Wiccan Ethics And The Wiccan Rede
By: David Piper, Sat 21 May 94 12:16
Part I: What Sayeth The Rede?
The "archaically worded" construction "An it harm none, do what ye
will," rendered into modern English is literally, "if it doesn't harm
anyone, do what you want."
Many modern Wiccans "reverse" the construction, however, taking the
first part and putting it after the second to read: "Do what ye will an
it harm none," or in modern English "Do what you want if it doesn't harm
Many people give the word "an" or "if" a value of "so long as" - which
is acceptable substitution, because it doesn't alter the meaning of the
Rede itself. However they then proceed to read "so long as" as "only
if," and that is *completely different*, because the Rede has ceased to
be a "wise counsel" [anyone checked the meaning of "rede" in the
dictionary lately?] and become an injunction: prohibitive commandment,
rather than permissive advice.
In other words, the original archaic construction actually says "if it
is not going to hurt anyone, it is ok to do" - this is *not* the same as
"if it hurts anyone it is *not* ok to do."
What is the significance of the change? A larger one than you might
see, at first glance.
The "actual construction Rede," or AC Rede, says it is ok to do
something that won't harm anyone, but it *does not say anything* about
those things which do cause harm, except to set an ethical standard of
harmlessness as the criteria to judge by.
The "modern reconstruction Rede" or MR Rede, explicitly says that any
and all actions that cause harm are forbidden.
The two constructions do *not* mean the same thing at all. And it
should be obvious that this has implications on our thinking, and
discussions of the possibility of "obeying" the Rede.
Most of you will have heard or read, as I have, people saying the Rede
is something to strive to live by, even though mundane reality makes it
very difficult, if not impossible, to do so to the letter. *This is
only true of the MR Rede, not the AC Rede!* As examples, they cite
situations such as self-defense; *this violates the MR Rede*. Period.
But it does *not* violate the AC Rede. Period.
Earlier, I stated that the AC Rede does not rule on actions that do
cause harm - and this is true. It only rules on those actions which do
not, by saying that they are acceptable. This is relevant to "victi-
mless crimes" for example - civil "crimes" may in fact be "ethical," by
the judgment of the AC Rede.
What the AC Rede *does* do, in terms of actions that cause harm, is
state an ethical value by which an individual must judge the results of
her/his actions before acting. In other words, by stating that a
harmless action is ethical, the AC Rede sets harmlessness as the
criteria for evaluation. Acting to prevent greater harm - but in the
process causing lesser harm - may then be ethical, if there is no
harmless, or more harmless, method of preventing that greater harm -
because *not* acting to prevent harm is to *cause* it, by an act of
*omission* rather than *commission*.
In short the difference between the AC Rede, and the MR Rede, is that
the AC Rede is a perfectly-obeyable ethical standard, but the MR Rede is
not, as so many people have pointed out. Do we take as our ethical
standard a "counsel" which *can* be obeyed, or one which *necessitates
rationalizing in some instances*? Which is truer to the Wicca, and to
the *real* Rede?
"rede: n. [Middle English rede < Old English raed < base of
raedan, to interpret] [archaic] 1. counsel; advice 2. a plan; scheme
3. a story; tale 4. an interpretation"
(from Webster's New World Dictionary)