Pagan and American Individualism
I think it also captures better than the Protestant rooted ideal the uniqueness of each individual as concretely distinct from all others because the relationships that help make up each of us are always different. By contrast the dominant Western concept of individuals as distinct impenetrable atoms leads (in one stream) to utilitarianism, whereas every person is regarded as ethically identical and therefore one person can rightfully be sacrificed for the good of more than one. In the other major secular stream it usually leads to rights theories where some idea of an abstract right substitutes for the Christian God, and concrete individuals are frequently sacrificed in the names of these rights. Libertarians are famous among many non-libertarians for their willingness to sacrifice real people on the altar of their theories of rights.
By contrast to the Western model, Yevtushenko's poem teaches us, as does the African proverb, that our individuality is shaped to its very core by relationships, and so we can ask what are truly appropriate relationships. And not just with people. Everything around us consists of relationships.
From this perspective our property is not simply something we control despotically, as much Western theory would have it. For example, consider the implications of the claim "this land is mine and I can do what I want with it." Think of the blind arrogance implied within it.
From the perspective I think actually fits reality land is something over which we exercise the right to enter into appropriate relationships. The same with other property. What constitutes appropriate relationships will differ from one form of property to another. My land, my pen, and my cat are not appropriately subject to the same rules. What these relationships in any particular case are should ultimately be decided by their value in maintaining a good world.
The same point applies when we think of human relationships. Western individualism works well when dealing with strangers with equal rights, but not so well when dealing with intimates and friends. Do I "aggress" against a friend's property rights when I take his keys because he is dead drunk and wants to drive home? The question is absurd because it does not fit the relationship of friendship. If I let my friend drive, I am not acting like a friend. Do I exercise right to my freedom of speech by telling my lover to fuck off and shut up? Yes I do, but it also will destroy the relationship I have with her and turn it into one fitting strangers.
I think this point is one reason why so many in our society have such a hard time acknowledging environmental values and ethics. From a traditional American individualistic perspective, nature is "out there" and ultimately alien. Anything that limits my power is an order from someone else claiming more power. This is a confusion. The land helps make us who we are and always has, from the very beginnings of life.
By keeping the core insight of the Western respect for individuals while grounding it within a far superior ethical foundation, we preserve what has proven most important in the Western ethical tradition while freeing it from debilitating assumptions rooted in a particular interpretation of monotheistic theology, an interpretation many today reject.
Other spiritual and philosophical traditions have come to similar insights. We have no monopoly on something so basic as how to live well in the world. But I think the common Pagan insight that we live in a world where Spirit is immanent, where everything has its spiritual dimension, and therefore an appropriate way with which we can enter into relations with it, is particularly open to this perspective. And the future of our society may depend on how widely insights like this are understood.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.