Alain de Benoist, Comment peut-on être païen? (1981)
English translation On Being A Pagan (2004)
The book was written in 1981, but only published in English in 2004, and a number of Anglophone reviewers on Amazon and in blogs have complained about the proportion devoted to discussing the Judeo-Christian tradition (about 80%) rather than paganism. This is surely a reflection of the state of affairs at the time: the neo-pagan revival was pretty obscure, so perhaps those with pagan-ish inclinations, those more likely to be interested in the book, would be more likely to be then struggling with a surrounding Christian culture.
Alain de Benoist has a history of involvement in nationalist “New Right” groups, and the folks who are most interested in his stuff tend to be of the Radical Traditionalist Folkish anti-liberal anti-modernist sort, into Julius Evola and the Heathen Front and so on. Searching through this territory for ideas has been, for me, like walking on the edge of a cliff, one footfall away from crashing on the hard rocks of European exclusionary nationalism. At the same time, I cannot avoid it: the importance of the ancestral connection between a given people and their land is something one finds in every ancient pagan tradition. My safety line has been this: I may have certain roots in this place and this culture that you don’t, but I do not deny what roots you may have, nor your right to belong here. De Benoist’s extensive reliance on Nietzsche is also helpful, as Nietzsche was always suspicious of nationalism.
My experiences of paganism are in England (before 1994) and in the American Pacific Northwest. It’s my view that contemporary paganism, particularly in the latter, is enmeshed in unhelpful attitudes and concepts inherited from the largely Christian surrounding religious culture, which it is slowly learning to overcome. I would like to advance that process, and I believe de Benoist’s ideas can help. The book shows perhaps a rather particular vision of paganism, and while much of it strikes me as obviously the Right Thing, I am of course aware of the prickliness with which most pagans respond to suggestions from outside their traditions regarding what they ought and ought not be doing.
There are some issues. It’s not clear how well his description of paganism really matches with Norse, Celtic and so forth paganism as it was practiced in Europe before Christianity took over. Also, de Benoist doesn’t say much useful about sex, even though this is one of the more obvious differences between paganism and Christianity. Apparently he thought it was a little too obvious: he complains that the popular understanding of paganism (circa 1981) was little more than a kind of sexual excess with little actual religious content. He also barely mentions gender, in contrast to its importance to Wicca and its derivations, but this might be a good thing.
More worryingly, since writing the book de Benoist seems to have since turned away from Nietzsche towards Heidegger (see a ten-years-later interview and his article “Thoughts on God” in the traditionalist journal Tyr). It’s a disappointment, as he no longer seems to be saying anything of as much value. He reveals that he has never had experience of the divine but does at least feel the presence of the sacred in certain locations. In the interview he complains at length about the state of the pagan scene at the time; while there is some credibility, these complaints would certainly have more if he actually practised paganism in some way.
Anyway, here I take the ideas in On Being A Pagan and run with them, possibly to places he would not go, and possibly skipping over parts that make no sense to me. I identify four themes that characterise his view of paganism and how it differs from Christianity and Abrahamic religion in general: paganism attends to the immediate world (rather than a heaven); it is tied to geographic place and particular culture (rather than being universalist); it is broadly tolerant of other values (rather than insisting on a universal law-code); it calls us to great creation and achievement that surpasses the gods.
This World Is The Source
Christianity, and perhaps the Abrahamic religions generally, draw a line between God and the world. God is perfect, infinite, absolutely powerful. The world is flawed, finite, limited. This division is absolute. Humanity can never approach or share the same category as God. We cannot become perfect, and we can never choose our values: all values come from God. God alone has chosen what is good and what is bad: these are the true values and all other values are in error. However, Christianity offers a substitute: through Christ, we can instead become acceptable to God, even in our inevitable imperfection. And then perhaps we can join perfection… once we’re dead.
Furthermore, as created beings, we have an absolute, total obligation to God, the source of all values, and therefore guilt when we inevitably fail. We are also all equal before God, since the centrality of the division in power between God and humanity renders all the latter equal by contrast.
European paganism, says Alain de Benoist, rejects all this. It does not draw a line between what is the world and what is divine, rather, the latter originates in the former. The cosmos, whatever it is, is unitary, not divided into heaven and earth. The divine is something that is present in the world because it has arisen from it. This gives a continuity and fluidity between the mundane and the divine, between the sacred and profane. We are also free to create our own values, collectively and individually, and find our own meaning in our lives. De Benoist calls this play: and since they are our own values, this play is the only thing that is truly serious to us.
Furthermore, we are born innocent. Indeed we are not born for any purpose nor for any defining obligation. And though it may place its own obligations upon us, guilt is not a state of the soul, rather, it is a feeling like any other, one that in healthy people arises only from one’s own actions and responsibilities.
Paganism also rejects absolute equality, not for an immutable hierarchy, but for difference and diversity. Since we make our own values (again, individually and collectively), we are not obliged to value everything or everyone equally. This is just as well, as the notion of equality logically rules out the possibility of self-improvement: if one is always equal to everyone else, one can never become better than one is. To be what one truly is is to create oneself, to surpass oneself.
To paganism, the sacred comes from immediate reality as it is present and experienced and understood through culture, and not from its status as God’s creation.
Pagan mythology tells the stories of how the divine arises from the world, revealing the world as sacred. Thus by naming them, we call gods into being. Mythology is fluid, frequently with multiple changing interpretations and versions of any given myth, and a myth may rise or fall in popularity and importance. Because mythology is fundamentally oral in character, pagan books of mythology are more like rough descriptive snapshots and never absolutely definitive. But Christianity nails down its mythology as written scripture: unchangeable in meaning and even in word. It desanctifies the world by erasing its natural mythology, otherwise, the sacred world would compete with Yahweh by offering its own values.
Art is the creation of meaning, including the creation of the sacred. Art reveals truth. Thus by representing them, we manifest the gods. The pagan gods are the exaltation of human creativity, the human ability to create meaning, to create the sacred.
De Benoist says the Judeo-Christian tradition tends to be suspicious of visual art, considering it to be lies. Art imperfectly represents God’s creation. Furthermore, as an act of creation it glorifies the artist and threatens the reservation of creativity to God. As for Christian art, he claims it is a kind of “unconscious heresy” within Christianity, though this point struck me as having a slight “no true Scotsman” flavour. Certainly Judeo-Christianity prefers the written word, and extols the humbleness and especially the fidelity of the scribe of the holy texts, and in fact the more extreme Christians are even suspicious of other books and secular learning generally.
Sacrifices and offerings to the pagan gods are akin to those made to friends in a spirit of generosity. For example, eating together. In this way pagan gods are the Other, and pagan religious practice creates a space in which Self and Other exist together.
In Christianity the soul is a creation, not an emanation, of God. The soul is not of the same substance of God, it is on the other side of Yahweh’s chasm. In paganism the soul is itself of divine essence. “The doctrine of the partially and, especially, potentially divine character of human nature is in fact the basis for all man’s existential meaning.”
Culture Rooted to Place
Paganism is more than a nature-religion, because the world is more than nature. While we are “made of nature”, it is also we that give meaning to it. Paganism is also a culture-religion, a religion of human ideals, endeavour and achievement. In fact, it is a world-religion. Viewing paganism as strictly nature-religion focuses on nature’s influence on humans and ignores human influence of nature, which, says de Benoist, is just as important. What defines a pagan religion is its world-view and not the natural world. For instance, differences between Celtic and Germanic religion cannot be reduced to differences in the natural features of their respective lands.
By giving meaning to, or finding meaning in the world we thereby create the gods. And we participate in them when we surpass ourselves by the standards of our ideals. In fact, it is only through challenging the binds, including the binds of “nature”, that we grow to become who we truly are. By choosing our ideals, our gods, and expressing them through our actions, we change our destiny. This is the standard of honour and dishonour, and a theme in heroic mythology.
Pagan traditions were not universal to all people and all places, rather, they were rooted in particular cultures and in particular places. This rooting can occur at any scale: a nation, a tribe, a subculture, a profession, a family, an individual. A love affair, even. And also: a land, a region, a forest, a city, a village, a hill, a building, a courtyard, an oak tree. The recognition of places as sacred is based on the depth of history of cultural involvement. Naturally, for us this recognition is easier in Europe than in America.
I might add: the importance of place is, like much else in paganism, a recognition of something already powerful. People have always found meaning attached to place. As an extreme example, consider “Jerusalem syndrome”, a kind of temporary psychosis that afflicts occasional visitors to that city, almost all evangelical Christians. Or consider Stendhal syndrome, associated with not just Florentine art, but Florence as place associated with art. In a culture where the only religious understandings are Abrahamic, such phenomena are given no place to mature and end up in the bucket marked pathology.
De Benoist claims that paganism is focused on place while Christianity is focused on time. I don’t think it’s so simple. Paganism has times that are sacred of themselves: solstices, equinoxes, new and full moons, as well as times set purely by tradition. Christianity has both places and times set aside for God, but they are all understood to be fundamentally human conveniences, not sacred in themselves. One can perform Christianity equally at any time or place. The Christian year is liturgical, not itself sacred. For instance, the precise timing of Easter, the most important Christian feast, is more or less arbitrary, and the discrepancy between Eastern and Western timings is purely a matter of tradition, not doctrine. A church can be placed anywhere.
What is important to Christianity is a great scale of time: prelapsarian times, the Fall of Man, the time of Christ, the Second Coming, the End Times, according to Yahweh’s great plan for humanity. Paganism does not share this. Time for pagans is generally considered cyclically: while it might have some sort of beginning, it doesn’t have any particular necessary end. History simply is, it does not have a purpose, nor does it have one absolute meaning, nor is it bound to lead to a final end. (But what are we to make of Ragnarok? Though it is at least cyclical.) At the very least, paganism is centrally concerned with this world, rather than one after death.
These roots to culture and place are, primarily, ancestral. For instance, to the Norse the souls of the dead became the landvaettr, land-wights, that is, spirits bound to particular places. (Valhalla is a later creation.) To the ancient Romans, religion was a civic duty that connected one to family, society and nation. But ancestry does not have to be understood genetically, nor does this imply any concept of “purity” or exclusion: this is not Blut und Boden.
Since it is not universalist, paganism is tolerant of other religion. Judaism by contrast is averse to any kind of “mixing” from the cultural Other, while Christianity and Islam actively seek to convert all humanity. (But what about Buddhism, which has universalist teachings but is frequently tolerant of cultural influence?)
There is no universal human culture. De Benoist is so averse to univeralism he claims that no universal human teaching is possible: what unity humanity has is strictly biological in nature. I can’t go that far, but certainly I share his emphasis on the importance of particularity, the particularity of cultures, the particularity of places and of times. This is what we have lost by and large today, where, borrowing from Christianity, any place is held to be as good as any other to practice pagan religion. For instance, having ignored the particularity of place when deciding where to hold some ritual, it is thus impossible to build a relationship with the place one does end up at.
Which lead us to…
Since gods also stand for ideals and norms, polytheism is not only tolerant of outside culture, but represents our freedom to choose our own values. Polytheism is a polytheism of values, which one might call polyidealism. Different gods may represent different concerns, different values, different perspectives, different truths.
This does not mean that pagans themselves are necessarily tolerant of values that oppose their own, just as polytheism does not imply worshiping every deity and spirit one might encounter. Equally, the polyidealistic vision does not insist on some “overall” value subordinating the diverse values of the many gods. Such a requirement would be be another form of universalism, and therefore of intolerance to competing values.
Instead the proper state of affairs includes contradiction, conflict, and struggle between the gods as the various stories frequently tell. These struggles do not have a singular moral interpretation. One’s adversary is strictly situational and not pre-judged as dishonourable. Instead, adversaries are more often complementary, leading to some greater union and harmony. “As brothers fight ye.” This applies to politics too: public disagreement is an essential sign of political health. De Benoist criticises Marxism for envisioning a future in which all political disagreement has been resolved.
And this is not to say there cannot be pagan concepts of “one god” that represent the commonality of the many gods. For instance, the world soul of the Stoics, or perhaps the numen of the Romans. But these do not have their own values attached: they are impersonal forces or spirits that subsequently express themselves as the many gods.
Balance of plurality is a key pagan concept, balance between competing viewpoints, perspectives, values, desires, concerns. But balance is not about the 50-50 point, or calculation of some median. It’s always about the whole spectrum. When it comes to practical decision-making, in situations when a balance of concerns must be forced to a point, that point will vary from person to person, again exhibiting plurality. Often, questions simply don’t have single definitive objective answers. Instead of claiming objectivity, pagan morality is strongly bound to aesthetics: what determines good and bad is not conformance to a written code, but a sense akin to an aesthetic sense. This does not deny the necessity of clearly-defined agreed-upon law codes (“the necessity of the police” in Nietzsche’s snipe) as a civic matter.
Christianity draws an absolute line between good and evil, leading to the problem of the origin of evil, which lacks convincing answers. For paganism, the divine is not one thing against its “devilish” opposite, but the union of opposites, and then transcendence of the opposition, solve et coagula. In paganism evil is not an absolute value (because there are no absolute values and perhaps even no absolute truths), but arises in different ways in different cultures. It is a distinctly human thing, so it causes no particular theological problem.
This does not, by the way, imply that nothing is evil. Some things certainly are evil, but exactly what those things are will vary among people and among cultures. Just because values are not absolute does not mean they do not exist. And don’t think that that means we get to pick all our values to suit our immediate selfishness. We are by and large embedded in our cultures, and our values are not something we can always “escape” for our situational convenience. It’s better to think of our values as looking out for us to a long term not necessarily obvious to us. This is how our gods guide us. I think this is what de Benoist means by “faith”: trust in how the gods guide us.
As for the future: the “moral absolute singular God” of Judaism and Christianity is already a ridiculous, alien concept to pagans today. We may have gods, spirits and wights that have a moral or teaching dimension, but they are not the absolute. We may have conceptions of the absolute, but they do not bear values to us in that form. De Benoist quotes Nietzsche: “Could it be that with morality, the pantheist affirmation of a yes to all things has also become impossible? Fundamentally and in fact only the moral God has been refuted and surpassed. Wouldn’t it be wise to think of a God beyond good and evil?”
Endeavour & Creation
The gods are, among other things, gods of endeavour. For instance, Venus represents endeavouring to love; Hestia to make a home, Jupiter and Mars to achieve political power and so forth, Loki to succeed through cleverness. Thus they exalt in our success. In this sense they serve us, individually or collectively.
Yahweh, by contrast, is a “jealous” god, jealous of the pagan gods and therefore actually jealous of human achievement. For instance, it is told that after the Great Flood, humanity set to build the great Tower of Babel to maintain their unity. But Yahweh feared their power: “now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them”. Even though humanity had done nothing evil, Yahweh confounded their speech to confound their power. For instance, when Yahweh first created him, Adam was immortal, alone, complete, challenging his creator in perfection. It is not Adam’s complaint: rather, it is not good for God that Adam should be alone…
Genuine pride is the real sin against Yahweh. This is not, by the way, the pagan Greek concept of hubris, which implied using one’s power to humiliate another rather than for achievement for its own sake. Again, the Old Testament draws a categorical divide between the Creator and the created. Humans, being in the latter category, are not capable of this kind of Creation, that is the creation of meaning and of the sacred, only of a lesser “making”. Yahweh has abrogated to himself all true creativity. Humans as creations cannot challenge their creator (or rather, must not), and to attempt to do so is the sin of pride.
The pagan gods engendered humanity rather than created us, and therefore we are unbound: we may excel and exceed them just as children may exceed their parents. And indeed this is exactly what the gods call us to do. (But what about Prometheus? Marsyas?) And pride is a virtue, or a sign of virtue, because it is only humanity, individually and communally, that gives meaning. We may create ourselves as we wish, we are not subject to external moral obligation. We may choose our own values, our own ideals, our own gods.
Good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of the gods: de Benoist calls this the classic equation of paganism. Beauty is a sign of goodness.
Christianity teaches the opposite, most notably in the Sermon on the Mount. To Christianity, it is not just that power corrupts, but that goodness actually comes from weakness and from suffering. Power is considered to be evil. But in fact, following Nietzsche, power is a good thing. Lack of power is a bad thing.
What about the powerless and the weak? They should struggle to become strong, whether that be through collective means (as the political Left might suggest) or individual means (per the Right). Even “by any means necessary”. And those who care should help them, or perhaps just get out of their way. The problems only start when they get resentful, normalise their powerlessness, and declare the power they lack to be morally suspect. This is bad for everyone. Nietzsche argues that “ressentiment”, a moral system created by resentment of power, is the foundation of Christianity. In truth there is nothing morally worthy about being oppressed, such a state has no compensating value at all. For as long as they stay meek, they shall not inherit the Earth. One can also see this moral suspicion of power, perhaps, in the “privilege” concept in the social justice movement. In fact, inasmuch as oppression causes damage, it makes the oppressed less human, and that is the horror of it. Healthy paganism, says de Benoist, wishes to lift the oppressed and the weak as it wishes to lift everyone.
Paganism is centred on reality, that is, this world, this life. The gods are gods of this world. Christianity is centred on a God external to the world, and on the afterlife. Since these things do not exist, this ultimately leads to nihilism and “the death of God”. De Benoist claims that Christianity’s demise is self-caused.
We cannot simply return to the religion before Christianity, not properly, because we no longer live in those cultures and cannot meaningfully identify with them. We’re not hunter-gatherers or even (most of us) agriculturalists. We are not the same ethnicity as our remote ancestors. We each have lives and have culture, quotidian culture we swim in every day, and meaning in our lives can only be found from… our lives. Paganism is not a fantasy of living in a different situation or at a different time.
Instead, we stretch out the old paganisms, draw out threads from them, reinterpret them, and mix them with our cultural inheritance. In fact, pagan streams have persisted into the present, in music and in art and frequently expressing in Christian language and symbols. De Benoist traces early heresies, pantheism identifying God with the world or with the depth of the world, the Romantic movement and so forth. We cannot ignore Christianity, we must instead surpass it.
De Benoist is not, with his rejection of all things universalist, advocating for what we would now refer to as a particular pagan tradition; and I want to stress that his ideas match what, I believe, can already be found scattered amongst various traditions.
For instance, modern druidry as practised in England and Wales has some of the rootedness in place and culture: these are the various obods and sods that Ronald Hutton devoted two books to. Their roots are in the eighteenth century (not the Iron Age) and are attached to the sacred places of the land, which tend to be those where the ancient depth of connection between culture and land is at its most evident, most notably, the various megaliths dotting the landscape particularly in the west. Of course, by definition this kind of rootedness cannot travel well, so folks living in Seattle won’t necessarily be familiar with this even though they might be members of the same orders, unless they’ve spent a lot of time practicing it in its native country and enmeshed in the native culture. On the other hand, there are some reasonable questions concerning the Celticness of what these “druids” do and who they are culturally.
And for instance, the Iron Pentacle and some other concepts of Victor Anderson’s Feri tradition seem to have the more Nietzschean aspects of freedom from externally-imposed moral obligation, possibly; but it’s difficult to tell from the outside what’s going on with these oath-bound groups.
My own thoughts: when considering any part of any paganism (seidh, for instance), our first question should be, is there any need or use for it in the quotidian society that we live in? Of course, we might be better off if we lived in the kind of society that did have a need for such things. But that’s not the same thing. Historical reconstruction for its own sake is mere curiosity. Instead ask, what is there a need for? This depends on who you are and where you live. If gods really carry values, then ask, what do you care about? If gods really are gods of endeavour, then ask, what are you trying to achieve?
If you look to the culture you grew up in and that of the place you now live, you’ll probably find they aren’t pagan and haven’t been for centuries. So how can one practice a paganism rooted in culture rooted in place when those roots no longer exist? I look to Japan to see how paganism can flourish organically in a prosperous modern state, but Japanese culture is quite different from my own.
What was the role of mythology to pagans before Christianity? We have literature now, does that substitute? How is it affected by the importance our culture places on authorship and copyright? Tolkien, for instance, might have written mythology for the English, except he didn’t, because his works remain under copyright making it difficult for anyone else to layer on their own work and meanings. This would be necessary for mythology to acquire the cultural depth to be worthy of the name.
For those of us who live in regions where the history of our own cultures does not run very deep, where are the sacred places?
Do we need a “theory of the gods”? A theology? I mean, what are the gods really? Such a theology would have to account for the way gods can be lumped or split, the way gods are not really individual. For instance, the Irish goddess Brighid has two sisters, also called Brighid. Are they three separate beings, or three aspects of one being? And for the cultural lineages of gods, is Ares the same being as Mars? Both the Greeks and the Romans thought so, and extended their systems to other cultures they came across. The gods tend to be gods of something, are they just those things “personified”?
In my opinion, understanding of the gods only happens “at the altar”, that is, only in the states when we are open to them in a particular way. De Benoist remarks elsewhere that he has never had a religious experience, which is troubling, especially as there is a simple three-step formula for this
which I will sell to him for €2000: pick a deity, build an altar, make an offering. (I’ve also heard good things about mushrooms.)