The Future of Myth
The word “mythology” is derived from the Greek words mythos (μυθος, “story”) and logos (λογος, “speech, word”) and so etymologically means something like “storytelling.” Mythologies exhibit numerous qualities and fulfill various purposes among different cultures. They can be cosmological, describing the origins and nature of the universe and the role of humanity within it; they are frequently eschatological, foretelling the ultimate fate of man and the surrounding world; and, most characteristically, they are aetiological, explaining the customs and values of a culture in such a way as to immortalize them, or at least to link them with something greater and more cosmic than the community itself.
One can cite multitudinous differences between the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition and those of the indigenous Australians. With a bit of insight, one also may discover striking and instructive similarities between different myths. The obedient submission of Jesus to the crucifix, wrote the venerable mythologist Joseph Campbell, is functionally the same moment as the dutiful descent of the Buddha from the perfect bliss of the Immovable Spot, coming to selflessly share his enlightenment with the world.
Borrowing a term from James Joyce, Campbell in his fascinating survey The Hero With a Thousand Faces describes the architecture of the “monomyth,” a sort of template set of images and plot elements from which all of the culture-defining hero stories of the world can be derived. There are characteristics shared between mythologies as a result of cultural exchange—the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is ancient and complex, and Christianity is historically understood as a dialect of Judaism heavily influenced by Roman, Egyptian, and Persian mythologies. But because myth is a metaphor for human experience used to transmit cultural values and identity, we can expect to see profound commonalities between the myths of even disparate, noncontiguous cultures. These shared traits are reflective of those aspects of life that are pancultural. In every human life there is the cycle of birth and death and the uncertainty and mystery of the void beyond; there are hunger and thirst, marvel at the unrelenting procession of the heavens, the need for strength and ingenuity in the overcoming of physical and psychological obstacles, and such motifs are woven into the tapestry of mythology wherever it is found.
Religion Campbell described as “misinterpreted mythology.” The word “religion” is from the Latin for “to rejoin, rebind.” The connotation is somber and accusatory, suggesting the radiant and supremely holy reunification of fallible mankind with ultimate truth and implying a synapse between the human and the divine which only the religion itself can bridge. If mythology is the story-as-metaphor, then religion is the myth-as-truth. I posit that the two behave quite differently, that one yields direction and the other disease.
Each culture characteristically interprets its own mythology as religion in this sense, as a priori truth (or, perhaps more accurately in the case of the revelatory faiths, as truth that should be a priori but is necessarily bestowed upon frail humanity a posteriori because of its own imperfection, hence the need for religion as the Right Path.) This outlook is generally representative of the culture as a whole, and is also an interesting phenomenon at the level of the individual. So long as the life experience—the a posteriori—of the individual and the broader experience of the culture or community do not come into conflict with the myth, the totem retains its effectiveness as a vehicle of culture and as a social cohesive. But when tension erupts between assumptive beliefs and experiential knowledge, the myth degenerates from the pure and buoyant symbolism of metaphor; it must thenceforth swim to get anywhere, or must don the mind-numbing, empty mantras of fideism merely to stay afloat. One of the earliest challenges to the mythology of a given culture is, of course, the interaction of that culture with another which does not share its beliefs. Scientific discovery and the empirical development of the cultural body of knowledge pose a different kind of confrontation. But even in the context of the individual human, life experience itself can disclose, or at least imply, the fiction of myth. Well, is this the end of its value? Not necessarily.
Through experiential knowledge, if not through explicit revelation, the child outgrows the fairy tale of Santa Claus. This is an expected rite of passage throughout much of the pertinent culture. The Germanic myth of Yuletide karma is a metaphorical representation of the ethic of the Golden Rule, preached by Christ and Kung Fu-tzu among many others. Even when the myth is exposed as fable, the child is expected to retain the moral value and is indeed likely to propagate the myth among his or her own children. The fable of Father Christmas is aetiological in a very limited sense—it explains that good behavior begets rewards, yet does not speak to the value of such behavior in any less deterministic terms—but it is not cosmological and certainly not eschatological in scope. Furthermore, it is driven by economic factors and by its circumstantial association with the celebration of the birth of Christ (which is itself rooted in the midwinter festival of Mithras, deity of the Roman sun cult). The effects of passage through this particular myth are interesting psychologically; but of far greater importance is the emergence of the culture and of the individual from the grip of the greater myth which defines the accepted conceptions of the natural and social orders.
History amply illustrates that the growing body of experiential knowledge of a culture will inevitably conflict with its religion, its a priori myth-as-truth. The individual in modern society accesses this knowledge through education, whereby he or she is presented with a choice: to recognize that religion is mythology and to embrace it for its literary and cultural value as metaphor, or to continue to believe in mythology as ultimate truth, in which case all experiential knowledge which conflicts with religion must be reconciled against it and conformed to it using any number of various logical (or illogical) devices. This is ironic since, in many cultures, institutions of education have been themselves administered by a religious body—an important component of such education, then, is invariably the absorption of the rhetoric necessary to perform the intellectually backwards task of reconciliation of the contents of firmware and software, to borrow an analogy from computer science. That the firmware of the human being is itself programmable—that the individual is by virtue of his or her very existence already yoked irrevocably to the “truth” towards which the religion presents itself as a unique channel—is a secret which direly threatens the psychological totem of the social order for which the mythology serves as foundation and vehicle.
One must not suppose that this circumstance is unique to the post-Copernican world, for even the thinkers of classical Greece and Rome, and almost certainly those of civilizations prior and parallel, recognized that the story-as-metaphor can survive a posteriori scrutiny and can even guide and inspire education to new heights of achievement, whereas the myth-as-truth, because of its inflexible form, can but play a restrictive, antagonistic role outside of a certain frame of no greater than Santa-like proportions. But the technology of the printing press, the propagation of the scientific method as a common-sense procedure for gaining at least one species of knowledge of the self and the world, and the eruption of intolerance for the iniquities of feudalism and the corruption of the Church violently unseated the state from its throne of religion and gradually emancipated the men and women of the West to reason without mortified fear of the contempt of the priestly-royal caste.
The divine right government, whether of pharaonic Egypt, Qing China, or Bourbon France, established its authority upon the association of the figurehead with the sacred. Thus the monarchical possession of great wealth and power was justified as a reflection of the right order of the universe, and the forceful, bloody, coldly mercantile expansion of the empire was painted as benign evangelism along the lines of Old Testament precedent. The subject’s fear of and obedience to the monarch were theoretically based in the divine command, but were in reality enforced through social stratification at the point of the spear or sword, as the indigenous peoples of five continents quickly discovered at the hands of various overlords. The emancipation from myth-as-truth engendered awareness of the realpolitik of the existing social order and paved the way for revolution and the rise of the Republic.
But the American Republic, as an example, is itself rooted in its own utilitarian version of the monomyth which is characterized sometimes as the “American Dream.” The hero journeys from his politically turbulent homeland to the wide open spaces of the new continent of plenty, where, solely by the grace of providence and the skill of his own hand, he participates in the most equitable and virtuous society in the history of Earth, a society completely free of the despotic and plutocratic ways of the Old World, a society of such great virtue and such sound structure that it is logically incapable of persistent error, that its youthfully aggressive might and zeal cannot possibly be interpreted as a modified recursion of the murderous imperialism upon which it was in fact built. In this mythical America, wealth is not gained by cutthroat exploitation of the weak but by hard work and honesty. The bureaucracy of this mythical America is not self-interested, self-perpetuating, and self-apologizing, but is wholly benevolent, truly just, and serenely competent. It is “the freest country on Earth,” a golden nation which will never be improved except by further delineation of its blindingly wholesome core principles. Its actions on the world stage are regally appropriate beyond reproach, much like the gritty dispensation of hands-on justice by the mythic self-proclaimed lawmen of its Wild West. In God it trusts, and clearly God trusts in it. The mythology represented by Versailles has been supplanted by the mythology of the Statue of Liberty. Divine sanction is still the charter of the state in legend if not by decree.
One of many contradictions which emerge from this picture concerns the role of education in the modern Republic. It is compulsory and is provided by the state; even when not provided by the state, it is answerable to certain state criteria. That the state provides its citizenry access to learning as a gesture of equal opportunity is an admirable achievement at face value. But what is being taught—free-thinking rationalism, or unquestioning subservience? Does the state impart to its youth the capacity to improve upon the social order, or does it provide in Spartan tradition merely the tools necessary to perpetuate it?
The answer lies not in the substantive content of education so much as in the social subtext. Formal education is largely a passive, collective, industrial conditioning process—not an active and organic adventure of individual growth and empowerment. Just as religious-administered education tends to serve its own interests, so education in the Republic nurtures obsequious participation in the secular twin religions of participatory democracy and benevolent capitalism. To look beyond is radical, heretical. In this regard, we really have not progressed far past the Athenian government which condemned Socrates to death for teaching the nobility of post-conventional thought. The democracy of the information age is only more sophisticated in that it suavely executes the thought and not the thinker, and this propensity for intellectual intolerance is not characteristic solely of one political wing or the other, but of the extremes of each. As Chomsky has written, “Propaganda is to the democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state.”
Campbell is quite correct that the myth, the story-as-metaphor, is indispensable to human experience. It is naïve to assert that the myth has no place in the world of scientific understanding—for, apart from impressive (and sometimes fearsome) practical accomplishments, what does science reveal except ever more mystery? But it is equally naïve to expect the harmonization of religion (myth-as-truth) and science (accumulated experience-as-truth) save through the neurotic compartmentalization of supposedly universal knowledge. If the myth is the ultimate truth, then only it can answer to the mysteries of the cosmos without and within. Hence the monotheistic God is a jealous one.
If the God of Abraham is omniscient in transcendence of his own creation, then he must have placed the forbidden fruit in full knowledge that it would be plucked. Whatever our reasoning, we must not revile the mythical Serpent merely for stating the obvious. The devolution of religion into mythology is inevitable and imparts to the individual and to the culture an awesome responsibility from which it shirks at its peril. As the Lord Himself boomed to Job:
Gird up thy loins now like a man; I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayst be righteous? Hast thou an arm like God? Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty. Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place. Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret. Then I will also confess to thee that thine own hand can save thee.
The beliefs of the atheist and of the theist are starkly opposite in silhouette only. The deep substance of each belief is simply committal to an a priori truth that is immovable: the one takes the existence of a specific and certain divinity as the starting point, the other the specific and certain nonexistence of any such divinity.
The story-as-metaphor points to those universal aspects of human existence which are as close as our convergent and divergent experiences can bring us to any such a priori truth. It cannot itself live as truth, because the mystery of existence is ineffable, the blind spot of the worldview common to all humans and possibly to all whom exist, Campbell’s “germinal secret of the father,” Carroll’s dream of the Red King. It is not entirely unthinkable that we should one day evolve our way out of this stupor, or that the cultures of other suns, should we be so fortunate as to discover them or they us, might shed a little light on this greatest of riddles. What is clear is that we will not force our way into understanding. Like Candide’s garden, the metaphor of myth can be humbly planted and harvested in abundance and to great satisfaction for generations on end. It is the stuff of literature, and he who thinks he has nothing to learn from fiction is vain indeed. But to present one mythology as literal truth and to deprecate all others as “storytelling” is to render myth a dead thing whose only lifeblood is the wheezing, uneasy credo. With all due respect, the strangely palatable absurdity of literal belief in the superhuman holiness of an obviously human-penned text is beyond the scope of this post.
Unfortunately, the myth-as-truth is the underpinning of practically the entirety of modern civilization as a collection of competing nation-states dominated by the lust for property and wealth. It remains a prominent obstacle in the path of the organic development of a peaceful and harmonious global community because it is the basis for the most enduring pretexts for human selfishness and self-righteousness.
A famous Native American proverb says that we do not inherit the world from our ancestors—we borrow it from our descendants. This seems to be a responsible way to live. Perhaps we should concern ourselves less with the history of “creation” and more with the world we are creating. Perhaps the story-as-metaphor our age requires is that of the hero-child from a dark tomorrow braving a perilous and self-immolating journey to the past so that he may warn us, his ancestors, of what he has seen.
As technology continues to shrink the distances between cultures and individuals, it becomes ever more crucial to accept that the thing we have most in common with one another is how very, very little we know—and that we desire to learn more together.
“If we believe absurdities, we will commit atrocities.”
– François Marie Arouet (Voltaire)