Philosophy: The Problem of the One and the Many

By Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony

The Nature of the Problem

One of the most basic and continuing problems of man’s history is the question of the one and the many and their relationship. The fact that in recent years men have avoided discussion of this matter has not ceased to make their unstated presuppositions with respect to it determinative of their thinking.

Much of the present concern about the trends of these times is literally wasted on useless effort because those who guide the activities cannot resolve, with the philosophical tools at hand to them, the problem of authority. This is at the heart of the problem of the proper function of government, the power to tax, to conscript, to execute for crimes, and to wage warfare. The question of authority is again basic to education, to religion, and to the family. Where does authority rest, in democracy or in an elite, in the church or in some secular institution, in God or in reason? The implications of the problem are religious, as will be shown, but the fact that it is not discussed permits an ignorant equalization of various religions and diverse theologies. The differences between Christianity and atheism are basic, as are the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism each has its characteristic culture of consequence in the social and political action of its own presupposition. Failure to recognize the fact that all routes to God are not equally valid or relevant to the maintenance of historic Western culture, especially in the United States, has extensively clouded the possibility of an intelligible answer. The plea that this is a pluralistic culture is merely recognition of the problem-not an answer. The problem of authority is not answerable to reason alone, and basic to reason itself are pre-theoretical suppositions or axioms1 which represent essentially religious commitments. And one such basic commitment is with respect to the question of the one and the many.2

The fact that students can graduate from our universities as philosophy majors without any awareness of the importance or centrality of this question does not make the one and the many less basic to our thinking. The difference between East and West, and between various aspects of Western history and culture, rests on answers to this problem which, whether consciously or unconsciously, have been made. Whether recognized or not, every argument and every theological, and philosophical, political, or any other exposition is based on a presupposition about man, God, and society-about reality. This presupposition rules and determines the conclusion; the effect is the result of a cause. And one such basic presupposition is with reference to the one and the many.

This avoidance of the problem makes necessary a few elementary definitions as a prelude to a discussion. The one refers not to a number but to unity and oneness; in metaphysics, it has usually meant the absolute, the supreme Idea for Plato, the universe for Parmenides, Being as Such for Plotinus, and so on. The one can be a separate whole, or it can be the sum of things in their analytic or synthetic wholeness; that is, it can be a transcendent one, which is the ground of all being, or it can be an immanent one. The many refers to the particularity or individuality of things; the universe is full of a multitude of beings; is the truth concerning them inherent in their individuality, or is it in their basic oneness? If it is their individuality, then the many are ultimate and the proper source of authority, and we have philosophical Nominalism. If it is their oneness, then the one is ultimate, and we have Realism. According to Realism, universals, which are terms applicable to all the universe and can be called real “second substances,” are aspects of the one Idea and exist within it. Egyptian, much Greek, and medieval scholastic thought has been “Realistic.” For “Nominalism,” abstract or general terms have no real existence and are mere names applied to aspects of reality; reality belongs to particulars, actual physical particulars, so that the truth of being is simply that individual things exist. Truth is not some abstraction concerning particular things but is simply the fact of particularity.

The Trinitarian Answer

Orthodox Christianity has asserted another answer to the problem, and, to make clear that answer, certain elementary distinctions are necessary. Theology and philosophy distinguish between the ontological trinity and the economical trinity in speaking of God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each a personality, and together they constitute the triune and exhaustively personal, totally self-conscious God. God is totally self-conscious, meaning that He has no hidden, unknown aspects of His being, no unexploited potentiality. He is actuality, self-conscious and personal. Each person of the trinity is equally God.

Since both the one and the many are equally ultimate in God, it immediately becomes apparent that these two seemingly contradictory aspects of being do not cancel one another but are equally basic to the ontological trinity: one God, three persons. Again, since temporal unity and plurality are the products and creation of this triune God, neither the unity nor the plurality can demand the sacrifice of the other to itself. Thus man and government are equally aspects of created reality. The locus of Christianity is both the believer and the church; they are not independent of or prior to one another. The wishes of husband and wife do not take priority over marriage, nor does the institution of marriage have primacy over the partners to it; marriage indeed is a type of an eternal reality (Eph. 5:22-25), but man is himself created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Education must be geared both to the individual and to society, but, above all, to God.


  1. Pre-theoretical suppositions or axioms are religiously held and unproved propositions which are assumed to be so true in a culture that it is ridiculous to question them or to attempt their proof. They exist as the very ground and premise of thought. They are religiously held but are prior to any formal religious thinking as well as philosophical speculation.
  2. The one and the many is perhaps the basic question of philosophy. Is unity or plurality, the one or the many, the basic fact of life, the ultimate truth about being? If unity is the reality, and the basic nature of reality, then oneness and unity must gain priority over individualism, particulars, or the many. If the many, or plurality, best describes ultimate reality, then the unit cannot gain priority over the many; then state, church, and society are subordinate to the will of the citizen, the believer, and of man in particular. If the one is ultimate, then individuals are sacrificed to the group. If the many be ultimate, then unity is sacrificed to the will of the many, and anarchy prevails.

Adapted from “The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy.” Available at

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