Is it still possible to be a pagan?

    In this post I want to examine this question and use it to think through some other things as well.  

    We can distinguish between two types of paganism: devotional paganism and philosophical paganism.  Devotional paganism is paganism as experienced by ordinary people, involving rituals, visiting temples, oracles, etc.  Philosophical paganism is the philosophy of such figures as Plato, Pythagoras, Plotinus, etc.  Philosophical paganism in many cases involves religious practices, such as contemplation, purification, or austerities but differes from the devotional paganism in that it is primarily based on philosophical doctrines, rather than tradition.  

    A specific individual can practice both types of paganism.  Indeed, many of the philosophers were pious in the devotional sense.  It makes moderns uncomfortable to think about, but Socrates and Pythagoras really did believe in the gods.  They probably did not think of the gods in a mythological way, but the key point is that the philosophers believed in devotional piety: they just thought philosophy was a higher form than its popular manifestation.  For example, Pythagoras did not sacrifice animals; he burned frankincense instead.  But this was not becasue Pythagoras disbelieved in sacrifice; rather, he viewed bloodless sacrifices as a purer form of devotion. 

   I would say that it is not possible to be a devotional pagan nowadays.  This is because devotional paganism depended crucially on tradition.  And that tradition is now that is now long gone.  Imagine the Greco-Roman world, with its temples and priests in every major city as well as many local cults.  Not to mention oracles and the personal piety of the individuals, such as the household gods of the Romans.  

    C.S. Lewis gave a good illustration of this in his inaugural Cambridge lecture "De Descriptione Temporum": 

    "One thing I know: I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modem scholarship had been on the wrong track for years."  

    Devotional paganism took place within this atmosphere; it was not individual, but crucially partook of the surrounding environment and there is simply no way to reconstruct that environment.  In addition, the world of paganism arose from a different form of human consciousness.  So, even if people wanted to reconstruct this environment and tried, they would no longer be able to.  We simply cannot see the world in the same way as the ancients did.  

    Although devotional paganism is not possible today, philosophical paganism is possible.  However, it is very difficult.  One difficulty is that all the Hellenistic philosophers lived within the culture of devotional paganism.  Their philosophy was intended to be studied within that context.  Furthermore, throughout the entire lifetime of Hellenistic philosophy (rougly 1200 years, from the Seven Wise Men of Greece to Simplicius), the philosophy was primarily passed down orally.  Texts were studied, but almost always with a teacher to explain them and to instruct the student in other matters.  

    In fact, this oral tradition was key to the success of Hellenistic philosophy.  Although at any given time there were probably always some corrupt teachers of philosophy, there were also always wise and good teachers.  Many of these teachers gave public lectures, but they also carefully selected other students to pass on philosophy in greater depth and hence the lineage continued uncorrupted.  

    Thus, anyone who wants to be a philosophical pagan in these days is starting with a major handicap: he cannot avail himself of the oral tradition, which vanished with the final generation of paganism.  Such an individual would have to pursue his own path to some extent.  Three examples are Gemistus Pletho, Thomas Taylor, and Bronson Alcott.  

    Pletho (c. 1355- 1454) was a Byzantine scholar who essentially read himself into heresy.  He was known to tell certain people that he believed the religion of the future would be paganism, who were, naturally, horrified by this statement.  Pletho also wrote a book, Nomoi, found after his death which detailed his philosophical system, which, unfortunately was burned.  

    Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) made it his life's work to translate Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists into English.  But he was not just a translator; Taylor's religion actually was Platonism.  Taylor was highly motivated in working on his translations.  Although later in life, he had more financial stability, for a period of time, he would work his job then come home and work into the night translating.  

    Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) was one of the New England Transcendentalists and a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Alcott was also a Platonist.  When he had to sell some books after financial difficulties, Alcott said that the books he was most disappointed to part with were the dialogues of Plato, but Alcott felt that he could bear it becasue he had absorbed their spirit through repeated readings.  Alcott also followed a vegetarian diet precisely because he wanted to emulate the ancient Pythagoreans.  The book Thomas Taylor, the Platonist: Selected Writings has two excellent essays in the beginning of the book, by Kathleen Raine and George Mills Harper.  Raine's essay discusses the Taylor's influence in Britain, while Harper's discusses the influence of Taylor's translations in America, particularly among the Transcendentalists.  Harper suggests that when Emerson first encountered Plato in the Harvard library in the 1820s, it was likely in a translation by Taylor.  

    Alcott also read Taylor's translations of Plato.  Incidentally, Alcott was the father of the writer Louisa May Alcott (they also shared a birthday).  In Little Women, which is semi-autobiographical, the father of the March family is described as follows: 

    "To outsiders the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things, but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter, for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.

The girls gave their hearts into their mother's keeping, their souls into their father's, and to both parents, who lived and labored so faithfully for them, they gave a love that grew with their growth and bound them tenderly together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death."

Incidentally, the "usual suspects" have tried to co-opt Louisa May Alcott and her most famous book.  However, the book is about nothing more than the importance of family.  Furthermore, there is a chapter when the main character of Little Women, Jo, (based on the author) goes to a party in New York City and is horrified by the bad behavior and irreligiousness of literary and cultural elites.  Anyone who has any doubt what side either of the Alcotts would be on if they were around today has only to read that chapter.  

So, what is the significance of considering this question?  Well, the main reason is just because it is an interesting question to ponder.  However, it is a significant question today because all three of these figures show that a modern pagan must follow an individual path.  Furthermore, all three viewed their philosophy as a way of life, not just a lifestyle; they took it seriously.  In addition, all the true teachers of Platonic and Pythagorean philosophy viewed this philosophy as incompatible with a self-indulgent life.  Philosophy required struggle as well as an austere mode of life.  Indeed, a true Platonist cannot be a sexual revolutionary or an Epicure (in terms of food).  

These three figures provide a good example for Christians in the West today.  We can draw much from the tradition of Christianity that has been preserved in writing and which exists in Churches today, but we no longer live in a Christian society.  Hence, we must do what we can individually to keep the faith.  Also, just like Alcott we have to maintain the moral standards of Christianity.  If it is possible to follow a Pythagorean diet in the 1800s, it is also possible to follow Christian morality in the 21st century.

2 comments:

  1. This is a very interesting topic. I used to regard paganism as the default religion - with various forms from Hinduism, Ancient Greeks or Romans, Ancient Celts or Saxons...

    But paganism as a religion is a different matter.

    It does not seem possible truly to go back to it, in the West; at any rate, neo-pagans just believe and behave like mainstream materialist leftists in all respects.

    But whether it is any worse, in this respect, than any of the other denominations or churches, I don't know. None seem able to inspire and encourage at present...

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    1. "It does not seem possible truly to go back to it, in the West; at any rate, neo-pagans just believe and behave like mainstream materialist leftists in all respects."

      I would agree with that assessment.

      What particularly impressed me about Taylor and Alcott (I don't know much about Pletho's personal life) is that their beliefs really made a difference in their lives. And also, all three were people who came to their beliefs through an individual path, in these instances, purely through reading and thinking. The specific religion isn't necessarily an example for us now (though if someone wanted to be a real Platonist in 2021, there's a lot worse they could do), but the example of someone setting out alone is inspiring and helpful.

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