Le Temps Revient...

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viernes, 28 de febrero de 2014

Democritus' Tradition.

Democritus' Tradition. (Or what it means to be a pagan today.)
In what sense does one mean that they are a pagan? Is one harking back to the religious freedom of yesteryear, when everyone could believe in their own personal superstition? Does one mean that they don't really believe in the pagan gods and goddesses "literally" (good gracious that would be terrible!) but that one is rather more refined than the common believer, worshipping exotic lost deities in a purely nostalgic fashion? Or perhaps, one is following in the tradition of the Romantics, believing allegorically. The gods were originally meant to serve this purpose after all, so such faithful would at least be returning to the original form of this sort of folly.

Although I'm sure, many of today's pagans come about their beliefs by some means or other not altogether dissimilar to those above proposed they often remain at that level and rarely develop into fully thought out convictions beyond a flirtation with mysterious rites, which if such cults as those of Mithra or Demeter are anything to go by, the ancient world is full.

Modern day religions (an anachronism if there ever was one. There are no modern religions, only the few that have survived the attrition of history) inevitably find paganism as one of its threats, as a viable alternative to which people may (re)turn. It's no surprise that the very image of the demon in the Christian faith is modeled on the pagan god Pan, whose name meaning "all" came to be a convenient representative for all that paganism is supposed to have stood for. Yet what one may wish to mean by pagan should not be defined by centuries of church dogma, nor necessarily in a religious sense at all.

The pagan world was of course full of the most basely superstitious people one could image, along with, one assumes, the occasional genuinely elevated and pious believer. Yet it was not a society wholly made up of these kinds of people. Those who come up with new creation myths in any society should not be lumped together with those who rigidly follow them for centuries without thinking to update their ideas to current knowledge. In essence creation myths (the bible included) were probably the work of open minded people trying to engage, to the best of their ability despite the limitations of the times, with the same issues which plague us still. (How did the world begin? What is the meaning of life? Etc) These people deserve to be recognised as belonging not to the tradition of religions, as we have been lead to believe, but to what I like to call Democritus' tradition. Early attempts are only failures if they are enforced as the absolute truth, in a time before the actual truth was capable of being realised. If we forget these tales as the unquestionable foundation stones of religious edifices, and come to think of them rather as malleable first steps in the right direction on the way towards further enlightenment, their despotic enforcers will lose their previously unobstructed single right in deciding the context of their meaning.

Democritus was a philosopher now known as one of the "pre-socratics". As very little of his work survives he has been relegated, along with others of his time such as Heraclitus, to a position of minor importance in the history of philosophy. It is no surprise that the direction Socrates, Plato and Aristotle took was diametrically opposed to the real spirit of Greek philosophy, leading the way towards Christian ideas, which plainly shows why it was to be these thinkers whose works were to survive mostly intact.

Democritus continues in the good tradition of the creation myth theorists, and goes one step further. It is to him that we attribute the idea that the gods do not meddle in human affairs (they really aren't that petty minded) and that the universe is made up of atoms. Moreover he is one of the first along with Thales and Anaximander to use practical scientific observation and experiment to prove his theories. Of course the equipment to prove his ideas was still centuries away, yet if his kind of enquiry had been left to flourish it would probably have been discovered a lot sooner. However, the Socratic method of Plato was to come to dominate philosophical enquiry. Pure contemplative abstract truths of the mind were to take precedence over vulgar mercantile practical demonstrations. Another bad consequence of slavery was the fact that anyone who got their hands dirty actually doing practical experiments would not be taken seriously. Philosophy and scientific enquiry were not to be recovered until Leonardo's time in the late 1400's. Yet as broken as it is, there is a linage from Democritus, through Epicurus and the Roman poet Lucretius, rediscovered in the renaissance, to the humanists, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and ultimately to the enlightenment on towards Jefferson and the founding fathers of the United States.

Drawing our little discussion to a close we can see that being pagan today does not necessarily designate being of a superstitious nature or returning to more primitive forms of belief. It is on the contrary the same tradition of science that one hopes is still correcting its mistakes and not getting entrenched in dogma. That way was the downfall of religion. As wrong as Democritus and Epicurus were, they were the only ones going in the right direction. Now is not the time to engage in could and should have beens, but to be clear about where to go forward from here. To be a pagan today is to pay homage to all the early creation myth theorisers, first failed experimenters and ethical philosophers of the ancient world. It is not the commonly assumed excuse for the decadent profligacy of the Roman ruling classes, nor the popular (then as now) spectacle of violence in the arena that one means to legitimise when saying that one is a pagan. Rather it is the philosophers' world of enlightenment, betterment and curiosity that we seek to emulate without reducing ourselves to the unfortunately primitive limitations of their times. The religious minded must not be allowed to continue with the delusion that they are somehow in a privileged position of authority regarding either ethics, origins or even eschatological issues. As a pagan one assumes the responsibility of advancing upon all ancient and modern knowledge which, despite centuries of set backs, has brought us to an understanding of the world which Democritus would certainly have marvelled at.