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The Survival Of Myth Despite Science Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2060 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The survival of myth despite the advancement of science and philosophy in the classical Greek world can be explained by its connection with so many facets of Greek culture – education, literature, drama, art – and its importance in relation to religion, ritual and the after-life. Furthermore, the scale of the work on myth dominated that of the few philosophers and scientists, who were often only able to affect the minority. Fundamental to this question of survival is the relationship between myth (‘muthos’) and reason (‘logos’). In Greek, ‘muthos’ means ‘story’, and relates to the medium traditionally used to describe the feats of the gods and heroes central to Greek mythology. ‘Logos’ translates as ‘word’, and whilst this has numerous meanings – ‘principle’, ‘argument’, ‘explanation’ and ‘reason’, the generally accepted meaning is ‘reason’. The two terms then, whilst both presenting an explanation of the world, do so in contrasting ways; myth provides vivid, descriptive narrative often as a form of entertainment, while reason presents empirical arguments supported by logic.

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Whilst the Greeks had previously relied on myth as a means of explanation, to reinforce social, political or ethical positions, to uncover or express tensions and dilemmas within society, or to impart a deeper message, during the fifth and fourth centuries, attitudes towards myth began to change. Both Plato and the historian Thucydides for example, associated myth with ‘old wives’ tales, entertaining perhaps, but with no substance. According to Joanna Overing (1997), ‘Myth or mythos became understood as a form of speech opposed to reasoned discourse or logos. As such myth became defined as opposed to both truth (myth is fiction) and to the rational (myth is absurd).’ (Overing 2) She cites Vernant as arguing that central to the new emphasis on logos over muthos is the increasing prominence of “written text as against the tradition of oral poetry” (Overing 2).

The most significant groups involved in the change in attitude towards myth, were the Pre-Socratics and the Socratics. ‘Pre-Socratics’ is the modern term for philosophers from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, while ‘Socratic’ indicates Socrates and his contemporaries. Originally, the term ‘sophistÄ“s’ referred to anyone who was ‘sophos’ (wise), and could apply to poets, musicians, philosophers and statesmen. In the fifth century BCE however, it began to refer a group of travelling intellectuals who specialised in tutoring persuasive speech. (While Pre-Socratic and Socratic are both terms that denote the period of the philosopher, the term ‘sophist’ refers to the method, it is possible therefore, to be both Pre-Socratic and a sophist, like in the case of Protagoras.) Where Classical mythographers depended on the supernatural for their explanations, philosophers pursued the rational order that is visible in natural events. Myths, specifically in this discussion, Greek myth, tended to focus on people, whilst the Pre-Socratics were focused on finding natural explanations. The major difference however, between the Pre-Socratic philosophers and the mythographers of the time, was their approach to explaining the external world; myths, morally ambivalent and self-justifying, allow numerous explanations but the Pre-Socratics aimed to find a single cosmological principle.

The first formal histories were composed by Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century, and these were followed by attempts by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to ‘know’ the external world through logical inquiry. Considered one of the defining moments in the human perception of the external world, these journeys into science and philosophy [1] represented a shift from the preceding belief of a world controlled by unpredictable gods, to that of a structured universe understood through “scientific observation and rational thought” (Study Guide 130). Some of the earliest speculation on this ‘structured universe’ can be traced to Thales. In his Histories, Herodotus describes Thales’ foretelling of a solar eclipse; “This change from daylight to darkness had been foretold to the Ionians by Thales of Miletus, who fixed the date for it in the year in which it did, in fact, take place.” (Herodotus) By modern standards this ‘foretelling’ may not seem very precise, and we can be confident that it wasn’t ‘predicted’ through any scientific understanding of its cause, nevertheless, Thales’ forecast demonstrates an understanding of the order of the world, inasmuch as he had correctly interpreted earlier observations of the phenomena by the Babylonians.

Diogenes Laertius makes it clear that Protagoras, a Pre-Socratic philosopher and sophist, was fundamental to the debate of muthos versus logos; quoting Protagoras as saying, “Man is the measure of all things” (Laertius) and later, “Where the gods are concerned, I am not in a position to ascertain that they exist, or that they do not exist” (Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 9.52). The first quote appears to be unequivocally reducing the importance of the gods in favour of man and his rational ability, however, the second quote suggests that Protagoras was actually noticeably cautious in his declarations. To further examine his thoughts, we should consider his statement that “There are many impediments to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of human life.” (Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 9.52) This seems to declare that science and philosophy do not have all the answers, and in fact, may not ever find them given the “shortness of human life”. This, in contrast to a tradition of mythology that has seemingly always provided explanation, may deter any potential converters. It is difficult unfortunately, to interpret these sources accurately since we have no reliable contemporary context. However, what this example does make clear, is that the division between traditional myth and the emerging philosophies was considerable, especially when taken into account with the trial and execution of Socrates.

Socrates is today probably the best-known of the ancient philosophers, not least because of the circumstance leading to his death, and was an essential figure in the intellectual developments of the fifth century BCE. His views on religion are most clearly seen in the accusation laid against him; “Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities” (Laertius). However, it is difficult to be sure of exactly what Socrates’ beliefs were, particularly with regard to Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates, in which he argues that Socrates believed that the gods were responsible for his abilities in divination, and that therefore, “if he trusted in gods, he surely must have believed in gods” (Xenophon). The execution of Socrates by the State demonstrates the magnitude of the threat that they felt these ‘new divinities’ posed. Although myths were not initially intended to communicate moral and/or political beliefs, as Champlin explains, they were routinely manipulated by emperors in order to enhance their own reputation, “by appropriating the gods and heroes of myth and legendary history…politicians could present images laden with meanings which were quickly recognizable to a broad public” (Champlin 144). The ‘rational order’ that philosophers were searching for could not be manipulated in the same way that myths could, leaving emperors without one of their leading ‘advertising schemes’.

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Poetry, literature and drama were a substantial part of the Greek culture, and central to them were the Greek myths which provided seemingly endless inspiration. The ancient writers often altered myths to suit their own agenda, be it personal choice, or to reflect the political or social influences of the time. Plato appears to view this influence of myth on society not just as unacceptable, but as almost damaging, explaining that relating myths might encourage people to mirror the actions of the gods and “commit the worst crimes”, yet think he is “doing nothing amazing” (Plato 378b2; 4). He states explicitly that the stories told by “Homer, Hesiod and other poets” are “false” (Plato 377d4-5), that they contain no moral exemplars, and that even their benefit as allegories is ineffective, since ‘the young cannot distinguish what is allegorical from what is not’ (Plato 378d6). His proposal to ‘throw out’ the majority of the stories is tantamount to rejecting the Greek cultural heritage, and would presumably have been viewed by many as the ultimate disrespect. There is an apparent paradox however, in that much of Plato’s own philosophical work is infused with myth. Murray’s explanation of this is that Plato does not intend to “free the mind from myth, but rather to appropriate myth from the hands of the poets and construct new myths that will serve the interests of philosophy” (Murray). Plato’s opinions regarding what he views as the immoral behaviour of the gods are reminiscent of those of Sextus Empiricus who describes their behaviour as “shameful and reprehensible” (Empiricus). Also, like Plato, Sextus Empiricus names Homer and Hesiod as instrumental in circulating such immorality. He equates the gods’ behaviour with the worst of human behaviour; giving the examples of “stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another” (Empiricus), all of which appear frequently in the stories of the gods; and in doing so raises the question, ‘If the gods are apparently morally inferior to us, are they worthy of our respect and worship?’ Sextus Empiricus’ statements exhibit the beginning of a more critical opinion of the gods that draws on logic and reason. It is possible, that Plato, and Sextus Empiricus’, opinions, inadvertently facilitated the survival of myth because the Greeks were opposed to losing not only their primary means of entertainment, but indeed their heritage.

In the classical Greek world, philosophers and scientists were still in relatively small numbers, and often confined to the higher classes who had the time and money to explore and experiment. This meant that their ideas only reached the minority. Since the spread of their philosophical and scientific ideas was limited, it could be argued that myth and tradition would have been maintained simply by ‘intellectual apathy’.

While the developments in philosophy and science were advancing considerably, myth and tradition retained its much of its influence over the Greeks, a conflict that be seen in many of the extant texts from the time. The question of reason versus myth/religion is one that continues today; even in the modern world, where business relies on computers, international travel takes a matter of hours rather than days, weeks or even months, and where man has been to the moon, we still look toward a belief that is thousands of years old. While there are numerous reasons to explain why myth has endured, it may be a simple case of ‘greater numbers’ – there was so much literature about myth that, in comparison to early philosophy, it stood a greater chance of survival. In my opinion however, it has more to do with human nature; people need religion today just as much as the Ancient Greeks needed myth. This, in my opinion, is why myth survived in the face of the scientific and philosophic advances of the classical Greek world – people simply need to believe in something greater than themselves.


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