BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Interview: Edward Butler



[Today, we sit down for a quick interview with noted philosopher, Edward P. Butler, who just released his Essays on Plato. A full list of his publications may be found at Henadology. Here, he discusses his work with Walking the Worlds, and the place of philosophy in ancient and contemporary polytheism and academia, and his forthcoming projects.]


BookMusings: How do you define your personal spiritual path or tradition?


Edward P. Butler: I suppose that I define myself as an eclectic devotional polytheist, worshiping Gods from several pantheons.


BM: You are an associate editor with Walking the Worlds. How did you come to be associated with that project, and why do you consider WtW important to the larger polytheistic community?


EPB: In the wake of the Polytheist Leadership Conference in 2014, there was a strong feeling that something ought to be done to sustain that sense of momentum so many of us felt, that this was the time for polytheism to really assert itself again intellectually and to articulate itself in a way that had not been possible in a very, very long time, not only to reclaim the legacy of the polytheist thinkers of the past, but also for polytheist thought to take its place at the cutting edge of diverse contemporary discourses. Hence the notion of an academic journal broadly dedicated to interdisciplinary polytheist thought, as distinct from, say, Pagan Studies, which is a subdiscipline within Religious Studies. Like the conference, the journal was Galina Krasskova’s brainchild, and she and the journal’s designer, Dver Winter, put a huge effort into getting it out there, for which they should receive a great deal of credit from the polytheist community. As soon as Galina told me about the journal, I said I’d love to be involved.


BM: As a polytheistic philosopher, what would you consider to be the core texts in that school of thought? Which writings would you recommend to those who want to read up on it?


EPB: The core texts of polytheistic philosophy are simply the core texts of philosophy, period, until the late 6th century CE in the West; in India, in China, of course, there is no expiration date. Obviously this doesn’t include explicitly Christian or Muslim philosophers, or recent, explicitly atheistic tendencies. (I’m not certain that there are any genuinely atheistic philosophers in antiquity.) It needs to be recognized that philosophy was invented by polytheists and was nurtured by polytheistic civilizations. Hence there’s no tension between philosophy and polytheism. On the contrary, it is monotheism which has created many problems for philosophy; indeed, I would say that monotheism led philosophy into a crisis from which it has not yet emerged.


That being said, when I am asked this question by polytheists, what they usually have in mind is texts that will be particularly helpful, either in articulating their own religious beliefs and experiences or in countering monotheist arguments. In this respect, I think that the Platonists of late antiquity, such as Proclus, who directly confronted monotheist hegemony from when it first emerged, are especially useful. I think that just from a viewpoint of being able to read something that truly brings home to one that these ancient philosophers really were experiencing the presence of the Gods, one can’t do better than Plato’s Phaedrus, a dazzling display of his (and Socrates’) piety.


BM: Pagan Studies is a relatively new discipline within academia. How widely accepted would you say that it is? How well accepted is polytheism — and polytheistic philosophy, theology, et cetera — in academia?


EPB: Pagan Studies is a branch of Religious Studies, part of the anthropological study of religion, the study of religions as patterns of human behavior. So in terms of religion as a relationship between humans and the Gods, it can only deal with the human side and on a purely historical basis. It has had some difficulties in institutional acceptance, largely because too many of the people working within it are “insiders” relative to the traditions they are writing about, which is problematic in Religious Studies. This highlights the inherent difficulties of studying religion within a paradigm of methodological atheism. Now, Christians have an academic framework within which they can explore their religion as “insiders”, as believers, and inquire into the nature of their God — it’s called Theology. But polytheists are not allowed there. So, methodological atheism on the one hand, methodological monotheism on the other — where does the polytheist have to go?


In terms of polytheism’s acceptance in academia, unfortunately polytheism as a phenomenon either ancient or contemporary is subject to every conceivable variety of prejudice, distortion, repression, and erasure. Indeed, the intellectual environment is so structured by monotheist hegemony that in any given debate, all sides can be regarded as anti-polytheist, albeit each for different reasons or in different ways.


BM: What other projects are you working on?


EPB: I’m planning on doing further work on Damascius, the last scholarch of the Platonic Academy in Athens. He is a very important philosopher, the interpretation of whose thought is still in some ways in its infancy, which makes it exciting. He is also a very important philosopher for polytheists in particular, because he was a genuine polytheist dissident in a time of severe Christian oppression, and this is central to his philosophy.


I also intend to continue to enrich my understanding of Vedānta, both for its intrinsic philosophical importance, but also because Western polytheists need to be the best allies they can for Hinduism in the struggles it faces as the largest surviving indigenous polytheism on Earth. In recent years I have begun, somewhat tentatively, to write on Indian philosophy. We must regard every surviving indigenous polytheism as critically endangered. One of the ways we can help them, in addition to working to dismantle the intellectual tools of monotheist hegemony in the West, is by demanding equal voice for their traditions and thinkers, as well as countering the kinds of distortions of these traditions that are ubiquitous in academia, which is dominated by Westerners and which enforces monotheist privilege at every turn.


I would like to continue to improve my grasp of Chinese philosophy for similar reasons.


And I always try to find the time to keep my hand in Egyptology.


BM: Which book fairs, symposia, conventions, or other events will you be attending in the foreseeable future?


EPB: I don’t think I have anything like that on the table right now. At this point, I usually only attend philosophical or other academic conferences if I am invited by friends, and when that sort of thing happens it is often on fairly short notice!


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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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