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A Pagan Perspective on Freedom

Robin Herne's picture

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Freedom and Authority

Whilst there is no central text or standard for all the variations of Paganism, most modern Pagans do appear to place a high value on individualism and the freedom to do what they want, when they want without any hint of (dare we even say the word) dogma.

At times this craving for personal choice can make a gathering of Pagans seem rather like a collection of pouting Kevinsi and ageing Jim Starksii (on the rare occasions when one can get Pagans to actually turn up on time and create a gathering in the first place).

For the naïve, freedom is a matter of wilfulness and the chance to indulge transitory whims. However, deep thinkers since ancient times aver that true freedoms come from living in harmony with ones Spirit and following its directions.

The cynical might suggest that many people are happier with bread and circuses than with true freedom and all its fearful responsibilities, as the psychologist Erich Fromm outlined back in the 40s.

The more optimistic Greek philosopher Thucydides wrote, “The secret of happiness is freedom; the secret of freedom is courage”. Thucydides spoke chiefly in terms of the willingness to defend ones freedoms rather than submit to the crushing boot of tyranny.

Freedom is not a right doled out to all who demand it, but something that has to be fought for.

Many see freedom as antithetical to authority, yet it is not actually so. The source of the authority determines whether or not it is in harmony with the freedom of the individual spirit to flower in accord with its own nature.

In a fit of idealism Plato declared that, “the wisest have the most authority” ~ he was, of course, writing an awfully long time ago. These days money is the basis for most social power, though even the rich have to depend upon the wise occasionally.

Neither ancient nor modern Pagan religions possess a supreme leader or founder whose word is taken as law. Plato, writing in the Phaedrus, mentioned: “the authorities of the temple of Zeus at Dodona, my friend, said that the first prophetic utterances came from an oak tree. In fact the people of those days, lacking the wisdom of you young people, were content in their simplicity to listen to trees or rocks, provided these told the truth.

Whilst slightly tongue-in-cheek, Plato evoked the animist roots of Paganism ~ the belief in a world alive with spirits of animals, plants, rocks, rivers and so forth. Amongst the tribes of Northern Europe these animating spirits were termed wights, and people sought out their knowledge and help.

Plato’s provision acknowledges that even the spirits are not considered omniscient or automatically benevolent, and so their advice must be weighed against personal experience and insight. In this latter regard, we might do worse than turn to some advice from an ancient Icelandic poem, the Havamal, it applies equally to those with only a little wisdom (which, if we are honest, is all of us) disregarding their own insights and submitting meekly to those who claim to have an exclusive hotline to the Divine ~

Better a house, though a hut it be,
A man is master at home;
His heart is bleeding who needs must beg
When food he fain would have.

The individual must strike an awkward balance between retaining their own final judgement, and not descending into solipsistic egotism.

Wider society of necessity must have laws to run smoothly, and even individual Pagan groupings (such as hearths, groves and covens) will have their own internal standards or rules. However, where people behave honourably, in accord with the guidance of their own better natures, few rules need apply. That we live in a country where laws proliferate at an alarming rate may speak partly of how disjointed people have become, but also of how mistrusting the secular authorities are. As Cicero said, “the more laws, the less justice”.

i As in Kevin the Teenager, comic creation of Harry Enfield.

ii James Dean’s character in ‘Rebel without a Cause’.