The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism and Virtue

The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism and Virtue October 4, 2015

In Paganism, we spend a lot of time shouting across the chasms of meaning and misunderstanding. One of my best friends and I have been at loggerheads for about fifteen years over the most basic of assumptions about the nature of the universe. And the root of this disagreement is a simple one.

You see, I’m not a Neoplatonist. Maybe it sounds like a strange thing to say. It’s definitely not the best way to start conversations at parties, as I learned from hard experience. But, it’s true.

a series of Origami paper cranes
Animism and Virtue / Polly Peterson (2015)

As I explored the Western Occult Tradition, again and again I ran up against things that I couldn’t agree with — there was some underlying assumption that just didn’t fit with my experience of the world.

The first principle of Neoplatonism is the One, or the Good. This is the source of all the universe, and also the source of all goodness and virtue. The only way for people to be virtuous is to emulate and reflect the gods. This practice is the basis of theurgy, which is the primary religious aspect of the Western Occult Tradition and many of its lineages including Traditional Wicca.

It would be hard to understate the influence of Neoplatonic thought on the West. Neoplatonist thought has been (and is) hugely influential both on the Western Occult Tradition (WOT) and on Christianity. Consciously or unconsciously, most Western pagans are Neoplatonists. Westerners tend to believe things like “the spiritual is closer to God (or the gods) than the physical” and “the gods are inherently more virtuous than we people are.”

Neoplatonism in the Western Occult Tradition

The whole idea that we’re purifying ourselves and making ourselves better? That’s straight out of Neoplatonic thought — and especially Plotinus’s Neoplatonism (say that five times fast!). ¹ In Neoplatonism, all religious activity is about improving and purifying the soul by exposing ourselves to the presence of the divine. The highest form of magic is theurgy.

Many Western magical texts, especially Theosophy and anything it has influenced, talk about the improvement of the soul either during one’s lifetime or from one life to the next. This whole idea is central to the Western Occult Tradition, and is present in its most popular sect, Traditional Wicca.

In addition, the whole “Human Potential Movement” comes out of this same philosophical strain. This movement is what happens when we blend two Western traditions: Neoplatonism and capitalistic individuality. The greatest good is my happiness, and through us all seeking our own happiness, the world will be made a happier and better place. Philosophically, it’s hogwash — but I can see the appeal.

a dollar bill folded into the shape of a shirt
Capitalistic Individuality / Polly Peterson (2011) /

Neoplatonism is clearly tied to Christianity, the Western Occult Tradition, Wicca, and the New Age. In other words, Neoplatonism is the most spiritually influential word in Western culture that people have never heard or never taken seriously. When I say that I’m not a Neoplatonist, I’m not just being flip and obscure.


Animism stands outside the Neoplatonist tradition. It doesn’t place all of the universe on a sliding scale of value from the One at the top to the dregs at the bottom. All things take part in the universe, and all things reach the fundamental ground of existence out of which they flow, and to which they return.

That which appears to be transcendent, unchanging, and perfect is as transcendent as the sky, as unchanging as a mountain, and as perfect as an eagle’s flight. Which is to say, these things are only infinite from the perspective of our own finite-ness.

In such a universe, we don’t have the Good to guide us to goodness. We no longer get to rely on the gods to help us be good. When we have set aside the West’s singular organizing principle, what is virtue?

The Practice of Virtue

When virtue is no longer an idea held out to bring us closer to the Good, it becomes something else. Virtue becomes a practice, something we cultivate. In my practice, there are three organizing principles: purity, harmony, and power.


It is easy to imagine something that is pure, but impossible to find something that truly is. We associate purity with perfection, but what if we ease off on the Neoplatonism for a moment? When we speak of purity in a generalized Western context, we think of absolute purity. The word is so strong, it has an ominous context to it. It’s uncompromising.

Purification rituals are part of any spiritual tradition worth its salt. Animist traditions are no different. But the practice of cleansing isn’t the search for some perfect, existential purity. Think of purity as cleanliness. We want things clean because it promotes health, but that doesn’t mean we want to autoclave the whole world. Literal and metaphysical soap and water are good enough.

I have found the practice of meditation to be a key to purification. On one level, it promotes the harmonizing of mind, body, and spirit. On another level, it means unifying the self — integrity.


As wonderful as all the integrity in the world might be, “no man is an island” and even less so any animist. And as much as we might work toward being pure and clear in our intentions, living in the world means having to harmonize with those around us.

a panoramic image of a lake or pond digitally altered to appear as an island.
No man is an island / Polly Peterson (2009) /

It used to be, when I thought of harmony, I thought of peacefulness. But I have come to see that the harmony of peacefulness is only one kind of harmony.

Harmony is the counterpart of purity. When we’re alone in the wilderness, harmony means being in tune with nature. But in a city, it means something entirely different. It means being in harmony with a seething mass of people. In other words, harmony is situational.

Being in harmony with one’s environment means in a place of quiet, be quiet. In a place of busyness, be busy. In a place of danger, be dangerous. But true harmonizing means being empty and reflecting the world back on itself.

How do we learn to reflect the world, instead of exhausting ourselves trying to make the world reflect us? On the whole, the first steps are harmonizing the various parts of ourselves, and connecting with the world through seeking harmony.


Through the purification of self, and harmonization with the world, a new part of ourselves opens. It is the soul — and it is powerful. Is the human soul filled with brimming goodness? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, it is clear-eyed and unafraid.

The Western Occult Tradition beckons us to bring our souls close to the gods, and through them to the One. For an animist outside the Tradition, virtue looks different. But it is no less powerful, and every bit as worth cultivating.

1. For an in-depth discussion of Neoplatonism from an honest to goodness, hardcore Neoplatonist, I’d recommend The Practical Art of Divine Magic by Patrick Dunn. (back)

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