Pagan Monotheism & Late Antiquity. A Critical Response


  1. Introduction
  2. Establishing terms
  3. Introducing pagan monotheism

1 Introduction

The human mind is a strange creature, even to itself. I do not think I could explain exactly why the concept of ‘pagan monotheism’ takes up so much space in mine. The fact is simply that it does, and strange as it is to say, it has played a larger role in shaping my life over the last decade or so than anything but a handful of other things – and in many ways for the worse. I suspect that many scholars, whether ‘amateurs’ or ensconced in the academy, have similarly intense and troubled relationships to some obscure concept, and either learn to hide it or become shameless. Well, I cannot hide it, so I suppose I must abandon shame, and admit at the outset that I do not write this with calm neutrality, but compelled by an unhealthy obsession. I am haunted by a phantom concept.

What I mean by this – to state my thesis very briefly – is that ‘pagan monotheism’ does not designate anything real. When academics use the word, they are not referring to a circumscribed body of texts, a specific set of doctrines, or a workable definition, let alone using a coherent theoretical framework. ‘Pagan monotheism’ is a placeholder, which neither explains anything, nor is given a proper explanation itself, but serves only as a connector between a premise and a conclusion. In other words, its purpose is to bypass the hard work of philological research, and to flatter modern preconceptions. The resulting scholarship’s disingenuousness – almost entirely unconscious, I am sure – disturbs me profoundly.

On this page, I intend to justify this criticism by way of a response to the most sober and reasonable presentation of the consensus view that I have encountered, namely episode 145 of Earl Fontainelle’s excellent Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast (SHWEP), entitled “Thinking through Monotheism, Henotheism, Polytheism, and Dualism in Late Antiquity” (off-site link). I expect this to be the “cleanest” possible way of making my case, because while I consider the arguments in favor of ‘pagan monotheism’ to be superficial, circular and disingenuous, I do not attribute any of these qualities to Fontainelle. On the contrary, I think he has articulated the arguments as straightforwardly and honestly as is possible.

2 Establishing terms

But before I actually address SHWEP #145, let me say a few things about the terms at issue: ‘monotheism’, ‘henotheism’, ‘polytheism’ – also ‘paganism’, unmentioned in the title –, ‘dualism’, and quite crucially, ‘late antiquity’.

While the ‘-ism’ words appear more or less of a piece at face value, it is important to note that ‘-ism’ only began to acquire its modern range of meanings from the Renaissance onwards. It is most closely prefigured in the ancient distinction between (Latin) chrīstiānismus, iūdaismus and pāgānismus, i.e., ‘Christianity’, ‘Judaism’ and ‘Paganism’. The latter was derived from pāgānus, which according to one theory (advanced in Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome) was coined in late antiquity as a polite alternative to more pejorative terms for non-Jewish non-Christians, such as ‘gentile’.

While ‘polytheism’ is also an ancient word in a sense, it was not formed with ‘-ism’, but rather as polytheḯa, and it was an overtly negative term, formed on the pattern of atheḯa (‘godlessness, atheism’), and used only by Jewish and Christian authors. Translating it as something like ‘many-goddery’ may come closer to the tone intended in antiquity.

The positive counter-term monotheḯa only emerged late in Christian usage and was used more rarely (before Early Modern times), although of course the concept that it referred to, the belief and worship of ‘only one god’ or ‘God alone’ (mónos theós), was omnipresent in Christianity from the beginning. Otherwise, Christians would not have used polytheḯa as a negative term to begin with, of course.

The third ‘-theism’, ‘henotheism’, by contrast, was not coined in antiquity to designate something that anyone actively championed or opposed, but as recently as the 19th century, by Protestant Christians who wanted to draw an analytical distinction between polytheism and religious phenomena which they regarded as being closer to, albeit not entirely the same as, monotheism. In consequence, its precise meaning has always been malleable.

‘Dualism’ has a different genealogy again. The Orientalist Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron is often credited with originating it in 1755, but in fact only coined it as a Latin calque translation for the Arabic thanawiyyah (ثنوية). It dates back a millennium further, to debates between Muslims, Jews and Christians, as followers of tawḥīd (توحيد, ‘monism’ or ‘monotheism’), and the Zoroastrians, Manichaeans and other groups who believed there were two (or more!) first principles.

In short, the ‘-isms’ come from three distinct contexts: ‘paganism’, ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ from the polemics between monotheists (Judaism and Christianity) and their rivals in the Roman empire; ‘dualism’ from later polemics between monotheists (principally Muslims) and their rivals in the caliphate; and ‘henotheism’ from the scholarship of monotheists (in this case Protestants) in the 19th-century European university system. Thus, all five are monotheistic coinages, but the first four terms originally referred to concrete social groups as well as their intellectual positions, while ‘henotheism’ names only an idea.

Finally, ‘late antiquity’. Self-evidently, this is not an ancient term, nor does it reflect a periodization used in antiquity. In current historiography, it notionally refers to the 4th–6th or 4th–8th centuries CE, but actual usage can diverge drastically from this, because it often morphs into an undifferentiated timescape of everything an author considers ‘late’. But we will address in more detail below.

3 Introducing pagan monotheism

Fowden, etc. (cf. Monism page)
(mention the derivation from Zeller?)