Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

In his series of lectures on the philosophy of mythology, published as the Historical Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, Friedrich Schelling achieves a paradigmatic revolution in German Romantic and idealistic thought that would be influential for later German philosophy and influential upon the psychologist Carl Jung.  Schelling, a student and pupil of Fichte and Hegel, was among the more important (but often forgotten) of the German Romantic philosophers.  Building off of his philosophy of nature (naturphilosophie), Schelling’s account of philosophy of mythology is fundamental to intuitionist psychology and a strong defense of the “reality of myth.”

The core argument of Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology is that philosophical concepts have their roots in mythology.  Correlative to this notion is his belief that myth is fundamental to human nature and evolution.  That is, mythology is an expression of nature and emerges out of nature – it emerges with the growth of human subjectivity and consciousness and impacts human consciousness and understanding.  In this manner, when Aristotle said that the “lover of myth is the lover of wisdom,” Schelling is articulating the view that human consciousness and understanding is shaped by myth and not the other way around.  Myth was the first embodiment of deep human thought and sought to articulate “deep intuitive truths” which are embodied in the stories.  That is, after all, what myth is traditionally – an old story passed down generation to generation.  Myth, in its formal and traditional context, does not mean “that which is not true” as we often think of when we hear the word myth today.

In this way Schelling is rebuking the common “Enlightenment” narratives about “de-mythology”; that is, mythology was the expression of a darker time in the human past and our inheritance of this view is the legacy of “Enlightenment” philosophy.  That is, mythology was the product of uneducated, illiterate, and ignorant people trying to communicate meaning (improperly) to each other.  For the modern philosophers, their view of myth was that it was something that enchained people and shackled the mind to false ideas and beliefs.  We needed to grow out of myth in order to reach “enlightenment.”  Schelling is taking the opposite view.  He, again, argues that myth is what shaped human existence and consciousness rather than human existence and consciousness (in some earlier dark and ignorant form) shaping myth and the myth being poor and dark because of the ignorance of early human consciousness.

The myths of land and water, the earliest dialectic in human writing, for instance, embody the reality of the dangers of the sea to nascent and primordial man (who is a terrestrial animal).  Land is man’s home.  It is where he walks.  It is where he makes love and reproduces.  It is where he settles and farms.  But the land is always in danger of being overwhelmed by Tiamat, or the other sea-monsters and sea-gods: That chaotic, uncontrollable, and watery deluge that can be unleashed at any moment.  Man, then, is an orderly and flourishing being because man is an expression of these ancient mythological archetypes: Land is orderly with the potential for flourishing.

Myth, for Schelling, is “un-prethinkable” because myth is at the genesis of human thought and consciousness.  We cannot go back beyond myth, in other words.  Because myth is where it all started.  Myth is where human consciousness and thought begins.  (Or it is as far back as our consciousness goes in terms of story-telling, writing, and recollection.) Myth is the first grammar of the psyche.

Schelling argues, in continuity with older traditions of Scriptural hermeneutics developed and inherited by Christianity, that mythology was always taken in an allegorical sense and that truth exists in the allegory.  Truth exists in the meaning expressed in the myth and not the historicity of the myth.  There may be historical precedence for the myth, such as the hero warrior confronting the wild forces of nature and the predatory animals in order to save his people, from which he becomes a chief or king, but the truth in the myth is what is being represented in the story.  Humans attempted to communicate these truths through these stories we now consider myths.  Truths about fate, destiny, struggle, human life and existence, etc.  (There may have very well been a historical precedent in early human history in which the “brave” or “strong” man of the tribe had to venture and do battle with the forces of hostile nature in order to save his people and those that survived – and therefore saved their people – were then lauded as heroes who, in turn, were “elected” to be the leader of the people afterward.)

Within his lectures he also draws on how mythology influenced art, and, in many ways, gave birth to art.  So it is mythology that gives rise to art and art embodies mythology rather than art creating the mythology and inculcating that mythological notion in us.

Poetry was the first written expression of mythology.  Which grants poetry a high place in Schelling’s understanding of humanity and human society.  (For without poetry a society is nothing; the lack of poetry represents the death of thought and consciousness.  This might also explain why poetry flourished during the German romantic period.)  This is why poetry often deals with metaphorical and image-soaked language.  People don’t confuse poetry for being literal but understand poetry as being symbolic precisely because poetry was the natural outgrowth of mythology. And symbolic, in its original Greek etymology, means to tie together. For Schelling, a philologist, the symbolic nature of poetry is superior to all other forms of writing because poetry ties together the real and the transcendent in its “symbolic language.”

In the same vein, looking back at the development of Greek philosophy, Schelling notes that philosophy emerged after poetry which sought to understand the truths of stories more concretely than did the poets.  This, in part, explains the conflict between the poets (such as Aristophanes) and the philosophers (such as Socrates).  This also helps explain why Aristotle said that the “lover of myth is also a lover of wisdom” because the early philosophers understood mythology as expressing truths through symbolism and imagery that they – the philosophers – were now ready to put to paper, so to speak.

Thus, mythology, according to Schelling, embodies deeply intuitive truths.  There is something remarkable and wonderful in the genesis and evolution of myth.  Myth-making, and I use this term in a non-derogatory way, is something not only to be cherished, it is also something foundational to human nature and existence.  It is something people do every day and something we cannot grow out according to Schelling.  Myth cannot be constrained by rationalism, since rationalism takes the opposite view of intuitionism – and in the same way rationalism can never understand myth so long as it scoffs at intuition as something “pre-modern” or “pre-Enlightened.”

At the same time, tying his philosophy of mythology to his philosophy of identity, identitätsphilosophie, our identities are tied to particular myths.  In fitting with the larger tradition of German Idealism, myths are universal (because truth is universal) but are also particular to specific peoples, cultures, times, and places as they evolve.  Thus, myths become particularized in human embodiment and life and exert a strong influence over a person’s identity.  (Martin Heidegger, for instance, also builds on this theme insofar as being attached to the “roots” of one’s culture which includes a culture’s mythology.)  This is also why, with specificity to German Romanticism, there was a strong blending of pagan and Christian identity and stories as essential to what it meant to be a Western person.  (The one thing that many of these German Protestants liked from the Catholic tradition was Catholicism’s embrace of Europe’s pagan past and united the philosophy of passion in paganism with the philosophy of mind in Christianity.)  Myth also sparked the search for anthropological origins in Romantic philosophy, which was the pursuit to truly understand who we are.  (Which was also why the German Romantics were obsessed with their ancient origins in the Teutons and the “people of the north,” etc.)

On this note, Schelling employs the Hegelian dictum “the rational alone is real” which subverts Enlightenment empiricism on its head: Since the rational alone is real and myth is something real, myth is actually something rational whereas those paragons of “rationalism” confuse the real with reasonableness.  Something may be reasonable based on its starting presuppositions but if those presuppositions are not real, then the reasonable argument employed has no bearing on reality itself.  This leads us to a question of first principles, or metaphysics, by which understanding is either shown to be true or false.

Thus, Schelling makes some very startling claims (at least to prejudiced moderns) that are worth consideration:

  • Is myth the genesis of human consciousness and what shapes humanity or is it the other way around per the “Enlightenment” philosophers of myth being the result of a dark and ignorant humanity that got preserved through the ages until the “dawn of Enlightenment” from which we can discard myth?
  • Is myth a natural evolutionary process that grew (and grows) out of nature?  (Meaning that myth is part of nature.)
  • Is myth the beginning of human intellectual and creative endeavors, leading to art and, eventually, to philosophy and religion?
  • If myth is rational, e.g. real (in the Hegelian sense), what does this tell us about those who disregard myth as petty and infantile “baggage” of humanity’s past?
  • Are philosophical concepts that have merited long discussions: Truth, virtue, heroism, the end or meaning of life, the origins of humanity, humanity’s relationship with the world, etc., really rooted in myth? (Or did philosophy arise in opposition to myth per the modern philosophers?)
  • Should myth, and poetry, have an important place in culture? (Schelling certainly thinks so.)

Of course, Schelling treads carefully in making sure that people ought not to confuse myth with history, but he also makes clear that myth deeply embodies “ancient” and “intuitive” truths which is partly why myth has such an enduring legacy.  Schelling’s form text also examines the origins of myth, their importance, and ultimately, the truth contained in them.

3 thoughts on “Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

  1. Pingback: Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology – The English Introvert

  2. Julian the Apostate:

    “It is very much the same as if anyone were to place a man, a Greek or a barbarian, in some mystic shrine of extraordinary beauty and size to be initiated, where he would see many mystic sights and hear many mystic voices, where light and darkness would appear to him alternately, and a thousand other things would occur; and further, if it should be just as in the rite called enthronement, where the inducting priests are wont to seat the novices and then dance round and round them—pray, is it likely that the man in this situation would be no whit moved in his mind and would not suspect that all which was taking place was the result of a more than wise intention and preparation, even if he belonged to the most remote and nameless barbarians and had no guide and interpreter at his side—provided, of course, that he had the mind of a human being? Or rather, is this not impossible? impossible too that the whole human race, which is receiving the complete and truly perfect initiation, not in a little building erected by the Athenians for the reception of a small company, but in this universe, a varied and cunningly wrought creation, in which countless marvels appear at every moment, and where, furthermore, the rites are being performed, not by human beings who are of no higher order than the initiates themselves, but by immortal gods who are initiating mortal men, and night and day both in sunlight and under the stars are—if we may dare to use the term—literally dancing around them forever—is it possible to suppose, I repeat, that of all these things his senses told him nothing, or that he gained no faintest inkling of them, and especially when the leader of the choir was in charge of the whole spectacle and directing the entire heaven and universe, even as a skilful pilot commands a ship that has been perfectly furnished and lacks nothing?” (Oratio 4: Hymn to Helios 135bc)

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