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Towards a Pagan Politics

We all must begin in our own way. How does a pagan address capitalism?

To answer this question I feel the need to make clear and sure the foundation of my own views on paganism’s relation to politics. If, as pagans, we are called to a social mission and not just a spiritual one then we must get clear on how the one translates into the other. So, I will attempt here to investigate the meeting of politics and paganism in preparation for more concrete adventures later. So let us go and see what wars amongst the gods settled by human juries, the imperialism of Athens and Rome, and the community councils of the Akan people can teach us about where and who we are.

Politics and Metaphysics

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“The Last Senate of Julius Caesar” by Raffaele Giannetti

Each aspect of our lives reflects, whether we see it or not, our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality and the place of humans within it. Our ethics, our politics, our religion all enshrine our most basic grasp of what exists and how these existents relate to each other. It is tempting to think that religion has, or need have, nothing to do with politics. Yet every politics rests on an ethics, a belief about the nature of right and wrong or, even more basically, a belief about the nature of the good life and every ethics is based on a metaphysics. Until we have some ideas about what the universe is like we cannot know how we are to live in it and amongst one another. Often our metaphysical commitments are most clear in our religion and, to that extent, religion and politics are inseparable.

If I think that humanity is vicious, brutal, lacking in self-control and natural harmony I will likely favor a powerful centralized government or totalitarian regime that alone can rule the unruly with might. With similar views I might favor the same form of government out of the belief that power alone is valuable and worthy of pursuit, and so seek at all costs to make myself ruler over the vicious. If my view of human nature is of a gentler creature, prone to harmony and capable of self-organization, I will favor a moderate or minimal government seeking to interfere as little as possible with humanity’s natural affections.

These are, of course, simplifications and the complex weave of anyone’s views of reality are not so easily untangled. They do, however, allow us to ask the question I would like, here, to begin answering. What politics flows from the metaphysical beliefs of Paganism and how does Capitalism stand in relation to this politics?

I don’t presume to speak for all pagans, it is a term that covers so expansive and fertile a ground that any generalization will be hazardous at best, but I do hope to offer some suggestive glimpses at the unique view of reality and politics that some aspects of paganism offer. I don’t claim my usage to be exclusive, but by paganism I will mean polytheism or the belief in a plurality of independent gods.

There is a fundamental difference between paganism and monotheism that is so simple and basic that it is frequently forgotten or overlooked. From a uniquely pagan perspective reality and truth are irreducibly plural. Monotheism in its many forms, on the other hand, asserts that reality is ultimately one and so too is truth. There is one god, one truth, often one creator and so one purpose, and ultimately one totalizing picture within which all being can be united, simplified and explained. It is hard to appreciate the incredible difference between this view, the historically later one, and the view of a reality that is never reducible to one final explanation, one rule or purpose, and one source or structure.

Paganism is the thinking or worship of the many and, after the rise of monotheism, the rejection of the reductive, totalizing one. Where there are many gods we find many purposes, if any, for existence and many ways in which one might exist well or poorly. A rather direct statement of this belief might be that there is no one right way to live and so, too, no one proper politics or collection of traditions. The politics of paganism, then, must be a politics of resistance to totalization, an assertion of the inherent value of the many ways of human life. For this reason, paganism must be committed to the complexity of all reality while casting a suspicious eye on simplifying reductions and explanations.

Conflict and its Preservation

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“Orestes Pursued by the Furies” 1921 by John Singer Sargent

The commitment to complex plurality is the reason that, oddly, pagan mythology is a story of conflict. For a pluralistic view of reality, conflict must be basic, whether it be the conflict of play or that of war. Any wholesale rejection of conflict can only be put forward by means of some one final totalizing view of how all people must behave and what values all people must share. The plurality of gods, and the traditions and practices of worship and value those gods teach, must embrace the productive inter-relations amongst these often dramatically different forces and truths whether those relations are friendly or more contentious.

We see a clear example of this in the story of Orestes in Aeschylus’ trilogy of plays, the Oresteia. We see here, as well, a political response to the conflict inherent within paganism that rejects any ultimate unification or simplification of reality’s complexity and pluralism.

In the final stage of the story, Orestes has killed his mother who had previously killed his father. Apollo, having inspired him to avenge his father in the first place, officially cleanses him of the crime of matricide. The Furies, an older order of gods sworn to a different set of values, refuse to accept Apollo’s judgment and instead insist that the crime of killing one’s mother must be punished and Orestes must pay with his sanity or, eventually, his life. There is no sense throughout the story that either the values of Apollo or those of the Furies are wrong. Both are legitimate and deeply enshrined in the complex power struggles of the Ancient Greek tradition. Neither the Furies nor Apollo are willing to back down nor, indeed, should either give up their basic commitments and view of the fundamental truths of reality. Violence, and ultimately a new war between the younger and older gods, threatens to break out due to the actions of a human son.

The solution to this inescapable conflict is found in Athens with its patron goddess. Apollo, Orestes and the Furies gather there before Athena and present their case for her judgment. But she, too, cannot achieve any final absolute judgment– for she is just as much a party to the issue as Apollo or the Furies. As a goddess herself, and the child of Zeus, her own values can not allow her to judge against Apollo, the rule of the father, and the younger gods. Her solution, then, is a political one. She gives up the absolute authority to judge the case even as Apollo and the Furies had given up their authority to her. Instead, she assembles a jury of human citizens and has the case presented to them. We see here the use of democracy to settle the problem of irreducible conflicts amidst truths, none of which can be rejected.

Council and Consensus

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Akan symbol for Sankofa, meaning “to go back and get it” best captured in the saying “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

There are a few points we should consider in response to Athenian democracy as a model of pagan politics. First, this can’t of course be the one and only model because the numerous Pagan Greek City States all had their own version of political organization– from military rule in Sparta, Tyrannies, Oligarchies, Aristocracies and Monarchies to the radical majoritarian Democracy of Athens. We will have something to say about this plurality of pagan political forms later. Second, democracy cannot be understood as a neutral position free of values from which the conflicting norms of the multiple gods can be judged. Rather, democracy can itself be understood as embodying the basic valuing of difference and pluralism. Without diversity in views of truth democracy is neither possible nor necessary. In our contemporary world democracy is often thought necessary because of an inability to come to agreement on certain unanswered questions or questions which have no answer. Thus, one can still assert that there is always one right answer but because we either don’t always know it or some people refuse to see it we turn to the compromise of democracy. In a pagan context, however, democracy is predicated on the rejection of any final reductive truth. Because reality is made up of many conflicting forces and truths the necessary political form is one that can embrace these conflicts without, at the same time, surrendering decision-making capabilities.

Third, and finally, we must recognize that the term democracy covers a variety of political formulations. Athenian democracy was direct, majoritarian and contained very few checks on the power of the majority. For example, the political majority could in many cases vote their representatives and generals to death. Modern American democracy is representative rather than direct, still majoritarian, but contains basic limitations on the power of the majority through the concept of rights. Other forms of democracy limit the majoritarian aspects of democracy by insisting on higher percentages of votes for a decision to be put into action, forcing representatives to form temporary coalitions out of their diverse interests, or set up proportional representation such that a party with twenty percent of the vote would hold twenty percent of the representatives in the legislative body. In a majoritarian system twenty percent simply represents a loss.

We see a nice counter model to the urban empire oriented majoritarian politics of Athens in some of the traditional pagan cultures found in Africa. The Akan culture traditionally governed itself through communal councils made up of the leaders of the community. Each council was presided over by a leader whose primary job was to moderate the discussion of the council and execute its decisions. For this reason Akan sayings capture such wisdom as “There are no bad leaders, only bad advisors”. Since the leader only acted on the decision of the council, any failure in action was a failure of the council.

This form of government, similar to many forms found in North American Native cultures, was democratic in the sense that the members of the council were representatives of the people and open to the judgment of the community should they fail in their representation. Perhaps most importantly, however, these councils were overtly non-majoritarian. The aim of the council was to arrive at consensus. The councils did not recognize majority will, but rather sought to bring any points of contention to a place where each side of the issue was willing to agree. The process of council was not complete until this agreement was reached. Despite this, however, the belief was not that consensus arrived at the one ultimate truth, but rather that it was the best means of bringing conflicting truths into harmony. For the Akan “One head does not go into council”, making clear that council itself requires a multiple of irreducibly different views, and “Wisdom does not reside in one head”, meaning that only a collection of these different non-totalizing grasps of reality allow for wisdom.

We might say, in this regard, that Akan communitarianism represents the idea that while there are many conflicting truths, wisdom consists in the ability to appreciate and see as many of these truths as possible without allowing any of them to dominate. While the ability to do this is limited in individuals, it is possible in a community of those seeking wisdom. There is no reduction or normalization of difference here, but rather an embrace of the productive play amongst difference. Only in difference is there truth.

Empire and Domination

Athena_Orestes_Erinyes

Orestes at trial with Apollo, Athena, and the Erinyes The Erinyes of Clytaemnestra pursue Orestes. Beside Athena, who presides the court, sits Apollo. Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912

We can find models, then, in pagan cultures for how their religion feeds into what my early representation of pagan metaphysics might expect us to see in politics.

However, there is a problem we need to face: not all pagan cultures gave rise to democratic or communitarian forms of government. Certainly these are the most common forms we find in traditional pagan cultures in Africa, Northern Europe and the Americas but history is replete with counter-examples. The Athenian empire, cherishing democracy for itself but frequently refusing it to its vassal states, is such a counter-example as is, perhaps most notably, the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire, like the Athenian, harbored democratic institutions within it for much of its history while showing the world a face of domination and absolutism, to of course say nothing of the internal failures of both democracies to offer real freedom to the majority of their peoples.

Part of the internal domination found in pagan cultures can be explained by a failure to adequately navigate the pluralism of their metaphysics and religion and the necessary conflicts arising from this pluralism. It is clearly an aspect of paganism for many to believe their own god or cultic practice to be superior to the others. It is clear that the conflict between Apollo and the Furies could have just as easily not been successfully navigated, giving rise to wars seeking supremacy or settling into the enslavement of one part of the community by others. This is one reason to rise from the religious perspective to the metaphysical, for the metaphysical allows us to see the contours of pagan culture irrespective of particular religious commitments while at the same time admitting the limited and fallible nature of our metaphysics in light of its own pluralistic commitments. Even this metaphysics will be just one amongst many, as it would itself predict.

The paradox we are attempting to address between a pluralistic metaphysics that fails to embody a pluralistic politics can be seen most clearly in the contrast between the exceptionally common cultural and religious tolerance of pagan cultures and their not infrequent political intolerance. Despite what you might expect, Athenian and Roman cultures were consistently open to cultural and religious variety. We could go even further and point out that they were almost greedy for new religious ideas. There are exceptions, of course, people were still put to death for impiety from time to time, but the appearance of new gods and new religious practices within both cultures was constant. We see similar elements throughout Greece, with many of the Greek gods originating from foreign cultures. Rome, while busy conquering the known world, did not impose its gods upon conquered people along side its political dominance and, instead, liked to bring new divinities and traditions to Rome to enrich its own cultural complexity. We can see this aspect of Roman culture most clearly if we consider it in contrast with the events following the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. Almost immediately the forces of monotheism resorted to rioting and the destruction of pagan temples and documents. Political suppression of paganism took a bit longer to be put in place, but it too soon followed and eventual gave rise to the goal of Catholic monoculture and the destruction off all other religious practices.

The pluralism we see in Rome and Athens is even more obvious when we look at the more recent interaction between Christian monotheism and traditional African cultures. The interaction between Africans and Christian missionaries and slavers played out the way it did at least partially because of the radically different way each side of the conflict treated the other. Most traditional African cultures had been prone, amongst themselves, to an open-minded curiosity about the beliefs and practices of their distant neighbors. As has been pointed out by numerous African philosophers and anthropologists, the attitude of most traditional African communities towards both their own gods and the gods of others, tended to be highly experimental and practically- minded. Gods were respected to the extent that they provided material benefits and wisdom. These gods, then, could be tested to see which worked better or worse for certain goals. When a god or religious practice repeatedly failed to deliver, when it no longer proved useful, it was frequently abandoned. The same thing went for the gods of foreign peoples. They were openly accepted as new proposals for useful ways to navigate the world. When they proved to not be useful they were rejected, though that did not mean those who still found them useful were in any way forced to “convert”.

We can see in the interaction of African communities with Christian missionaries a key example of the conflict between pagan and monotheist metaphysics. The conversation between missionaries and their prey is strikingly one-sided. The traditional Africans are curious about the newcomers and willing to discuss their views and debate the possible usefulness and plausibility of the new god they propose. The missionaries, on the other hand, do not accept that they have anything to learn or gain from the Africans and repeatedly insist that their own god is not just a god, but rather the One and Only God. This proposal is generally met with laughter by the Africans who found the very idea obviously ridiculous. The Africans are at a clear disadvantage for, while they are seeking to understand and expand their own wisdom, their interlocutors are seeking only to dominate, convert and destroy.

Within pagan cultures we frequently see similar conflicts between cultural openness and the drive for political domination and power without, nonetheless, the particularly pernicious metaphysical commitment to access to the One Truth. We might say, then, that within paganism, domination arises as a conflict amidst powers; while, within a monotheistic culture domination takes the form of a conflict amidst claims to truth. For Christian missionaries, someone was right and someone was wrong. For the Roman conqueror someone was strong and someone else was weak.

The failure that arises in the case of pagan domination of others, we might suggest, is a failure to see the extent to which a pagan metaphysics teaches that there is a plurality of types of power, all of which are important, useful and worthy of a type of respect because each derives from a different truth and reality. This clarifies the way in which pagan religion, and the metaphysics it contains, holds the potential for an open culture and politics while this potential has too often been only partially actualized. We might propose, then, that it has been left to us to more fully develop and achieve what previous cultures have frequently only imperfectly envisioned.

Paganism and Capitalism

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Roman coin featuring the God Janus

Communitarian or democratic views with a focus on the value and inescapable nature of robust difference are not the only existing proposal on the table for how to navigate the diversity of interests and values existing in a complex society. If pagan cultures seek to elevate difference to the point of its greatest creativity, capitalism exists as a way in which to reduce all values and views to a base line of control and comparison. In other words, capitalism can be seen as a way to navigate pluralism through the reduction of differences to the one totalizing value of money. The power of numbers and mathematics is that they provide a standard lens through which all things can be ordered. In natural science mathematics provides the basis for a totalizing theory of nature. In economics and especially capitalism mathematics is applied to all human interaction and belief. The dream of capitalism is that all things can be numbered and, in being so numbered, owned, bought, sold and ultimately controlled. Capitalism is, in its essential nature, dominating and leveling. It always reduces to one level of value and rejects any resistance to this leveling reduction, this totalizing.

Despite claims to the contrary, the market is not democratic because it is predicated upon the necessity that not all agents in the market share the same buying power or selling power. There must always be centers of control in every market: the wealthy and the less wealthy, the owners and the workers, etc. In reducing all ways of life to monetary exchange, and positing this exchange upon necessary inequality, capitalism opposes communitarian and democratic concerns. As we can see in the history of politics and economics, the move to capitalism was not a neutral or natural transition but rather the outcome of one force in society – the landed wealthy and/or business classes – attempting to defeat other forces and dominate the people as a whole. This is why, for example, hereditary aristocracies and capitalism were frequently historically in conflict as were military regimes and capitalism. What we witness is a war amongst the powerful for which segment of the population will rule.

Capitalism is, to put it bluntly, monotheist in its metaphysics and, whether directly or indirectly, must be opposed to the pagan assertion of inescapable differences irreducible to any one system of values. Pagan cultures have gods of commerce and religious practices to govern such human activities, but it was clear that these gods could never rule over all the others and that, in fact, commercial and monetary values were minor in comparison to a vast plethora of others. We can see this when we notice how, in comparison to our own prejudices, many pagan cultures had a much more limited conception of ownership especially over such things as land and natural resources. In some cultures, such as the African Akan culture and many Native American cultures, the words often taken to mean “ownership” mean rather something more like “trusteeship”. To own is rather to be entrusted with the responsibility of protecting and developing something for the sake of the community and the world as a whole. Even very personal goods were entrusted to one by the gods who had granted you with personal guardianship. The goal of your own well-being existed beside the much larger claims of the well-being of the full diversity of entities and truths.

Pagan Politics, an Outline

What, then, might be pagan politics and how does it relate to capitalism? I will draw here a few tentative principles from what I have said so far and am anxious to hear any suggestions, thoughts, objections or disagreements you might have. At the very least, I hope this will be part of a productive ongoing conversation.

A Pagan Metaphysics might Assert that:

1. Reality is irreducibly multiple, made up of numerous different forces. In other words, truth and reality are always plural.
2. Insofar as these truths are irreducible there is no one final truth or god and conflict (whether constructive or destructive, whether play or war) is an unavoidable aspect of reality.
3. There is no one right way to live, best culture, highest value or single purpose.
4. Wisdom consists in a gathering of diverse truths beyond that attainable by any one individual, “Wisdom does not reside in one head.”

A Pagan Politics might be Committed to:

1. The rejection of all totalizing claims and authorities.
2. The promotion of productive rather than negative conflict (play over war) and an increase in different ways of life.
3. The commitment to creating an environment where each way of life can reach its fullest most creative form as far as is possible, thus rejecting the Roman model of one type of power ruling over all others.
4. The insistence that no one standard of evaluation can be applied to all things.
5. The recognition that most things should not be characterized in terms of monetary value and so the resistance to the reduction of all values to market values.
6. In a World Without Council, i.e. one already under the domination of one reductive way of life, pagan politics would be committed to the pursuit of the actions necessary to make pluralism possible.

 

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem .

13 Comments »

    • Unite indeed! I am glad you found the piece interesting. I see you posted some musings of your own and look forward to checking them out!

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  1. Admittedly, I have not read your new post from this week, so you may expand a bit on thing there. That said, I would love it if you could share a bit more about productive versus negative forms of conflict. If I’m understanding you, productive conflict seeks to find agreement within a plurality of concerns without necessarily negating any of those concerns (though it may have to prioritize between or within them). Negative conflict, however, seeks to determine which of the concerns are invalid or not worthy of focus and attention. Is that correct?

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  2. David, that is an excellent question and one I wish to explore much more fully although I haven’t done so in this week’s post. Perhaps it should be the subject of a future post.

    I think I would formulate the distinction a bit differently than you have. A productive conflict wouldn’t necessarily aim at agreement but rather aims for each side of the disagreement to more fully and completely express (and understand) their set of concerns, values and truths (or results in this outcome). It is possible to imagine a conflict in which no side ends up agreeing with the others, but in which each side comes to more completely understand itself and the others. This type of conflict need not ever end, but it will continually (while creative) lead to more and more complete expressions of each of the ways of life involved.

    A destructive or negative conflict, on the other hand, will aim at or result in a decrease in possible ways of life or diverse expressions of ways of life. If the aim or the result is to silence or destroy any given collection of truths/values then it will be destructive.

    So, we can always ask: does a given conflict result in an increase in ways of life and grasps of truth or does it result in a decrease of such diversity.

    Notice that agreement is a little tricky here. There are, at least, two types of agreement. One results in the reduction of two (or more) positions to one (the agreed upon one). Another results in the creation of a new position over and beyond the previous two (or more) while keeping the previous positions in existence.

    There are very difficult counter-examples someone could raise against this view and, lest anyone else not want to bring them up, I will for the sake of honesty. Aren’t some ways of life or views just not worthy of existence? Aren’t some things so abhorrent they should be destroyed? I believe paganism involves a commitment to the idea that there is something of value in each way of life, in each grasp of truth, even if we have difficulty seeing it. Certainly, the full content of a way of life need not be accepted, but one could argue that the truth embodied by the way of life has been obscured by other things like greed or fear or hate or the desire for power which have distorted its truth. So, when we come upon something we can’t possibly accept, the appropriate move might be to attempt to see what honest valuable gem of truth is hidden within what we find horrifying and also attempt to get the people we are conflicting with to themselves see the way in which they are distorting or overlooking their own values/truths. We look, in other words, for internal contradictions out of an attempt to understand and improve the way of life we are in conflict with.

    I’m not entirely sure these sketches are adequate, but they are a start.

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    • Perfect. This makes things much more clear to me. I was stuck on the idea of agreement effectively reducing multiple views to one on which the the parties in conflict can accept which seemed to be the opposite of what you were trying to say. Thank you for your elaboration!

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  3. I like comparing reality to the facets of an infinitely faceted, multidimensional gem. If I stand on a single facet, I see my reality alone. If I stand on an edge between two facets I can appreciate two realities. If I stand at a point where I can see multiple realities, I get a headache!

    One of the issues that we face is that a communal council political system doesn’t seem to work outside of a small group that are almost intimately interdependent. For an example of a failure of the communal council model, see the US Articles of Confederation. I once attended a negotiating seminar where the class was divided into several small teams, and then one team had to negotiate with another team on an issue critical to survival. The only restriction put on the negotiations was that both teams had to survive. Would be nice of we could apply the same restriction more universally!

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  4. I really like how you present your ideas here. The gem image works very well here just so long as we make the rather mind-bending jump to recognize that a gem with infinite facets can’t ever be conceptualized accurately as a single unified thing. You are certainly right about the difficulties of translating small scale political ways of life to the large scale. Though democracy faced a similar challenge, indeed all political forms have. I think there is something to be seen here in the conflict between a winner-takes-all majoritarian democracy and a consensus model which has been used on the large scale. But this alone is hardly enough.

    Absolutely, all teams must survive! But more than that, ideally we must seek a solution in which all teams thrive as far as possible. This is part of what I have in mind in the difference between destructive and constructive conflict.

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    • Just as hard as conceptualizing an infinite Universe, I guess.

      Democratic Athens did give Socrates hemlock and while that may not have happened in the American model, there are still imperfections. As I said elsewhere, politics runs on the ends justify the means – which to me is an ugly ethical model. Could we ever have a political system where everyone has a voice yet runs on a more utilitarian ethical model? I have my doubts. Yet we still have the issue of whether a communal council could work in something larger than an extended family unit or tribe. Hard enough to find one honest person in politics, let alone 435. Diogenes would have gone mad trying.

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