Pagan Philosophy, Pagan Ethics

Dr. Brendan Myers
Dr. Brendan Myers

Picking the “best” moments from last weekend’s OBOD Gulf Coast Gathering would be impossible.  Picking the most engaging moments is easy.  That would be Brendan Myers’ two presentations, one on Pagan philosophy and another on Pagan ethics.

Friday’s presentation on Pagan philosophy covered much of the same material as his recent book The Earth, The Gods and the Soul.  Brendan talked about Socrates and the philosophers of ancient Greece, and reminded us that the philosophy schools continued until 590 CE, when they were closed by the Emperor Justinian I because he thought they were a threat to Christianity.  Deprived of institutional support, Pagan thinking stagnated for 1300 years, till in the 1960s Pagan, environmental and feminist ideas came together to recreate Pagan philosophy.  The classical ideas of Neoplatonism, humanism, and pantheism were joined by modern thinking on the nature of power.

Saturday’s presentation on Pagan ethics was new to me.  Ethics and virtues are necessary because we face difficulties, at least four of which are so large they can be called “immensities.”

The first immensity is the Earth.  We like to talk about wonder and awe and that’s a beautiful response, but while Nature may be our Mother, the fact remains that our Mother will kill us if we are not very careful.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, diseases, and predators may not be the threats they were to our premodern ancestors, but they still kill millions each year.  How do we live well in the face of the immensity of Nature?

The second immensity is other people.  Every person you meet is a potential friend and ally, but also a potential enemy and competitor.  How do we live so as to encourage others treat us well, and to deal effectively with those who choose to attack us?

The third immensity is loneliness.  Like our closest relatives the chimps and bonobos, humans are social animals.  Yet particularly in our modern world, it is easy to find ourselves isolated from others.  Remember that solitary confinement is one of the most severe – and most abused – punishments in modern prisons.  How do we live so as to make honest and intimate connections with other people?

The fourth and greatest immensity is death.  Brendan said to imagine a huge feasting hall at night.  Life is like a bird that flies into the hall from one end, spends some time in the room, then flies out the other end of the hall, never to be seen again.  We don’t know where it came from and we don’t know where it went.  All we know is that for a while, it was here.  How do we live so that when we exit the feasting hall of life, we do so with confidence and not with fear?

These immensities never go away.  No matter how much we know, there will always be something that remains unknown, something you can’t experience. The frontier never goes away, it just moves a little farther out.

Modern Pagan virtues tend to be utilitarian – what brings the most good for the most creatures.  But utilitarianism isn’t always enough – it doesn’t tell us what a good human life looks like.  Brendan discussed the Greek concept of arête.  I usually use the definition “striving for excellence” – he suggested “does it do its job well?”

The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word vir:  that which is fitting for a human.  It also refers to an effective warrior.  Be virtuous so when you meet an immensity you’ll respond well.

Pagan virtue is not about following rules.  Rather it’s about having a certain kind of nature.  Generosity, friendship, courage, prudence, temperance, justice.  These aren’t rules to live by, they’re values we can embody.

This is where both ancient and modern Pagan ethics differ significantly from Abrahamic ethics.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims are the People of the Book – for them (or at least, for their conservative traditions) “the good” comes from following the rules laid down by their God.  I once had a conversation with a Jewish person where I complained that he seemed to be obsessed with the letter of the law and not its spirit. He told me that was the whole point, to mindfully engage with the letter of the law and find the most creative ways to follow it.

I can’t argue with the effectiveness of their approach – it’s kept a small tribal religion alive in the face of 2500 years of oppression.  But how much better is it to live by the virtues that inspired the laws in the first place?

Christianity says we have a fallen nature, that we are tainted by original sin.  Certainly we see people doing great evil in the world.  But we also see people doing great good.  Magic teaches that what we focus on is what we become.  How much better is it to encourage virtue rather than to decry vice?

Brendan reminded us that the purpose of philosophy is to test ideas to see if they are good and true and helpful.  But he pointed out “People don’t want the truth, they want validation.”

This is the challenge of modern Pagan philosophy.  How to do we use our immense powers of reason to find ways to live virtuous and even happy lives?  How do we search for the truth and not simply tell ourselves what we want to hear?

Fortunately, we have the methods and the ideas of philosophy, from the ancient pagans such as Socrates and Plato to the modern Pagans, including our own Dr. Brendan Myers.

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