Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Contra Hutton

[This is Part One in an ongoing series. Part Two is now up as well: "Nothing in common ... except the name"?]

I was recently inspired to go back through some of my old posts in which I have presented critiques of just a few of the very worst offenders among the long sad list of fallacies promulgated by Ronald Hutton in his campaign to recast Paganism in the image of Christianity. It is worth noting that Hutton himself has quite clearly stated all along that it is his goal to replace the traditional view held by Pagans, that our religious traditions are deeply rooted in the ancient past, with a new paradigm based on the truly Orwellian claim that modern Paganism far more closely resembles the morbid death-cult of the early Christians than the ancient polytheistic traditions those Christians violently suppressed.

Paganism, B.C. (Before Christianization)
Did ancient Paganism exist? Yes it did.
Some people claim that the whole notion of ancient Paganism is nothing but a hopeless anachronism. According to this view, there was no coherence or commonality among the different polytheistic traditions now subsumed under the heading of "Paganism". Specifically the claim is that the only thing that ancient "Pagans" had in common was that they were not Christians. This post draws on the work of seven contemporary scholars (James B. Rives, Ramsay MacMullen, Charles W. Hedrick Jr, Robert Parker, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Thomas Harrison, and Frank Trombley), and as well as Herodotus, Plutarch, and Livy, to argue that, in the words of Charles W. Hedrick Jr, "Paganism cannot be reduced to nothing more than its opposition to Christianity."

Hic Sunt Dracones
Were late-antique Pagans really Pagan? Yes they were.
This one is by far the longest and most detailed of posts listed here. In it I thoroughly demolish Ronald Hutton's claim that the late-antique spiritual ancestors of modern Paganism were not really Pagans at all. This was the fall-back position that Hutton was forced into only a few years after the publication of Triumph of the Moon. By the time Witches, Druids and King Arthur came out Hutton had gone from claiming that the roots of modern Paganism go back no further than the 18th century, to acknowledging that these roots in fact go back 18 centuries. Nevertheless, Hutton insisted that this continuous tradition doesn't count! Relying uncritically on the work of Stephen Mitchell and other proponents of the idea of so-called "Pagan monotheism", Hutton names eight ancient Pagans in particular: Apuleius, Celsus, Aelius Aristides, Maximus of Tyre, the Emperor Julian, Themistius, Sallustius, and Symmachus. All of these, Hutton believes, were really adherents of a "new kind of ancient paganism" that was thoroughly monotheistic and had fundamentally broken with ancient polytheistic traditions. I show in detail that each of those named by Hutton were, in fact, traditional polytheists.

Ancient Pagans and Theology: did they, or didn't they?
But didn't ancient Pagans invent theology? Why, yes they did.
In Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton stupidly claims that "Traditional European paganism had no theology at all, and the nearest equivalent to it had been provided by the philosophers of the Greek-speaking world." In this post I (all-too-briefly) hit some of the highlights of ancient Pagan theology, including Heraclitus, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. I also cite the work of two modern scholars: Mark McPherran and T.K. Johansen.

Paganism has always been a magical religion
Was ancient Paganism characterized by a "a widespread and officially recognized distinction between religion and magic"? Uh, no.
In Pagan Religions of the British Isles, Ronald Hutton asked "How did the 'Wicca' which was developed in these years [the 1950's and 60's] actually compare with the paganism of antiquity?" The very first "fundamental difference" that Hutton proposes between Wicca and ancient Paganism is that "Wicca deliberately blurs the distinction between religion and magic." [p. 335] Later, in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hutton more specifically claimed that "a widespread and officially recognized distinction between religion and magic" existed prior to late-antiquity, but at that time "some forms" of "Mediterranean paganism" "dissolved" this distinction. In this post I show that no such distinction was recognized by Plato, or, by implication, Socrates, who both lived during (indeed, helped to define) the height of the classical period, over half a millennia before the earliest glimmerings of so-called late-antiquity. I also cite modern scholars James B. Rives and Scott Noegel, and I allow myself a digression on the theme of "magic as a subversive activity."

Paganism was not born yesterday
Was Jesus a Presbyterian? You figure it out.
Herein I draw attention to the highly subjective and selective way in which certain scholars apply the concept of "continuous tradition" to Paganism without considering how the same logic would play out if it were applied to any other religious tradition: "there is simply no well-defined, objective criterion that makes modern Paganism less rooted in the past than, say, Presbyterianism. Only by arbitrarily applying criteria to Paganism that are not applied (or are not applied in the same way) to other religions, can it be claimed that modern Paganism is especially deficient in terms of our roots."

"detached from the masses and usually disempowered"
Hermeticism has played a vital role in the mainstream of Western intellectual history. So there.
That which is today relegated to the intellectual ghetto of the "Occult" had, until quite recently, not only a respected, but a prestigious and central role in both the cultural mainstream and among the intellectual elites. Many of the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution (including Kepler, Newton and Boyle) were actively involved in Hermeticism, Alchemy, Astrology and otherwise engaged in Esotericism. The same is true of the Renaissance (Ficino, Mirandola, Agrippa, etc) and was also true centuries before that, going back at least to the beginning of the High Middle Ages. And it was also the case in late antiquity as well.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I have not read them all, but I do appreciate it and I will read them. I was trying to find your old posts on this. You are the first blogger I have found who can refute Hutton and has not been seduced by his seemingly modern scholarship.
Bravo. I just had to tell you that. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Like your new heading or whatever it is called. I have my suspicious about Dionysus, I am not sure if he is just a seducer or really just strung out on some good stuff. He sure got the women going though, if the stories are right.

AV said...

Honestly, I am a bit confused by your militant paganism. I suppose I feel affected by these questions since, being Mexican in ancestry, everyone just assumes that the “weird” religious stuff that we Mexicans do is somehow left over from the time of the Aztecs. Maybe some of it is, just as the Virgin Mary is reflective of the Mother Goddess in some sort of Jungian analysis of archetypes. But most of this stuff came down to us from Spain itself. The whole art of curanderismo, or Mexican folk healing, is replete with beliefs from the Spanish Old World. Then you have gringos going down to Mexico studying with “shamans” pretending to be pagans, when in reality the people they are talking to are a bunch of Catholic grandmothers with knowledge of herbs and special prayers. I suppose that is why I take the issue so seriously: I feel that it is personal in a way. Many neo-pagans (and secular anthropologists) just want to roll over the Catholicism inherent in the Mexican belief system to try to get to the repressed “pagan” core. Well, it just isn’t there. Do you know us better than we know ourselves?

As for Ficino and Co., I think they were a bunch of religious chameleons. Those who can’t really understand this don’t understand Catholicism. Ficino wrote an entire book explicitly defending the Christian religion. Whether or not that was out of a “conversion experience” or not is something we can’t really know. I am pretty sure to the end of his life he believed in a “natural magic” and practiced astrology. To us who have passed through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment, that seems fundamentally “un-Christian” so we conclude that he was a pagan all along. But to them, that was just how the universe functioned. Real pagans can live with “cognitive dissonance”; they can mix and match gods and religious systems to suit the circumstance. It is only secularized “neo-pagans”, echoing the fundamentalism born of early modern Christianity, who somehow see a problem with this. It has always been my contention that the ethos of Roman Catholicism is in danger precisely because such “cognitive dissonance” has been persecuted in the last half century or so. Ficino was no “pagan”; he was just an old-school Roman Catholic who knew when to keep his mouth shut and when to speak, just as the good Italian or Mexican grandmother knows how to hide the herbs and the special healing prayers when the nosy priest comes around.

An honest question: do you conceive of the gods as personal, as we conceive of our God? I’ve always wanted to know that.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

My Paganism is no more militant than was that of Celsus, Porphyry, Julian, Arbogast, Hypatia, Proclus, Damascius, etc.

Paganism is not inherently "militant" in this way, but when confronted with the agressive intolerance of Christianity, adaptations must be made. And Paganism is extremely adaptable.

What you call "militancy" is, therefore, nothing more than a perfectly natural and easily understandable adaptation to the historical phenomenon of Christianization. The only other choice is to yield to Christianization, and I choose not to do that.

My criticisms of Hutton are directly first and foremost to other Pagans. I am not especially concerned with how this critique appears to Christians, and one of the primary things I am criticizing in Hutton is precisely his cravenly prone posture toward those who have spent the last 17 centuries seeking to extirpate Paganism.

When Christians are ready to decisively break with their intolerant past and atone for what they have done, that will be one thing. Otherwise, any Christians who continue to voluntarily associate with Catholicism, Orthodoxy, mainline Protestantism, or Evangelicalism, are lending their support to the ongoing cultural genocide of those ideological movements. Certainly in many cases this is due to ignorance and not to malice, but such ignorance is itself a kind of choice.

Anonymous said...

Your site is an incredible resource. I have been reading and thinking about alot of what you have written.
I left Christianity a long time ago. I really do not care what people believe, but the incredible pain and psychological damage I have seen Christians inflict on others and their seeming blindness to it just astonishes me. So when Pagans allow themselves to be seduced by certain Christian beliefs, but ignore the whole, I can only shake my head. It is the deliberate deceit that galls me the most. Anyway, I intend to read more and thanks.