Sunrise Magazine Online

Our Pagan Heritage

By Peter H. Samsom, Minister, First Unitarian Church, San Diego, California

To what movements of thought, to what men of insight, does the modern mind owe its characteristic religious faith? For every human being who professes a living faith of any kind, who feels himself a part of a movement of men and of ideas, this question of sources is vital. Though the pressure of living makes it all too easy to forget, the plain truth is that human life is an ongoing, continuous stream, a stream in which we are intimately connected with what has gone before, a stream whose sources are always with us — no matter how far we are removed from them in space and time. As Justice Holmes once observed, "Continuity with the past is not a duty, it is a necessity."

Nowhere are we made more vividly aware of this truth than in religion. The great religions of the world have all served to remind us of the continuity of life, of how men actuated by a certain spirit are bound in a living fellowship with similar-minded men in all ages past. The devout, intelligent Christian is never free of the sense of his kinship with those who have participated in the birth and growth of the Christian faith down through the centuries. Nor is the time-binding function of religion limited to the great traditional faiths of revealed orthodoxy. In the liberal religious outlook of today, freed from the fetters that bound men's minds to any particular set of beliefs, we are confronted with the truth that "no man is an island," nor is any thought or age. The fibers of our thought come down to us from dim ages past, picking up a strand here and a strand there, which all become firmly woven together into one continuing cord. The free religion of the modern mind, far from being a newborn seven-day wonder whose like has never been seen before among men, can actually trace its life-giving sources well beyond the time when Christianity had its birth, and these sources from which it has drawn its life are today finding renewed expression in terms of our own age.

We are the heirs of men and philosophies long since engulfed in the tides of the changing years, which have nevertheless left permanent marks upon the mind of man because these earlier men had in their own day an awareness of what was real and important in human life, and the truth of their thought has lived to find new voices in times long after they had disappeared. As Emerson remarked, "What is excellent, as God lives, is permanent."

The oldest and probably most durable strand of thought is the pagan heritage received from the Greek and Roman civilizations which once were the high points of achievement in the Western world. Free religion today inherits directly a great deal of the pagan outlook upon life, and can trace its ancestry all the way back to this first forthright effort to understand life by the use of reason rather than by a resort to supernatural, mystical and magical explanations.

This word "pagan" deserves some attention in itself. Few words in the language have received such rough handling or been stamped with such a bad reputation, and we need not look far for the reason. The Christian faith has placed paganism in the light in which it has stood for so long — suggesting licentiousness, unbelief and wild ways with women and wine. It was Christian historians, philosophers and theologians who gave us this dominant impression of paganism, assuring centuries of devout believers that pagan ways have been quite superseded by Christian ways, for there was no good in them that has not been utterly outclassed by the revelations of Christianity.

These historians and thinkers, however sincere their devotion to Christianity, nevertheless overlooked two important facts. Firstly, paganism was not left behind by the rise of Christianity, for Christians borrowed heavily from its rich storehouse, building their theology and mythology, their rituals and ethics largely out of pagan, non-Christian materials. In order to win men over, the new young Christian faith found it necessary to talk the current language, and to form its concepts in ways to which men were accustomed. In this manner large quantities of pagan mythology found their way straight into Christian theology and the Christian creeds, to remain there to this day — for the most part still unrecognized for what they are.

Secondly, it is seldom recognized that pagan, non-Christian thinkers achieved a philosophy of life and a set of values that in all later history has never been equaled for its sheer rationality, its balance, and its comprehensiveness. Christian preachers who speak in superior tones about Christian virtues being the highest man ever achieved are either quite ignorant of what came before Christianity and was woven into it, or they have forgotten the enormous debt which Christian ethics owes to the pagan ethics of the philosophers and thinkers who were never a part of the Christian church but gave heavily of their riches to the growing body of Christian thought. This debt has never been properly acknowledged.

"Pagan" does not mean, therefore, as centuries of Christian-written history would have us believe, simply irreligious or licentious. The word comes straight from the Latin "paganus," meaning a countryman. The Christian faith spread first in the great cities of the Roman Empire, and left rural folk mostly untouched for a long time. Their religion was not Christian, and was therefore "pagan," but in the interests of Christian propaganda a heavy load of unfavorable meanings has been placed upon the word since then.

Paganism then, when the word is freed of the bias that has put it in an unfavorable light for twenty Christian centuries, is our general name for the outlook upon life which arose to illumine the Western world about four or five centuries B.C., when the culture of ancient Greece flourished, and its philosophers carried on their unforgettable inquiries into the nature and meaning of human life. This paganism became eventually one of the main pillars of the free religion of today.

For a good many centuries, it was almost completely eclipsed by the rise of Christianity with its emphasis upon another world and its theological contempt for human nature. But there came a time, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when whole libraries of ancient Greek and Roman classics were discovered and shipped to Italy, to burst like a new sun upon the shadowy scene of medieval Christian thought. The result was a rebirth of vitality in all avenues of man's civilization. We now call that period the Renaissance, the rebirth and rediscovery of the older pagan attitude toward life. Philosophers went to the pagan classics, and such men as Abelard, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, saturated in Greek wisdom, rose to lead Christian thought in new directions. Men discovered pagan art, and we can trace the rapid change from the static immobility of medieval churchly art to the live, zestful grace, the feeling for human beauty, the new individualism and realism of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and the other great masters. Architecture, literature, science and political life all felt directly the powerful influence of pagan civilization in the exuberant revolt against the fixed, medieval, feudal standards of culture. A new exaltation of the human individual, and a new confidence in human nature arose. The rebirth of the pagan mind meant, for many, the end of the ancient Christian dualism which had split man into a physical and a spiritual being. It brought to life the belief in man as a unified, potentially good personality. It gave birth to science and the life of reason, just as it had in ancient Greece two thousand years before. Ralph Roeder speaks of this time as "one of those recurring crises in the annals of the race when a ferment of new life, like a rising sap, bursts the accepted codes of morality, and men revert to nature and the free play of instinct and experience." Of course, it was this bursting of ancient patterns that led to the beginning of what we think of as the modern period of Western Civilization. The vital point for us now is that it was the pagan thought of the ancient world that played such an influential role in bringing about this rebirth of reason, and eventually of political and religious freedom.

As in most civilizations, there appear to have been in Greek life two leading tendencies, quite different from each other. One was passionate, mystical, other-worldly; the other was cheerful, rationalistic, confident, and interested in acquiring knowledge of a variety of facts about the world. The first was the strand of the ancient Greek mystery-cults, the other-worldly religion of the common people of the ancient world; the other was the world of the cultured thinker, the philosopher of whom we think as typically pagan. It is with this latter strand that we are mainly concerned. The pagan, pre-Christian philosopher invented the rational, sceptical method that is basic in the contribution of paganism to the modern world.

The outstanding thing that impresses us today about the pagan mind is how marvelously inclusive and open it was. There seems to have been nothing in heaven or on earth that was excluded from the interest of these men. Indeed, it was one of them who memorably expressed the early humanist temper when he said "Nothing that is human is alien to me."

[image]The inclusiveness of the pagan spirit is well illustrated in the ideal of the good and abundant life which the Greeks uniquely gave to the Western world. Socrates voiced it with beautiful simplicity when he remarked that "the unexamined life is not worth living." The abundant life to the Greeks was a life of open, free inquiry into all things, a life guided by a mind that was never cocksure about anything, least of all about the fundamental problems of human existence. All pagan Greek literature is saturated with this spirit of inquiry, from the works of the early physical scientists through the writings of the great Greek dramatists to the searching discussions of Plato. Through them all is this wrestling with the vast question of the nature of the universe and of human destiny, this searching out of the meaning of goodness, justice, love, and government. Almost nowhere do we find fixed definite conclusions, much less any arrogant dogmas to be enforced on men's minds. Everywhere is evident the joy of probing and inquiring without restraint into the nature of things, with an aversion to dogmatism that stands as a challenge to all the thinking that has been recorded since this brilliant civilization fell into dust.

The earliest Greek thinkers were mostly concerned with inquiries into purely physical nature, the constitution of the universe and of matter. It was the genius of Socrates to carry this inquiry further and apply it to man himself, his beliefs and the problems of human living. This amazing man, a combination of humorist and saint, both a mocker and a martyr, was the epitome of the pagan spirit in its positive gifts to civilization. He enjoyed making people think, irritating them like a gadfly so that they might examine things they had always taken for granted. Men talked constantly of love, justice, beauty and truth, but Socrates found nobody who could tell him what these words meant.

Socrates was eventually imprisoned, tried and executed for corrupting the youth of Athens, a familiar charge to men in all ages who have challenged the prevailing "sacred cows" of their time. His words at the trial were deeply characteristic of him and illustrate movingly his liberal, openminded approach to even so personal a matter as his own death:

If we reflect we shall see that we may well hope that death is a good. For the state of death is one of two things: either the dead man wholly ceases to be, and loses all sensation, or, according to the common belief, it is a change and a migration of the soul into another place. And if death is the absence of all sensation, and like the sleep of one whose slumbers are unbroken by any dreams, it will be a wonderful gain. If that is the nature of death, I for one count it a gain. For then it appears that eternity is nothing more than a single night. . . .
And you too, judges, must face death with a good courage, and believe this as a truth, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

Why, we may ask, this devotion to open, searching inquiry? Because it was the basic faith of paganism that sound knowledge is the most important requirement of good living, and that men cannot be good without being intelligent about what they are doing. Socrates believed that knowledge of the nature of things is absolutely essential to sound and rational behavior, and that men cannot act correctly and be ignorant, except by accident. Virtue is knowledge, according to Plato, and there was a profound religious faith implicit in this pagan attitude. [image]Accordingly, Socrates developed a way of teaching, not of telling men the truth as he saw it, but of drawing them out to express their own best thought, helping them modify their own thought by free and open discussion. There has never been in all the history of human thought a more vigorous religious faith in the capacity of man to think for himself and solve his own problems than was expressed in this characteristic pagan attitude of Greek thought; and free religion today, wherever it appears, inherits directly this confidence in the capacity of the human mind to seek out the truth, this faith in the free search for knowledge as indispensable to the good life.

Our pagan heritage is a deep, rich and highly varied one, but a high, rational, ethical civilization of seven or eight centuries' duration cannot be considered except in bare essentials. Possibly the best brief summary of what the cultured pagan saw as the way of the virtuous life was given by Cicero. He was a Roman, and like the imitative Roman culture of which he was a part, he borrowed from and sought to carry forward the Greek genius. Cicero wrote that ethical conduct involves four cardinal virtues: Wisdom, "the pursuit and perception of truth"; Justice, "the preservation of human society by giving to every man his due and observing the faith of contracts"; Fortitude, "the greatness and firmness of an elevated, unsubdued mind"; and Moderation, "temperance in all words and actions." This catalogue of virtues was an untheological concept, independent of any compulsive idea of a ruling God who commands men to act thus and so on pain of suffering and damnation. Where it was the genius of the Hebrew and the Christian to shape men's actions by considering whether they were obeying divine commandments, it was the way of the Greek to consider conduct with an eye to the welfare of men in the community and in the world at large.

The problem of the pagan was not so much that of pleasing God as of producing a good life for men on earth. Morality was an affair of the citizen, never of the isolated man preoccupied with the later salvation of his own soul. When Plato seeks to answer the question "What is righteousness?" he does not speculate on what God says men must do, but goes to work and constructs an imaginary ideal republic as a concrete illustration of what righteousness means in the actual relations of man to man. [image]He believed, like all pagans, that only in the service of his community and of humanity can man become wise, courageous, temperate and just. The essence of pagan ethics was the loyalty of the individual to the whole of which he is the part. In the thought of some, this came to include the whole universe of natural law, to which they gave the name of God.

In this light we can understand better the great ethical philosophy of the Stoics, whose thought became largely the source of Christian moral ideas. To the Stoic philosophers, the only good in life was the achievement of human virtue. Nothing else, neither possessions nor power nor fame, was of any value to the Stoics. Only the achievement of courage, temperance, wisdom and justice counted, for these virtues were deeply rooted in the nature of the cosmos of which men are a part, and any attempt to violate Nature was inevitably doomed to failure. Suffering was of no importance, therefore, but only the way in which we face and accept life. Epictetus, the lame slave who rose from low condition to teach philosophy in Rome, expressed the Stoic philosophy in this way:

When a man has learned to understand the government of the universe, and has realized that there is seeds from which are sprung not only my own father and grandfather but all things that grow on earth, and rational creatures in particular . . . why should he not call himself a citizen of the universe, a son of God? Why should he fear anything that can happen to him among men?

How should these great virtues be practised? Here again pagan thinkers are of one voice, and Aristotle expressed their consensus when he described human conduct as an art, the art of living. No simple absolutes, no formulas, prescriptions, creeds or codes will outline for man the way of goodness or relieve him of the task of thinking for himself, though men may at times organize their thoughts into formulas for convenience. Man must achieve the good life for himself by the full exercise of his capacity for thoughtful discrimination between what is wise and unwise in his life.

This, then, is a suggestion of the quality of our pagan heritage in briefest outline. It is an openminded, cheerful, reasonable, confident, inquiring attitude toward human life as a whole, a vigorous enthusiasm for the natural earthly life of man, and a wholehearted exploring of life's possibilities for joy, satisfaction and self-development. It is an eagerness to include in the inner life the whole gamut of vital human concerns: intellectual, artistic, moral, civic, physical, shutting out nothing that is of interest to the alert human mind. It is a passion for inquiry into the nature of things, that they may be understood, and therefore intelligently accepted into one's scheme of conduct. And it is a devotion to the welfare of the community of which one is a citizen, shaping his actions according to what he understands to be the best interests of all.

This was the pagan spirit that came to magnificent flower in the lost civilization of 2500 years ago and has periodically been reborn in vitality among men as they have tried, and then turned away from, the pleasant temptations of magic, mystery, unreason and submission to the supernatural, returning to a healthy concern for the natural life and its enrichment by the use of human reason. This is the pagan spirit that is an intimate part of the free religion of the modern mind, and can never be lost so long as man's reason remains free in its search for living wisdom.


Back Issues Menu