- A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism Page duBois
Page duBois, Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, presents her readers with a most unusual book. The title is deliberate: though duBois has many good things to say about polytheisms old and new, she does not precisely offer a defence of polytheism as a religious system. What she provides instead is a study of the ‘‘persistence’’ of both polytheism itself and a cultured ‘‘disdain and condescension toward it’’ by those who think themselves—perhaps wrongly—rational, cultured monotheists (2). It is not the truth of polytheism that attracts her, it seems, but its affinity for the contemporary, globalized world and its [End Page 298] plucky, chaotic endurance in the face of a better-funded, hegemonic, and unrelenting ideological adversary.
The argument proceeds in four movements. In chapter 1, duBois traces the etymological and historical currents that conspire to swallow Western thinkers from Kant and Hegel to the Yahoo Answers! commentator Juvegirl in ‘‘an untheorized, unrealized horizon of monotheism’’ (40). This sets the scene for the alternative history that follows, beginning in chapter 2 with the quite literal polytheism of ancient Greece and Rome and continuing in chapter 3 with an exposé of the continuing idiom of polytheism in the purportedly monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Manichaeism. In chapter 4, her attention turns to politics, tracing the affinities of monotheism with monarchy, and polytheism with authentic democracy, resistance movements, and what she terms a ‘‘politics of cohabitation’’ (161). Polytheism, she concludes, ‘‘may be more consonant with contemporary life, its mixed populations, its recognition of psychic complexity and interdependence, than a rigorous Protestant monotheism, than a traditional fencing off of public and private spheres’’ (166).
This last phrase alerts the reader to the fact, evident throughout the book, that ‘‘monotheism’’ and ‘‘polytheism’’ do not in the first instance describe religious frameworks, but rather discursive and imaginative styles. The modern and contemporary separation of church and state is, . . . well . . . monotheist (8–9). Individualism is monotheist (39–40). Scientific rationalism is monotheist (81, 153). Each of these hegemonic discourses sets itself against a marked, constructed Other characterized as chaotic, superstitious, degraded, and either explicitly or implicitly polytheist. Throughout the book, duBois contends that the actual polytheistic traditions that persist from ancient Greece and Rome to the present should be brought into the full light of day, freed from the stigmas with which they have been so frequently marked. ‘‘Although I don’t advocate return to the worship of the ancient gods,’’ she writes, ‘‘we might think more about the ways in which our residence in a predominantly and dominant monotheist cultural setting . . . has had its effects on obscuring the nature of ancient societies’’ (85).
In places, duBois is successful in this goal. Her chapter on ancient Greece and Rome is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest in the book, rich in detail, texture, and affection. Her account of Sappho, including a critical analysis of her own earlier interpretation of the great poet, well illustrates the distorting effect of the monotheistic paradigm. In other places, however, she tends to reify the very binary she rails against. Among the proliferation of gods in ancient Greece, she admits, some schools pressed toward a more unified or monistic cosmology. So too in the Upaniṣads of ancient India. As a model of the ‘‘politics of cohabitation’’ in South Asia, duBois highlights the famous rock edict of the ancient Buddhist emperor Aśoka; unmentioned is the similarly capacious politics of the early modern emperor Akbar, a monotheist. Examples like these suggest that duBois’s ideal types of ‘‘monotheism’’ and ‘‘polytheism’’ are precisely that, standing in for persistent tendencies toward unity and plurality in human conceptions of the divine(s), of society, and of the human person herself.
Polytheist readers will rejoice in this work and no doubt recognize the prejudice that duBois exposes across its pages. Monotheist readers will receive an invitation to reconsider the plurality...