1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Pantheism

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PANTHEISM (Gr. πᾶν, all, θεὀς, god), the doctrine which identifies the universe with God, or God with the universe.[1] The term “pantheist” was apparently first used by John Toland in 1705, and it was at once adopted by French and English writers. Though the term is thus of recent origin, the system of thought or attitude of mind for which it stands may be traced back both in European and in Eastern philosophy to a very early stage. At the same time pantheism almost necessarily presupposes a more concrete and less sophisticated conception of God and the universe. It presents itself historically as an intellectual revolt against the difficulties involved in the presupposition of theistic and polytheistic systems, and in philosophy as an attempt to solve the dualism of the one and the many, unity and difference, thought and extension. Thus the pious Hindu, confronted by the impossibility of obtaining perfect knowledge by the senses or by reason, finds his sole perfection in the contemplation of the infinite (Brahma). In Greece the idea of a fundamental unity behind the plurality of phenomena was present, though vaguely, in the minds of the early physicists (see Ionian School), but the first thinker who focussed the problem clearly was Xenophanes. Unlike the Hindu, Xenophanes inclined to pantheism as a protest against the anthropomorphic polytheism of the time, which seemed to him improperly to exalt one of the many modes of finite existence into the place of the Infinite. Thus Xenophanes for the first time postulates a supreme God whose characteristic is primarily the negation of the Finite. A similar metaphysic from a different starting-point is found in Heraclitus, who postulates behind the perpetually changing universe of phenomena a One which remains. This attitude towards existence, expressing itself in different phraseology, has been prominent to a greater or less degree since Xenophanes and Heraclitus. Thus the metaphysic of Plato finds reality only in the "Idea," of which all phenomena are merely imperfect copies. Neoplatonism (and especially Plotinus) adopted a similar attitude. The Stoics, with the supreme object of giving to human life a definite unity and purpose, made the individual a part of the universe and sought to obliterate all differences. The universe to them is a manifestation of divine reason, while all things come from and return to (the ὁδὸς ἅνω κάτω) the πνεῦμα διάπυρον, the ultimate matter. The same problems in a different context confronted the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. We find Philo Judaeus endeavouring to free the concept of the Old Testament Yahweh from anthropomorphic characteristics and finite determinations. But though Philo sees the difficulties of the orthodox Judaism he cannot accept pantheism or mysticism so far as to give up the personality of God (see Logos).

With Neoplatonism we enter upon a somewhat different though closely allied attitude of mind. To Plotinus God lies beyond sense and imagination: all the theologian can do is to point the way in which the thinker must travel. Though the spirit and the language of Plotinus is closely allied to that of pantheism, the result of his thinking is not pantheism but mysticism. This may be briefly illustrated by a comparison with the greatest of modern pantheists, Spinoza. To him God is the immanent principle of the universe—"Deus sive Natura." On the principle that everything which is determined (finite) is "negated" (determinatio est negatio), God, the ultimate reality must be entirely undetermined. To explain the universe Spinoza proceeds to argue that God, though undetermined ab extra, is capable of infinite self-determination. Thus God, the causa sui, manifests himself in an infinite multiplicity of particular modes. Spinoza is, therefore, both pantheist and pancosmist: God exists only as realized in the cosmos: the cosmos exists only as a manifestation of God. Plotinus, on the other hand, cannot admit any realization or manifestation of the Infinite: God is necessarily above the world—he has no attributes, and is unthinkable. Such a view is not pantheism but mysticism (q.v.), and should be compared with the theology of Oriental races.

The semi-Oriental mysticism of the Neoplatonists and the Logos doctrines of the Stoics alike influence early Christian doctrine, and the pantheistic view is found frequently in medieval theology (e.g. in Erigena, Meister Eckhardt, Jakob Boehme). The Arabic scholar Averroes gave Aristotle to western Europe in a pantheistic garb, and thus influenced medieval scientists. So Bruno constructed a personified nature, and the scientific and humanistic era began. The pantheism of Spinoza, combining as it did the religious and the scientific points of view, had a wide influence upon thought and culture. Schelling (in his Identity-philosophy) and Hegel both carried on the pantheistic tradition, which after Hegel broke up into two lines of thought, the one pantheistic the other atheistic.

From the religious point of view there are two main problems. The first is to establish any real relation between the individual and God without destroying personality and with it the whole idea of human responsibility and free will: the second is to explain the infinity of God without destroying his personality. In what sense can God be outside the world see Deism): in what sense in it (pantheism)? The great objection to pantheism is that, though ostensibly it magnifies the Creator and gets rid of the difficult dualism of Creator and Creation, it tends practically to deny his existence in any practical intelligible sense.

See, further. Theism; Deism; Atheism; Absolute.

  1. Strictly, pantheism is to identify the universe with God, while the term “pancosmism” (πᾶν, κὀσμος, the universe) has frequently been used for the identification of God with the universe. For practical purposes this refinement is of small value, the two ideas being aspects of the same thing; cf. A. M. Fairbairn, Studies in Philos. Relig. Hist. (1877), p. 392. Both “Atheism” (q.v.) and “Acosmism” are used, as contradictories.