The Forgotten Mythos of Reason

In my previous piece, “Got Mythos?”, inspired by Karen Armstrong’s book, The Case for God, I concluded that…

Our country has a great principle of separation of Church and State, which acknowledges a role for both. How about agreeing as well on some sort of principle of the separation of logos and mythos, and acknowledging the value of both as well? If religion stayed in what [Karen] Armstrong describes as its original realm of a vibrant and non-discredited mythos, would people be expressing so much hate and acting with such violence in the name of religious “truth”.

Months later now and finally getting back to Armstrong’s book, I finished reading chapter 3, “Reason”, where she talks about the origins of the kind of principled thought, discourse and learning, developed in Classical Greece between 600 and 300 BCE, that became the foundation of the principles and methods of science.

Armstrong traces the beginnings of this method back to a group of philosophers known as “naturalists” living in the Greek commercial port city of Miletus around 600 BCE…

The Milesians were merchants; their interests – sailing, land surveying, astronomy, mathematical calculation, and geography – were pragmatic and geared to their trade, but their wealth had given them leisure for speculation. They came to a startling conclusion. Despite the flux and change that were apparent everywhere in the universe, they were convinced that there was an underlying order and that the universe was governed by intelligible laws. They believed that there was an explanation for everything and that stringent rational inquiry would enable them to find it.

From these lesser known progenitors came thinkers we still credit today as the basis of Western philosophical and scientific thought, including Democritus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

What Armstrong points out (and is a continuing thesis in her writing) is that these men were both rational and spiritual, and saw the pragmatic workings of the physical “muggle” world in a larger metaphysical and/or mystical context. They promoted reason and logic not as a one-size-fits-all alternative to the “mythos” of metaphysical, mystical, and/or spiritual beliefs, but one additional path to profound knowledge compatible and even synergistic with the others.

Even Aristotle, the ancestor of modern logical thinking of cause and effect and the scientific method, acknowledged the crucial role of “mythos” in expanding human experience. The heart of spiritual and religious practice was not about uncritically accepting a set of unproven “facts” on faith, but was instead a way of having a mind altering, mind expanding experience compatible with human learning and development.

Some contemporary thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris, celebrate the logic, reason and the scientific method (developed by Aristotle and the other “naturalists”) as the only legitimate approach to understanding the larger context that we live in. These what I would call “fundamentalist atheist” thinkers reject any sort of “mythos”, metaphysics, or speculation on the meanings and mysteries of life beyond the realm of science and observable reality.

At the other extreme are those fundamentalist religious thinkers that in their own way interpret their particular flavor of religious thought as the only truth and path to greater knowledge and wisdom. They attempt to reframe the richly metaphorical stories of their sacred texts as literal and observable facts, what is often called “logos” as opposed to “mythos”.

I think Democritus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the rest of these great minds would be uncomfortable with both types of fundamentalism. To them it would be like rejecting (as it were) the colors red and yellow in favor of only blue, or yellow and blue in favor of only red. These classical thinkers were comfortable weaving mythos and logos together in pursuit of a fuller and more holistic understanding of the context that we live in.

For example, Armstrong describes the metaphysical underpinnings of Socrates’ namesake “Socratic” method of developing knowledge through dialogue…

Socrates once said that, like his mother, he was a midwife whose task was to help his interlocutor engender a new self. Like any good initiation, a successful dialogue should lead to ekstasis [ecstasy]: by learning to inhabit each other’s point of view, the conversationalists were taken beyond themselves. Anybody who entered into dialogue with Socrates had to be willing to change; he had to have faith that Socrates would guide him through the initial vertigo of aporia [philosophical state of puzzlement] in such a way that he found pleasure in it. At the end of this intellectual ritual, if he had responded honestly and generously, the initiate would have become a philosopher, somebody who realized that he lacked wisdom, longed for it, but knew that he was not what he ought to be.

Armstrong goes on to cite Socrates’ student Plato’s Symposia, speaking to the quest for wisdom…

As a love affair that grasped the seeker’s entire being until he achieved an ekstasis that was an ascent, stage by stage, to a higher state of being… It was “absolute, pure, unmixed, unique, eternal”, like Brahman, Nirvana, or God”. Wisdom transformed the philosopher so that he himself enjoyed a measure of divinity.

This to me sounds nothing like the dogmatic thinking of either religious or scientific fundamentalism, instead blending various paths of knowledge into a rich hybrid of mythos and logos. Though I am not a believer in deities myself, I appreciate Armstrong’s use of the word “God” on a par with or even a synonym to “Brahman” (the eternal, unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality) or “Nirvana” (blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion).

Armed with that meaning of “God”, I enjoy challenging a person who believes in more of the “guy in the sky” concept of that word to dialogue with me on metaphysical concepts and perhaps acknowledge that their belief in an encompassing deity and my metaphysical non-theism are not necessarily incompatible. “Believers” and “unbelievers” can coexist in this world without one’s position contradicting the reality of the other’s.

Not having completed the next chapter of her book yet (a chapter titled “Faith”), I have read enough of its first few pages to encounter one of those great Armstrong statements that challenge various sorts of dogmatic thinking. Speaking to the development of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the second Temple…

Anybody who imagines that revealed religion requires a craven clinging to a fixed, unalterable, and self-evident truth should read the rabbis.

I love it… and look forward to reading more!

2 replies on “The Forgotten Mythos of Reason”

  1. Aristotle was Plato’s student, not the reverse.

    Your essay arguing for different paths to truth has some interesting precedents. The well-known historian of world religions Huston Smith has an great essay that explores classical Greek philosophy as an alternative religious path, “Western Philosophy as a Great Religion”. It is reprinted in his book, “Essays on World Religion”. The purpose of his essay is stated to be the following: “I want to consider the Greek inheritance in philosophy as our Western version of jnana yoga. It is common knowledge that India denotes four paths to God, of which jnana, the path of knowledge, is one. Its chief alternative is bhakti yoga, the path of love or devotion…India accommodates these two great spiritual options in a single tradition…But in the West these alternatives have not been partners….Insofar as this essay has a programmatic thrust, it is to propose that the Western religious tradition open its gates comparably to the jnanic strand in its civilization, the strand that originated in Greek philosophy.”

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