Myths as Metaphors
The first in a series of lectures and discussions on the history of humanism was given by Dr. Randall O. Stewart, Ph.D., at the September meeting of the Utah Humanists. The topic was “Humanism in Ancient Greece and Rome.”
Professor Stewart began his lecture by explaining the “standard story line” that most scholars believe the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans were dominated by gods and goddesses and religion. These cultures believed that supernatural forces controlled the everyday events of their lives, and they naturally ascribed these events to these gods, accepting the literal existence of deities. Pre-Socratic philosophers began looking for scientific explanations, but still acknowledged the gods, and the god’s control. This changed with the philosophers Socrates and Plato, who started to debunk myths and introduce rationalism.
The Mythical Mind
After this explanation, Professor Stewart introduced his own interpretation: that the mythical mind saw the natural phenomena in the world as mysteries; therefore, the writers of the day created poetic mythical explanations which were metaphorical. For example, the world was thought to be like a flat plate, and the sun was the great God Apollo with his chariot of fire rising in the east, flying across the sky during the day, and descending into the western ocean at night to float on the great river back to the East. Our present use of the phrase, “Acts of God,” to describe natural disasters as events beyond human control, is a metaphor and can help us understand how the ancient Greeks interpreted their world.
In analyzing the myths, some conclusions can be drawn. There are five characteristics of the mythical mind.
- Everything has a soul, and is living.
- There is no distinction between the parts and the whole, a part can equal the whole.
- Any result can come from any cause.
- There is no distinction between that which is real and that which is unreal.
- The mythical mind looks at things in a concrete way, rather than in the abstract.
The capability of humans to distinguish between the real and the unreal evolved very slowly. It was a developmental process. If we were to have asked an ancient Greek, “Can’t you tell the difference between the real and the unreal?” the question would have made no sense, because they didn’t see the difference.
It Is All Metaphors
As we study the ancient myths, we discover we are actually dealing with metaphors – visual and colorful figures of speech used to add depth and meaning to an idea. Humanism can masquerade behind metaphors. If we push the Greek myths far enough, they become rational Humanism, and Humanism was flowering long before Plato’s time. An example of rational thinking is when Plato speaks about the gods telling him to do certain things. He couches all their advice in metaphors.
The Bicameral Mind
Professor Stewart then introduced the theory by Julian Jaynes, from his book “The Origin of Consciousness In The Breakdown of The Bicameral Mind” (Houghton Mifflin, 1976). In this theory, early humans had a bicameral mind, or a left brain and a right brain, and could not “think” as we do today. They were unable to introspect, experienced auditory hallucinations, and thought them to be the voices of gods, actually heard, as in the Iliad. These voices, coming from the right brain, told a person what to do under circumstances of stress. When there is a division between the two halves of the brain, people may have related to deities as personifications of inner forces and personality traits.
Homer lived in a culture where the emphasis is on “hero,” not the deities. The emphasis is on humanness: life is wonderful even with its pains.
The culture described in the Iliad has these characteristics:
- There is no sense of divine justice or punishment.
- The gods neither reward nor punish humans for their actions.
- Even the most noble person suffers the same pains in the Underworld as the basest criminal.
- There is no more fear of the gods than of human overlords.
- One fears only loss of face – one fears shame, as do the gods themselves.
The deities represent humanness – metaphors – probably not literal for a large segment of society. For example, Aphrodite is the personification of love, and this makes as much sense as a biological and physiological explanation for this emotion. The comic playwrights and poets of the time perceived the myths of old as metaphors and poked fun at the literal interpretation of these myths. It’s all metaphor. Socrates, while in his prison cell, before he drank the hemlock, goes into a long mythical exploration of the afterlife, after which he says, “No sensible man would rely on the things I have just described.”
Plato also uses “myths” and “gods” to make his points, and introduces a myth only to dismiss its literal meaning. The underlying meaning is the message. Plato’s god was reason; he was talking about his own humanity.
During the discussion that followed, Professor Stewart explained that the Greek heroes had certain characteristics attributed to them, such as miraculous births, great deeds, coming back to life, and deification. As we study any of the Greek heroes, we find an extraordinary emphasis on human abilities.
Further, he said that the Greek heroes lived life in the present, and didn’t believe in the literalness of their myths. If our myths are taken literally, then it becomes religion. “Myth is somebody else’s religion, and religion is misunderstood myth,” as Joseph Campbell put it. Jesus is a great metaphor. He teaches us about the things we should be doing now, and he accomplished what is considered the “ideal pattern” of the life of a hero.
In conclusion, he stated that the Greeks loved life, and made the most of the present. Life was great for them: tough but great. They faced the trials and tribulations squarely on their own. They believed in their myths, but only figuratively, and they were mostly speaking about their own humanity.
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More
Family Values is an issue both major political parties have chosen for emphasis in this year’s election. This subject is the theme for Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel Slapstick, Or Lonesome No More. The story is a history of Wilbur Daffodil-11 Roosevelt Swain, the last President of the United States. He occupies this position, not because the government is overthrown or otherwise destroyed, but because of a lack of interest. The story takes place far in the future when the earth’s supplies of fossil fuels are exhausted. Communication networks no longer exist. After two or three months in the White House with no messages or word from the outside, he leaves to see what the Duke of Michigan is doing.
Wilbur wins the Presidency with the campaign slogan “Lonesome No More!” His contention is that modern times and instances have destroyed the fabric of the traditional family. His solution assigns everyone in the country a new middle name. The first part of this name is an animal, vegetable, or a mineral followed by a number from one to 20. If the first part of your new name matches someone else’s, you are cousins. If your new middle name is an exact match, you are siblings. In this manner everyone immediately gains 190,000 cousins and 10,000 brothers and sisters. These new artificial families replace traditional households and must look out for one another. People start saying that if you know of a relative involved in questionable behavior, don’t call the police, call 20 more clan members.
The book is typical of Mr. Vonnegut’s middle novels: he tells nearly everything that is going to happen in the story in the first chapter. Much of the action is autobiographical; sadness and tragedy are no strangers to the Vonnegut family.
The above description is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Vonnegut explains the building of the pyramids, how the Chinese overcame the population question and explores problems associated with drug addiction. The story is delightfully funny and poignantly sad. This is an enjoyable novel presented to us by a great Humanist. I highly recommend it.
Another Way To Answer Controversy
As humanists we reject the supernatural and the religions which support that belief. We marshal many facts and arguments to support our position. I have been looking for a way first to understand why so many intelligent people continue to support such practices as public prayer, and secondly, how to address those kind of problems.
Recently, the answer came when a humanist friend gave me an editorial from The World, the publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of January/February, 1992. It was titled “When the Theological Tire Hits the Political Road” written by William F. Schulz, President, UUA. In this editorial, the author states: “…theological assumptions—often unspoken—about the nature of the universe and the character of humanity still underlie many of our attitudes toward public policy. Three examples come to mind.”
I will include all three examples, since they concern issues which are still before the public.
“Initiative 119 which sought to permit ‘aid in dying’ in Washington State was defeated at the polls in November.”
I will omit most of the explanation to present his argument:
“…in order to oppose all forms of euthanasia, passive or active, one must believe that suffering has some meaning which transcends its endurance for otherwise, if it be no moral good whatsoever, to impose it upon others is nothing but cruelty. If, on the other hand, we believe suffering possesses no transcendent meaning, we will be far more sympathetic to euthanasia. Our theology of suffering cannot help but bear upon our position on public policy.”
“Or consider the debate about supplying condoms to teenagers. Those who argue against the practice say that it implicitly endorses teenage sex and that, because abstinence is the only safe way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, nothing less ought be expected. Underlying this posture is a theological doctrine of human nature. It’s called ‘perfectionism’.”
“Or consider the refusal by the Boy Scouts to admit openly gay youth to their ranks. To do so, say the Scouts, is to endorse moral turpitude. Underlying thispolicy—that the mere presence of certain people is enough to ‘contaminate the pool’—is an ancient theological doctrine. It’s called ‘demonization’.”
The author concludes with this admonition:
“They lie in wait for us—these theological culprits—but they lose much of their power when they’re exposed to the air. One of Unitarian Universalism’s highest callings is to be the agent of such exposition and, in the process, to offer the alternative of a theology as wise as it is humane.”
This then, is one way to address controversy: First, define the theological assumptions and expose them, and Secondly, offer an alternative.
Along this line, I recently came across a quotation from Robert Ruark’s book, Something Of Value, which states: “If you change a man’s way of life, you had better have something of value with which to replace it.”I have been aware of that need since I first became involved with humanism, and it forms the foundation of what I do as Program Director and as Editor.
Our present series of Lecture/Discussions is designed to help humanists understand the philosophical and theological assumptions which form the basis for our civilization and to present a humanist idea-system to replace the theological.