Myth: What is it Good For?

In wake of the recent uprisings the question of myth has attained a new poignancy for the American republic. In June the Washington Post released an interview with filmmaker Ken Burns entitled “Our Monuments are Representations of Myth, Not Fact.” In it Burns says, “Our monuments, even those as revered as the Statue of Liberty, are representations of myth, not fact, and, as we consider what role monuments play in our culture, it’s the history, not the mythology, that we must remember.” While Burns is right to say that monuments represent myth, it is surprising to hear a storyteller like himself use the word “myth” in this disparaging manner, as in “even those as revered …” Such usage of “myth,” which equates it with “falsehood” or “lie,” belongs to an Enlightenment sentiment that is surging through the country at this moment. Along with the removal of monuments, The 1619 Project and other initiatives represent conscious attempts to dismantle our national myths in the name of Enlightenment principles like truth, justice, and equality. The conflict is not anything new — the Enlightenment and myth have fought an all-out war of attrition throughout modernity — and therefore Burns’ disparaging usage of “myth” is not anything new either. It is, however, also not the only usage of this word.

The great modern advocate for myth is 20th Century Swiss psychologist Carl Gustave Jung. Jung, an apostate of Freud, originated a mythological school of thought that includes such luminaries as Joseph Campbell, Erich Neumann, Camille Paglia, and, to an extent, George Lucas. For Jung and Jungians “myth” does not mean “falsehood” or “lie” but rather a mode of cognition unto itself which operates through narrative. For Jung, myth is closely connected to memory. It is well known how memory can fail to accurately represent the past. When we attempt to corroborate our memories we often find that we have incomplete, distorted or outright fabricated images in our mind. It is tempting to say that memory is therefore a faulty faculty, that it should be returned to the shop for immediate repairs. Jung, however, would say that memory is a perfectly good faculty, but that it simply does not create the kind of representations of the world that we expect from the rational sciences. Rather, Jung would say, memory creates a narrative that helps to make sense of our psychological situation, give meaning to our lives, and propel us into the future. If memory did function as an observational instrument, rather than a narrative faculty, then, according to Jung, we would all be cast into a sort of private postmodernity, where a manifold of facts appears but fails to cohere into a meaningful experience.

Myth then functions on the collective level as memory functions on the individual level. For example, the myths of the Torah do not accurately represent empirical history, but for thousands of years they have provided a basis for action and a foundation for meaning-making to the Jewish people. There is a Darwinian element to myth: if a myth cannot provide a basis for action and a foundation for meaning-making to its adherents then either the myth or its adherent will cease to exist. The question of the role of myth is therefore whether a given myth can sustain the cultural life of a community of adherents, rather than whether it accurately represents empirical reality.

Myth vs. Rationality

Accurately representing empirical reality does, however, have its uses. When it comes to planning harvests, navigating boats, and constructing bridges, myth has to take a secondary role. Rationality, in its relations with observation and technology, has been both a powerful source of human progress and a vital means of human survival. In the ethical sphere rationality also curbs false witness and erodes prejudice. The difficulty with rationality, however, is that it often undermines myth. For all its benefits, rationality carries with it the supreme threat of leaving a people without basis for action or a foundation for meaning-making.

On the other side, myth threatens to stifle rationality with dogmatism. Humanity is therefore left with two distinct and mutually conflictual modes of cognition. In history we find various strategies for coping with the conflict between myth and rationality. Classical India provides us a clear example of one such strategy: divide the labor. The people of Classical India practiced the caste system, wherein legally distinct, hereditary classes — or castes — carried out distinct cultural, political, and economic functions. The Brahmins were, among other things, the caste responsible for rational thought. Mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, literature, and the like were produced by the Brahmins for the use of the society as a whole, but the Brahmins also reserved the right to withhold their knowledge from the other castes. For example, the Brahmins determined that their monistic philosophy undermined the distinction between virtue and vice (what’s wrong with murder if “all is one” anyway?) and thus posed a threat to the ethical norms of their society. To neutralize the threat the Brahmins forbade people from other castes to read the Upanishads, the Brahmin’s philosophical texts, to the point where if they caught a non-Brahmin reading the Upanishads then they would punish him by pouring molten lead in his ears.

Instead of sharing their philosophy with the other castes the Brahmins wrote down great myths like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These myths, which exhibit the polytheism associated with Hinduism, depict the exploits of the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, and contain explicit moral lessons. Classical India founded its cultural life in the great Hindu myths, not in the abstract philosophy of the Brahmins. If you have ever wondered how Hinduism can be both monistic and polytheistic, it is because there are (at least) two Hinduisms: rational Hinduism for the Brahmins and mythological Hinduism for everyone else.

While Classical India provides an exceptionally clear case of this strategy for dealing with the conflict between myth and rationality, it is far from the only case. As Isaiah Berlin said, paraphrasing Joseph de Maistre, “When the Romans wanted science, they bought Greeks to be their scientists on their behalf.” The clergy of Medieval Europe performed an analogous role to that of the Brahmins. The concept of the “noble lie”, which runs throughout Western political thought, presupposes the existence of a class that holds a monopoly on rationality. It was not that long ago that Marx spoke of religion as the opiate of the people.

Our Enlightenment attitude towards myth, in which myth is a falsehood, a lie that must be subjected to the rigor of rational thought, is historically peculiar, and not simply because other cultures were ignorant of rationality. Other cultures have viewed myth as something necessary, even something that must be protected from the rigor of rational thought. From this vantage point we can cast new light on a familiar historical figure: Socrates. The Athenian courts put Socrates to death for “corrupting the youth” of Athens, and we typically see his sentence as an act of tyrannical dogmatism. To understand the significance of Socrates, however, we cannot view him from our modern perspective, but must view him from the perspective of Athenian society at his time. Socrates was a member of Athen’s ruling class, and specifically a member of the intellectual class within that class. The latter, like the Brahmins, held a monopoly on rational thought. Their job was primarily to train their fellow citizens in rhetoric and keep their cosmic musings to themselves. Socrates, on the other hand, walked down into the city square and shared only the most dangerous elements of his rational thought. In the Euthyphro dialogue, for example, Socrates goes up to an Athenian priest and asks him, “Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is piety pious because the gods love it?” This question is not so much an amusing puzzle as a bomb Socrates was casting into the center of Athenian culture. The Athenian courts did not think the person they were putting to death was a philosopher, but a terrorist.

We moderns, however, love Socrates. He stands side by side with Jesus as our founding cultural figure. This is because we moderns are children of the Enlightenment, and Socrates truly is the forefather of the Enlightenment. In fact, he is the forefather of the Enlightenment for the same reason that he was put to death.

The Enlightenment has its own strategy for dealing with the conflict between rationality and myth: eliminate myth. The Enlightenment makes the radical claim that humanity can do without myth and live entirely by the light of Reason. This historical peculiarity of the Enlightenment emerges from the fact that the Enlightenment is the cultural end of the highly historically peculiar bourgeois revolution. In 16th through 19th Century Europe, the bourgeoisie, a class whose power came from commercial wealth rather than inherited status or traditional authority, gradually overtook the aristocracy and the clergy as the dominant class. The primary weapon of the bourgeoisie was rationality: through rationality the bourgeoisie grew its wealth, won its allies, and spread its worldview. Its primary adversary was myth: the authority of the aristocracy and the clergy rested on national and religious myths. Furthermore, the bourgeoisie opposed the special privileges of the aristocracy and the clergy, and therefore opposed the sorts of rigid class distinctions that would make rationality the monopoly of any one class. Socrates, in attacking myth and bringing rationality to the masses, was the model of a bourgeois revolutionary.

Myths of the Enlightenment

Among the most profound creations of the bourgeois revolution is the United States of America. Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution express high Enlightenment principles, and take their aim at the aristocracies and clergies of the world. Our country was founded by bourgeois revolutionaries like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, men whose statues were recently toppled in the name of Enlightenment principles like truth, justice, and equality. It would appear that the Enlightenment has some myths of its own.

The primary myth that the Enlightenment is accused of promulgating is its own universality. The fine phrase, “All men are created equal,” turns out to have only applied to landowning men of European descent. While the bourgeois revolution may have eliminated the special privileges of the aristocracy, it did not do so for the privileges of the white, the male, and the rich. For this reason, it can be said that the rationality of the Enlightenment, while pretending to universality, is really just the “rationality” of straight, rich, white men.

It would be a very beautiful thing if the solution were simply to correct the Enlightenment with more Enlightenment, that is, to use rationality to wipe away the the Enlightenment’s last vestiges of myth. It may prove, however, that to separate what is rational in the Enlightenment from what is mythical is more fraught than it first appears. What, after all, are these “certain inalienable rights”? They can neither be seen through a microscope nor detected with an electrometer. Likewise, the notion that “all men are created equal” resists empirical confirmation. Observation reveals, on the contrary, that human beings stand in relations of extreme inequality with one another: every human being is “created” more or less strong, intelligent, beautiful, wealthy, healthy, and talented than every other human being. Rational cognition — the mode of cognition which allows us to plan harvests, navigate ships, and construct bridges — can detect no traces of such things as inalienable rights or equality. It appears instead that such things are not empirical objects but rather ideas which provide a basis for action and a foundation for meaning-making, that is, myths.

Mythlessness

When we divest ourselves of all myth, leaving ourselves only naked, rational reality, what confronts us is one of two things: an abyss or a new myth. Life without myth loses its narrative thrust; time becomes a flat procession of difference and repetition, reality becomes a concatenation of dead facts, and people and nations lose all reason to live or die. Because such a condition is intolerable to people and nations alike, the usual response to the loss of a myth is the erection of a new one. In our own time, when our national myth is cracking and the abyss behind it is peaking through, new myths are already being offered to plug the holes. Among the many contenders the two that predominate are “MAGA” and “1619.”

MAGA treats our nation as an inherently simple, harmonious object. Because MAGA sees that our nation is shot through with all manner of antagonisms it attributes these antagonisms to outside, corrupting forces, be they immigrants, globalists, or radical leftists. What MAGA cannot account for, however, is how our simple, harmonious nation could have allowed itself to be corrupted by such outside forces in the first place. Furthermore, those things which MAGA calls “outside” have in fact been with our nation from its very beginning. MAGA cannot accept that the antagonisms it despises come first and foremost from within our nation’s essence, that the moment when the nation was simple and harmonious has not yet come. Therefore, as is well known, the time when America was great cannot be specified.

MAGA fails as a national myth because it prescribes an endless, paranoid “cleansing” of the nation. We may drive out the purported immigrants, globalists, and radical leftists until nothing remains of them, but the same old problems will remain stuck to us like a shadow. MAGA sets us on a path of destruction that can only end in the loss of the notion that our nation was ever simple and harmonious, or in the loss of our nation itself.

If MAGA sees antagonism as external to our nation, then 1619 sees antagonism and nothing besides. For 1619 our nation is an act of genocide and slavery, carried out first in explicit form before settling into protracted, institutional form. The “ideals” of our nation appear to 1619 as great lies written in the blood of innocents, and Washington, Jefferson, et al. appear simply as defenders of slavery, patriarchy, and genocide. To 1619 the stain they have left on the nation has never been washed away because the nation only is this stain.

1619 may perhaps be more historically accurate than MAGA, but it too fails as a national myth; it too prescribes nothing but destruction. Who could live in, much less strive to improve, a nation such as the one seen through the eyes of 1619? What could it even mean to “improve” a rising heap of bones and chains? A nation that mythologizes itself in such terms is not far from the abyss of mythlessness. We find a religious analogue to 1619 in the Christian Gnostics, who believed that our world was the corrupt creation of a deformed, capricious Demiurge. The Gnostics, of course, ceased to exist long ago, and because they thought it was impermissible to bring new children into such a world.

The Myth We May Need

When considering, rationally, whether to keep the old Enlightenment story about inalienable rights and equality as our national myth we need to ask if there are any viable alternatives. MAGA and 1619 do not look promising. Sadly, however, that does nothing to alleviate the flaws of our current national myth. Evidently MAGA and 1619 account for problems in the American experience that the old Enlightenment story fails to, or else they would not exist. We may look back nostalgically at a happier vision of our nation, but that does not mean we can bring ourselves to accept that vision once more.

Perhaps, however, the problem with the old Enlightenment story is not with the myth itself but with the kind of myth we take it to be. There are, after all, different kinds of myths. We can see the contrast between two different kinds of myths in the transition from Judaism to Christianity. The core myth of Judaism is that of the Israelites carrying the Tabernacle through the desert. The Israelites are a people without a homeland, but they carry their way of life with them through alien territories; the Tabernacle, being at once a temple and a collapsable tent, represents this way of life in functioning as a kind of portable homeland. The Law of Moses then functions as instructions for performing the Judaic way of life in diverse settings. The core myth of Judaism is therefore about preservation. There is an implicit promise that the Tabernacle will eventually be planted in Zion, but this promise depends on the preservation of the Tabernacle throughout the sojourn in the desert.

In the core Christian myth, however, Jesus looks into the Law of Moses and extracts principles from it that are so abstract as to apply to no existing nation or people. The Jesus of the Gospels is not interested in preserving the Judaic way of life, but rather in inaugurating a new way of life based on his radicalization of the Law of Moses — thus his kingdom is “not of this world.” The core Christian myth is therefore not about preservation but about foundation, that is, the founding of a way of life that is without historical precedent.

Crucially, the act of foundation is not the act of realization. Jesus’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is not realized in the Gospels; all that happens is that a small group of people assume a commitment to realize the Kingdom of Heaven. Furthermore, these people do not even realize the Kingdom of Heaven as individuals — they are all flawed. St. Peter, for example, rashly cuts off the ear of a servant at Gethsemane before denying Jesus three times outside the High Priest’s house. The circumstances surrounding the act of foundation do not realize the Kingdom of Heaven either — they are flawed to the point of catastrophe. Jesus, the embodied ideal, is betrayed by an apostle, tortured, and brutally executed. With his final breath Jesus declares that God has forsaken him. Therefore the Christian myth makes it explicit that, unlike preservation, foundation need not resemble that which it founds. On the contrary, it is likely to be enacted by flawed people under flawed circumstances.

If we understand the old Enlightenment story as a myth of preservation then it is a myth of tragic failure. Our Law of Moses, laid out in our Declaration and our Bill of Rights, is certainly not being obeyed. We worship a great many golden calves. Worse, the heroes of our myth fall shorter than anyone from the ideals it teaches us to preserve. The utility of such a myth, which teaches us that we are doing something we have never done nor are likely to do soon, is quite obscure. It is, after all, necessary that our myth converge somewhat with empirical reality. Faced with such a wide divergence, one wonders how anyone could make the old Enlightenment story into a basis for action or a foundation for meaning-making. If our national myth is a myth of preservation, then perhaps MAGA or 1619 can in fact do the better job.

But the old Enlightenment story may be a myth of foundation rather than a myth of preservation. The United States of America may be a kingdom not of this world. In that case we are not failing but working to bring the radically new into existence. Furthermore, the Founders did fall extremely short of their ideal, but from a certain point of view this is not only to be expected but necessary when one is molding nature, humanity, and oneself into a shape never assumed before. Yes, much of what we tell ourselves about our nation — in monuments, in songs, in paintings, and in fireworks displays — is myth, but if nothing else it is a myth of extraordinary beauty and originality. It may also be the myth we need so that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

New York based freelance writer. Cultural and political commentary.