Pantheism may be defined as the doctrine that God is coextensive with and identical to all things. Clearly distinct from both atheism (the belief that there is no God) and panentheism (the belief that all things are suffused with God’s essence, but are distinct from God), pantheism generally arises only in cultures with a fully developed religious life.
Pantheism arises from two related tendencies. The first is a fervent religious spirit that is inclined to see divinity as a universal phenomenon, necessarily infused within all things. The second is an essentially philosophical desire to uncover some sense of unity, a common thread that connects all things and binds them to each other. Both elements must be present in order for pantheism to take firm root.
Pantheism may be roughly divided into eastern and western varieties. Vedic pantheism takes as its point of departure a critique of polytheism. The Vedic pantheon of many gods gradually transformed into a single entity, or (more accurately) a single concept: the notion of Brahmin. Brahmin represents that which does not change, is perfectly unified and univocal, without limit, and non-definable. While the world appears to be in a state of constant flux and change, it is the idea of Brahmin that provides a permanent unchanging substrate upon which these appearances depend. Because change implies imperfection—and because there must be some perfect being, entity, or higher order—the twin conclusions are drawn that, first, there must be something above and beyond the material world, and, second, that the material world itself must be an illusion. To claim otherwise would be to admit the possibility that imperfection could have inherent and hence independent reality, and consequently that nothing would be permanent. If Brahmin were divided into the perfect and the imperfect, then it would obviously be no longer permanent, since imperfect things pass away. This is impossible, because Brahmin by its very nature endures and persists through the apparent changes that seem to occur in the world.
It follows, then, that change does not really occur. Change is an illusion. This follows necessarily from the basic premises. If all truly is one, and all is united, and all is perfect, then Brahmin is all and all is Brahmin. Brahmin cannot change, because Brahmin is perfect and change is a sign of imperfection. If change is real, then change is part of Brahmin, since what is real is Brahmin. This would mean that Brahmin is changeable and consequently subject to imperfection. To the Vedic mind, this is anathema. Ordinary sense experience is characterized by illusion, or maya. The mystical and contemplative practices prescribed are intended to aid the worshipper in overcoming maya and coming to a true understanding of the oneness of Brahmin.
The sixth-century B.C. philosophical monism of such pre-Socratic philosophers as Parmenides and his pupil Zeno (who illustrated his master’s points by means of his eponymous paradoxes) are arguably pantheistic, since they maintained as their fundamental truth that “All is One.” Parmenides and Zeno claimed that knowledge could only be of things that do not change; otherwise, one would find oneself in the apparently absurd position of claiming a given standard of knowledge on one day, only to discard it the next in favor of a different standard. Following a line of reasoning that resembles the Vedic, they maintained that since knowledge must be of things that do not change, and knowledge is possible, then there must be something that does not change. Because that which does not change cannot become something other than what it is, it must be One, entire unto itself, without parts, and unknowable on its own terms. Parmenides and Zeno, like the Vedic, deal in appearances whose reality they deny while affirming the ultimate reality of something that is unified, perfect, and One.
Earlier materialist pre-Socratics (like Thales, Anaximander, and his disciple Anaximines) had asserted the primacy of one or another of the four Greek elements (earth, water, fire, and air), but had stopped short of declaring the others illusory. Theirs is more a reductionist philosophy than a pantheism.
The apparent pantheism of certain early Greek monists (like Parmenides and Zeno) stands in stark contrast to that of other pre-Socratics like Heraclitus, the so-called “weeping philosopher,” who so despaired of finding anything like a permanent, unchanging substrate that he identified fire as the primary element. Fire, of course, is both ever-changing and something that must destroy in order to keep itself in existence.
The best known and most widely recognized western pantheist is Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza saw the miseries of human existence, and was committed to finding some permanent source of goodness that might serve as a basis for human happiness and flourishing. Spinoza maintained that such a basis would have to be found in something that is capable of completely filling the human mind. He further argued that such a standard could only be met by the recognition that the mind is one with nature (i.e., the world that appears to mind and presents itself as something external and extrinsic to mind). By recognizing its intimate connection with nature, the mind can overcome human misery since it will recognize its place within the totality of creation. Having grasped its place in the grand scheme of things, and come to peace with its limited extent and efficacy, the human mind can come to understand the necessity of the place it occupies, see that things could not be other than they are, and accept its lot in life without complaint or recrimination.
Many other forms and variants of pantheism exist in the western tradition. Indeed, the word “pantheist” was not used until 1705, when it was apparently coined by John Toland. Ironically, it was through the word’s use as a term of derision by one of Toland’s critics that “pantheist” and later “pantheism” entered into general usage. The 18th century saw a rise in pantheism in Europe as intellectual elites struggled to reconcile matters of faith with what were widely perceived the logically untenable demands of faith. Pantheism offered an attractive middle ground for those reluctant to accept Church doctrine, yet unwilling to embrace atheism.
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- London: Humanities Press. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (1967). New York: Collier MacMillan Publishers.