Diving into the Mythopoetic: A Personal Story

It is easy to be dismissive of mythology in our modern-day secular culture. With the tools of logic, science and reason at our disposal, we arrive at our ideas of truth through rigorously testing our hypothesis with hard evidence and data.

It was around the time when I was completing my undergraduate coursework in philosophy when I started to look at the world through a more fact-based empirical lens. Consequently, I began questioning some of the core tenants of my religion, and previous assumptions I once took for granted.

Put simply, I felt that I could not accommodate or make sense of the religious stories that I learned about as a child with the scientific world view.

Reason Rules

During this time, I listened to the to the talks and YouTube videos of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – the so called ‘New Atheists’. These speakers demonstrated their intellectual prowess and intelligence through their lectures and debates which demeaned irrationality, wishful thinking and religion on the global stage. It was clear to me during this period of my life that science and reason was the far superior method for arriving at truth and generating knowledge.

Yet, something felt empty. The disenchantment of the world, that is viewing reality strictly though empirical facts felt cold and hollow – devoid of meaning. This ‘rational’ paradigm which is responsible for the great feats of the modern world could not provide me with a sense of purpose, a why.

The Classical and Romantic Divide  

For centuries philosophers have wrote about the tensions in our psyche between emotion and reason.  

In the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig presents this dichotomy in worldviews using the metaphor of a motorcycle.

The narrator, who has a keen interest in the technical nature of the machine’s operation, represents the classical mode of thought. Using a systematic and rational thinking, he is able to understand the nuanced mechanics of the motorcycle, and fix it when it is in need of repair. Broadly speaking, this character embodies the scientific way of looking at the world, detached from emotion and inner subjectivity.

On the other side of the spectrum in the novel are the Sutherlands – the romantics. They don’t take an interest in motorcycle maintenance, but rather see the machine as a thing of beauty – a spectacle. They prioritize the ascetic value of the experience synonymous with how an artist see’s thing, embracing creativity, imagination and visceral emotion.

Left vs Right Brain: Image Source

The question remains however if it is possible to appreciate and reconcile these two different world views. Moreover, must ‘truth’ be confined only to the realm of scientific inquiry in the modern age?

Two Different Worlds

It was upon reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth where I was first introduced to the cultural and symbolic meaning of myth.

Drawing upon the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Campbell argues that myths and symbolism embody the wisdom of the past, and provide a useful roadmap to help us navigate our inner psychological world. Campbell says that we shouldn’t view myth literally, but rather metaphorically.

Science describes accurately from outside; poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. We need the languages of both science and poetry to save us from merely stockpiling endless “information” that fails to inform our ignorance or our irresponsibility.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Having observed similar themes and motifs across different cultural myths across the globe, these reveal some fundamental truth about the human condition. Whether it’s a cautionary tale about greed, a romantic love story or a myth of personal triumph – these stories capture the core of our inner experience.

Greek Mythology: Image Source

Conclusion

Perhaps this framework of interpreting myths and symbols as practical guides to wisdom provides the missing piece in the puzzle that I was searching for. 

I can embrace the rational capacity of logic and science whilst viewing myth as stories as vehicles which contain deep-seated wisdom and guides to higher truths.

Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society

These two different approaches to interpreting the world can co-exist.  

The mythic paradigm provides a way to interpret different stages in my life, and offers inspiration to to venture unknown to overcome challenges and slay those proverbial dragons. 


Header Image: Image Source

4 thoughts on “Diving into the Mythopoetic: A Personal Story

  1. There is an interesting essay by Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Truth in Myths” (in the book “The Nature of Religious Experience”) that argues that religious myths are attempts to explain the value and purpose of existence through the use of symbols and stories. These stories are not meant to accurately describe a sequence of events but to point to a transcendent meaning of existence. Modern science and rationalism usually smuggle in religious values in the idea of progress through reason (i.e., reason compels us to treat others equally).

    It is a difficult essay to fully understand, but I hope to write about it at some point.

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    1. Thank you, I will check it out. I recently read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, and this is an interesting topic I’d like to explore more.

      I think what Pirsig touches on in ZAMM is still relevant today – reconciling logic and emotion, science and spirituality/religion. I heard the master and his emissary Iain Mcgilchrist touches on this from a psychological point of view.

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