Becoming More Pagan

Whenever people lament, “Society is becoming more pagan,” they are in fact worried about current hedonists, folks whose biggest regret is having missed out on Woodstock.  People fretting about pseudo-pagans forget that ancient pagans believed in duty, in natural law, in the family, in gods that inspire prayer and require sacrifice, and in a society that depends upon citizens working to lead lives of prudence, temperance, justice, and courage.

What should be kept in mind is the image Vergil (or Virgil if one prefers) presented in Book 2 of the Aeneid:  Aeneas escaping from the fallen city of Troy with his son, Ascanius, and his father, Anchises.  Three generations, representing the past, the present, and the future, and the grandfather carries with him the family’s little statues of their household gods.  In an older epic, Homer showed Odysseus striving for ten years through various adventures to get back home to his wife and son.

None of those ancient people would have called themselves “pagan.”  That term comes from paganus, a Latin word roughly equivalent to “hillbilly,” and from the fourth century onwards it was used by Christians, living mostly in cities and towns, to describe the worshipers of the old gods, who tended to be farmers out in the boondocks.

It remains a common form of snobbery:  urban sophisticates comfortably unaware that a farmer is often one drought or flood, hail storm or blight away from ruin.  It is understandable that an ancient farmer was not willing to risk feeding his family and paying his bills by not starting the planting season just as his grandfather had done, taking a knife to a goat or an ox as an offering to the age-old gods.

If the emerging situation in the North Atlantic hegemony is indeed “post-Christian” and people want to reject Christianity and become pagan, although without placating forgotten gods by slitting the jugulars of goats or oxen, they could do far worse than spend some time each day with a little book written by an erudite pagan soldier in the second century of our era.

An older generation of English-speaking readers knew the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius from the translation by George Long (1862), but more recent readers know it from the translation by Maxwell Staniforth (1964).  Long’s version is in the public domain and so gets reprinted easily, and Staniforth’s edition (quoted below) was published by Penguin.

Like anyone, Marcus Aurelius (121-180) had his flaws, and for Christians throughout his reign, his most grievous fault was being closed to their message.  To a busy chief senator and supreme military commander, the case was simple:  Members of that apparent cult were unpatriotic malcontents refusing to obey the law and make public sacrifice to the established gods of Rome.  Statutes were clear about what to do with such flagrant criminals:  Either they complied or faced execution.

Still, in recent centuries Christians have been generous enough to overlook Marcus Aurelius as persecutor (he would have said prosecutor) of Christians and appreciate the insights he wrote in his book.  The title in Greek is “To Himself,” or, as we would say, “Notes to Self,” and the book consists of twelve Books or sections.  Probably during his last dozen years Marcus Aurelius wrote these reflections on keeping life’s ups and downs in perspective; writing them was a way to deal with yet another day leading his soldiers against several Germanic tribes threatening Rome’s frontier along the Danube.

It was the situation depicted in the film The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), in which Alec Guinness portrayed Marcus Aurelius, and also in Gladiator (2000), where Richard Harris played him.  Guinness captured Marcus Aurelius’ serenity, and Harris conveyed his weariness.

By the late 170s, Marcus Aurelius was in his late fifties, and at home he had a dignified wife and a demented son.  Gossips whispered that the sociopathic son was the result of his mother sleeping with a gladiator.  As if a commander in chief didn’t have enough to worry about.

Marcus Aurelius’ adopted father had held the political and military position we now call emperor, and the future writer of the Meditations had an excellent education from distinguished tutors in what even then were the ancient classics.  In particular, he studied Stoic philosophy, all the while being taught to admire the Platonic ideal of a philosopher king.  He began his Meditations by paying tribute to his teachers and above all to his family, since he had learned a lot from his father and grandfather about developing good character.

In Book 8 we find what a modern editor would insist the author move to the beginning:  “The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; . . . the second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

Humor is scarce in the Meditations, but Book 5 begins with an amusing argument with himself about why it is better to face the day and do one’s duty, rather than stay snug under the blanket.  Human nature never changes, and although few of us have had private tutors or have led troops along a hostile border, we recognize the daily inner struggle of a man who needed to kick himself out of bed and tell himself to suck it up.

In Book 10 he had to tell himself to shut up:  “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be.  Be one.”

As clear as those passages are, other parts of the Meditations are ruminations on time and reality and not stepping in the same river twice, the sort of tedium one would expect from someone who reads philosophy for fun.  Nevertheless, the Meditations give practical food for thought.  “If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self-control and courage,” we read in Book 3, “turn to it with you whole soul, and rejoice in the prize you have found.”  However, “if you find all else to be mean and worthless in comparison, then leave yourself no room for any rival pursuits.”

Educated Christian gentlemen used to have well-thumbed copies of the Meditations.  Christianity and gentlemanly behavior are at a low ebb, but a life spent serving others, of wearing out rather than rusting out, seeking “justice and truth, self-control and courage;” when aspiring to those time-honored standards, society today could do with more pagans.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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