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The Earth, The Gods, and The Soul
A History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century
By Brendan Myers
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Brendan Myers
All rights reserved.
Philosophy was invented by pagans. Or to be more precise: it was invented by people who lived in pagan societies, many centuries before the foundation of the great monotheist religions of the Western world.
Yet most people do not associate the word 'pagan' with philosophy. The word began as a straightforward Roman Latin word for a villager, a paganus, a person who lived in a countryside district, a pagus, instead of in a city. We still get the word 'pagaent', from this root; it refers to a folkish theatrical performance associated with special times of year. A related word, 'heathen', began in roughly the same era, and referred to a civilian, a person not enrolled in the army, although it sometimes also referred to a poorly armed peasant-soldier. The modern word peasant comes from the same source. After the advent of Christianity, both words began to designate people who had not (yet) accepted Christianity. So, the association of pagan with a country dweller was natural perhaps, since the Christian message was first preached in cities, and then spread to the countryside later on. It may also have referred to a 'civilian' in the sense of someone who is not a Christian missionary, not a 'soldier for Christ'. (York, Pagan Theology, pg. 6) From there, both words eventually took on the association with ignorance and foolishness, as well as superstition, malicious magic, and evil. Actually, the exact origin of the word pagan is a point of some dispute, even inside the modern pagan community.
Today, despite efforts to raise the word to respectability, it is still regularly used as a term of abuse. It accuses someone of being a superstitious, unenlightened, or backwards person, or of practicing magic with fell purpose. Most especially, the word 'pagan' is associated with idolatry, that is, the worship of false gods, such as those which Old Testament writers warned against: the sun and moon and stars, and various animal and human characters represented in figures of wood and stone. (c.f. Deuteronomy 4:15-24) The worship of such beings is specifically outlawed by the Second of the Ten Commandments.
But suppose we took the word in its simplest definition: a person whose religion is not Abrahamic; that is, a person whose religion is not Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. And suppose we limited this definition to the nations of the 'West', and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, just to keep things simple. What sort of people remain? In fact we do not find that everyone who could be classified as a pagan this way is an ignorant village idiot who fearfully gives offerings to malevolent gods, or who schemes to curse his enemies in the middle of the night. Instead, we find the people who built grand monuments like the Acropolis of Athens, Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the Pyramids of Egypt. We find the people who built complex astronomical instruments like the Antikythera Mechanism, the Nebra Sky Disk, and the Berlin Gold Hat. We find poets and scientists and literary intellectuals of every kind, especially including those who wrote some of the most important and influential books in all of Western history. Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, just to name a few, are listed among the greatest writers in all Western civilization. And they all lived in pagan societies. We also find some of the greatest political and military leaders of all time: Alexander the Great, Pericles of Athens, Hannibal of Carthage, and Julius Caesar of Rome. These men were all pagans, or else living in a pagan society. Some took themselves for living pagan gods. And speaking of pagan societies: some of today's highest social and political values, like democracy, secular republican government, freedom of speech, and trial by jury, were invented by pagans. Even the Olympic Games were invented by pagans. Yet these facts are almost always ignored when people study the origins of Western civilization.
My full purpose in this book, however, is not simply, nor only, to draw attention to this often neglected and perhaps uncomfortable fact. It is also to examine what, if anything, is a distinctly pagan kind of philosophical thinking. It is to show that a pagan need not be an ignorant uncivilized person. I hope to show that a pagan can be a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and enlightened person, and that a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just.
§ 1. Philosophy
To zoom in on what we're looking for more precisely, it's worthwhile to consider just what philosophy is, as an intellectual discipline, and also what it is not. Let us be clear from the beginning: philosophy does not mean having a certain 'mindset' (I hate that word). It does not mean that one must hold one particular belief about the meaning of life, or the nature of morality, or some such, instead of another. Someone who quotes a common saying, or a witty line from a pop song or a movie, and then says, 'That's my philosophy,' is simply not doing the work. Philosophy is both more complex and more simple than that.
Still, the question 'what is philosophy?' can be a surprisingly difficult one to answer. For the question itself is a philosophical one. To help understand this, let me take you to the ancient Mediterranean world, after the rise of the great city-states of the region, but before the invention of philosophy as we know it today.
At that time, and in that part of the world, the most important source of knowledge about the most important questions in human life was a religious institution called the Pythian Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle lived in a temple complex near the top of Mount Parnassus, in the middle of Greece. In the main temple, a priestess would sit on a tripod stool and perform a religious ritual which, people believed, would put her into direct communication with the god Apollo. If you wanted to know about almost anything that was important to you, from practical questions about marriage or business deals, to the most abstract questions about the meaning of life, you could visit this priestess and pose your questions directly to Apollo himself. What better source of knowledge could there be than a god!
Petitioners had to undergo a ritual of their own in order to prepare themselves for their visit to the Oracle. The first major part of this ritual was the pilgrimage to Delphi itself. The second began when the petitioner arrived at the temple. There he would undergo various purifications, make offerings to the gods (and financial donations to the temple!), and consult with the priests to frame his question as best he could. It seems likely that this second part was in some way informed or inspired by the various proverbs carved over the entrance arches to the temple, several of which have been recorded for us by various writers. The most famous one is the first one: Gnothi seautón – know yourself. For many centuries thereafter, including well into our own modern time, this statement has served as the definitive motto of religious and spiritual seeking. Not that there is necessarily much consensus about what it means, of course! Polytheists, monotheists, atheists, and people who simply call themselves amorphously 'spiritual' all claim to follow it for their own purposes. The Gospel of Thomas reports that Jesus used this motto in his teachings as well. (The Gospel of Thomas, §3, as cited in Barnstone and Meyer, eds. The Gnostic Bible, pg. 45) But let us say in general that the statement 'know yourself' expresses a basic ethical demand to examine one's own character and habits and nature carefully and honestly, avoiding all fabrications and lies. The differences in opinion about the meaning of the statement tend to appear in different claims about what one can expect to find in that self-examination. Let us also add that since the statement is carved into the stones of the most important temple of its time, it may have the force of a scripture, that is, a divine revelation cast into written words.
This basic ethical demand, know yourself, is to my mind the first stirring of the philosophical impulse. For self-knowledge is not like ordinary, practical knowledge. Someone who examines himself will chop wood and carry water the same way as someone else who doesn't. Yet self-knowledge puts into question something you are probably inclined to take for granted, namely, your own existence, your identity, your being. The very words of the statement presuppose that the self is something that can be known. Yet the statement is phrased in the imperative – as an ethical command – and therefore it also presupposes that you can be ignorant about yourself. You can go through life not knowing who you are, and you must find out who you are. (Such an interesting and thought-provoking proposition – that a human being can be a mystery to herself!) That kind of knowledge can benefit every area of your life. Yet there's something special and spiritual about it, apart from any practical usefulness it may have. For self knowledge heals, enlightens, and empowers – and sometimes, it judges and condemns. The seeking of self-knowledge lifts the self up from the practical life and into the realm of the very highest and deepest things. It's fitting, perhaps, that someone must undertake this kind of soul-searching and self-seeking before being allowed into the presence of the god. And the philosophical theme of self-examination echoes down the ages, in the works of thinkers who couldn't be more different from each other, from Socrates to Nietzsche, from Plato to Sartre.
Several other mottos were carved into the stones of Delphi. A second, also widely credited to the god Apollo himself, is medén ágan – nothing in excess. Like the first motto, this one expresses an ethical demand, but this time a rather more practical one: it calls for the virtue of temperance. In its original meaning, temperance had to do with the use and regulation of one's emotions, especially one's taste for bodily pleasures like food, drink, and sex. It calls upon the seeker to guide his life not with instinct, intuition, or emotional intensity, but instead with calm and sober rationality. Many people today associate temperance with the suppression or the denial of the emotions, or with abstinence from things like alcohol. But that's not it at all. The idea is that one must learn to enjoy the pleasures of embodied life without becoming addicted to them. The Greeks knew that intensity of passion could be both a benefit to you, and at the same time a profound liability. So, temperance allows people to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, but without becoming a slave to them. This insight, expressed in the second Delphic motto, is also a stirring of the philosophical spirit. And again, it is appropriate preparation for an encounter with a god like Apollo, the god of high culture and civilization.
But once we are properly prepared like this, what happens when we enter the holy of holies, and meet the Oracle herself? We find that her tripod stool stands directly above a fissure in the floor, from which strange vapors waft into the air. The priestess ascends her throne, breathes in these vapors, invokes the god, and speaks. What does she say? Gibberish, mostly. For she is in a mild drug-induced trance, and so she is no longer herself, and no longer in complete control of her own mind. Her ramblings are translated by the priests who sit around her throne in a circle; sometimes they turn her gibberish into poetry. And this they offer to the petitioner as the god's answer to the question.
Alas, here in the holy of holies, the spirit of philosophy has not yet appeared. For we are relying upon a divine communication to answer our questions. Not that the gods cannot be wise. But the point of a philosophical spirit is to rely primarily upon one's own thinking. The philosophical spirit is not satisfied to simply accept what it is told, no matter how much prestige the teller seems to have. This is true even if the teller is a god. The philosophical spirit looks within itself, regards the world with wonder but also with curiosity and skepticism. It poses serious questions, and makes a serious attempt to find answers. Nor does it settle for the quick and easy answer, unless it is also the best answer.
Now philosophy is not science, not social science, not religion, not poetry, and not theology. But it overlaps with all those disciplines. We could define it in terms of the Greek roots of the word: the philia of the sophia, the love of wisdom, the friend of knowledge. But that might not be fully satisfying, because we might not know what love is, or what wisdom or knowledge are, or what it means to be a friend. Even among professional philosophers there is disagreement about the meaning of their own discipline. I define philosophy as the investigation of the highest and deepest questions by means of systematic critical reason. But my definition is not the only one, and perhaps not even the best one. Here's how British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined it:
Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculation on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man's Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man's Land is philosophy. (Russell, History of Western Philosophy, pg. 13)
Excerpted from The Earth, The Gods, and The Soul by Brendan Myers. Copyright © 2013 Brendan Myers. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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