…eight words the Wiccan rede fulfill
I’d like to call Delphic Maxim #136 “the maxim for Wiccans”!
So, I’m a big fan of words (English or otherwise)–what they mean, where they come from, alternate and less popular secondary meanings, how they are used and how they can be used–subverted, if you will, etc. The one, obvious term that these two sayings have in common is the word “harm”, and that is the word I want to focus on first. Etymologically, “harm” means to hurt, it means grief, sorrow, insult, pain, and (interestingly to me) evil.
Evil tends to be an interesting subject in Pagan communities. Views of what constitutes “evil” as a definition and as an action or behavior vary, but tend to emphasize the “I know it when I see it” subjectiveness of the idea of evil. Of the many discussions (online and IRL) that I have encountered on the topic, my favorite definition comes from an essay on the Wiccan Rede from Proteus Coven–evil is a rip in the fabric of empathy.
We can only act with indifference towards the needs and feelings of others if they don’t seem to matter to us. When we are in a state of empathy, wholehearted and open awareness of our essential connection, then we know — experientially, not just theoretically — that our actions must inevitably come back on us. We cannot then cause harm without experiencing it ourselves.
(from the same essay)
I think it helps to look at harm in this way as well…as a rip in the fabric of empathy. When we consider our actions on the level of empathy, what we do becomes personal. It is hard to purposely cause harm when you know what that harm feels like. As a mom, its my job to teach my children empathy–because (contrary to what some think) it isn’t actually a natural state (*cough* Ann Coulter *cough* Rush Limbaugh *cough*). Empathy is something that develops over time and is a learned state of emotion, understanding and behavior. Some kids ‘take’ to empathy more easily than others–Chickadee has an overload of empathy, and Sharkbait struggles with it (a common phenomenon in kids with ADHD). As a parent of a kid with ADHD, I will admit that it can be downright hard to maintain an empathetic relationship with a kid with ADHD…in and of itself, maintaining that fabric of empathy is essential, not only to not harm our relationship, but to not harm Sharkbait’s capacity to develop socially (social skills are often a struggle for kids with ADHD as well).
The biggest problem with looking at harm (or evil for that matter) in this way is that it becomes subjective. What I am sensitized to, in terms of my capacity for empathy overall and my ability to empathize on a particular subject specifically, differs from what and how another might feel. For most Pagans, I doubt this is a problem (for most UU’s as well…I don’t think I’d be making an understatement if I said that defining moral absolutes is pretty low on the list for most of us)…but we all still differ here. If the focus of my behavior should be to avoid or alleviate harm (and I think the latter is implied as a substitute) and my capacity to empathize is variable with the capacity of others, then what I perceive as undesirable behaviors will also differ.
To do as I will, or (in the Greek version) to gratify or seek gratification, depends on a subjective idea of beneficial (harmless, or at least relivable harm) actions. Many a conversation that I have engaged in or observed in the Pagan community has reached the eventual conclusion that causing no harm is an impossibility. As guiding ideals, these are both wonderful places to start exploring one’s behavior as an individual and one’s place in a community. But…as a practice, it is impossible to live to such a degree, where every action is harmless (as it seems some have interpreted the Wiccan Rede). So thank goodness that ain’t what it says!
Both of these maxims come back full circle to the idea of “harm”–really of not harming. For the Wiccan Rede its about the phrasing–”An it harm none”, literally, IF it causes no harm, do what you want. And this phrasing brings it parallel to the Delphic Maxim–IF it causes no harm, indulge in that which brings pleasure and satisfaction! Neither acts as a prohibition of harm, but instead both ask us to consider the results of our actions (of our whims and pleasures) and encourages us to choose the methods and madness that cause the least harm.