Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Universal Rôle of Mythology

When we read Plato's stories of the life of Socrates, it is very easy for us to spot the mythology involved. Plato's Socrates is a pious devotee of Athena, the goddess of war and of wisdom. It is central to his understanding of what is ethical, and ultimately he chooses death as more acceptable than leaving Athens, Athena's city.

Greek Athena, a Copy Signed by ANTIOCHOS as she Appeared on the Acropolis

For us, it is self-evident that Socrates is being superstitious, that Athena is purely mythological—that is to say not real. We are inclined to say, "Why should Socrates die for such nonsense?" Yet, I can't help but wonder that if the tables were turned and Socrates were reading an account of one of our lives what he would spot, without hesitation, as mythological, and wonder at.

Look in a dictionary for a definition of mythology, and you will find something like:

mythology |məˈθäləjē|
noun ( pl. -gies)

1. a collection of myths, esp. one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition.
• a set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, esp. when exaggerated or fictitious.

2. the study of myths.

I want to extend this definition to uncover the essential and universal rôle of mythology in every person's world view. I assert that each and every one of us has a mythology which is the very foundation of our understanding. It serves the purpose of allowing us to sift the infinite number of facts that bombard us each day. Without a mythology, ordinary thinking would be an infinite regress of questioning, practical decision-making would be impossible.

My definition of mythology is "a set of unquestioned and even unquestionable beliefs which form the foundation of practical reasoning about the world and are both influenced by and give rise to a set of stories which both evolve and bolster those self-evident truths."

That is, my mythology, and yours, and every single persons consists of those things which we do not question, and even things which we cannot question as they lie outside of our awareness while still influencing us. When someone says, "the facts speak for themselves", they are relying on a mythology to provide the framework. The facts never speak for themselves, they can't. Facts are not arguments, they must have a logical framework to provide the meaning that is so self-evident to the speaker.

People almost never realize that self-evident things are not proven. In their minds, self-evident things are given the same weight as the proofs which arise from the assumptions they make. That is to say, a valid logical inference is not necessarily "true". The logical inference: "all men have two brains, Plato was a man, therefore Plato had two brains" is valid but false. If we agreed that all men have two brains, and that Plato was a man, it would not only be valid but true. Logical inferences inherit they truthfulness from the assertions of fact of which they are composed.

In the case of "the facts speak for themselves", the person asserting this invites us to plug a fact into a preëxisting framework that provide the "all men have two brains" part. "Plato was a man, the fact speaks for itself, he had two brains." In this case, the speaker may or may not be aware that there is a question of the two-brainedness of men. She may well have no idea why the "facts speak for themselves". This is the nature of mythology. The other guy has the mythology, we have the Truth.

Mythologies, though, are not necessarily falsehoods. Their merit does not lie in the strict factuality of their construction but in the unspeakable (that is, beyond simple words) foundation which they provide for moral, ethical and epistemic reasoning. Mythologies offer a way to weave essential messages about the world into all of our thinking. They are complex and very large in extent. They are evolving (in most cases, or they die). They do not inherently suggest a particular ideological result, nor are differing mythologies necessarily mutually exclusive. However, when two people have different mythologies, communication is very difficult.

Mythology, being pervasive and essentially foundational, creates a vocabulary for its adherents. Words like: "ethical", "moral", "right", "freedom", "oppression" and countless others are tied intimately to the mythologies that give rise to them. The dictionary is no help in this case, since there is no authority except the mythology for the "meaning" of these words.

Mythology, then, is not a bad or false thing. The stories that make up a mythology are generally exempla, fables, allegories. They are intended to instruct and bolster a complex interleaving of ideas. They needn't be factual to be useful.

When people mistake exempla for factual reporting, and mistake mythologies for proven 'truths" we get various types of orthodoxies, and we get wars and prejudice and pointless hatred. I am willing to let my friend have a mythology that varies from my own. I want to learn from him about the hidden assumptions of my own mythology. He has an ability to see what I take as self-evident as possibly wrong and that is a precious thing.

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Blogger kike said...

very interesting topic. A bunch of friends are trying to push these ideas of mythology into mainstream of american and european left-wing politics.

The ideas of narratives, echo chambers and frames got slowly into the mainstream of blog politics.. but the idea of structural narratives (as some anthropologists call mythologies so as not to confuse the term with the coloquial use of "myth" as something false) has not penetrated enough.

I linked to your post in
I hope you like the idea.

Thu Aug 27, 01:24:00 PM EDT  

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