gloss by means of which either Manetho himself or his reader Josephus establishes the connection with the Exodus.  The suppressed heretical king and the Jewish arch-prophet are thereby conflated into a single figure.  In addition, Osarsiph alias Moyses fortified the city, conquered Egypt, and terrorized the country with the utmost brutality for thirteen years.  The lepers laid waste to the towns and temples, tuned sanctuaries into kitchens, and roasted sacred animals on the spit.  Thirteen years roughly corresponds to the settlement period of El-Amarna…This legend obviously preserves a vague and dislocated memory of the monotheistic episode of the Amarna period, whose theoclastic character it expresses in no uncertain terms. (60)

In this post, my purpose is not to evaluate Assmann’s claim, though as it applies to Christianity, his conception of revolutionary monotheism seems right to me.  Instead I want to think about something Assmann says about the parallel between this shift toward revolutionary monotheism and the shift to philosophy that begins sometime between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE.  In the section, “What is Truth?” Assmann compares the monotheistic shift with the Parmenidian shift in Greek thought.*  Parmenides distinguishes between true and false cognition.  Parmenidian thought limits what can be thought: truth not falsehood, being not non-being.  It is a counterknowledge because it distinguishes itself from all the other knowledges that profess to be knowledge but are not.  You can talk about pre-Hellenic “science” but we will nod and wink because we know that what that means isn’t really what we mean when we talk about science.  Scientific knowledge, like monotheism, is at its root intolerant (13).

The parallel between the Parmenidian intolerance of falsehood and the monotheistic intolerance of false gods strikes me as in both cases a political shift exemplified by the scene in Plato’s cave.  We could take Arendt’s argument in “Philosophy and Politics” as the view that philosophy divides between true and false knowledge while politics precedes that distinction and operates at the level of competing knowledge (which only becomes opinion once the distinction between true and false knowledge is introduced).  Arendt argues that Plato sets up the philosopher-king in response to the death of Socrates.  The death of Socrates is the failure of political life, a life marked by argument and deliberation where each person shares their doxa, their view of the world and what is right and best–what, after the cave analogy, we call opinion–in a contest that is unending but nonetheless what directs human action singly and collectively.  Socrates was unable to persuade his fellow citizens to care for their souls, and so doxa is determined to be ineffectual.  The problem with doxa is that it is too compatible, too equal with every other view.  Into the doxic political realm comes the conflict between equal views trying to win out in an unpredictable and volatile scene.  In response to this unpredictability of the political, Plato establishes the philosopher-king, the one who has seen what is true and is thereby able to establish everything else as false.  The philosopher-king is thereby a power ruse, the one who has true knowledge has the capacity to rule others, to bid them submit solely out of recognition of the force and power of true knowledge.

The problem, that I don’t think Arendt herself quite articulates but that seems to characterize the scene in the cave, is that the philosopher still has to convince others within the doxic political realm that they are the philosopher.  In the world of doxa, where everyone contributes their view, there is no way to comprehend the claim that another view is true in a way that makes your view false.  Every other view is just as much a view.  The view that denies that every other view is just as much a view is just as much a view as every other view.  The philosopher then must submit to that world in order to convince equals that the philosopher is in fact unequal, superior.  But to convince them the philosopher must become equal.  The philosopher must engage at the level of doxa in order to establish the notion that the philosopher’s view is true and the other views false.  The philosopher then must become a part of the political in order to upend the political, perhaps even destroy it.  But even then, the dispute just shifts to the level of knowledge, of which knowledge is true, of who has the access they say they have that gives them the authority to rule without contest (not only having to rule without contesting the rule but to rule in a way that proclaims what is instead of contests with others to determine how things should be).  It is in this sense that Plato’s dialogue’s is so much more democratic than Andrew Sullivan would have you believe.

Like the monotheist, the philosopher is intolerant, the holder of counter-knowledge, knowledge that defines itself by rejecting what is not knowledge but mere opinion.  There are many ways to read Plato’s Republic to argue that it is all much more complicated than the tension that is set up by Arendt’s reading.  Images that are said to be of no use are put to work to explain the things that are of greatest value, for example.  But nonetheless, this reading portrays the double-bind of the philosopher and the monotheist.  Or I would say, more broadly, the problem of how to establish incompatibility in relation to compatibility, how to insist on inequality within the realm of equals.

The politician and the polytheist welcome the philosopher and the monotheist.  Bring your view, bring your god, even if your view or your god is that yours alone is true and mine is that yours is one among many.  The monotheist and the philosopher must step into that world where their view is one among many in order to make their claim that their god alone and their knowledge alone is true.  In order to show that they alone have access to knowledge they need to speak in the democratic space in which all comers are treated the same.  They have to give up their fundamental commitment in order that they might engage with those who do not accept their fundamental commitment.  Arendt says Plato finds that situation impossible; the Christians seem to as well, if their turn to violence under the Roman Empire, when the “passive or martyrological” violence of Jewish monotheism, which had “as much to do with enduring violence as with perpetuating it,” (20-21) gives way to positive intolerance, is any sign.  Therein lies the rub as Assmann notes:

Time and again, whenever monotheism ceased being a political resistance movement and established itself as the ruling order, its political theology easily shifted from criticism of the state to legitimation of the state.

Not unlike philosophy.


*A note on the gods in Greek philosophy: If revolutionary monotheism is a counter-religion, which defines itself against the false gods, then Plato and Aristotle’s invocation of the gods is not monotheistic.  Plato’s characters’ invocations of the gods are so varied and inconclusive that it seems almost impossible to assign a theology to Plato.  Socrates challenges Euthyphro on the degree to which he can invoke the gods to make determinations about what is right.  Socrates himself is tried for not believing in the gods the city believes in, a charge to which he responds by explaining how he has come to philosophize in response to a charge from a god, a charge which is really no charge at all (I mean Apollo never told him what to do, let’s be honest).  Aristotle explains that there were 47 or 55 prime movers in the Metaphysics.  When Plotinus tries to make sense of the Demiurge in the Timaeus, he does so by making him compatible with Zeus, suggesting if there is any monotheism is it more of the evolutionary strain.


7 Comments Post a comment
  1. This book looks really interesting, Adriel. I particularly appreciate what you’re saying WRT to Plato and Aristotle. This could be an interesting way of thinking about the difference between the Greeks and the Westernized appropriation of the Greeks in modernism and post-modernism. Even when Plato and Aristotle sound like monotheists, it’s in the context of a largely polytheistic conception of the divine. Whereas when philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger (or even Derrida) talk about Greek polytheism they assume a monotheistic framework.

    I exempt Nietzsche and Holderlin from this claim.

    May 19, 2016
  2. ideasmanphd #

    Also, is Xenophanes (and perhaps Heraclitus) an evolutionary or revolutionary monotheist do you think?

    May 19, 2016
  3. Michael Norton #

    I think the contrast between the absolutism of the monotheist position and the relatively tolerant – or, you might say, open or hospitable – polytheist becomes even more clear in Assmann’s claim that “polytheism” only even makes sense as a concept in the context of the monotheistic counterreligious move. Understood on (something closer to) its own terms, “polytheism is cosmotheism.” So the space of politics that you’re talking about here is not only a radically democratic space but also (or maybe this is already implied in the sense of “democracy” that you’re using?) a radically immanent space – which nevertheless doesn’t per se exclude divinity.

    May 19, 2016

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