Plato as Dipolar Theist

by Leonard I. Eslick

Leonard I. Eslick teaches at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.243-251, Vol. 12, Number 4, Winter, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Plato was in possession of two theisms, one of absolute fixity, the other of absolute mobility. The author proposes the possibility that the two Platonic theisms coalesce as complementary into One. Thus Plato can be understood as at least a prophetic quasi-dipolar theist although this is probably not possible until the process thinking of current times.

Any power of doing or suffering in a degree however slight was held by us to be a sufficient definition of being.

And, O heavens, can we ever be made to believe that motion and life and soul and mind are not present with perfect being? Can we imagine that being is devoid of life and mind, and exists in awful unmeaningness an everlasting fixture?

-- Plato, Sophist (247d-c, 248e-249)

In the Greek dawn of western civilization, the word ‘theos’ (god) had two primary meanings, surprising for modern men for whom the word is so heavily freighted with sophisticated meanings of utter transcendence acquired through centuries of Hebrew-Christian tradition. The earliest is found in Homer. There it is a synonym for ‘immortal’. The contrast between men and gods is simply that between mortals and immortals. The shades of the dead in Hades are impotent and mindless, capable of intelligent communication only after drinking sacrificial blood (as when summoned by Odysseus). The second primary meaning is found in the one surviving writing of the first of all western philosophers, Thales of Miletus. He tells us darkly that "all things are full of gods." The darkness is quickly dispelled when we remember that Thales, like all philosophers prior to Parmenides, was a hylozoist, the philosophical analogue to supposedly primitive religious animism. Thales means simply that all things are alive. To be alive is to be self moving, to have soul. It is a sign of Plato’s essential continuity with his Greek predecessors that his own definitive and most sophisticated meaning for soul is ‘self moving mover’, and that when he comes, in the tenth book of the Laws, to construct the first formal proof for the existence of God in the history of western thought, a version of the cosmological argument, he will seek to establish the existence of soul as self moving mover. In Plato the two primary Greek meanings for ‘theos’, immortal and soul, coalesce, as they had earlier in the Pythagorean religious tradition, rooted in the Orphic mystery cults as distinguished from the popular Greek religion of the Olympic gods.

Another essential facet in the historical background for Platonic theism is the definitive fixing of the meaning for being by Parmenides of Elea. In sharp opposition to the things which become, ‘being’ connotes only the eternal, immutable, and self-same. Such stable unchanging self identity is an indispensable condition for the objects of knowledge, episteme, in the strict sense, as distinguished from the contingent, evanescent objects of opinion, doxa, the things which are ever becoming and never really are, to use the language of Plato’s Timaeus (Tim. 28). It is this demand which gives rise in Plato to the definitive chorismos or separation of the Forms from the mutable world of becoming. It provided also the starting point for the long theological tradition of classical monopolar theism in the West, which held that divine perfection was exclusively the perfection of eternal and immutable being. The extent to which Plato is committed to such an absolute schism between being and becoming, with no intermediate level of existence, would seem to dictate for him a similar exclusion from divinity of all shadow of change.

And, indeed, in early Platonic theism, culminating in the second book of the Republic, we find precisely this unqualified insistence upon the divine immutability. There is, to be sure, no textual foundation for the popular identification of Plato’s divinity with the admittedly transcendent Good, nor even with the world of Forms, either as a whole or part. P. E. Moore is surely correct in denying that Plato intended any such identification (RP 120). Plato was never a neoPlatonist. The Platonic locus for divinity is, even in his earlier period, soul, psyche, and nous, the supreme and essential principle of soul. To assert the divine immutability is to assert the immutability of soul, at least as soul is collected into itself and not dispersed and confused by its transitory and traumatic union with the body.

But first what argument does Plato present in Republic II for divine immutability? It is simply that any change in a perfect being must be for the worse, towards imperfection (Rep. 381). The perfection of divinity cannot admit being subject to any external influence, or even change from within. "Then it is impossible that God should ever be willing to change: being, as is supposed, the fairest and best that is conceivable, every God remains absolutely and forever in his own form" (Rep. 381).

Such a divine being is not the cause of all things, but only of the good. The causes of evils are to be sought elsewhere.

The argument for the soul’s essential immobility is found in the Phaedo. It is the soul’s kinship with the eternal and unchanging Forms, the objects of its knowledge, that is advanced as one of the preliminary arguments in that dialogue for immortality, In the use of bodily senses the soul touches change, so that the "world spins around her," but when she returns into herself she enters into the other world, "the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred. . ."

It is concluded that the soul is in "the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable" (Phaedo 78-80).

The same notion of divine perfection as excluding all change is functioning in the famous passage in the Symposium in which Socrates, taught by the wise woman of Mantineia, denies the divinity of Eros. Love is born of Poverty and Plenty, and involves therefore want and motion, and not the fullness of divine perfection (Sym. 202c-203c). Love is, to be sure, a great daimon, an intermediate spirit, but not a god.

It comes, therefore, as a shock to the reader of the Phaedrus, on many grounds a later dialogue than the Republic, Phaedo, and Symposium,1 to find Socrates reasserting the divinity of Eros, recanting as impious, the speech he had just made in praise of the nonlover. This is a clear and dramatic indication of a fundamental shift in Platonic theology, the reasons for which we must next examine.

One important key to this shift is found in the Phaedrus itself. It is a passage in which Plato announces his discovery of a new, dynamic, meaning for perfection. Instead of basing the soul’s immortality on its presumed immutability, as in the Phaedo, it is founded instead on its essential mobility, not the physical motion of bodies, imparted always from without, buit the self motion of spirit, The later Aristotelian tradition will inherit from Plato the distinction of two kinds of action, transient and immanent. The former is physical and involves always an agent acting upon a patient distinct from itself. Such agents are moved movers, and their motions are, in Aristotle’s language, actuations of the potential as potential. They constitute imperfect actions, intermediate between the completed actuality of formal attainment and bare potentiality. Immanent activity, however, is self perfecting, a perfect action remaining within the agent and not passing outside it. It is not a potency-act transition, but an act to act. It is precisely the activity of life, of soul. It is this self motion which grounds for Plato the soul’s immortality and hence its share in divinity. As Plato puts it in the Phaedrus:

The soul through all her being is immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal; but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, never leaving itself, never ceases to move, and is the foundation and beginning of motion to all that moves besides. (Ph. 245)

Plato goes on to say that the soul as the beginning of all motion, is itself unbegotten. This is a remark to keep in mind when we come later to the Timaeus, Plato’s creation myth. In that context, the world soul is described as the begotten product of the eternal Demiurge, but that context is mythical. A Platonic myth is a way of saying something that cannot be said -- that is, said literally, since we are dealing either with first or last (eschatological) things, and talking about that which is out of time as if it were in time.

Plato’s discovery of a mode of perfection which is dynamic, the perfection of life itself, rather than the static perfection of the eternal immutable Forms, is for him epochal and theologically liberating. It antedates by many centuries Bergson’s similar intuition into vital duration. It provided Aristotle, in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, with a means of talking about the life of God, in terms of the perfect Immanence of self-thinking thought. But Aristotle’s God lives with a life that is completely self-enclosed, having lost its Platonic character of immanence in the world as the soul of the world. The God of Book VIII of the Physics, written earlier, had been essentially Platonic and could function with the primary efficient causality of soul as self-moving mover.

I do not intend to conduct an exegesis of the Timaeus in any detail, even though it and Book X of the Laws constitute Plato’s most extended theological reflections. Its essentially mythical character I have already noted. Even though Aristotle for his own purposes often writes as though the Timaeus were to be taken literally, the evidence is that most of Plato’s colleagues in the Academy did not. That there was a state of primordial visible chaos "before" the world, for example, can only be a mythic symbol for a surd of relative disorder and presupposed material necessities which any cosmic state must exhibit. The Demiurge is clearly identified by Plato with divine mind, the reason which creates by persuading necessity. Mythically world soul, whose essence is self-motion, is depicted as posterior to the Demiurge, who eternally and without change contemplates the Archetypal Model, the eternal Forms. As I have previously mentioned, the world soul is talked about in this creation myth as "begotten" by the unbegotten Demiurge, but in the less mythical contexts of the Phaedrus (245) and Laws (893). Plato strongly emphasizes that soul as beginning is unbegotten and that soul is the "eldest of all things." Further, minds are said by Plato to reside in souls. Indeed, I think for Plato Aristotle’s "self thinking thought," which is not the mind of any soul animating or capable of animating a body, would be an example of what Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. To be sure, mind in soul has a certain metaphysical priority, since without it soul’s self-motion would not be possible. The "parentage" of Eros must include not only poverty (lack) but plenty (possession), and soul without at least vestigial mind (what Whitehead would call the mental pole of an actual entity) could not move itself in the self motions of life. Learning, as remembering, is precisely such a self motion. The soul can dialectically ascend to the Good only in the light of the Good, and the rational motions of discourse depend upon an intellectual intuition which rests in its object.

The Laws makes it quite clear that Plato, in his final period, is talking about divinity in terms of the founding self motion of soul -- the highest and best of souls, author or authors only of good and not of evil. The existence of evil demands soul or souls other than divine (Laws 894). Nevertheless, divine soul or souls exercise a providential universal causality, not only in great things but in small as well, ordering everything for the good of the whole, as far as may be (Laws 894-904). All of this is in sharp contrast to the God (or rather Gods of Aristotle’s Metaphysics XII -- probably 47 or 55 in number). They neither know nor care about the moving world below them.

It is of the utmost significance that the self motions of psychic life include both action and passions. The latter are vital responses to the actions and decisions of other souls. Examples of such self motions given by Plato include will, consideration, attention, deliberation, opinion true and false, joy and sorrow, confidence, fear, hatred, love "and other primary motions akin to these" (Laws 894). Plato is clearly not a classical monopolar theist such as Anselm, who will declare that compassion is not to be literally attributed to Cod (PMC 13f.). The soul also receives the "secondary motions of corporeal substances" (Laws 894) in sensations, though Plato doubtless has in mind an active theory of sense perception, such as we find in the Theactetus (184b-c).

We are now led to the ultimate question about Platonic theism. The problem is that the texts present us not with just one theism, but two, that of the middle dialogues, Republic, Phaedo, and Symposium, in which God is subsumed under what Hartshorne calls the category of absolute fixity, and that of the later dialogues, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and Laws. In the latter, divinity fills under what Hartshorne calls the category of absolute mobility (PSG 44). That there is a development in Plato’s thought seems obvious. It is no longer possible to propose the unity of Plato’s thought as one of my old teachers, Paul Shorey, once did, in the sense that there is no significant development beyond the doctrines of the Republic. But is the development from the God of the category of absolute fixity to the God of absolute mobility a simple contradiction? Might there not be an interpretation -- a reasonable interpretation -- in terms of which the two Platonic theisms coalesce as complementary into one? I think such a perspective was not possible until this century (except for obscure and clouded earlier anticipations) in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. This will be the effort to understand Plato as a so-called dipolar theist, or, at the least, as a prophetic quasi-dipolar theist. It should not strike us as ridiculously anachronistic to make such an attempt, even though it is notoriously dangerous to approach an ancient thinker with modern categories. It has been well said of Plato that there is no road one can walk upon in philosophy without meeting Plato coming back.

Earlier in this century Morris Cohen formulated what he called the "Law of Polarity," that ultimate contraries are mutually interdependent correlatives. According to this law, anything real, including God, must, in different respects, be both actual and potential, being and becoming, agent and patient, and all related contraries. Monopolar theisms have always held that divine perfection consisted in pure actuality, being without becoming, cause without being an effect. The God of Aristotle’s Metaphysics XII exhibits such monopolarity -- the pure actuality of a being without any dependent relatedness to anything else. Similarly, the God of St. Thomas Aquinas cannot be really related to his creatures. Something can be really related to another only if that other makes a difference to its very being. The divinity of monopolar theism is quite literally indifferent to his creatures. He is eternally and immutably the same whether they exist or not and is unaffected by their behavior if they do exist. Such a God model is difficult to reconcile with the God of religious experience, and, in particular, with the supremely loving God of Christian belief: Incarnationist theology proposes what Kierkegaard calls The Paradox -- the literal intersection of time and eternity.

The dipolar theist, such as Whitehead or Hartshorne, offers a new and different model for divine perfection. A God who is supreme cause must also be supreme effect, infinitely sensitive to his creatures. Impassivity is not either metaphysical or moral excellence. The finitude of a creature is not only the limitation of its active power, but also the limitation of its power of responding to and being affected by others. God must be the supreme instance of both. There must be an aspect of God which is eternal being, primordial and underived, an aspect of divinity which is unchanging and unmoved. But there must be another aspect of God in which he is the perfect instance of becoming, in which God is consequent upon the world and receives the world of temporal occasions everlastingly into himself. These two divine aspects are called by Whitehead the Primordial and Consequent Natures of God.

Charles Hartshorne is the first, to my knowledge, to interpret Plato as a dipolar theist. This he does in introducing and commenting upon the Plato selections in Philosophers Speak of God (PSG 38-57). He is able, in this way, to render coherent the Platonic texts we have already discussed. But the final and the most compelling evidence for Platonic dipolar theism comes from two late dialogues we have yet to consider, the Parmenides and the Sophist.

The crisis in Plato’s earlier theory of Forms comes to a head in his early sixties and is marked by two perhaps contemporary dialogues, Theaetetus and Parmenides. In the first part of the latter dialogue, serious difficulties are raised regarding the participation of sensibles in Forms. The Forms of the middle dialogues had been conceived as simple unitary beings, each just itself with no otherness or nonbeing. Indeed, this was their distinction from sensibles in the world of becoming, which were like "punning riddles," blends of being and nonbeing. But how such indivisible Forms could be shared in by sensibles, either as wholes or parts, seemed impossible to say. If physical immanence were abandoned for either a relationship of one over many, or by likeness, a "Third Man" infinite regress seemed to break out. Nor was escape possible by making them mere thoughts in mind, since this would sacrifice the reality of the objects thought, an objective reality not to be accounted for by the ever-changing sense world. Finally, there was no ground within such Forms for relation to the world below or to knowledge in that world. Even if they be conceived as relatable among themselves -- a concession that the second part of the dialogue will withdraw for simple atomic Forms -- relations in the higher and lower worlds would be like parallel lines which never intersect. They could not be objects of our knowledge, and even worse, from Plato’s point of view, the gods who knew them would not know its, or anything in the world below. (Aristotle, whose gods were in no way dependent upon objects of knowledge other than themselves, will not be disturbed by such a conclusion, but for Plato the denial of divine providence was intolerable.)

The difficulties in part one of the Parmenides are serious enough, but they pale compared to those which will come in part two. For they strike at the very possibility of all rational discourse. As the Sophist will later show, rational discourse depends upon selective interparticipation among the Forms themselves. (Remember that the dialectic of the Republic started with Forms, moved through them, and ended with them.) The suicide of rational discourse would be effected either if no Forms interparticipated, or if all Forms participated in all. The Forms are units, but the meanings of ‘unity’ are two, the simply indivisible unit of arithmetic and the infinitely divisible whole of parts of geometry. Alternating between these two meanings, the second part of the Parmenides shows the consequences, whether affirmed or denied, for themselves and for others. For our purposes the development of the first hypothesis is most important.

It concerns a one which is just one and nothing else, a simple indivisible unity without parts. Plato shows with rigorous logic that nothing whatsoever can be predicated of it. It cannot even be said to be, since being adds to the notion of that which is just one and nothing else. This hypothesis has had perhaps the strongest and most fateful history of any philosophical text in Western civilization. Plotinus and the neo-Platonists supposed (I think incorrectly) that Plato was referring in this hypothesis to the supreme godhead, beyond being and knowledge -- even beyond God’s own knowledge. In this tradition the first hypothesis becomes the charter of negative theology. I think Plato had completely different intentions. He was showing that the being of the Forms if conceived as simple and in composite, as existing only in themselves, could not exist in relation to anything else, and indeed, could not exist at all. Nothing could exist as pure actuality, without relational dependence upon things other than itself. The theological lesson of the first hypothesis is the reverse of what is has been supposed to be. Monopolar theism, whether it be the pure act of Aristotle’s gods, or the One of Plotinus, is based upon a logical absurdity.

The second hypothesis shows the consequences for itself of af’ firming a unity which is an infinity divisible whole of parts. Here relativity is endless and unlimited, unordered by the application of unity. There is no inseity. Everything is predicable of everything. There can be no being either when relativity is unlimited or when it is nonexistent. Being for Plato, Aristotle tells us (Meta. A), is the joint product of the One and the Indefinite Dyad. Beings must exist both in themselves and in relation. This is precisely the metaphysical ground of Cohen’s "Law of Polarity," and what I have elsewhere2 called "the dyadic character of being" in Plato, which when applied to theism leads to dipolarity. God must be both absolute, with an aspect which is primordial and underived, and relative.

The Sophist, Plato’s metaphysical masterpiece, is saying in a positive way what had been said negatively in the Parmenides. The dialogue is much too vast, in many dimensions, to be the subject of detailed exegesis here, a task I have undertaken elsewhere.2 Here I am concerned only with what bears directly upon dipolar theism. The problem of "catching" the Sophist in a network of definition hinges upon being able to show the existence of nonbeing -- not absolute nonbeing (which Plato dismisses, as had Parmenides), but relative. To catch the Sophist, one must show that philosophical knowledge is possible, and this hinges upon establishing that some Forms participate in some, but not all in all, or none in none. If being is thought of as exclusively at rest, as absolute and without relational dependence (the otherness of relative nonbeing), it cannot admit the activity of mind in knowledge. It would exist "in awful unmeaningness as everlasting fixture" (Soph. 248e-249). There must be some foundation even within the eternal being of thy Forms for the spiritual, discursive motion of mind, which passes in judgment from subject to predicate, and from premises to conclusion in reasoning. Even within the Forms there must be relative nonbeing, existence not only in itself (as an indivisible and hence incommunicable unit) but in relation as a divisible whole of parts, a generic unity communicable to its species.

In the example given of metaphysical diaresis, Being in its otherness is both motion and rest, its coordinate species, but in itself it is a third, different from both. The possibility of significant and true negative judgment depends upon this: that both coordinate species of a genus participate in common in that genus, but not in each other. Thus for Plato the dyadic structure of being is revealed. Nothing is merely self-existent -- nothing exists which lacks dynamis, power, the power of making a difference to others, and of having a difference made by others. ‘Dynamis’ is the word which Aristotle will use for ‘potency’ or ‘potentiality’. From Plato’s point of view, divine perfection cannot be one-sided, exclusively in terms of actus purus. Bare unity would be a pure abstraction, lacking all power. The neo-Platonic supposition of infinite fecundity for such a One, as an inexhaustible fountain or source from which emanate being, mind, soul, and nature, would have been repudiated by Plato.

Even within eternal being itself there is a principle of relativity, which is its power of existing and of being known, so that motion and life and soul and mind can be present with it. Without it it would be an awful unmeaningness. The mind which eternally knows it is mythically symbolized in the Timaeus by the Demiurge. But such a divine mind was never without its soul, since it is the resident principle of the self motion of soul. Plato declares in the Timaeus:

And when reason, which works with equal truth, whether she be in the circle of the diverse or of the same -- in voiceless silence holding her onward course in the sphere of the self-moved -- when reason, I say, is hovering around the sensible world and when the circle of the diverse also moving tnily imparts the intimations of sense to the whole soul, then arise opinions and beliefs sure and certain. But when reason is concerned with the rational, and the circle of the same moving smoothly declares it, then intelligence and knowledge are necessarily perfected. And if anyone affirms that which these two are found to be other than the soul, he will say the very opposite of the truth. (Tim. 36-38)

It is, therefore, in the sphere of soul, of self-motion, that God is to be found for Plato. The divine is not to be found on the level of the essential principle of those Forms, the One. The divine world soul is mythically said to be "compounded" out of an intermediate blend between indivisible and divisible being, sameness, and difference. (The "divisible" character of the world of physical becoming lies in the endless contingency of causal series in it [Tim. 35a].) This formula is that of a self-moving mover, of a dynamic selfhood which is ever moving with a motion ever returning upon itself. Only such self-motion can be creative. Without this intermediate divine moving principle, the Forms could only be reflected in the Receptacle chaotically -- the mythic symbol of the "primordial visible chaos." Cosmic order is the effect of the creative action of divine soul. Even the Forms, the Archetypes which are the eternal objects of God’s primordial vision, can exist and be such objects only because of their power of relativity, of relational dependence upon one another. So also the living God, who is the creative force of the world, must be both absolute and relative, primordial and consequent upon the world. Eros, as Plato finally came to recognize, is indeed divine.



PMC -- St. Anselm, Proslogium, Monologium, and Cur Deus Homo, trans. S. N. Deane. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1903,1945.

PSG -- Charles Hartshorne and William L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

RP -- P. E. Moore, The Religion of Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921.



1The Phaedrus employs the later dialectical method of Collection and Division.

2 L. J. Eslick, "The Dyadic Character of Being," Modern Schoolman 21 (1953-54), 11-18. See also "the Platonic Dialectic of Non-Being," New Scholasticism 29/1 (January, 1955), 33-49.