Pagan Notion of the Sacred
To the critics who argue that polytheism is a thing of the prehistoric and primitive mind incompatible with modern societies, one could respond that paganism is not necessarily a return to “paradise lost” or a nostalgia for the restoration of the Greco-Roman order. For pagan conservatives, to pledge allegiance to “paganism” means to rekindle Europe’s historical origins, as well as to revive some sacred aspects of life that existed in Europe prior to the rise of Christianity. One could also add that, as far as the alleged supremacy or modernity of Judeo-Christianity over the backwardness of Indo-European polytheism is concerned, Judeo-Christian religions, in terms of their modernity, are no less backward than pagan religions. To emphasize this point de Benoist writes:
Just as it was yesterday a grotesque spectacle to see the “pagan idols” denounced by Christian missionaries, who were themselves enamored of their own bric-a bracs, so it is somewhat ridiculous to see the (European) “past” denounced by those who never tire of praising Judeo-Christian continuity, and who refer us to the example of “always modern” Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, and other proto-historic Beduins. (22)
According to some pagan thinkers, Judeo-Christian rationalization of historical time has precluded the projection of one’s own national past and, in so doing, it has significantly contributed to the “desertification” of the world. In the last century, Ernest Renan observed that Judaism is oblivious of the notion of the sacred, because the “desert itself is monotheistic.”(23) In a similar tone, Alain de Benoist in L’éclipse, while quoting Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, writes that the loss of the sacred, which is causing today the “disenchantment” of the modern polity, resulted as the legitimate consequence of the Biblical renunciation of history. First, the disenchantment of nature had started with the Creation; the desacralization of politics with the Exodus; and the deconsecration of values with the Alliance of Sinai, especially after the interdiction of idols (129). Continuing with similar analyses, Mircea Eliade, an author himself influenced by pagan world, adds that Judaic resentment of pagan idolatry stems from the ultra-rational character of Mosaic laws that rationalize all aspects of life by means of a myriad of prescriptions, laws, and interdictions:
Desacralization of the Nature, devaluation of cultural activity, in short, the violent and total rejection of cosmic religion, and above all the decisive importance conferred upon spiritual regeneration by the definite return of Yahveh, was the prophets’ response to historical crises menacing the two Jewish kingdoms.(24)
Some might object that Catholicism has its own form of the sacred and that, unlike some other forms of Judeo-Christian beliefs, it displays its own spiritual transcendence. But there are reasons to believe that the Catholic concept of the sacred does not emerge sui generis, but rather as a substratum of the Christian amalgam with paganism. As de Benoist notes, Christianity owes its manifestation of the sacred (holy sites, pilgrimages, Christmas festivities, and the pantheon of saints) to the indomitable undercurrent of pagan and polytheistic sensibility. Therefore, it seems that the pagan revival today represents less a normative religion, in the Christian sense of the word, than a certain spiritual equipment that stands in contrast to the religion of Jews and Christians. Consequently, as some pagan thinkers suggest, the possible replacement of the monotheistic vision of the world by the polytheistic vision of the world could mean not just the “return of gods” but the return of the plurality of social values as well.
Courage, personal honor, and spiritual and physical self-surpass-ment are often cited as the most important virtues of paganism. In contrast to Christian and Marxian utopian optimism, paganism emphasizes the profound sense of the tragic, the tragi0c-as seen in Greek tragedies-that sustains man in his Promethean plight and that makes his life worth living. (25) It is the pagan sense of the tragic that can explain man’s destiny-destiny, which for old Indo-Europeans “triggered action, endeavor, and self-surpassment. (26) Hans Günther summarizes this point in the following words:
[I]ndo-European religiosity is not rooted in any kind of fear, neither in fear of deity nor in fear of death. The words of the Latter-day Roman poet, that fear first created the Gods (Statius, Thebais, 3:661: primus in orbe fecit deos timor), cannot be applied to the true forms of Indo-European religiosity, for wherever it has unfolded freely, the “fear of the Lord” (Proverbs, Solomon 9, 10; Psalm 11, 30) has proved neither the beginning of belief nor of wisdom.(27)
Some have suggested that the greatest civilizations are those that have shown a strong sense of the tragic and that have had no fear of death .(28) In the pagan concept of the tragic, man is encouraged to take responsibility before history because man is the only one who gives history a meaning. Commenting on Nietzsche, Giorgio Locchi writes that, in pagan cosmogony, man alone is considered a forger of his own destiny (faber suae fortunea), exempt from biblical or historical determinism, “divine grace,” or economic and material constraints.(29) Paganism stresses a heroic attitude toward life as opposed to the Christian attitude of culpability and fear toward life. Sigrid Hunke writes of the [e/ssentialization of life, since both life and death have the same essence and are always contained in both. The life, which at any moment is face-to-death and with-death, renders the future per-manent in each instant, and life becomes eternal by acquiring an inscrutable profundity, and by assuming the value of eternity. For Hunke, along with other authors of pagan sensibility, in order to restore these pagan virtues in the secular city, man must first abandon the dualistic logic of religious and social exclusion, “a logic which has been responsible for extremism not only among individuals, but also among parties and peoples, and which, starting out from Europe, has disseminated into the world this dualistic split that has acquired planetary proportions.”(30) To achieve this ambitious goal, Western man must first rethink the meaning of history.
The Terror of History
Modern pagans remind us that Judeo-Christian monotheism has substantially altered man’s attitude toward history. By assigning history a specific goal, Judeo-Christianity has devalued all past events, except those that display the sign of Yahveh’s theophany. Undoubtedly, Yahveh does admit that man may have a history, but only insofar as history is bestowed with an assigned goal, a certain goal, and a specific goal. Should man, however, continue to cling to the concept of history that evokes collective memory of his tribe or people, he runs the risk of provoking Yahveh’s anger. For Jews, Christians, as well as Marxists, historicity is not the real essence of man; the real essence of man is beyond history. One could observe that the Judeo-Christian concept of the end of history correlates well with modern egalitarian and pacifist doctrines that inspire themselves, often unknowingly, with the Biblical proverb: “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isa. 11:6). De Benoist notes in L’éclipse that, unlike the pagan concept of history that involves organic solidarity and communal ties, the monotheistic concept of history creates divisions. Accordingly, Yahveh must forbid “mixtures” between the present and the past, between people and the divine, between Israel and the goyim (132). Christians, of course, will reject Jewish exclusiveness-as their century-long religious proselytism amply demonstrates-but they will, nonetheless, retain their own brand of exclusiveness against “infidel” Moslems, pagans, and other “false believers.”
Contrary to the Judeo-Christian dogma that asserts that historical time starts from one unique father, in European paganism there are no traces of the beginning of the time; instead, historical time is seen as a perpetual recommencement, the “eternal return” emanating from multiple and different fathers. In pagan cosmogony, as de Benoist writes, time is the reflection of the non-linear or spheric conception of history, a conception in which the past, the present, and the future are not perceived as stretches of cosmic time irrevocably cut off from each other, or following each other on the single line. Instead, present, past, and future are perceived as dimensions of actuality (L’éclipse 131). In pagan cosmogony, it is incumbent to each people to assign itself a role in history, which in practice means that there cannot be self-appointed peoples occupying the central stage in history. Similarly, just as it is erroneous to speak about one truth, it is equally wrong to maintain that entire humanity must pursue the same and unique historical direction, as proposed by Judeo-Christian universalism and its secular fall-out “global democracy.”
The Judeo-Christian concept of history suggests that the flow of’ historical time is monolinear and, therefore, limited by its significance and meaning. Henceforth, for Jews and Christians, history can be apprehended only as a totality governed by a sense of ultimate end and historical fulfillment. History for both Jews and Christians appears at best parenthetical, at worst an ugly episode or a “vale of tears,” which one of these days must be erased from earth and transcended by paradise.
Furthermore, Judeo-Christian monotheism excludes the possibility of historical return or “recommencement”; history has to unfold in a predetermined way by making its way toward a final goal. In the modern secular city, the idea of Christian finality will be transposed into a myth of a finite “classless” society, or the apolitical and ahistorical liberal consumer society. Here is how de Benoist sees it in L’éclipse:
Legitimization by the future that replaces legitimization of the immemorial times authorizes all uprootedness, all emancipations” regarding the adherence in its original form. This utopian future that replaces a mythic past is incidentally always the generator of deceptions, because the best that it announces must constantly be put off to a later date. Temporality is no longer a founding element of the deployment of the being who tries to grasp the game of the world temporality is pursued from one goal, reached from one end; expectation and no longer communion.
To submit globally the historical becoming to an obligatory meaning means in fact to shut history in the reign of objectivity, which reduces choices, orientations and projects. (155-56)
Only the future can enable Jews and Christians to “rectify” the past. Only the future assumes the value of redemption. Henceforth, historical time for Jews and Christians is no longer reversible; from now on each historical occurrence acquires the meaning of divine providence, of “God’s” finger, or theophany. In the secular city, this line of monolinear thinking will give birth to the “religion” of progress and the belief in boundless economic growth. Did not Moses receive the Laws at a certain place and during a certain time, and did not Jesus later preach, perform miracles, and was he not crucified at a specifically recorded time and place? Did not the end of history begin for Communists with the Bolshevik Revolution, and for liberals with the American century? These “divine” interventions in human history are never again to be repeated. Eliade summarizes this point in the following words:
“Under the “pressure of history” and supported by the prophetic and Messianic experience, a new interpretation of historical events dawns among the children of Israel. Without finally renouncing the traditional concept of archetypes and repetitions, Israel attempts to “save” historical events by regarding them as active presences of Yahveh. . . . Messianism gives them a new value, especially by abolishing their [historical events] possibility of repetition ad infinitum. When the Messiah comes, the world will be saved once and for all and history will cease to exist.”(31)
Directly commanded by the will of Yahweh, history henceforth functions as a series of events, with each event becoming irrevocable and irreversible. History is not only discarded, but also fought against. Pierre Chaunu, a contemporary French historian, observes that “the rejection of history is a temptation of those civilizations that have emerged out of Judeo-Christianity. “(32) In a similar tone, Michel Maffesoli writes that totalitarianism occurs in those countries that are hostile to history, and he adds: “We enter now into the reign of finality propitious to political eschatology whose outcome is Christianity and its profane forms, liberalism and Marxism.”(33)
The foregoing observations might need some comments. If one accepts the idea of the end of history, as proposed by monotheists, Marxists, and liberals, to what extent, then, can the entire historical suffering be explained? How is it possible, from liberal and Marxist points of view, to “redeem” past oppressions, collective sufferings, deportations, and humiliations that have filled up history? Suffice it to say that this enigma only underscores the difficulty regarding the concept of distributive justice in the egalitarian secular city. If a truly egalitarian society miraculously emerges, it will be, inevitably, a society of the elect-of those who, as Eliade noted, managed to escape the pressure of history by simply being born at a right time, at a right place, and in a right country. Paul Tillich noted, some time ago, that such equality would result in immense historical inequality, since it would exclude those who, during their life time, lived in unequal society, or-if one can borrow Arthur Koestler’s words-who perished with a  shrug of eternity.” (34) These quotes from Koestler and Eliade illustrate the difficulties of modern salutary ideologies that try to “arrest” time and create a secular paradise. Would it not be better in times of great crisis to borrow the pagan notion of cyclical history? This seems to be the case with some East European peoples who, in times of crisis or catastrophes, frequently resort to popular folklore and myths that help them, in an almost cathartic manner, better to cope with their predicament. Locchi writes:
“The new beginning of history is feasible. There is no such thing as historical truth. If historical truth truly existed then there would be no history. Historical truth must time and again be obtained; it must always be translated into action. And this is exactly-for us-the meaning of history.”(35)
We might conclude that for Christians it is Christ who defines the value of a human being, for a Jew it is Judaism that gauges someone’s “choseness,” and for Marx it is not the quality of man that defines the class, but rather the quality of the class that defines man. One thus becomes “elect” by virtue of his affiliation to his class or his religious belief.
Pagans or Monotheists: Who is More Tolerant?
As observed, Yahveh, similar to his future secular successors, in the capacity of the single truth-maker, is opposed to the presence of other gods and other values. As a reductionist, whatever exists beyond his fold must be either punished or destroyed. One can observe that, throughout history, the monotheistic true believers have been encouraged, in the name of “higher” historic truths, to punish those who strayed away from Yahveh’s assigned direction. Walter Scott writes:
“In many instances the Mosaic law of retaliation, an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” was invoked by the Israelites to justify the atrocities which they visited upon their fallen enemies … The history of the Israelite campaigns shows that the Hebrews were most often the aggressors.” (36)
Thus, in the name of historical truth, the ancient Hebrews could justify the slaughtering of Canaanite pagans, and in the name of Christian revelation, Christian states legitimized wars against infidel heretics, Jews, and pagans. It would be imprecise, however, in this context to downplay the pagan violence. The Greek destruction of the city of Troy, the Roman destruction of Carthage, clearly point to the frequently total and bloody nature of wars conducted by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Yet, it is also important to stress that seldom do we find among the ancients the self-righteous attitude toward their victories that accompanied Christian and Jewish military victories. Seldom, if ever, did the Romans or the Greeks attempt, after the military destruction of their opponents, to convert them to their own deities. By contrast, both the Gospel and the Old Testament are interspersed with acts of self-congratulatory justice that will, in turn, justify “redeeming” violence against opponents. Similarly, in the modern secular city, to wage war for democracy has become a particularly nefarious means for erasing all different polities that refuse the “theology” of global progress and that shun the credo of “global democracy.” To underscore this point, Pierre Gripari writes that Judaism, Christianity, and their secular offshoots Naziism, socialism, and liberalism, are barbarian doctrines that cannot have their place in the modern world (60).
By contrast, notes de Benoist, a system that recognizes an unlimited number of gods acknowledges also the plurality of cults offered in their honor, and above all, the plurality of customs, political and social systems, and conceptions of the world of which these gods are sublime expressions.(37) It follows from this that pagans, or believers in polytheism, are considerably less inclined to intolerance. Their relative tolerance is primarily attributed to the acceptance of the notion of the “excluded third” (“der ausgeschlossene Dritte”), as well as the rejection of Judeo-Christian dualism.
To underscore pagan relative tolerance, it is worth mentioning the attitude of Indo-European pagans toward their opponents during military confrontation. Jean Haudry remarks that war for pagans was conducted according to strict regulations; war was declared according to the rituals that beseeched first the help of gods and asked for their anger against the adversary. The conduct of war was subject to well-defined rules and consequently, “the victory consisted of breaking the resistance, and not necessarily of destroying the adversary” (161). In view of the fact that Judeo-Christianity does not permit relative truths, or different and contradictory truths, it will frequently adopt the policy of total war toward its opponents. Eliade writes that the “intolerance and fanaticism characteristic of the prophets and missionaries of the three monotheistic religions, have their model and justification in the example of Yahveh.”(38)
How does the monotheist intolerance transpire in the purportedly tolerant secular city? What are the secular consequences of Judeo-Christian monotheism in our epoch? In contemporary systems, it is the opposite, the undecided-i.e., those who have not taken sides, and those who refuse modern political eschatologies-that become the targets of ostracism or persecution: those who today question the utility of the ideology of “human rights,” globalism, or equality. Those, in short, who reject the liberal and communist credo.
In conclusion, one could say that, in the very beginning of its development, Judeo-Christian monotheism set out to demystify and desacralize the pagan world by slowly supplanting ancient pagan beliefs with the reign of the Judaic Law. During this century-long process, Christianity gradually removed all pagan vestiges that co-existed with it. The ongoing process of desacralization and the “Entzauberung” of life and politics appear to have resulted not from Europeans’ chance departure from Christianity, but rather from the gradual disappearance of the pagan notion of the sacred that coexisted for a long time with Christianity. The paradox of our century is that the Western world is saturated with Judeo-Christian mentality at the moment when churches and synagogues are virtually empty.
A Journal of Literature, History, and the Philosophy of History
vol 24 No 2 winter 1995
(Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne)
22. Comment peut-on être païen?, 170, 26. De Benoist has been at odds with the so-called neo-conservative “nouveaux philosophes,” who attacked his paganism on the grounds that it was a tool of intellectual anti-Semitism, racism, and totalitarianism. In his response, de Benoist levels the same criticism against the “nouveaux philo-sophes.” See “Monothéisme-polythéisme: le grand debat,” Le Figaro Magazine, 28 April 1979, 83: “Like Horkheimer, like Ernest Bloch, like Levinas, like René Girard, what B. H. Lévy desires is less `audacity,’ less ideal, less politics, less power, less of the State, less of history. What he expects is the accomplishment of history, the end of all adversity (the adversity to which corresponds the Hegelian Gegenständlichkeit), disincarnate justice, the universal peace, the disappearance of frontiers, the birth of a homogenous society . . .“
23. Ernest Renan, Histoire générale des langues sémitiques (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1853), 6.
24. Mircae Eliade, Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses (Paris: Payot, 1976), 1:369, passim.
25. Jean-Marie Domenach, Le retour du tragique (Paris: édition du Seuil, 1967), 44-45.
26. Jean Haudry, Les Indo-Européens (Paris: PUF, 1981), 68.
27. Hans. K. Günther, The Religious Attitude of Indo-Europeans, trans. Vivian Bird and Roger Pearson (London: Clair Press, 1966), 21.
28. Alain de Benoist and Pierre Vial, La Mort (Paris: ed. Le Labyrinthe, 1983), 15.
29. Giorgio Locchi, “L’histoire,” Nouvelle Ecole 27/28 (1975):183-90.
30. Sigrid Hunke, La vraie religion de l’Europe, trans. Claudine Glot and Jean-Louis Pesteil (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), 253, 274. The book was first published under the title Europas eigene Religion: Der Glaube der Ketzer (Bergisch Gladbach: Gustav Lubbe, 1980).
31. Mircae Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return or, Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965), 106-7.
32. Pierre Chaunu, Histoire et foi (Paris: Edition France-Empire, 1980), quoted by de Benoist, Comment peut-on être païen? 109.
33. Michel Maffesoli, La violence totalitaire (Paris: PUF, 1979), 228-29.
34. See Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Scribner’s, 1963), 41, passim. “Shrug of eternity” are the last words Arthur Koestler uses in his novel Darkness at Noon (New York: Modern Library, 1941), 267.
35. Georgio Locchi, et al., “Über den Sinn der Geschichte,” Das unvergängliche Erbe (Tübingen: Grabert Verlag, 1981), 223.
36. Walter Scott, A New Look at Biblical Crime (New York: Dorset Press, 1979), 59.
37. Comment peut-on être païen? 157-58.
38. Mircea Eliade, Histoire des croyances, 1:194.