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.
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.
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.
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.