Review: “Living with Honour: A pagan ethics”.
By Emma Restall Orr
Reviewed by Stephen Blake
Emma Restall Orr surprised me constantly in this book, not least because I found myself completely agreeing with her for so much of it. It sets out to describe a more detailed set of ethics for pagans beyond the few quotable lines that most of us use – the Wiccan Rede, the ‘Noble Virtues’ of Asatru, or a Druid order’s set of tenets. Finding something which covers every group in the very wide umbrella term ‘neopaganism’ should be impossible, but the author comes closer to doing so than anyone else I have seen so far.
She starts by defining the main type of paganism she’ll use for this (her own path, where the primary focus is a reverence of nature). She calls this *Pagan, and makes most statements specifically about *Pagans from then on. It is different to the various magical groups who mainly work with pantheons of deities, but does capture what most people would assume by “Nature religion”.
I can’t even begin to go into detail on all the issues that are raised in this work, there simply isn’t room in the review. It’s often a good sign if each chapter of a book can provide enough content for a discussion thread on a pagan website. In parts of this one, it’s more like every second page.
To be very brief, then: Emma says that there is one fundamental change that ‘seeing nature as sacred’ forces you to acknowledge, and that is a connection to all parts of it. When nature is divine, you are not superior to it and you cannot isolate yourself. She describes this as a web of interaction between you and the rest of nature, a “mystical experience of a complete lack of separation.” (This is interesting, since it describes mystical experiences from all over the world which are based on the sensation of becoming one with everything, and nature often plays an important role in starting these peak experiences. But that’s just a personal hot topic of mine.) The reason this image is important is that it directly decides what our ethics should be.
Human beings, when they need to cause harm to each other, reduce their enemy to an object. This lets us pretend they’re not human, and so not identify with them or feel pain when we cause it to others. But the pagan who sees all life as sacred can’t avoid this empathy, because they can’t ignore the connection. Where other paths leave you free to turn people, animals and land into an abstract “It” to be used up as resources when the need is strong, the *Pagan sees everything as “me and you”. From this strong empathy, we get the courage to face the full consequences our actions have on others. Or at least… we should.
Let’s face it, I don’t know many people who are that perfect, who truly make every interaction into an honest and honourable relationship. Most of them are Buddhists. They’re certainly not the egomaniacs, escapists and flakes who make up many pagan gatherings. Emma Restall Orr says as much – if this new relationship was the reality of pagans today, she wouldn’t have had to write the book. But her argument that pagans should be holding themselves to higher standards is made extremely well, right from the beginning.
I don’t know exactly who this book is aimed at. Some chapters are dry and academic (an early one discusses philosophers and the meaning of ‘choice’ in quite serious and scholarly language). Even in the parts where she is merely retelling her own experiences enthusiastically, the tone is still very different from her popular books on Druidry. She comes across as intensely intelligent and well-read, where her other work often has a simpler and more casual approach. She writes very lucidly on what most modern pagans believe (and again I was surprised at how accurate and perceptive this was, given what a challenge it is to define), and looks for the roots of pagan thought in classical and modern times.
Ronald Hutton is quoted as saying that pagans believe in the “maximum potential for individual choice and self-expression”. This comes from accepting diversity in Nature. Welsh bards are not English Wiccans, and neither are Lapp Shamans, but all of those paths are valid and to be respected. We must balance that valuing of individuality however, with a duty to see all life as equally precious. We need to be proud of our tribe, but never see others as less blessed. It’s an extremely liberal point of view.
Pagans are often (inaccurately) assumed to be liberal and left-wing. Emma clearly is, and her green politics are quite extreme by average standards. Despite this, she doesn’t claim nature as something full of only wonder and joy. The rain isn’t there to help and support you because you’re especially connected to the Earth… it’s just rain. Nature will not hesitate to kill you if you’re not careful, because although it may be sacred, it doesn’t care. Restall Orr makes the statement that *Pagans should not think they are special or particularly chosen by God. (Or rather, we are special, but so is everything else.) She also says that when considering whether animals are worthy of protecting on the same level as humans, we should not judge them as lesser creatures who can’t speak or create fine art but instead look at their capacity to suffer. Not causing suffering is the minimum requirement for her ethics, and animals qualify. She goes further, saying that Nature’s plan for everything is to be itself, and we owe it that chance.
In fact, mankind’s treatment of animals is probably the least controversial topic in here. She tackles all the big ones in life and death: abortion, euthanasia, sex, IVF, war, food, politics, social relationships. Again I found myself in agreement with her on many points.
I won’t be able to summarise her position properly with only a few key concepts, but my take on her values would be: empathy, honour, complete responsibility for your actions, and complete right to your own body because of it. Consent is critical in all dealings, and empathy and consideration are extended to far more of nature and mankind than we currently manage. Traditional conservative values are irrelevant. There is nowhere to hide from making the choice – no text which we can fall back on and blindly follow so that we don’t have to think or choose for ourselves. We have a duty to examine each situation and acknowledge that we are fully accountable for the action we take every single time. This is not a fluffy “isn’t nature beautiful” path for people who can’t handle reality – it is a harsh, comprehensive set of real and demanding ethics. Pagans are often viewed by the public as fantasists and ridiculed for magical thinking, but there is absolutely no escapism here. Idealism, yes, but all based on reasoning and an unwillingness to look away when life challenges us.
Restall Orr forges the relationship she has with the rest of the world in an atmosphere of awareness and brutal honesty, fuelled by how she sees herself “walking in nature immersed in a web of interconnectedness”. This model works well for nature-worshippers, whether they are animists, pantheists, or anyone who works with nature deities. There is a lot of very academic discussion alongside scenes of her experiences (to illustrate the meaning in the real world) and pagans of all types will find an enormous amount to think about and discuss.
This is a fascinating book, and an important one for Neopaganism. Ronald Hutton called it “an excellent pioneering work, erudite, courageous and imaginative”. I would add humane, comprehensive, and above all, honourable.