Before the forerunners of modern science and objectivity, in ancient Greek philosophy and Eastern naturalism, there was mythopoeic thought. This was a very different way of understanding the world, some principles of which we can glean from the ancient myths. “Mythopoeia” means myth-making, and in modern times the word was picked up by J.R.R. Tolkein, who was interested in the myths that express the distinctive forms of thinking associated with each language and historical offshoot. Tolkein famously fleshed out the British worldview with his hobbit mythos. In the 1940s, the Egyptologist Henri Frankfort and his wife applied this word “mythopoeic” in their case for the thesis that the ancients had a distinctive, non-modern mode of cognition.
As far as I can tell from the Frankforts’ The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, they don’t subscribe to the Enlightenment conceit that history proceeds in progressive stages; that is, although they speak of a development from mythopoeic thought to modernism, they don’t assume that ancient cognition is inferior to the modern kind or that the former can be understood only with reference to what came afterward. When we modernists do congratulate ourselves in that fashion, we see ancient myths as just botched attempts at scientific explanation. Auguste Comte, for example, is explicit about the teleological assumptions of this progressive theory of history. No, in line with the 20th C. postmodern denunciation of modernist overreach, anthropologists came to insist on cultural relativism and on the merit of studying civilizations with a minimum of cultural bias. Whether anthropological objectivity is possible is another matter, but Frankfort et al, Ernst Cassirer, Clifford Geertz and others aimed to describe how foreign cultures work, by laying bare the internal coherence of those cultures.
Phenomenology and the Logic of Myths
Here I’d like to critique the Frankforts’ fascinating discussion of the development of mythopoeic cognition. What, then, distinguishes the ancient, non-modern way of understanding the world? According to the Frankforts, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians (Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians) had little interest in explaining things in the modern sense, although they had some conceptions of logic and of empirical reasoning. The ancients experienced the world holistically, meaning that they didn’t distinguish subject from object. As the Frankforts put it, borrowing from Martin Buber, the ancients experienced the world as a Thou, not as an It. The Frankforts distinguish this from animism, if the animist is understood as someone who personifies inanimate things by imagining spirits being injected into lifeless matter, since there was no process by which the ancients dissolved any such dualism; they just experienced events as extensions of their mind, just as they experienced themselves as extensions of the world’s volitional forces, gods, and other spirits.
The ancients weren’t preoccupied with reason, impartiality, or any rational neutrality; instead, the world’s baffling richness demanded the use of all of their mental faculties, including their imagination and their emotions, so that an abstract explanation of an event’s underlying causes would have been seen as grossly incomplete. A person’s task was to experience the concrete details that make for the uniqueness of each immediately-perceived event, not to abstract from those differences to derive a natural law that encompasses relations between kinds of events. Certainly, then, the ancients didn’t tend to objectify, although contrary to Julian Jaynes’s neurological theory of the difference between ancient and modern thought, they may have had the mental capacity to do so. The philosopher Cassirer makes this same point about the ancients’ preoccupation with the uniqueness of events, when he says, in Language and Myth, that the function of “mythic ideation” is
a process of almost violent separation and individuation…[Where] the process of apprehension aims not at an expansion, extension, universalizing of the content, but rather at its highest intensification, this fact cannot fail to influence human consciousness. All other things are lost to a mind thus enthralled; all bridges between the concrete datum and the systematized totality of experience [in the Kantian sense] are broken; only the present reality, as mythic or linguistic conception stresses and shapes it, fills the entire subjective realm…There is nothing beside or beyond it whereby it could be measured or to which it could be compared; its mere presence is the sum of all Being. (57-58)
Instead of theorizing or proving their hypotheses, the ancients preferred to tell stories. They did so not to entertain, but to honour and celebrate what they took to be metaphysical truths, as the Frankforts put it, although these might better be understood as phenomenological ones, given that metaphysics implies the idea of the physical, of the world as an It. What the ancient myths are really about, then, is the subjectivity of how it must have been to experience the world in those ancient times and places. The myths use metaphor to describe ancient states of consciousness, bracketing (as the phenomenologist Husserl says) the question of how the qualia, the contents of conscious states, might relate to anything else. The ancients were effectively solipsists in that they preferred not to abstract from their subjective experience. Everything was conscious and alive for them, because that’s how the world seems when we think with our feelings and our imagination as much as with our powers of reasoning.
This holistic way of experiencing the world gave rise to cultures that revolved around religious rituals which, in turn, expressed the myths that upheld the richness of subjective experience. And the rituals were entangled with the myths, so that if a myth spoke of a god’s creation of the seasons in some distant age, for example, a ritual that simulates that event was thought to become one with it, so that the ancients would have felt as potent as that god. So, too, symbols became one with what they symbolized; for example, a person’s power could reside in her name, so that if a detested Pharaoh’s inscriptions were erased (after his death), the Pharaoh’s spirit was likewise thought to be banished from history. Moreover, gods were thought to be one with statues of them. After all, linguistic or representational symbols didn’t issue from nowhere, but were part of the field of conscious experience, along with everything else from the phenomenological viewpoint. Although each event was unique, everything was felt to be interconnected, just as one thought flows into the next, and so symbols were assumed to partake of the divine powers that animate everything.
Dreams are relevant as well in that they don’t seem strange while we’re immersed in them and they have an internal logic which seems peculiar to modern waking consciousness but which once again seems obvious and inexorable when we’re submerged in our nightly dreams. Just as the ancients might have felt obliged to perform some ritual, to fulfill their part in the bargain which is the union between each person and the enchanted world, the unconscious dreamer feels that each repetition of some bizarre activity is necessary, that the dream logic is good and ought to be carried to its conclusion. If the dream is a nightmare, we might still feel the punishment is deserved, that there’s some lesson in it; likewise, when the ancients experienced a drought, a loss in battle, or some other calamity, they would have turned to their myths and rituals to understand not how one thing physically causes another, but the implicit meaning of the evil that befell them. In fact, as I understand it, mythopoeic thought might be likened to collective daydreaming, to a suspension of abstract reasoning so that the whole mind could be brought to bear on the challenge of appreciating the world’s qualitative complexity in the subjective experience of it.
Judaism and the Foreshadowing of Modernism
How do we get from the childlike daydreaming of an enchanted world to modern objectification? Well, the Frankforts argue that in the West, Jewish monotheism was the earliest break from mythopoeic thought, foreshadowing but perhaps not directly influencing Presocratic philosophy, where the latter represents a further step on the way to modernism. Where Jews differed, of course, is that they thought of God as absolutely transcendent, as effectively noumenal, beyond our comprehension, and singular. This conception drained vitality from the universe, since compared to God everything is worthless and so if we can’t experience God, the world we do experience becomes something other than a divine Thou. This opposition to pantheism made possible the familiar subject-object dualism, because perfect mentality is now reserved for the alien God, leaving the universe high and dry, as it were.
This might have led to atheistic materialism, except that the Jews didn’t wholly depart from mythopoeic solipsism. Although Jews rigorously distinguished between God and idols (images of God), condemning the latter as relatively empty vessels, Jews didn’t regard God as entirely absent from the world. God’s will, they said, worked itself out especially within history and indeed within the history of a particular, chosen tribe, namely that of the Jews. So if the ancient gentiles were childlike in the freedom with which they mixed their reasoning with their less rational mental processes, Jews were childlike in a slightly different way. (Again, I don’t mean to invoke the condescending connotations of this comparison; likewise, the opposite, romantic ones are irrelevant here, since I’m not assuming that a childlike mentality is worse or better than the modern kind.) The childlike gentiles were polytheists or henotheists, crediting everything with divinity and vitality, including the gods of rival tribes and kingdoms. Again, everything became spiritually rich, since the ancients carried their divinizing faculties wherever they went; after all, these faculties were their mental powers of processing their experience. So the gentiles were like the generous children sitting in the playground sand, who freely lend their toys, welcoming the opportunity to play in the Garden of Eden with newcomers. “Sit down, bring your toys and you’re welcome to play with mine,” they seemed to say. “Let’s play together in our worshipping of life, in our humble appreciation of the mysteries of being alive.”
By comparison, Jews were the jealous children who horded the toys, who refused to share divinity with outsiders. The Frankforts point out the evident historical basis of this cultural shift. The ancient Jews were desert wanderers, caught between the materially superior civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. As such, Jews felt homeless and alienated and so to comfort themselves, they borrowed the foreign myths and rewrote them to dignify themselves. Left to the wilderness they might have been, but they weren’t lost in the sight of God; on the contrary, they were divinely chosen, for God works in mysterious ways. Just as the great sun is no more special than a grain of sand, to the Lord, a Pharaoh and a pauper are all one. God graciously favours the Jews, demonstrating his transcendence, his strangeness to our ways of thinking. We might consider the ancient Jews weak compared to the Egyptian Empire, but our power hierarchies are nothing to the universe’s architect. God topples empires and terrorizes individuals for his inscrutable reasons, as was made clear to Job. But God hasn’t entirely forsaken humanity, according to Judaism, since he’s with those who keep his covenant. Regardless of whether we think of Jewish ethnocentrism in Nietzschean terms of slave morality following from naturally weak people’s resentments, mythopoeia seemed to survive in this tribal aspect of the Jewish demystification of nature. The Jewish disenchantment was incomplete, since they left themselves alone as spiritual beacons in the wasteland.
I wish to add that this point about the inchoate modernism in Jewish monotheism is consistent with the point I make elsewhere about the existential aspect of alienation (see here and here). The ancient Jews were outsiders and so they had a choice of sinking into depression or of using their special vantage point for artistic purposes. They chose the latter. They objectified and vilified everything operating in apparent opposition to God’s will, because the Jews were on intimate terms with the desert wilderness. They were literally deserted and they sanctified their marginalization; they were between empires, feeling at home nowhere. And so the Jews dreamed up an otherworldly home for themselves—and a God to match. For them, divinity was necessarily remote rather than a spiritual force infusing all things, because the Jewish dreams were products of suffering, failure, and oppression, not of worldly power and success. In Jewish myths, the Jewish people triumph over their neighbours, but that history is now known to be a pitiful fantasy.
Nevertheless, the Jews created an original worldview to make the best of their existential predicament. Instead of building an empire, they created a mythos and a portable religion that could be practiced on the run. Jews weren’t grounded in earthly terms, so they brought the rest of the world down to their level, using the world’s newly demystified status as leverage to elevate themselves in the end. The chutzpah of Jewish monotheism can be appreciated aesthetically as the sort of bold, desperate move that might be made by people who lack the luxurious lifestyle to distract from the existential facts. As the Frankforts put it, “With infinite moral courage the Hebrews worshipped an absolute God and accepted as the correlate of their faith the sacrifice of a harmonious existence” (373). Judaism was thus a religion for social outsiders, although today, thanks to American largesse after the Holocaust, secularized Jews have mostly lost touch with those roots—however much they continue to mouth what now seem like the empty words about the ancient Jews’ wanderings in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and the like. Modernism makes comedies of all theistic religions, so to avoid being the butt of the joke, many Jews now choose to assimilate in the profane, materialistic manner, forsaking the artistic calling that transcends the social comings and goings.
What happens when we eliminate mystery and immaterial substances from the world, leaving only nature, the field of measurable and thus conquerable objects, mechanisms, systems, and the like? What happens, therefore, when we subdue our nostalgia for childhood and our fascination for dreams, elevating reason to such an extent that we fancy ourselves hyperrational utility-maximizers and skeptics that have no need for religious faith? According to the Frankforts, we come closer to the end of Western mythopoeic thought in Presocratic speculation. The Presocratics sought universal, metaphysical generalizations that subsume all particular experiences; instead of relishing the rich variety of experiences, the ancient Greeks looked for underlying forms, so that they could mentally reduce everything to more fundamental kinds. Thus, Thales said everything is really water, while Anaximenes held air to be most fundamental, and Heraclitus fire. Finally, Parmenides eliminated all trace of particularity from pure Being. The Greeks valued not raw experience, but philosophical debate, which they freely took up, pushing their speculations to the furthest reaches and regulating them not by commonsense but just by their commitment to logical rigour. As the Frankforts say,
The absence of personification, of gods, sets it [Greek philosophy] apart from mythopoeic thought. Its disregard for the data of experience in its pursuit of consistency distinguishes it from later thought. Its hypotheses were not induced from systematic observations but were much more in the nature of inspired conjectures or divinations by which it was attempted to reach a vantage point where the phenomena would reveal their hidden coherence. It was the unshakable conviction of the Ionians, Pythagoreans, and early Eleatics that such a vantage point existed; and they searched for the road toward it, not in the manner of scientists, but in that of conquistadors. (379)
The Greek philosophers proceeded by abstraction, not personification, and so as they applied their a priori reasoning, their philosophy became ever more counterintuitive to match both their loss of faith in their nonrational faculties and their resulting alienation from disenchanted nature. To appreciate the downside of modern objectification, notice that one of the keys to Western philosophy is the distinction between appearance and reality, and that philosophical reasoning is equivalent to hyper-skepticism, to the never-ending asking of deeper and deeper questions. So whereas mythopoeic thought takes conscious appearance at face value, employing the phenomenological method, in effect, the Presocratics, which is to say the true premodernists looked beyond how things seem to consciousness when we unleash our intuitions and our artistic or unconscious projections. Thus, the Greek philosophers found an underlying unity behind the apparent world, and that unity was abstract and lifeless because it was beheld only by dispassionate reason. Plato systematizes this philosophy with his various dualisms: the abstract Forms are distinguished from the imperfect particulars which are condemned as mere copies of reality, and rational arguments, not myths or rituals, are the means of accessing that reality. As to the philosopher’s social status, Socrates provides the case study: because reason is accursed, teaching us that the apparent world of particulars is a horror and a hell compared to what is at best some denatured, impersonal Goodness shaping natural processes from beyond, the philosopher should reign in secret or risk being scapegoated by the ignorant public, which prefers children’s fairytales.
Nature’s Ironic Re-enchantment
So ends the Frankforts’ account of how mythopoeic thought becomes modern. Again, this development needn’t be read with a positivistic bias or with a Romantic longing for an archaic revival; at least, the Frankforts don’t emphasize the superiority of either sort of cognition. In any case, I think the Frankforts miss an important and rather ironic twist, which is the technological re-enchantment of nature. Recall that the Presocratics were philosophers, meaning they loved knowledge most of all and so their speculations were relatively idle. However, the Scientific Revolution set the stage for the modern coupling of rational procedures for answering empirical questions, with political and economic revolutions. That coupling made for technoscience, for the world’s wholesale demystification and for its replacement with our preferred, artificial environments by modern industry. There was premodern technology, of course, but modern secularism, individualism, democracy and capitalism vastly increased the scope and pace of industry so that in our postmodern time we can speak of the world as a global village even after our rampant objectifications have rendered all things irredeemably monstrous in their undeadness. Pure reason thus leads to atheism and nihilism, but a curious thing happened along the way: while our minds were busy casting doubts on all our dreams and childish fantasies, our bodies were frantically transforming much of the planet into a technological wonderland, into an environment that embodies our fantasies and ideals and that actually lives up to those mythopoeic expectations.
What do I mean by this? Well, what we took away with one hand, we gave back with the other. We only pretended to be ultrarationalists and we reveal our animalistic irrationality with our deeds, regardless of our hollow words. We modernists are all hypocrites. We claim to be naturalists, to think of the world as scientists do, as full of matter and spiritless energy and physical processes which are explained by well-tested theories. And indeed, all of that rational work has been done and modernists have shown that the gods and spirits aren’t factually part of nature, which is why the most charitable interpretation of mythopoeic thought is that it was phenomenological, that it concerned itself with only the superficial contents of shamelessly subjective experience. But simultaneously, we applied that knowledge and transmogrified nature: that is, we cut down forests, blasted mountains, polluted rivers, and built metropolises; we exterminated many species and sucked the remnants of the dinosaurs out of the bowels of the earth, so that we could race across the globe like Hermes or the other gods or stars that seemed to fly across the sky. Analogously, while that fictional incarnation of Logos, Sherlock Holmes, tracked down all of those convoluted causal relations, he was injecting himself with cocaine. Positivists and new atheists claim to be the mature adults in the room, to accept the world as it really is, but they’re also neck-deep in the fruits of modern industry, as producers and consumers of the techno toys we play with, which substitute for the spirits of old.
Put bluntly, the ancient myths personified what is really an impersonal universe in which we're negligible. The humbling, cosmicist suspicion is closer to the truth, which is that far from gracing nature like Midas whose touch turns everything into gold, our modern knowledge threatens to sink us all into seas of angst and dread. When we give free rein to our creative powers, we populate the world with animal spirits and normative principles, with angels and demons and a host of other imaginary beasties, and those who can cognitively afford to live in that enchanted world are far from suffering the outsider’s worry, because everywhere feels like home to the pantheist. Modernists discovered we don’t live in that world, and the beasties fled from the light of Reason and reside now in the shadows which are no places at all. But that disenchanted domain may be intolerable to animals of our stripe and so we flood our corner of the bare-bones wilderness with vitality. True, we don’t conjure gods; instead, we design functional machines and other artifacts. The functions substitute for spirits, for the occult powers the ancients posited in their ignorance or indifference. An intelligently-designed, teleological function like a wheel’s excellence at spinning is like a spirit that’s bound to serve when the right incantation has been uttered or the right god has been appeased by a sacrifice. No longer do the local natural processes work in their perfect indifference to our concerns, since the artificial world is at our beck and call: tools, machines, consumer goods, buildings, and social systems don’t just work, they work as we want them to and if they break down we fix and perfect them.
It’s one thing to live in the desert like an ancient Jew, to look out at the practically endless sand dunes and the cacti, to squirm as the jackals howl, and thus to suffer the constant reminder that nature is ultimately hostile to life. It’s another thing to be immersed in an environment of our making, in a city that works more or less as it’s supposed to--as opposed to mindlessly going on long after we’ve left the stage, which is what pristine nature will do. Whether we consider genetic engineering, nanotechnology, 3D printing, the computer, the internet, the automobile or the airplane, or a thousand other technical marvels, our machines realize the mythopoeic fantasy of a purposive world. Take, for example, electricity which is now so prevalent in big cities that there’s such a thing as light pollution, which literally blots out the stars that were once worshipped as gods. Or consider the movie theater which replaces the campfire around which sacred tales were once told: the ancients only imagined the deeds of their fictional heroes or produced drawings or sculptures to magnify the glory of their myths, whereas our heroes live on the screen and make possible the suspension of disbelief despite the modern myth of our coldhearted ultrarationality. For the ancients, subjects and objects were one in conscious experience, but while we’re liable now to objectify everything, our artificial environments carry our fantasies and ideals in a form we can’t deny: we’ve concretized and externalized our mentality so that the way we think things ought to be stares even cynical postmodernists in the face.
We used to only dream that there were gods, but now with our technological power over life and death, we’ve turned ourselves into them. Like children we went along with the game played by our unconscious mind, which projected our fictions onto causal relations, but now we play with our myriad technologies which are actually shaped by our intentions. In the distant past, our ancestors excelled at celebrating the life of their conscious states, but now we routinely reach out and inject mentality into the artificial extensions of our bodies and minds. In the interim there was the rational disenchantment, but what I’m suggesting now is that the Age of Reason was inconsequential. It wasn’t just the ancient personifications that were illusory; so too is the ultrarationality of humankind.
Reason is powerless to subdue the beast within so that even when we pretend to be free from delusions, we demonstrate our appetite for the fulfillment of our fantasies. Most of all we long for a home so that we needn’t feel alienated. When we discovered that the material world alone wouldn’t comply, because it was fundamentally and terrifyingly lifeless, we decided to make it otherwise so that our infantile cravings might yet be catered to. This is a hidden meaning of modern civilizations and a great irony, which is that far from growing out of our mythopoeic phase, we outperform the ancients with respect to their personifications and deifications. The ancients only dreamed the world is alive; we make those dreams realities. As Erik Davis argues in Techgnosis, offering a host of examples, we technologically re-enchant the world, but our enchantments aren't cheap magician’s tricks: our machines really do add purpose to the hitherto pointless universe; they chug along to fulfill our wishes, dreams, ideals, and intelligent designs, proving that creatures like us are—and have always been—altogether opposed to the world as we once found it.