Natural Law, Pagan Ethics

What do Robin Hood and Merlin have in common?

Well, beside the facts that they are both staples of European literary culture and hold an almost hypnotic power over the popular conception of the Middle Ages, they both are manifestations of natural law — Robin Hood in the sense of natural social law and Merlin in the sense of natural knowledge and authority. (My links are to two excellent studies of these characters by Stephen Knight who also has written an excellent book on crime fiction.)

Merlin was not just a counselor to Arthur. His insight and knowledge acted as a kind of intermediary between Arthur, representing the social bond, and the supernatural elements found in the landscape.

Now this notion of natural law is an interesting one and not without its own controversies and disagreements. It’s worth offering the following paragraph from this highly useful lecture by Russell Kirk. (I’ve provided the links in it below so you can see further explanations of the names and concepts.)

During the nineteenth century, natural-law concepts were overshadowed by the powerful Utilitarian system of Jeremy Bentham; by the theories of John Austin and the Analytical Jurists; by legal positivism; and later — particularly in the United States — by legal pragmatism. In the United States, the older and newer schools of natural law have contended against each other since the latter half of the eighteenth century, and both have been hotly assailed by positivistic, utilitarian, and pragmatic interpretations of law. Yet appeals to the “natural law” or “a higher law” have recurred often in American politics and jurisprudence; both conservatives and radicals, from time to time, have invoked this law of nature.

However fascinating the legal history of the idea may be, my purpose here is to approach the term from a traditional pagan position and bring it into alignment with Kirk’s assertion that it is essentially an aesthetic idea. As he puts it:

Natural law is not a harsh code that we thrust upon other people: rather, it is an ethical knowledge, innate perhaps, but made more clearly known to us through the operation of right reason. And the more imagination with which a person is endowed, the more will he apprehend the essence of the natural law, and understand its necessity.

It’s not enough after all  to simply call natural law out as a traditionally pagan concept, citing Cicero, Aristotle, and the other so-called “dead white men” who developed the juridical concept and thereby place its source firmly in a colonizing Europe. Traditional paganism does not  privilege European cultures even as it privileges it’s own local tribe: the Romans did not consider the Celts any more human just because they were European and happily traded with the Chinese.

Anyone familiar with any given pagan tradition will recognize the notion of natural law in two ways: first in actual gods of law and justice and second in the interaction of the gods themselves. Whether it’s Ma’at in the Egyptian pantheon, Šamaš in the Babylonian tradition, the Jade Emperor in Chinese folk religion or Zeus among the Greeks, nearly every tradition embodies in a personalized deity the concepts of order, balance, harmony and other characteristics often associated with natural law. There is another level here, though, because deities of law and order are usually associated with political and social realities in the human world, whereas the kinds of order and natural process epitomized by, say, ecological systems do not necessarily fall under this purview. Instead, pagan traditions see balance and harmony as extending from the interaction of supernal realities, namely the gods themselves and other beings not necessarily interested in humanity.

Consider Norse mythology as an example. Þor and Oðinn are shown in conflict with the giants, but giants manifest the geotectonic forces of the natural world, Snorri Sturluson telling us in Gylfaginning  how Oðinn and his two brothers shaped the Earth from the giant Ymir. Giants, like the massive forces that shape the outer cosmos, are not interested in benefitting us humans, but the ̄́Æsir, of which Oðinn and Þor are both members, take an active interest in humanity, actually taking on individuals as favored sponsors. In one way, then, Norse myth shows human social forces interacting with the forces that underpin the natural world.

In such a context, Robin Hood and Merlin seem to represent a natural law that is not so much the basis of human law or knowledge but rather this broader sense of balance and Right Arrangement; something much more akin to the Vedic concept of Ṛta.

The earliest versions of Robin Hood seem to have been performances (like these mummers above) in which Robin was a version of the Green Man and not really human at all. See Stephen Knight’s book for more detail.

Ṛta is at once simple but extensively difficult to pin down. The best I can do is to say that Ṛta is right-relationship in the most profound sense. If I were to describe it in druidic terms, Ṛta is when Awen finds clear and pure physical expression. Our word ‘art’ is connected etymologically with Ṛta, coming from the Indo-European root ar-/re- for ‘fit together,’ but so is ‘reason’ and ‘order’ through various different permutations …

… so yes, Virginia, natural law is pagan, but even this leaves something wanting because, even if natural law is pagan, there may not be a notion of natural law that is commonly accepted across all forms of contemporary paganism. Certainly the versions of natural law that are espoused by Christians and Muslims differ greatly from anything that looks pagan. The former focuses on the relationship between the divine truth as known by the Christian and pluralistic discourse in a fallen world, while the latter focuses on the degree to which a natural law may be allowed when scripture lays out all potential normative behaviours. For contemporary pagans, natural law means something ineffable yet certain. Inclusivity, pluralism, balance, harmony, integrity, responsibility, and a whole host of other traits are all listed by various groups from the UK Pagan Federation to Ásatrú and to Wiccans worldwide. In a strange twist, it turns out that monotheistic religions asserting a single, central truth on which all things depend evince the greatest degree of pluralism and fail to agree on just about anything. Meanwhile, pagan religions that recognize plurality and focus on being single perceptions in a shared, manifold reality tend to evince at least a greater degree of ethical agreement.

Thus far I have looked at the idea of natural law from the view of cultural history and what people have said or noted about it, but there is another way of approaching natural law that is omnivalent in our so-called first world society: scientific law.

Scientific reasoning is only about five hundred years old, but the real brick-layer who truly fathered the modern paradigm of our scientific world was Sir Isaac Newton. In fact, when Einstein came along and rocked the boat with his theories he single handedly cordoned off all the physics that came before under the name ‘Newtonian Physics,’ but Sir Isaac Newton never set out to define scientific law. He was interested in God, and his writings were really a way of coming to know the Divine Creator by studying His Creation.

That’s the direction I’d like to take now.

In other words, if reality is ontologically dependent on the gods and goddesses, then their natures and realities cannot be separated from the common reality that we have come to know. Thus it makes sense that we may come to know the gods and goddesses in the natural world, and through studying that world we may come to understand the principles and laws by which they operate. Newton had the right idea, just the wrong god and it drove him mad.

If we wish to understand the deities of war, then we must study war. If we want to understand the deities of love and desire, then we must study our loves and desires, and if we want to understand natural law, then we must study the world and the laws and principles natural to it.

This is hardly a new idea. When I was in the Pacific Northwest I read an article in a First Nations newsletter in which the author made the point that the living land acted as their sacred text. By studying the natural world, the First Nations peoples gain an increased understanding of spirit and the supernal. The great strength of this approach is that it connects the student to the land and our immediate local context, but I’d like to bridge the gap between this very organic process of studying and the more artificial but no less useful process of trying to read broader principles in the natural world — reading natural law in What Is.

Natural law as I am using it here is primarily ethical, and one of the great arguments atheistic scientists have against spirit is that scientific laws do not relate to ethics, but as we’ll see that’s completely false. To prove that, we need to look no farther than Newton’s three fundamental laws of motion:

  1. The Law of Inertia: An object at rest tends to stay at rest.
  2. The Law of Momentum: any given force is measured as mass multiplied by its speed and direction.
  3. The Law of Forces (action-reaction): Every force has an equal and opposite reaction.

I’m going to take these a little out of order for ease of explanation, because we see the spiritual version of Newton’s third law at play every day (especially on Facebook). When you see an idea you dislike and vocally oppose that idea, someone will step up and insist that the idea is not only valid but more so than yours. If you go out and smile at people and do nice things for them, people will smile back and act politely. Hit someone, and they will most likely hit you back. If they don’t, be sure that someone far bigger and meaner will — like the State.

We see this play out in history everywhere. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517, he was only asking to start a dialogue about possible reforms. This was nothing new; the Christian church had a major reform in almost every century during the Middle Ages, but instead of engaging in useful debate the Church shut the door on the process. The urge for reform hardened, and in return the Church hardened. Before anyone knew what was happening reform turned into schism and suddenly the One Catholic Church had turned into hundreds of denominations each claiming to be the True Faith. Every war on Earth started this way, with one side insisting on being hard-lined and the other not backing down. The Golden Rule of “do unto others …” is based on this basic principal.

Who knew Dr. Seuss was so spiritual?

Now we can also see the Law of Inertia at play as well, though this could also be called the Law of Homeostasis. In Newtonian physics it looks like cause and effect and gives us cool games like pool, but the underlying action of the law is for participants in a system to continue doing what they are doing. Biologically, homeostasis is the body’s attempt to keep things on an even keel by adapting to new conditions. The air gets warmer so our body vents more heat, but there is something way cooler than just keeping the boat afloat. Homeostasis also allows us to become stronger. If we lift weights near the limit of our ability, our body will adapt and increase muscle. If we sit at a desk all day our body will adapt to that by losing muscle and shortening our ligaments. Most of our body’s processes can be traced back to homeostasis which is really the biological equivalent of the Law of Inertia. If we look closely at homeostasis we will also see the third law and Newton’s conservation of energy, but we don’t need to get into how those interact just yet.

The Law of Inertia/Homeostasis works across complex systems as well. In ecology, the complex connections between plants, animals and natural processes will self-organize into a balanced system that traps energy in a series of cycles. This means that any attempted change to that ecosystem will precipitate other changes that will allow that system to maintain its cohesiveness and viability in maintaining those energetic cycles. An ecosystem collapses when the cycles cannot be maintained and energy simply flows through without ever stopping. That creates desolation and a wasteland.



Human systems are no less a part of this. We’ve just added in unnecessary elements, e.g. money. Money must circulate or the economy will die, so now we don’t just have to worry about understanding our natural systems so we can fit into them but we need to understand how to keep money flowing as well. Lose all your money and it’s like you’ve lost your sunlight or water. Keep too much money to yourself and everything around you will die. Advocates of a free market are simply trusting the Law of Homeostasis to cause the economic ecosystem to self-balance.

Just as homeostasis is way more complicated in its agency than the simple action-reaction of Newton’s Law of Inertia, the psycho-spiritual version is likewise more complicated. We can see it in our persistent sense of self even though we change so much over the course of our lives. We can see it in the learning process in which our previous ideas are included in new ones and how the brain constantly rewires itself in a self-referential way. Once we start growing and learning, we tend to keep growing and learning. Once acted upon, we will tend to develop in that direction until acted upon by something else — just like Newton’s First Law.

Newton’s Second Law, which really lays the foundation for all modern physics as it establishes a mathematical basis for quantifying material processes, is a bit more involved than the others. Here’s the official text:

The vector sum of the forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by theacceleration vector (a) of the object.

… or to put it another way:

F = ma

You can see how awesome this is from a mathematical perspective. It’s this second law that allows us to build cars, go to the moon, shoot off missiles that can travel thousands of miles killing loads of people, dig up dead-dino-sludge to make disposable toys and all the other nifty things moderns like to do. This little formula is the gateway to Newton’s calculus which in turn unlocked the door to all the mathematical magnificence that we’ve grown into as a species. It’s staggeringly awesome.

Yeah, we’re really not too interested in all that right now.

What makes this law so different from the others is that it defines an interaction in quantifiable terms rather than notional ones, but what is important for our purposes is what it does in the context of the other laws. The first law (inertia) focuses on the fundamental quality of an object while the third focuses on objects interacting. The second tells us how they interact and implies quite heavily that the force necessary to make an object move will have to be much more than the object’s mass. To move an object weighing 10 lbs in a given direction at 4 mph I will have to apply 40 lbs of force to it — more or less. The law has some fairly important limitations and provisos.

Let’s go back to our personal context; the first law is seen both in how difficult it is to start exercising as well as how easy it is to keep exercising once you’ve started, while the third is seen in how we interact with other people, fights getting worse and friendships getting better. The second can be seen in how groups and our own emotions interact. The second law basically describes momentum: a change in the speed and direction of a mass. Mind and soul are not physical so they do not have mass or position as we commonly think of them, yet mind and soul do change and interact when they come in contact with other entities.

Furthermore, there is a sense of place in spiritual terms. Our emotions and sensibilities all can be thought of as places and we can even talk about them that way: when we are down and making poor decisions we often say after the fact that we “were in a bad place.” When we are thoroughly committed to an activity we say we are “really in it,” or “on top of our game” just as we say we can be “really into” a story, movie, or person. In a spiritual way we truly can think of ourselves as being in a particular place spiritually. This is why imagining ourselves in a certain location can bring on the feelings of actually being there.

Thinking of the second law in spiritual terms then, we can understand mass as difficulty of movement — understanding ‘movement’ in the sense of “that piece of music really moved me.” We all know people who are ‘thick-skinned’ in one way or another, so whether it’s from being set in their ways, committed to their beliefs, or just plain stupid, nothing seems to affect them. These people have some serious spiritual mass — or maybe something else is going on. We would have to translate the metaphor thoroughly if we are to really come up with a proper self-consistent system, but hopefully my point has been made.

In terms of natural law, we as pagans have all the knowledge of the world to draw on. No discipline or system of thought is off limits. After all, it’s whatever works. If you’re wondering where to look for sexual guidelines involving age or consent, the rights of unborn infants, the rights of the State vs. the individual, the principles of due taxation or social justice, they’re all around you. Look to the natural world, to physics and biology and chemistry and then translate what you see to spiritual realities. Issues of crime and punishment need a full post in and of themselves. The point here is that ethics for pagans should always, like everything else, come from the gods and goddesses whose faces are the realities we engage with every day in the natural world and our social bonds.

In coming to understand ethics and then the gods themselves, we must ground our perceptions in this world and then lift our spiritual eyes up to the heavens and sometimes down into the depths of the underworld, literally basing our beliefs and practices in this Middle Realm, this natural world — that is, after all, what a nature-based religion is all about. The gods are real. They exist and act, and all phenomenal reality is the emergent product, so their footprints are everywhere just hidden in plain sight.

We only need to open our eyes and look.

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