A Critique of Halstead’s “The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism”

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“Take heart now, Diomedes … the mist moreover I have taken from your eyes that was over them before, so that you may well discern both god and man.” 

Athena, Iliad 5:124-133


A Disenchanting Claim

Recently, I stumbled upon an older article, “The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism”, in which John Halstead makes uniquely strong claims about hard polytheism and the nature. It is a good theoretical example of the marginalization of polytheism Axe and Plough talked about. I think they did a good job explaining how nonpolytheist pagans have treated polytheism and have talked specifically about Halstead, so go read them. My focus is instead on some of the philosophy at play behind Halstead’s polemic.

I also just want to clarify that I’m using the term “hard polytheist” because he did, not because I think it is a useful term.

He states plainly that

“I would also argue that it’s not possible to reenchant the world while being “staunchly” polytheistic either — by which I mean a polytheism which insists that the gods must be “separate, distinct, individuals”.” [1]

To counter this claim, we must understand that Halstead’s emphasis on consciousness rather than praxis haunts his polemic against polytheism. In doing so he’s claiming a kind of pagan deep ecology. I intend to oppose it from the perspective of a deeper ecology of pagan praxis.


Alienation and Disenchantment

What is scientific consciousness? Halstead certainly explains what he attributes to scientific consciousness. However, he does not give an explanation for scientific consciousness itself. He states that

“…atomistic theology which insists that the gods must be “separate, distinct, individuals” too closely resembles the alienating discourse of objectifying science that led to the disenchantment of the world in the first place. Morris Berman explains, “The scientific mode of thinking can best be described as disenchantment, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness; … The logical endpoint of this worldview is a feeling of total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me.” Hard polytheists make the same mistake when they insist on a rigid distinction between the gods and us.” [1]

Halstead has stitched scientific consciousness and hard polytheism together, by declaring both to make “us”, humans, an epistemological subject and all the world the object of our observation. Because of this, we are “alienated” from the world, by denying out “interconnectedness” and how we are within the object, the world. He says that alienation is disenchantment. Disenchantment is understood as a “rigid distinction” between humans and nature within a particular kind of consciousness.

However, he is able to conflate scientific consciousness and hard polytheism not because of what is said, but because of the unspoken relations between his statements about alienation and his argument against hard polytheism. Halstead cannot hold that hard polytheists make humans the observer and the gods the observed, while also making the disenchantment of the world a process originating in alienated consciousness, in a mode of human thinking. He may as well admit this later in the piece, saying that

“I think the disenchantment of the world was caused, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature, but when we stopped seeing our essential connection to nature…” [1]

It was caused by a lack of human seeing. Everything about disenchantment has do with humans developing new ways of observing the natural world. The natural world is still the “observed”.

Halstead preserves the subject-object metaphysics he is decrying in “scientific consciousness” through critically declaring disenchantment to be a thought process of alienated human beings about the world and about nature. He has not decentered the subject. Rather he has made the subject a prodigal son, destined to find its way back to “oneness” with nature from alienated consciousness.


An Inverse Reading

To avoid the metaphysical trap into which Halstead’s humanist paganism has fallen, we must question scientific consciousness while recognizing that it developed historically from social relations between people, and a particular, historical relation between people and the world. We must acknowledge that

“[l]anguage is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. … Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.”

For our purposes, scientific consciousness is a mode of thinking that is a social product, and it arose out of material necessity within particular historical circumstances. These needs are developed within an economic system. Whereas Halstead simplified disenchantment as a “rigid distinction” between humans and nature within consciousness, we who recognize scientific consciousness as a social product understand it as a product of the socioeconomic conditions of capitalism.

Capitalism churned out mass-produced goods for the sake of exchange rather than use, for quantitative value and not qualitative value; it also manufactured a mode of thinking which dealt nearly exclusively in quantification. As capitalism reduced all notions of value to exchange (destroying some of the remaining vestiges of paganism in late feudal culture), its contemporary intellectual developments reflected this shift. Scientific consciousness is the quantitative-driven consciousness of capitalist commodity exchange, which eschews qualitative or irrational values for rational and quantitative ones. It treats the whole world as a standing-reserve [7], on call for human consumption or exchange.

Halstead seems to have recognized this in an early article he wrote, which he links in “The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism”:

“Re-enchantment is a countercultural response to a reductionist and positivistic science which views nature (including human beings) as mechanism and a capitalism which reduces nature (including human beings) to commodity and resource.” [3]

Despite this, he appears to have forgotten the role capitalism plays in disenchantment by the time of writing against hard polytheism.

Halstead’s abstraction of the “rigid distinction” independent of historical and economic context limits him to saying only that we need to acknowledge our “oneness”, rather than recognizing the socioeconomic conditions within which and against which our paganism develops. This abstraction also allows him to equate scientific consciousness with hard polytheism, ironically promoting more theological disunity than “interconnectedness” within paganism.

This is not to say that scientific consciousness does not uphold the “rigid distinction” between humans and nature. It’s simply a question of historical priority. To see scientific consciousness for what it really is, we must invert Halstead’s reading. Peasants did not spontaneously become disconnected from nature upon thinking scientifically. Instead, peasant land was systematically stolen through enclosure, forcing them to move to growing industrial towns and become factory workers where they developed an alienated consciousness.

Disenchantment was an ideological development stemming from changes in material social relations in early capitalism.


A Hard Polytheist Deeper Ecology 

“Oneness” functions as the gospel for Halstead. He explains that

“we need to realize our essential oneness, the manifold ways in which we are connected to the rivers and the trees — whether or not we find gods in them.” [1]

Paganism for Halstead has become another religion seeking to change hearts and minds, and by establishing an orthodoxy of “essential oneness” he focuses on cultivating a new consciousness through making people “realize” this.

Not unlike his analysis of the “rigid distinction”, this position focuses far too much on thought and not at all on action. Hard polytheism, animism and strict reconstructionism in fact provide us with a far deeper ecological perspective because it is not concerned with humanism, Jungian archetypes, or “realizing” anything. Instead, it emphasizes hearth cults, sacred spaces and do ut des. Its practice focuses on the tangible depth of our spiritual and ecological relations, not the mental exercises of deep ecological theory.

Pagans have hitherto only interpreted our relation to nature. The point is to change it. I firmly stand by a paganism that defends the distinct and real existence of the gods and spirits because it allows for actual relations and actual “interconnectedness”. These relations give rise to the kind of consciousness Halstead wants to instill through a total retreat from meaningful worship of the gods or spirits.


Truth and Practice

Heraclitus of Ephesus cryptically wrote that

“a nature likes to be hidden.” [4]

This could not be more true for the gods. The nature of the gods likes to hide. The gods are mythically; their mode of being is mythic and not historical. They cannot be directly accessed in our time. The gods are concealed from us in our profane, historical mode of being and the consciousness we develop within it.

“Unconcealment” is the most literal translation of the Ancient Greek ἀλήθεια, meaning “truth”. In polytheistic religion, ritual “unconceals” the gods. In the invocatio [5], we call the god to be present in a sacred space for the offering. “But we must not suppose that human work is in question here, that it is through his own efforts that man can consecrate a space. In reality the ritual by which he constructs a sacred space is efficacious in the measure in which it it reproduces the work of the gods” [6]. The gods consecrate a space and bring us into their mythic mode of being. Within this mode of being, the gods are unhidden, unconcealed, revealed. They disclose themselves to us within the sacred space, where we can offer to them.

The gods can be brought out of their concealment from anywhere when the space is made sacred. Ritual bringing forth the gods from their concealment gives a whole new dimension to the word orthopraxy: not just “true/correct practice”, but also “truth out of practice”. The gods are made unconcealed through ritual. They are true and real through practice. It is not about whether we find the gods or not in belief, which Halstead focuses on and juxtaposes with “oneness”. The focus is on finding the gods in ritual.

Everywhere we turn, we must echo Heraclitus: ‘For here too the gods are present’. They are just hidden from us. Let Athena pull the mist from our eyes, too.


Sources

[1] Halstead, John. “The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism” on Pagan Paths. August 24, 2015. http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/the-disenchantment-of-hard-polytheism.html

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “History: Fundamental Conditions.” from The German Ideology. Translated by Delaney, Schwartz and Baggins. Marxist Internet Archive (marxists.org), 2000.

[3] Halstead, John. “The Fruits of the Deep Ecology Tree: Re-Enchantment.” Patheos. October 13, 2014. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2014/10/13/fruits-of-the-deep-ecology-tree-the-reenchantment-of-the-world/

[4] My Translation of Fragment DK B123; http://www.heraclitusfragments.com/B123/text.html

[5] “Religious Mentality in Ancient Prayer.” Faith, Hope and Worship: Aspects of Religious Mentality in the Ancient World. H.S. Versnel. Leiden, 1981. p. 2

[6] Eliade, Mircea. “Theophanies and Signs.” The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961. p. 29

[7] Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. p. 322

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