[Note: This article first appeared in ADF's quarterly journal, Oak Leaves. The ADF Dedicant Path is included with ADF Membership. Members can access more information, including the Dedicant Path PDF, on the members site.]
Right Action - A Pagan Perspective
At one time or another, you have probably asked yourself, "Why should I do the right thing?" Like every religion, Our Druidry makes an effort to answer this basic question. One Pagan answer is divine justice: that either in the afterlife or subsequent lives you will have to pay for the bad things you have done and you will be rewarded for the good things. But most of us hope that there is a more substantial, more personal and spiritual reason for doing the right thing than avoiding punishment or garnering rewards. We hope that virtue truly is its own reward.
Living in the modern world, it can be difficult to justify that hope. Too often you hear about bad things happening to good people and criminals getting away with their crimes. It was clear to the ancients, as it is to us, that virtue cannot guarantee happiness. As long as others have the potential to harm you or your loved ones, your well-being is not entirely in your own hands.
Although there are circumstances beyond your control that can stand in your way or harm you and yours, you need not be at the mercy of those forces. Our modern word 'Ethics' comes directly from the Greek ethikos. For all of the Greek philosophers, ethikos was about achieving eudaimonia, literally 'good fate,' or 'with the favor of the gods.' Eudaimonia is usually translated as 'fulfillment,' or 'leading a flourishing life.'
For the ancients, ethics was about having as much control as possible over one's well-being. Although some aspects of eudaimonia are external to the individual, like having sufficient food, warmth, friends and loved ones with whom to interact, most of the elements of a flourishing life are internal goods which are within our control, or at least influence. In northern Pagan cultures these goals were often characterized by the simple triad of 'Health, Wealth and Wisdom.' The ancients called the internal goods that help us to reach these goals excellences or virtues. These concepts are a good place to begin in our effort to find Pagan ways of living.
Each virtue is associated with one of the realms of human activity. To be virtuous in any given realm is to perform that function well. For example, moderation is associated with the realm of the appetites. To be moderate is to satisfy the appetites without overindulgence. Moderation gives you control over your well-being in regards to the appetite because it insures that your needs are met without your becoming a slave to your appetites, or suffering the ill-effects of overindulgence.
Likewise, it is to our benefit to function well in each realm of human activity, not because others will reward us, or because it allows us to avoid punishment, but because it contributes to our eudaimonia. It helps us to lead a more flourishing life, and to a deeper relationship with the gods and goddesses and our fate. One desires to become virtuous because the lack of a virtue hampers one's ability to function well. For example, a lack of courage makes one a slave to one's fears. A lack of hospitality gives one a bad reputation and fewer friends. By consciously choosing to recognize the different realms in which you act, and choosing to act as well as possible in each realm, you will make yourself stronger and wiser-more capable of avoiding bad things happening to you, and more able to respond in a constructive way when they do.
Traditional Pagan ethical systems have a virtue associated with every arena of human functioning. They cover work, play, socializing, conflict resolution, relating to the gods, nurturing and educating children, etc. It is not our purpose here to provide an exhaustive set of virtues, but instead to give a starting list of those excellences important to everyone embracing a value system inspired by the old ways. Some virtues will not appear on this list. That is not to say that they aren't also important, but in the interests of providing a simple starting point, we couldn't include every virtue. The process of examining one's life and becoming more virtuous is ongoing. This list is merely a beginning, for our system and for you. These are not listed in any order of importance. They each interact with all the others, and cannot be ranked one-through-nine.
Nine Pagan Virtues
- Wisdom: Good judgment, the ability to perceive people and situations correctly, deliberate about and decide on the correct response
- Piety: Correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty
- Vision: The ability to broaden one's perspective to have a greater understanding of our place/role in the cosmos, relating to the past, present and future
- Courage: The ability to act appropriately in the face of danger
- Integrity: Honor; being trustworthy to oneself and to others, involving oath-keeping, honesty, fairness, respect, self-confidence
- Perseverance: Drive; the motivation to pursue goals even when that pursuit becomes difficult
- Hospitality: Acting as both a gracious host and an appreciative guest, involving benevolence, friendliness, humor, and the honoring of "a gift for a gift"
- Moderation: Cultivating one's appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health, (mental or physical), through excess or deficiency
- Fertility: Bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity, production of objects, food, works of art, etc., an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing
Each virtue is the right way to behave in the realm of human functioning with which it is concerned. But it is not always obvious which realm of human functioning is apt. For example, you know that in order to be moderate, you need to cut down on your intake of foods with lots of sugar and fat. But you also know that to be a good guest, you should partake of the food your host has prepared. So you are at a birthday party. Does eating cake fall under the realm of the appetites, or the realm of social situations? Which virtue should you be manifesting, moderation or hospitality? (Or, if you are an alcoholic at a ritual, and you are offered wine for the return flow, which virtue is the issue, moderation or piety?)
There is no single answer to this question, or others like these. Ideally you will manifest both virtues. Perhaps there is some alternative that you can eat that your host has provided, (or a nonalcoholic drink that has been blessed). Or perhaps you can act moderately by partaking of only a small amount. The point is that ethical situations arise on a regular basis without our usually thinking of them as such. The first step to including the virtues in your life is to start noting when you are acting in the realms covered by the nine virtues. When is deliberation in order? What situations call for piety? (Only the eight high day rituals, or sacred times during the day, or whenever you pass a holy object, etc.?) When is vision key?
Once you start noticing the situations in which the different virtues should come to play, the next step is to figure out how to behave more virtuously. Aristotle describes each virtue as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness on the other. To be courageous is neither to shrink from your best action on account of fear, nor to foolishly go into danger when no good is likely to come from your doing so. This means that what is courageous for one person may actually be cowardly for another, and rash for a third, depending on the abilities and situations of the individuals. For a small seven year old to fight a large eight year old bully may be courageous, when it would be cowardly for an adult to act in the same manner, and rash for a four year old to do so.
The key to determining the mean in the case of courage is deliberation about what good is threatened, what options one has to protect that good, and what the likely outcome will be using the different options. The course of action which does not sacrifice the good to fear, when one has a likelihood of protecting it by taking action, is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and rashness, and hence is the courageous one.
But this deliberation is not always easy. Aristotle also recommends that people keep in mind role models, and ask themselves, "how would this virtuous person act under these circumstances?" Emulating virtuous people helps to inculcate good habits. Another piece of advice that Aristotle offers is to aim at the harder of the two extremes. If you aim at the extreme that is more difficult, it is easier to hit the mean. For example, with courage rashness is more difficult than cowardice. So if you practice ignoring your fear, you will put yourself into the habit of acting courageously more quickly than if you concentrate your energies primarily on careful calculation of risks. With hospitality, being overgenerous is more difficult than being miserly, so you will more quickly develop hospitality by aiming at being extremely charitable than by keeping careful track of who is in whose debt.