Thursday, June 13, 2013


Reading Eric Voegelin is often a restorative, healing experience -- as he restores the context of history and reason for concepts glibly bandied about in our time.

One such concept is anthropomorphization, a term which has become laden with atheist deformation and the concurrent agenda to reduce the ancient, classic, and medieval experiences and symbolization of divinity to essentially psychological phenomena (and/or neurological "epiphenomena").

Let us now sit back and absorb some healing.  From Eric Voegelin's second volume of his 4-volume work, Order and History, titled The World of the Polis (dealing with the pre-Socratic history of philosophy, taken from the website VoegelinView), an excerpt of his excursion into the thought of one particular pre-Socratic thinker, Xenophanes:

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The conscious differentiation of the new theology from the myth begins with the Xenophanic epiprepei. Before we can examine the seemly and unseemly features themselves, however, we must re­move a further problem that from Xenophanes onward has agitated the philosophy of symbolic forms.

Xenophanes does not simply berate the poets because they at­tribute disgraceful actions to the gods, but also develops a theory concerning the motives of such unseemly attributions, as well as a theory concerning the fallacy involved in them.

The gods, he opines, are endowed with improper attributes because man cre­ates gods in his image. This is the fallacy that modern sociolo­gists call “anthropomorphism." According to Comte the history of human thought moves from anthropomorphic theology, through metaphysics, to positive science.

Xenophanes must be credited with the formulation of the theory that the myth is an anthro­pomorphic representation of divinity, to be superseded with the advance of insight by more appropriate symbols. Since the theory has had far-reaching consequences, we must briefly examine the nature of the problem.

The characterization [by Xenophanes] of mythical symbolization as anthropomor­phic is a theoretical mistake. In the first place, the theory would require certain elementary emendations in order to be debatable at all.

Obviously, in the Greek myth the gods never were really rep­resented as human beings. The gods were distinguished from men through their immortality; they were physiologically distinguished through their living on a special diet; and they were endowed with a variety of nonhuman qualities such as superior knowledge and strength, the ability to be invisible and to change their form; and so forth.

To speak of anthropomorphic representation of gods without such qualifications is as inapposite as to find angels in a Renais­sance painting represented “realistically," overlooking the minor point that the representation of human-shaped creatures floating on clouds is in itself unrealistic.

As soon, however, as such emenda­tions are made, and the meaning of anthropomorphism is properly restricted to the representation of gods as beings who on occasion assume human shape, and talk and act like men, we become aware of the fundamental theoretical problem that such partial transfer of human qualities (which does not affect the essential divinity of the gods) may have something to do with the idea that man has of himself.

Is it not probable, we may ask, that human qualities are transferred to gods only as long as the spheres of the divine and human are not quite clearly set off against each other?

That "anthropomorphism" is possible only as long as the idea of man is not too clearly differentiated?

That "anthropomorphism" occurs only when it cannot occur at all because an idea of man that could be transferred to the gods has not yet developed?

And that it tends to disappear precisely when a transferable idea of man has been formed at last?

As a matter of historical fact the problem of anthropomorphism becomes visible, as in the case of Xenophanes, when the psyche and its self-consciousness begins to emerge. That is the occasion on which thinkers discover that something is wrong with the rep­resentation of gods, even if they do not know precisely what is "unseemly."

To be sure, part of the unseemliness is found in the attribution of human shape, voice, and dress to the gods; but to a much more important part, it is found in the attribution of conduct that is considered a "disgrace and reproach" among men. A new, differentiated sensitiveness of man recognizes as improper among gods what is improper among men.

With the discovery of the psyche and its order as the specifically human characteristic, the gods must live up to the new standards of man. This is the problem even of Hesiod, although in his work it does not yet break through to the level of critical discussion. The story of the Theogony is, after all, the story of the elimination of the "unseemly" gods through the Titanomachia, and of the advent of the more seemly order of Zeus and his Dike.

Xenophanes, through his very attack on Hesiod, continues the purifying operation on the myth that was begun by the earlier poet. Hence we may say that anthropomor­phic representation of gods is experienced as embarrassing when the gods do not act as a more differentiated, sensitive man would act.

Anthropomorphism appears in retrospect as a symbolization of gods that corresponds to a past phase in the self-understanding of man. The problem does not arise within any given phase of self-understanding, because in every present the symbolization of gods is in harmony with the degree of differentiation that man has reached.

Xenophanes for instance, while criticizing Hesiod for his anthropomorphism, is not at all troubled by his own symbolization of god as a being that hears, sees, and thinks, and always abides in the same place. Behind the term anthropomorphism, which has become a scientistic cliché, hides both the process in which the idea of man differentiates and, correlatively with it, the symbolization of transcendence.

Obviously, this process has a limit. It reaches its climax when the differentiation of man has advanced to the point where the nucleus of the spiritual soul, the anima animi in the Augustinian sense, is discovered. At this ineffable point of openness toward transcendent reality, at this heart of the soul where the infusion of grace is experienced, the divinity becomes ineffable, too.

The god of the mystic is nameless, beyond dogmatic symbolization. At this climax of the process the problem of anthropomorphism dissolves into the new problem of the nomina Dei as analogical predicates of the ineffable ens perfectissimum. Insofar as this problem has through Saint Thomas received the technical name of analogia entis, the Xenophanic criticism of the myth, as well as the postulate of seemliness, is the first conscious, though still primitive, attempt at dealing with the analogy of being.

[The "analogy of being" (Latin, analogia entis) refers to the theological concept Thomas Aquinas analyzed, by which the being of God is, for the human understander, derived meditatively (albeit imperfectly) through the being of creation -- even as Aquinas was perceptive enough to leave open the mystical complication of this in the logic of transcendence by which God is not only the Highest Being, but also must be beyond all being -- this perhaps first adumbrated by the Syrian Christian philosopher known as Pseudo-Dionysius (fl., circa 1000 A.D.); though prefigured in Plato's symbolism hyperousia.]

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