In Defense Of Mythology

October 22, 2008

A few days ago, in a comments thread (to Ralph Hancock’s PoMoCo Manifesto ) that quickly took on a life of its own and began zig-zagging between eso- and exoteric conversation, a commenter framed part of his objection on the premises that:

“I’m not the least bit sorry that believing in myths is becoming less socially acceptable . . . It may be impossible to get people to give up their myths, even in the context of public policy. But it’s worth the effort. There are about 5.5 billion people who’d like our quality of life, and maintaining it in the face of that much demand is going to require a lot of fact-based hard work. The defeat of AIDS, malaria and famine may require the cooperation of faith-based organizations, but success in those endeavors will require that they leave their faith within their places of worship, and use the tools that reason shows work.”

So, Francis, I suppose that if you somehow come across this, consider it the beginning of a reply to your objections (though, as I’m not qualified to, in no way a defense of Hancock’s “Manifesto”).

Myth is essential to our humanity. We dismiss it at our own risk. Part of the problem, however, stems from an over-simplified misunderstanding of what “myth” and “mythology” are. First, Robert Bringhurst (“The Meaning of Mythology” in Everywhere Being is Dancing, available in the US sometime later this year, but already out in Canada!):

“Myth is often misconstrued as something threatened by or threatening to science, or as a kind of misinformation for which science is the cure. Myth is actually, however, an alternative KIND of science; that is, an alternative kind of investigation. It is a means of understanding and elucidating the nature of the world. It aims, like science, at perceiving and expressing ultimate truths. But the hypotheses are framed as stories, not as equations, technical descriptions, or taxonomic rules.” . . . “Myths are stories that investigate the nature of the world from the standpoints of the world.”

And then there’s Karen Armstrong, writing in A Short History of Myth:

“Mythology was therefore designed to help us to cope with the problematic human predicament. It helped people to find their place in the world and their true orientation.”

Myths teach us things about ourselves and about the world which science cannot teach us. What I learn about the human condition from Odysseus choosing to leave Ogygia and immortality for Penelope and old age cannot be told in any other way. Science cannot describe the intimations of man’s place in the universe which come across through the Oedipus myths. The story of Cain and Abel—which is far more complex than many allow it to be—has taught us about love, family, hatred, rejection, rage, and remorse in ways that cannot be captured simply by the summation of a single lifetime’s experiences. To return to Bringhurst: “The myths stand in relation to other stories as the elders do to other human beings. They know more, because they have been learning things for longer.”

The commenter, in a later post, goes on to give us a reason for his antipathy toward mythology (other than the belief that it is inherently false):

“And to the extent that conservatism rejects reason and relies on myths, how does it explain to skeptics that its mythology is correct and other mythologies (like radical Islam) are false? If we measure by outcome (wealth of the US vs other countries, frex), isn’t that a concession that objective, science- and reason-based thinking is what matters? After all, how can we be sure that the prevalent myths of the last 200+ years haven’t in fact retarded progress compared to what might have been achieved without the dominance of those myths?”

Competing mythologies do not contradict each other as such because, as Armstrong says, “A myth . . . is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information.” When it work, it “give[s] us new insight into the deeper meaning of life.” Judeo-Christian mythologies and Islamic mythologies only refute one another if the truths they reveal about the world are contradictory. It is more the case that the truths the dogmatic, extremist versions of these religions—which fail to acknowledge the importance of myth quite as much as Francis—offer competing truths far more so than the mythologies. This is how I, who do not believe in the literal truth of Graeco-Roman religion, can be moved and learn from Homer, Virgil, Hesiod, and the like.

I would also further posit that a connection to the prevalent myths of humankind is a requirement for true societal advancement. Science can teach us about the world, but it cannot teach us how to live in it as human beings. This is the role of myth. One cannot have any “good” society if this society has empirical knowledge but does not know how to use it, and does not have an intimation of its role in the world. Bringhurst:

“Real myths are not manmade, any more than the laws of physics are manmade, though we rely on human beings, using human languages, to formulate and explore them. . . . The presumption of mythology is always that the world has more knowledge and more power than any human being could possess, and that the order of the world is richer and more meaningful than any order humans could impose.”

That, sometimes, in the words of Wendell Berry, “we must abandon arrogance and stand in awe.”

And if myth sometimes seems too unclear for any of this to be worthwhile, I think the words of Guy Davenport are worth considering: “Its seeming inarticulateness is not a failure to articulate, but a declining to articulate images and events which can be left in free collision.”


**(Full disclosure: Bringhurst does make the claim that “A mythology that has suffered such a fate [lapsed into dogma] is often known as religion.” Here we disagree, but I would be wrong not to air this. I believe what he is referring to is not religion itself, but dogmatic religious literalism. Religion that allows itself to understand and re-understand the stories in relation to the world–religion in conversation with itself, its texts, its stories, and its world–is not a frozen mythology but a living, breathing one. This is why the Oral Torah, Talmud and midrashim, and even Kaballah have been essential to the survival and intellectual/cultural flourishing of Judaism.)**


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