Exhortations on Myth, Meaning, & Nature, and Some Objections

Ritual is myth transposed into the key of temporality. Or, ordinary activity transposed into the key of eternity, which is the realm of myth. The desire of mimesis (libido imitatio) is the longing to participate the deeds and sufferings of gods, as a child wishes to emulate his mother and father. That inspires the transposition.

Myth means “cosmology,” and not “fairy tale.” Theory is a myth transposed into the realm of abstraction. In a theory, therefore, there is no one on the other end, as it were, and therefore no one to enthuse the onlooker with the urge for mimesis. Theory is an orphaned myth, or a myth which has lost its origin and therefore supposes it must explain the workings of nature from the outside.

It has been objected that the above is too harsh and categorical a judgement on theory. Not to be a sophist, but it depends what one means when one uses the word. If it means something like “a manner of saving the appearances without recourse to anything beyond equations and blind physical processes,” then I think “theoria” (φεωρία, contemplatio) will have gone the way of “energeia” (ενέργεια, actualitas) and been reduced to a spectre of a word by the physicists, together with “phyo” (φύω, naturans) itself, from whence that discipline gets its name. If, on the other hand, “theory” means something closer to “intellectual participation in the creative ideas themselves which the phenomena instantiate,” then there is no orphan to speak of and rather a Prodigal Son, since theory will have unfolded, like a butterfly, and become theosis. And this, the world, as complement, reveals itself in transfiguration as a theophany.

“What!” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.”
—William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment.

If, therefore, theory means explaining series of external relations per se, or through other series of similar relations, then we must morn the demise of that noble term at the hands of the enemy. If, on the contrary, theory means the light which we lend to phenomena that they may reveal their meaning to us, which is the seal of their divinity, then we will have saved another irreplaceable word from the brink of extinction.

|||First objection (a linguist): Why do you say “the enemy”? What could that possibly even mean? It sounds like a value judgment.

The enemy is “the spiritual wickedness in high places” that possess us to commodify words so that our language becomes a utility and not the πνεύμα which wafts between speaker and hearer, the breath on which psyche is born. Or an inspired mimesis of the original lógos by which “all things were made…[and without which] was not any thing made that was made.” Incidentally, Tolkien used his valedictory address in 1959 to lament this phenomenon as it was expressed in the substitution of philology departments by linguistics ones during his lifetime. What is the problem with this? one might wonder. Philology attempts a comprehensive study of language. This means that it does not neglect its qualitative and aesthetic aspects. Linguistics, one the contrary, studies language insofar as it is a “computationally plastic” medium whereby information can be conveyed. One is careful to employ the passive voice in this statement because anything other would be unscientific and fail to represent the approach of the discipline. Linguistics also quantifies the variations and trends, like dialects and historical drift, that express such “computational plasticity.” The problem is that it treats language as less than it is while tacitly affirming that its field of study is not less than language. This is an iteration of the majority of modern scientific disciplines, when extrapolate methodological restrictions to posit them as facts.

|||Second objection: What is “a series of external relations”?

External relations are, to invoke Aristotelian terms, those relations bearing exclusively on material and efficient causality, to the exclusion of formal and final causality. To continue with the above example, someone who explains a ritual by relating a successive catalogue of events has failed to grasp the internal relations of what he is intending to explain, since rituals do not consist in people simply doing one thing after another except in cases in which we are using the word equivocally as in “the ritual of my morning Starbucks® etc….” This relates to the first objection above as well, since linguistics attempts to conceptualise language in a manner that avoids internal relations. Often quantification is an hallmark of purely external relations, but it is not necessarily this way. For example, the relation between the terms “5” and “apples” might be purely external, since it might as well have been 6 or cantaloupes in respect to the relation of 5 qua 5 and apples qua apples. But it could also be internal in the sense that apples have a fivefold pericarp. This internal relation also reveals their kinship with the entire Rosaceae family. If you changed the first five, the apples wouldn’t change, if you changed the second, they would no longer be apples.

***

Scholars often ascribe to Plato the transition from myth and theory as the predominant hermeneutical approach to the world of Nature. Plato’s most famous excursion into the mythic realm—“The Allegory of the Cave” notwithstanding—is undoubtedly the Timaeus dialogue. In the latter, he presents a cosmogony under the rubric of phrase of an “εἰκότα μῦθον” (“eikota mython”), of which a common English translation is “a likely story” (29d). Eikota is in the same family as eikon and next of kin is “icon,” in English. In this connection, it dawned on me that myths, like icons, present outwardly, as form and deed, etc…, what is meant to be grasped inwardly as idea and meaning. In other words, our intentional approach to myth and icon is that it is not just an haphazard assemblage of events, but rather that it is intrinsically meaningful. The world itself could be called a myth, for the same reason. This is contrary to a contemporary scientific approach, which assumes things don’t mean.

|||First objection (from a biologist): Why do you say that “a contemporary scientific approach…assumes things don’t mean.”? That’s quite an assertion. I don’t even know what it means to say “things don’t mean.” “Meaning” is not a scientific concept.

This will be a response to your question and not your opinions. Suppose we are trying to explain why human beings and elephants elaborate and partake in rituals to mourn their dead (i.e. apropos the example that one of your colleagues noted), and our answer is that it increases the genetic fitness of the individuals in the group that are disposed to activities of that sort by fostering group cohesion through a sense of solidarity. As a result, ritualistic dispositions are blindly selected for. “Blindly selected for” is a contraction in terms but the rational coherence, or lack thereof, of Darwinian evolutionary theory is a separate topic.

|||Second objection (from the same): What do you insist on undermining the credibility of the only known scientific explanation for the origin of species? Why should “rational coherence” be an issue? This is a question of facts, not abstruse philosophical quibbles! Show me the evidence!

The gentleman has worked himself to a righteous frenzy. Obviously nothing I say in response will change the mind of someone whose mind is already made up, and “rational coherence” ought to be an issue precisely to guard against situations like this. Darwinian evolutionary theory is not the only scientific explanation to account to account for the diversity of life. Maybe it is the only one known to the gentleman, but that is hardly a scientific attitude on the the latter’s part if that is what is behind his objection. As to the question of facts: show me the evidence of transitional forms between whales and land-mammals. The gentleman will likely counter with the same explanation that Darwin offered in 1859: namely, the “extreme imperfection of the geological record” accounts for their absence.* Nevertheless, one-hundred and sixty years has not produced the expected evidence and, though absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is not certainly not evidence in confirmation either. I will be accused of engaging in abstruse philosophical quibbles at this point and it leads me to wonder what the accuser has in mind by “scientific” anyway.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. William Blake. c.1786

* “Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms?…The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.

—Charles, Darwin. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 1859.

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