Stone Idols, Desert God: A Critical Consideration of Alain de Benoist’s On Being A Pagan.
By: Henry Lauer
[Photograph copyright Alain de Benoist.]
On Being a Pagan is not a new book, being written by Alain de Benoist in 1981. However this English translation by Jon Graham (edited by Greg Johnson) was only published in 2004 by Ultra Press. The book includes a foreword by Stephen Edred Flowers (aka Edred Thorsson).
Given how recently this book has reached English-speaking audiences it seemed timely to offer a critical assessment in the English language. That said, soon after writing this essay I was given a copy of Collin Cleary’s critique of On Being A Pagan from the third volume of Tyr. There are some exciting similarities in our responses.
Alain de Benoist is a writer and philosopher with particular interests in culture, politics, sociology and religion/spirituality. Specifically he is a partisan for the resurrection of paganism as a remedy for the ills of post-Christian modernity.
He has also been taken up extensively by the New Right, although Benoist, at least in this book, does not seem particularly right wing despite his rejection of liberalism and socialism – certainly there are some vehement points in this book about, for example, the important of acceptance of the Other, that thoroughly contradict the general project of the Right.
In this vein the quote included on the back of the book is extremely curious, since among other things it presents On Being a Pagan as being critical of the “self-loathing love of the Other” which is apparently the cause of the rot of Western modernity!
Given the quote offered is from a New Right commentator (Michael O’Meara) one cannot help but think that he has ignored Benoist’s actual words in order to present his own agenda – but I am surprised that such an inaccurate portrayal would have been printed on the back cover of the book.
Regardless, I greatly appreciate Benoist’s argument that tolerance and acceptance of the Other is essential to paganism (which he simply draws from the historical fact that pagan cultures regarded one another as equals and saw their myths and cultures as complimentary, not in competition; even in their wars they found ways to edify one another’s heroism and spirit).
In modern times paganism has sometimes been appropriated as a vehicle for all kinds of bigotry and I appreciate Benoist’s point that bigotry is infinitely more monotheist than pagan in its psychology, being based as it is on the rigid division of the world into Self and Other, that is, being based in a dualistic worldview.
I also applaud his observation that by denuding the Other of their sacredness we denude ourselves of our own – to carry hatred in one’s heart is ultimately deeply poisoning. We do not have to lose ourselves in order to acknowledge the Other – the pagan spirit is strong enough to sustain both whereas the monotheist spirit – at least on Benoist’s reading – is not.
Of course Benoist does also present an interpretation of paganism as being inveterately ‘folkish’ to use the modern heathen term. The existence of universalist pagan thinkers like Cicero – and the growing archaeological evidence that the various pre-modern cultures were intensely inter-related – must surely vex him in this regard.
Benoist presents the book as a debate or exchange between what he regards as two fundamentally contradictory understandings of religion, ontology and humanity – namely monotheism (and in particular its Judeo-Christian manifestation) and paganism (under which rubric he gathers all of the pre-Christian European religions as well as other Indo-European religions, various post-Christian traditions such as alchemy, the works of some Christian mystics, and the works of philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche).
Just over half the book is dedicated to an extended critique of monotheism, with the emphasis firmly on the text of the Torah and the Bible, picking the minutiae of these texts apart. Gradually the book turns more to paganism, by which I mean Benoist describes his vision of what a new, modern paganism might look like.
He does not rely on historical sources nearly as much as you might expect, and his emphasis is heavily on the Greco-Roman pagans, though far from exclusively.
Benoist also relies very heavily on Heidegger and Nietzsche in formulating his model of what a new paganism would be (and he is strongly against the reconstructionist project evident in so much of modern Germanic heathenry for example, which is somewhat disappointing given the rich fruits this approach can reveal, and slightly confusing given the above mentioned ‘folkish’ orientation).
Unfortunately it is his reliance on these two philosophers, or specifically on Nietzsche, that brings this book somewhat undone – but we will come to that in time.
Since the book begins with and dwells so extensively on Benoist’s critique of monotheism this seems an appropriate place to begin this essay.
Benoist’s critical portrait of Judeo-Christianity essentially follows Nietzsche’s – that it is alienating, life-denying, pessimistic. It is incoherent because it makes God so radically Other to the created world that it is impossible for those of us here in creation to have any kind of interaction with God. He becomes redundant.
Benoist dwells particularly on the ‘disenchantment of the world’ evident throughout modernity (Weber), arguing that by de-sacralising this world and investing all holiness in the radical Otherness of God, Christianity was and is the enabling condition for the nihilism that now pervades Western culture – even though it is now declining as an institution.
Echoing Nietzsche and then also expanding on his points, Benoist argues that monotheism encourages weakness, herd mentality and the extinguishment of humanity’s spirit – he mounts an extended discussion of the ways in which he sees the Judeo-Christian God (as portrayed in the Torah and Bible) working tirelessly to prevent humanity from fulfilling its potential.
He argues that monotheism encourages hatred, paranoia and xenophobia because it defaults to the view that any cultural or religious order different to itself is evil and must be destroyed. He asserts that it reduces metaphysics to morality – and that the essence of monotheist morality is a totalitarian and carte blanche “Thou Shalt Not”.
Critically, he argues that monotheism strips the world of myth (and hence our ability to engage meaningfully with it). It regards its own myths as self-evident truth; the myths of all other cultures are “just stories” to be (at best) rationalised away as mere folk culture trifles.
Personally as a heathen, a person who has returned to his Germanic pagan spiritual roots, this last phenomenon is very telling, very much something I have encountered personally. I applaud Benoist for articulating and exposing this insidious and myopic stance that monotheism has a tendency to adopt towards anything different from itself.
Thus far it might seem that this sounds like interesting and insightful – or at the very least, provocative – reading. Unfortunately I have some very strong criticisms of this first part of the book, for all that its broader project is arguably worthwhile.
Firstly, Benoist approaches his critique of Judeo-Christian monotheism in a very textual way, diving in great detail into the specific meanings of critical words in the original languages of the Judeo-Christian foundational texts in order to illustrate what he regards as the metaphysical and moral poison of monotheism.
This is a very dry, bloodless approach. My feeling is that while the monotheist texts may be read in some horrendous ways, the Torah and the Bible are vastly ambiguous documents which can be made to say almost anything.
I wager that there are hundreds of scholars in this area who could mount withering assaults on Benoist’s particular interpretations, because these texts are so inconsistent, chaotic and confusing – it is clear that both books are palimpsests, arbitrary compilations assembled over centuries.
I feel that attempting to erect such a refined and even finicky argument on such unstable texts is akin to building a castle on quicksand. To me Benoist’s efforts come across as disembodied, sometimes petulant, and ignoring the far more significant bases on which monotheism can be criticised (and which later he does explore a little) – its actual manifestation in world history.
To be clear: I do not think that such a microscopically close textual critique of the Torah or the Bible is a good basis for demolishing monotheism. Apart from being dazzlingly tedious and no doubt highly debatable, I question whether this approach will sway any monotheists anyway.
Most monotheists pick and choose their understanding of their religion and happily (and often unwittingly) ignore the parts of their foundational texts that are inconvenient to their worldview. As such I think most monotheists will (not without some justification) regard Benoist’s assault as being one part hysterical, one part petty and two parts irrelevant.
Even though I broadly agree with his criticisms I still found this section to be largely superfluous – not least because this is supposed to be a book about being a pagan! On the whole I feel his approach is far too abstract for dealing with matters that are at least as much the domain of the heart as of the head.
I do not think one needs to be at war with monotheism in order to be a pagan. That does not follow logically at all, yet Benoist seems almost unhealthily stuck on this very point.
There are some particular lines of thought in this section of the book that I found to be notably awry and I will explore some of these here so that my reader can get a flavour for how a critique of monotheism could start out with such a determined air and yet fall so far short of its potential.
I should note that throughout the whole of this book there are a number of side points Benoist makes that I consider to miss the mark, but it is impossible for me to consider all of these (and frankly it would be just as tedious as his textual assassination of monotheism!) I have chosen to focus on the guiding thread of this book as I see it and let some of the side points fall away.
One extended critique of Christianity that Benoist offers is what he sees as its paranoid obsession with patricide. Specifically he argues that the monotheist God most of all abhors any attempt humans might make to become more godlike, to improve themselves or live up to their potential.
Therefore, says Benoist, in monotheism the only way for humanity to grow is to injure or kill God. God imposes this on humanity as our only recourse if we want to express ourselves.
He sees this patricidal antagonism as a terrible thing - for humanity to have any aspiration, to seek the manifestation of our potential, we must be burdened with a terrible sin against God. God fears and hates humans on this reading because we might seek to overthrow God’s status as sole creator in our effort to manifest our own creative powers.
Given that Christianity tends towards the view that “God is love”, or considering the Islamic saying that “Allah cannot be fitted within the space of 10,000 worlds yet resides in the human heart”, Benoist’s analysis seems a little far fetched.
The real truth of monotheism is that God hates humanity? Obviously the relationship is complex but it seems to me that it takes a very selective reading and interpretation to produce Benoist’s conclusion. It certainly would be regarded as controversial and/or absurd by most actual practicing monotheists.
Having established this ground, however, Benoist then plunges into some very strange territory.
First he launches into a torturous Freudian-style consideration of the Oedipus Complex as it plays out in monotheist dogma – humanity must commit patricide against the jealous God if we are to be permitted to express our potential and win the love of this-worldly life (the ‘mother’ in this pathological spiritual family).
I really feel that in this day and age introducing Freud into one’s argument – especially in the ad hoc way that Benoist uses him – is very risky. Freud is so complex, contradictory and subtle that any kind of linear application of his ideas strikes me as naïve and ill-informed.
Certainly a large proportion of the psychology profession would laugh at the very notion of utilising Freudian theory to garner psychological insight into anything. Even if we accept that Freud has some use (and personally I think he does have some use), he has nevertheless been succeeded by far more useful theorists such as Adler, Jung, Hillman, Erikson, Erickson, etc.
Given the torturous and circuitous way this Freud-derived analysis proceeds I therefore find it hard to feel that Benoist’s argument gains anything from this digression.
What comes next proves even more perplexing. Benoist contrasts his interpretation of monotheism as repressive and small-making with paganism, which he feels stands in the position of exhorting humanity to expansively express its full possibilities of being.
He presents the two as being radically opposite in this regard – the whole purpose of the pagan gods, on Benoist’s view, is to encourage the creative expansion and expression of humanity.
And yet one cannot help but think immediately of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Prometheus is a giant who takes pity on humanity’s primitive and miserable life. He appeals to the gods to do something to elevate humanity, but they dismiss him – they much prefer humanity weak and pitiful and this seems to stem partly from fear of our potential.
Prometheus smuggles the secret of fire down to humanity and rapidly we evolve into a far more developed species. Zeus is so infuriated by this encouragement of humanity’s potential that he casts Prometheus into eternal and utterly brutal torture.
With pagan myths like this it seems that the pagan gods, while perhaps more encouraging of the expression of humanity than Benoist’s Judeo-Christian God, nevertheless have an ambivalent attitude and relationship to us. Benoist has embraced a greatly exaggerated dichotomy between monotheism and polytheism and does himself a great disservice as a result.
Similarly the Germanic gods seem to love playing dice with the fate of their worshippers – consider the myth conveyed in the Historia Langobardum about how as a result of Odin and Frigg’s intrigues, with humans as their rather hapless pawns, the Langobard tribe gained their name; or consider Odin’s tendency to betray his best heroes into death in order to secure their services for his own purposes.
Benoist seems to regard the pagan gods almost as self-help gurus for their human children; the truth seems a lot more complex.
Clearly they don’t hate us as Benoist’s version of Jehovah does, but they aren’t necessarily our allies either. Indeed, this might have been part of the appeal of Christ to the old pagans – a god who (however truthfully or falsely) promises to never abandon his followers in order to pursue other agendas.
Benoist claims that whereas monotheism is obsessed with patricide, paganism is free of this terrible and reprehensible archetype. It seems amazing that he could overlook how central Zeus’s act of patricide is to Greek mythology; and although not quite patricide, Odin, Vili and Ve’s killing of Ymir in order to create the cosmos is certainly comparable in moral timbre to Zeus’s act as well.
Furthermore, patricide is an important metaphor in alchemy, which despite emerging alongside Christianity Benoist right considers a pagan offshoot.
Alexander Roob’s Alchemy & Mysticism documents an extended patricidal metaphor for the alchemical project as a spiritual undertaking (as opposed to the cliché of the money-grubbing confidence trick).
In this allegory there is a kingdom ruled by a king. The king’s son murders the king, but at the funeral the king’s corpse animates and pulls the son into the coffin; they are buried together and the son dies. The two rot and merge into a single dissolute state, before their remains are burned to ash and sprinkled over the land.
Then in time, with the turning of the seasons, a new king is born from the earth, a king who is the perfect synthesis of old and young, senex and peur, and a new golden age begins.
Patricide in this spiritual and psychological metaphor is a necessary stage for the process of the integration, the conjunction of opposites which Benoist so rightly and emphatically sees as essential to paganism.
Perhaps patricide, seen in this broader perspective, is not something pathological at all; that it surfaces in both monotheist and pagan mythology suggests if anything its near-universal human relevance and that the patricidal urge, if expressed symbolically (see James Hillman’s work for more on this subject), can be profoundly positive.
If anything paganism should be applauded for encouraging and supporting patricide, the periodic overthrow and then integration of the old and new, where monotheism attempts to avoid it, seeks a choking stasis. Benoist it seems would prefer to side-step the issue altogether, and in this respect arguably appears to be closer to monotheistic than pagan thought.
The most tortuous element of Benoist’s deliberation on the subject of patricide is this sleight of hand: having relied on Freudian theory, Benoist can’t maintain that paganism is patricide-free so long as he has so much as mentioned Freud’s Oedipal inspiration.
To get around this problem he claims (without any evidence) that Freud’s ideas about patricide and incest were really inspired by their wretched Judeo-Christian articulation (an articulation, incidentally, which Benoist, I think, is the first to present to the world and which is at best only implicit in the monotheist texts), and not by Oedipus Rex at all!
Benoist then suggests that Freud used Oedipus as a pretend inspiration for these ideas because he thought no one would accept that his real inspiration was monotheism. This is a very considerable claim with no evidence offered by Benoist. It seems like cheap (and utterly silly) manoeuvring designed to prop up a shoddy argument.
Yet even if Benoist is right, Oedipus Rex still exists as a landmark pagan play exploring the patricidal theme in a fashion that has animated and inspired the collective unconscious and the cultural imagination of humanity for thousands of years. To imply otherwise, as Benoist’s position seems to force him to do, is absurd.
It should be clear from this discussion of patricide why I find this book so frustrating. Not only is his exploration of patricide in monotheism and paganism over-complicated and abstract, but it is also hopelessly incoherent.
This is not going to sway any half-way intelligent Christian to the view that their faith is fatally flawed. It also obscures important patricidal elements of various pagan currents.
There are further frustrating elements in Benoist’s critique of monotheism. For example he argues that resentment is an essential part of monotheist morality. He reasons as follows: each particular monotheist accepts the moral debasement imposed by God’s otherworldly judgement only on the basis that everyone else, every other human, is subject to the same debasement.
This assumes that the average monotheist feels debased by their religion. A quick observation reveals that this is not the case; on the contrary quite a few Christians, for example, are insufferably proud of and gain overweening self-satisfaction from their religion. Consider the pomposity of the religious Right in the Unites States!
Hence this argument about resentment – while perhaps true of some monotheists – has nothing like the universality or power that Benoist seems to attach to it.
The hyperbolic yet rather weak point scoring that Benoist engages in against monotheism is frustrating; again I think it relies on exaggerating the extremity of the divide between monotheism and paganism, and doing so in a very abstract way, so that he can then offer very one-dimensional sketches of what monotheism teaches.
Benoist contrasts his characterisation of monotheists as resentful with the innocently beyond-good-and-evil pagan worldview. Yet we know that pagan societies had extremely clear and concrete laws, customs, rules, and the rest. Obligation, debt and shame are not identical with self-abnegation or guilt, but they are certainly kindred emotions and relationships.
Later in the book Benoist clarifies that to be beyond good and evil does not mean that paganism is ethically nihilist and he goes to great lengths to establish that paganism is, in some respects, very bound in and by the observation of custom and mores.
Yet this seems utterly at odds with the paganism he invokes during his critique of this aspect of monotheism. These inconsistencies are most exasperating.
Ultimately I find Benoist’s critique of Judeo-Christianity to be uninspired. Judeo-Christianity is extremely complex and contradictory and has or does contain just about every possible combination of ideals, beliefs, dogmas and worldviews that humanity is capable of.
The Judeo-Christian cultural edifice in general is hypocritical, villainous and responsible for more destruction and misery than any other human institution. Of course it has also produced some marvellous achievements and individuals, but this in itself can never justify or undo the awful wrongs committed on behalf of the monotheist cause.
What more do we need to say about this subject, surely little more is necessary? Certainly hair splitting about the original meaning of the original words in the Testaments – meanings irrelevant to the lived experience of most monotheists today I am sure – seems to be an utter waste of time.
Nietzsche declared Christianity to be in bad taste. For a significant part he’s right: it is. So why continue to pick at it in this way as Benoist does? Given the obvious flaws in some of his critical assaults on the monotheist texts, and given the overly abstract nature of other criticisms (which would no doubt seem irrelevant to most monotheists) he’s unlikely to convince many who are not already convinced.
It is very hard to understand why Benoist expends such a vast proportion of a book that purports to be about paganism on this theme. It is also hard to understand why he expends so much energy on some truly dead end arguments when there are so many more compelling critiques of Christianity (Nietzsche’s the foremost) already widely available and accessible.
Of course there is a further issue here – as I have mentioned, Benoist relies heavily on the notion that there is an irreconcilable breach between Christianity and paganism (though later, and most frustratingly, he systematically contradicts this in his consideration of late Roman paganism’s adaptations to compete with Christianity).
Nonetheless, we have seen that South American paganism co-exists quite happily with Catholicism; similarly illuminating is a charm recorded in the Galdrabok, an Icelandic grimoire that has been translated into English by Stephen Flowers, which calls on the power of Jesus, Satan, Odin and Loki!
In Hinduism, Jesus Christ is regarded as an avatar of Vishnu; and Europe is dotted in holy wells and sites that have been venerated for thousands of years prior to Christianity and which continue to receive that veneration (albeit with different justifications) post-conversion.
I don’t want to suggest that the relationship between monotheism and polytheism is at all cordial of course. Nevertheless it seems beyond dispute that the hard line Benoist draws between Christianity and paganism is on the whole unfaithful to the historical and sociological evidence – and that he himself is forced to cross it later in the book just underscores the point.
Benoist acknowledges the hybridisation complexities of Christianity in Europe, yet ultimately cannot see its relationship with paganism in more than oppositional lights, in colonisations, suppressions, repressions. These are a very important part of the story of course, but historical reality seems more complex than this.
Turning to another branch of monotheism, we find that in the Sufi traditions of Islam the most precious of all things is memory, is remembrance – remembrance of the fact that all things are divine, that la ila ha illallah – there is nothing that is not God, there is only God.
Benoist argues that this sort of pantheism is just like a monotheism in which God is radically removed from reality, but his argument is very weak, relying on little more than a few quotes from other writers that really just restate his view (there is no actual train of reasoning or argument that I could detect, just dogmatic assertion).
Yet surely the connection between pantheism (“everything is God/consciousness”) and paganism/animism (“all things are sacred/conscious”) is immediately apparent.
Why mention Sufism in this context? Because in Germanic heathenism memory is regarded as intensely important to spiritual and indeed everyday praxis (see for example Bil Linzie or Paul Bauschatz). The two religions share some remarkable similarities despite their almost radically alien origins.
There are of course marked differences between Sufism and Germanic heathenism but both are built on bedrock of memory and generosity. This hardly seems possible if monotheism and its pantheistic cousin were always inherently antithetical to paganism as Benoist suggests.
None of this is offered in order to suggest that paganism and monotheism can or should be syncretised; personally I have no interest in such an undertaking! Similarly it is not to deny that, whatever happens in practice, monotheism also usually claims that in principle syncretism is impossible and undesirable.
Like other French philosophers (Sartre and Foucault come to mind), Benoist seems unhealthily attached to exaggerating the contrariness of his themes and the concepts with which he works. I feel that this need to exaggerate extremity and conflict serves no useful purpose in articulating the nature of paganism; and it seems to me that it also impairs Benoist’s ability to accurately portray paganism on its own terms.
Curiously, toward the end of the book Benoist cites a number of Christian pantheist thinkers as examples of latent paganism. I should think he is forced to this torturous conclusion by this insistence on the incompatibility of pantheism and monotheism.
It seems that he becomes ensnared in a definitional web of his own making and, as with his acrobatics around redefining the origin of Freudian Oedipal theory, therefore resorts to lines of reason that strike me as incoherent. And all of this in order to attempt to shore up a rather Quixotic assault.
This sort of arbitrary rigidity serves neither Benoist’s argument, nor the reader, and emphasises the linear, bifurcated (and hence rather Judeo-Christian) atmosphere that rather permeates this book.
Turning now from this assault on monotheism I think it appropriate to reflect on the sketch Benoist offers for what he thinks paganism is or should be. I should add that this sketch tends to emphasise his Nietzschean influences (which are to be fair the strongest of his influences).
There is a fateful tension within Nietzsche’s work, and between Nietzsche and Heidegger, and I will discuss these themes further on, as well as the more Heideggerian (that is to say, animist) aspects of Benoist’s paganism.
Benoist’s vision for paganism seem to have more in common with a kind of existential or Nietzschean utopianism than with the reality of what the myths and historical/archaeological evidence tell us about paganism (and despite Benoist’s professed contempt for utopianism as being styled after monotheistic idealism).
Indeed, he seems to rely more on Nietzsche’s philosophy in his elucidation of paganism than he does any actual pagan texts, to produce a portrait of paganism as being in its essence a vehicle for humanity to reach its fullest expression.
I do believe the gods generally want to support their followers of course, so long as good relations and healthy gift exchanges are maintained. But Nietzsche crossed with Anthony Robbins they are not (and thank goodness for that!)
Benoist’s paganism incorporates a commitment to radical expansion and progress which is almost the twin of the tradition of Enlightenment progress that he dismisses as being based on a poisonously linear model of history. His paganism is arguably very similar to the Enlightenment idealism that he blames for the a modern dis-enchanted, squalid, polluted world we now find around us.
Surely a crucial element of paganism has to be knowing our limits, letting our reverence for the sacred world around us lead us to protecting it from harm, not overstepping the bounds for the sake of our own egoistic gratification.
I fail to see how Benoist’s reading of paganism offers anything sufficiently transformative for the post-Christian nihilism that now dominates Western culture. He does rail against individualism at various points, yet at the same time seems to be glorifying it. This is very confusing.
Later he dwells at length on the sacredness of all things and the importance of acknowledging the sacral; yet he rejects all models of ecological paganism (dangerously lumping them into a single homogenous category like a monotheist would and dismissing them quite unfairly as attempting to ‘reduce’ humanity to a thin biological dimension).
Ultimately he turns away from this animist perspective in favour of Nietzsche’s existential nihilism.
So much of historical paganism incorporated something like ‘nature religion’ – is this not an expression of the sacralisation of the world? Such a naturalistic focus does not necessarily (or indeed in actuality) imply reducing all of human nature to simple biological imperatives, contrary to Benoist’s fear.
What it does is acknowledge the debt humanity owes to nature for its survival, as well as the horizon of mystery within which nature shelters us. Nature is intensely powerful and has its own agenda and being from the pagan point of view as I understand it.
Benoist would not know this, being a European native, but those of us who feel connected to European paganism but who live beyond Europe’s shores often report a profound sense of coming home when we visit Europe.
This sense of connection to the European natural environment might just be an arbitrary feeling, but it is significant in terms of our spiritual experience and the importance of nature and place needs to be strongly emphasised in paganism.
Benoist on the one hand wishes to emphasise nature’s sacredness, yet he de-emphasises any practical counterpart to this in paganism. He seems to conflate ‘biological’ with ‘natural’; whereas nature represents the entire matrix of the world around us – animals, plants, landscapes, oceans, atmosphere, built environments and so forth.
In his attempt to avoid reductionist, devaluing understandings of paganism he resorts to some frustrating word games, with the concomitant problem of risking leaving the prize – the sacredness of all things – on the battlefield.
Furthermore his rejection of any kind of naturalism in order to assert the primacy of culture or ideology seems mired in an all-too-modern dualism of culture and nature (consider postmodernism), and furthermore is part and parcel of the kind of linear thinking that monotheism invented, even if in less insidious a form.
The naturalistic focus, if anything, impels a holistic perspectives which sees that different ‘levels’ of explanation (biological, social, psychological, etc) as being equally necessary if we are to understand the whole picture. Benoist seems to have – incredibly – conflated scientistic reductionism with animistic paganism!
Benoist sees the re-emergence of paganism as a purely cultural phenomenon guided by the will of those who lead the charge. He cannot see the rebirth as in any way an organic evolution of out the life force of the gods, spirits, ancestors and so forth.
This denuding the divine of its vitality so it might be bestowed on humanity is an ugly business, disrespectful and confused. Or are we to abandon the divine as travelling companion and teacher and reinvent it as convenient tool for our own finite wills?
In the end are we not all interred in the earth? I do not think that Faust is a good model of paganism – he is too defined by an almost linear rejection of Christianity, an immature self-obsession.
At one point to illustrate the primacy of man’s status in paganism Benoist marshals the example of Ymir/Prajapati, the ‘first man’ of Norse and Sanskrit texts, from whose dismembered body the whole cosmos is arranged. Benoist sees these figures as proof of the ascendance of humanity’s value in paganism.
This is a very tenuous argument. It is beyond debate that these ur-beings are considered far beyond humanity in stature or power. If anything they seem to be symbolic of the simultaneous interconnection and separation of all things – the mystery of the Germanic notion of wyrd or Yggdrasill or the magic of the conjunction of opposites. They are not human or representative of humanity.
Of course I agree with Benoist that the relationship between humanity and gods is gradual, not rigid and absolute as in his vision of monotheism. That doesn’t mean that the Ymir/Prajapati myths can be marshalled as evidence of paganism’s edification of humanity over all things as Benoist seems to think.
I do believe that self-improvement and self-expression are crucially important, but I also believe that our creative power comes from our ability to express that which is transpersonal – hence we have deities like Odin or Brigit who excite such fervent inspiration in their followers.
It is not our armoured egos that ignite the flames of our brilliance but rather the sexual passion of the creative urge that wells up from beneath or descends flaming from above. I believe the myth of Bolverkr’s (Odin’s) winning the mead of inspiration – with all its Kundalini analogies – serves as an excellent illustration or exploration of the phenomenology of the unfolding of human achievement and greatness.
It is not ultimately our self-obsession (which only serves to focus us) but rather the uncontrollable life force that flows through us, and of which the gods are exemplary manifestations.
Note that I do not regard the gods as mere “symbols” of these forces – I consider them to be much more substantive than this, though I do not claim to understand how exactly the being of the divinities functions or is composed – that is a mystery for them to know.
Judging from the historical record, paganism sees humanity as standing in deep debts of obligation to the gods. Consider that profound bedrock of Germanic heathen spirituality and culture, namely gift giving.
The gods are not just helpful symbols that we might plunder to enhance our worldly power. They are family, friends, confidants, lovers, masters, foes and strangers. They are the source of the procreative flame that forges lineages of flesh, art, love, imagination and material creation.
Reading Benoist I have only a limited sense that he has a relationship to these beings beyond his intellect or what use he sees them as offering to his agenda. Perhaps he does feel the heart-love that heathens talk about in regard to their patron deities – but if so then he does himself, his gods and his readers a great disservice in failing to articulate that love.
Indeed, here are some of Benoist’s comments on the relationship between gods and humanity:
“It is only in and by man that the gods can become truly aware and fulfil themselves” (p. 192);
“In the Indo-European religions, as I’ve said earlier, man is the measure of God. The society of gods is modelled on that of men, whose perpetuation and duration it secures by giving it an ideal representation. Man is the sole creator of the gods, because he is the sole giver of meaning” (p. 151).
If anything he comes across like a materialist, one with strong existentialist (which is to say, perhaps nihilistic) tendencies. Surely in the post-industrial west we’ve already invented this? Why slander paganism with these ideologies?
Benoist speaks of the power of self-transcendence into divinity – which I applaud – but then yokes this back to his existentialist project. I regard this as not far short of contemptuous towards the gods and the divine. Man is not the sole custodian of meaning.
If we are the creators of the gods then they are just our tools and instruments; if paganism is just an instrumental ideology then we might as well stay Christian or modernist–nihilist.
Incidentally, Benoist attributes the claim that “man is the measure of all things” to Aristotle, when it actually goes back to Protagoras, a Sophist and noted relativist among the Greeks.
Benoist presents this view as though it were widely prevalent among pagan cultures; the reality is that it only ever one of many schools of thought among the Greek philosophers (who surely comprise only a sub-culture of even the Greeks) that invented it.
“[I]t is not “original sin” that separates man from God, but his self-indulgence, his inability to become sovereign over himself, to attain an active impersonality, an Olympian detachment (gelassenheit) that would be the equivalent of full self-mastery”.
“This union with the divine signifies nothing other than man’s appropriation of his own inner freedom” (both quotes p. 192).
These are not of course entirely false statements, but they lack the richness of what paganism can be. Where is the celebration of the impassioned brilliance that Dionysus may send coursing through is? Where is the ecstatic fury of Woden as ergreifer that has inspired so much profound art down the ages? It is not our inner freedom that we gain in union with the divine, but rather our place in the mythic order of the world.
I am not suggesting that we seek to utterly dissolve ourselves in the transpersonal; but rather that paganism requires us to achieve the union of opposites between gods and humanity. At times in this book Benoist seems to understand this, but always falls back into Nietzsche’s arms.
In this light the sign over the Oracle at Delphi is telling: “Give up what thou hast and then thou wilt receive”. James Hillman, the great psychologist of polytheistic consciousness, regards the myth of the egotistical hero, the enthused peur, as a root of the problems of modernity. We have become so mired in this driven mode of being that we have lost touch with what he calls at times the ‘vale of character making’.
For Hillman, polytheism is important because it gives us the journeys of Orpheus, Wegtam/Odin and Osiris (among others) into the underworld. It is our submission to mystery that transforms us, our courage to submit to suffering without seeking to change or dismiss it; to listen to its message; to let it sweep up and transform our psyches in ways far beyond anything we could have freely chosen or imagined from the ground of our egos.
Hillman’s way is that of the giving over to the underworld, the acceptance and close listening to the symptoms of one’s suffering, so that the depth of the world can guide one into a fully realised manifestation.
This is a kind of striving and overcoming, but it comes by circumscribing and dissolving the ego. It comes out of listening for meaning, not Quixotically trying to create or impose it ex nihilo as Benoist and Nietzsche would have us do.
This is the paganism that speaks to me; this is the paganism which Benoist verges on trying to abolish by assault and omission, thereby risking allying himself with the Christians and the materialists against his own kind.
To be clear, in my understanding of paganism we humans are not the final measure of all things as both materialism (and Benoist it seems) would have it. We stand in deeply reciprocal relationships with mysterious and powerful beings who have their own agendas, and which are active regardless of whether we know it or not. The legend over Jung’s door was “called or not, God is in the house”.
Benoist’s interest is heroic paganism, and a very narrow, materialist (indeed, monotheistic) reading of it at that. Yet there are many elements to paganism, just as there were and are many pagan cultures and many different functions and roles within those cultures.
Thus we might talk of nature paganism, agrarian paganism, domestic paganism, mystic paganism, artisan paganism, etc. All of these need acknowledgement and while all contain elements of the heroic milieu, this book seems almost deformed in its emphasis on (and at various points, caricature of) the various heroic traditions.
Perhaps because of my more shamanic orientation, where submission, transformation and the horizon of mystery are so important, my dislike for this book is exacerbated. I do not find myself adequately represented in a book that purports to represent me. This is certainly part of why I have responded with this essay.
To claim the inspiration and power that the gods share with us as though it were entirely dint of our own brilliance is not paganism – it is theft. Nietzsche is the paradigmatic example of this dishonesty, as we will see.
Benoist’s contempt for ‘folk paganism’, seasonal observances and Dumézil’s third function (the domain of fertility within the Indo-European worldview) reveals a failure to respect just how symbiotic the relationship of humanity to our world really is.
If paganism is holistic (Benoist at least claims to agree with me on that) then all three of Dumézil’s functions (Sovereignty, Military and Productivity/Fertility) are just as important. To maintain otherwise is crippling for attempts to revive paganism in its full kaleidoscope of riches.
I heartily disagree that the “sovereign paganism” remains the most fundamental, and particularly not the materialist-egotist thumbnail which Benoist paints of this branch of paganism. It is rather the dynamic equilibrium of all three that matters.
It is worth making a side-point that Dumézil’s tripartite division of Indo-European culture has been criticised quite systematically for selectively reading sources in order to fit with its structures, and for relying on cross-cultural comparison to, again, force the shape of particular pagan cultures into its pre-existing mould. That Benoist relies on this model so heavily without any qualification seems somewhat dangerous to me.
Meanwhile the elitism, self-obsession and isolationism that Benoist attributes (with little or no reference to actual history or mythology, perhaps because the aggregate of this would contradict him) to paganism has now reached its pinnacle in the person of (ironically Christian) individuals such as George W. Bush.
Paganism, as I understand it from my reading of myth and history, has very little interest in all of this heady grandstanding – it is far more interested in engaging with life. This is part of the ‘tragic destiny’ which Benoist rightly celebrates in pagan literature, but which he perhaps does not fully understand.
Christianity, on Benoist’s reading, makes ownership of or entitlement to power (that is, conflict between God and man) a central problematic. Why must we remain in that problematic when we turn to paganism, which is such a different beast to monotheism?
In any case, there is more to life than exercising one’s power. To make this the fundamental goal of paganism or any other belief is to reduce it to a single linear caricature, which is to say, to fall into the very mentality that produced monotheism in the first place. I believe Hillman’s polytheistic psychological work represents the death knell of this attitude.
Unless of course we take power to be meant in the widest sense – is Benoist saying that fundamental to pagans is a desire to manifest themselves in the world as flourishing, living beings? I’d agree with that – however it seems a trivial truism, and certainly not limited just to those of pagan beliefs.
And what of those of us who have struggled with forces such as depression and thus at times held ourselves back? Are we less pagan for our limitations? If the answer is yes then that would make paganism just that bit more useless for the very task of improving humanity that Benoist envisages.
Towards the end of the book Benoist does attempt to qualify some of his comments about power along these lines. Nonetheless he seems to want to force paganism into a Nietzschean mould and then dismiss anything that does not conform to his particular preferences. This is not unlike the monotheistic attitude he rails against so violently.
Why be a polytheist who thinks and acts like a monotheist? The pagan mythologies reveal far more nuanced psychologies than this Nietzschean focus. It is worth recalling that, for all his incandescent brilliance, Nietzsche was rather ineffectual in his personal life; only in his writing is he all-powerful. But again, we will cover this ground in more detail further on.
Paganism celebrates and laments mankind’s flaws and failures as well as the triumphs and victories. Consider the Greek tragedies, the tragic tales of Siegfried or Arthur – even the various heathen poems related to the M-rune, which read:
Old English Rune Poem
Monn (Man) is, in his mirth, to his kinfolk dear;
Yet shall each disappoint the other,
Accordingly the Lord wills, by his law,
That the poor flesh be entrusted to the earth.
Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Madhr (Man) is man’s pleasure
And mould’s increase
And a ship’s embellisher.
Old Norse Rune Poem
Madhr (Man) is mould’s increase;
Great is the grip of the hawk.
(Rune poem translations by Sweyn Plowright, http://www.mackaos.com.au/Rune-Net/Primer/)
I consider that the pagan view of human nature should be celebrated because it acknowledges and accepts both our beauty and our ugliness; our successes and our failures. It sees us as we are, phenomenologically, not with the confusing or destructive blinders of dogma.
Benoist’s elitist agenda, his contempt for the ‘herd’, is purportedly based on a desire to support the weak to find their strength; yet I would suggest that one cannot help a person change without first accepting them as they are. Certainly this has been robustly demonstrated again and again in psychotherapy outcome research.
I believe that paganism allows a rich space for this acceptance of both our weaknesses and our strengths. This again is reflected in the underwordly psychology that Hillman so masterfully elucidates. It is in this respect that the Christian ethos for compassion has to be respected, because it can be healing and transformative for its recipient.
If we accept Benoist’s interpretation of what monotheism stands for then it is ironic that compassion, such a powerful vehicle for the betterment of humanity, is so strongly advocated by at least some of the monotheists. Again the rigid monotheist/pagan dichotomy Benoist asserts seems far more ambiguous in reality.
I am no friend of Christianity but I have seen that it can be a positive force precisely in helping the weak find their strength and I have great respect for the all too few Christians who have the courage to act in this capacity.
Yet for me it is my heathenry that has served this role. Incidentally, on reflection I would question the weak/strong dichotomy of Benoist’s Nietzsche-worship, replacing it with a dichotomy of wounded/healed, or even perhaps of questioning/unquestioning.
I say all of this not because I am myopically in love with all humanity, nor because I am an unrealistic hippy, but because contempt for the ‘herd’ is itself very much a ‘herd’ mentality. It betrays a miserliness of spirit in most cases.
I think Benoist is better than this, I think he shares Nietzsche’s ultimate hope for humanity’s power to fulfil its potential. But he is led astray by Nietzsche’s own bifurcated relationship to humanity.
Incidentally, for all his contempt for humanism Benoist nevertheless seeks to justify paganism on the basis that it will strengthen humanity where monotheism weakens it. This seems very compatible with humanism. It really isn’t clear, at least in this book, just where his views on humanism lie, despite his explicit rejection of it.
Consider this quote from Hávamál where a very strong humanist spirit is expressed: (Thorpe translation from Northvegr.org):
Following from this sentiment, and with Nietzsche’s critique in mind, I argue that the real difference between pagan humanism (for that is what Odin advocates in the stanzas quoted above) and monotheist humanism is on the question of pity.
For the Germanic heathens at least, generosity was a social and religious bedrock; hospitality the highest virtue. In heathenism one should give as generously as one may in a spirit of abundance, wealth, positivity and generosity; whereas in Christianity the gift is often driven by pity, shame, obligation, or guilt, emotions which harm both giver and receiver.
It might seem I am being quite aggressive toward Benoist– and I am. The reason for my aggression is that Benoist presents his view of paganism as simply what paganism is (despite his rather weak disclaimers to the contrary).
This infuriates me because it represents an attempt to make all other understandings of paganism – and in particular understandings that seem to me to be far more phenomenologically, historically and spiritually rich and sound – disappear.
In particular he seems to have total disregard for the (in my view) critically important attempts of some heathens to recover the spirit of community, reject the poisonous artifice of modern technological living, and so forth.
Quite frankly this tactic, to make all but one’s own view disappear, was invented by Christian missionaries. I consider my anger fairly earned. I resist having someone speak for me when so much of what they say is poorly argued and unrepresentative of my experience.
The problem is exacerbated by his insistence on speaking of Greco-Roman, Germanic, Indian, Celtic, Slavic, etc, mythologies under the one ‘pagan’ rubric, as though they are all essentially the same.
This is an extremely cavalier attitude to take; certainly many Germanic heathens (myself included), while acknowledging the value of comparative mythology, are also very clear about the importance of specificity.
I take inspiration from more than just the Germanic gods and myths; but while, for example, I regard Odin and Hermes as cousins I would never pretend they are identical and if not for this book I would probably not even be referring to them under a single rubric of ‘pagan’.
Benoist at times relies heavily on mythology for his understanding of paganism; yet the entire archaeological and historiographical (not just historical) project is needed to really grasp these myths.
Mythology can be made to say anything one likes about a historical culture or people – It seems to me that Benoist takes liberties in this regard which are neither necessary to support his central arguments nor necessarily supportable.
Consider for example his assertion that “in paganism we find a specifically human history, crediting the greatest part to the innovations of human creativity”. Compared to Benoist’s portrait of Judeo-Christianity that seems true, but when we explore pagan mythology we find that humanity is all too often a plaything of the gods; that the gods are in the driver’s seat if only by virtue of their vastly superior powers.
The pagan gods are inspiring beings that we might aspire to emulate; but for all of their flaws and mortality they definitely have the upper hand in the shape of history over humanity. I think this is ultimately an insight that Heidegger grasped. They command our adoration as well as our emulation.
Unfortunately Nietzsche seems to be Benoist’s fundamental source for what paganism comprises – one wonders if this book should have been called “On Being A Nietzschean”.
“By honouring his gods, man honours his ability to live in symbiosis with them, that he honours his own capacity, by means of a free will to power, to become equal to the models he has chosen” (p. 109).
This quote reveals the problematic axis of this book. The first part is definitely true, though perhaps a little too focussed on humanity and not enough on the agency of the gods; but then we tumble into Nietzschean terms which seem highly debatable but which are presented as a fait accompli.
To recapitulate a theme, Benoist does acknowledge the heroic-tragic orientation of much of paganism to the notion of destiny (see my comments on the M-rune above), but sees it only in terms of his brand of existential materialism, not in terms of the beating foam and flesh of lived existence.
I cannot help but feel he is appropriating paganism in the name of a related but still very different ideology – Nietzsche is pagan-like for certain, but this is no basis for a complete substitution.
There is a coldness to much of this book, a lack of feeling; it all seems to be about conquering and struggle, whereas both the phenomenology of human experience and historical paganism reveal and explicate the full texture of life in all its modes.
Yet Benoist, as mentioned, celebrates the spirit of amor fati, the “pessimism of strength” that surfaces in the atmosphere of various pagan tales and which is so inspiring for both its determination to realise human potential and its ability to accept the disappointments that are part and parcel of this chaotic mortal existence (consider again the M-rune poems).
Benoist declares in his deliberations on these themes that “man can only work with what he has, but it is with what he has that he is able to be and do as he likes” (p. 158). I fully agree with this marvellous sentiment, so true to my understanding of paganism.
In such passages he writes with passion and fire, perspicacity and insight. All the more perplexing then that so much of this book is mired in overly intellectual and near-empty consideration of monotheist dogma. I want to read a book dominated by the Benoist of the above-quoted, not the book that he has given us in On Being A Pagan.
As I have alluded, the critical junction in this book lies in its failure to effect the union of opposites between two competing thread’s in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Benoist is relatively blameless for this failing, buried as it is deeply in the heart of Nietzsche’s work.
The point of both comparison and departure for opening this question out, however, is the work of Benoist’s other major influence: Martin Heidegger.
Heidegger’s work is animated by the question of Being. He felt that the Greeks were able to articulate an originary and original experience of being integrated into the world around them.
Emblematic of this was their word for truth, aletheia, an illuminating, unconcealing relationship of presence to presence. Aletheia places the relational, experiential and recognitive moment at the heart of truth.
With the Romans, Heidegger felt this preservation and evocation of the experience in the word (and for Heidegger language is the house of Being and mediates our access to Being) was lost. They translated aletheia into veritas – factuality.
With this turn Western philosophy was fatefully determined away from ‘the things themselves’ and ultimately into the arms of Christianity with its infuriating and incoherent abstractions – and now into materialist nihilism. Heidegger conceptualised this Christian and post-Christian tradition as onto-theology, branching across philosophy, science and spirituality with an insidious net.
As an aside it is worth noting that Benoist does not follow Heidegger in parsing Greek and Roman thought and I think this betrays the significant limitations of his understanding of Heidegger’s work.
Heidegger’s early philosophy followed in the footsteps of transcendental idealism and the work of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. However he felt eventually that the emphasis on humanity as the point of departure for philosophy, as it had been since Descartes, was too strongly entangled in onto-theology.
His later work abandons this orientation in favour of a more animistic perspective (though he did not really use this word himself).
Heidegger is a holistic thinker; for him poetry and art in general is the door into recovering that original relationship to experience that our language, and therefore our culture, desperately needs.
He admired rustic folk who seemed to still retain this relationship to the world around them, albeit perhaps not able to express it in sophisticated ways (presumably Benoist’s contempt for the herd precludes any similar admiration on his part).
Heidegger, like paganism, is idolatrous and phenomenological – he seeks to allow things to be what they are, to speak and sing for themselves as they are, to be uncertain and curious so that they might formulate and communicate their own meaning.
As far as I am aware Hillman did not read Heidegger closely, mistaking him for another existentialist (due to Heidegger’s earlier more subjectivity-focussed work, though Heidegger explicitly rejected existentialism).
Nonetheless there is incredible similarity in their emphasis on listening and trusting in the horizon of mystery, though Hillman tends to turn to gods and land within where Heidegger turns to gods and land without.
One of Heidegger’s critical concerns is the way that human beings orient themselves toward the world such that their relationship to it is occluded to the detriment of all – his essays on technology and building are particularly illustrative of this phenomenon, which among other things has led to the world ecological crisis we are now mired in.
He writes to invoke the experience of the thing itself, utilising such images as the Fourfold – Gods and Mortals, Sky and Earth – to draw us back into the original animist experience that is for the most part no longer cultivated and housed within the trappings of Western culture.
Benoist reads Heidegger at points in a very existentialist way (“Being (Sein) for Heidegger is inseparable from man as being-in-the-world (Dasein)”, p. 194), yet this is not the way – Heidegger unambiguously repudiated such readings. In place of the subjectivist stance he sought the answer in thinking, art and poetry.
Benoist doesn’t seem to grasp the full significance in which Heidegger presents aletheia as truth unfolding in the clearing of Being, the way in which Heidegger dissolves subject and object, ego and world, in the elusive yet ever-present ground on which all these abstractions are extracted, the moment of aletheia’s concealing-unconcealing beauty.
Benoist also runs astray in his reflections on Heidegger’s early notion of authenticity.
For example consider this quote: “the impersonal “one” (das Man) of the inauthentic, whose heavy dictatorship over the contemporary world is denounced by Heidegger” (p. 196).
This description of Heidegger’s view is flatly wrong – on this subject Heidegger very clearly declares that “our own Interpretation is purely ontological in its aims, and is far removed from any moralising critique” (Being And Time, tran. Macquarrie & Robinson, p. 211).
Heidegger regards the inauthentic mode of human being that he calls das Man as an essential component of Dasein, of humanity. It isn’t a psychological or social phenomenon to be denounced, but rather one of the conditions he traces out that are necessary for there to be any kind of psychological or social (or indeed human) phenomena at all.
It is absolutely necessary that we become lost in the world of our concern under the sway of das Man. If we didn’t do this, we’d have huge problems engaging with reality at all; I imagine it would be a little like the experience of being influenced by powerful hallucinogenic drugs, profundity one moment and rancid chaos the next.
The problem is that, because it provides a poor home for doors into recognition of aletheia, our culture does not offer enough opportunities for moments of authenticity, heeding the Call of Conscience away from the everydayness of das Man and back to our own-most potentialities in, for example, the face of death.
In other cultures and times there have been more doors available for us to step into the authentic (for example in pagan cultures). The problem is not inauthenticity as Heidegger uses the term but rather the slipping away of culturally sanctioned/nourished doors into authenticity.
If Benoist reads Heidegger in a post-Sartrean way (as a kind of moralising psychological existentialist) then ultimately it suggests he doesn’t grasp the depth and profundity of the turn back to the sacred that Heidegger attempted to initiate in Western thinking.
It is as though some part of him grasps at Heidegger’s animistic turn, recognises it as essential to the rebirth of paganism, but is unable to complete the process that Heidegger invites us to enter into, this circle of ever-deepening discovery.
Heidegger surpassed all debate and confusion about the subjective and the objective by returning meaning to the heart of the clearing of Being itself, right on the hedge that divides self and world.
(One is reminded of the German word for a world-hopping, hedge-sitting magician, hagzissa, one who can see that both sides are one whole without losing perspective on the difference between the sides).
A final example of just where Benoist falls short of grasping the full richness of Heidegger’s thought is in the area of time. Benoist argues that monotheist mythology is oriented in terms of time and eschatology where paganism is oriented primarily in terms of space and “spatialisation”.
Heidegger on the other hand saw time as the dimension which schematises Being, which enables it to have a structured manifestation. To me this has always conjured the image of Odin hanging himself on the world tree, diving into the horizons of mystery.
Heidegger’s attitude to time is very different to monotheism’s, but the point is that one can be a ‘pagan’ thinker and still regard time as the central orienting principle of the world. I would also argue that Germanic heathenism, with its ontology of wyrd and memory, is at least as temporally oriented as it is spatially. Similarly Hinduism with its cyclical epochs.
So much for Heidegger with his animist reverence for the Being of all things, his determination to listen, shelter and hold out for the Being of things to speak in the sacred opening and closing of aletheia. We can see his influence on Benoist, and also where Benoist, tied up in existentialist concerns, misunderstands Heidegger to his cost.
I therefore turn to Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy holds the key to the cracks and flaws that mar On Being A Pagan.
Nietzsche advocates for the exultation of the individual ego, the overflowing, bountiful and creative superman who expresses his will to power in a joyous welter of ever more marvellous overcoming. He believes that by rejecting the ‘herd’, the few rugged individuals on the frontier of human consciousness can bravely venture out into the infinite sea that God’s death has revealed.
And yet Nietzsche also has a deep affinity for Dionysus, for the impassioned fire of the creative urge – I refer my reader to my previous comments about the need in paganism for us to give ourselves over to such seizing forces, to abandon our egos.
Not only that – Nietzsche drew profound strength and inspiration from the natural world (Thus Spoke Zarathustra particularly stands out in this respect). He seems to be a practicing animist in denial!
Because of his radical atheism, Nietzsche is ultimately unable to acknowledge the sources of his creative brilliance: the transpersonal forces for which he was the creative manifestation and outlet. Perhaps this is why he ultimately went insane, unable to square the phenomenal reality of his expressive passion with the hard armour of his ego’s demands.
Here is the fundamental failure of Nietzsche’s work and perhaps life. He appeals to the Dionysian, yet demands that the ego be accorded all the honours that it owes to the transpersonal forces for which it serves as a vessel.
Thus thinkers like Benoist are led astray for, drawn to and connected with the same pagan, transpersonal spirit, they then adopt the ego orientation after Nietzsche’s example.
Since the ego emphasis is so much more explicit in Nietzsche than the animist and transpersonal emphases, the ability of thinkers such as Benoist to (intellectually speaking) access the importance of his connection to the sacred is impaired, and they are led with Nietzsche into a nihilistic existentialism which subverts the sacred being of the world for its own aggrandisement instead of celebrating, expressing and worshipping said sacred being.
Nietzsche celebrated both the dizzying heights of his creative periods and the long dark valleys of his illness and depression. The dark valleys to which he was forced to submit perhaps were like Hillman’s underworldly journeys, ultimately transfiguring. Yet he tries to appropriate these also to his will, though surely it could never have authored such profound depths.
To be sure a strong will is necessary to resist the tide of post-Christian society with its desert of meaning. To be sure it is a mark of distinction that a person questions the seemingly obvious mores of the world around them. To be sure, the desire to surpass and evolve is deeply worthy.
But despite Nietzsche’s conviction, the ego cannot do this alone, and he perhaps paid the price for his misuse of the transpersonal with his sanity. Here then is the fault line that runs through Benoist’s book, this tension that wracked Nietzsche, between submission and self-autonomy.
Nietzsche failed to effect the “birth of opposites in the divine unity” (p. 180) that Benoist regards as so essential to paganism – and consequently leads On Being A Pagan away also from that goal, for all that it calls Benoist, it seems, with such power.
Of course, Nietzsche’s philosophy of individualism also struggles when set within the communitarian ethic of paganism (a community focus that Benoist also claims to strongly value). The contradictions in Benoist’s book (and in the history of philosophy that it draws on) are truly fascinating.
These reflections cast further light on the pagan phenomenon of the ‘pessimism of strength’ that Benoist rightly valorises. Set against the tragic destiny of the ego, the lone heroic warrior, is that other way of relating to time and causality – to ride the wave of wyrd, the flow of the waters of life and time through the world tree, as the smith Volund did to claim his revenge on those who wronged him.
In short there is a polytheism of means for the expression of the pagan spirit – Nietzsche’s conscious will is one road, hobbled by its obeisance to post-Christian nihilism. What of another, to submit to the tides of time in order to then ride them like a stallion?
This too is dangerous, yet I believe it is marked by an honesty and fearlessness that honours but ultimately surpasses the ego and its deceptive claim to the ultimate creative spark.
Walking the dark path seasons and transfigures the soul where will-directed striving leads to hardening, rigidity and emptiness. The underworld is where the waters of time, of memory, ultimately flow back.
Benoist wants to leap into the sky from the branches of the world tree; but Woden knows that at times the path forward is to dive into the fearful guts of Niflhel, or seek the court of Mimir and his all-holding well.
We might say that Benoist falls afoul of Nietzsche’s sleight of hand – he who draws on the power of nature and the Dionysian/Odinnic River of Fire, yet who then claims all this as the work of his personal will and ego, of his particular individuality.
I see Heidegger’s animism as allied to aletheia; but see Benoist’s ego orientation, his determination with Nietzsche to force meaning into existence, as being allied to the dangers and blindness of veritas. Benoist, for all his grasp of the pagan worldview, is still ensnared in the bloody aftermath of the monotheist God’s death in nihilism.
Nietzsche is forced to steal from the gods and pass off their power as his own because of his atheism. Hence he is one more hypocritical modern nihilist despite his profound achievements. His Faustian model of human progress needs to be abandoned because it is sterile.
I hope that since this book was written Benoist has deepened his grasp of Heidegger and loosened his grasp on Nietzsche’s flawed project. For I believe that Benoist does at least partially understand the essence that Heidegger points us to, even though he is weighed down by the creeping vines of egotistical existentialism.
Benoist prevaricates between the two extremes throughout On Being A Pagan. For example, it seems arguably the case that Benoist with his humanocentrism lacks reverence for mystery; for the secret lore that Heidegger taught of Gods, Mortals, Sky and Earth; for Aletheia contra Veritas.
Yet it is Heidegger’s animist emphasis on pagan philosophy that rings out most powerfully across the ages and not Nietzsche’s heroic egoistic interpretation. I love both of these thinkers, but my heart dwells with Heidegger, who overcame philosophy itself, where Nietzsche merely wounded it with its own barbs.
Having lost the Heideggerian thread and sided with the Nietzschean, Benoist goes on to talk about god as the depth of the world, a marvellous way of articulating animism, even mentioning Heidegger’s Fourfold in terms that reveal wisdom.
Yet how can this square with his humanocentrism? The latter stems from this Faustian or Nietzschean orientation and in this book there is a seething and fundamental tension between these tendencies.
Benoist ultimately (though he might not realise it) subordinates animism to existentialism and therein lines the heart of where his portrait of paganism goes awry.
What then, is our duty as pagans? For some of us at least (perhaps many) it is to make ourselves good vessels for the expression and manifestation of the gods, indeed, of the whole sacred world that we are part of.
I believe this need to perfect ourselves as vessels for all that is far beyond our finite natures is the root of Nietzsche’s egotistical project, but his atheism cuts short his flight well short of the target.
Once we acknowledge that there are a number of paganisms, and that heroic paganism is less black and white, less linear, that Benoist would have us believe (and after all he is forced into an extreme position by the artificial rigidity of his monotheist/polytheist split and his Nietzschean influence), we must conclude that the path to a new paganism lies not merely in extracting truth from nature (seeking veritas), but from listening and holding out for it (courting aletheia).
This is Heidegger’s Way. It represents the other thread in paganism apart from tragic destiny – the riding of the tide of wyrd, the flow of the waters of life, giving ourselves over to the Other (that is, to Mystery), so that we give ourselves to ourselves (for we are Mystery, too). The ego is dissolved and transfigured and we find ourselves in the heart of the Fourfold, whole as before, yet far more than we could otherwise have ever been.
The concluding pages of On Being A Pagan turn back towards a more stirring, almost Heideggerian atmosphere, and this completes the ambivalence I feel about this book.
Caught in the echo of Nietzsche’s philosophical death throws it coils and twists between two extremes, struggling to affect the conjunction of opposed ego and anima necessary to invoke a perfected portrait of paganism.
I did not enjoy reading this book, but I am grateful for the experience. One of the challenges Benoist makes to me is to have the courage to be more of myself, a question I have struggled with as a very shamanic, liminal personality in a nihilistic, materialist post-modern world.
I am grateful for that challenge, and writing this essay represents one aspect of my taking up his challenge. I would hope he could appreciate my rejection of so much of this book in the Nietzschean or pagan spirit that it is intended – edifying one’s foe (though in this case I do not regard us as foes!) through combat.
I feel it right to reiterate – there are some remarkable insights in On Being A Pagan, and all of my complaining cannot take that away from what remains a fascinating, if difficult and ultimately failed, spiritual articulation.
I would like to end this essay with two final steps. First, I would like to invite my reader to read this book, but to do so in conjunction with four other texts – John Ralston Saul’s On Equilibrium; Brian Bates’ The Real Middle-Earth; James Hillman’s A Blue Fire, and Bil Linzie’s Drinking At The Well Of Mimir.
(The last of these is available for free as a PDF from Linzie’s website which is easily found via Google).
These books wrestle with similar concerns to Benoist, and the similarities and differences are startling. While I would not say I totally agree with any of these texts, they generally manage to effect a better walking of the Way than On Being A Pagan achieves and the contrast is worth exploring.
Secondly, I would like to offer poetry and lyrics – just as the old Greeks would invoke the poets to illustrate their ideas, and just as Benoist does, I think this highly appropriate.
I have drawn on the lyrics of modern musical groups, bands who exhibit, to varying degrees, a strong animist or heathen consciousness. I have also presented two sets of my own lyrics. It is my hope, following Heidegger, than where didactic prose fails poetry might yet show the Way.
‘Infinite Sea’ – Henry Lauer (for Ironwood)
I am but a ship on the infinite sea
And the name of the sea is Woden!
Tiller slack, sails taut
Stern ensnared by spraying salt
Whither away? No track for me
Swept by tides of endless sea
Scalding sky, boiling black
Blazing bolts lick forth and back
Furious swells, hammering waves
The once rich calm is now betrayed
Current turns, ocean breathes
Laughing as it lashes me
Water crashing over bow
Gunwales engulfed, near going down!
Refusing I to face this fight
Eyes clamped shut to my own plight
Blind, blood-stained, battle-burnt
Maddened, lost in endless hurt:
Ocean wide dissolve my fear
Sun and stars guide me
Gave myself to mystery
To find she’s always owned me
Awake! Cry ancient ocean ways
Awake! And know you cannot flee
Accept the winds that carve your course
Ride the roiling tidal horse
You must embrace horizon’s line
As bloody wolves hunt moon and sun
Become a wight of water’s ways
Forget your fear you feverish fool:
Ocean wide dissolve my fear
Sun and stars guide me
Gave myself to mystery
To find she’s always owned me
Awake! To endless wyrd-webbed grace
Awake! Into seething embrace
Ride the winds that weave my way
With Woden always as my guide.
‘In The Shadow Of Our Pale Companion’ – Agalloch
Through vast valleys I wander
To the highest peaks
On pathways through a wild forgotten landscape
In search of God, in spite of man
'til the lost forsaken endless…
This is where I choose to tread
Fall… so shall we fall into the nihil?
The nothingness that we feel in the arms of the pale
In the shadow of the grim companion who walks with us
Here is the landscape
Here is the sun
Here in the balance of the earth
Where is the god?
Has he fallen and abandoned us?
As I'm stalked by the shadow of death's hand
The fire in my heart is forged across the land
Here at the edge of this world
Here I gaze at a pantheon of oak, a citadel of stone
If this grand panorama before me is what you call God…
Then God is not dead
I walked down to a river and sat in reflection of what had to be done
An offering of crimson flowed into the water below
A wound of spirit from which it floated and faded away
…like every hope I've ever had…
…like every dream I've ever known…
It washed away in a tide of longing, a longing for a better world
From my will, my throat, to the river, and into the sea…
Here is the landscape
Here is the sun
Here at the edge of the earth
Where is the God?
Has he fallen to ruin?
As I'm stalked by the shadow of death's hand
My heathen pride is scarred across the land
‘Ruun’ - Enslaved
Have you ever seen beyond the reach?
Have you ever felt the change?
Visions from an altered state
They conceal and revelate
Communing once again with Gods
Thread unto the impossible path
Talking with a different tongue
Heralding the unsung
Reach for them, see them turn away
Have you ever seen beyond the reach?
Have you ever felt the change?
Visions from an altered state
They conceal and revelate
Fly away, chains undone
Reach for them, see them turn away
Doors open wide
Step into the light
No turning back
Embrace the night
We are not alone
Never to return
Merge with the unknown
‘A Sun That Never Sets’ – Neurosis
A sun that never sets burns on.
New light is this river's dawn.
When to speak of a word so old
is to relearn what is known.
A time to think back and move on.
Rebuild the loves of lives long gone.
The blood that flows through me is not my own.
The blood is from the past, and not my own.
The blood that leads my life is not my own.
The blood is my strength, I'm not alone.
‘Aletheia Contra Veritas’ – Henry Lauer (for Sword Toward Self)
I have stared through
The simplicity of the
Oneness and difference of all things.
The context that enframes
Establishes an exchange
Reciprocally as I see revealed
And respect the veil of ontology
Which is to say
That Being is mystery.
A thing is not a thing:
Words open or close
The doors of Being’s house.
If we shall step beyond
Or endlessly regress.
Do not trust the air tight promise
The suffocating universe of fact.
When lichtung becomes manifest
Silence opens space for sound
The Web, the Way, the tides clear
Our endless fallen strife.
For the sake of the earth
The sea exists
For the sake of the sky
The earth exists
For the sake of the sea
The sky exists.
Now I invoke:
Come home, Dasein,
To Aletheia’s welcome hall.
I have stared through
The simplicity of the
Oneness and difference of all things.
The door stands before you,
At every moment, in every place,