The Pagan Roots of Modern Thought
by Mordecai Plaut
Large parts of modern thought, including its ambience and its approaches to problems, and including the selection and definition of the problems that it wants to solve, the very way people perceive the world and their approach to the business of living, are based on pagan Greek and Roman learning and the pagan view of the world. By now, the roots of the pagan learning of the Greeks and the Romans have grown leaves and branches, and have spread to cover just about everything. And there are alternatives.
The basic thesis argued here is that the roots of large portions of the dominant Western thought are in paganism and that this has destructive consequences.
The hegemony of pagan learning includes both the arts and the sciences. It includes, prominently, literature and literary criticism, physics and cosmology, history and geology, psychology and economics. Perhaps least affected are the technical fields such as engineering and computer science, although they are still informed by it in important ways. Law seems to be in the middle, as it is based on common law which is of pagan origin, but much of the reasoning is neutral and the principles are technical.
No one has any doubt that there was such a contribution, and that the contribution is broad, deep and complex. This uncontroversial fact that forms the basis of the main point made here and not any particular thesis about the nature of the contribution.
I believe that this source of modern intellectual life affects the product. This is not to say that modern knowledge is — either directly or indirectly — the worship of pagan gods in any sense, but it is to say that its nature is informed by its origins and this has definite consequences. In particular it suggests that certain criticisms of modern society and culture cannot be met by any sort of fix that remains within the system based on paganism, but require a radical (in an intellectual sense, not necessarily in a political or practical sense) solution that uproots the pagan principles that are the roots of the problems uncovered.
For many, the most interesting aspect of this insight may be the simple knowledge that there are alternatives. Western culture is so strong, so pervasive and so broadly distributed these days, that it is hard to even get exposure to anything radically different. Many choices that were made by Western culture (and could have been otherwise) are no longer perceived as such. That is the way things are, or that is simply what people do — or so people think today. But there are alternatives, in some cases radical alternatives in other cases less revolutionary ones, but definitely different alternatives nonetheless.
When paganism flourished in the Greek and Roman civilizations, it had an extremely well-developed cultural, social and scientific content. While the West has long abandoned the specifically religious and ritualistic elements of classical culture (that is, the worship of idols and many gods, and all the festivals and rituals associated with that), the rest of it, meaning the cultural and scientific content, has been eagerly embraced and in fact lies at the bottom of virtually all aspects of the modern life of Western society.
In its heyday, the various components (that have since become quite disparate) were seen by all as parts of a single picture. Different parts were perhaps not perceived then as partaking of an underlying, organic unity but as being congenial, compatible components in a harmonious social scene, like an extreme gastronome might look with collegial sympathy at a body-builder or at someone obsessed with carnal pleasures. They share a basic understanding of a preoccupation with the pleasures of the flesh, though each certainly considers his or her own preoccuption to be quite distinct from the others. Nonetheless, from the outside, say from the canonical standpoint of the severe Protestant culture that was dominant in eighteenth century America, they are all seen as sharing a single fundamental "sin" of excessive concern with matters of material pleasure.
The classical world was much broader and deeper than this rather simple example. Yet I want to assert, if not argue, that all of it should also be seen as parts of a single organic system. Some parts were elaborated by men of considerable intellectual power and others by men of rather less intellectual achievement but powerful emotions and others still by men in whom passion was dominant. Some were religious (in the pagan sense) and expressed their approach to life within the pagan religion, and others were much less religious and worked within non-ritualistic parameters. Yet all can and should be seen as part of a single weltanschauung, even if in those days — and in many other days — it was not perceived as such.
Classical drama, philosophy, poetry, literature, architecture, rhetoric and politics are generally of-a-piece with the contemporary religion, its theology and ritual practices, in very important aspects.
This was seen very clearly by both pagans and Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. The two were seen, overall, as struggling, competing systems. Christianity won and for hundreds of years, almost all pagan writing — with a few notable exceptions mainly in philosophy and science — was ignored.
When European thinkers discovered the full range of the literary products of the Classical world in the Rennaissance, they were very strongly and favorably impressed. The whole European world at that time was Christian, including these early discoverers, and they did reject thoroughly the pagan rituals and the beliefs that were of a religious character. Stories about gods and descriptions of ancient rituals did not attract any followers, in contrast to the literature, art and philosophy that were eagerly embraced and soon became the intellectual foundations of the modern world.
My point is that the distinction between the cultural and the religious part of classical culture is deceptive. Renaissance thinkers thought that they could discard the overtly religious elements of paganism and relish the cultural elements that appeared to be neutral to modern religious beliefs. However, aspects of these components of the heritage of paganism are really just as incompatible with any Western deistic belief — only the incompatibility is much deeper and is superficially masked.
This is also not to say that it should all be rejected. Much of it is valuable. However this important insight must affect our understanding of what we have and of where we should go from here.
It is critical to isolate the problematic elements, and hold them up for critical inspection so that they may be accepted, rejected or contained, as may appear desirable.
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