49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives

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Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue by Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers is a Canadian Pagan author who has done two very difficult things.  One is that he has broken out of the Canadian market; the other is that he has broken out of the Pagan market.  He's a professor of philosophy in Gatineau, Quebec and this, plus his background in Druidry and Humanistic Paganism have come together in his 2008 book The Other Side of Virtue: Where Our Virtues Come from, What They Really Mean, and Where They Might Be Taking Us.  I've had a signed copy of this book sitting on my "to read" shelf since I saw Brendan at the Western Gate Festival a couple of years ago, but only now finally got around to finding time to read it.  I'm sorry I waited.

This book could be a modern manifesto for humanistic Paganism; but its theories can also be applied to most modern Pagan practice.  And it could also be read and enjoyed by humanists and naturalists of any faith. It could possibly even be held up to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking as an answer on the value of philosophy.  Philosophy is not dead, Myers argues.  It has merely changed form.  A hard-core rationalist might ask "What use does philosophy have in the modern scientific and rational world?"  The answer is "to teach us how to live a good life without faith to fall back on."  But that being said, it does not challenge the existence of faith; rather, it suggests that ethics and values are essential and positive driving forces that cross the boundaries of religion or spirituality, and are equally applicable to everyone.

Myers postulates that classical heroic values are as relevant to the modern world as they were in the classical and heroic ages.  He makes a good case for this by explaining modern humanist values as a natural outgrowth of classical values.  Then he applies these values in the process of confronting what he calls "The Immensity."  I have spoken of these things in previous articles as "the big human questions" and I have postulated that the degrees of Wicca are intended as rituals to help us to confront three of the Immensities that Brendan names: Life, Death, and Love; or as he puts it, The Earth, Death, and Other People.  He suggests that our virtues teach us how to confront these Immensities; and by answering their challenges positively, we exemplify a virtuous life.

I love Brendan's way of articulating this concept in what I have previously described as "his liquid prose."  His education is apparent through his choice of phrasing; but unlike many other academics, he does not write in technicalities and field-specific terminology.  It is easily (and enjoyably) accessible to the layperson.  And, I might add, he addresses how classical virtues, though grounded in patriarchal cultures, apply equally to women as well as men; and he uses figurative "he" and "she" interchangeably, giving me (as a woman who identifies as a feminist) a warm glow.  When I first started reading the relevant section I was wondering why it was necessary to mention the subject at all; by the end of it I had realized it that it was because others often don't.  The gesture was appreciated.

Brendan also covers the influence of the Romantic movement, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche (while at the same time addressing the flaws in their arguments).  He also presents us with two well known modern examples of tales of heroic virtue: Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Perhaps that is why these stories appeal to most of the Pagans I know; it's because they speak to the virtues we value.  He assures us that living a virtuous life is not about doing everything right; it's about how we meet the events and circumstances that cause us to call our beliefs and our sense of self into question.

Myers lays down his final challenge on the last few pages:

"Imagine that you are at home alone, preparing for bed.  Then a messenger appears in your room, and says to you: 'Every part of your life, as you have lived it until this moment, has been prepared for you right from the beginning.  The many millions of events, all the accidents and coincidences that had to happen so that you could be standing here, were all planned from the very start . . . . Since the world was made especially for you, therefore your experience of life shall stand as the paragon of all experience.  And every measure has been taken to ensure that the quality of your life becomes the most beautiful, most fulfilling, most near to the divine, that any human life can be.  The very purpose of civilization and history has been all along to produce the experience of life that you are having right now.  Your life shall henceforth stand as the greatest achievement of any God or mortal man, the exemplar of all pleasure and worth, the model of the highest happiness that anyone anywhere can achieve.  In this way the purpose and destiny of the world, the very meaning of the world, has been fulfilled in you.  And henceforth all people shall look to you as their model.'"

So, if this happened to you, would you be satisfied that how you have acted in your life is an ideal to which other people should aspire?  I considered this at length.  And that, to me, is the purpose of philosophy in the modern world.  As Socrates is credited as saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Needless to say, I loved it.  And I'm going to ask my students to read it.  I think you should too.

You can get Brendan's book on Amazon.

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Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions. Author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power" (Red Wheel/Weiser 2014) and contributor to "Pagan Consent Culture" and "The Pagan Leadership Anthology," she also writes "Between the Shadows" at Patheos' Pagan channel and contributes to Gods & Radicals. Sable is just breaking out as a speculative fiction writer under her legal name, and a new serial, the Wyrd West Chronicles, will be released on the Spring Equinox this year. Like most writers, she does a lot of other things to help pay the bills, including music, Etsy crafts, and working part time at a bookstore. She lives in Vernon, BC, Canada with her two life partners and her furbabies in a cabin on the edge of the woods.


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