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Is mythology useful in the modern world?

2009 October 27

Stu and I collaborated to draft this summary of one of our October discussions. While not strictly accurate, this version has the benefit of conveying the give-and-take spirit of Socrates Cafe. And, as this very discussion addressed, sometimes you need to use a fiction to tell a deeper truth. I’ve taken some liberties with rearranging the order of comments and articulating some points that were implied by the discussion but not made explicit.

[Where the question came from: In her new book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong argues that religion and mythology have to go back to their pre-17th century roots if they are to remain relevant. That got us interested in discussing the role of mythology today. ]


First, let’s ask: What is a myth?

Well, our common conception is that a myth is a very old story, from an oral tradition, such as that of the ancient Greeks. Mythology isn’t about facts. It’s not history. Myths explain the ‘why’ (if not accurately the ‘how’) of the events and ways of the world.

You say a myth isn’t about facts, but don’t some myths purport to explain the natural world as a scientific theory might? I’m thinking, for example, of creation myths and myths about weather gods. Aren’t they intended to be actual descriptions of the beginning of the world and the forces that rule it?

I’m not sure that the Genesis story is meant to be taken literally. It’s a fiction told to tell a deeper truth, or at least raise a deeper question, for example: What is humanity’s place in nature? In this sense, Social Darwinism might be considered to be a modern myth: Although social Darwinism makes use of scientific theory (Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection), it is not itself science. It takes some facts about the real world and uses them metaphorically to conjure a myth about human nature (‘survival of the fittest’ in society) as well as humanity’s relationship to the natural world.

So is mythology a sort of category mistake? The suborning of facts and science to tell just-so stories that reinforce a culture’s prejudices?

Only to the extent that all metaphors are deliberate category violations. Properly used they help one understand a new situation. Metaphor isn’t intended to explain the actual way the new situation works, but instead offers a workable mental model that avoids unsound trains of logic. (At least when used in good faith: Plato banned the artisans of metaphor—poets—from his Republic. He saw poetry as a form of propaganda.)

Would you say that modern conspiracy theories—alien abduction narratives and world-control-by-secret-cabal theories—are also modern myths, useful or otherwise?

Conspiracy theories purport to be about a factual (if hidden) truth. They seem to be trying more to be like history than like myth. Myths aren’t about exposing cover-ups and correcting the public record.

OK. We’ve examined our conception of what a myth is. Now let’s ask: What does it mean for a myth to be useful?

For starters, myths may act to facilitate shared cultural connections, which in turn provides a sense of emotional connection and meaning that humans clearly crave. Religious myths may also provide comfort and a certainty that calms the mind and its fears in the face of an uncertain world. In a similar vein, a mythological explanation can be inappropriately substituted for a scientific explanation: The myth ‘satisfies’ curiosity, preventing or redirecting further examination of some event or practice that might embarrass authorities. But, on the positive side, myths can offer a roadmap to life’s challenges: how to fix a problem, how to live the good life, how to navigate life’s many transitions.

Can you give an example?

Yes, the Hero’s Journey is a recurrent form of myth (for example, The Odyssey) that speaks metaphorically about how a person makes the transition to adulthood by enduring and meeting a series of challenges. These are more sophisticated myths, or interpretations. On the simpler side, a  myth often has some moral to teach, especially if targeted toward children. Myths can help a child internalize a culture’s values leading ultimately to more prosocial behavior. The Santa Claus myth, for example,teaches children to believe an invisible observer is always watching so they begin to control impulsive or socially undesirable behaviors. Thus myths act to smuggle in values and beliefs, like “Bad deeds will be judged by an all knowing being and then punished.” Rituals around the Santa myth encourage kids to actually try out prosocial behaviors: We leave gifts of milk and cookies for Santa, modeling reciprocity; children have to wait to open their presents, modeling patience and delayed gratification; the youngest child is often serves as gift-distributor, modeling service to others. But myths are hard to control. They take on a life of their own. So the Santa myth has also become saturated with crass consumerism.

Doesn’t the Santa myth have a weakness shared by a number of other badly-shaped myths? It is falsifiable. It claims that Santa actually exists. It begins to crumble when, as a kid, you get more than or less than you deserve. What is the explanation? Perhaps the invisible watcher is mean, unfair, or insane. And when kids find out Santa doesn’t exist, they may doubt the reality of the myth’s moral lessons as well, or even come to believe the myth to be a fantasy invented to control them.

That’s possible. But this is also possible: When children mature and learn that Santa IS just a myth, they learn to deal with the disappointment—maybe even heartbreak—of having something they fervently desire to be true shown to be false. It prepares them to cope with this very human experience.

This is all very interesting, but isn’t it also true that a myth can be useful simply by entertaining? Isn’t that what so much of Homer is about: Telling a good story?

It’s certainly true that for a myth to be effective, it’s got to be transmitted reliably. And to be transmitted reliably it must be vivid, memorable, entertaining in its own right, and effective on multiple levels. A myth can entertain both by being as simple as it needs to be, and as elaborate as the teller wants to make it. It should offer both a simple lesson and a deeper, more culturally loaded, lesson for the adept or attuned individual to tease out. At one level, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a symbolic story about chivalry and loyalty. On another, it’s a commentary about gender relations. But it’s also a rollicking kid’s fairytale, complete with adventures and a scary monster. (It’s no surprise that J.R.R. Tolkien authored a translation. What is the Green Knight if not a proto-Orc?)

Audio of a Socrates Cafe discussion

2009 October 27
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I edited our July 22, 2009 discussion down to 20 minutes. That’s a lot of compression for a 2 hour discussion, and I’m curious to see if the discussion is interesting/sensible to people who weren’t there. Please comment!

The topic:  Are there any better or novel models of social organization?


Socrates Cafe Seattle: Who we are

2009 October 27

LISTEN! to an edited recording of a Socrates Cafe Seattle discussion or READ a summary.

WHERE? Uptown Espresso
2504 4th Ave (@ Wall St. in Belltown), Seattle

WHEN? Each Wednesday evening from 7:30 to 9:30 pm

WHO ARE WE? We are a group of people interested in discussing the big (and the not so big) questions that affect our everyday lives.

WHAT IS SOCRATES CAFE SEATTLE? At each meeting the group chooses and investigates a single question (such as “What is the good life?”). We help each other become better critical thinkers, re-examine our assumptions, and study the chosen question by probing it from different angles.

Most importantly: We ask each other further questions.

A Socrates Cafe is a facilitated discussion in which civility and respectful listening are essential. However, we are not aiming for consensus (although at times we surprise ourselves and arrive there), but rather for the airing, sharing and deep consideration of diverse points of view. Group members facilitate on a rotating basis.

The first Socrates Cafes were started by Chris Phillips (see his book: “Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy”). Socrates Cafe Seattle convened in spring 2001.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD SOCRATES CAFE QUESTION? All questions are welcome, especially those that perplex you and directly relate to your life and current preoccupations.

QUESTIONS and MEDIA INQUIRIES? Email or just stop by the Cafe next Wednesday.

Information on Socrates Cafes around the U.S. can be found at the Society for Philosophical Inquiry.

CAN’T GET ENOUGH? Try a Conversation Café with meetings every day of the week.

Socrates Cafe Seattle: New (or second) home

2009 October 27
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It’s been frustrating for a while that our Yahoo Groups site doesn’t rank in the first 100 search results on Google for “Socrates Cafe Seattle”.  And that the inactive Meet Up group ranks first. And that the functionality of the Yahoo site is so limited.

So I decided to put together this basic WordPress site and mirror some of the Yahoo Group content. I hope this will help people find us both on the net and in person.