The Rede Does Not Say “Harm None”
I have always been puzzled over the general notion that the Wiccan Rede can be reduced to “harm none”, but it wasn’t until recently that the significance of this dawned on me. Ethics and morality in Western culture are almost always the ethics of denial, restriction, and rules, instead of the ethics of opportunity.
Think of the 10 Commandments: thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; keep holy the Sabbath, honor thy mother and father. They define a negative space you simply shall not enter, and a positive space you simply must occupy. In the realm of morality, we’re just not used to positive ethics, to the ethics of opportunity. So it’s not surprising that what most people seem to take away from the Rede is the negative component, “harm none”. Yet, in my opinion, this reduction of the Rede misses the whole point, and does great damage to its essential nature!
If we move things from the realm of morality into another realm, this will become clearer. Suppose that your lover says to you “My darling, just as long as there isn’t any bondage-discipline or sado-masochism, we can make love in whatever way the mood and inspiration comes to us! We can let our imaginations and passions run free and enjoy each other!”
Suppose that he or she says this to you, and then you start talking about how you both must ensure that nothing that you do will lead to BDSM, and start going on about how important it is to consider the smallest implications of every action in your lovemaking, and whether or not it might not someday lead to BDSM. Wouldn’t that be missing the whole point? Wouldn’t you be focusing in exactly the wrong area? The whole point of mentioning the negative space was to say that everything else was the positive space—such a large space, such room for growth and flowering! That was the point, not the other!
Or suppose that a mother says to her children: “My dears, you can play and run and do whatever you want, and wear whatever clothes you want, so long as you stay on our property between the road and the stream.” And suppose that one child sits down and draws a map and focuses intently on the road and stream, and then walks around noting the boundary lines and continually talks to the other children about how they must not cross these boundaries. Yet, the other children are busy making up fun games to play, running around, climbing trees, and enjoying themselves.
The thought of the boundary only enters their minds when they come to the road or the stream during a game, and they take some care to turn aside the path of their running, or chose another place to hide. Wouldn’t you think those children were the ones who had gotten the real message intended by the mother? Further, wouldn’t it simply be wrong to say that the mother had told the children “never leave our property; never cross the road or the stream”?
Because, that is not what she said. Essentially she said if you don’t leave the property then you can do whatever you want and wear whatever you want. Perhaps, if questioned, she would say that if the children have on long pants and their good boots and if they don’t run, they could go across the stream.
Getting back to the Rede, it says: An it harm none, do as ye will. Clearly this is not logically equivalent to “harm none”. If we invert it, it says “An it cause harm, don’t will it”—and does not say “an it cause harm, don’t do it.” Thus, in some Traditions, the Rede is amended to read “An it harm none, do as ye will. An it cause harm, do as ye must.” The issue is whether the harm is willed or not, not whether it is done or not.
In my opinion, the part of the Rede that people should be focused on is “do as ye will”. The Rede defines a huge, wonderful, wide-open space in which each of us can figure out what our beings aspire to do, to be. As long as we aren’t harming others or ourselves, we can feel confident that we can aspire towards the flowering and revelation of our True Will.
This is the important part of the Rede, and not the bit about “harm none.” And I find it incredible that so much attention is given to the issue of “harm none”. I’ve seen endless discussion about whether it is even possible to live without harming others, evening bringing plants and bacteria into the term “others.” Some try to elevate it to an ideal, unattainable, but the direction to be followed, like the Buddhist notion of saving all sentient beings. Others use it as the reason they aren’t Wiccan. Such a stupid idea! Obviously one can’t live without harming others!
All of these positions are tangential, because the Rede doesn’t say that we must live without harming anyone or anything. The Rede says that we can do what we will if it isn’t harming anyone. If it is harming someone, then we can’t just do whatever we will—other factors and consideration enter the equation then. What those are, each of us must decide for him or herself. Even here, the Rede offers no rules. Even here, the Rede is of a very different character than the 10 Commandments and general Western morality.
Some people want to be told what to do and what not to do, what to think as good, and what to think as bad or evil. They want rules and regulations—commandments. They believe that without these, no social order is possible. Yet increasingly in this day and age we can see that that assumption is unfounded, and increasingly there are people who want to figure out a way to arrange society and ethics to allow for as much freedom of expression and being as possible; to use ethical formulations to protect and support freedom, instead of to deny and restrict it. And, in my opinion, these people are essentially following the Wiccan Rede, whether they know it or not.
Far from being a liability, I find the Wiccan Rede to be a wonderful asset. It clears away so much muck from morality, and redefines the entire realm in a positive way. Understanding it in a negative way undoes much of the greatness of the Rede. So in my opinion, people should stop reducing the Rede to “harm none” and start trying to have more fun in life!
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