Question of the week: Selflessness

Many of the most often quoted contemporar pagan moral principles, such as the Wiccan Rede, Crowley’s Law, and the like, are principles of self empowerment and personal freedom. The concept of Will, which appears in both of those aformentioned moral statements, suggests that the pagan point of view on ethics emphasises the needs and purposes of the individual self, first and foremost.

My question for this week concerns the possibility of selfless acts and selfless choices. Is there any space at all in a pagan point of view for an action which is completely oriented to benefit and respect others, with no concern for one’s own interests at all?

One answer might be “no”. Any act or choice intended primarily for the benefit of others, so the argument goes, always has a “return of investment”. it might be a material reward. It might be something immaterial too, like the good will towards oneself which the recipient of one’s beneficence might show. It may even be something internal, like a feeling of pride or pleasure in the thought of one’s good deed, and in the sight of the consequences of one’s actions. Some even claim that to adopt a social ethic, one which puts relationships first and emphasises one’s membership in communities, is still an individual choice.

Another answer might be “yes”. Especially from the time that the pagan movement developed its environmentalist dimension most explicitly, there is a lot of pagan ethical thinking that emphasises an ‘expanding’ or a ‘broadening’ of the self, such that the interests of the singular individual self become incorporated into the interests of a larger ‘global’ or ‘cosmic’ self. One acts with a view not for the pursuit of one’s private interests (in competiton with others), but “with a view to the maintenance of the world”, to quote the Bhagavad Gita. I described just such a position in my first book, “Dangerous Religion”. On this point of view, acts are not exactly “selfless” but the notion of the “self” is radically changed. Furthermore, as the philosopher Charles Taylor observed, the individualist view is actually a social one, since the very notion of individualism, and the signifigance of individual choices, depends greatly upon a shared acknowledgement and shared recognition of the value of individual choices. That shared acknowledgement forms what he calls a ‘horizon of meaning’ which transcends the self.

Well, which is it? Or is there some third possibility between them? What would an example of a fully selfless yet fully pagan value?

This week’s question suggested by my friend V.M., in Switzerland. By the way: I have a list of future questions planned, but feel free to email me with suggestions!

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17 Responses to Question of the week: Selflessness

  1. jezreell1 says:

    Heathenry is completely orientated to the community, not the individual.

    The concepts are even carried into the e=wedding oaths, which are not about love but about responsibility to each other and to any children, and are made with, by and in front of family and community.

    Here are some of the values my hearth adopts.

    Do the things which you have promised to do, to the best of your ability.

    Treat all those you meet without prejudice.

    For instance – Allow a person’s words and actions to speak for them, not their outward selves. Only judge based on what you see, or hear, not on what you believe from hearsay, or based on what you may otherwise assume from the group to which you have assigned them…

    I haven’t put this well but what I am trying to say that looking at a person and thinking, oh, s/he wears a baseball cap and a hood, s/he must be a yob, s/he wears provocative clothes, s/he must be a person with no morals, s/he has a starnge name, s/he must be a strange person… That is not acceptable.

    It /is/ acceptable to be cautious with new acquaintances, of course. It would be foolish not to be. But allow that person to show you their inward rather than simply their outward appearance before making a bigger judgement than to show caution.

    Support your kindred.

    Help them if they are down, celebrate with them when they are up, teach them if they are ignorant, learn from them when they are knowledgable, give them what they need without arrogance, take from them what they offer without guilt, share with them what you have, talk with them without secrets, tell them if you are angry with them, listen if they are angry with you. Let no sun set on a quarrel, let no rumour come between you without opening it while it is small and can be dealt with.

    Deal with them without guile and without malice, with love and with care.

    Accept their shortcomings and recognise your own are just as difficult to deal with – though you may not see them yourself.

    Respect the beliefs (and the gods) of those around you.

    Stand and be counted for what you believe. Even if there is a cost to you in doing that.

    Be prepared to defend those beliefs against those who are equally convinced of their truth.

    Be prepared to change if you find that the other person’s arguments are valid. Be prepared to say that this has happened.


  2. darakat_ewr says:

    There are mutiple questions here:
    Is there such as thing as a selfless act?
    If so is there one which has ‘full’ pagan value?

    Norse Mythology can provide an answer: Tyr sacrifices his arm to the wolf Fenrir for the greater good, so the wolf can be bound.
    One can quite easily see this is a selfless act, which I think you would agree has ‘full’ pagan value.

  3. skiegazer says:

    Even though I think this is definitely an interesting and valid question… I get kind of tired of it. Mostly of the first kind of response it provokes, that “selfless acts are impossible.” To me, that always smacks of cynicism and a truncated, atomistic understanding of “self.”

    Plus, I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by a “fully pagan value.” I’d say any spiritual tradition or path that cannot value and incorporate, for instance, love is not likely to be very fruitful… but does that make love “fully pagan” (despite its emphasis in monotheistic religions like Christianity)? And, whatever exactly the phrase means, should there even be “fully pagan” values in the first place? I’ve never come across a value in Paganism that isn’t also incorporated into many other spiritual traditions. Paganism has a flavor, to be sure, but not a monopoly of any kind, and it’s not exactly known for being a self-contained and thoroughly integrated monolithic spiritual system with distinct boarders separating it from “non-Pagan” traditions.

    In fact, sometimes I think that the Pagan community as a whole risks stagnation by trying too hard to “be Pagan,” tending to avoid values (like love, faith, etc.) that are too closely associated with other religions, particularly monotheistic ones. Personally, I’m less concerned about holding values because they’re pagan, than holding them because they help me become a better human being. Values like love, trust, honesty, even service, surrender and obedience can have an important place in Pagansim, especially if we give up the word “selfless” as being too slippery a term and begin to think instead of “egoless” acts which emphasize connection and integration over negation and denial.



    • admin says:

      “selfless acts are impossible.” To me, that always smacks of cynicism and a truncated, atomistic understanding of “self.”

      I am inclined to agree. The argument that there are no selfless acts often seems very dismissive to me.

      I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by a “fully pagan value.”

      By this I mean, a value which owes its strength and its logic to a pagan world view. I would not insist that a value is fully pagan only if no other world view shares it. As you point out, values like love appear everywhere. I do think that the pagan movement should have its own world view, and its own values as part of that world view; and that a pagan world view should stand strong on its own merits. It may contribute to other world views, and learn from other world views, of course. One of the most common pagan values is “eclecticism”, after all. But we should have our own identity, and our own language and logic to describe it.

      The observation you make here, that the pagan community “risks stagnation” by “trying to hard to be pagan”, is an interesting one. My own observation is that the pagan movement often tries too hard to be not-christian, or not-jewish, or not-secular, or not-(insert nearly anything). Like a character in a Dostoyevski novel: we often don’t know who we are; we know only what we are not. Do you find this at all too?

      • marytek says:

        the only problem I see with this is trying to herd all the pagans together to agree on certain commonalities. “Pagan” is an umbrella term which encompasses many different non-judeo-christian faith paths, many of which have values which differ greatly from other paths. I know that with my path I have stronger similarities with the Norse & Slavs than any other group, and some strong dissimilarities with neo-pagan/wiccan beliefs.

        • admin says:

          In my comment above I did not in fact call for any such herding of pagans in commonality: I spoke of “a” pagan point of view, not “the” pagan point of view.

          As you know, I envision a modern pagan movement that resembles other major world religions in that there are many traditions, many customs, many points of view, all more or less under the same banner. Having said that, I think the pagan movement cripples itself by the way many pagans reject anything that smacks of conformity in even the smallest way. It’s like an automatic knee-jerk reaction.

          I see this as a problem because community cannot be built by people who refuse to share their values with each other. It can only be built upon common values and common purposes: community positively requires commonalities among people. So long as people insist that their values are absolutely distinct and separate from those of others, we will never have a community.

          Having said that, someone might object by saying, perhaps we shouldn’t need or want to create community. I’ll happily deal with this question another day.

          • marytek says:

            Community building is good, but it is still a bunch of peeps following spiritual paths that are relatively still very young. And the attempts being made are good, but by the very nature of the individuals involved in the various pagan/neo-pagan paths it will be difficult, they are very much like cats.

            As for the concept of whether or not it is possible to perform a selfless act, I think it is possible. In my tradition, which is very similar to that of the Norse, our oaths are done before family and community with the emphasis being on “darna” (Baltic concept of harmony, similar to “Dharma”) – all relationships are formed within the context of the betterment of the community, not of the individual.

          • marytek says:

            with regards to sharing our values – much of the neo-pagan community has a hard time envisioning the concept that there are people east of Germany…makes it a tad hard, therefore many of us just ignore what is going on in Western European pagan communities.

          • I would very much enjoy reading your views on community.

            At last year’s Toronto Pagan Conference panel discussion, I was left with the unsatisfying impression that most participants were interested in defining Pagan for the benefit of the press or the law.

            Surely there must be more compelling reasons to form a community than societal imposition.


      • skiegazer says:

        Bren, after writing that reply, I had wondered if a “Pagan worldview” is what you’d meant (and an emphasis on a “web of interconnection” as I mentioned towards the end would be, I think, an important aspect of that worldview through which we might define concepts like “self” and “other”)…

        “We often don’t know who we are; we know only what we are not. Do you find this at all too?”

        Yes! That is what I was trying to get at, actually. I think in some ways this is only natural, since the term “pagan” has for so long been used to mean precisely that, “not-Christian/-etc.” Imagine, for instance (to be a complete nerd), if the Borg came and assimilated Earth, and all who had not been assimilated were called “farmers” as a kind of derogatory reference to their lack of technology. Then, two thousand years later, people began resisting the Borg and referred to themselves as spiritual “farmers” even though their livelihood had nothing to do with agriculture.

        Not that Christianity or other monotheistic religions are comparable to the Borg, of course. 😉 But I feel much the same about the term “pagan,” which only really took on a religious meaning when it came to describe what people “were not.” It makes sense now that it’s so difficult to pin down a “Pagan worldview” since in many ways this is the first time we’ve considered such a worldview as something unique in itself, and not merely a cultural attitude of a given social class or a rejection of the more clearly-defined predominant religion.

        If that makes any sense. I’ve had a long day dealing with bank account issues, so my head is spinning with numbers and noise. 😉 I might not be making any sense at all (or cents, for that matter!).

  4. Anonymous says:


    This question, oddly enough is defining my life right now. As far as a pagan point of view is concerned it is such a broad term as to almost meaningless nowadays. However, I do think that a pagan cosmology is holistic in the sense that it sets an underlying assumption that all things are connected in someway (either perceptible or not) and dependent on one another. In any act there is always a motivation. That motivation can be compassion, fear, blatant self aggrandizement, even martyrdom.

    I have been rather obsessed with the figure of the Fisher King lately because of this question. It seems that the King is only healed through an act of selflessness, or pure generosity. The Fool (sometimes the one who heals him) is only concerned that the King is thirsty and shows the King that he has the Grail all along. I think that this maybe a clue that selflessness and pure acts of generosity can unlock things inside of us (and others) that we did not realize were there.

    How do we know that we are acting selflessly? Have not been able to figure that one out yet . . .

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’ve tried arguing before that, taking the long view, whatever is good for the whole of which you are a part, is therefore good for you (if perhaps indirectly). However, I’m not sure how to differentiate ‘the whole’ from ‘the greatest number,’ since utilitarianism does not need reinventing. Also, I’ve lived in a collectivist society; often, it looks more like preserving the whole at the expense of the parts, rather than for the benefit of the parts. So the relationship between the two needs clarifying.

    • admin says:

      I’ve been part of groups and organisations that claimed to be “collectivist”, when in fact they were the private fiefdoms of outspoken bullish individuals. The covert leaders would attack anyone who disagreed with them by saying that the disagreeing party was holding up the consensus, or “trying to take over”, or something like that. Have you had experiences like this too?

      • Anonymous says:

        Nah. I’ve lived in Japan, though. A society with much to recommend it, including an unbroken animistic/polytheistic tradition, but it’s a psychological pressure-cooker. Small crowded country, traditional forms of agriculture demanding massive coordination of effort, ethnically and religiously homogeneous to a degree Canadians would find hard to imagine – you can see how it evolved. As a foreigner I was partly exempt from being a full ‘team player’, but at times I still catch myself shaking my head at this occidental pipe-dream called personal independence, or wondering why everyone seems to think ‘special’ and ‘unique’ are desirable qualities, or treating courtesy as more important than morality. Then I realize two things: a) it’s impossible to participate in a system, even as an ‘outsider’, without being changed by it, and b) individualism has some redeeming qualities.

        (The main one I’ve identified is that it gives you a context to exist and act in, outside of public opinion. You have an identity and worth outside of your social role. You can make moral decisions and set worthy goals independent of community standards. I give credit for this attitude to forms of religiosity – Protestant Christianity and Neopaganism are the first two examples that spring first to mind – that emphasize a personal and private, rather than socially mediated, relationship to the divine. Spiritual individualists who have been shunned by their society still have their faith as comfort and justification; people from a collectivist culture who have been shut out have truly lost everything – not just their social network, but their basis for all meaning.)

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