According to a popular conception of intellectual history, mythology is characteristic of human pre-history. In this view, mythology was replaced by religion (Plato), religion by philosophy (Hegel) and now philosophy by science (Ayer).
It is marvelous that something so completely wrong can be so widely believed! In all historical periods, theology, philosophy and science have co-existed – sometimes happily, sometimes contentiously. The founding fathers of Greek philosophy, for example – Anaximander, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Zeno, Thales, Democritus, et al. – were theologians and scientists as well as well as philosophers. Parmenides made astronomical discoveries that were not improved upon for centuries.
So what doesn’t belong and why? Mythology! Mythology, albeit ever evolving, is common to all ages and all disciplines. As we will soon see, there is no theology, philosophy or even science without it.
This is hard to accept because from our over-intellectualized Enlightenment perch to say that something is a ‘myth’ or ‘mythical’ is to suggest rather strongly that it is untrue or unreal. In fact however, a myth is neither true nor false, real nor unreal. It is a way of understanding the world.
In his essay, Logos and Mythos, Wladyslaw Strozewski wrote, “We want to understand a myth as a way of revealing the mystery of reality,” and he quoted Roland Barthes, “Myth is a system of communication, it is a message…it is a mode of meaning.”
To understand the role of mythology in the contemporary world, we need to recover three terms from ancient Greek philosophy: Gnosis, Logos and Mythos.
Gnosis is a body of knowledge. It is impossible to know everything there is to know about the world and it is certainly not possible to know everything all at once. We organize what we think we know into large, internally consistent, but ultimately limited, bodies of knowledge (gnoses).
In this essay, we will focus on four gnoses: science, art, philosophy and theology. These intellectual disciplines are often thought to be in conflict with one another. Actually, they have a complementary relationship. No one system can tell us everything we should want to know about the world. We need multiple gnoses, working together, to begin to piece together a map of reality.
(There are other gnoses, of course, but many of them are narrow bodies of knowledge or subsets of the four I’ve chosen. In any event, my chosen four are sufficient to give us an understanding of the role of mythology in the modern world.)
Let’s examine these four gnoses in more detail:
Science and art are complimentary. They help us understand the world in different ways. Science considers the world systematically; art considers the same world syntagmatically. Science explores the evolution of closed systems over time; art presents moments (or regions) of time in their fullness. Science tells us about the past and the future (cause and effect); art tells us about the present (subjective experience).
Between science and art there is an almost Heisenbergean relationship. To the extent that we see an event as a process over time, we will not be able to experience it as a whole; likewise, to the extent that we see an event as a holistic experience in the present, we will not understand its evolution over time.
Of course, we can alternate the ways we experience the world and we do. Varying our perspective can deepen our appreciation of the world in both modes; but we cannot experience the same event in both modes at the same time.
Philosophy and theology, on the other hand, only consider the world as a whole. The objective and the subjective, the temporal and the non-temporal are complementary aspects of a single reality. Philosophy and theology look for the patterns that bridge objective reality and subjective experience. They provide the context in which the complimentary disciplines of science and art can coexist as elements of a single whole.
Logos is the pattern underlying things. It is because of logos that events can be defined, distinguished from one another and ordered according to some principle. Without logos, the world would be a swirl of unrelated sensations.
Genesis describes the world before God’s creative act (logos) as “…without form or shape with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters –.” Genesis has it right: without logos, chaos.
The Gospel of John tells the same story in a different way but specifically invokes Logos in the telling: “In the beginning was the Logos…All things came to be through him (Logos) and without him nothing came to be.”
So how does the concept of logos relate to the four gnoses we identified earlier? Every gnosis must have its own logos, its own way of exploring the universe and its own way of ordering its findings. Logos makes it possible for us to search meaningfully for answers to our questions. When a young child asks an endless stream of ‘why’ questions, she is building her logos.
So what is the logos of each gnosis we are reviewing?
- The logos of science is method.
- The logos of art is image.
- The logos of philosophy is logic.
- The logos of theology is liturgy.
On the level of logos, we experience the world first; then we come to understand it.
Now we are ready to turn our attention to mythos. Behind every gnosis stands a logos but beyond every logos stands a mythos, a myth.
According to Strozewski, a myth is “an answer to an unasked question.” It consists of the habits of mind and the unexamined assumptions that allow us to do science, write poetry, apply reason and practice religion. In a logical or mathematical system, it would be the ‘undefined terms’.
On the level of mythos, we understand the world first; then we experience it. If we think of the logos as the endoskeleton of a gnosis, we can think of the mythos as its exoskeleton.
Each logos is incorrigibly corrupted by its reliance on a specific perspective. Science is dependent on the scientist, art on the artist, philosophy on the thinker and theology on the believer.
The holy grail of science is to isolate the measurer from the measurement. It can be approximated, but never fully realized. Worse, it may be the case that there are no defined measurements in the absence of a measurer.
Wordsworth defined poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility”; but perfect tranquility, like total objectivity, is never achievable.
Philosophy and theology have their own holy grails. For philosophy, it’s ‘a non-trivial matrix of decidable propositions that is complete’. Kurt Gödel proved that such a matrix cannot exist.
For theology, it’s revelation. Unfortunately, by definition revelatory moments are not repeatable or verifiable.
So there are four ways to understand the world and four logoi with which to understand it. Unfortunately though, the nature of all four logoi is such that a perfect understanding of the world is not possible. We can alternate our perspective among the four but we end up with an overlay of four flawed maps. So we must look beyond these four logoi for a complete understanding of the world.
Mythos aims to deliver a vision of the entirety from the perspective of the entirety. Mythology is how the world understands itself. There’s no scientist, no artist, no philosopher and no theologian to intermediate. Homer sings the epics but the epics are not the myths themselves; they are merely vehicles, albeit beautiful ones, for the communication of those myths.
There are no acknowledged ‘myth-makers’. Myths make themselves or they aren’t real myths. Harry Potter is spectacular but it’s a story with mythological content, not a myth.
Mythologies are as varied as the cultures that treasure them. Yet, as Sir James George Frazer, Robert Graves, Joseph Campbell, Claude Levy-Strauss and others have shown, the core contents of these mythologies are often remarkably similar. Still, mythologies do evolve as our collective understanding of the cosmos deepens.
Logos, as we mentioned above, gives us tools to translate our experience of the world into an understanding of it. Mythos works in reverse. Mythos is a tool that translates our understanding of the world into experience. Mythology is a filter that conditions the way we experience the world. Far from being fairy tales, myths are what tell us what’s real (and what isn’t), what’s valuable (and what’s not).
Logos determines what is real and what is of value for any gnosis; mythos passes judgment on the determinations of the logos.
A myth is not falsifiable. In fact, it is the nature of myth generally that it is not susceptible in any way to ‘mere evidence’. In fact, it is mythology that defines what is ‘evidence’ and what is ‘hearsay’.
Today, there are four dominant and apparently incompatible mythologies afoot in our world. Not coincidentally, they coincide at least loosely with the four gnoses and the four logoi reviewed above.
The first myth is related to the scientific world view. It is not concerned with any specific hypotheses or models. Rather it embodies as articles of faith certain basic attitudes about the world that make science possible.
Generally speaking, this myth is rooted in empiricism. It understands the universe as self-contained and somehow self-generating. Any notion of transcendence is excluded a priori. What you see is what you get; and it’s all you get. It’s all you can get!
Events proceed from cause to effect according to unspecified but definite physical pathways. Values are necessarily relative, conditional and situational. Events acquire meaning only in relation to one another. Human consciousness is just one aspect of this world and merits no special status. What matters is objectivity: objective knowledge about an objective world.
Sure, this model is compatible with everything from Newtonian physics and Laplacian determinism to General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory…but that’s the whole idea. We are not talking about any one physical theory or model here; we are talking about an attitude of mind that lies behind all such models and makes them possible.
The second myth is related to what we would generally describe as ‘humanism’. Humanity collectively and each human being individually is the center of the universe, morally if not physically. The origin of the universe is unimportant (because past and future are generally unimportant). What matters is that it exists now and has sentient beings in it. Those sentient beings are what give it meaning. Human experience is the touchstone of truth. The wellbeing of humanity and its members is the ultimate value.
This myth is not concerned with any one work of art, any one artist, or any one medium. Instead, it is what makes experience and emotion, the raw materials of art, worthwhile and relevant. It’s what gives art its credibility and value.
The third myth is what we would call ‘rationalism’. It judges multiple systems of axioms and theorems, not just according to internal consistency, but according to their resonance with the real world. The world is fundamentally a rational place. Human beings can rely on reason to find answers to their deepest questions.
The fourth myth is related to the divine. It situates the space-time universe in the context of non-spatial, non-temporal eternity. It is that eternal realm that gives events in the temporal realm their value and ultimately their meaning.
Events may certainly be influenced by other events (‘causality’) but there is also openness to freedom, creativity and even miracles. Values have a transcendental origin and so per se are absolute (although they can certainly have varied expressions, applications and interpretations). Events derive their meaning from the transcendental values they manifest.
Being is self-generating (causa sui) in the context of an entity that is supremely actual and eminently good. In this universe it is values that are sub-structural; essence precedes existence. Values are not relative nor are they merely normative; they are generative (Anaximander). Entities are not incidentally good; they are because and to the extent that they are good. Value is not an extrinsic measure of an entity; it is the intrinsic source of its very being.
Our fourth mythology incorporates the transcendent and the immanent in a single, seamless reality. Events occur in real time but they have an eternal aspect as well. Everything changes (Heraclitus) but nothing vanishes (Parmenides). Change is the source of historical novelty but also the engine of eternal harmony.
And what of the mythology of ancient Greece? Like each mythos above, it provided a framework for understanding the world. It validated a particular gnosis. However, the logos of that gnosis is what we would today call ‘magic’…not a tool widely used in our day.
Clearly then, we are no less dependent on mythology today than we were in pre-historic times. It is our nature as human beings to construct gnoses, but ever gnosis must have a logos to power it and a mythos to justify it,
We need to know what’s real and what’s valuable. This is our primal question and no gnosis (body of knowledge) or logos (intellectual tool) can answer that. For better or worse, we are ultimately dependent on mythos to guide us through life and no mythology can be verified…or falsified. We are in uncharted waters. Like Kierkegaard, we must make a leap in the dark. It is all up to us. “I set before you…therefore choose…” (Deuteronomy)