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The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul by Brendan Myers, a review by John Halstead

February 14, 2014

Brendan Myers’s book The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul is like candy for a philosophy lover like me.  If philo-sophy is the “love of wisdom”, then I am a lover of the lover of wisdom, a philo-philosophe.  And a book of pagan philosophy?!  That’s like putting peanut butter together with chocolate!  But as much as I loved Myers’ book, I also found it frustrating, and it was not until I reached the end of the book that I realized that Myers intended it to be that way.  The Earth, The Gods, and the Soul seems designed to awaken a desire for pagan* philosophy, rather than to satisfy it.

Myers describes the philosophical spirit as one that “regards the world with wonder but also with curiosity and skepticism”.  That would be an apt description, I think, of Humanistic or Naturalistic Paganism.  Philosophy not only poses the question, but also makes a serious attempt to find answers, writes Myers.  The work of philosophy, says Myers, is like “a scientist doing a theologian’s work”.

Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy class will be familiar with how the thought of one philosopher seems to lead to that of the next, who expands on or challenges (or both) the work of his predecessor.  Plato led to Aristotle who led to the Stoics.  Kant led to Hegel who led to Nietzsche.  The Enlightenment led to Romanticism.  Modernity led to Postmodernism.  And so on.  And this is what I hoped to discover in Myers’ book, the evolution of pagan thought.  But I was to be disappointed on that account, through not due to any fault of the author.

Since the first philosophers were pagans like Plato and Cicero, one might think that tracing the development of pagan philosophy would be a simple matter.  But it turns out that most of the history of Western philosophy is really Christian.  The thread of pagan thought cannot be followed in a continuous line from Plato to the present.  Myers explains,

“There has not historically been a continuous pagan community, or continuous pagan intellectual tradition, or the like, which lasted long enough to permit the development, evolution, or even the mere transmission, of pagan ideas.”

Rather, pagan thought erupts unpredictably into the flow of Western (read Christian) philosophy like a repressed, unconscious urge.  Rather that an evolution of thought, Myers describes “clusters” of ideas that bear a certain “family resemblance” to each other.

Myers identifies three “elementary ideas” that belong to the family of pagan philosophy: pantheism, Neo-Platonism, and humanism.  Each of these corresponds to one of what Myers calls the three great “immensities” which are the subject of all philosophy: the Earth, the Gods**, and the Soul.  (Myers names other immensities as well elsewhere: other people, loneliness, death.)  Pagan philosophy, writes Myers, is philosophy which reasons about these immensities in a particular way.  These elementary pagan ideas emerge naturally from our human existential conditions and our contemplation of the world — our birth to a father and mother, the plants and animals we eat, the air we breathe, the water we bathe in, and the sunlight we feel on our skin.  And for this reason, these ideas reoccur again and again in the history of human thought.

Myers’ description of pagan philosophy is itself notable at this time when there exist sharp disagreements among contemporary Pagans about what exactly the word “pagan” means.  Myers’ inclusion of humanism as one of the three categories of pagan thought should be of special interest to readers of this blog.  Humanism, according to Myers, is the idea that each human being participates in some kind of divinity and that we achieve enlightenment through our own efforts.  Conspicuously absent from Myers’ “elementary ideas” is polytheism, which many Pagans today take as the most “elementary” idea of paganism.

Myers then proceeds to describe the history of pagan philosophy in five consecutive “movements”:

  1. “Brainy Barbarians”, which discusses the druids, the Irish wisdom texts, the Havamal, Pelagianism, and more;
  2. “Philosophy and the City”, which begins with the pre-Socratics and works its way through the Neo-Platonists to the Renaissance (and Myers doesn’t leave out the female philosophers, Diotima and Hypatia!);
  3. “Pantheism and the Age of Reason”, which discusses Spinoza and Toland, who are credited as the inventors of pantheism, but also the Transcendentalists and Nietzsche;
  4. “Resurgence, Reinvention, Rebirth”, which discusses the rise of contemporary Neo-Paganism, from Helena Blavatsky and James Frazer up to Isaac Bonewitz, who passed away in 2010; and
  5. “Living Voices”, which includes John Michael Greer, Michael York, Gus DiZerega and more.

I appreciated the fact that, while Myers included the recognizable figures like Plato, Emerson, Aleister Crowley, and Starhawk, he did not leave out less familiar names like John Scottus Eriugena, Al Ghazali, Thomas Taylor, John Muir, Schopenhauer, Arne Nesse, and Emma Restall-Orr, many of whom I knew little or nothing about.  Myers unfortunately does not have space in his 300 pages to go into much depth about any of these people or their thought, but he does whet the appetite — which I think was his principal intention.

I said that The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul is “frustrating”, but I meant it in a specific sense.  Myers’ book awakens in the reader a longing for a pagan philosophical tradition, but it cannot satisfy it, because no such tradition exists.  And the reason, according to Myers, is the lack of institutions.

“At least since the year 50 CE, when Emperor Justinian ordered the Platonic philosophy schools to close, pagan philosophy had no institutions to foster or protect it.  After that, pagan philosophy, as a distinct tradition of thought, dwindled and disappeared.”

A true philosophical tradition, he explains, is one that addresses the “big questions” of Myers’ immensities, one that uses systematic critical reason, and one that engages other philosophers.  But a critical philosophical tradition cannot thrive without the patronage of institutions.  Pantheism, Neo-Platonism, and humanism pop up again and again in the history of human thought, but the ideas are rarely developed, and they disappear again after a generation or so, only to pop up somewhere else.  Myers’ books is the story of the “reiterations” or repetitions of Pagan ideas, but not their development.  The Earth, the Gods, and the Soul makes a compelling case for contemporary pagan institutions, institutions which will create the condition of the possibility of a critical philosophical tradition which will develop and refine pagan ideas for generations to come.  Whether not you agree about the need for contemporary Pagan institutions, Myers’ book will is great read for Pagans and non-Pagans, philosophy lovers and non-lovers alike.

Notes:

* I use the lowercase “pagan” here, as Myers does, intentionally to describe a paganism which includes contemporary Paganism, but also ancient paganisms.

** Polytheists who read Myers’ book will note that Myers’ use of the plural “Gods” in the title of his book is inconsistent with his description of his second “elementary idea”, Neo-Platonism, which conceives God in the singular form.

The Author

Brendan Myers

Canadian philosopher and writer Brendan Myers is the author of several well-respected books on mythology, folklore, society and politics, ethics, and spirituality.  His work is studied by college professors, social activist groups, interfaith groups, Celtic cultural associations, and even Humanist societies, in many countries around the world.  In 2008 he received OBOD’s prestigious Mount Haemus award for professional research in Druidry.  Since earning his Ph.D in environmental ethics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, he has lectured at several colleges and universities in Ontario, and toured much of Canada and Europe as a public speaker.  In his varied career Brendan has also worked as a musician, a labour union leader, a government researcher, an environmentalist, and as a simple country gardener.  In addition to The Earth, the Gods, and the SoulBrendan’s books in print to date include:

Brendan is also one of the hosts of Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast.

Bio text courtesy of Brendan Myers’ Facebook page.

The Reviewer

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He blogs at The Allergic Pagan at Patheos Pagan and Dreaming the Myth Forward at PaganSquare. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2014 8:02 am

    Interesting. I’ve always found Myers a frustrating but fruitful philosopher. The way he defines paganism and humanism here is surprising and intriguing. Thanks for this review. :-)

  2. February 14, 2014 11:49 am

    I’m curious: from the (surely incomplete) list of people he wrote about that you provide it seems like he considers an overwhelmingly male group of philosophers. This makes sense for the pre-contemporary period. However, that would make much less sense for the contemporary Neopagan period. Are male Pagan philosophers overrepresented in sections 4 and 5 of the book?

    • February 16, 2014 11:00 pm

      Perhaps. Myers does devote a section to feminist witchcraft, as well as Vivianne Crowley and Janet Farrar. Of course, you could write a book (or several) about feminist thealogy, which is much more developed than most Neo-Pagan theology (which is something that Myers notes).

  3. February 15, 2014 10:17 am

    I’ve only just started to dip into this book, but my impression of it so far is that it’s more like an extensive annotated bibliography for the student of Western philosophy, and can’t really be read apart from his other works… But maybe that will change as I get further on.

    One thing that immediately jumped out at me is that Myers is clearly describing a Western (and also fairly classical) pagan philosophy — just based on the list of philosophers he considers, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t really look into Eastern philosophical traditions at all, and doesn’t consider indigenous peoples to have anything that even really “counts as philosophy” (though he tries to draw on ancient “barbarian” texts from early European cultures, I was rather unimpressed with what he had to say about them, honestly…). To me, this is a glaring bias that makes me deeply uncomfortable about his willingness to present this as a history of pagan philosophy more generally. If he’d framed this book as a history of a very specific set of ideas (rather than about pagan philosophy as a whole), I’d have been fine with it. But trying to characterize pagan philosophy as explicitly and essentially Western is really problematic. As he says in his introduction, even without institutions to support it, philosophy happens anywhere people get together to think, question and share ideas. So by portraying pagan philosophy as so overwhelmingly Western (not to mention male!), it seems like he’s furthering a view that sees non-Western and indigenous cultures as inherently inferior and incapable of deeper thinking.

    Not that I blame Myers personally. This has been a bias of academic philosophy pretty much from the beginning, which tends to shuffle the study of non-Western and indigenous traditions into categories like “anthropology” and “comparative religion” instead. I was hoping Myers would challenge that tendency and push for a more inclusive definition of what can be considered philosophy, but it seems like he feels that convincing his fellow academics to even acknowledge aspects of Western philosophy as “pagan” is asking a lot. Asking them to think of philosophy as existing outside of the canon of Western tradition might just be too much…

    So, yes, a disappointing and frustrating book so far (especially for someone who’s already read a lot of the writers he touches on)… but like I said, I’m only a few chapters into it, so maybe I’ll change my opinion as I get further into it.

  4. February 18, 2014 11:21 am

    I would be rather surprised to learn that the philosophers of ancient Athens thought of themselves as “pagans.” The category “pagan philosophy” collects together people and schools of thought that would never have seen themselves belonging to a category. Indeed, the category pagan is only relevant when one puts Christianity on the throne of Western culture — a ruling position Christianity didn’t really have until the middle ages.

    To the extent that “paganism” is a meaningful term in the middle ages, I would suggest that paganism’s influence was not through any philosophy, but through the tradition of romantic love that became highly prominent at that time — e.g.Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere — and has remained the prominent theme in our culture to the present despite the fact that there is nothing in Christianity that encourages that kind of love, and of course would cast the above mentioned couples deep into hell.

    I would suggest further that the “immensity” that folks inclined to “paganism” kept trying to reintroduce into Christianized culture was the feminine principle — the goddess in both her celestial and her earthy characteristics. The celestial aspect was to some extent accomplished through working out of the strange Christian logic that since Mary was the mother of Jesus and Jesus was God, Mary was the Mother of God. Unfortunately, reviving the earthy characteristics of the Goddess was a little more dangerous and took a much longer time (though Bellini, with his St. Teresa, did a rather clever job of smuggling her in).

    I would also suggest that among those who consciously label themselves pagans in recent times, various forms of occultism plays a larger role than any form of academic philosophy. Today’s “naturalistic” pagans may want to distance themselves from such occultism, but a lot of pagans are actually rather hostile to naturalism and science, which may in part be because science has always been of the Yang principle and rather hostile to the Goddess.

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