I’ve been writing for Pagan Activist for almost two years, and in that time I’ve barely mentioned Paganism, other than to say that my awe at the cycles of life and death has informed the way I look at Gaia, Demeter, Persephone, and Artemis.
That’s because I’ve always been suspicious of religious ethics. An obvious reason is that it’s impossible to prove which, if any, gods are the right ones, so how can we be sure which religious ethics to follow? But Socrates explained the deeper reason better than I can.
In one of Plato’s dialogues, one day Socrates encountered a man named Euthyphro going into the courthouse. Socrates stopped him and asked him what he was doing. Euthyphro replied that he was about to charge his father with manslaughter, who would be executed if proven guilty. Socrates pretends to be impressed with the man’s piety, and asks to learn more about piety from him. Socrates is currently on trial for impiety, for which he will ultimately be condemned, and says he wants to learn from Euthyphro in order to better defend himself.
Asked what is pious, Euthyphro says that what he’s doing now, bringing charges against his father, is pious. Socrates clarifies the question by saying this is only an example of piety, but he wants to know what piety itself is.
Euthyphro then says that piety is that which pleases the gods. Socrates praises this response, but then says that the gods sometimes disagree. If an action is praised by one god but condemned by another, it would have to be both pious and impious at the same time, and that’s not logically possible.
Euthyphro amends his response to say that the pious is what all gods love, and the impious is what all gods hate. Socrates then asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?“Socrates makes an analogy of an item that’s being carried. Being carried by someone is a condition of an object, not a fundamental aspect of the object. Likewise, the gods liking an action doesn’t inherently make the action pious. The gods must like that action for some reason. To say that it’s pious because the gods like it is circular reasoning, like saying the gods like it because they like it.
Euthyphro agrees and says that the gods like an action because it’s pious, and not the other way around. So Socrates says that the gods loving an action only tells him that the action is pious; it doesn’t help him learn what piety is.
Euthyphro suggests that piety is service to the gods, a form of showing care for them. It’s related to prayer, in which humans sacrifice for the gods and ask for favors in return. Socrates wonders what benefits the gods could actually need from us. Euthyphro explains that it’s not that sort of thing at all, but “honour, esteem, and favor.” That brings it back full circle to piety being what the gods like.
At this point Euthyphro claims to be busy and rushes off, and Socrates goes to face his own charge of impiety, for which he will be sentenced to death. This argument with Euthyphro, called the Euthyphro Problem or Euthyphro Dilemma, has become a classic argument for why goodness can’t really stem from the gods.
It would be tempting to say that Socrates was an atheist because of his criticisms of religion and piety. He’s often thought of as one today. But he wasn’t. He believed that he was sent by the god Apollo, and he was so connected to his daimon, what we might call a spirit guide in our time, that it would stop him in the middle of a sentence if he was about to say something false. But even though he had spiritual beliefs he taught that ethics should be founded on reason and not faith.
One of the things modern Pagans complain about is (Christian) religious encroachment into the law. Law and ethics are much the same in the sense that they both attempt to say what people should and shouldn’t do. So I get nervous when I see Pagans espousing religious ethics as a guide to behavior, and it’s why I’ve avoided it.
I’ve always thought that if the gods have any relation to ethics, it’s that they are the wise knowers of right and wrong, good and bad, and not the creators of it. I’ve long held that ethics can be discovered by reason. But it feels strange to write for a Pagan blog and not discuss Paganism.
Once a month I write for the Pagan Activist blog, usually the night or two before it’s due. And I found myself this afternoon with my prayer beads, praying to the gods to guide my words. To Hermes to give my words eloquence. To Aphrodite to bring my words to beauty. To Apollon to give my words reason. And to Artemis to help me protect the animals, since animal rights is what I usually write about. I had a general idea of what I wanted to write about, but by the time I was done praying it wasn’t about that at all.
As I was praying over the beads I started to feel inspired. I prayed to the gods for them to help me manifest my sacred vision and enact my True Will, and that’s when everything snapped into place. I realized the connection between my secular ethics and Pagan values. And the irony isn’t lost on me that Socrates, whose example I try to follow, was killed for impiety to these same gods.
It’s a common idea that we all come to Earth with a sacred mission. That might involve something we can offer the world or might be lessons we need to learn for ourselves, or it might be both together. Aleister Crowley spoke a lot on a person’s True Will. Two of my favorite lines include “Only those are happy who have desired the unobtainable,” (Book 4) and, “For pure will, unassuaged of purpose, delivered from the lust of result, is every way perfect.” (AL I:44). I don’t claim to be a Crowley scholar but I interpret these words in a Buddhist way. That is, we should discover or create a purpose, something we can dedicate our time and effort to, but not be attached to the outcome. In Buddhist language it’s the difference between aspiration and hope. Aspiration is a wish to do something good; hope is a type of fear that we cover up by assuring ourselves that things will turn out ok. The former is healthy, but the latter means we’re attached to the result.
This has been a really difficult lesson for me as an activist. When I was a new vegetarian, like anyone who’s a new anything, I was really righteous about it. I remember one time when my aunt or grandma asked me where my mom was. I responded that she was out picking up corpses. I assumed they would understand that meant she was getting fast food, but apparently I was wrong. I had also assumed that once I turned vegetarian and presented good reasons for it, people would see it was reasonable and immediately change too. But things don’t work that way.
For many years I attempted to convert people. I wrote on online bulletin boards. I talked with friends and family. And nothing ever seemed to change. I wanted to pull my hair out in frustration and my loved ones probably sometimes felt the same. If I still tried to convert everyone I’d probably have gone mad by now.
I still sometimes do that, but for the most I’ve relaxed. Part of that is just the effect of time and disappointment, but in large part it’s because I’ve decided to change my approach. I’ve decided to talk to people like people instead of Wrongs that I want to convert into Rights. And I’ve also decided that I can view conversations as an opportunity to plant seeds, and trust that people will look into things further if they’re inspired enough to do so.
Do I still want people to go vegan? Of course. What activist and what liberal blogger isn’t trying to change the world? But I’m much less attached to it and much happier, and I think that shows when I talk to people. An angry rant isn’t going to convince anyone. It’s only appreciated by people who already agree.
So I view promoting veganism as in some way connected to my True Will. And Crowley’s view, in my meager understanding, is that your True Will isn’t something you accomplish and then kick up your heels. It’s usually a lifelong pursuit, something you may never see fully accomplished. If my goal is to help animals as much as I can, including my fellow human animals, that’s not something with a real end.
I’m grateful now because every moment of my life is an opportunity to do something good, to work on my True Will, to make the world a happier place. To plant seeds and hope (uh oh, that word) some will germinate. There’s another way I used to look at my life, and still do in my dark moments. I’ve got a certain amount of time left, seven decades if I’m lucky, and in that time I’ve got to completely abolish all harm that’s done to animals by humans. Well, I’ll never succeed at that. If that’s my minimum standard of success, I’m screwed.
I don’t claim to know my True Will, but for now I formulate it as, “It is my Will to help people be their best selves.” If I had a ceremonial magickal motto, it would either be that or “Love is the only way to see clearly.” Reminding myself of these when I start to feel a rant coming on really seems to help.
Starhawk, in her book The Earth Path, talks about manifesting our sacred visions. That we all can have a sacred vision of how the world can be and spend our time working to manifest that world. We can’t all accomplish our vision because we all have different ideal worlds in mind, but imagine a world in which everyone is trying to do that, rather than a world in which we’re trying to figure out how we can get over on each other. I think having a sacred vision is a little more accessible than a True Will because you don’t have to believe in a task you were born to do, given by the gods, your Higher Self, or Holy Guardian Angel. You just have to believe in something beautiful that’s in your nature to bring forth.
When I was praying for inspiration today, I realized that my secular ethical vision was also my sacred vision, what I want to manifest in the world. And I was praying to the gods to help me.
I’ve written before that I’m learning to make peace with pathos. Traditionally there are three parts of a good argument: logos, a reasonable argument, ethos, the credibility of the speaker, and pathos, the argument’s emotional appeal. I’ve always derided the last two as illogical and unnecessary. People should believe what’s correct, and do what’s right, regardless of the messenger and regardless of whether they feel like it. While I haven’t really abandoned that sentiment on principle, I know it’s not realistic. People’s minds don’t work that way and mine probably doesn’t either.
Ironically Sam Harris, an atheist, helped solidify that for me. In his book The Moral Landscape (and, seriously, stop reading this and go out and read The Moral Landscape) he said that there is no logic without emotion. That even the most logical person in the world, who is convinced by the facts and nothing but the facts, only does so because they emotionally value the power of logic. If a person doesn’t emotionally value logic, they will never be swayed by a logical argument. You can’t make a logical argument to prove to someone that they should accept logic. That seems a simple idea but it changed everything for me.
I still think ethics should be secular. Religion should never give us permission to do something that reason says is bad or wrong, but it can inspire us to do more than the bare minimum. I like a distinction that Spock made in the new Star Trek movie, between morally obligatory and morally praiseworthy. It gave words to my belief that we all have an obligation to do no harm, so much as that’s possible, but we’re not required to help if we don’t want to. Ethics should tell us what the bare minimum is; the realm of the heart – including religion and spirituality, but also passion with or without faith – is what inspires us to go beyond that and do what’s praiseworthy.
I don’t believe that there are Pagan ethics anymore than I believe there is Christian science or Muslim science. I believe that ethics, like mathematics, is a human way of describing the world as objectively as we can, while knowing that pure objectivity is impossible. I’m realizing that I can’t disentangle my moral views and goals from who I am. Sam Harris reminded me of that. When I write, I write as a person who prays for the souls of animals I see dead on the road, who prays to the gods and occasionally swings an athame or rattle around. I worshipped the Earth long before I was vegan.
I’m vegan because I think that’s what reason requires of me. But I’m joyful about it, and write about it, because I’m inspired. I have an aspiration. Viewing helping others as my sacred vision has led me to study psychology and neuroscience as a lay person, particularly the psychology of happiness, choice, and morality. That helps me be more effective in manifesting my sacred vision. It helps me to be joyful. Today I gave thanks that I have the opportunity to plant seeds, to work toward manifesting my True Will/ sacred vision.
This article really isn’t supposed to be about me, but about activism as a sacred vision. I think we have to start by examining the issues of the day with reason – reason is like Socrates’ daimon, stopping us when we’re about to misstep – but it’s the sacred vision of what’s possible that can carry us on. I’m starting to feel like it’s the difference between a cold, angry, vindictive kind of activism and the kind that accomplishes something.
I see examples of both all the time. The example that comes to mind first is something I’ve seen several times on social media. People will say, “If you believe x, just unfriend me now.” It’s entirely your prerogative, of course. No one is morally required to keep someone as a friend. And I think we’re perfectly justified if we want to surround ourselves only with those who agree with us. But I think that’s an example of someone who’s not aspiring to promote a sacred vision, but condemning the world for its sins. And I surely know the temptation of that. But I don’t think it’s really effective. It dehumanizes the other. It cuts us off from the people we most need to inspire if we’re going to change anything. It frankly makes us look crazy.
Neither approach is more objectively correct than the other. My stance is still my stance, whether I choose to angrily declare it and drive away all who disagree; whether I choose not to stand up and instead hide what I believe; or whether I choose to stand up for what I believe but not lose my mind, even when I see people doing what I find abhorrent. What’s different is the attitude I have about it all. It’s a matter of skillfully guiding how I look at the world; not to see things through rose colored glasses, necessarily, and certainly not about trying to hide from reality. I guess I’d say it’s about deciding how to engage with reality. Something like that.
Are there ways you try to skillfully use mindsets? I’d love to hear about it. Do you have a sacred vision that motivates you? What is it? What are you doing to try to manifest it?