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.