By Jonathan Woolley
It is often said that if you ask 10 Pagans to define Paganism, you will receive 15 different definitions. It is certainly true that Pagans do not have a common body of literature or a single set of ideas that define the essence of what we think and say – although, there have been attempts to establish such a framework. Even so, priding ourselves upon how we celebrate differences of opinion, and over how we are prepared to open our minds to other truths; Pagans as a rule are highly resistant to orthodoxy of all shapes and sizes – indeed, for many of us, an overemphasis upon revealed, absolute truth is what drove us away from established religion in the first place. Even though certain traditions are strict upon what counts as their tradition, you must go a long way to find a Pagan who refuses to – at the very least – accept the right of others to differ in their views. What place, then, could heresy even have within Paganism? If the basic Pagan impulse is to be as disorganised and diverse in our religious opinions as possible, what usefulness is there in a word that serves only to describe forbidden, or controversial religious thought?
In truth, heresy is a vitally important concept – both in terms of its history, and in terms of its present-day usefulness – for Pagans to understand. Heresy – like many components of religious thinking – contains a fruitful paradox. Because what lies at the heart of this concept is not – as we might assume today – the intolerance of Inquisition, and the heat of a burning stake, but rather something that is vital for all Pagans to embrace; a firm commitment to truth.
It is well known that although the Ancients gave us many of our most rarified words, what is less widely acknowledged is the extent to which modern definitions vary from how the Greeks or Romans would have used those same words. “Evoke” for example – today used for the gentle act of calling something to mind, or in magical circles to bring a god or spirit present without it being embodied (c.f. “invoke”) – comes from evocatio; perhaps one of the most evil pieces of Roman War Magic, where the gods of an enemy nation were literally “called away” from the people they knew, and co-opted to the Roman cause. “Person”, a noun that refers to the very essence of who were are as living, social beings, comes from the Ancient Greek πρόσωπον – prosopon – meaning a mere mask, for use in theatre. Heresy comes from another Ancient Greek word – αἵρεσις – or hairesis – meaning “choice”. It referred specifically to the process of deciding how one would live; by choosing between one of the various philosophical schools active in Ancient Greek and later Roman society. Would you seek happiness through the Epicurean quest for balance in all things, or would you opt for the Stoic approach of living in accord with Natural Law? Would you go mad for numbers with the mythical Pythagoras, or was union with the gods more your bag, like Plotinus? This choice was, largely, a free one – there was no one philosophical school that reigned supreme; each had their virtues, and the right of exponents to follow them, and seekers to choose between them was largely respected.
Over time, the moral authority of such considered choices started to wane. Such philosophical introspection was predominantly an elite activity – poor people, women, and slaves were almost always denied the opportunity. As the urban population grew and the Axial Age and the Empires that came after wore on, people lost their faith in the great thoughts of noble men, and started agitating for new, stricter, universal truths that applied to everyone – embodied by the faiths of Christianity, and Islam. Over time, truth became doctrine, choice became fraught, and αἵρεσις became heresy.
A not small question of religion
The impact of this shift in changing how Europeans thought about all matters religious cannot be overestimated. It didn’t just change the content of what Europeans believed, but it changed how they asked questions about and reflected upon that content too. To put it simply, Christianity introduced a compulsion in the realm of philosophy – a series of fixed points, that had to be reconciled with the facts and reason, come what may – that had simply not existed to the same extent previously.
But the transmutation was not total; there is a common thread that links Christian heresy and Pagan αἵρεσις together. Both are profoundly concerned with a commitment to the truth; to seeking it, exploring it, accepting it, defending it. What for Pagan elites was a personal journey, fueled by a singular desire to excel amongst one’s peers, for the Christian church is a matter of internal unity and consistency. The same push for political conformity and obedience that eventually killed Socrates – a controversial, and extraordinary event for its day – became far more developed, extreme and frequent in Medieval Christianity.
Over time, in order to distance itself from these compulsions (and avoid ecclesiastical censure) philosophy came to to distinguish itself from spirituality entirely; leaving the great Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers to be reclassified as fathers of various academic disciplines – with the clear and blatant theological and spiritual content of the work of writers like Aristotle and Plato being largely neglected in their secular hagiographies, despite it being well known to intellectuals.
It should be stressed that this divide – between (religious) theology and (secular) philosophy – is a varyingly porous one within the academy. But the former gulf between the two can still appear, particularly in wider society: where theology is imagined as a space where absolute truths are defended intellectually (descended from the entirely religious Abrahamic tradition), while philosophy is construed as a forum where all truths are systematically questioned (descended from the totally un-religious Indo-Hellenic tradition). In short, theology is felt to disallow heresy, while philosophy is seen to celebrate it.
On Paganism and philosophy
Paganism, of course, with it’s commitment to free choice in matters religious, appears to subvert this dichotomy. Considering how a free choice in how one leads one’s life is intrinsic to the ancient meaning of heresy – as αἵρεσις – one might imagine that contemporary Pagans would be as drawn to philosophy as their Ancient predecessors. Now that literacy is a near-universal skill, and that now a much wider swathe of society has access to the sort of learning the Ancients reserved for the few, there seem to be few obstacles to such an endeavour. And yet, with a few exceptions (including some excellent articles on this very blog), there are very few Pagans out there doing philosophy. Emma Restall-Orr’s Pagan Ethics, which also highlights the ancient origins of heresy in notions of choice, is one such exception. But Restall-Orr neglects to explore why – despite the profound commitment of many Pagans to a diversity of opinions, the doubtless intelligence of many Pagans, and our common roots with academic philosophy in the Classics – the fact that she is one of the few authors to write explicitly in this genre.
One reason – I suspect – is the imagined divide between theology and philosophy. There is no established landscape – outside of the ivory tower-guarded, academese-ridden morass of “interdisciplinarity” – between the two. Into this chasm, I fear, Pagans have dropped the concept of heresy – and therefore lost all sense of what it is about. Although this discarding of heresy has put an end to religious persecution, despite the various controversies that have erupted over the years regarding historical authenticity, reconstruction vs. syncretism, gender binaries, and the ontological status of divinities, it has also blunted our commitment to truth. We don’t do philosophy as much as we might do, because as a community we’ve lost sight of why philosophy – and truth itself – might be important or useful.
In the next series of articles, I’m going to write on a variety of philosophical topics. I do this not as an academic, nor as an expression of absolute truth, but as an intellectual exercise – for the reader, and the author. Pick apart my ideas, dig holes in what I have written. Reflect, ponder, and rebut. Hone your commitment to truth; for it is the pursuit of heresy – motivated by our desire to know – new discovery abounds.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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