Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wicca and Ancient Philosopy, Part One: Plato, the Stoics and the Wiccan Rede

Donald Frew, Wiccan author and elder, has pointed out that both Platonism and Hermeticism are important sources of (modern) Pagan ideas. In this interview (which is taken from the book Modern Pagans) Frew specifically mentions the writings of Porphyry, Iamblichus, Julian ("the Apostate"), and Proclus, along with the Corpus Hermeticum, as among "the oldest written sources for Pagan theory and ritual". In an article he wrote for the Academic journal Ethnologies Frew provides a more detailed argument to support his contention that much of "the roots of Wicca can be found in the writings of the late Roman Neoplatonists."

I want go a bit further than Frew and show that basic Wiccan ideas can be traced back to Plato himself, who lived six centuries before Plotinus, and also to the Stoic philosophers, whose school is almost as old as Plato's.

It is unfortunate that modern writers, including even a Pagan like Frew, continue the misguided practice of referring to Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblchus, Julian, and Proclus as "Neoplatonists". The inevitable implication of the use of the term "Neoplatonists" is that many of the ideas of these later Platonists, especially their more mystical and religious ideas, are not genuinely Platonic. The prefix "neo" is affixed precisely in order to insinuate that Plato's own writings were neither mystical nor religious in any way. In fact, all of the philosophers labeled by scholars as "Neoplatonists" referred to themselves simply as Platonists, and their philosophical writings were based solidly on Plato's. Therefore the term "Neoplatonist" should be rejected as anachronistic and misleading, and, for that reason, I will consistently refer to Plotinus, etc, using the terminology they themselves used: Platonists.

Let's start with the Wiccan Rede: "An it harm none, do as you will." The exhortation to "harm none" comes straight from the most famous of all of Plato's dialogues, the Republic. As classicist Robin Waterfield states in his own translation of the Republic, "Socrates finally concludes that it is never right to harm anyone under any circumstances." (See his commentary on p. 8 of that book.) It is especially significant that Waterfied is here commenting on the first book of the Republic, and that the remaining nine books are largely devoted to defending this conclusion. This same idea is found in other Platonic dialogues as well, especially the Crito and the Gorgias.

But what about "do as you will"? It turns out that the clearest expression of this admonition is found not among the writings of Plato, but among the Stoics. For it was the Stoics who taught that:

"They are free who live as they will; who are not subject to compulsion, to restraint, or to violence; whose pursuits are unhindered, their desires successful, their aversions unincurred."

The Stoics not only provide an ancient and highly respectable pedigree for the second half of the Wiccan Rede, they also provide a strong argument for how the two parts of the Rede are connected:

"Who, then, would wish to lead a wrong course of life? No one. Who would live deceived, erring, unjust, dissolute, discontented, dejected? No one. Wicked persons, then, do not live according to their own wills; therefore no such person is free."

Both of the above quotes are taken from the Discourses of Epictetus, book IV, section 1.

At the risk of being repetitive, let me summarize. The Wiccan Rede really has three components: (1) to "harm none", (2) to "do as you will", and (3) the implication that these two admonitions are connected with each other, or at least compatible with each other. The writings of Plato provide multiple examples of the first idea, while the writings of the Stoics provide an ancient philosophical basis for all three. In fact, as the last quote from Epictetus shows, we can only truly be free (that is, do as we "will"), when we act justly and rightly, and that anyone who is deceptive, unjust, etc, is not truly free.

Finally it should be noted that the second quote from Epictetus is actually a restatement of one of the most famous and singular teachings of Socrates: that no one ever does wrong knowingly. The Socratic world view had no place in it for "evil" as a fundamental principle. For Socrates, Plato, and the Stoics the Cosmos is fundamentally "good", and all apparent "evil" is only the result of our ignorance. This radical view of the Cosmos teaches us that if we so choose, each of us is capable of living in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and to our fellow creatures, and that is also in accordance with our own wills, and that, moreover, living in such a way is the only way to be truly free.

Plato's Timaeus

"The very properties that constitute goodness in the cosmos also do so in human life: order and proportionality. Timaeus' ethical recommendation is therefore that through cosmology we can imitate the order of the universe in our own souls and thereby become more virtuous and happier."
Plato's Natural Philosophy: A Study of the Timaeus-Critias Thomas Kjeller Johansen (p.3)

"[the Demiurge] found that, among things that are by nature visible, no work that is without intelligence will ever be better than one that has intelligence ... and moreover that intelligence cannot be present in anything apart from soul [psyche]. In virtue of this reasoning, when he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and soul within body .... This, then, is how we must say, according to the likely account, that this world came to be ... a living creature with soul and reason." Timaeus 30a-c [Cornford translation]

"[W]e may conclude that Plato's Demiurge, like the human craftsman in whose image he is conceived, operates upon materials which he does not create, and whose inherent nature sets a limit ... on his work." Cornford Plato's Cosmology p. 37

"This was his [the Demiurge's] intent: first that it might be in the fullest measure a living being whole and complete, of complete parts; next, that it might be single, nothing being left over, out of which another might come into being; and moreover that it might be free from age and sickness [!!!]. For he perceived that, if a body be composite, when hot things and cold and all things that have strong powers beset that body and attack it from without, and they bring it to untimely dissolution and cause it to waste away by bringing upon it sickness and age. For this reason and so considering, he fashioned it as a single whole consisting of all these wholes, complete and free from age and sickness." Timaeus 32c-33b