Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review: Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics

Emma Restall Orr is one of the leading figures of British Druidry, and her book Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics may be seen as an attempt for formalize the vaguely expressed ethical precepts ("If it harm none," etc.) that characterize contemporary Paganism(s).

Orr herself admits that "Paganism can appear fragmented " but that its diversity of belief and approach "is not always helpful those trying to grasp comprehension from the outside" (11). (I think she means, "Comprehend it from the outside.)

As have a number of other Pagan writers, she feels moved to act partly by social pressures. In order for Pagans and their concerns (e.g., "appropriate care of ancient monuments and artefacts"), "it is useful to be able to stand with one voice before the benches of a nation's authority" (11).

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This "nature" is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: "The *Pagan acceptance of nature's destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence." You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Asterisk-Pagan is Orr's special spelling for a Paganism with "a devotional reverence for nature" (35), and it is essentially countercultural and antinominan, mixed with a heavy dose of romantic tribalism.

But the more I read Living with Honour, the more I became aware of two huge omissions. One is Pagan philosophy. Orr knows that she does not want to return to a bloody, heroic duel-fighting "death before dishonor" type of tribal culture, as appealing as it looks from a distance of 2,500 years. So the book is not really rooted in the Northern European Iron Age cultures, despite a couple of nods in that direction.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition!

The Stoics get a paragraph or two, and Epicurus one sentence that demonstrates the common modern misunderstanding of his teaching. The rest of the time, the reader is fed bits of the usual grumpy, depressed, and misogynistic 18th-20th-century gang: Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietszche. (I will make an exception for Emmanual Lévinas, whose work has informed some other contemporary Pagan thought as well.)

The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of "hard polytheists" to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the "honor the gods and do your duty" attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life--even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system.

Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

By contrast, Orr's book says much about cosmos and "the Other" in an abstract sense, but neglects the polis—the world of civic and social relationships. That is the second omission.

It may be that Orr finds participatory politics distasteful--"American democracy is acknowledged as a farce," she proclaims (6)--and would rather limit her wants and watch badgers. (Doing so would be Epicurean in the truer sense.) She admits to a fondness for philosophical anarchism.

But by neglecting the "political" (in the broadest sense of life in community) part of life, she has nothing to say on issues of rights and responsibilities, on how to be an engaged and "political" citizen.

Indeed, she rejects "any idea of duty" (323). If I ever have to teach another 8 a.m. lecture class but would rather sleep, I will remember that I have no duty to the university or to my students. I can just send them a group email and tell them to read the book on their own.

When Pagans (and *Pagans) come before "the benches of nation's authority," we need to make a simple case. Although a tiny religious minority, we will pull our weight. We do not ask for to be excused for our specialness, with sharia courts and kicking everyone else out of the public swimming pool.

Unlike fundamentalists of various sorts, we do not fear academic learning--Pagans invented the academy. And democracy. And Western philosophy.

Many of us are willing to take up arms for our nation, and we support our warriors. In all social realms, we are here, and we participate.

Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics--I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what "nature religion" is--I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

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Blogger Ali said...

Very nice review. I recently read Restall Orr's book, too, and though I agree with you about its first omission, I'm not so sure about the second.

Restall Orr may state explicitly that she rejects "duty," but my understanding of this declaration was as a rejection of some set standard of abstract rules that uniformly apply to everyone. Instead, she substitutes engaged, responsible relationship, which to me seems inherently and powerfully political. (e.g. You may have no "duty" to teach that early morning class, but your relationships with your students, with your work and with your own self are likely to urge you to honor your commitment anyway. Unless you really think reading the text alone can be just as informative as one of your lectures...) After all, living in community is essentially about forming bonds (or recognizing connections that already implicitly exist). Promoting the individual responsibility to act ethically according to these bonds rather than according to some theoretical conception of right is political. There may be more than a hint of anarchy to her philosophy--but anarchy is merely the absence of government, not the absence of the political community itself. Restall Orr's advice on "how to be an engaged and 'political' citizen" is merely a restatement of how to be an engaged member of the natural world community.

As far as her lack of references to the rich heritage of Pagan ethics and philosophy--I'll grant you, there was very little (though not knowing much about it myself, the absence didn't sting so much). But reading her introductory chapters, I got the impression she was grounding her book not in the academic world, where such philosophies are preserved and better known, but in the everyday conversations of real, ordinary Pagan practitioners. Such people are probably much more likely to be familiar with the "usual grumpy, depressed" philosophers who, like themselves, were coping with a mid- to post-Christian cultural context. Not that this is an excuse to leave out valuable insights from pre-Christian Pagan philosophers, of course. But Restall Orr sets out to address a particular audience by meeting them first on familiar ground, and I think she accomplishes this aim as well as can be expected in a book only a few hundred pages long, less than a hundred of which are devoted to the history of ethical philosophy. (If you haven't read Myer's book, The Other Side of Virtue, you may find there the kind of academic-historical discussion you find more satisfying).

All in all, I think Restall Orr's book is a step in a very fresh and rewarding direction. Think of it as a Pagan Ethics 101 book if that alleviates some of your disappointment, on par with similar Pagan 101 texts--not designed to do or say everything, just an introduction to an infinitely complex topic. Meanwhile, perhaps you know a few writers better versed in ancient Pagan philosophical traditions who you can prod into writing more involved texts on the topic.

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

The ancient philosophers were expected by their students and communities to actually live their teachings.

I would say that most of them, e.g. Epictetus, are more easily read than, say, Schopenhauer.

The Buddhist publishing house Shambhala recently brought out an edition of Epictetus' Virtue and Happiness) that is inexpensive and a joy to look at.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...

Re. Myers: I read his book proposal and do mean to review the finished book at some point.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Morning Angel said...

I just ordered "The Other Side of Virtue" by Myers. Anyone know if Myers' "A Pagan Testament..." is a repeat of the first book's ideas and information? I can't waste any pennies these days.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may want to check out Longing for Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims
By Allyson Szabo

I really enjoyed the book and its focus on what living those ethics contained in the Maxiums meant both in the ancient world and now.

Here is the write up on the book - About the book: Know yourself. Nothing in excess. Give a pledge and ruin is near. These are the words inscribed on a stele just outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Stunning in their simplicity, these Maxims have survived the test of time. Even today, they cause the reader to pause and think about what such short, poignant phrases mean. For those who study Hellenic Polytheism, either in historical or modern religious context, the Delphic Maxims are of great import because they hold a key to understanding early Greek thought. Delving into both the history and the current application of 34 of the Maxims to the creation of personal ethics and morals, Allyson Szabo provides us with a path to personal growth and understanding of the world around us.


8:11 AM  
Blogger Morning Angel said...

Thanks for the input. I'll look at that.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Daniel M. Laenker said...

Thank you. Your review was particularly telling to me as a Hellenist with naturalist leanings.

One thing that I would like to add, though, is that to many of us "natural" and "right" are still unrelated concepts. What is natural is very often bad for us, and to me a concept of right has to be constructed from a concern for the well-being of morally considerable beings. As such, what is "natural" may not necessarily be useful in moral evaluation.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Edward Butler said...

Plato and Aristotle are "pagan ethicists". There is no good reason not to regard them as such; certainly a history of tendentious Christian misreadings of them do not constitute a reason. I have a serious problem with any author who sets out to write a book on "pagan ethics" and seems completely ignorant of this.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Chas S. Clifton said...


The Stoics speak of living with "nature," but the question is always to decide what they mean by that.

Not the trees-and-flowers nature, I don't think.


I agree. And although the Neoplatonists are heavy going, as we both know, Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are fairly easy to follow.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Yewtree said...

This is a very useful review.

If we are going to advance Pagan theoilogy (or whatever people want to call it) beyond its current woefully inadequate state, we are going to have to grapple with the ancient texts, and also with the issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

As to duty, personally I try not to rely on the idea of supernaturally-imposed concepts such as universal laws or anything like that, so if Emma is rejecting those when she dismisses duty, that's fair enough; but it won't do to omit the mutual obligations, responsibilities and commitments that come with being part of society, which are not supernaturally imposed.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rejecting "any idea of duty"?

That certainly isn't an "ethical" precept of _my_ paganism. There are plenty of entirely secular organizations and philosophies that advocate blind self-interest.

I certainly hope she has no children. I would think the romanticism of a more tribal way of life would lead to embracing one's duty to family and community, but apparently that's not the case.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

I have to say--I wish Chas had taken more time to respond more fully to my actual points (readability and practical application of ancient philosophies are far beside the point I was actually addressing), and I wish other commenters would read the book themselves instead of taking his word for the text and then bashing their assumptions about Restall Orr's ideas or personal character. She spends a great deal of time addressing the points made by Daniel (re: natural v. right) and Edward (re: Plato and Aristotle as Pagan philosophers), and she also takes time to talk specifically about the healthy, responsible relationships we form with children and family members, as well as others. Geesh, people, sometimes I think the blogosphere just gets off on being vicious and doesn't care much about exchanging information at all. Chas, why not step up and correct some of these false accusations based on your review?

Unless your goal is to discourage people from bothering to read something they might happen to disagree with... in which case, I suppose, well done.

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Chas S. Cllifton said...


If I did not think that people should read Orr's book, would I have linked to

As I said, I want to see intelligent Pagans grapple with the idea of what it means to be "nature-based."

On the other hand, her dismissal of an old but viable Pagan philosophical tradition is inexplicable to me.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Edward Butler said...


Just looked up all the references to Plato in Orr's book, and they are drivel, they show no independent reflection, just regurgitating outdated, popularizing secondary literature, rehashing a worn-out narrative about dualism. It's not helpful.

12:19 PM  

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