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Paul Gottfried

Alain de Benoist, Paganism and the Neo-Christian West

Alain de Benoist’s On Being a Pagan presents an insightful, but incomplete, picture of paganism. Is Benoist’s neo-paganism capable of standing up to our Cultural Marxist elites, where Christianity has so far failed?

This article is a review of Alain de Benoist, On Being a Pagan, translated by Jon Graham and edited by Michael Moynihan (Arcana Europe: North Augusta, S.C., 2018).

Reading the English edition of Comment peut-on être païen?, which Alain de Benoist first published in 1981, I found myself travelling down memory lane. As Fate would have it, I know its prolific, highly erudite author quite well. I read his essay ‘La religion de l’Europe’ when it was published in 1980 in Benoist’s magazine Élements. From this seminal essay came material for this, his best known defence of atheism, which appeared a few months later. In 1996, when his conversations on paganism appeared, the ones attached to this English edition, I read them over with great care. I also corresponded with both Benoist and his Catholic conservative debating partner Thomas Molnar when they were preparing a ‘débat dialogue’ on the subject of paganism (or neopaganism) in 1986. Later I prepared a long review of that book in a magazine that I then edited, The World and I.

For full disclosure, I should mention that I was the American correspondent for Benoist’s flagship magazine Nouvelle École for a number of years, but because of my inattentiveness to this post, I was eventually dropped. Finally I would note that the tentativeness with which Benoist approaches his subject and the vast learning he displays are typical of this thinker, who humbly describes himself as a ‘journaliste de vocation’. In comparison to his vicious slanderer Bernard-Henri Lévy, Benoist is a veritable modern Aristotle or Hegel. He is also a far clearer French stylist than any of his leftist adversaries, which in today’s cultural Marxist milieu may be more of a disadvantage than advantage for someone defending ‘the particularistic’ and proto-European.

The current Left rages against the West because of its Christian underpinnings as well as its whiteness; and Western traditionalists and reactionaries may have to fight back with the only religious resources that matter in this contest.

That said, it is hard to believe that Benoist produced On Being a Pagan because he was answering ‘the simple question: what are the essential differences between paganism and Christianity?’ Like earlier historians, he is supposedly explaining why a clash occurred between religious systems; thus he is explicating for readers, as he tells us, why ‘the religious systems of ancient Europe and the new religion of Christianity’ came into conflict. ‘What were the specific aspects of their way of believing, theologies and worldviews which put them at odds with one another?’ At various points in this dense work Benoist does engage these questions; and when he does, it is clear that he has read prodigious amounts of material about religious beliefs and about how and why these beliefs have clashed. But Benoist is also writing throughout as a polemicist. He never really hides his hand when he characterizes himself as a pagan who is consciously rejecting the Christianity of his conventionally Catholic parents. Whether Benoist is addressing, among other polarities, tolerance vs. intolerance, a sense of the sacred vs. moral holiness, true historical consciousness vs. history as repetition punctuated by divine interventions and an apocalyptic ending, or sex and the body vs. asceticism, his pagan worldview is always made to look more appealing than the Christian alternative.

Although Benoist may not harbour the hope, as his critics suggest, ‘of wiping out two thousand years of Christianity with the stroke of a pen’, he is eager to move the needle in his direction. He seems pleased to see the outgrowths of Neopaganism (although not always its results), including the establishment of neopagan communities, and he does not altogether distance himself from those trying to revive a pagan view of the world. He also lists a host of literary figures whom he suggests foreshadowed or embodied his own pagan beliefs. This however begs the question of whether John Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence, Henry de Montherlant, Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, Louis Ménard, the French Symbolists etc. etc. would all have recognized themselves in Benoist’s exposition of his own pagan philosophy. The fact that some poet or novelist is attracted to a particular ancient myth or pagan deity, or protests against Christian asceticism, does not signify that person concurs with what Benoist proposes as a pagan ‘religious system’.

Allow me then to put my own cards on the table. Although I learned a great deal from reading Benoist’s defences of paganism, I am far from swayed by the case that he presents. I’m not taking this stance because his contentions offend my religious sensibilities. In fact I find some of his observations, even the ones that are not entirely original, to be highly persuasive. Like Benoist I believe there is a traceable evolution from biblical messianism and eschatology to modern revolutionary ideologies. Indeed I couldn’t imagine the operation of our current leftist mythology without those biblical narratives, extracted from the Old and New Testaments, which they incorporate and reconstruct, as a form of replacement religion. The Left’s universalism and egalitarianism, for instance, have obvious biblical antecedents, which I am noting without the slightest disrespect for this Holy Book.

Benoist takes certain ideas from Max Weber that are equally worth pondering: for example, the connection between, on the one side, the stark cleavage of the divine and the earthly, which Weber finds to be particularly prominent in Calvinism and the Hebraic tradition, and, on the other, a desacralized view of Nature. In Calvinism and the Old Testament the sacred is associated with a transcendental deity and the human soul. Unlike the pagan view, the Judeo-Christian worldview is open to secularization since it treats the natural world as being under human control and standing apart from a transcendent Creator. Finally, Benoist is entirely correct that monotheistic religions are theologically more intolerant than polytheistic ones, since they assume a single source of divine truth. Although ancient pagan societies were at least as cruel in war and conquest, religious conversion was never a motive for their brutal mistreatment of other groups.

As indicated at the beginning, there is so much reading and learning that Benoist has poured into this work that it almost pains me to underline my disagreement. But I’ll do so anyhow. The view of paganism that his book provides is both eclectic and selective. It is drawn from classical paganism, non-Western religions, particularly Hinduism and its caste system, and Germanic legends. All these traditions are made to seem compatible and to yield common truths; and these truths are then placed against Christianity and less frequently, biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. Moreover, the paganism of classical antiquity, which Jacob Burckhardt among others showed interpenetrating with Christianity in its last phase, is depicted in Benoist’s book as being substantively different from what replaced it.

Pagan asceticism, which became widespread by the third and fourth centuries, is supposedly not to be confused with the Christian view of a fallen physical world. But let us note (as Benoist does) the famous polemic produced by the church father Origen in the third century and directed against the pagan Neoplatonist Celsus. Origen’s work was the response of one Neoplatonist to another. Here and in his other writings, as Hal Koch demonstrates in Pronoia und Paideusis (1932), Origen laboured mightily to make Christianity fit his Neoplatonic grid. Christ as logos is subsumed here into a Platonic hierarchy of demiurges placed in an ascending order of being.

Although Benoist may not harbour the hope, as his critics suggest, ‘of wiping out two thousand years of Christianity with the stroke of a pen’, he is eager to move the needle in his direction.

Were Christian Platonists, like Origen, teaching something entirely different from what pagan Neoplatonists, like Plotinus and Proclus, expounded? All these thinkers feature a journey of the soul back to its divine source and emphasize liberation from carnal desire. The neopagan emperor Julian (361–363) was another Neoplatonist, and he set up pagan monasteries and convents. Although Julian specifically rejected Christian teachings and may have accepted the pagan belief in a cyclical history, his religious practices and even theology seem closer to what Origen taught than to the (still animistic) beliefs of a Roman pagan of the fifth century, B.C. Benoist asserts that ‘pagan thought under Christianity had already begun to evolve before it seemingly died.’ But isn’t the reverse equally if not even more true? Christian theology and the church fathers were strongly influenced by Hellenistic Greek thought, particularly Platonism, well into the early Middle Ages. And pace Benoist, Roman pagans were not particularly ‘tolerant’ when it came to Christians. The great Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius happily persecuted Christians as a danger to his empire. Julian did not follow the same path, as Benoist correctly points out. But Julian, an anachronistic pagan, was ruling over a Christianized empire and had no practical choice but to treat Christianity indulgently.

Benoist’s book exaggerates other cultural differences, for example, the at least implicit difference between Jews and Hindus. Jews are shown as placing an excessive emphasis on ‘morality’, which is viewed as divinely given and around which they organize their collective existence. In contrast Hindus practise a form of an ancient Indo-European religion which values hierarchy and views the world and Nature as full of divine powers. But contrary to what Benoist’s Jewish apologetic sources claim, Rabbinic Judaism, which practising Jews observe, is almost entirely centred on rituals and dietary laws. Although there is a short collection of ethical maxims, Pirkeh Avoth, and allegories (Midrashim) attached to Rabbinic legal codes, almost all of traditional Jewish learning and religious practice stress the minute observance of ritual law, and eating only permissible foods prepared according to prescribed law. The result resembles the way a Hindu village might comport itself, including the strict prohibitions in both cases against conjugal unions with anyone who does not meet the biological and social standards of the group. What Benoist may be missing is that premodern societies, wherever they are located, show remarkable similarity whether or not they accept a biblical cosmology or a Judeo-Christian deity.

Benoist is annoyed by some of the manifestations of Neopaganism, e.g. practitioners of ‘black magic’, the reduction of ‘paganism’ too ‘happy get-togethers, pleasant evenings where people celebrate with a few appropriate rituals their communal life’, and a ‘confusion’ that ‘reaches its peak with the neopagan groups, mostly Anglos who are part of the New Age movement’. He calls for a more thoughtful ‘adaptation’ of paganism to the modern age, one that would recycle certain pagan insights to a post-Christian West. There are at least two problems with this suggestion or admonition. One, Benoist does not provide a guide as to how modern pagans or neopagans should be living. He rather furnishes a ‘religious system’ that is placed over against Judeo-Christianity and which he regards as preferable. But it’s not clear his system describes how paganism was experienced by the ancient world, so much as what Benoist likes about the pagan world. Nowhere does Benoist take up the ‘deisidaimonia’, fear of the gods, or even superstition, that was associated with Greek religious attitudes, and which the Spartans were seen as fully embodying. There is also in Benoist’s system no hint of the ‘agos’, the blood guilt that stalks the House of Atreus and other victims of divine vengeance in Greek tragedy. Rather we are told about the sense of ‘creative freedom’ with which pagans approached history, which is repeatedly contrasted to the guilt and original sin that is ascribed to humanity in the ‘late religion’ of Christianity. Benoist can be rightly accused of cherry-picking his cases.

In the English-speaking world atheists are sanctimonious as well as zealous and seem to believe that their anti-belief system, if adopted as a new state religion, will make us all more virtuous.

Two, it’s doubtful that paganism, or the religious system Benoist is propounding, can provide us with a usable alternative to Christianity. Here I am following someone whom Benoist and I both admire, Carl Schmitt, who wisely taught ‘eine geschichtliche Wahrheit is nur einmal wahr [historical truths are true only once]’. Although Christianity has proved to be woefully inadequate in standing up to our Cultural Marxist elites, Benoist is not offering anything that is likely to take its place. He comes up with a highly personalized invention, a reconstruction of certain aspects of paganism that obviously appeal to him. At the end of the day, however, we may be stuck with a reluctant ally, in the form of the tottering wreck of a once great religious civilization. This wreck may have to be readied for a Kulturkampf that most of its leaders have no interest in pursuing. Paganism or neopaganism does not upset the Left, because it doesn’t stand in the way of its power grab. But the current Left rages against the West because of its Christian underpinnings as well as its whiteness; and Western traditionalists and reactionaries may have to fight back with the only religious resources that matter in this contest.

In most of its confessional forms, the Christian religion has absorbed classical and Hebraic elements; and the stark contrast constructed by Benoist may overstate the degree to which Christianity has rejected the legacy of classical antiquity. It was Christians after all who preserved that legacy down through the ages; and even anti-Christian or anticlerical authors like Voltaire learned what they knew about the pagan world from Christian teachers. One might also question whether Benoist and other modern pagans are totally free of Christian influence. Reading one of Benoist’s favourite neopagan authors, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (1898–1945), one can’t help noticing the pervasive Catholic mentality that informs Drieu’s most famous novel Gilles (1939). The hero of this novel dies fighting in the Spanish Civil War (nota bene!) on the side of the ultra-Catholic Carlists. Gilles’s pagan sentiments take a markedly Catholic (although not necessarily Christian) form in the novel.

Addendum: On one point about contemporary religious attitudes, Benoist is entirely on the money. His scoffing at atheists as ridiculous imitations of the religionists they’re attacking is fully deserved. As someone who has forced himself to listen to New Atheists Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, I can testify to their likeness to some smarmy Fundamentalists. The fact that such figures seek to obliterate theism and often wish to enlist the state in this enterprise, indicates they are something other than reflective sceptics. They are often intolerant missionaries, who combine the officious zeal of Jehovah Witnesses fixed at one’s door with the determination of Spanish Inquisitors working to extirpate heresy. In the English-speaking world atheists are sanctimonious as well as zealous and seem to believe that their anti-belief system, if adopted as a new state religion, will make us all more virtuous. In short, our atheists have adopted all those undesirable qualities associated with what they’re trying to uproot.

This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. Thank you for this critique and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have read “On Being a Pagan” and it reconnected me with my Classical studies however the revised edition (as well as this article ) does not offer recommendations for further reading or research aside from copious references that the reader may already have consulted in whole or in part. Understanding the hold that Semitic (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) religions have on the Western ethos in contrast with what once was is a matter of utmost importance in my view. I am currently focused on what has been inadequately named “Middle Platonism” or “Later Platonism” for a better understanding of the philosophical appropriation used by the Church Fathers for Catholicism and Philo of Alexandria for Judaism which thereby supplanted both the culture and the religion of what was Tradition. Any and all scholarly recommendations by the author and Arktos ( I am already acquainted with Evola and Guenon) would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Thank you for this Professor Gottfried. Anything you care to provide us with, on any topic, is invaluable. You’ve quite clearly been the best intellect of the American right for decades. I’d like to spend several hours a day learning from you, for at least 30 years or so.

    Honestly, I just found and listened to your two talks with Robert Stark yesterday, and they were fascinating. I just learned about your book on the early 19th century German counter-revolutionary romantics last week (I’ve wanted to learn about them for some time, and your book, along with Schmitt’s ‘Political Romanticism’, and a couple of sections in Othmar Spann’s ‘Types of Economic Theory’, look to be the only works in english to touch upon them in any depth). I also just found your second, smaller book on Carl Schmitt from 1990, which, judging by the google books preview, looks to be fascinating as well. I can’t wait to dive into these and other works of yours in the coming years.

  3. When reading rightist condemnations of Christianity I wonder what type of post-Roman European civilisation would have emerged without it? Would anything have approached the Gothic epoch, disparaged from the Renaissance onward, with not only the cultural but also the scientific achievements obscured and forgotten and replaced by an obsession with claiming a Classical origin for the West? Isn’t the negative impact of “Christianity” on the West really more specifically the result of the Reformation, and the failure of Christianity to offer resistance to Western decline the product of subverting Catholicism? Has the traditional social doctrine of the Church ever been replaced with anything better than the organic society? In terms of the rabbinic teachings defined by Dr Gottfried, was not Jesus in rebellion precisely against these; against the outward forms of rabbinism that Jesus regarded as blasphemy? Perhaps this also is a reflection of Jesus possibly being a Galilean rather than a Judah-ite? In particular, who more than Jesus represents such a total rejection of materialism, and the affirmation of the spiritual? What more heroic – and relevant – model for Western resistance than Jesus chasing out the money-changers?

  4. It’s a very simple difference. Agency vs Submission.

    Heathens (Pagans in the pejorative) in western civilization are imagined heroes in competition with the spirits(dead), non-humans(green man, primitive man), demigods(powerful but mortal), and gods (powerful and immortal), and can, by effort and cunning outwit them – or – negotiate (bribe) them. This is a universal artifact of the conquest and replacement of european peoples by the westward expansion of the indo-europeans (Yaman, Corded ware et al) and their Militaristic, Expansionist, Sky Worshipping, Metalsmithing, business of profiting from the domestication of animal man, with horse, bronze, wheel and their very visible power over nature. It is a religion of agency not submission.

    Demand for a “religion of empires” increases with the distribution of peoples under rule, and the group strategies of those people under rule, and the compatibilities of those group’s strategies under such a universal rule. The semitic methodology of INVERTING the aristocratic (western) ethos by converting the bible of greco roman civilization (iliad of homer) which occupied the vast majority of writings in the greco roman period, with a ‘hero’ of ‘submission and resistance’ was an interesting strategy by which the vast underclasses of the old european (byzantine), and greco-anatolian, syrian levantine world could create a resistance movement by the cultural destruction of their superiors, Just as the Marxists (Marx, Boas, Freud, Cantor, Mises, Adorno et al, Rothbard, and the neocons) repeated 1700 years later (monopoly marxism of private property, monopoly marxism of common property, monopoly marxism of identity-property (culture)).

    The Semitic method of undermining was as successful in the Modern world (undermining colonialism) as it was in the ancient world (undermining colonialism). False promise of salvation after death. False promise of economic salvation. False promise of cultural (identity) salvation. The method of using sophism (false promise + sophism (Pilpul) + Straw Manning (Critique) is in fact a successful method of undermining a civilization that is overwhelmed by overextension, and profiting from overextension through commerce, and the dependence of commerce at international scales on trust.

    Christianity succeeded because trade collapsed in europe after (a) undermining by jewish-christian vanguard, (b) enforcement by byzantine (old world, greek) defeat of rome, and (c) collapse of world trade under arab-muslim expansion, (d) and the eventual consumption of all capital of the great civilizations of the ancient world, and the destruction of all those civilizations as a consequence.

    So, as trade and knowledge increased, europeans gradually (expectedly) extracted themselves from Semitic superstition, the church’s’ monopoly on information and literacy, the 50% of dead capital in europe under the church. and the corruption of the church as a monopoly federal government selling false receipts of salvation the way the current academy sells false diplomas.

    Given that the remains of Christianity are what leave us vulnerable to Semiticism (abrahamic monotheism, marxism-socialism-postmodernism-feminism, and the use of false promise, sophism, straw-manning, and the discount on disapproval, shaming, ridicule, moralizing, rallying as a substitute for truthful (scientific, rational) argument. It is only logical that the aristocratic right in Europe (using literary philosophy, moralism, and history) and aristocratic right in the States (using law and, economics, and science) should produce arguments to restore our native religion of the hearth to one that is heroic and expansionary rather than submissive and assisting in our surrender.

    Nothing in human behavior or history is difficult. It’s all simple. Once you understand that nearly all use of language is simply means of lying in order to obtain discounts on the acquisition of the power to alter the probability of outcomes in one’s favor. And all we do is search for narratives to echo (script).

    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Kiev, Ukraine

  5. The boastful condemnation of Christianity as a submissive doctrine is a stark misinterpretation of Christian philosophical tenets. What is practised as Christian faith today is largely the result of legalistic apprehensions, and hence, not in the least comparable to what its epistemology originally foresaw. Connecting Christianity with leftist ideology is, therefore, a very specious causation. A critique like this bases its arguments on a reductionist distillation of Christian thought – a crude simplification, or in the words of Harnack, on the ‘cheapening’ of the true Christian ethos. The correction of this is currently being undertaken in science, albeit at a slow pace, and has not reached critical mass yet.

    With regards to one of the comments above: the most vocal counter-revolutionary writers in German Romanticism, especially those who have not been translated into English yet, were devout Christians, who derived their spirit of rebelliousness out of their Christian identity. The notion of the organic supplanted into the political and societal was – to the surprise of many – not a predominantly biological, but a religious one. German Romanticism can be seen as the last attempt to combine both disciplines.

    1. My response is both to Ms. Hamilton and to Mr. Bolton above.

      I well take both of your points, and would be the last to dismiss Christianity outright. It seems to me that Mr. Bolton’s pointed challenges, for instance, could be addressed only with the greatest difficulty, and probably only with a quantity of casuistry. But Mr. Bolton is referring to a specific historical period, and one that cannot be taken to represent Christianity per se. Likewise, Ms. Hamilton suggests that condemnation of Christianity is based on a ‘stark misinterpretation of Christian philosophical tenets’, but I admit I do not see the matter with near such clarity; in truth, I wonder if it is not a contradiction in terms to ascribe ‘philosophical tenets’ to Christianity as such. Nor do I think that the greatest critics of Christianity can be charged with ‘boastful condemnation’ or interpretive shallowness.

      It seems to me one must always ask, which Christianity? The Christianity of the Crusaders and the Gothic rise, or of turning the other cheek and giving unto Caesar? Of Dante, or of Paul? Of the mastery of the West, or of the slave revolt in morals? The Christianity which demonized and contemptuously burned the graces of Antiquity, or the Christianity which in a telling carelessness accidentally preserved Antiquity on palimpsests and through an inverted mythology, or the Christianity which scrupulously rediscovered and preserved Antiquity through one of the greatest scholarly cultures the world has ever known? That Christianity which takes its origins, its point of departure, from the Jewish rabble of the Roman period, and which appealed, and has always appealed, to the feeble and dispossessed, or that Christianity which holds to hierarchy and the splendour of a spiritual aristocracy? In short – the Christianity of the saccharine equality of man, or the Christianity of the inner greatness of man?

      Christianity, historically speaking, has been anything but a unified phenomenon; to get to the bottom of it as a faith in its own right, one must look to its source, to the Bible, which means – one must already accept the Protestant turn. And I strongly suspect that when one does so, one does not find the glory to which the Christian faith has at times lent itself. When many on the Right defend Christianity, I suspect they are actually defending the Church.

      But the Church today can hardly be looked to with a great deal of hope. The Church of Vatican II, of John and Paul, of a Ratzinger who resigns to make way for this Jesuit of a Bergoglio and his pandering to the Third World hordes – what can one expect from this Church, and how is one to seriously anticipate a spiritual shift within it?

      I utterly take Mr. Gottfried’s point: ‘Western traditionalists and reactionaries may have to fight back with the only religious resources that matter in this contest.’ I think that anyone who takes this point seriously must look, at least with one eye, to the Orthodox Church rather than to ‘the tottering wreck of a once great religious civilization’. Here, as elsewhere, it might be that we can learn something from the Russians.

  6. The fact that Christian ecclesiastical history is not one unified field is obvious, especially since we talked about it in relation to a different post. When Christiann epistemology is concerned, science usually does not refer to ecclesiastical history (or like you stated ‘the Church’. Research is done in the first-century scriptural exegesis, before the Nicaean schism, i.e. the institutionalization of the faith. One cannot even speak of it as a faith in that time, for belief was equated with logical as well as moral error.

  7. Another thing to clarify: with ‘boastful’, I did not refer to the case Benoist and other critics make towards the blatantly lamentable state of Christianity and its deleterious impact on the West, but instead to the causation as such.

    Yet I see that debating topics of such complexity and magnitude in comment sections always leads to rebuttals ripe with non-sequiturs and misunderstandings.

    1. Not many more, I think, than are bound to emerge when any two thinking people seek to come to terms with one another’s thought – whether they are dialoguing face to face or through a forum like this. Only that in face-to-face conversation, one can obviously obviate certain minor confusions with greater speed and ease, whereas here it takes time and good will.

      One serious obstacle to mutual understanding: it is unfortunately all too easy to suppose one understands the words of another person, even when one really has not done so in the least, and has not so much as asked after them – an error that I very clearly committed in my response to you. To avoid making the same mistake a second time, I will pose a question instead, which is sure to be more fruitful: what do you mean when you speak of ‘the causation as such’?

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