Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue and a vessel with which to drink the good life

"Pagan is a negative term," I was told. "It means wanton, imature snotty, rebellious and without morals." 

And this was not said by someone ideologically opposed to earth spirituality. Quite the opposite. It was said by one who taught me much of my spirituality and who finds spirit in nature and in authenticity and compassion. But the term "Pagan" has become negative for this person, through media messages, the words of critics and the words and deeds of some visible Pagans as well. 

And I while I vehemently disagree with that negative definition of the word "Pagan," I can't entirely refute the connotations of the social movement that has grown around the word in pop culture. Google it and you'll get endless pictures of objectified women in slinky black clothing with ugly makeup and suggestive poses. I have found spiritual sisters and brothers among Pagans, but I also often find a lot of nihilism and immature rebel-without-a-cause mentality. I find a subculture where many proudly claim that morals are for brainwashed idiots and that they have no spiritual obligation to do anything but satisfy their own desires as long as there isn't obvious harm done to someone else. And if there is harm done, well then "that so-and-so shouldn't have gotten in the way."

The most popular thread in one of the largest Facebook groups for Pagans for the past year has been one about how sick of "nice Pagans all full of light" the members are. These posts are full of adolescent self-righteousness, denial of spiritual meaning and flaunt-your-sex-because-it-annoys-Christians messages. By contrast, when I posted about my personal struggles around responding to climate change as a Pagan, I was met with several angry responses that demanded, "How dare you suggest that Pagans should be specifically concerned about climate change?" and "I'm so sick of Pagan popes."  

The person who told me that "Pagan" is a negative term has glimpsed this side of the Pagan community and been repelled with disgust, even though her spirituality is not far from true Pagan roots at all. And I struggle because I want to cry that there is no truth at all in the lies of the church-influenced media. Because this has nothing to do with the spirituality I know and love. But I do know that it isn't entirely a figment of evangelical propaganda. There are Pagans who say these things and openly espouse the values of wanton, immature, rebellious nihilism.

And I have searched for a coherent answer, a common definition or even a code of ethics broad enough and yet specific enough to be called "the Pagan way." And I've been told again and again that we are too broad, that nothing but external trappings connect us. And perhaps that is true, if you count everyone who ever used the word Pagan.

But today I've found a surprising spark of hope in this search.

It comes from Brendan Myers, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and writes extensively on environmental ethics and Neopagan topics. Many of Myers books may be too specific to one path or another but in The Other Side of Virtue (first published in 2008) he makes a credible, scholarly study of ethics and the meaning of a virtuous life, from ancient times to Harry Potter. Every other philosopher I have read and in fact my entire university philosophy program where I read Plato and the other thinkers that have shaped western society limited their study to the classical Roman and Greek period onward. Myers does what has been taboo and reaches beyond that boundary to explore the definition of "virtue" apparent in the remnants of ancient "heroic societies," the term he gives to pre-classical European tribal civilizations. 

Myers does not say in his book that he is defining indigenous-European Pagan ethics. It would be a very controversial claim. But he does it without the fanfare nonetheless. 

It is true that his entire study is limited to European thought, but the vast majority of those who self-identify as "Pagan" today do so in reference to spiritual paths that are at least inspired by indigenous European ideas. Even Wicca, which is so clearly not reconstructing a pre-Christian European Pagan faith, uses terms and concepts that are a clear reflection of its European roots. While I and many others may believe that Native American, Hindu, African and other earth-centered spiritual traditions are also "Pagan" in that they are non-Judeo-Christian and nature-based and involve similar ideas of deities, these communities generally do not use the term "Pagan" to describe themselves and thus they have to at least be given their own categories. Myers speaks specifically, though perhaps not exclusively, about indigenous-European Paganism--whether it be reconstructionist Celtic, Nordic, Slavic or Hellenistic or Wiccan, non-reconstructionalist Druidic or eclectic. He doesn't claim to speak to or for all these groups himself, but I assert that he makes a very good stab at it. 

The first half of The Other Side of Virtue is primarily a scholarly treatise on the development of European thought about what constitutes "virtue" and "the good way to live" since ancient times. Rather than glossing over the ancient Pagan era, Myers devotes the most pages and detail to that period and from what I have read of reconstructionist literature, his general conclusions easily apply to Celtic, Nordic (Germanic), Roman and Slavic belief systems of the times. This part of the book then presents today's Pagans with at the very least an interpretation of what ancient Eujropean Pagan ethics and philosophy was like.

And it is not a view without its uncomfortable corners. According to Myers the highest virtue for these "heroic societies was "honor" and that honor was something seen through a social lens. Those who were held in high esteem were truly believed to be good. The fact that a person was born with strength and physical beauty made them virtuous, as did their deeds. Virtue, including honor, meant being a strong chieftain or being the supporter of a strong chieftain. Those who won gained honor and those who lost were bereft. Honor can thus be seen in this ethos as more important than life and thus the focus in so many ancient tales such as Beowolf on saving honor even when it means giving up one's own life. And yet the way in which Myers shows the development and application of these ideas makes it eminently useful for modern life. 

Honor in Myers's study becomes the living of a life that is worthy of being told as a story. Honor and thus a large part of virtue can be attained by being an excellent craftsperson, a skilled and ethical businessperson, a leader who makes difficult decision, a soldier who thinks while also working within a team, an artist who creates something great. Honor is in the worthy use of the gifts one is given by "fate," whether they be physical attributes, wealth, position or internal talents. Thus while some honor may be due to a person who is famous for great beauty or success in business in their own right, far greater honor comes to those who have these gifts and use them for a great purpose. It is more in what you do with your blessings than what blessings you acquired. It is more in the sacrifice offered than in the size of what was horded. 

The second half of the book deals with a logical, philosophical argument, presented in clear, lay terms that are easy for those without a doctorate in philosophy to follow. Myers's thesis attempts to show what he believes can be proven based on natural objective principles to be the basis for living a good life, defined as a life of virtue or excellence. The ultimate measure of virtue in Myers's thinking is not what is applauded by others or what stands up to the laws of gods or human beings, but what way of life allows the individual to flourish and find greatest happiness and fulfillment. And so while Myers admits that there are unflattering strains of European thought, such as Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch, which use the same ideas of honor to create great suffering, he shows where their logical pitfalls lie. And he does this without preaching about what is morally or ethically necessary by any law or teaching of society or gods. Instead he shows how living a life that can be told as a story of excellence is also to live the good life for one's self. 

The end of The Other Side of Virtue presents a deceptively simple test by which a person can determine--very individually and without the judgment of others--how to live with virtue and honor.

Because the underpinnings of the historical study and the logical argumentation are both sound and rooted in diverse Pagan philosophies, I would argue that Myers has a great deal to say about how one can find a moral compass for Neopaganism. It is true that such a compass may be different for different people. Myers doesn't offer any fully baked answers that don't come from within the individual, but he does give the raw materials by which a compass can be constructed.  

The Other Side of Virtue is both well written and readable but it is also groundbreaking in its gathering of today's Pagan movement. Certainly there will be those who continue to claim that we need no moral compass or even that such a thing is antithetical to the broad scope of modern Paganism, but I believe that if one reads Myers with an understanding that his descriptions of various historical beliefs do not mean that he sees them as any sort of law for how we should behave but simply a historical study and if one employs the objective tools he provides to look at one's own life, there can be some real conclusions drawn about what is true to Pagan beliefs and what is a pop-culture picture based on what Myers would term "modern malaise." No one is going to make that distinction for the individual but if individuals  pour their life into this vessel and look at the reflection, they may find their own definitions of what a life of great spirit and excellence looks like.