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The Good, the Bad, and the Better

A while back, I read a book by a contemporary theologian whose initial premise was: The story of the struggle between Good and Evil is a human universal.

And that's quite simply not true.

One certainly seems to see this story everywhere. Go to a Hollywood movie, pick up a popular novel: good guys vs. bad guys. Worse: we see it in our own heads. Matriarchy good, patriarchy bad. Abrahamics bad, paganisms good.

But that's not thinking like a pagan.

It's true that binary thinking does seem to be one of those human universals, intrinsic to how our brains shape perception: wet/dry, up/down, male/female. It's when we allow these natural perceptions of difference to become morally weighted that we cease to think in Pagan.

Look at the great epics of the world: most of them, interestingly, about war. (Conflict generally makes for a good, exciting tale.) The Achaeans and the Trojans: who's good, who's bad? The Kausavas and the Pandavas. Cú Chulain and Medb.

Yes, there's conflict in the world: there's conflict in life. Conflict is unavoidable. But pagan stories don't present conflict as the confrontation of Good and Evil. Pagan stories talk, in their realistic way, about irreconcilable needs and mutually-exclusive obligations. In short, they're about life as we know it.

The Good v. Evil scenario becomes particularly destructive when it infects our relations with others. I happen to be the kind of person onto whom it's easy to project. (It's one of the traditional roles of the outsider, alas.) Apparently there are a number of people out there who from time to time have a little Steven Posch, dressed all in black (and complete with horns and tail, no doubt) sitting on their left shoulders and whispering terrible things into their ears.* (Apparently they lack the self-awareness to have figured out that it isn't really my voice talking to them.) In the privacy of my own head, I walk around defining my own positions against those of other people, too. It's when we begin to demonize the other that we need to stop and take notice.

Moreover, Good/Evil dualism blinds us to the possibility of creative conflict. How many times in your life have you seen it: the occasion when conflict brings us to the new, and better, place that we would never have reached otherwise?

Years ago, I was part of a committee planning the central ritual for a national gathering. We'd settled on the confrontation between the Old Stag and the Young Stag as the focus of the ritual: the Antler Ballet. This seemed very naturally to lead to the death of the Old Stag—the king is dead, long live the king—but one woman held out: “I don't want one stag to kill the other.” We went back and forth, around and around, and she wouldn't back down. Finally, because one person had the courage and conviction to hold her ground, instead we came together into the new place that we would never have reached without the conflict. Instead of a death, the rite climaxed in the Mating of the two Stags. It was the first same-sex Great Rite at a public pagan festival. Two naked stags chasing each other off into the woods, dripping cream, is one of the hottest things I've seen at any ritual in all my born days. Creative conflict.

What's a pagan to do? A particularly unproductive response would be to recast the situation into the same tired, untrue old paradigm: “Dualistic thinking is evil.” Now there's a sure road to nowhere.

Sokrates, I think, had the right of it. Good and evil were both operative categories for him, to be sure (as they should be for us), as ways of describing our actions and their impact in the world. But more often he phrased his thought in terms of the Good and the Better. Is it better to live, or not to live? Is it better to be generous or stingy? Is it better to live in a culture in which people demonize one another or not? This is an ethics based not on “Good” and “Evil,” but on Excellence.

And that's how pagans really think.

 

*Admittedly, I do wear a lot of black. (It's right there in the job description.) And horns, well, come on, I was born with those. But a tail, now...well, define “tail.”

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

Comments

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Friday, 14 March 2014

    I agree that non-dualistic thinking is preferred to dualistic thought. We certainly live in a dualistic culture here in the USA. Just look at the political arena!

    I don't know if I fully agree with your last statement, "And that's how pagans really think." Because in a post you made earlier you argued for the myriad of Pagan paths and how they often have little in common. With that being the case is it fair to say, "This is how Pagans act?" I don't want to all culturally relative -- then everything is okay -- but I think it is problematic to discount one universal claim (The story of the struggle between Good and Evil is a human universal) with another universal claim (And that's how pagans really think), because your claim implies that "if you don't think this way you're not a real Pagan." I agree that non-dualistic thinking is GOOD, but I feel the means in which you get to that conclusion is equally important.

    Although the idea of "Arete" or excellence was introduced by Plato it was developed in the manner in which you allude to by Aristotle, in his form of virtue ethics (in his text Nicomachean Ethics). Each virtue was the mean/center of a continuum where too much of the virtue was error just as too little. Example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardy. Not enough courage and one becomes a coward but too much courage and one becomes foolhardy.

    Interesting discussion. Thanks for posting.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 14 March 2014

    Thanks David: you're absolutely right about the overstated conclusion. One of my besetting flaws as a writer is a tendency to get carried away by my own rhetoric. Thanks for keeping me honest, and *caveat lector.*

    Thanks also for bringing in the *Nicomachean Ethics*; it's been far too long since I've read it. I swear, the Received Tradition is a sea; one could dive in and swim there forever.

  • David Oliver Kling
    David Oliver Kling Friday, 14 March 2014

    I often do the same thing! None the less, it's a good conversation to have and thinking about how we view our ethics is very important. Often we "pick and choose" to suit the occasion. Teleological one day, deontological the next, and then virtue from time to time. I like virtue ethics, as Aristotle explained it, but some industries are caught in other models and those ethics seep out into our lives. The medical field, for example, seems stuck in a deontological model... which is sad really.

    I might have to blog some on ethics myself. I love this stuff! Thanks for getting me thinking.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 15 March 2014

    David, my heart beats faster when I hear words like "teleological" and "deontological." (How pathetic is *that*?) I surely do love this New Pagan Intelligensia. It's just what I've always wanted.

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