Pagans, Peasants, and the Regeneration of All Things
It is easy to become despondent when surveying the current political and social landscape. For me, this despondency becomes all the greater when witnessing the theological complicity in these frauds and their manifold iterations—whether from the Blue Meanies writing for traditionalist Catholic blogs, from their lotos-eater counterparts at the other extreme, or even from much of what passes for more high-brow speculation on that one outlet that publishes the occasional interesting but for the most part just okay conference papers (most are high in the theoretical or abstruse but generally lacking in practical application.) Things are no better among the other Christian institutions, which manifest theme and variation on the same motif. But I’m with Mae West. I’m not ready for an institution. Turning to allegedly esoteric or otherwise alternative sources serves just as futile, enthralled as so many of them are to the totalizing demands of the political. So much fodder for malaise. So much.
One disturbing trend among Christian discourse these days is to speak disparagingly of “pagans.” I’m not sure what they mean by the term, other than that it functions as a convenient catch-all meaning “them.” This trend is as meaningless as it is tiresome, yet still motivated by the same political polarization as what we find in the vast field of current public discourse—and certainly underwritten by the primarily unconscious but nonetheless powerful Calvinist notion of being “the elect.” What begins as tragedy ends as farce. No one is more accurate than Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
I’m not sure what “pagan” means to the majority of those using the term as a pejorative. I don’t think they mean “neo-pagan.” It seems they intend something more along the lines of “nasty secularists” or something like that. Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin for “peasant” or “rustic.” As I’ve written many times before in this blog, I have no problem self-identifying as a Christian Pagan. In fact, I don’t see how someone can be a Christian without being a pagan.
To be a pagan, in my understanding, is to live in awareness and awe of both the created world and the spiritual world that stands behind and informs it. In biblical parlance, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you…. Consider the lilies of the field.” The audience Jesus spoke to was not comprised of elites or intellectuals, but to peasants, people in deep relation to the environment (shepherds, fishermen, vinters, farmers) and to craft (carpenters, weavers, potters). These peasants were pagans.
I think much of our current malaise and anxiety is not due to this or another person being elected to public office, but to our own estrangement from the cosmos, inner as well as outer. This estrangement did not occur with the last election. Rather, it occurred over time (from at least the 16th century with the first enclosure laws in Europe) but really gained momentum with the destructive winds blown by the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions which multiplied exponentially with the Information Revolution. And nowhere is this more evident than in farming.
February is kind of an exciting month at Stella Matutina Farm (where I live) as we start to order seeds and plan our gardens for the approaching growing cycle for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and I have had farming as well as poetry on my mind as of late. I’ve been teaching a course on Romanticism, and the insights of Goethe, Novalis, Blake, Wordsworth, John Clare, and their compatriots—all from the late 18th and early 19th centuries—speak to me (and us) of our estrangement from God and Nature and of the pathological conditions thrust upon us in the name of “progress.” For Blake, government and institutional religion were co-conspirators in this madness, as he writes in an incendiary proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Prisons are built with the stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.” This is a hard saying.
The sympathies of the Romantics lay with the peasantry, thrown off the land by rapacious parliaments and undefended for the most part by their churches. Yet, even in the first half of the 20th century, there were those who could still see that is was possible to heal our disruption from the land, when many of ancestors were sold into slavery in the Egypt of wage-earning and never-ending debt, and who recognized the hidden and potentially irreparable costs of such “progress.”
One such figure was Rudolf Steiner. In his seminal lecture cycle on agriculture (given in June 1924, nine months before he died), Steiner spoke affectionately of what he called “the peasant wisdom”:
“When I was a young man I had the idea to write a kind of ‘peasant’s philosophy,’ setting down the conceptual life of the peasants in all things that touch their lives. It might have been very beautiful. The statement of the Count [Keyserlingk, on whose estate Steiner delivered the lectures], that peasants are stupid, would have been refuted. A subtle wisdom would have emerged—a philosophy dilating upon the intimacies of Nature’s life—a philosophy contained in the very formulation of the words. One marvels to see how much the peasant knows of what is going on in Nature.
“Today, however, it would no longer be possible to write a peasant’s philosophy. These things have been almost entirely lost. It is no longer as it was fifty or forty years ago. Yet it was wonderfully significant; you could learn far more from the peasants than in the University. That was an altogether different time. You lived with the peasants in the country, and when those people came along with their broad-brimmed hats, introducing the Socialist Movement of today, they were only the eccentricities of life. Today the whole world is changed. The younger ladies and gentlemen here present have no idea how the world has changed in the last thirty or forty years. How much has been lost of the true peasants’ philosophy, of the real beauty of the folk-dialects! It was a kind of cultural philosophy.
“Even the peasants’ calendars contained what they no longer contain today. Moreover, they looked quite different—there was something homely about them. I, in my time, knew peasants’ calendars printed on very poor paper, it is true; inside, however, the planetary signs were painted in colors, while on the cover, as the first thing to meet the eye, there was a tint sweet which you might lick whenever you use the book. In this way too it was made tasty; and of course the people used it one after another.”1
In the lectures, Steiner doesn’t call for a return to the past. Instead, he introduces a reimagined peasant wisdom intended to rehabilitate not only the land, adding tilth to depleted soils as well as health and fecundity to plants and animals, but also to human flourishing. In an amazingly prescient moment, he also predicted the pathologies currently afflicting the honey bee. Commenting on the then-revolutionary methods of artificial queening and artificial feeding, he had this to say:
“But there we come to the whole question of artificial beekeeping. You must not think that I am unable to see—even from an non-anthroposophical point of view—that modern beekeeping methods seem at first very attractive, for certainly, it makes many things much easier. But the strong holding together—I should like to say—of one bee-generation, of one bee-family, will be impaired in the long run.
“Speaking generally today, one cannot but praise modern beekeeping; so long as we see all such precautions observed of which Herr Müller has told us, we must admire them in a certain sense. But we must wait and see how things are in fifty to eighty years time, for by then certain forces which have hitherto been organicin the hive will be mechanized, will become mechanical.”
Another one who called it was the British writer H.J. Massingham (1888–1952). Massingham saw all too clearly the pathologies and evils attendant to the removal of the peasantry from the land, and he saw the restoration of an authentic relationship to Creation as not only socially imperative but as the very heart of Christianity. Writing in 1942, Massingham, very much saw the hand writing on the wall:
“An alliance between forces of agricultural technology and big business with bureaucracy as their willing promoter has appeared whose professed object in its own words is ‘to overcome tradition’ and be rid of ‘out-of-date customs which delay progress.’ The abolition of private ownership in land; the destruction of ‘nuisance’ features in our countryside such as hedgerow timber, copses, hedges, lanes and the like; the abandonment of balanced farming for specialization in crop-production; the unlimited use of machinery and artificials; total nationalization accompanied by the profit-making as the sole stimulus to initiative in agriculture—these proposals are put forward, not by irresponsible paper-ideologues but by men of weigfht and authority in national affairs…. Their advocacy of ‘larger economic units’ represents the last stage, the final act, of the 18thand 19thcentury Enclosures.”2
And, in his upholding of a true Christian culture, he recognizes its symbiotic relationship to what is too often disparaged as “pagan”:
“Christianity would not have supplanted Paganism if its nature-worship had been true to the nature and adequate needs of Western man, while only history can show the dividing line when Christendom began to depart from Christianity, and to what extent the embryonic causes of that division have developed into the anarchic consequences of the 20thcentury. Nor can the Christian Faith (seeing there is no alternative to it) itself be rejuvenated unless it be equally shown that its own division from nature has pauperized it as an all-sufficient gospel for modern, grownup, Western man, wrecked in the bitter sea of his delusion of self-will. The pagan story of the Tree Iggdrasil, the Tree of Life, whose roots were in earth and topmost branches in heaven, prefigures that gospel.”3
I, for one, am proud to be thought of as a pagan. And, though I have a doctorate, I consider myself deeply ensconced in the peasantry. If one is neither a pagan nor a peasant, can one even dream of being a Christian?
So, please say a prayer for my wife and me as we begin again our farming cycle, as we wait for the weather to break for the first planting, for our goats to start kidding, and the return of the bees. Then, do yourselves a favor: find a local organic or biodynamic CSA—and join it. May the Lord bless you and keep you.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.
1. Rudolf Steiner, Agriculture, trans. George Adams (Biodynamic Agricultural Association, 1958), 84–85; Beekeeping, trans. Marna Pease and Carl Alexander Mier (Steinerbooks, 1964), 15.
2. H.J. Massingham, The English Countryman: A Study of the English Tradition (London, 1942), 131.
3. H.J. Massingham, The Tree of Life (London, 1943), 16–17.