Interview with Brendan Cathbad Myers

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 20, 2008 — 4 Comments

Author, scholar, and modern Druid, Brendan Cathbad Myers has become an important emerging voice within the wider modern Pagan movement. Myers was a founding member of the Order of the White Oak, and the Convocation of Irish Druids (since dissolved and reformed as the Circle of Druids), in addition to receiving OBOD’s Mount Haemus Award for his research into Druidry. His most recent book, “The Other Side of Virtue: Where our virtues came from, what they really mean, and where they might be taking us”, is an in-depth examination and call for renewal of classical Virtue.

Brendan Cathbad Myers

Brendan Cathbad Myers

I was lucky enough to be able to conduct an interview with Brendan Cathbad Myers about his book, the nature of Virtue, Pagan morality, and tips for living a Virtuous life.

This is a very ambitious book, what inspired you to explore the nature of virtue?

The idea for this book was born while I was living in a small town in Hessen, in Germany, in the summer of 2004. I used to enjoy walking in the forests and fields outside the village every day, and I loved visiting the cathedrals and castles and mediaeval towns of the region. I had also been living in Ireland for several years at that time. I had visited many of the actual locations where the events of Celtic mythology took place. And I was also reading Aristotle, and a few contemporary philosophers of Virtue theory, such as Rosalind Hursthouse, Alasdair MacIntyre, Phillipa Foot, Susan Wolf, and Iris Murdoch. But I think the idea to write a book about virtue came the evening after my friend and I were caught in a summer storm. In part because of that experience, the philosophical work I had been reading, and the landscapes and architecture I had been enjoying, came together in my mind. I felt as if I had discovered not only the key to understanding ancient people’s ethical world view, but that I had also discovered something primordial and universal about the human spirit. That day has become one of the most important spiritual occasions of my life.

At the very beginning of the book you define virture as: “the ancient idea that excellence in human affairs is the foundation of ethics, spirituality, self-knowledge, and especially the worthwhile life.” Do you think we (Pagans) have lost touch with this idea of virtue?

It’s not well known, but Virtue was originally a pagan idea. It was not only an ethical idea, but also a spiritual idea. It had to do with the way people make choices, but also with the way people ‘held’ themselves and possessed themselves. It configured how they understood their relationship to other people, the world, and the gods. To most people today it has to do with Christian qualities like humility and chastity. But its original side, which has now become its ‘other side’, has to do with the means by which a person empowers and edifies herself, and becomes a complete human being. Pagans have virtue-concepts in some of our most important and most widely shared statements of identity. The Charge of the Goddess mentions eight of them. But when most pagans think of ethics, they usually think of the the Wiccan Rede — a highly utilitarian idea which has nothing to do with virtue. I’d like to change that.

Although I say that Virtue was originally a pagan idea, yet it is an idea that belongs not just to pagans. It belongs to the world. For the questions it poses and the solutions it offers are there to be discovered by anyone. I think it’s not only Pagans who have lost touch with the original idea of Virtue. I think that the wider “Western” society in which we live has also lost touch with it. This is a shame, as mythological virtue is one of western society’s most important and powerful sources of identity and meaning. For most modern people, religious or not, express their values in utilitarian terms. Although most pagans think of themselves as belonging to a minority, professing values that others might find strange or even repugnant, nonetheless the Wiccan Rede is perfectly consistent with the widely-held modern values of individualism, utiliarianism, and rational self-interest. I suspect that Gardner and Valiente and the other early founders of Wicca promoted the Rede in order to show the rest of society that Witches are non-threatening! But I think the time of the Rede has passed. I will not prophesize what new time is coming: but I hope it will be the time of the Virtues, and I’ve written The Other Side of Virtue to help make that happen.

You have some critical things to say about relativism and the ethic of individualism in your book. Do you think our modern culture, and modern Paganism in particular, have taken these ideas to unhealthy extremes?

“Unhealthy extremism” is not what worries me about individualism and relativism. For these are both very interesting ideas in various ways. What worries me is that if all values and choices are “relative” to the “individual”, or to the individual’s culture or time and place, then it will follow that we will have little or no means to tell the difference between nobility and banality, or excellence and ordinariness. If “do what you will” is your ethic, then the choice to become a couch potato will be neither better no worse than the choice to become, say, a medical doctor, or a concert violinist. The logic of Individualism and Relativism cannot offer a substantial idea of why we live, what things are really worth having and doing, what a noble and excellent life really looks like.

I find myself strongly influenced by the philosoher Charles Taylor in this part of my thinking, especially in books of his like “The Malaise of Modernity” and “Sources of the Self”. As he explains it, Individualism offers no means to recognise values that transcend the individual, and no means to recognise the independant significance of friendship and love, history, the environment, politics or the wider society in which we all live. Yet Taylor also affirms that there is something important and profound in the individualist idea that each person is responsible for finding the meaning of her own life. My own philosophical project is similar. Here is how I describe it in the book:

“The good life involves each person finding within herself the purpose and worth of life. But this activity of self-exploration must not cut people off from sources of meaning beyond themselves… Similarly, we should assert that some values really are ‘out there’, beyond the self, and are not a matter of personal opinions and preferences. But we must find a way to assert this without falling back on old models of conformity and obedience.” (pg. 14)

I’m well aware that individualism is a value that most everyone presupposes as a normal and natural truth of human life. Many people feel personally threatened when it is called into question. And many people (not only pagans) think that the only alternative to individualism is some kind of oppressive authoritarian dogmatism. I believe that is a false dichotomy. My criticism of individualism is intended to show the way to higher, better, more spiritual ways of thinking and living.

Your exploration of virtue, is in some ways, a call for a new sense of morality in Western culture (and by extension, modern Paganism). What do you think a virtuous Pagan morality should look like? What would it include, what would it exclude?

I’d like to see a modern pagan morality in which the mythological virtues, both heroic and classical, are just as important as the Wiccan Rede – perhaps even more i
mportant than the Rede. For it is not enough to avoid what is harmful. It is also important to affirm what is joyful! We’re here on this earth-walk not just to experience life from many different angles. We’re here to lift ourselves up, to better ourselves, to find and to create a beautiful world. I think the Virtues can show us how to do that.

A new morality would have little to do with rules and laws. For the heart of the idea of virtue is the idea that ethics and spirituality is a matter of who you are, not just the rules you follow, even if you follow an unobjectionable rule like “harm none”. Indeed a fully virtuous person isn’t interested in rules at all. She’s interested in becoming a beautiful and complete human being, able to lead a fulfilling and worthwhile life.

A new morality should include lots of room for diversity and variety, and a robust idea of the good life at its centre, just as the pagan movement already does. Yet it should also offer robust models of admirable human beings and socially just communities, and it should offer values worth defending – as the modern pagan movement could do if there were fewer “witch wars” and internal conflicts.

To the best of my knowledge, there are only two other book in the pagan market that discuss ethical issues from a point of view other than the Wiccan Rede. One is Emma Restall Orr’s “Living with Honour”; the other is a single chapter in Philip Carr-Gomm’s “What do Druids Believe?” (both of which I have read, and thoroughly enjoyed, and am happy to recommend). I look forward to more books in the future which explore our ethics in greater depth, as these books (and mine) do.

You talk about “heroic” and “civilized” virtue, what differentiates these two ideas of virtue, and what aspects did they share?

The main differences between heroic and civilised virtues have to do with the kinds of cultures that they came from. Heroic virtues come mainly from chieftain-level societies like the Celts, the Norse, and the Homeric Greeks. They are concerned with the ways a person achieves fame and renown in such a society. Civilised virtues come from city-state societies like the Athenian democracy, or the Roman empire. They have to do with the use of reason to perceive the spiritual unity of the world, and to re-make one’s character in accord with that unity.

But in both cases virtue arises as a response to given problems, and enables people to handle their realities better, and transform their problems into sources of beauty. Those in Heroic societies saw fate, destiny, transience, and impermanence as the biggest problems. Those in Civilised societies thought the biggest problems in life were social and political in nature, such as warfare. But in both cases the way to handle the basic problems in life is not to draw up new laws to follow, but rather to become a certain kind of person.

When moving to the modern era, you praise J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series (among others) for bringing forth a resurgence of virtue. In your opinion, what do these writers teach us about being virtuous?

I wrote a chapter on Tolkein and Rowling to show that the ancient idea of virtue makes re-appearances in the most surprising places. I even wrote a short chapter on the heroic virtues as they appear in Star Wars! But I decided not to include it, since I felt my point had already been made, and besides Tolkein and Rowling are better writers than George Lucas (as I’m sure even ardent Star Wars fans will agree).

I think Tolkein and Rowling teach that anyone, from any background, in any circumstance, can find it within herself to be heroic. Virtue does not belong only to those who are born to aristocratic or wealthy families, or destined for ‘greatness’, as might be implied if one took civilized and heroic virtue at face value. Tolkein shows how ordinary people, like the Hobbits, have it within them to be noble. Rowling shows how even children can be noble. I’m particularly impressed with Rowling’s use of the language of the virtues. The various moral teachings which she puts in the mouths of Harry’s mentors, like Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall, Sirius Black, and Remus Lupin, would find a ready home in any pre-christian philosophical treatise.

It might be added that none of the heroes in these books are motivated by a desire to “harm none”, or reduce the harm that is caused in the world. As a thought experiment: think of any person, living or dead, or think of any literary character, who you admire. Next, ask yourself if he or she made a personal goal of minimizing harm. The answer will almost always be “no”. What makes people praiseworthy and memorable are their virtues: the qualities of character which make them stand out, and make them capable of great things — even if such things are, in the words of Mr. Ollivander, “terrible things, but great”!

How does the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” provide us with the key to developing excellence and virtue?

This aphorism is an interesting one. It’s phrased in the form of a moral imperative: it tells us what to do. Yet what it demands is not obedience to a dogmatic authority. It calls for a process of mature and honest soul-searching which, if done right, produces a heroic and civilised human being. “Knowing Yourself” is not the same as accepting yourself as you are, accepting your flaws, accepting your habits and desires. “Knowing Yourself” requires “the deepest committment, the most serious mind.” As I describe it in the book, to know yourself means to know the reaches and the limits of your powers and potentials. it is to know what you are capable of. Yet the only certain way to learn this is to put your powers and potentials to the test. On such occasions, we often find that those powers and potentials are greater, or lesser, than we originally believed them to be. This is not a process of accepting yourself ‘as is’. Rather, it is a process of changing, discovering, improving, and transforming yourself into a better person. For self-discovery is also three out of five parts self-creation.

Through the Delphic motto, “Know Yourself”, individualism makes an important appearance in my text. Yet that individualism is connected to sources of value from beyond the self. For it usually takes an event or experience from outside the self to initiate the quest for self knowledge.

My book addresses existential and universal themes such as these. It is written not only for pagans, but for everyone. In that sense, it can be thought of as a book with pagan ideas in it, not a pagan book. I recently noted that it was put on the “recommended reading” list of a humanist society in Italy. Yet I hope that it will be of interest to pagans. Modern Asatruars and Heathens, Hellenic Revivalists, Druids, and Pagan Celts have been working with lists of virtues for many years now. Indeed I think that the pagan community is well positioned to show the world what a heroic, and civilised, and mythological, yet completely modern ethical idea, looks like in practice — and why it can help us respond effectively to the largest problems of our time, such as global warming, religious fundamentalism, economic corruption, racism, sexism, poverty, apathy, and nihilism.

What is “The Immensity”, and how does it connect to the idea of virtue?

While studying the myths and legends in which the ancient idea of Virtue appears, it quickly became clear to me that no one can revive that ancient notion of Virtue “as is”. The Celts, for instance, were headhunters. The civilised societies I studied, such as Rome, were imperialist societies that kept slaves. And some of the wisdom-texts I studied are profoundly mysogynist. I had to create a philosophical account that that sheds light on the logical foundation of virtue, and explains its universal power, without endorsing old pagan customs that have no place in today’s world. The Immensity is that philosoph
ical account.

In its essence, the Immensity is an event or experience which every thinking and feeling human being must inevitably face, every once in a while, in the course of her life. In the book I describe three of them: the Earth, and other people, and death. No one can live without meeting these three things once in a while. And there might be more Immensities than just these three. I explain how the Immensity has many of the features regularly attributed to God, such as timelessness and authority. Yet its power is not that of a paternal or heirarchical kind of lawgiver. Its power is more like that of a friend who tugs your sleeve and says, “Here, look at this rainbow, look at this flower, look at this curiously shaped stone”–and then doesn’t stop tugging until you look. Then when you finally look, you feel as if an itch you didn’t know was scratched, but now that you think about it, well yes, it did itch, didn’t it?

In the last three or four years, the study of the Immensity has become my life’s work. I’m presently preparing another book which will explore this idea on the social, political, and environmental planes.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to start living a virtuous life?

Well as you might expect, I would recommend that such a person should read my book. But more seriously: ask yourself what are the Immensities in your life, and examine how you have responded to them. In the final chapter I describe a thought experiment which is designed to help get the process started. I don’t want to give it away here, but I’ll say this much. To live a virtuous life, in the original, heroic and civilised sense of the word, teach yourself to recognise the Immensities when they appear, acknowledge them as you would acknowledge a messenger from the gods, and offer in response the choice which will help transform you into the person which you wish to be.

Previous Wild Hunt interviews: Rita Moran, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, Phyllis Curott, Tim Ward, Lupa, J.C. Hallman, Margot Adler.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Jordan Stratford+

    Excellent interview Jason, I look forward to reading the book. I’ve linked to this post in my blog, highlighting the passages which closely reflect Gnostic tradition.Blessings,Jordan

  • Copper Asetemhat Stewart

    Thanks for the interview. I shall certainly read the book. I certainly prefer a ethic of responsibility to one of submission. Greek concepts of excellence seem to me to diverge too much from nature and to induce a kind of restlessness that might not play well when appropriated by the existing “self-improvement” culture. Perhaps new pressures will contain the destructive “progress” impulses of excellence-driven motivations through concepts of “organic” and “balance,” in which case “excellence” would sound like a worthy watchword. I suppose I am more concerned about how “excellence” will/can be constructed than about the underlying shift (which I would probably welcome–if the preminent goal or demonstration is excellence in ecology, then I’d embrace it. The truly excellent wouldn’t burn out or overreach nature, but would be sustainable.

  • dubhlainn

    Wonderful interview with a great mind in the pagan movement. I am proud to say I have read and really enjoyed The Other Side of Virtue… you can find my review here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2LIVB1QX943OQ/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

  • THE Michael

    My world of virtue includes the warrior whose sole purpose in life is to eliminate war and his own professon. It includes those who pay such attention to detail that suffering, poor construction, and mundane “art” is not tolerated. It includes shame and redicule for any person who thinks themselves so entitled as to command opulant compensations for their very existence, such as the average U.S. corporate CEO, who now is fed 400% the wage of the lowest paid worker in their employ.Harm none is not rocket science or complicated in it’s application. Harm to others thru your actions or privilege is easy to see. Allowing yourself to see is the hard part.