Myths and Theories

Myths are not ideas, in the sense that a scientific theory or philosophical thesis are ideas. They are images. There telos is not to be analyzed, but to be contemplated.

Take the myth of original sin. This is not natively a proposition of moral philosophy. It is neither a scientific nor historical theory as to how humankind wound up in the shape it is in. A myth is an object for contemplation, not for analysis. If one meditates upon a myth, if it is a "true" myth, after some time, one will find that the myth illuminates a part of human experience in a way that neither scientific nor philosophical ideas can. (That is why Plato, the father of philosophy, still continually created myths: the story of the cave is not a "philosophical doctrine": it is a myth.)

Now, it is absolutely true that myths can be transformed into theories: then they are called dogma. As Eric Voegelin put it, living symbols are then transformed into hieroglyphs, "superficial invocations of a pre-existing [symbol] that failed to embody its essence because those invoking it had not themselves experienced the reality behind the original [symbol]." No longer something to be contemplated, they are now something to be believed in and "defended." (As if something like a painting could be "rationally justified"!) And, in one sense, then, the attacks of "rationalists" on things like the myth of original sin are justified: of course, if you transform the myth into a theory, it makes no sense! Huh, some people sinned a long time ago, and that is why we all had to be punished until God killed his soon?! Stated as a theory, it is ridiculous!

If you want to understand a myth, meditate upon it!


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