9

Several authors have mentioned that mythology play a central role in human societies, satisfying various social and psychological needs and giving meaning and a spiritual dimension to people's lives. (See for example Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell).

But since the enlightenment, science and reason have slowly eroded at myth, to the point where they have almost eliminated it from modern societies, and yet science and reason haven't been able to replace it. Adorno and Horkheimer best describe this in their "Dialectic of Enlightenment":

“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity. Enlightenment’s [real] program was the disenchantment of the world."

Given that science has taken away mythology, and yet doesn't provide the answers and roles that mythology did, modern society is left with a psychological void, easily filled with various forms of religious or political extremism. And it isn't possible to return to the earlier mythologies, since they have lost their epistemic value, and there are so many that are in conflict with each other.

Have there been any proposal for a modern substitute for mythology?

I'm not asking about simple attempts at generating ethics from neuroscience, or repackaging modern cosmology as a story we can tell our children.

I am searching for references and authors who are looking at the broader anthropological, sociological and psychological functions of myth, and trying to find a modern substitute (which maybe scientifically informed, maybe not)?

  • 1
    As you may be aware Joseph Campbell spoke of the 'myth of the hero' that has found its place across most cultures and traditions. Time will tell if modern movies such as Star Wars are the modern equivalent of the ancient myth of the hero. I think he touched on such in his book. – Swami Vishwananda Dec 15 '15 at 3:47
  • @SwamiVishwananda Lucas only started claiming high minded mythological motivations and lugging into Joseph Campbell's hero theme after the surprising financial success of Star Wars. In earlier interviews, he stated that he wanted to make a space themed cowboy movie for kids. If Star Wars has any philosophical relevance, it is more along the lines of pop culture as a means for manipulating the masses, as described by Adorno, not some space age take on mythology. – Alexander S King Dec 15 '15 at 5:26
  • 1
    @AlexanderSKing All myths start out as cowboy stories for kids. They all develop a mind of their own so to speak with accretions over time. – Swami Vishwananda Dec 16 '15 at 4:31
  • 1
    @alexanderking: I'd have shrugged off the analogy too; but recently I heard a studio debate ending with a famous physicist, I can't remember who, it might have Wilzcek where he quoted Spider-man 'with great power comes great responsibility'! – Mozibur Ullah Dec 16 '15 at 9:17
  • 1
    @MoziburUllah Thanks. Now I've spent the day imagining a modern day Euthyphro claiming that virtue and courage are to behave the way Batman does. – Alexander S King Dec 17 '15 at 9:18
5

I believe there are many, a few quite well known. I'll just run through several, without attempting to define mythology, a la Barthes, or differentiate it from comprehensive ideology.

One of the earlier and most fascinating is "The Oldest System Program of German Idealism," retrieved from dusty archives. It is believed to have been written by Schelling, Hegel, and Holderlin when they are students, and is quite revelatory in its youthful revolutionary spirit, more like the Communist Manifesto than the Philosophy of Right. It explicitly discusses the need for a modern mythology based upon reason and aesthetics. Like Schelling and Holderlin, many of the early Romantics went on to cobble together modern mythologies, coming to fruition in such works as the Ring Cycle and Zarathustra,or even the "recovered" national mythologies of D'Annunzio or Yeats.

Another would be, of course, Comte's positivism and the "Religion of Humanity." The various "lemonade seas" utopian blueprints of Saint Simon and Fourier might qualify as well. From a broader historical perspective modern Nationalism itself is an artificial "origin myth" binding communities through imagery, ideology, specious blood ties, or folk histories. Many scholars deem the Nation a modern update of the agricultural patriarchy displaced by capitalism and absolute monarchy. And, as with Italian and German fascism, Nationalism has been quite consciously, even cynically, constructed and aestheticized as an organizing myth.

In a more entrepreneurial vein, one of the most successful has been L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology. Many similar "new age" ideologies have attempted to create a comprehensive belief system structured "scientifically," though of course science is presumably incompatible with such inward-facing foundationalism. Finally, though I myself am quite sympathetic to Marxism as critique, there is no denying that historical materialism took on trappings of mythology, most egregiously in Stalin's intentional hagiography and enshrinement of Lenin, his revisionist histories, and the fog-shrouded pantheons of October Revolutionary heroes.

  • 1
    "Finally, though I myself am quite sympathetic to Marxism as critique, there is no denying that historical materialism took on trappings of mythology," I thought you didn't like the Frankfurt school :-) – Alexander S King Dec 15 '15 at 21:28
  • I prefer Marx himself, whom I take to be practicing comprehensive "critique." I don't dislike the Frankfurt School, just never got into Adorno in the way many do. Oh, I see I kind of missed your last paragraph about secondary sources and interpreters, could apply to so many... it's a pretty big academic theme, from Herder and Weber to Barthes, Levi Strauss, or Latour. – Nelson Alexander Dec 15 '15 at 22:06
  • 1
    Regarding the System Program mentioned: It is written by Hegel's hand, though most certainly not his own idea ;) – Philip Klöcking Dec 15 '15 at 22:55
7

Levi-Strauss is an obvious reference even if it is not exactly clear what we speaking about. La pensee sauvage proposed "bricolage" as a practical form of mythology in contemporary societies. Within the general framework of economy, re-using things, that have already been used and thus carry signification, is according, to him, a form of mythology.

So a related case would be 'Artificial Intelligence' where all kinds of theoretical and technical gadgets are put together in a practical attempt to solve an intellectual problem.

Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition wrote about 'grand narratives' which include most of contemporary ideological discourse. Economics is probably a good place to look for contemporary mythology and Neoliberalism is probably among the best examples of what it looks like. The myth of meritocracy (2009 McNamee & Miller) is a case study of the mythology presented by the 'American dream'.

2

I get the feeling that there are no subsititutes for mythology, even in contemporary settings. First, one has to think about the time and the people that committed themselves to destroy myth, the moderns.

Thinking of a modern setting brings forward the question of what is modernity, when did it start and when did it come to an end. The term "modern" was first used by the Romans in the early 5th century. Modernus described the present, officially Christian, and different from the Roman and Pagan past. Certainly, the term in our languages expresses the consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result from a transition from the old to the new (Habermas 1995, 163). In other words, modernity comes to be only in presence of the past. Weber characterized cultural modernity as the separation of reason from religion and metaphysics into three autonomous spheres: science, morality, and art. (1920, 27). When the religious and metaphysical worldview fell apart, issues of validity (or existence) were categorized into truth, normative rightness, authenticity, and beauty. They were now handled as questions of knowledge, hence that they were institutionalized. Modernity attempted to develop objective science, universal morality, and autonomous art according to their inner logic (Habermas 1995, 168), while the project intended at the same time to free these cognitive fields from esoteric forms.

This release from the non-modern meant the very denial of myth. Nevertheless, modernity is stocked with so many incongruences and contradictions that the only way to attribute unity to the project is by seeing it as a myth (Fitzpatrick 1992, 1). Now, the modern man must apprehend the world by its own means; nothing is mysterious, and there is now no need for divine intervention. Origin and meaning came to be through a process of discovery and realization. However, while modernity attempted to disenchant the world, it encountered a chimerical universe epistemologically unapprehensible by their own means (Adorno 1944, 11).

To disentangle from the remnants of this transcendence, the moderns created the Other (Todorov 1984). Modernity is a relational concept in regards to the Other, the unenlightened. So, modernity needs the Other to justify its incongruences and epistemological failures. The modern man is the divine that renders opposite existences compatible, by the creation of the Other and other means. And, if myth is this construction of this mute ground (Levi-Strauss 1963, 229), we have that modernity is mythological, and by rejecting myth, rejects itself (Fitzpatrick 1992, 45). Modernity is an incomplete project (Habermas 1995, 172) that failed to erase myth from Western thought, and likely it will not achieve this goal.

After all, myths “are means of grappling with universal truths or unexplained natural phenomena” (Loring and Hirsch 2011, 8). There is no substitute for myth in our cultures: religion, art, dreams, are all instances of myth (Campbell 1956). Myths instill and maintain a sense of awe and mystery before the world. They also provide a symbolic image for the world. Third, they maintain social order by giving a justification to social practices. Finally, they harmonize human beings with cosmos, society, and the parts of themselves (Doty 2000, 144).

So, in other words, myths also are narratives man creates to explain the world that surrounds him—to connect to reality. These narratives are made in a world full of incoherences and contradictions, a very dark and mysterious one, like ours. Myths use transcendence to overcome those contradictions. Through the transcendent figure, myths tell us a story that makes sense about a scary universe. Myths are, in my opinion, the very first epistemological device, the very first way men attempted to comprehend the world. Even if the moderns wanted to disenchant, to get rid of transcendece, they could not. There are so many instances. But let me explain one of them:

When the moderns came with all this thing of reason, pure reason, etc., they developed an universal narrative. This discourse was introduced in a transcedent world, a world that believed in gods, a world that was reconnecting with its classical roots, a world of fairy tales, etc.

The moderns were like: huh—no, you're wrong, we are right. Certainly they were right in science, and other fields, but we continue today to contest some modern ideas that they left us (i.e., political philosophy). The people that the moderns did not understand were catalogued as the Other. Modernity could not apprehend their myths, so they were not moderns; thus, as for the ideas of modernity are universal, they were outside this universality. Don't you see something strange here? Its a huge contradiction! How come their speech is universal when it is not? The only way they figured out to solve this puzzle was creating the figure of the Other, the un-modern, the uncivilised, etc.

Check out Fitzpatrick's book, The Mythology of Modern Law. It develops many points on what happened to mythology in modernity. For contemporary times, there's Campbell. I mean, check the art, the politics, etc. We're full of myths—figures to give sense to our contradictions.

1

Myths, as far as they have true believers, come and go I think, even without the "help" of something like modernism.

And modernism has it's gods: the rich and famous usually,who we may dream live in their own Valhalla, free from all worry and care. We know better, but still the vision of this is enticing.

Heidegger said that only a god can save us. This was in a magazine interview he gave in the 1960s. He was, as far as I know, an atheist, so why did he say this? I think he said it because we humans had always created our gods anyway, and we were in definite need of a new organizing principle which only religion-myth could give us. This is speculative on my part. Heidegger was anti-modern, he worried about the direction we were taking, he was always a romantic at heart.

The problem is the will to power that we have. To the extent that we will a new myth or god, somewhere contained in our willing will be a desire for power and control, and hence the seeds are sown for the rise and the eventual fall of the myth, with many people happy and comforted along the way, but also with many people hurt and miserable.

So what do we do then? Somehow we have to let the myths rise up organically, without willing them. How this could happen, I don't know. Maybe it will happen.

References:

Megill, Prophets of Extremity; Eliade, The Sacred and Profane; Heidegger, 1966 der Speigel; Adorno & Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.