Pagan Genealogy


The English word Pagan is derived from the Latin ‘paganus’.  This, in turn, was derived from ‘pagus’, meaning rural, country, provincial.   It appears the word gained its religious sense with the rise of Christianity in the Empire.  Christianity, initially a sect of Judaism, imported from the Levant, first took root in the cities among the merchants and slaves.  Within the Empire, and later without, those in the countrysides held on longest to the native European religion.  During this time, pagan was synonymous with both ‘gentile’ and Greek (hellene), as it was used by immigrant Jews and Christians to refer to the locals.  In addition to the corruption that seems to be the natural residue of centralized governance, the Roman Empire became too large to manage with the available political technology.  For this and other reasons, the nexus of cosmopolitanism began to collapse: just as the idea of a unified humanity, organized around a singular power, began to take root at the intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism.

Groups of travelers, immigrants, sojourners, and the like who had previously rode the wave of Roman globalism increasingly found themselves rootless in somewhat unfamiliar places.  The outsiders had already begun creating ethnic and religious communities within their gentile, Hellenic, pagan hosts, and practices and policies connected to Empire, such as external trade, assimilation, preoccupation with frontiers, and a more exploitative and less filial relation between the rulers and the ruled meant that these societies-within-societies were ignored, and thus allowed to grow.  Drawing from an already-long history of living as a dispersed people, the Jews (and by extension the Christians), were accustomed to creating dispersed networks of cells that were largely invisible to the native people so that by the time.  The Jews remained a separate society, connected to their god, who loved and cherished only this singular, chosen tribe. The Christians, on the other hand, whose formative origins coincided with Roman cosmopolitanism, developed an idea of a universal god.  The Christians, then, were more open, evangelistic, and visible.

In 218, AD, a 14-year old Syrian priest of another foreign religion (Elagabalus) was crowned emperor.  He forwarded a portrait of himself in sacredotal robes of silk and gold, covered in collars, bracelets, and gems of immeasurable value, and with eyebrows and cheeks painted in the feminine fashion.  He married a vestal virgin and attempted to install his god as the primary deity of the Parthenon.  Although empire brought great wealthy, surely there were those among the old and noble houses of Rome who felt things were moving in the wrong direction.  In fact, by the time Decius became Emperor in 250, each preceding ruler had been assassinated/killed by the Roman army in one way or another.  Many were concerned the social fabric responsible for the rise of Rome was being stretched, unraveled, and intentionally torn apart.  This, at least in part, led Decius to restore the position of Censor, who would act independent of the Emperor, and to announce the edict that everyone (except the Jews) was required to pay official and public homage to the traditional Roman gods.

Soon thereafter, Decius and his son died in battle against the Germans.  By the time Valerian tried to follow Decius’s example, the Senate and the Army were becoming Chrisitianized.  And by the time Constantine declared himself a Christian, the power structure in the West was dominated by Christians, who now saw the Greek-speaking hellenic pagans, who gave birth to their culture, as somewhat foreign, and those of the native religion in the West as rural peasants or old-family aristocrats.


The World of Late Antiquity (1989), Peter Brown




And after the bluegrass started,

he was bound to be found by the fire:

Living well

And dancing.Fire

Pagan Christmas Evangelism


If I remember, I will ask people for campfire supplies for Christmas.  Not because I need or even want them.  I have plenty, really.  But to spread the gospel, without being annoying.  A noble sort of evangelism, where one leads by example.  Not religious/moral evangelism, but aristocratic evangelism.  Rather than, “this is something all good people should do,” it’s more like, “this is something awesome people like me do.”  Following Nietzsche, the logic is: I do this; I am good; therefore this thing that I do and enjoy is good.  If others do this, they will be more like me, and therefore more good.  It matters little if the logic is holey.  What is most important is that I dance about the fire.  It is generous of me to share this possibility.

I will also ask for journals, and a Viking Helmet – with horns.  I know that Viking helmets didn’t actually have horns, but again, that is not the point.  It is to remind loved ones that they too may intoxicate themselves and dance around the fire while wearing a horned Viking Helmet, thereby improving their quality of life.

Other items for the list: a goat, a cabin in the mountains, a stream, bags of manure, a hand-carved totem representing my family history, and wine.




Alapaha Paganism

DSCN1555 I am writing a book that discusses a vision of living well.  I believe that living well varies from person to person.  From the beginning, then, this view rejects the ideas that there is one single way that everyone should live and that there is a set of laws everyone must follow to be a good person.  This is not evangelism, but you might think of it as a conceptual portrait or simply as a conversation starter.

Later I provide a brief history of Paganism, but for the purposes of introduction, I will note that I am not trying to define what (neo/post) Paganism really is or should be.  I believe that those who interested in Paganism will find this blog/book a nice place to start.  This is not intended to be an academic piece.  It is closer to a work of art in the everyday sense: like the pictures you hang on your refrigerator or frame and hang on your own wall, the flower arrangements you place on your table, or your garden or landscaping.  It is one of those things done primarily for the pleasure of doing and of sharing something that makes us happy and enriches our lives.  We go to work, we care for kids, pets, or other family members or friends, and we try to do each of these things in ways that make them fulfilling and make us happy.  I am tempted to say that ‘we try to make the world a better place’, and that would be a good phrase, were it not so encumbered by moralistic baggage.

The title, Alapaha Paganism, communicates the particularity of this approach.  Even a cursory study of pre-Christian religion/philosophy can illustrate how communities cultivated their own meaningful tales, while also happily borrowing readily from others.  The result was that much of the world had something like a shared religion that remained open to new ideas.  That dynamic changed, of course, with the advent of universalistic creeds that offered the way.  Alapaha Paganism is one way.  Although it is sharable, it is not fully transferable to other settings, such as densely populated urban areas, or lives directed by extreme poverty or the driven pursuit of riches.  It requires the privilege of a contemplative comportment toward life that is neither available to or desired by all.  Nor should it be.

I see myself as participating in an ongoing renaissance.  Life is reiterated in an untiring process of rebirth.  Georg Hegel was groping this idea when he contemplated the Dialectic.  His mistakenly imagined the cosmos strove to realize his own moral and social prejudices.  That seems absurd to many of us today, but Hegel, like each of us, could only think and build new concepts by using those already available.  It seemed natural to him, writing in Pietist Germany, before Darwin, that there was a single purpose and truth.  But, in part thanks to the historicism commonly associated with Hegel, we no longer share his prejudices.

I will share one last introductory note: a phrase borrowed from Nietzsche: Amor Fati.  If there is an idea that defines my life, it is Amor Fati.  We do not choose to be born.  We chose neither our genes nor how we were raised.  We do the the best with what we have.  This sounds a bit like Stoicism, and it is.  The difference, perhaps, is that Amor Fati intimates celebration rather than a resignation.  I am who I am and cannot have been any other way.  If I were, I would not be me.  I would be someone else: perhaps someone cooler, or taller, or smarter, or wealthier, etc., or their opposites.  But I would not be Mark Johnson, son of Larry Johnson and Gayle Davis and Connie Herndon …  I AM this particular confluence of genetic material and history – and I could be no one else.  So let’s see how well this life can be lived.

People are sometimes wary of what seems to them the scent of determinism hanging about this doctrine.  But I don’t see it that way anymore.  Yes, there are facts of life beyond our control.  We do not control the rotation of the galaxy, the laws of physics, or our love interest’s reaction to pheromones.  We have, however, evolved the ability to see ourselves as individuals in the world, and to act in accordance with that belief.  The problem of determinism is/was a conceptual problem that dissolves when we realize our words and ideas do not necessarily connect to reality and that the binaries (such as determinism/freewill) we use to make the complex appear to be simple and make the dynamic appear to be linear.

At the heart of Alapaha Paganism, then, is an attitude of embracing oneself and the world.  This view is in contrast with the more common one that causes people to view the world with sad and resentful eyes that have been trained to interpret the world and the people in it as bad, evil, and unjust, and in need of redemption or salvation granted only to those who will reject this real world on account of a “better” one that does not exist.

We hold a different view: the world was not created for our pleasure or punishment.  It just is.  And we choose to celebrate our existence and make the most of this short moment that is our life.

Preface to a Study of Secular Monkness

What is it to be a secular monk?

In my practice, such questions are generally followed by a literature review.  But none will be provided here, for as with many of these essays, the function is exploratory.  Perhaps part of the exploration will involve a review of how others have approached the topic, but rather than transmit knowledge, the goal in this case is primarily to be well.  So perhaps I should write in the Bildung blog or journal instead …

I recall that when I was a child I wanted to be a monk, but my grandmother told me that one had to be Catholic to be a Monk and since we were Baptists, I had to go out into the world and let my light shine.  Twenty or so years later, my broad intellectual interests freed me from Baptism.  Monkhood was now calling me again, but I was now becoming an atheist.

I suppose in graduate school – studying philosophy at Georgia State in Atlanta – single, childless, and nearly destitute that I came closest to living something like a monastic life.  I was rather occupied with my studies.  At that point I was still trying on ideas, still confused.  By the time I returned to graduate school I was a divorced, single parent with a newly-found partner.  Although this is not the romantic image of monkness it was perhaps closer to the spirit in that I cared not only for myself.  Due to an improved academic work ethic, I was also more fully consumed by my studies.

The point, I think, is that this is not something new.  The life of the monk has appealed to me for much of my life.  The whys are many, but most enticing is the clear sense of purpose and the focus that accompanies such living.  The problem with popular Christianity is that the world is separated into the sacred and the profane and what we spend most of our time doing loses, as a result, much of its grander meaning.  It becomes poor in spirit.  Christians have of course recognized this and responded in different ways:monkhood in some cases and theocratic tyranny, witch hunts, inquisitions to name a few others.

I have little interest in politics and in trying to force or coerce people to live life as I see fit.  People have different temperaments and interests – and intelligence.  I am responsible for my offspring and for those who pay me to do things for them and am inclined to help others to whom I am directly connected: i.e., family.  Given those presuppositions, how might I live a life whereby everyday acts like sweeping, laundry, cutting grass, and such are meaningful and pleasant?  That is really what is at stake here.  I have a  good life by most any standard.  I am happy, fulfilled, successful in work, and loved by family.  I believe that all of those except perhaps the last are due in large part, however, to an approach to life.  (And of particular relevance to this blog is fulfillment, which can never come, or at least endure, as a result of privilege.  It seems to me at least that fulfillment necessarily involves overcoming obstacles – and the greater the overcoming the greater the fulfillment.)  The approach to life, simply enough, is being rational.  Thinking about what is best and acting on those conclusions.  This approach is in contrast to doing what is expected or moral and to not acting on what is best: lying in bed, for example, when I believe it would be better to get up and write.  This is all too simple, really, but I am amazed by how many people do not due this; that is, by how many people do not think for themselves and/or are lazy.

To return to the study, I have been considering living the life of a secular monk, and I am spending part of this morning examining more systematically why and how I would do this.  I am not seeking radical changes.  Life is good.  But sucking the marrow of life – that dynamic, interconnected matrix of processes and systems – requires growth …  And so to the point, I would like to more efficiently consume life so that I can be greater.Being great for me does not necessarily mean being seen as great or as having political or economic control of others.  I am a thoughtful introvert, not a gregarious extrovert.  I seek to live well – and to do it better than ever before by being clear about what I want and how best to attain that.

Like cells and organisms this might largely be accomplished through the actions of selectively porous boundaries, including boundaries between work and home, for example.  One of the problems of mortality and aging – perhaps the greatest – is that it denies us the opportunity to live different lives. We only get one shot at this, and so we need to make it count.  An approach I have developed is to try to live different lives within one life – and to live them fully.  The enemy of this approach is wasting one’s time.  The danger is that life becomes hectic and stressful.  It is necessary, therefore, to be strategic about one’s extensions and contractions.  To do more here requires doing less there.  Where can time be appropriated?  What should be made larger and smaller?

The most immediate cut is pointless entertainment.  Television has stolen countless lives and is in the aggregate far worse for meaningful living than drugs.Video games are another.

Of course this is complicated by the fact that there is no ultimate meaning to life  – and so in a real and important way, sitting your fat ass on the couch and watching television all day is just as meaningful as finding a cure for cancer or being the best piano player in the world.  It is dangerous, I think, to try to hide that truth from oneself.  Perhaps it is necessary for the weak, but the strong should be able to recognize that yes, sitting on the couch is, universally speaking, as valuable as being great – because it all depends on the measure one uses.  The great create their own measures.  With that said, it is equally clear that people who spend their lives in front of the television are generally boring – as are those who spend it in the coal mine or the field, etc.  So all of that sort of falls away and the question becomes what sort of life do I want to live and how do I best accomplish this?

I have already rambled on way too much and so will put a stop to this and continue elsewhere.

Musings of the existentially privileged

Occasionally I am overcome and transported to bliss by the thought of how we are here, or more precisely, why something rather than nothing.   It only lasts a few, fleeing moments.  Then the question makes no sense.  The answers that were, moments earlier, budding, cease to be meaningful.  The thought is miscarried.

From what did the big bang come?  I am inclined to believe that the universe was born, or whatever we would call a spore that begins to grow or an exudation of the cosmic Mandelbrot fern.

Perhaps one day our cybernetic ancestors will be able to study the phylogenesis of our universe, of those related to it, and their historical ecology.  There is still much we do not know.  Universes are likely as common as individual humans, and perhaps exponentially greater in number: on the scale of each individual of each species that ever has or will exist on earth.

We will likely have a special interest in those universes that directly share our lineage: our brother/sister cosmoi, the parent Mandelbrot Seahorse, and its parent seahorse…

An infinite genealogical project.  And yet it is a task that seemingly never arrives at the point where we can answer: why something instead of nothing?

It takes an unusually clear mind to even imagine the binary: being-not being.  Perhaps that is part of the problem, for it seems that at the quantum as well as the larger (meteorological, for example) levels, the world is probabilistic.  That is not the only issue, however.

Do you see how – there is no adequate word – …  special it is that there is something rather than nothing?  The world cannot have come to exist; it must have always been here in some form.  That is remarkable.  Why and how?

I am inclined to believe that these questions are too coarse – that they are something akin to asking about causes in a probabilistic realm or motivation when discussing gravity or other physical forces.  The questions are too anthropomorphic.  They make sense to us because they are questions developed for our realm of existence.

That we are here at all is remarkable.

How did life originate on earth?  It just naturally developed.  Because that is what things in our universe do.  That is the nature of things.  Asking why is like asking why there is gravity.  It is built into the system itself.  … There are perhaps different systems.

But tell me about that first system.  How did it get here?  That question can’t make sense because there can, in this case, be no how.  It just is.  It just is leaves me intellectually dissatisfied.  But I am imposing intelligence on something prior to the development of intelligence, onto something that just is – as it always was.

Is there no way through or around this impasse?

Where does matter come from?  How is it that there is stuff?

My Compost Pile as a Deleuzing Assemblage

The Body

Composed of wire mesh recycled from an 8x4x4 foot cage built for the flying squirrel given to my son by my ex-wife’s new boyfriend, and fastened with wire from a bundle bought to conjoin the ten foot-lengths of rebar rusting parallel in a foot and a half deep trench in the blackberry bush dirt of the family farm that are the aborted remains of the foundation of a log cabin I was building until Katherine moved down from Athens to join me: mesh recently cut in half to make two bottomless baskets for oak and cherry leaves, egg-shell halves, pounds and pounds of espresso grounds, lettuce and cabbage butts, and meatless pork bones are contained by the virtual boundary far more open than closed.  More and less than a microecosystem, it is a three foot chicken-wire bounded pile in perpetual birth, growth, transformation and decay.

Smooth Space

The roaches scurry and glide out of the permeableness when I dump the potliquor from the greens grown in neatlike rows in the nearly adjacent garden, reclaimed from grass seeded by the preceding occupant of the ancient by American standards Victorian house that was built when the railroad came to town after the Civil War.  You can hear the living noise of the compost pile from eleven feet away.  It doesn’t sound like breathing.  I reach down and finger the decay, looking for dinner. I find a maggot hanging out in the otherwise empty shell of a former chicken egg, waiting, I suppose, to transition.  I don’t think he knows what’s going on.  The larva is too big.  But  a neighboring German cockroach flies up and onto my shirt, about three minutes prior to transitioning into a gecko I found in a classroom the other day, but now hanging upside down on the uppermost of three four-inch pecan sticks cleanly cut for apocalypse tender in the glass cage that once held Mouse A Tung, who has since passed.

The Plane of immanence

transcends the symbolic boundary of the body of the composting and extends in one direction onto the back porch where I used to pee occasionally into the jug and then pour on the compost and the muscadine growing up the chain link fence intended to keep the prior owner’s dogs from biting children that I poached from the forest.  But recently I pour it onto the two banana trees Kat got off of the back of a truck and the sugar cane buried in the ground that will one day grow into a living boundary near the fence opposite the railroad that splits the town into identifiable halves, which sits one of the furry gray pecan tree servant farmer apprentices that are born from the tree and then go out to bury the fallen pecans.  I wonder how the tree educates them regarding which nuts to plug directly into the ground and which ones to first eat.






Institutions and practices are social phenomena whose structure and function are historically constructed and in flux.  They are evolving, but not as the Hegelians/Marxists would have it, toward something like equality or democracy.  One might say that they are growing and dying in accordance with the will to power.  The identity of practices such as privilege-shaming is constituted from above and below, so to speak, in accordance with its changing function within a plurality of nested systems ranging in scope from the biological individual to the global community.

So to those who say we should not study the structure/function of institutions, but should seek to change it, I suspect sophistry: using the appearance of reason to make political arguments.  I am not suggesting this is necessarily wrong.  I just want to point it out.  We are in agonistic battle.  My goals and weapons differ from the critical theorists who seek to moralize and guilt others into accepting beliefs that are in the interest of the moralizing critical theorist, but not in the interest of the students.


Word Bin


The hiatus is due to classes starting back and to the fact that I have been focusing on preparing my thoughts on privilege for a journal article that is due in one week now.  After writing and writing, I am now mostly cutting.

Cutting paragraphs is unsettling.  I will likely discard some thoughtful analysis that I spent a lot of time considering and writing – just because it doesn’t flow with the narrative created.  My desire to conserve and steward makes that difficult.  So, I will put some of it here:

There are a number of different historical influences and ways to understand progressive historiography, but the progressive narrative is generally understood to include technological and social progress (see Briesach).  These ideas captured the zeitgeist of the modern era, which optimistically embraced the view that through education and rational management, technical and scientific progress could be applied to social and moral ends.  The progressive histories were eventually informed by Darwin’s theory of evolution, but their foundation lay rather in the pre-Darwinian understandings of social change  exemplified in Hegel’s philosophy of history (see Johnson, 2014).  By the nineteen twenties, social Darwinism and eugenics were often included in popular views of progress, but this was not the case in the 1880s when Nietzsche wrote the Genealogy.  At this time, popular academic morality was primarily consequentialist and utilitarian, as attested by Nietzsche in the Genealogy.  It was this view of morality that he sought to overturn.  Not altogether unlike Kant, however, Nietzsche was working with and against two somewhat different traditions.  On the one hand were the utilitarian, English genealogists, and on the other were the German speculative philosophers, inspired by Hegel.

He argued against what he saw as the utilitarian thesis that the designation of good lay with those who benefitted from such acts, and argued instead that the goodness of actions and qualities was established, by association with people who were deemed good.  That is, the person is understood as good (noble) and then the actions generally associated with them are deemed good (noble).   The mistake made by the utilitarian genealogists was that they erroneously presupposed that the then-contemporary understanding of morality (good as utilitarian and consequentialist), or at least its essence, could be traced back to the origin of morals, or alternatively, that morality could be understood to develop naturally teleologically from the distant past toward the current state.  However, in what has become, since Nietzsche, a standard practice, the argument was made that we should not presume that our current perspective was held by those in different times and places.  More precisely, the origin of evaluations and designations likely have little to do with their current use (it might appear, for example, that the evolutionary purpose of fingers is to type on a laptop), but we should be wary of this line of thinking and should certainly no more presume that the origin of morals was connected to utilitarian calculations than we should that fingers evolved so that we might one day be able to type.

Nietzsche used the name genealogy in the same way that he used Zarathustra: as its traditionally understood opposite.  That is, the historical Zarathustra was seen by Nietzsche to represent a Manichean worldview whereby history is understood as a battle between good and evil; as used by Nietzsche, however, the name Zarathustra is used to undermine this view of the world.  Similarly, whereas genealogy was (and is) commonly used to trace a marker or essential quality back – unbroken – from the present to a point of origin in the past, Nietzsche’s genealogy was used to emphasis the difference, multiple origins, infections, infusions, assimilations, and accommodations that one must find when tracing back causal lines.  The point to be made is that with each generation, or assemblage of causes, the material constitution and other influences upon a thing increase exponentially.  That is, the further back in history one goes, the more absurd becomes the notion that there is some single, unadulterated quality that has passed from the original to the present.

It seems easier to conserve the essence when one maintains or presumes that history is developmental and evolves toward some telos.  When the end form is known in advance, one can neatly identify the significant events, place them within the narrative model offered by the progressive arc, and explain those events that represent moral and social progress and those that are backward or stand in the way of history.  What is required to understand historical development in this way is knowledge of the good / the end of history.  There are perhaps innumerable possible candidates for the good and the progressive, but Nietzsche’s genealogical approach was employed in opposition to one in particular: the conviction that history progressively evolves (or should progressively evolve) toward increased equality.



My (biological) mother died from colon cancer a couple of days ago.  Her mother and aunt died from the same cause.  I am alive today and she is not.  Should I feel guilty for the privilege of living?  Should I lament that in a world of perfectly equal healthcare her cancer would have been detected sooner and she would have almost certainly survived?

No and no.  I should enjoy the unearned privilege of living and be encouraged, if needed, to do it better; and access to the comforts can never be made equal.  In fact, some struggle to attain the benefits of social living is good for the person and the society.  The obstacles that we face, avoid, and overcome or not shape our identity.

At least as often as not, we do not choose our obstacles.  They are given to us by genes, culture, and history.  Nor do we mostly choose our disposition for dealing with them, as these are likewise provided by genes, experiences, social expectations, and available role models.

Our parents provide us with genes, comforts, and struggles in varying degrees.  Some parents provide no genes.  Some provide little comfort.  But we are mostly the product of our parents manifest in a particular bio-cultural setting.  Each of us are the dissipating remnants of those who came before us, including the dead, who continue, subsist, through us.  Those who are gone have dissipated, poured themselves into things: the soil, a home, children, community, television, social media, novels, education, self-development, self-sacrifice, self-loathing, celebrations of life.  Life and organization is consumed, assimilated, accommodated, avoided, challenged, enjoyed until we our consumed by particular things in the world, or, in the case of cancer, by our own bodies.