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The Good Pagan’s Failure

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By JUDE P. DOUGHERTY

As Europe faces what seems to be a cultural crisis, a book written in 1939 comes to mind for its present relevance. It is Rosalind Murray’s The Good Pagan’s Failure. (1) Murray was the daughter of the Australian-born, British classical scholar Gilbert Murray, and the wife for 30 years of Arnold Toynbee, British historian and philosopher of history, best known for his 12-volume Study of History.
She was remarkably positioned to know and to assess the mind of what she calls the “Enlightened Pagan.” The book is essentially a critique of the fashionable humanism and liberalism of her day, the epoch of George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore.
It is Rosalind Murray’s contention that the crucial difference which separates and divides us as human beings is, and always must be, spiritual, exemplified by an acceptance or rejection of belief in God. “Our attitude on this fundamental question determines the whole direction of our living in all of its aspects, and in all relations, and that opposition in this one decisive matter implies secondary, but resultant, opposition in outlook and in value throughout our lives.” (2)
Speaking of herself, she writes, “Born and brought up among enlightened Pagans, their outlook and their standard, and their values are those which I first knew, [and] by which I was educated….In maturity, I have found enlightened Paganism inadequate to explain life as I see it, inadequate to deal with it as I find it. The picture presented to me in youth has proved, so it seems to me, a misleading picture, their accounting of existence offered, a false account; the key with which I was furnished unlocks no door.” (3)
In acknowledging her transfer of allegiance, she says, “I retain a deep regard, a very real respect for the good Pagans whom I must now oppose.” (4)
One’s fundamental religious outlook, she insists, affects and influences one’s behavior and lines of thought far removed from one’s religious commitment. This primal difference will assert itself if we agree on the need to address certain existing social evils. As soon as we propose a course of action to do something about them, we meet the same absolute contradiction in our ideas.
Seventy-five years later, for a profile of the contemporary Pagan, one might consult Alan Ryan’s The Making of Modern Liberalism. (5) Professor Ryan, the former warden of New College Oxford, may even qualify as one of Murray’s “Good Pagans.”
The liberal creed to which Murray objected is grounded in a number of ontological assumptions. As enumerated by Alan Ryan the list would include a handful of basic dictums: Human existence is accidental; the world has no purpose; and human beings have no special place in the universe. (6)
Given that perspective, and in the absence of a divine ordering of the world, mankind becomes morally and intellectually self-sufficient. Ryan notes that as a people we may still value “economic ambition, individual choice, meritocratic advancement, social mobility, and variability of taste and allegiance.” That they are values to be embraced cannot be denied, but from Rosalind Murray’s perspective their realization is contingent. Absent an appeal to a natural order, their defense can take place only at a purely political level. Lacking a favorable political regime, those values may not be recognized, let alone prevail.
“The Good Pagan’s failure,” Murray writes, “can be attributed to the fundamental illusion from which he starts, the belief that it is possible to conserve all positive and constructive value of the Christian order while removing it from belief in God.” (7)
Among the many faults which Rosalind Murray finds in the perspective of her early years is the liberal attachment to “economic, political, and intellectual change.” Arguing to the contrary, she believes that most people prefer stability, authority, and tradition to the uncertainty, free thinking, and “openness to the future” promoted by the liberal outlook.
From any point of view, today’s Paganism must be regarded as willful. The Pagan of antiquity did not reject Christ; he simply did not know Christ. The contemporary Pagan has to ignore a large segment of Western history, not to mention hundreds of years of philosophy and theology, to maintain his unfettered skepticism. It is not unusual to find scholars who in their historical narrative have jumped from Plato to Descartes, or began their analysis of the human condition with Hobbes and Rousseau, if not Locke and Mill.
The liberal ideas of “moral equality” and “natural rights,” principles that the modern state takes for granted, owe their origin and defense, not to the Enlightenment, but to Christianity.
The Italian philosopher of history, Augusto Del Noce, writing in 1981, equates modernity with a denial of the spiritual, the transcendent aspect of human nature, a denial consequent upon its sharp break with Greek and medieval philosophy. (8)
Oxford Professor Larry Siedentop, writing a generation later, fully agrees. In his latest study, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Siedentop argues that those who live in nations once described as part of Christendom may have lost contact with their cultural heritage and certainly with their moral bearings, yet it remains a fact that Western culture is not only founded on but takes for granted a set of shared beliefs that are manifestly Christian in origin. (9)
No philosopher of note claims to have evidence that God does not exist, and few claim that we can presently account for all aspects of human activity in purely materialistic terms, although many book-length attempts are annually published by major university presses. The hope of many a naturalist is a full explanation, “if not now, certainly in the future.”
Putting aside our discussion of modernity, the central issue that divides Christian and Pagan may be described as teleological, whether there is telos or purpose in nature. To physicist and biologist, purpose in nature is self-evident. The divisive philosophical issue is how to account for that evident purpose. It takes many an imaginative hypothesis to account for it by chance. The explanation provided by Genesis, Murray would say, is much simpler.

Footnotes

1. Murray, Rosalind, The Good Pagan’s Failure (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1939).
2. Ibid., p. 9.
3. Ibid., p. 10.
4. Ibid.
5. Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).
6. Ryan, op. cit., p. 76.
7. Murray, op. cit., p. 135.
8. “Idea of Modernity,” in The Crisis of Modernity, ed. and trans. by Carlo Lancellotti (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).
9. Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2014).

+ + +

(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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