The Vocabulary of Myth, Part IV

Myth as Meaning…

Myth vs. History…

vs. Science…

Mythic Universality and Recurrence…

     For the ancients, then, mystery and myth always lay just beneath the surface of the visible order. This is to say that it was in the subterranean stratum of mystery and myth that the hidden intelligible meaning of natural phenomena and historical events—actualities that were, in themselves, meaningless—was found.

This is one reason why Aristotle wrote (in the ninth book of his Poetics) that myth is a somewhat more “philosophical” genre than history.   History records, as Aristotle explains, what actually happened to this or that particular person, in this or that place and time, once and for all.  Myth, on the other hand, is the record of what happens in all times and places, recurrently, everywhere, and always.

In Greek ontological terms, then, history belongs to the mutable and particular sphere of existence (which Plato and his followers regarded as an inferior or spurious order of being), whereas myth refers to a universal, eternally recurrent, and therefore unchanging Reality.  The historian Herodotus might thus chronicle the rise and fall of Croesus’ Lydia, or of the Persian Empire; a Thucydides, the rise and fall of Sparta; a Livy, Carthage; a Gibbons, Rome.  But as soon as one speaks of a king’s or nation’s “rise and fall”, one is using the language of myth, not history.  One is observing one of history’s universally and eternally recurrent patterns, on the model of the mythic journey of the Sun, or the pitiless rotation of Fortune’s Wheel.

Historical events can be observed and natural phenomena measured, but Meaning, of course, is an entirely incorporeal and invisible entity.  To search for it beneath the visible currents of history or sensible things is thus to take a great leap of faith, whether in the name of religion or science.

Like the religious postulate of the Divine, the quest for meaning at any level involves the projection of the interpreter’s own Intelligence into an inanimate and therefore unintelligent world. The only difference is that, where the pre-modern imagination used to call that Intelligence “God”, the scientific imagination now depersonalizes it as the Laws of Motion, or of Thermodynamics, or Gravitation, or Relativity, or String Theory.

But it is, all the same, a projection and a leap of faith.


I know nothing, of course, about physics, but my ignorance at least allows me to observe that the modern scientific theories of magnetism and gravity are, whether actually true or not, re-assertions of the ancient mythic representation of God as (in Aristotle’s famous designation) an “Unmoved Mover”.  God, according to this ancient mythic image, is the stationary lodestone, the unmoving Centre, that draws everything in the cosmos back to Himself, maintains all things in their obedient orbit, and prevents them from flying off under their own eccentric energies into space.

As for String Theory, I recall that it was Pythagoras who first noted that the universe pulsates with a certain mystical music, caused by the silent vibration of invisible strings, whose division according to certain ratios holds the key to the secret mathematical structure of the cosmos.

Of course, I recognize the superior practical utility of science to myth.  Newton’s law of gravitation enables us to predict and therefore to control nature.  If we know the weight of a circus acrobat and the height from which he jumps onto a teeter-totter below, and we know the weight of the person standing on the other end, we can calculate how fast and how high the latter will be propelled into the air.  This is useful–indeed, life-saving–information, at least for the acrobat who needs to be assured that his landing platform is set at the right height.

But utility aside, the law of gravitation is ultimately unsatisfying.  For starters, it is hardly as beautiful as the profoundly paradoxical idea of God as an Unmoved and Unmoving Mover, nor does it really explain any better what this thing called “gravity” is, why it is a necessary condition of our universe, or how its necessity came about.  In that regard, the mythic mystery of the Immutable Divine Centre is infinitely more provocative and meaningful.

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