Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pantheism: Its Story and Significance by J. Allanson Picton

Neither comprehensive nor accessible
Pantheism is a philosophical and/or religious world view that sees the entire universe as a single, eternal, divine unity. It usually goes hand in hand with monism—the idea that the universe is made up of a single substance (matter) in a multitude of changing forms. Since nothing exists outside of this all-encompassing whole, the universe itself must be God. The Pantheistic God is not an anthropomorphic god, and individual believers differ on the level of divinity to ascribe to the deity. This ambiguity allows Pantheism to be compatible with the beliefs of various religions or even with the personal philosophies of secular freethinkers.

Pantheism: Its Story and Significance is an essay by J. Allanson Picton that was originally published in 1905 as a 94-page book. Picton defines Pantheism and offers a brief overview of its history. The whole book centers, not surprisingly, around the writings of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The title of the work and its brevity might lead you to believe that it’s an elementary overview, but it really requires a good deal of prior philosophical knowledge on the part of the reader. Spinoza’s Ethics is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, but somehow Picton manages to make Spinozan Pantheism sound even more complicated than Spinoza himself did.

Picton opens with a discussion of Pantheistic beliefs among the ancient cultures of India, Egypt, and Greece. He explains that Chinese Buddhism is not a form of Pantheism, but he doesn’t even mention Daoism, which is. When Picton discusses whether various philosophies or religions were Pantheistic, he expects the reader to know their doctrines beforehand. When he brings up the Neo-Platonists or Hegel, for example, he assumes that the reader is already familiar with their works. Picton explains clearly how Pantheism differs from Atheism, and tends to emphasize how much Pantheism agrees with mainstream religions rather than how it differs from them. At one point he even goes so far as to compare Spinoza with Jesus. Throughout the book Picton seems to be leery of offending Christians. He doesn’t even mention prominent Pantheists Giordano Bruno, who was burned as a heretic, or John Toland, who published radical anti-Church tracts. Only in the concluding paragraphs does Picton indicate some sympathy towards a freethought viewpoint within the broad assertion that Pantheism can unite believers of all creeds or beliefs.

In the original printed volume, each paragraph had a subtitle printed along its margin. In the Kindle file that’s available for free on Amazon, these subtitles were converted into separate lines in the text that begin with “[Sidenote:”. Unfortunately the sidenotes don’t always appear next to the paragraph they refer to. Eventually the reader learns to ignore these annoyances and just read the text. There are also footnotes at the end of every chapter, but not necessarily footnote numbers within the text to indicate what passages they refer to.

Though this book isn’t badly written, it may have lost much of its relevance over the past century. Today’s reader would probably learn more from the Wikipedia entries for Pantheism and Spinoza. For serious philosophical scholars, there must be more recent, more in-depth studies of the subject. If you haven’t read Spinoza, read Spinoza. For the general reader who’s curious about Pantheism and its history, Elements of Pantheism by Paul Harrison offers a concise overview that will prove much more accessible and useful to you than Picton’s take on the subject.

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