Myth simply means story, or proclamation. More specifically, myths are usually origin stories—detailing the beginning of a people and often implying a destiny. As stories, myths are old but nothing new, per se. Myths persist all around us. New myths are crafted, and old myths discarded. It is this dialectical process of myths being replaced and new myths being established that causes one to equate myth with falsity; the old myth is displaced or discarded because it is false, the new story—which is nothing more than a new myth—takes its place because it is considered true until it is discarded by yet a new myth.
Humans are oral creatures. Long before the invention of writing orality, the spoken word, was the main means of human communication. We ought to be thankful that some of those ancient stories persisted through their writing down on clay tablets or papyrus. Myths give us insights into the primordial past, a link between those of us in the present and our ancient ancestors of hundreds of thousands, and tens of thousands, years ago.
The academic study of myths, “mythology,” was originally the domain of philosophy. Many philosophers involved in the study of myths do not treat myths as cheap or ignorant stories with no meaning that were the ramblings of unlearned and superstitious madmen as has become common on contemporary media airwaves. Rather, those who study myths see the deep symbolism of myths. While not necessarily accepting the “historicity” of myths, these students of myths see the deep, or inner, machinations of myths and what they are communicating—and truth is contained in these myths.
Modernity suffers from a problem long known to philosophers: The “Fact-Value” distinction. Some argue that there is no distinction wherein all facts become values. Others argue that there is a distinction between facts and values. This problem can, perhaps, be better understood as the fact-truth distinction. For pluralist philosophers, those who are in the inheritors of the Aristotelian and Christian traditions of philosophy, see distinctions as absolutely necessary for a proper understanding of the world because the world is made in plurality; distinctions, not homogenized singularity as the monists (who conflate facts and values, and facts and truths) do.
Facts are properties of the material world and the phenomenological world. For instance, a fact is that the Battle of Actium was fought on September 2, 31 B.C.. Another fact is that Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C. Yet another fact is that white phosphorus ignites at 34-degrees Celsius (93-degrees Fahrenheit). Facts are measurements, and facts can change; facts are measurements in time and space and related to time and space. To illustrate, the fact is that one year I am X years old, but in another year I am Y years old and no longer X years old. Facts can be fixed or changing measurements in time and space. What we can say about this is that we live in a world with facts.
Truths are propositional statements that relate to the totality of being. Thus, truth is equated with nature. We can say something is true when it properly describes the nature of being. Truths are also axiomatic, or metaphysical, claims. Truth, therefore, does not change because truth is equivalent with nature and if nature changes that is to say it has no nature. Truth cannot change, it is immutable and eternal. What we can say about this is that we live in a world that has nature or does not have nature. This is different than living in a world with facts.
In a world of physical properties that exists in time and space facts are always present. Some facts change, and other facts do not change. The fact that Caesar was assassinated on March 15 cannot change and to assert that Caesar was assassinated on any other day would be not factual. Sometimes we use the term “not true” because we know truth is something fixed. Truth, however, is trickier because some argue that there is no truth (epistemological nihilism) or that truth cannot be known (epistemological agnosticism). Gnosis, in Greek, means knowledge. The prefix a- means no or not. We cannot live in a non-factual world. The question of whether we can live in a world without truth is a different claim altogether. A world without nature would be a world without truth. A world with nature would be a world with truth.
But this is not to say that facts and truths are wholly separate from each other. The phenomenon of man is something measurable. Truth claims about man can be verified by facts. This is part of the hylormorphic tradition of Aristotelianism and Augustinianism, where plurality is not one of opposition but one of unity. To simply illustrate this example, a human has one body but many parts.
This returns us to the study of myths and mythology. Those who hold myths in low regard are those who deny truth and only believe in a monistic facts-based measurable world. For those who know the history of philosophy well this is the outcome of the philosophy of the “new science” bequeathed to the world by Sir Francis Bacon. It is the hallmark of what is known as liberal philosophy; rooted in materialism and mathematization (measurable matter). Those who hold myths in high regard are those who accept that there is truth and, therefore, these ancient stories are communicating (propositional) said truths through stories.
If myths hold no truths than myths are, in a practical and pragmatic (e.g. utilitarian) sense useless because they do not measure and tell us any facts. If myths contain truths than myths are important. But what of competing truth claims, that is, competing myths?
This, I think, is the cause of alarm for many and why many wish to disregard myths. Facts are simple and easier; something that all can agree upon. Truth, however, is far more difficult for people to grasp.
Comparative mythology is the study of competing myth claims (mythological narratives). It compares the claims of one story against the claims of another. It seeks to find where there is agreement and where there is disagreement. Not all myths were created equal, some myths are wrong which is why they are discarded (but hopefully, for cultural treasury, not lost) and other myths seem to be true which is why they persist.
I am of the school that there is a distinction between facts and values, between facts and truths, therefore I hold myth in high regard and do not belittle myths. While I do not believe all myths to be equal, which is to say I do not believe all myths true, I accept that all myths attempt to communicate a claim about the nature of reality or contain insights into the nature of reality (or history). And this is what the “Traditionalist School” is about as it relates to mythology: the communication of inner reality, human relations and relations with nature, in the form of art, literature, and story.
Aristotle said that the lover of myth is also the lover of wisdom. Now you know why.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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