The Dynamics of Mythology in Diachronic Culture

Essay by R.Cronk

Civilization cannot exist without mythology. It is through mythology that the world is translated into human terms. Its sacred narratives relate physicality and idea, and provide a known context for an unknown world. Myths create culture, provide ethical models, individuate personality, give definition to the spirit and explain the world and its origins.

Mythology is communicated by visual image, music and the spoken word. It denotes a narrative point of view and a particular quality of comprehension. The sacred narratives of mythology are catalysts for a kind of knowledge that cannot be understood through discursive logic alone. Mythology is both convention and ontological ground. The written narrative by itself is not the myth, but can be integral to the cultural experience that is. Peak experiences instill a sense of truth to the narratives of active cultural mythologies.

The narratives of classical mythology are the shed skins of a transitional ego. Their absurd motifs are no longer believable. The narratives are no longer sacred. Classical mythology was not meant to be understood as fictionalized parables. It despiritualizes mythology to be interpreted allegorically. Active mythology is believed to be true.

Today's active mythologies are woven through the heartfelt beliefs, personal values and dreams of the individual. The belief system that employs faith in intuited truth is mythic. Contemporary myths would include art, science, religion, consumerism, history, and the myths of objectivity and progress. These are not isolated myths but the motifs of a seething modern mythology that provides various contexts for mediating experience.

Mythology is supported by faith. Faith implies trust and intuited knowledge. Religious faith is trust in the religious experience as the way to know God beyond logic. When we think of faith we think of religion, but faith includes more. We have faith in our convictions and ideals. After the epistemological shifts of the past three millennium we may conclude that faith in any belief system is ironic, and the incorporating mythology is always paradoxical; that is, man believes he will find the answer (fulfillment) as a consequence of his beliefs, but completion will always elude him in the end. To have faith the participant must either be unaware of the paradox or not accept it.

The search for truth always negates the belief systems of existing mythologies by exposing their contradictions and destroying their coherence. When the narratives of the diachronic myths of modern culture no longer seem reasonable and no longer serve to integrate the participant in society, new myths develop to take their place.

Science has overtaken religion as the active mythology of Western culture. Religion is no match for the miracles of science. From atomic weapons to electron microscopes, from genetic engineering to satellite television, science allows us to manipulate the environment as never before. Its advances continually reconfirm its status and reassure us of its ability to mediate the unknown.

The scientist assumes that through analysis and classification he achieves a concrete understanding of reality. But the objectively perceived world is only as objective as the mythology that produced it. This is not to say there is no phenomenal world, but the perceptual and conceptual processes are interpretive, and herein lies the myth. Our perception of reality is an interpretation of the phenomenal. Perception, language, causality, logic, science and art emblematically re-present the world in terms of human understanding.

The rational mind seems quite convinced that scholarship offers safe refuge from the hobgoblins of mythology. Scientists and academicians are sure the world reduces to rational causes, and that objective ideals know empirical truths. But a perceptual sleight of hand organizes sensory stimulus into the idealized material world before the rational mind can know it.

Objectivism, the mainstream philosophy supporting our beliefs about the nature of reality, belies the indeterminacy of perception. The object in objective perception derives its form from a composite of perceptual gestalts. The formal gestalt, in turn, is an accumulation of experience localized in a symbol. Mythology supplies perception with a known context. The objectively perceived world is an echo of the symbol forming experiences of an actualization process that incorporates the participant into cultural mythology.

Although there is an unknowable gulf between perception and the phenomenal, there is an obvious correlation between the two. Common sense dictates there is a 'real' world and knowledge fits it like a glove. Illusion undermines the apparent objectivity of knowledge as the mind adapts and solidifies the phenomenal stimulus into a known context. We unquestioningly accept reality as having volume, weight and placement in contiguous time and space. But all we really have is sensory data and we conclude the rest.

The logic of scientific thought (dis)integrates. Mythology provides synthetic understanding. Where science works outwardly from the facts with an analytic model and with what we mistakenly assume are universal ideals, mythology works inwardly from the objectively perceived world with subjective confirmation. To this extent they are different. But science and mythology are not oppositional. The scientific belief system is the medium whereby the substance of the myth is known. For Western society, the scientific explanation of the world is a sacred narrative.

The mythopoeic mind organizes perception into the lived experience from which scientific thought analyzes fact and derives theory. Science divides components of behavior into increasingly smaller units, seemingly blind to the enigmas behind the gossamer of objective ideals. Scientific narratives of linear logic float on an unconscious sea with no certainties beyond their immediate context. Free-floating belief systems offer biased appraisals of the world while their underlying purpose is to incorporate the initiate.

Meaning and understanding are attributes of mythology in the cultural actualization of the individual. There is no ultimate reality or absolute knowledge to be discovered just beyond the current grasp of the intellect. There is only an endless series of organized conventions serving individuation and cultural integration. Each new mythology holds the sense of truth until reason and lack of relevance erode the ontological ground from beneath it. The metaphoric nature of knowledge and perception does not allow for knowing reality beyond the mythic appraisal. The sense of truth of any proposition or experience reconfirms the myth and provides a measure of how well its belief system adapts man to his environment.

Observations on the Myth of History

In their search for truth, analytic philosophers disenfranchised Occidental philosophies and the Western historical view. Monolithic history toppled as the continuity and singularity of direction offered by the patriarchal view fragmented. No longer does one historical perspective have a clear advantage over another. The historical thesis was swamped in a sea of antitheses. The colonialist's world view, the monolithic historical perspective, Occidental philosophy and the patriarchal hierarchies of our institutions have been exposed as oppressive, self-serving and based on erroneous assumptions.

The active myths of Western culture have undergone drastic transformations in the face of post-modern upheavals. Philosophic reductionism, the rabid commercialization of culture and recognition of minority rights has led to qualitative losses in ideological and cultural coherence. But this has not led to the discontinuance of history as an active format of individuation and cultural integration. This founding myth of Western culture appears to be resistant to the ravages of nihilism.

Behind the web of history's causal chronology, modern man is bound by a mimetic bond to his ancestral past. That is to say, history is legitimized by a psychological identification with our ancestors through the encounter of their artifacts and not by the persuasion of causal ideals alone. History gives shape to the human experience. It lets us know who we are and how we got here. Significant artifacts acquire transcendent value as symbols of the historical myth that personifies the genealogy of consciousness.

The projection of ontological value by the participant in the encounter with the artifact denotes a class of experiential knowledge that falls outside the reductive assessment of history. History is substantiated by transcendent experience as well as by logical explanation. It provides a transcendent means for stabilizing and maintaining autonomous self-image. The belief in the myth of causal history, whatever its latest revision, is essential to the integrity of diachronic consciousness.

Copyright © R. Cronk 1996 - All Rights Reserved

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