Your complimentary articles. You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please. The best way into our subject is through a look at ancient mythology. Consider, for example, the familiar story of Sisyphus, whom the gods condemned to move a rock to the top of a hill, whereupon it would roll back down, this appalling sequence to be repeated over and over through eternity.
Thinkers for generations have sensed in this myth a meaning, possibly a profound truth only dimly seen. Perhaps it is the image of an indominatable will.
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Or of the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of endless failure. Or it could be an image of justice. It has also been thought to symbolize the meaninglessness of human existence.
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In any case, what gives the story depth and importance is that it is thought to contain a truth behind the banality of the imagery. Now suppose a professor of classics were to insist that this story has to be historically correct. He maintains that this myth, like so many others contained in ancient texts, must be considered true as it stands and not properly subject to interpretation or any search for hidden meanings.
He thinks that he must take this position in order to uphold the worth and dignity of the classics and their venerable authors. Otherwise, he thinks, people will want to dismiss mythology as a mere collection of fairy tales, unworthy of serious consideration. Concerning such a misguided classicist we could say, first, that he has completely missed the point; second, that far from upholding the worth and dignity of the classics, he has trivialized them; and third, that he has made a fool of himself.
And this brings us to the nature of myths generally and how the understanding of them has changed over time. The change represents a great loss. It is as if a curtain of darkness has fallen over a vast treasure of truth, and all because of an unnecessarily narrow conception of truth. Thus, we think now of myths as nothing but widely believed falsehoods, like the myth of racial superiority, or of inevitable progress.
The belief that sudden fright on the part of a pregnant woman can injure her unborn child is dismissed as a myth, that is, a groundless falsehood. That is not at all how myths were thought of in antiquity. They were an important part of Greek civilization and other cultures. They were not, as we think of them now, popular errors, but fabulous tales, sometimes of great complexity, usually involving gods in their relationships with men. But what is distinctive about the more lasting ones is that instead of being simply false, they were thought to embody truth.
Thus a myth was an account which, while literally false and even absurd, was true on a deeper level. Moreover, it was thought that these truths could not be expressed in any other way.
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They could not, for example, be formulated in straightforward declarative sentences without being reduced to banality. Myths were thus once cultural treasures, and the modern failure to understand them, to the extent that even the meaning of the word has been corrupted, is a severe loss. Plato, the paradigmatic product of Greek culture, understood the role of myths.
He never thought it necessary to explain them. Thus, usually after plumbing some philosophical question as deeply as he could by rational dialectic, Plato sometimes culminated the discussion with a myth. He saw that reason can grasp only so much of a great truth and insight. The rest he incorporated into myth. His Republic , for example, is an expression of precise and rational thought at its best, and yet this great work culminates in the myth of Er, to make the point that our understanding of our ultimate good can be conveyed in no other way. In the same work he invents a tale of men imprisoned in a cave and thus limited to shadows and echoes until liberated and compelled to look at things as they really are, and at the sun that illuminates everything.
Final truth, the story suggests, cannot be discovered by unaided intelligence. Protagoras, in this dialogue that bears his name, is asked to render an account of how virtue is taught. He offers to do this in either of two ways, by straightforward exposition, or by myth. It is thus understood that these are two quite different paths to one and the same truth, and Socrates does not question this presupposition. Protagoras then complies, by inventing an elaborate and instructive myth.
What is Truth?
The concept of a myth, as thus understood, is essential for understanding religion, and the Christian religion in particular. Without this understanding it is impossible to see the power of a religion and how it can endure for generation after generation. The power of a religion lies in its stories, not simply as stories, but as vehicles of truth and, sometimes, profound truth. It is superficial to say, on whatever grounds, that scriptural accounts of events long past are false, and it is no less superficial to say that they are, as they stand, true.
Some, at least, have a deeper meaning, overwhelmingly important to human understanding, and the task should be to try finding those meanings. Viewed this way, we can see that secularists, who dismiss religion as simply false, and fundamentalists, who insist on literal truth, both miss the point.
This is in some cases perfectly obvious. Consider, for example, the story of the prodigal son.
The meaning here is not particularly obscure, and will be grasped by any parent, or any brother in the kind of situation described. Insight is needed here, but not great insight, and when you understand the meaning of the story you are wiser. Equally important, that meaning cannot be expressed otherwise than by story or myth, without being reduced to banality. You need not only to see the meaning, in a general way, but to feel it. The same can be said of the story of the Samaritan. It drives home perfectly the meanings of neighbor and love, meanings that could not possibly be captured by definitions.
Or think of the story of Job, which has had such a profound effect upon the generations.
It will perhaps be the task of theologians forever to ferret it out, and we shall meanwhile see some of it dimly and remain content with what we can sense of it. Meanwhile, no one will be able to say, in a straightforward way, what that meaning is, even to the extent that it is found, for this can be conveyed only by myth. Here it is important to remind ourselves, again, of the irrelevance of literal truth. Thus, it makes not the slightest difference to the story of the prodigal son whether the family described actually existed.
That is not the point. Nor is it of any importance whether the Samaritan and the Levite referred to in that story actually had the encounter described. Jesus was not offering instruction in history. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names. In another sense, though, this truth places the artist under the most severe pressure, because if that original call, that crisis of consciousness, either has not been truly heard, or has not been answered with everything that is in you, then even the loudest clamors of acclaim will be tainted, and the wounds of rejection salted with your implacable self-knowledge.
An artist who loses this internal arbiter is an artist who can no longer hear the call that first came to him.
Better to be silent then. Better to go into the world and do good work, rather than to lick and cosset a canker of resentment or bask your vanity in hollow acclaim. An artist who believes this is an artist of faith, even if the faith contains no god. Reading Bonhoeffer makes me realize again how small our points of contact with life can be, perhaps even necessarily are , when our truest self finds its emotional and intellectual expression.
With all that is going on around Bonhoeffer, and with all of the people in his life he wrote letters to many other people and had close relationships with other prisoners , it is only in the letters to Brege that his thought really sparks and finds focus. Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures.
Both of these writers seem to me to have not only the linguistic and metaphorical capacities of great poets, but also genuine visionary feeling. My own predispositions have everything to do with my preference, of course: I believe in visionary feeling and experience, and in the capacity of art to realize those things. I also believe that this is a higher achievement than art that merely concerns itself with the world that is right in front of us. Its massive organ music and formal grandeur are not simply aiming at transcendence, they are claiming it.
This latter category includes most of the art in existence even much art that seems to be religious , and it is from this latter category that most of our aesthetic experience will inevitably come. The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it seems.
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But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous. What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is merely an articulation of despair? The cry of a believer, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job.
How much of twentieth-century poetry, how much of my own poetry, is the cry of the damned? But this is oversimplified. Ammons, who had no religious faith at all but whose work has some sort of undeniable lyric transcendence. Perhaps this: a cry that seems to at once contain and release some energy that is not merely the self, that does not end at despair but ramifies, however darkly, beyond it, is a metaphysical cry. And to make such a cry is, even in the absence of definitions, a definition, for it establishes us in relation to something that is infinite.
What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole.
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