Monday, June 1, 2009

Relationship & Story: Exploring Ethics from a Pagan Perspective

The beginning of June marks the beginning of the first-ever International Pagan Values Blogging Month, and I couldn't be more excited! I also couldn't be busier, as I juggle schedules, arrange for my summer vacation, plan for my up-coming birthday and help my boyfriend move into his new apartment. So, I hope you will forgive me if I kick off this month's posts with a review of two excellent books on "Pagan values" already out there in circulation and well worth reading: Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics by Emma Restall Orr, and The Other Side of Virtue, by Brendan Myers. Within the next few days, I'll also be guest posting over at Druid Journal on ecology, environmentalism and practical pacifism, as an introduction to a four(ish)-part series on the role of pacifism, violence and warriorhood in Paganism. I'll be updating here again to let you know when that post is up, so be sure to hop on over to check it out! Until then, enjoy the following review, first published in Sky, Earth, Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2009).

"The greatest achievement of spirit: the ability to transform nearly anything--even our suffering and tragedy--into art."

- Myers, The Other Side of Virtue

As the Pagan community continues to change and grow, establishing itself as a thriving contemporary spiritual tradition (or more accurately, traditions!), the needs of this diverse and somewhat chaotic community also continue to develop beyond those of first-generation neophytes looking for initiatory experiences and basic how-to guides. One aspect of this evolving need for a deeper, more complex engagement with the Pagan spiritual path--so familiar to those who demand "advanced" Pagan texts that move beyond the typical "Druidry 101," for instance--can be seen in the community's desire to establish its own unique sense of ethics and virtue apart from the divinely mandated good-and-evil dualism of a monotheistic mainstream. From the earliest modern practitioners of Wicca and Druidry, we find examples of moral formulations: the Wiccan Rede, the Law of Threefold Return, and the collection of Druidic triads, to name only a few. And yet many of us can see that these simple codes often leave much to be desired, faltering under pressure or deteriorating into self-justifying rhetoric. Two new texts published recently by O Books, however, rise to the challenge and take on the complex, wild and vital questions of ethical action and virtuous living, seeking new ways of approaching such ancient problems: Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics, by Emma Restall Orr, and Brenden Myers's text, The Other Side of Virtue: Where our virtues come from, what they really mean, and where they might be taking us.

Both texts center on the idea of relationship, more specifically that between the self and the world (and those in it), as the defining aspect of what we should consider an ethical or virtuous life. Emma Restall Orr sets out in her book, Living With Honour, to provide a clear basis for making practical (or "applied") ethical choices apart from the moral doctrines laid out by monotheistic religions and secular culture, which have tended in recent times to be dualistic and hierarchical. The result is a uniquely Pagan conception of ethics based on the primacy of "honorable relationship," an on-going, active engagement with the world and those living in it, guided by courage, generosity and loyalty. While Restall Orr focuses primarily on how this relationship with the world shapes our everyday choices and behavior in order to form a healthy interconnection with other beings, in Brenden Myers's work The Other Side of Virtue, the author trains his attention on the engaged individual, exploring how a self-aware relationship with Immensities helps each of us to discover, as well as to create, "who we are." For Myers, self-knowledge presents a philosophical "problem," and the work of resolving it cultivates a person's virtue in the form of human excellence. Both authors, however, recognize a core ambivalence about assuming such relationship with the world will always be safely benign, challenging the easy dichotomy between good and evil so common to monotheistic religions. In searching for an alternative ethical foundation, both Myers and Restall Orr evoke Pagan and Druidic notions of creative story-telling as the means by which we might shape our lives with a sense of meaning, beauty and truth.

Emma Restall Orr's text might be considered, for many readers, to be the more practical and down-to-earth of the two. She devotes the first half of this clear-sighted and articulate book to deconstructing common (and commonly misunderstood) terms such as "Pagan," "morality," and "honor", as well as developing a broad understanding of the many schools of thought that have contributed to the study of ethics over the centuries. Leaping over whole philosophical systems in a single bound, she is likely to leave some readers a little giddy with vertigo, but her treatment is invariably sharp and fair, seeking the central tenants and common threads that will be most illuminating without risking oversimplification. Her careful exploration of the multifarious foundations and processes that go into making everyday choices--from emotion and instinct, to reason and the rule of law--prepares the reader for the "applied ethics" of later chapters. Further, her brief description of various Pagan traditions and their unique moral formulations provides a place for the contemplative Pagan reader to find an initial foothold of familiar subject matter, while also clarifying (for Pagan and non-Pagan readers alike) how one can establish and maintain a functional ethical model outside of the doctrines of monotheistic religions and secular humanism. Scattered throughout these sections of analysis and dissection are Restall Orr's characteristic flashes of narrative--dancing in the rain, savoring an apple, reading quietly in the park--which give flavor and moving insight into the potential of engaged ethical living.

These more poetic moments become less common in the second half of Living with Honour, as Restall Orr buckles down to the nitty-gritty and addresses many contemporary social and political issues of our time. Exploring everything from suicide and euthanasia to animal rights and vegetarianism, parenting and romance to ecology and materialism, she applies her ethic of "honorable relationship" with intensity and consistency. Her approach puts the individual's ability to choose freely, no matter how difficult or convoluted the circumstances, at the heart of an ethical life, and eschews any reliance on socially-imposed "morality" or external rule of law. This text does not aim to rewrite the shared assumptions of a Judeo-Christian mainstream, but instead celebrates the anarchistic, pluralistic tendencies of the modern Pagan community as essential to developing a sense of individual responsibility ("response-ability") that relates more directly and receptively to a world that is always complex and in flux. Because of her intensity, however, some of her conclusions may make readers cringe (especially those passages which call for strict veganism or which challenge the usual notions of death); her thorough deconstruction of our potential for careless exploitation is pitiless, daunting, even at times overwhelming. One might wonder how it is ever possible to have enough knowledge or power to be capable of making truly effective ethical choices in the face of a huge and infinitely complicated world.

However, her unfaltering emphasis on personal, responsive relationship softens her own tendency towards moralizing, saving the text from becoming just another example of imposing doctrine. Instead, Restall Orr works tirelessly to remind readers that ethical living must be guided, above all, by an open and ever-changing experience of the world itself, here and now. In the third and final section of her book, she addresses the feelings of fear, impotence, inertia and confusion that often keep us from acting according to our own sense of ethics. As an antidote to such feelings, she suggests a kind of stubborn, loving integrity that seeks for a meaningful, empowering sense of self immersed in an infinitely beautiful world. In these final pages, she tells a story of scared awe and gratitude, in which the choice to act ethically is rarely ever a choice at all, but only the natural response that empathy and integrity evoke in a receptive individual willing to place honorable relationship above pure self-interest or familiar fears.

In some ways, this poetic conclusion to Restall Orr's work leads naturally to the first chapters of Brenden Myers's The Other Side of Virtue, which opens with a warm circle of storytellers gathered around a crackling fire, inviting the reader to join. While Restall Orr finds powerful, ecstatic inspiration above all in the wildness of the natural world, Myers is clearly moved and motivated strongly by the shared life and work of community and locates the beginning of his discussion of virtue in this setting. The first "movement" of the text (which is structured like a song or musical score) plays informally with images and metaphors to be developed more fully later on, asserting aphorisms and even making jokes. Reading along, it is almost impossible not to begin to engage the text directly, chuckling aloud or scribbling notes in the margin, developing a dialogue, a conversation of ideas and possibilities. While Restall Orr prepares the reader to enter into the thick of ethical analysis by first covering the familiar ground of Pagan tradition, Myers uses a different approach to his task of defining virtue: establishing a sense of community that will run through the rest of the book and give landscape and texture to the path it will trace.

In the following three movements, Myers proceeds to examine the historical development of the concept of "virtue," beginning with the tribal culture of Heroic societies, through the developing emphasis on reason in ancient Classical philosophy, following the various permutations over the centuries as they produced humanism, romanticism and contemporary examples, real and fictional, of honorable heroes and great men. Throughout this discussion, Myers includes useful details about the changes in society and politics, as well as myriad quotations from ancient texts, to give context and perspective to the evolving definition of human virtue. His examination of particular thinkers and writers, such as Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Nietzsche, provide stepping stones through history for the reader; however, at times they give the text almost too specific a focus, as though standing in for whole schools of thought without giving the reader enough perspective to see how these trends weave together in a broader theory. Meanwhile, the influence of Judeo-Christian morality and its redefinition of virtue as that of passivity and obedience, so intriguingly mentioned in the book's overture, is left almost entirely unmentioned. Here is one place where Restall Orr's sweeping but sometimes overly broad discussion of philosophical concepts can compliment Myers's more specialized focus and remind the reader of the "bigger picture" that might otherwise be lost in the historical milieu.

If the discussion of virtue's historical development, although very well-researched and highly informative, feels a bit dense or cobbled together at times, the fifth movement of The Other Side is where Myers really hits his stride. In it, he attempts to lay bare the "logical structure" of virtue itself, as he understands it, and the slowly-unfolding weaving together of seemingly disparate ideas from previous sections is by turns masterful, musical and mind-blowing. Here we are confronted in a kind of pure contemplation with some of the "Immensities" (Myers's term) that Restall Orr addresses more directly and practically in the later chapters of her own work: the Earth, Death (or Time), and Other People; as well as some of the responses their presence in our lives can evoke: wonder, integrity, and humanity. For Myers, the issue of relationship--the place of the individual within a community and landscape--comes to the forefront in "threshold" experiences whereby a person's sense of identity and self-knowledge is challenged, shaken to its core and thus transformed by an engagement with something both infinitely knowable and intimately overwhelming.

Unlike Restall Orr, who believes that an open engagement with the world usually renders the "ethical" course of action obvious and natural, Myers suggests that we develop our sense of virtue, or human excellence, precisely in those situations when an Immensity calls our most fundamental assumptions about the self and the world into question--that is, precisely when we are least certain of what we once believed to be obvious. His discussion of how these experiences shape us, however, is remarkably similar to Restall Orr's. He too emphasizes our inherent ability to choose as both a revelatory and creative act, at once revealing ourselves to our own self-awareness and helping to create those very selves. The choices we make are shaped by our sense of story (what sociologists might call, on a larger scale, our mythology, what Druids might call our "song") and the role we see ourselves playing as that story unfolds. There is no guarantee that Fortune will be kind or an Immensity benign--in fact, the potentially transformative nature of threshold experiences might be considered inescapably destructive, even traumatic to some extent. But with a strong sense of story, rather than a reliance on traditional definitions of right and wrong, we both discover and create meaning and beauty in our lives through the choices we pursue at such times.

Of course, the study of ethics and the exploration of virtue are not precisely one and the same. On the one hand, virtue is only one way among many to approach the question of ethics (including relativism, utilitarianism, deontology, etc.); on the other hand, there are certain amoral or nonmoral aspects to our understanding virtue itself (such as beauty, physical skills and even good fortune), so that it is difficult to see one as fitting snugly as a subcategory into the other. It may be a gross simplification to say that virtue concerns the effects of a relationship with an Immense world on the nature and knowledge of the self, while ethics is the study of how this relationship is expressed in our behavior and practical choices in everyday life. Yet it seems these two approaches are essentially the ways in which two remarkable contemporary Druid authors have chosen to explore a subject of vast complexity and vital relevance for every human being today. These two books, published so fortuitously within a few months of each other, should most definitely be read together, and read more than once. The questions they raise and problems they wrestle have continuing importance fundamental to our perception of ourselves and the world we live in with one another. And as our own stories change and evolve over the course of our lives, these texts will continuing to offer fresh new insight and possibilities for meaning, beauty, knowledge and truth.

  • Brenden Myers, The Other Side of Virtue: Where our virtues come from, what they really mean, and where they might be taking us, O Books, 2008.

  • Emma Restall Orr, Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics, O Books, 2007.

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