Sallust, On the Gods and the World, Chapter 2

That a God is immutable, without Generation, eternal, incorporeal, and has no Subsistence in Place.

And such are the requisites for an auditor of the gods. But the necessary discourses proceed as follows: the essences of the gods are neither generated; for eternal natures are without generation; and those beings are eternal who possess a first power, and are naturally void of passivity. Nor are their essences composed from bodies; for even the powers of bodies are incorporeal: nor are they comprehended in place; for this is the property of bodies: nor are they separated from the first cause, or from each other; in the same manner as intellections are not separated from intellect, nor sciences from the soul.

Sallust, On the Gods and the World, Chapter II

When I was 20, the thing that struck me most about this passage was how it distanced the Gods from mythology and the scattered seeds of pop culture spirituality that were all around me as a young person in Neopaganism — even in the mid/late 00s before our current hypersaturated environment set in, when physical bookstores were still common, we had ethernet instead of wifi in our dorms, Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter were in their infancy, and DADT still kept the military from recruiting on many college campuses.

Photo by Severino Canepa on

Subtracting changeability, generability, transience, corporeality, and place from a God is a very different way of looking at lim than what was presented as standard Wiccan theology at the time. Elsewhere on the blog, I’ve referred to the dissatisfaction of the “all Gods are the God” and “all Goddesses are the Goddess” and “the God and the Goddess are really just Spirit” approaches to theology that were common in Wicca during that early theological period. That a God, to be a God, must be immutable, without Generation, eternal, incorporeal, and unreliant on place is a huge shift from the common conception that Gods are merely localized understandings of some vague “all” or that each of them is dependent on a specific human-defined territory in a universe containing as many living worlds as there are sand grains on a large beach. Sallust, immediately after opening On the Gods and the World, presented an option that was a salve to me as a young woman with a keen interest in astronomy and science: I had to change how I thought about the Gods, and my instinct that something was wrong with what I had been taught was being backed up by this text.

The main paragraph in Chapter II brings up so much good stuff — and there is a hubbub of books one could consult, ranging from Plato to Proclus to Plotinus and Iamblichus and cycling to more recent polytheists engaging with the Platonic corpus. I am not a philosopher, but a woman poet with a blog who wants things to be a bit easier for people now than they were when I was younger, so I apologize if there are things that I have missed. I hope this is still helpful.

One big thing in this passage is that it declares that the nature of the Gods is not built up from the scattered many things in the corporeal world, but comes in “top-down” form. Technically speaking, as people like E.P. Butler, R. Chlup, and others have written when discussing Platonic beliefs about the structure of reality, the Gods are at the level “below” the ineffable One, but before the triad of Being, Life, and Intellect. (Proclus wrote something called the Elements of Theology, a series of propositions; prop. 115 is the one that places Gods above Being, Life, and Intellect.) Platonists identify lattices of triads, as will be evident later on in this journey through Sallust — but before all of that, we have a kind of multiplicity that is neither infinite nor relentlessly compact. E.P. Butler emphasizes things like “nor are they separated from the first cause, or from each other” in his philosophical work when he discusses the radical all-encompassing nature of each God, where each God is everything in a way particular to ler identity at the highest apex of who le is; this is supported in passages from the Late Platonists that discuss a God behaving in a “Zeusian” or “Aresian” or “Heraic” way, just to provide a glossed example. While it is unwise to use a spatial analogy, as the Gods are not comprehended in place, this is similar to how we can judge distances and relative meanings from deciding on a reference point in a coordinate system, or even by deciding which coordinate system to use at all.

Now for mutability.

In Book 10 of Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger, Clinias, and Megillus discuss three types of error about the Gods — beliefs people hold that are atheistic and impious. The majority of the section abstracts from the situations outlined in the remainder of the Laws (which is focused on outlining a city’s laws) before honing back in on the specific context in which these things were brought up (the aforementioned city’s laws about belief). The three of them (primarily the Athenian Stranger with Clinias’ support) discuss overt atheism, the belief that the Gods are impassive and don’t care about anything, and the impious claim that the Gods can be bribed with prayers. I want to discuss the atheism bit because that’s the most relevant thing right now.

Attributing mutability to the Gods is a tricky and insidious thing. It’s something that many of us do when we confuse the ways we discuss a God with the God limself. Hekate hasn’t changed throughout the millennia she has been worshipped; particular instances of her worship have changed, and in fact, there is broad heterogeneity in approaches even to this day. An atheistic approach would declare this Goddess — and any God — a cultural convention built from the material approaches to worshipping her. In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger character says, characterizing this view:

Start with the gods. Their existence, [these people] say, is not a question of nature, but of art, of certain conventions; and these conventions are different in different places, depending on the consensus among a particular group of people at the point where they were making rules for themselves. What is good in nature is one thing, what is good by convention something quite different. As for what is just, it does not exist at all, they say, in nature; people are forever arguing about it and changing the definition of it. And whatever change they make, at the moment when they make it, that is then the definition in force at any particular moment, brought into being by art and convention, and owing nothing to nature.

Laws, 889e-890a, trans. Griffith, ed. Schofield

Here, the Gods are not judged according to their hidden unities, but the exteriors they show — exteriors that are definitely based on how a specific God’s activity unfolds in spacetime and is picked up on by sentient beings, but that are not the Gods themselves. This passage seems to be a swipe at cultural relativism and the way in which it breeds atheism.

However, claiming that it is swiping at cultural relativism &c. isn’t exactly right — just after this, Plato has Clinias refer to the Gods as if how we think about them is a convention: “But if the only way for us to be in harmony with the beings who are currently described as gods in our laws is by saying that this is in actual fact what they are, then surely to goodness, this is the language we must use” (Laws, 891e). The Athenian then goes on to talk about the “real nature of the gods” (891e), seemingly accepting that distinction. Ultimately, both the common notions about perennialism (the idea that there is a single metaphysical truth pointed at by every single religion and thought school) and relativism (the idea that there is no unity at all beyond what we each subjectively construct) are wrong because they are extremes. We are worshipping someone truly real when we worship a God, someone more than the sum of actions we do in our particular cultural context with the set of notions sloshing around our primate brains. There must be a real underlying structure, and its attributes and features have to be based in our firm glimpses at the real natures of these individuals. (The structure itself is not an object of worship, which seems to be what perennialism does.)

Another hot term over the past some years has been pan(en)theism. Pantheism and panentheism are not accurate ways to describe the Gods. Pantheism subsumes the unities of the Gods into one unity, but instead of being ineffable as the One is, the unity becomes about the physical universe, and their individualities are subsumed by it. In Platonic theology, the physical universe is quite posterior to many things, including the summits of the Gods’ unities; the word just doesn’t work. Panentheism does a similar thing, with an emphasis on the –en-, placing the Gods within the cosmos when they do transcend Being, Life, and Intellect. Googling “pantheism” will return some definitions like “worship that admits or tolerates all gods” (Oxford Languages). Both terms emphasize an imaginary rift between the intelligible world and the visible cosmos in non-pan(en)theism. However, the physical world around us is continuous with divine realities. There may be a membrane, and there may be a way in which that does represent a reflection of what lies above, as Being-Life-Intellect-Soul-Nature-Matter can be read Being-Life-Intellect||Soul-Nature-Matter (like folding a sheet in half! or looking in a mirror! io evohé!), but divine Providence flows to posterior things unceasingly and in a way that connects and fills every posterior “level” with divine wholeness. Note again that the Gods are prior to Being, so the foldable six-level structure doesn’t even happen until after them.

“You’ve written pretty words and I still don’t know what a God is from either you or that dead guy,” someone might say just about now. Something the Syrian Platonist Iamblichus wrote is helpful here. Long before I read De Mysteriis, I had read about a paragraph of it from I.3 where Iamblichus is chiding Porphyry on failing to have a proper mental conception of the Gods. He writes, “You say first, then, that you ‘concede the existence of the gods’: but that is not the right way to put it. For an innate knowledge about the gods is coexistent with our nature, and is superior to all judgment and choice, reasoning and proof. This knowledge is united from the outset with its own cause, and exists in tandem with the essential striving of the soul towards the Good” (trans. Clarke et al.). What is important here is the emphasis on experience and on ineffability, an inner steadiness.

If you contemplate a God, such as after prayer and sacrifice, the act of contemplation will take the mind from the God’s context in your life — based on myth and symbol and so on — into stillness and light, but a stillness and light set by that individual God. Obviously, such a thing doesn’t happen all of the time when doing a deity-centered meditation, and one does need to cultivate focus and self-discipline to do it. Some things that are crucial for other meditations — visualization skills, for example, which is something my mom’s Wiccan group is overfond of because all of that group’s meditations involve walking through a seasonally-themed landscape and encountering a deity or ancestor with some kind of message — are not the aim here. Plotinus describes the method as one leaving the divine statues of the Gods for the still inner sanctum. It can also be described as departing from Other People’s Data to do your own data collection, dropping the preconceptions and images and associations to unfold what comes up naturally for you.

One of the places where someone can become frustrated is if le is imagining some harrowing, world-changing experience that will submit to the kind of knowledge inquiries that we can make in rigorous scientific debate. People follow teachers around for their entire lives just desperate for divine contact, as if the teacher can do any more than guide — le can’t have the experience for the seeker. A person can grow hollow with desire, wasting away in that Taratrean, tantalizing state. Iamblichus also says at I.3, 

[T]o tell the truth, the contact we have with the divinity is not to be taken as knowledge. Knowledge, after all, is separated (from its object) by some degree of otherness. But prior to that knowledge, which knows another as being itself other, there is the unitary connection with the gods that is natural <and indivisible>. We should not accept, then, that this is something that we can either grant or not grant, nor admit to it as ambiguous (for it remains always uniformly in actuality), nor should we examine the question as though we were in a position either to assent to it or to reject it; for it is rather the case that we are enveloped by the divine presence, and we are filled with it, and we possess our very essence by virtue of our knowledge that there are gods. […] You, however, seem to think that knowledge of divinity is of the same nature as a knowledge of anything else, and that it is by the balancing of contrary propositions that a conclusion is reached, as in dialectical discussions.

Iamblichus, De Mysteriis I.3, trans. Clarke et al.

Some people (like a few in modern yoga philosophy with some big Instagram accounts) blame Platonism for dualistic tendencies (mind/body divides, fleeing forever from the world, and so on) in society rather than attributing that to errors in understanding actual Platonism or the process of learning about the Gods — admittedly, the pile of Platonic texts is dense even though many more were extinguished by Christians, so it’s probably intimidating side reading when one is already committed to another system. That tangent aside, Iamblichus describes a nondual experience of a God, a contact that one becomes aware of and that is not characterized by otherness. Proclus will go on in the Elements of Theology some generations later to systematize a few propositions related to what Iamblichus presents in his teachings. I bolded some things (the <> were additions from the translators) that I think are useful for managing expectations for what divine contact is like. Yes, it can be flashy, but everything is a prayer to a God, and we are always enveloped by the divine presence. I have been having a rough time with PMS-induced intense sadness over the past few days, for example, but reached a point of clarity with some of what was bothering me while doing dishes that made me stop and be more compassionate about how much I hate everything right now and how alone I feel. That flash of clarity is a divine gift, unifying and purifying, and I didn’t even need a fireworks-like divine visitation or the appearance of Artemis’ face on toast to receive the Gods’ attention and care.

Back to Sallust himself.

Nor are their essences composed from bodies; for even the powers of bodies are incorporeal”: Other errors may also come about from identifying the Gods with specific bodies and places instead of recognizing that the God makes use of those specific signs and symbols, and how they make use of these and why are definitely culturally-driven. This includes thinking that the Gods are the planets exactly and not that the planets are agalmata of the Gods in their own right, just as ours is; perhaps each planet has a primary deity, at least to us. If there were another habitable world in our solar system, it would be cool comparative religion to see how its people described the planets, both the differences and the similarities, and which Gods rule the planets as seen from their orbital frame of reference.

“[N]or are they separated from the first cause, or from each other” refers back to some concepts in Platonic theology, specifically the all-in-each things that are discussed by Late Platonists and developed in writings by modern philosophers like E.P. Butler. It’s mind-bending to contemplate seriously, especially when coming into that stillness technique I described earlier, because there is a lot that cannot be said. The propositions about Gods in the Elements of Theology get at some of this. I’ve mentioned on this blog before the concept that our entire visible universe, with galaxies uncountable, was once the size of a grapefruit; it didn’t expand into anything, but is itself the expansion. We can think of the lack of separation of the Gods in a similar way if we superimpose a bunch of those and all have them inhabit the same space, our attention shifting from one to the other just as we shift attention to one God to another in ritual. This analogy commits the errors of space, time, and citrus-squeezing, but it does strike the mind that tries to visualize it with a beautiful sense of silence and ineffability.

I’m stopping now because I don’t want to say everything about Chapter II and be bereft of words later. This post went all over the place, but I hope it was useful for unpacking at least some of this. Have a good week, everyone!


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