Ethical postulates can never succeed in mastering the whole reality of nature and society; they achieve no more than partial clearings amid the impenetrable, chaotic mass; moreover, morality is always in danger of cutting off the roots of its own life. In ritual and mythology there is obviously a no to every yes, an antithesis to every thesis: order and dissolution, inside and outside, life and death.
- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (p. 248)
Control yourself (Αρχε σεαυτου)
Cling to discipline (Παιδειας αντεχου)
Respect yourself (Σεαυτον αιδου)
“Know that all these things are as I have told thee; and accustom thyself to overcome and vanquish these passions: first gluttony, sloth, sensuality, and anger.”
Polytheism provides multiplicity of belief and practice, a suite of diverse divinities with different ritual practices and spiritual language. Through ritual and worship, we honor the Deathless Gods and contribute to our personal human development. Self-empowerment is a pagan value because, through the pursuit of arete in our mental, physical, and emotional lives, we become idealized versions of ourselves capable of extreme courage and important contributions to society.
In a roundabout way, we can say that freedom and self-empowerment are Pagan (and Hellenic) values because they challenge us to examine tried-and-true ethical systems and ways of approaching divinity, to balance nomos arkhaios with modern culture, and to develop conceptions of the divine based on reason. To some—more explicitly, the people who run polytheism.net—this idea seems daunting, spawning claims that “although polytheistic systems provide flexibility and a relativistic lack of accountability, they often leave followers with no sense of ultimate purpose and no prospect for eternal hope.” Truly, freedom without self-moderation can lead to rampant sexual congress without emotional connection, overindulgence in food and drugs, and an abandonment of frugality, but this problem is not endemic to polytheism. Rather, it is a side effect of modern life and the conflict between Christian notions of morality and the postmodern concept of the self.
Self-empowerment is as much about setting limits and boundaries as it is about reaching for one's true human potential. It does not mean saying yes to every desire and temptation, and it does not mean abandoning the physical world in favor of an ascetic life. Everything must be taken in moderation. Opportunities to overindulge in good things have always existed and will always confront us. A great deal of liberation comes from the ability to say no to individuals and forces in one's life that damage us and prevent us from engaging with the Gods and with our own selves. Denial sets us apart from those who don't think about the long-term consequences of their actions, and it proves that we have retained integrity.
Hellenic Polytheism attracted me for its old feel for most of my teen years, but I didn't convert until I finally read Sallustius. Hellenic Polytheism also attracted me because it has a tremendously valuable ethical system that addresses the balance between indulgence and abstinence. We have the freedom to worship and the freedom to think—the former a Constitution-given right, the latter something that most Americans have stopped doing. The diverse ethical systems in the community, ranging from the Delphic Maxims to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, provide different ways of addressing similar concerns (honor/duty, piety, temperance, and wisdom).
In Hellenic Polytheism, “man is left a sphere of freedom beyond the satisfied claims; for this reason law and ethics could develop among the Greeks as human wisdom, free and yet in harmony with the god; wise sayings and laws are engraved on temple walls, but they are always regarded as human endeavour, not divine revelation” (Greek Religion, 248). The idea of a solid, humanistic ethical system confuses Christians and others with divinely-given ethical codes. Indulging and making mistakes does not make us sinful or cursed in the eyes of the Gods, but in the eyes of the community—a human crime that must ultimately be judged by other members of our species. Divine regulations are but shadows, confined to situations and places in which one or more deities may have something at stake.
Learning to say no is frighteningly individualistic and contrary to a lot of things we have been taught, a word that many have stopped taking seriously. It is a human solution to human-caused problems in modern society and the environment. It means choosing moderation, not abstinence or indulgence, and embracing the courage to stand out from one's peers.