Sunday, 13 March 2016

Modern Mythologies and the Social

Joseph Campbell in his Occidental Mythology wrote that
"In the long view of the history of mankind, four essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive – vitalizing all – is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being. ... The second function of mythology is to render a cosmology, an image of the universe that will support and be supported by this sense of awe before the mystery of the presence and the presence of a mystery. ... A third function of mythology is to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his group ... The fourth function of mythology is to initiate the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche, guiding him toward his own spiritual enrichment and realization."
The unknowability of Being, the invention of meaning around this core of unknowability, the maintenance of social order and personal individuation are 'mythologised' in integral societies. Conservatives pine for this. They think we were both better and happier when these functions were integrated despite the probability that each whole system was inevitably built on invention. There was a disconnect between the actual nature of material reality, society and the individual in their relation to Reality (or Being) as soon as anyone began to think about what was going on. Deep thought does not work well for serious traditionalists. Mythical societies were static societies, not necessarily, despite the claims of the ideologies making use of myths, very ordered or mentally healthy. Trying to construct a myth to restore total order - to the material world, society and the person in an integrated way - may be the dream state of the conservative and it may be true that our species clings to irrational pseudo-order out of fear and anxiety but it is not necessarily true that the species needs to cling to anything that extensive at all.

In our contemporary world, the, four functions have separated out and then fragmented within themselves. It may be that the fragmentation within the functions is the problem rather than the disconnect between the functions. It may be that the disconnection of function is, in fact, a healthy state of affairs and that it is the fragmentation within each function that makes us 'unhealthy'. The attempt, by conservatives and the religious, to integrate forcibly the four functions misses this essential point - that we can live well enough by seeing each function as having a separate purpose but still yearn to have each function function well which it cannot do if it is not coherent in itself.

The contemporary world has an opportunity to accept this situation instead of fighting it. Our mythology of awe is now either simple existentialism or the choice by individuals from a smorgasbord of 'faith-based' choices that can be insulated from the other functions if we wish - New Age beliefs if we insist, Our cosmology can be that of science - the most coherent mythology now on offer even if some may choose incoherent ones existentially - even as, in our heart of hearts, we know that this, at its furthest reaches when it leaves the world of technology and demonstration, has its faith-based aspects. Our current mythology of social order is most in disarray because atomised individuals now know that they cannot easily trust to the competence let alone benignity of their priestly and warrior castes (if ever they could) while the mythology of the person, the narrative that helps construct our individuality, might be talked up by psychotherapists but is, in fact, simply the story we tell ourselves to navigate a society that is fluid and unnerving. 

It is possible to create a myth of non-meaning, trust blindly in science and construct a personal mythology that permits the first two and live well. The problem child in Campbell's short litany is the lack of a viable myth of the social since it is not easy to live well if society is unstable or works against individuation (as most conservative spiritual, religious and social mythologies work against it for many people). In a world that permits the possibility of existentialism (alongside faith-based essentialism), science and psychotherapy and free choice, it is the social that has become problematic. It is the failure of the social to reconstruct itself without God, with Science and yet respectful of 'human rights' that is the crisis of our time. The social does not need the mythologies in the other three areas to be in accord with its own necessary mythology any more than any of those other mythologies require any of the others to function effectively. The revolutions provided by the Enlightenment, Nietzsche and Freud (discredited though he is in detail) provided, eventually, a new coherence but the opportunities provided by Marx were squandered by the Marxists, leaving little behind.

So, this is the next stage - having established that there are things we cannot know and which must be faced with pagan equanimity, that there is no God but only Science as our Faith and that we are captains of our own souls until we die, we now need to establish some kind of social order that requires no deities, can make use of science and technology and respects autonomous individuals but yet has its own independent mythology that can hold it together for the next stage in human development. A mythological 'faith' in the good society is the last of the four corner stones to be put in place before we can move forward as a species. After the current time of troubles, our species will probably construct this new myth once ideological liberalism has gone the way of communism and fascism ... but not before.