Mythos and Logos

“Bit by bit I am acquiring really mythical eyes, perhaps they are those of an old man once again approaching childhood.”

 Jacob Burckhardt, Letter to von Preen (July 24, 1889)

“It occurred to him that the difference between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside of the Earth”

C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938)

Myth is folklore, and folklore is the learning of a people.  Some myths are the lore of all mankind.  This essential meaning is obscured by our fixation on the content of particular myths, such as those of the Greeks and the Norse, or on particular personalities in folklore, such as Paul Bunyan or William Tell.  But the Greek word mythos denotes the oral tradition, and literally means the words of a people, the words that a people commonly say.  We should therefore think of myth as a generic name for oral tradition, which may or may not include stories about the gods.

Now the words of a people are various, and a great many things are commonly said, but mythos should not be supposed to include all of the incidental and trivial chatter in a people’s common life.  Mythos is folklore, lore is learning, and mythology is therefore the wisdom or wise words of a people.  It the words that a people especially remembers, that it takes especial care to pass down through the generations.  This is why we call myths a tradition.  Things are handed down in a tradition, just as things are handed over in a trade.

A literate people writes its wise words down in books, and then read these wise words aloud as legends.  The word legend means that which is read, and more especially that which is read aloud, as may be inferred from its resemblance to the word legible.  The legends of a people are the stories that all those people ought to read or have read to them.  If there are books that you feel you must read aloud to your children, those are your legends.  And so are the books you re-read to yourself.  Myths and legends are the wisdom, the lore, the learning that a people seeks especially to remember and pass down through the generations.

Modernity hates folklore because modernity is a rival lore.  We can see this hatred when men steeped in modern lore use the word myth as a pejorative name for false and fantastic beliefs, and when they use the word legend to impugn a story with dubious authenticity.  Men steeped in the modern lore may read old myths and legends for amusement; they may take them up with forceps for critical analysis, but they never take them seriously as wise words.  They never cherish them as lore.

* * * * *

Like mythos, the word logos means both word and lore.  The difference between mythos and logos is that mythos is the word and lore of a people, and logos is the word and lore of an individual.  This meaning may be obscured for Christians who are partly blinded by the stupendous doctrine that Jesus is the “word,” or logos, of God.  But the “word” of God in a hundred places means the wisdom, or lore, of God.  To take but one example,  Jehoshaphat says of the prophet Elisha,

“The word of the Lord is with him.”

This means that Elisha is a prophet who gives voice to the wisdom of God.  The stupendous doctrine of John’s gospel is that Jesus was this same wisdom embodied and “spoken” in the person of one man. Jesus was thus himself the new testament in which God revealed to men the contents of his mind.

Among the ancient Greeks, some men sought to improve the contents of their minds by the pursuit of wisdom.  Those who sought knowledge by way of reflection and debate were called philosophers; those who sought knowledge by way of inquiry (historia) were known as historians.  This is why empirical natural science was for centuries known as natural history.

When these wise men related what they had learned, whether by inquiry, debate or reflection, their testament was called their logos.  Just as God had revealed the contents of his mind in the words of Elisha or the person of Christ, so philosophers and historians revealed the contents of their minds in their word.  Their logos was their testament to their lore or what they had learned.

As the great classicist Gilbert Murray explained,

“A prose book in the sixth century was . . . the result of the author’s history; it was his logos, the thing he had to say.”*

And when Murray says that logos was the thing a man had to say, he meant the thing he had to say that he believed ought to be remembered and passed down to the next generation.  It was that man’s wisdom, his learning, his lore.

* * * *

Jacob Burkhardt was seventy-one when he wrote that he was acquiring “really mythical eyes,” and that this acquisition was likely due to the fact that he was “an old man once again approaching childhood.”  Burkhardt is today remembered as the great historian who wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, an inquiry into the birth of modernity.  But that history was written thirty years before he wrote this letter to von Preen, and in the twilight of life Burkhardt had begun to see the triviality of such inquires into mere facts.   In this letter, he dismisses such inquiries as “quisquilian researches,” which is to say fossicking through rubbish, and he confesses that “myths attract me more and more, and draw me away from history.”

Burkart wrote this letter while vacationing at Baden, in the Swiss canton of Aargau, and the old historian told his friend that he had just purchased a volume of local folklore from the bookseller.  From home he had brought nothing but Description of Greece, by the second century geographer Pausanias.  Pausanias was, perhaps, the first geographer of myth, and his Description is a guide to the storied sites in the popular lore of the ancient Greek people.  Here is a typical passage.

“The fountains of the river Erymanthus are in the mountain Lampea, which is said to be sacred to Pan . . . . It is also said that Hercules, in consequence of the mandate of Eurystheus, slew the boar in Erymanthus which was so remarkable for its magnitude and strength.”

To understand what Burkhardt meant by “mythical eyes,” we must observe two things.  First, that he says a man sees the world with mythical eyes at the beginning and end of his life.  Second, that he says an old man feels himself drawn back to this way of seeing.  Thus we might rephrase Burkhart’s notion this way:

“History attracts a young men more and more, and draws him down out of myth.  But when he is old and wise and has learned the truth of things, to myth he reascends.

The lore of every wise man is that he has no original lore.  That is a conceit of middle age.  Everything that has value in his logos exists in the mythos.  He can claim authorship only of its errors.

* * * * *

My epigram from Lewis appears near the end of the first volume in his space trilogy.  The protagonist Ransom is returning from Malacandra to Thulcandra, which is more and other than rocketing through space from Mars to Earth.  This is evident in the title of Lewis’s book, although the significance of the title long escaped me.  Indeed, I was long in the habit of misremembering the title as Out from the Silent Planet, when it is, in fact, Out of the Silent Planet.  But the journey those three men take is not a simple journey through space—a journey from Earth to Mars and back.  It is, rather, a spiritual journey out of the fallen state of man on earth.  It is a transcendental vision of life outside of the world that lives under the Curse

What the epigram tells us is that Ransom grasps that mythos is logos in the transcendental vision, just as Burkhardt grasped that logos is mythos in his vision as “an old man once again approaching childhood.”  It is only the Curse (and middle age) that causes the wretched men and women trapped on the the Silent Planet to mistake myth and history for two entirely different things.

* * * * *

And what there is to conquer 
By strength and submission, has already been discovered 
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope 
To emulate —but there is no competition— 
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost 
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions 
That seem unpropitious.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

*) Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897)

13 thoughts on “Mythos and Logos

  1. Pingback: Mythos and Logos | Reaction Times

  2. Logos is Divine Logic underlying all consistency and rationality. To deny Jesus Christ is to deny the basis of all logic and reason.

    Without Jesus Christ, Logic itself has no basis.

    The debate between Matt Dillahunty and Jay Dyer is instructive:

    • Logos is a word that has more than one meaning. The meaning you describe is important in Christian thought, but it tends to harm Christian thinking about other meanings of logos.

      • What do you mean, how so? The word logos had a meaning hundreds of years before John used it to describe a theological proposition, and it went on having non-theological meanings after John used it in this way. Logos was an expression of the contents of a man’s mind. It was his lore. It was perfectly reasonable for John to use the word to describe the Jesus as the expression of the content of God’s mind, but this does not obliterate all other meanings and uses of the word. The logos of God is not LOGOS. It is God’s logos. If you reveal the contents of your mind, that would be Info’s logos. If Info’s logos is not identical to God’s logos, that does not make it something other than logos.

      • Sure. However all proper logic has to follow certain universal infallible rules. By this is all proper science and investigation is made possible.

        If Mathematics have to be in a certain way to be correct of which even one error ruins the whole equation. How much more so is logic.

        In particular for example the need for consistency, non-contradiction and so forth.

        Info’s logic may be unsound and in need of correction like an incorrect mathematical equation. But logic itself must obey universal rules. A=A and so forth.

        Because a rational God made a rational universe. So it is that mathematics is possible and predictive in its measurement of patterns in the whole universe.

        Both logic and it’s iteration mathematics cannot be arbitrary.

      • You are missing my point. Here is what interests me. St. John is sitting there chewing his pencil and trying to think of a great opening line to his gospel. He wants to express the idea you describe, but he needs a metaphor. He needs a logos with which to reveal his lore, or learning, to the world. Ah! he thinks. The incarnation is kinda like publishing a book. There is a whole bunch of stuff about the “word of God” in the OT, and describing Jesus Christ as the logos of God makes the mystery of incarnation somewhat less mysterious.

        This is a great metaphor, but, like every metaphor, it is dangerous to forget that it is a metaphor. Consider this. We often use an onion as a metaphor for a thing that has many layers, and therefore talk of “peeling away the onion.” This can be a great metaphor. But it would be wrong say that the things we described with this metaphor were all aspects of some cosmic “Onion.” The mind of God is connected to his creation in a way that is neatly described with the metaphor of logos, but that mind, connection and creation are what they are. They are not “Logos.”

  3. The romantics were right to say that imagination had epistemic value. They of course drew a sharp distinction between imagination and fantasy, although the division proved hard to observe in practice.

    The mythos we pass to our children is a shaming mythos. If we had a later-day Pausanias to write a Description of the United States, he would write:

    “It is said that white settlers massacred twenty indigenous children at the fountains of the Yegua Creek, and that in the mighty oak hard by, they hung Black men for sport.”

    Wait a minute, we do have many later-day Pausanias’s. It’s as if the first Pausanias wrote his Description not to celebrate Hercules, but to lament the Erymanthian boar.

  4. @JM – If you don’t already know Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers, you may find some very stimulating stuff there about myth and history:

    [Jeremy] …”Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical – more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.(…)

    “They’re not wholly inventions. And even what is invented is different from mere fiction; it has more roots.” (…)

    “[The roots are] In Being, I think I should say,” Jeremy answered; “and in human Being; and coming down the scale, in the springs of History and the designs of Geography – I mean, well, in the pattern of our world as it uniquely is, and of the events in it as seen from a distance. (…)

    “Of course, the pictures presented by the legends may be partly symbolical, they may be arranged in designs that compress, expand, foreshorten, combine, and are not at all realistic or photographic, yet they may tell you something true about the Past.”

  5. This reminds me strongly of the eternal tension between Herodotus and Thucydides. In my poor gloss, Herodotus is attempting to capture the mythoi of the peoples he describes, claiming that this is indeed true history and a true description of the peoples much more useful than a careful winnowing of fact from fiction and a list of events, though he is careful to attempt to separate the actual from the fantastical, even though he presents both.

    Thucydides specifically scorns Herodotus and sets about in the method of modern historians, attempting to completely describe a factual account of a given train of events, indulging as well in psychological explanatory exegesis.

    It is a matter of perennial amusement to me that on the plane of “pure fact” Herodotus has been shown to be a much more reliable source than Thucydides.

  6. Pingback: Moon Day Review — The Rear View Mirror | Σ Frame


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