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Article ID: 9767

VoxAcct: 173816

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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The Spiritual Genesis Of Responsibility

Author: Brendan Myers
Posted: June 5th. 2005
Times Viewed: 5,913

To be a human being means, among other things, to be a speaking and acting being. We are beings who can take initiative and can make independent choices. It is also part of being human that we can be called upon by others to give an account of ourselves. Thus to be human is already to be responsible. It is to be able to respond. Responsibility is connected to accountability. It means that you can account for who you are, and for the choices and actions which you have made. To have personal responsibility means not to wait for the call of someone else to account for one’s life. It means to take the initiative; it means to make that accounting without having to be asked to do so. But what would motivate someone to have that initiative? What would bring someone to want to make that account of herself? And what would count as a good accounting, one worthy of being described as spiritual?

Consider, first of all, the way people call each other to account, and the way we expect each other to be responsible. It is part of the very idea of being a speaking and acting being that the things one says and does can be accounted for using various precepts and principles. Not all of these principles are moral or ethical principles. Some take the form of advice and recommendations from friends, strategic or technical instructions, standards of excellence associated with art or athletics, and so on. But some principles certainly are ethical: they take the form of values and virtues, rules and codes, which we follow or which other people expect us to follow. At the heart of them all is the simplest and the most profound impulse in human life. We wish to know who we are, and what we have the potential to become. This manifests itself in various ways, such as the wish to know what it means to live well, to flourish, to succeed as a human being. Similarly we aim to be happy, and want to know how to find and hold on to happiness. This is connected to responsibility because the desire to know who and what we are is a question that demands an answer. Somehow the question “Who are you?” demands a response, and will not be put off or silenced for long. Just by being-in-the-world we are called upon by life itself to know who we are and to give an account of ourselves. From the moment we become conscious of ourselves as beings in the world capable of speaking and acting, we become responsible for the kind of person we are, as judged by one’s own standard of what kind of person we would like to become. As a question that calls for a response it is to be likened to the challenges of mountain-climbing, house-building or portrait painting, and not to the problems of repairing engines or of programming computers. I present the problem in this introspective form as it is the way the problem appears when one ‘stands back, ’ so to speak, from practical affairs, and tries to take a holistic account of the whole of one’s life as it is being lived at that moment, and as it has been lived up to that moment. The wish to know who and what we are is the origin of idea of ethics, the reason why ethical questions arise for us at all. The imperative to confront this great problem is written over the gates of the house of divine knowledge: “Know Yourself, ” the first principle of every responsible human life.

Contemporary Paganism’s moral position is largely utilitarian: one of the Wiccan Rede’s two central moral categories is ‘harm, ’ stated in the form of a prohibition against causing it. The Charge of the Goddess elevates love and pleasure to the status of a ritual, a communion with the Goddess, thus establishing a correlate to ‘harm’ in the form of a more positive, proactive requirement to help people and benefit them. Yet there is a subtle presence underlying this utilitarianism. It is the presence of a principle that goes beyond help and harm, and aims for a much larger project, a more spiritual project. Behind the crude utilitarianism of the Rede is the “Know Yourself” of the Delphic oracle, which is the principle that both initiates the spiritual life and at the same time calls upon that life to account for itself, to be responsible. As the theologian-philosopher Paul Ricoeur put it,
“The sacred does not reveal itself just in signs that are to be contemplated, but also in significant behaviour. The ritual is one modality of acting (faire). It is “to do something with this power or powers.” I do not mean by this just (or even essentially) those magical manipulations by which human beings attempt to dispel, appease, render favourable, or capture these powers, but rather every manner of practically signifying what is aesthetically signified in space and time. To see the world as sacred is at the same time to make it sacred, to consecrate it. Thus to every manifestation there corresponds a manner of being-in-the-world.” [1]
This is how theory and practice come together in ancient Paganism; this is how manifestations of the sacred always correspond to ways of acting and responding. It may interest readers to know that in the ancient world, as in modern philosophical circles, this kind of ethics has a name: Virtue Theory.

Here we have a way of articulating moral principles which pre-dates the Christian “rule-bounded” ethics that so many Pagans have rejected (often for good reasons). As an ancient Greek person, looking at the gate to the Oracle’s temple, would have understood the instruction written there, the requirement to “Know Yourself” is a first-order principle to which one is called to respond — not only that, but there are particular kinds of answers which the Oracle would have found acceptable. It is not enough to say, “I am who I am, ” or some other obscure mystical-sounding claptrap, because that is precisely not to answer the call, but to avoid answering that call whilst impressing gullible onlookers with the façade of wisdom. If someone can evade accounting for her life this way, we have good cause to doubt whether that person really knows who she is. What would have counted as an acceptable answer, in the minds of the ancient mystical philosophers who ordered the words to be cut above the threshold to divine wisdom, was a description of one’s life, first of all in terms of one’s place in society (for as Aristotle said, “man is a political animal”[2]), and secondly in terms of the character traits and personal qualities one has developed in the course of that life. The best of these qualities are the ones we generally call the Virtues.

Virtue Theory, the system of ethics which we find in pre-Christian heroic and philosophical literature, is the oldest moral theory in the Western philosophical tradition, and in my view is still the best moral system with which to understand who we are, what it means to be responsible, what it means to be spiritual, and indeed what it means to be human. It places the location of moral concern not on the results of the agent’s actions, nor on the following of rules, but on the agent’s character. A preliminary statement of its basic principle might be that the right thing to do is the action which manifests a virtue, and a virtue is a mark of excellent character, a personal quality which a person needs in order to fully flourish as a human being and lead a happy, fulfilling, and worthwhile life.

The Charge of the Goddess lists eight specific human qualities: beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence, which the Goddess asks the Pagan to cultivate in her character. Asatru groups have varying lists of Nine Virtues, derived from texts like the Havamal, the Voluspa, or the Eddas, and commitment to them constitutes one of the things that qualifies someone to join the Asatru community. Irish wisdom-texts like the Testament of Morann and the Instructions of Cormac abound with lists of character-traits which community leaders can be expected to possess. The Testament of Morann requires the ‘firflaith, ’ or true ruler, to be “merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, honourable, stable, beneficent, capable, honest, well-spoken, steady, true-judging.”[3] These lists may seem very haphazardly assembled, and it may not be clear what they all have in common. Aristotle provided a simple way to bring them all together: the Virtues are the qualities of character which a person needs in order to have a happy life, to live as completely as a human being can, to flourish and excel. I am glossing quickly over a matter that deserves a great deal more exploration. But by now my basic point should be clear: the tradition of ethics which a Pagan inherits is Virtue Theory, in which what matters is not adherence to a moral rule, not even a rule like “harm none, ” but adherence to specific qualities of character the possession of which makes one capable of fully flourishing as an individual human being and as a member of a human community.

Aristotle said that a human being has “something within him that is divine, ”[4] a limited capacity for theoretical reason, which enables him to contemplate that which is eternal and unchanging, as do the gods. These dreams of divinity which unwind themselves in our lives are what make us both spiritual and also responsible. Thus Yeats says “in dreams begin responsibility.”[5] Surely he was right. To be spiritual means, primarily, to be the sort of person who seeks answers to the great questions in life from the religious and numinous realm of human culture and experience, and especially our dreams of divinity. And it is also to be the sort of person who can give religious or numinous responses when questioned about her actions and her choices. To embark on a spiritual path is from the first moment to take upon oneself a peculiar group of virtues, that is, a group of habits, customs, and practices (I do not say ‘beliefs’ here), which are connected to each other in the right kind of way, and which we take to be the virtues of the divine. For instance they may be the skills and talents associated with a particular occupation or practice: warrior skills, musical skills, intellectual skills, and so on, which we take to be metaphors or symbols of divinity. Hence one may say he is ‘on the warrior path, ’ or ‘on the healer path...’ We make a path which would otherwise be an ordinary path into a spiritual path by asserting that the virtues of the path are the virtues of the divine within us. They might be given to us by a divine source, which the Charge of the Goddess asserts itself to be with statements like “Listen to the Words of the Great Mother…” Similarly we might believe that they are the qualities and character-traits of certain gods whom we desire to emulate: the beauty of Aphrodite, the industriousness of Hephaestus, the wisdom of Athena, the courage of Ares, the justice of Zeus, and so on.

To lack these virtues is not to be irresponsible, unable to respond. It is to be mistaken about what the Virtues are, how they benefit their possessor, and to be mistaken about what constitutes the spiritual life. We are responsible beings — we are all beings who are able to respond when called upon to know ourselves. The person who lacks the Virtues is the person who responds poorly, whose life lacks direction and who gives an account of his life that lacks cohesion and sense.

To be responsible as a spiritual person, then, is to possess these divine virtues and to use them in living one’s life, and being responsible for it, being able to give an account of it. The Wiccan Rede, which I may seem to have swept under the rug, should be one’s first stop for making most practical decisions. But for the purpose of imagining a spiritual life and then seeking to live that life, we need the Virtues. It is this process which will enable us to lead fulfilling, worthwhile lives. Indeed this process will enable us to touch the divine, and elevate ourselves from a mere member of the species to a fully fledged human being.

[1] Ricoeur, “Manifestation and Proclaimation” in Figuring the Sacred, (1995)
[2] Aristotle, Politics (3rd century BC) 1.ii, 1253a1.
[3] Anon. Audacht Morainn, (7th century AD) , paragraph 55.
[4] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, (3rd century BC) 10.vii.8, 1177a1
[5] Yeats, Responsibilities (1914)

Copyright: © 2005 Brendan Myers.


Brendan Myers

Location: Gatineau, Quebec


Author's Profile: To learn more about Brendan Myers - Click HERE

Bio: Brendan Cathbad Myers is a Celtic Pagan originally from Ontario, Canada, and presently in Galway, Ireland. Last week he completed his Ph.D in philosophy. He is the author of Dangerous Religion: Environmental Spirituality and its Activist Dimension, available on

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