Traditional Culture

When a Culture Loses Touch With Its Mythos

Mythos versus logos, Part 1
BY James Sale TIMEJune 11, 2023 PRINT

In her wonderful book, “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong, drawing on the work of other eminent scholars, introduces us to a central reason why there has been a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the modern world. Indeed, her book points out some intriguing and insightful parallels between all three religions. But perhaps the really central concept she adumbrates occurs in the Introduction to the book: this is the distinction between mythos and logos.

This distinction is, in my view, vital in seeking to understand why the West is in decline.

What Are Mythos and Logos?

Allegory of the sciences, Minerva and Chronos protecting the sciences against envy and ignorance
“Allegory of the Sciences, Minerva, and Chronos Protecting the Sciences Against Envy and Ignorance,” 1614–1616, by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (Public Domain)

Put simply, the ancient world, including the Medieval one, operated on the basis of both understandings: People understood that mythos and logos were two different ways of interpreting the world, but that both were necessary and that each had its own domain, or area of applicability.

Apply the wrong approach to a given situation, and you would draw a false result, interpretation, or conclusion. Of course, people in the ancient world often did exactly that. As Dorothy L. Sayers notes in her book, “Unpopular Opinions”:

“The error of the Middle Ages, on the whole, was to use analogical, metaphorical, poetical techniques for the investigation of scientific questions. But increasingly, since the seventeenth century, we have tended to the opposite error—that of using the quantitative methods of science for the investigation of poetic truth.”

But at least in the Medieval period, people did know there were these two approaches or methods to interpreting reality. We in the West now seem to have only one methodology, and, thereby, so are impaired.

According to Karen Armstrong, “Mythos was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind.”

She goes on to say, “Myth is not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning.” Logos, on the other hand, “was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world … unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective.” Armstrong warns us that it is “dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse.”

A Shallow Understanding of Reality

Physical and Natural Sciences
“Physical and Natural Sciences,” 1917, by Veloso Salgado. Oil on canvas. University of Porto, Portugal. (Public Domain)

Dangerous in what sense? How is it dangerous? I would like to suggest for now that there are three revealing ways in which it is dangerous to confuse these methodologies of understanding reality. The first danger is well-expressed in a Chinese saying which substitutes the words mystic-science for mythos-logos; the sense and the parallel, however, is very clear:

“Mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both.”

Education with Science and Religion by Tiffany
The balance between “mythos” and “logos” with science and faith harmoniously presided over by the personification of “Light, Love and Life.” Central panel of “Education,” 1890, by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Stained glass window in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Yale University. (Public Domain)

There is something dramatically incomplete about our knowledge, and so our lives, when we ignore one fundamental modality of our being and overemphasize the other. Even atheists, such as American philosopher Thomas Nagel, can see the danger here:

“Some people leave all cultural religious forms in disgust, despair, or desolation, and walk into the sterile kingdoms of atheism and materialism, in which no transcendent expression will be found. I find the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand, except as a manifestation of an axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism.”

So, confusing mythos with logos is dangerous because it  misinterprets reality. We end up with science-logos pretending that it can explain the meaning of life, which it can’t.

But in the phrase “reductive materialism,” Nagel leads us towards a second danger observed by Allan Bloom 30 or so years ago: “Men and societies need myths, not science, by which to live.” As we witness all around us in the West, the disintegration of society, of communities, of values, we increasingly realize why it is important to have myths to live by.

The Romans—and the Roman Empire—were very good at this (until, of course, they became complacent, self-indulgent, and lost the plot). They were forever generating myths about what it meant to be a “good” Roman; most famously, this is incorporated in one of the world’s greatest epics, “The Aeneid,” written during the reign of its first and greatest emperor, Augustus.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy
“Aeneas’s Flight From Troy,” 1598, by Federico Barocci. Oil on canvas. Borghese Gallery, Rome. (Public Domain)

What were the qualities that made Aeneas so greatso Roman? Piety, commitment to family, and steadfastness: These were three of the vital components of the Roman mythology about themselves.

Aeneas demonstrated all of them in his initial escape from Troy: He was led by the goddess, Venus (showing piety); he saved his father, Anchises (commitment to family), by carrying him on his back; and he showed remarkable steadfastness of purpose as the slaughter and massacre was going on all around him. The point is that by being consistent with this myth and its values, which are palpably enacted in the story, it made you a good and an admirable Roman. Romans sought to emulate Aeneas, to be like he was. He was what we would call a good role model.

It is worth noting that these were civic values that seem completely alien to today’s world: Piety? Family? Steadfastness? Just to steadfastness, for instance, which has now been replaced by “vulnerability.” Demonstrating that you have mental health problems seems to be chic today!

Venus Giving Arms to Aeneas
“Venus Giving Arms to Aeneas,” 1704, by Jean Cornu. Terracotta and painted wood sculpture. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Public Domain)

The further point here, however, is that whatever good, noble civic values (and myths) we once enjoyed (perhaps you might want to consider what your top three are?), these are now being eroded in the West, and the result is the breakdown of society.

In our time, reductive materialism, has led to the depletion of myths through which to live by since logos has taken over and debunked mythical thinking. This shallowness (looking only at the branches) has a deleterious effect both personally and socially.

It seems almost too wide a generalization to say it, but every civilization of any note has experienced this process: In the initial phase belief in the myth(s) is strong and the empire is established. After this initial success, it seems as if people begin to believe less in the myths, but more in their own hands in creating success, so that myths become not so much a belief, but more a ritual. Finally, few believe at all, rituals hollow out, and contention enters—endgame.

The Rise of Fundamentalism

John Wycliffe reading his translation of the bible to John of Gaunt
“John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt,” 1847–1861, by Ford Madox Brown. Oil on canvas. Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, England. (Public Domain)

Thus, we come to the third reason why this point is dangerous, and this really is the central argument of Armstrong’s book. Essentially, it is the principle (a logos statement) that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; or put it another way, when yang overreaches itself, it rebounds to yin, and vice versa.

The rise of fundamentalism in the three major religions that Armstrong reviews (though fundamentalism is not exclusive to these religions: all religions have this tendency, including atheism itself) is linked to the atrophying of mythical thinking. Because ever-increasing numbers of people can no longer “believe” the myths, religion itself ebbs away; but as that happens, a core of believers react against this, and they turn their attention to rendering the holy texts and scriptures in a more literal, more fundamentalist way.

One irony of this is that they often claim to be going back to basics. The Protestant Reformation (which coincides with the beginnings of the rise of science as we know it today) did this: The Catholic church, they claimed, had corrupted the teachings of the Bible and of the early church Fathers.

But the Protestants themselves fractured into various subgroups whose own practice, especially in regard to how to read the Bible, also—in its literalism—did not always follow the early church Fathers. This was a literalism of interpretation unknown to many of the early church leaders, and provided an ideal target for science-logos to attack, beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing to this day.

I would like, therefore, in part 2 of this article, to consider a famous passage in the Old Testament of the Bible in which a mythical understanding—rather than a literal or scientific interpretation—enables us to glean far more truth—truth about God’s creation—than either literalism or scientism can.

Indeed, to read as mythos means there is not a dispute between science and religion in terms of domains of relevance. Surely, something we all want?

 Cover of Karen Armstrong's book
Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” published in 2000.
James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He has been nominated for the 2022 poetry Pushcart Prize, won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, performing in New York in 2019. His most recent poetry collection is “StairWell.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit EnglishCantos.home.blog
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