Monday, January 15, 2018

Evening Note for Monday, January 15

Thought for the Evening: Mythology as a Guide for Morals

One of the weaknesses I've always thought modern philosophy of religion to have is a lack of interest in mythology. Greek mythology is particularly notable, since Greek mythology does not consist of tales repeated word for word, but of tales continually reworked for particular purposes. This is a peculiarity of Ancient Greek religion. Every Greek myth has a local traditional core somewhere, but this core consists mostly of old ceremonies and rituals with certain religious associations. The nature of the Greek religion means that Greeks constantly formulated and reformulated stories about these local traditional cores, and there were no standardized versions of the stories (although Homer tends to dominate other sources, when they overlap). Tragic poets would draw on these local traditional cores as they saw fit for whatever purposes they saw fit, and there was no expectation that the tale had to be told this particular way or that (although the giving of awards at festivals was probably partly affected by whether people thought the tale appropriate to the gods and heroes). The Greeks even had a genre, the satyr play, which consisted of Silenus and his satyrs breaking into some important Greek myth, messing it up because they were drunk, with the result that the Greek heroes had to find a way to fix it. The point of saying this is that the Greeks didn't give their myths simply to say what other people had said; Greek myths are told with a purpose. Platonic myths, while more explicitly philosophical, are entirely within the Greek myth tradition, and Plato is not ever really operating out of the bounds of what any skillful poet might have done in mixing and matching and developing and revising the tales to make a point.

Myths are likewise not told arbitrarily; myths for which no one can see the point tend not to be retold. In particular, the myths that tend to be told tend to be those that are striking (they entertain or please for some reason) or that teach something useful and practical, or both. One cannot conflate them with allegories -- but it takes no great insight or research to see that there is often an allegorical component to myths, and even the non-allegorical part may be at least partly didactic.

A good example of a myth that is not particularly allegorical but quite clearly is didactic is the myth of Baucis and Philemon, which we get from Ovid. Zeus and Hermes are wandering the land in disguise and they come to a village, where the people are so wicked that when the gods ask for a place to sleep, the villagers all deny them, and don't even do so with courtesy or kindness -- a violation of xenia or the hospitality we are obligated to show to strangers in matters of necessity. So Zeus and Hermes pass through and come to the poor hovel of Baucis and Philemon at the edge of the village; Baucis and Philemon are far poorer than any of their neighbors who live in the village. Baucis and Philemon, although having very little, give a xenium of wine to the strangers -- and discover, to their astonishment, that the wine jar never goes empty, no matter how much they pour. Suddenly they realize that the strangers are gods, and recognizing that, they beg forgiveness for the fact that they have offered the gods so little. Old Philemon tries to chase down a goose to kill and cook for them, but the goose takes shelter in Zeus's lap, and Zeus tells them not to worry about that, but instead that they should come with Zeus and Hermes to a mountain outside the village. They do, and Zeus completely destroys the village with a flood -- except that the hovel of Baucis and Philemon has somehow been spared, and it has been turned into a beautiful and ornate shrine as a sign that the gods were there. Zeus asks the couple what they wish in turn for their hospitality, and they ask to be made caretakers of the shrine, and also that neither of them would die before the other. So they become caretakers of the shrine, and as their death approached, they were both made trees, one an oak, one a linden, with intertwining branches. This theoxeny is not particularly allegorical, but who can deny that it has a moral, and arguably more than one, about hospitality?

Some myths do have an allegorical component that is quite important. Among the works of Sir Francis Bacon is one called Wisdom of the Ancients, which is concerned precisely with this allegorical aspect of myths. Bacon realizes that his contemporaries have a prejudice against allegorization, and one that he thinks is not always unreasonable, and so in the preface to the work, he explicitly defends his allegorical interpretations. He notes three things:

(1) Myths often have a structure that is very plausibly understood as allegorical. Zeus, for instance, is king of the gods; keeping that in mind, some myths about Zeus have a structure that strongly suggests a general comment about kings and their subjects. Zeus has to deal with rebellions; he has to keep unruly subjects in line; he has to take counsel and put it into practice; and the result is that tales about Zeus are often tales about kings. (President Macron a while back was widely made fun of for saying that he wanted to run his administration on a jupitérien model; but the point was entirely intelligible in terms of myths about the kings of the gods, and applying the idea did not require, as people willfully interpreted it, attributing godhood to himself.)

(2) In myths, names are often quite clearly allegorical. Metis means 'counsel', or the quality required for giving good counsel. Nemesis means 'revenge' (or probably originally 'rendering what is due').

(3) Some myths have weird features that are hard to explain unless they are taken to involve deliberate allegory. Jupiter mates with Metis, then swallows her, and then Athena is born: this myth, which seems rather random on its own, looks exactly like what you would expect if you took it as an allegory.

Bacon himself recognizes that myths are not purely allegorical; but as he notes, the allegorical -- and therefore some broadly philosophical point -- is there. But even if you insisted otherwise, he notes that stories have the twofold function of entertainment and teaching, and even if the Greek myths are assumed to be vague and indefinite, with no definite meaning, the use of stories naturally tends toward teaching; stories work as a kind of proto-argument. A story, even if it does not deliberately involve any allegory, may nonetheless guide the understanding in a certain direction, and in doing so make certain things more clear than they might have been without the story. Thus Bacon says, the ancients in their myths had either a great wisdom or a fortunate one: great, if deliberate, but if not deliberate, their myths nonetheless served as a springboard for higher reflection.

Thus one does not have to go full-scale Neoplatonist about myths in order to recognize that they provide interesting and useful explorations of ideas, particularly as they related to morals; likewise, one does not need to hold that the best way of understanding this relation is to look at the surface and no further, as if Zeus eating Metis and having Athena spring out of his head was primarily about cannibalism rather than about, in some sense, the nature of wisdom. Myths have a moral relevance. I've talked about Greek myths, in part because Greek myths are a particularly easy case with which to argue this. But one can make the same argument, mutatis mutandis, for myths generally. Myths have features that are mostly for entertainment, and features that arise out of historical accident or religious tradition, but they also have features that arise out of reason, and particularly moral reason. They are worth a bit of reflection.

Various Links of Interest

* Liam Kofi Bright and Aaron Novick, Zhengming, discusses Carnap and Xunzi.

* Thony Christie on the development of our thought about the Andromeda Galaxy.

* Edward Peters, Is the ‘Pauline Privilege’ an exception to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?, and Is the ‘Petrine Privilege’ an exception to Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?

* Wesley Hill, The Tears and Laughter of the New Testament: Why David Bentley Hart's Translation is a Glorious Failure

* Richard Ostling on the cursing of the fig tree.

* Ladykillers: Murder Ballads and the Country Women who Sang Them

* Mediaeval or Medieval

* Katherine Rowland, We are Multitudes, discusses microchimerism and pregnancy.

* Why the Vatican is using milk to paint its buildings.

* Gene McCarraher, Radical, OP, talks about Herbert McCabe. (ht)

* How utilitarian are you on the Oxford Utilitarianism Scale? I score a 14 out of 63, meaning I'm not very utilitarian at all.

Currently Reading

Jules Verne, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras
John C. Wright, Count to Infinity
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun
Christopher Kaczor, ed., Thomas Aquinas on Faith, Hope, and Love
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.