Considering that the use of words is dangerous and their abuse perilous, it should come as no surprise that “paganism” is a particularly dangerous word.
The danger lies in the dangerous lies that arise when the word is employed thoughtlessly. It is, for instance, employed thoughtlessly by Christians when they describe any hedonist or heathen behaviour as being “pagan,” and it is employed equally thoughtlessly by dabblers in the occult when they describe themselves as being “pagan.” This use of the word, whether it is considered pejorative or complimentary, has little to do with the paganism of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, or, for that matter, with the paganism of Homer or Sophocles.
How can one compare Homer, upon whose peerless shoulders the entire edifice of civilized literature rests, with the gnostic or New Age drivel published today? How can one compare the philosophical realism of Plato and Aristotle with the radical relativism of postmodernism? They are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese, or, to employ a more appropriate idiom, as different as night and day.
Nobody has encapsulated the difference between pre-Christian and “post-Christian” paganism more evocatively than C.S. Lewis, who compared the former to a virgin and the latter to a divorcée. Pre-Christian paganism grew in wisdom and maturity until she was ripe for the coming of the Bridegroom (Christ), whom she embraced with zeal. In contrast, “post-Christian” paganism has grown tired and weary of the responsibilities and sacrifices that her marriage to the Bridegroom demands, preferring to desert her spouse and abandon the Family in pursuit of a life of lechery in the desert of her just deserts. Whereas the pre-Christian pagans took the virgin path to the Bridegroom inherent in the wisdom and innocence of the quest for goodness, truth, and beauty, the “post-Christian” pagans can only return to the Bridegroom by the tried and tested path of the prodigal bride who, having wrecked herself on the rocks of her own recklessness, finally creeps home on the thorny path of contrition and penance.
The paganism which is worthy of respect has nothing to do with the divorcée, whose follies are worthy of pity, but with the virgin who awaits the coming of the Bridegroom. It is this pre-Christian or classical paganism which we celebrate.
And there is certainly much to celebrate.
Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.
One scarcely knows where to start in praising Homer. His first epic, the Iliad, is a mystical meditation on the harmful consequences of Man’s folly and on the providential triumph of the will of God. Homer tells us this in the opening lines when he writes that his theme is the anger of Achilles and its destructive ramifications and how, in spite of Achilles’ best-laid schemes, it is the will of Zeus which is accomplished. As for Zeus himself, there are inklings of his possessing the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, suggesting that Homer’s polytheism is moving inexorably towards monotheism. If, for instance, one God is more powerful than the combined power of all the other gods, it is not a great leap to see the other “gods” as being more like angels, lesser supernatural beings, good and bad, angelic and demonic, whose actions might bring discord but cannot ultimately alter the will of Almighty God. This suggestive parallel between the “gods” of Homer’s paganism and the angels and demons of Christian theology is explored with unsurpassed brilliance in the mythopoeic world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Homer’s other great epic, the Odyssey, casts Odysseus as the archetypal homo viator, the man on a journey or quest who must grow in virtue in order to attain his “heavenly” reward. Much more could be said of this, as much could be said of the brilliance of Sophocles, whose Oedipus Cycle competes in brilliance with the great dramatic masterpieces of Shakespeare. From the timeless and cautionary political philosophy of Antigone to the mystical assumption of Oedipus into Heaven, the three Theban plays prefigure the Christian truths to which they point.
We began by asserting that “paganism” is a perilous word. We shall end by saying that paganism is also a perilous world because it leads beyond the realm of gods and men to the One God who rules all men. Let’s give thanks to the Muses who paved the pagan path to Christ.