Mythos and Logos

Eye of Ra

There are two forms of knowledge: logos and mythos. From an old post of mine, based on Karen Armstrong’s division of knowledge:

Mythos: “myth”, from greek musteion – to close eyes or mouth. Myth as a mode of Knowledge was rooted in silence and intuitive insight, and gave meaning to life, human existence, but cannot be explained in rational terms. In the premodern world, mythical knowledge was complementary to logos.

Logos: “word” or rational, logical, scientific discourse

Both were essential and complementary ways of arriving at the truth for each had its area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary, for it dealt with the timeless or constant elements of human existence. Myth was about the origins of life, the very foundations of culture and the most essential nature of human mind. However, myth has little to do with practical stuff, or anything other than the meaning of life. If people cannot or do not find significance in their lives, despair is the result. The mythos of a society is the context that makes sense of the daily life, and points at the eternal and universal. Moreover, myth is rooted in unconscious. The various stories of myth, which were not meant to be taken literally, was ancient psychology. All these stories of heroes in the underworld, in labyrinths, and fighting monsters, was the premodern way of dealing with the obscure realm of unconscious, which is completely inaccessible to rational investigation, but had profound effects on experience and behavior. Since myth is absent in modern society we instead developed the science of psychoanalysis to deal with our inner world.

The stories of myth cannot be demonstrated via rational proof as if they were historical events. The insights of myth were intuitive, and much closer to art, music, poetry or sculpture. Myth becomes a reality when embodied in cult, rituals, or ceremonies that worked aesthetic magic on people and evoked a deep sense of sacred significance that enabled them to understand the state of existence.

That is why the pre-modern people saw history differently than we do. They were far less interested than we are about what actually happened, but more about the meaning of what happened. Incidents weren’t considered as unique occurrences but mere external manifestations of constant and timeless realities. Therefore, history repeats itself, and historical narratives emphasized this dimension.

The Israeli exodus was deliberately written as myth, and to link the other stories of rites of passage, the immersion of deep water, gods splitting the sea to make new reality, etc. The Jewish people experience this in every passover. Unless history is mythologized, it cannot be truly religious. To investigate exodus as a historical event, to search for scientific evidence to prove its factual truth is to misunderstand the purpose of the story, and therefore confuse mythos with logos.

Logos was equally important as the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that allowed people to function in real life. Us moderns have lost the sense of mythos today for we are entrenched in logos, the foundation of the discourse of our society. Unlike mythos, logos must relate to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work in mundane world. Logical and discursive reasoning is to make things happen, get shit done, or sway others to do something. Logos is practical, and unlike mythos that looks back to beginnings or foundations, it forges ahead to find new and better stuff: elaborate old insights, gain better control of the environment, discover and invent novel stuff.

In pre-modern times both mythos and Logos were indispensable. Each mode would be impoverished without the other to complement it. Yet, both were distinct, which means it is dangerous to confuse myth with rational discourse. Both had separate jobs, in which myth was not amenable to reason, and its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. Rather, it provided context of meaning that made practical activity possible.

Furthermore, myth cannot be the basis of a pragmatic policy, because the results are always disastrous. In 1095, the first crusade plan of Pope Urban II was based on logos. But once military expedition became entangled with folk myth, bible stories, apocalyptic fantasies, the result was catastrophic, military, practically and morally. With logos, crusades prospered and did well on battlefield. But when crusaders made mythical vision the very basis of policy, they committed horrible atrocities and summarily were defeated. This is only one from thousands of examples from history.

Logos is limited, it is incapable of assuaging pain, sorrow. Rational arguments cannot deal with tragedy. Logos cannot answer questions about the ultimate value of life. Scientists can make things work, find new facts, but even their best theories cannot explain the meaning of life.

Nicolaus Copernicus‘ theory of a heliocentric universe delivered a fatal blow to the mystical perception that had reigned for thousands of years. Although he, and Galileo thought their science was compatible with religious vision, for logos supplement mythos, the paradigm shift forced people to not trust their perception like the pre-moderns did. Up till then people could just be satisfied with the evidence of their senses, and see through the apparent aspects of the world to the Unknown beyond, because they thought the apparent aspects corresponded to a fundamental reality. But after Copernicus, the seeming static earth is actually moving very fast, and the planets seemed to move only because people projected their on vision onto them. In other words, what seemed objective is actually subjective. Logos and myth ceased to be in harmony, and the rigorous logos of the scientists devalued the perception of the average joe, and made him more and more dependent upon the expert. Where myth placed human beings within the essential meaning of life, Logos pushed them to the marginal position in the cosmos.

By late 17th century, Blaise Pascal was the first to notice this, that modern science had opened up an infinite universe, and its emptiness and eternal silence inspired sheer anxiety:

“When i see the blind and wretched state of men, when i survey the whole universe in its deadness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, i am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost with no means of escape. Then i marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.”

By the 18th century, the age of reason, thinkers like Locke had faith in human reason enough to be confident that nature would give sufficient evidence for a Creator, and if people reasoned freely, they would arrive at the same truth themselves. The false or superstitious ideas of religion were the fault of the priests who employed tyrannical methods to force people to accept their orthodoxy. Other enlightenment philosophers saw religion rationally, as deism, and rejected older faiths that were based on revelation as naïve versions of natural religion. Faith is rational, they thought, and interpreted the old truths of mythos as though they were logoi.

In the approach to myths, positivists read them literally, and find them false and foolish. But the hermeneutic approach reads myth metaphorically and allegorically and finds them true and profound.

The Christians concern with doctrine turned their myths into scientific facts and established a mutant discourse that is neither scientific nor religious. Today, protestant fundamentalists read the bible in a literal, rational way that is foreign to the mystical, allegorical approach to the pre-modern time. But religious truth is not rational in nature and cannot be proved scientifically. The mythoi of the Bible had never pretended to be factual in the way that American Christians like Arthur Pierson thought. Mythical language cannot be adequately translated into rational language without distorting its raison d’etre. It contains meanings that were too elusive to be expressed any other way, much like poetry. If theology becomes scientific, it ends up with a caricature of rational discourse because its truth are foreign to rational demonstration. That is why protestant fundamentalists tend to overlook the intuitive and mystical, resulting in the loss of touch with the unconscious, i.e, the deeper impulses of humanity.

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Awet

...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

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