Throughout our history, we human beings have used two different approaches to think about the world around us and to acquire knowledge of it: mythical thinking and logical thinking. In the first eight issues and twenty-five articles here at Journey to the Sea, we have explored a wide variety of material produced through mythical thinking. In this issue, I want to take a step back from these mythic narratives to contrast these two ways of thinking. Grasping the distinction between these two approaches can provide insight into and appreciation for these stories which we might otherwise dismiss as illogical — as well as help us embrace a little more mythical thinking in our own lives.
I find it useful when discussing this distinction to consider the Greek words from which our English words “logical” and “mythical” have been derived, logos and mythos. Both Greek words can be translated as something like “story” or “account”; mythical thinking and logical thinking both provide an account of the world, but they do so in very different ways. Those using logical thinking approach the world scientifically and empirically. They look for explanations using observable facts, controlled experiments, and deductive proofs. Truth discovered through logos seeks to be objective and universal. Those using mythical thinking, on the other hand, approach the world through less direct, more intuitive means. A person might gain poetic insights into the nature of the world by seeing a caterpillar emerge from a cocoon or watching a full moon rise as the sun sets. Truth discovered through mythos is more subjective, based on individual feelings and experiences.
To illustrate the difference between these two approaches, let me consider one of nature’s most perplexing conundrums: why the turtle has a shell. A recent article in New Scientist magazine demonstrates how the techniques of logical thinking have been applied to this question. Modern turtle shells are deeply infused with the turtles’ skeletons; observations made on turtle embryos suggested that the shell might have been an outgrowth from the dorsal ribs and the vertebrae. Bone fragments recently discovered in New Mexico, however, show that this hypothesis was incorrect. The fragments came from an ancestor of the turtle with something like the armor of an armadillo; since the rows of armored plates were not connected to the skeleton, the shells of later turtles could not have been an outgrowth of it. More experiments will be performed and more observations will be made to explain the turtle’s shell in terms of physical causes and effects.
An Aesopic fable demonstrates how the techniques of mythical thinking have been applied to this same question. In a previous article, I discussed this fable of Zeus and the Turtle in great detail: Zeus invites all the animals to his wedding, but the turtle skips the wedding because she prefers being in her own home than being anywhere else; as punishment, Zeus makes her carry her house with her everywhere she goes. We do not possess any description of the thought-process involved in the creation of this fable. We could guess that some ancient person might have observed the turtle’s slow pace and understood the turtle as downcast and humiliated, struggling under its great burden — or perhaps an observer saw in the turtle great determination in the face of life’s adversities. If a story already existed of a divinity punishing a disobedient creature, the observer may have retold the story with a turtle as the disobedient character to express the insights from this observation; perhaps the events of the narrative and the explanation occurred to the observer simultaneously. We cannot know for sure the origin of this story, but something like this strikes me as a possible development.
The academic discipline of mythology is perhaps best understood as the application of the techniques of logical thinking to the products of mythical thinking; this is nicely illustrated by the fact that the English word mythology is derived from both Greek words mythos and logos. My own discussion of the Aesopic fable fits nicely within this discipline because it is an attempt to explain the fable in a objective, historical fashion. But the reverse also occurs: the techniques of mythical thinking can be applied to the products of logical thinking. Fantasy authors often incorporate scientific discoveries and theories into their stories: Philip Pullman connects dark matter with Milton in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Madeleine L’Engle examines the space/time continuum and the theory of relativity in her Time quintet. Many science-fiction authors have scientific backgrounds and use narratives to work out for themselves and to convey to others the mythical significance of findings in their various fields.
Many of the great advances in civilization have been the product of these two ways of thinking working together. Artists, poets, musicians, and other mythical thinkers rely on the tools and techniques of logos for their own works of mythos: in a previous article, I discussed the effects of iron tools on the art of totem-pole carving. The pursuits of logos are in turn influenced by mythos: logical thinkers have figured out, for example, how to cure illnesses and prolong the average human lifespan, but they have learned through mythical thinking to value human life enough to bother. Products of logos enable us to communicate with the people who matter most to us (even when they are thousands of miles away), but mythos provides the context for us to know which people matter and what we should say to them when we do communicate. These exchanges, interactions, and dependencies demonstrate to me that mythos and logos are best seen as complementary to each other.
Though we have inherited great traditions in both mythical thinking and logical thinking, logical thinking has risen to such prominence that many no longer realize any another approach exists. The decline of mythical thinking throughout much of the industrialized world has resulted in the unfortunate loss of a sense of transcendence and of the value of human life. Some people argue that this has been responsible for much of the devastation in the last one hundred years. (I explore this connection in an article discussing Shikasta, a science-fiction novel by Doris Lessing.) I would not argue that mythical thinking can cure all of humanity’s problems — I imagine that an equal amount of damage has been done on account of both mythos and logos — but I would argue that it is now our burden and privilege to re-discover mythical thinking and to wrestle with the proper way to re-integrate these two ways of thinking into our lives.
One of my main goals with this site is the opportunity to explore for myself this integration of mythos and logos. I will continue to publish articles that explore myths and mythical thinking: the next issue will contain an article on mythical thinking in the teachings of Jesus and one on the way modern artists and authors understand their own art in mythical terms. But I would also love to hear from you: please leave a comment below discussing your own thoughts and experiences with mythical thinking. What has led you to appreciate mythos in a logos-heavy culture? In what ways have you embraced it and what value have you found in it? How do you think we should best integrate mythical and logical thinking?
Works Consulted / Recommended Reading
- Sløk, Johannes. Devotional Language. Translated by Henrik Mossin. Danbury: Walter De Gruyter Incorporated, 1996.
Sløk approaches the issue of mythical thinking and logical thinking through the philosophy of language. (One excellent section of his book has the provocative title “The Awkwardness of Rational Language.”) He uses the mysteries related to Demeter and Persephone practiced in ancient Greece at Eleusis, a coastal city outside of Athens, as his primary example of mythical thinking throughout the book.
- Buxton, Richard, editor. From Myth to Reason? : Studies in the Development of Greek Thought. Oxford UP, 1999.
It has long been taken for granted that Greek society moved from mythos to logos in the sixth to fourth centuries BCE, culminating in the works of Aristotle. Recent scholars, however, are challenging this generalization and seeking to understand the importance of mythos throughout Greek society. This book contains papers delivered at an academic conference in 1996 exploring this theme.
- Peters, F. E. The Monotheists, Volume 2 – The Words and Will of God. New York: Princeton UP, 2003.
This two-volume series explores Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from many different perspectives. In chapter seven of the second volume, titled “Theology,” Peters uses the mythos/logos distinction to discuss the development of theology in these monotheistic religions over a period of nearly two thousand years. He shows that both have been essential to theology, with the emphasis shifting back and forth in different times and in different religious communities.
- Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
Armstrong draws heavily on Sløk’s work to define mythos and logos. She brings these concepts into the twentieth century, exploring how these two ways of thinking are reflected in fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. She argues that these uniquely modern movements are the results of applying the works of mythos to the concerns of logos.
- Shelburne, Walter A. “Introduction.” Mythos and Logos in the Thought of Carl Jung. Albany: SUNY Press, 1988.
Although Carl Jung never used the terms mythos and logos, Shelburne argues that this distinction provides insight into Jung’s thought. The introduction of the book provides an excellent discussion of mythos and logos. The author briefly contrasts Jung’s view with two other views in an attempt to clarify what Jung would have thought about these two ways of thinking. The whole introduction nicely illustrates the difficulty of talking about mythical thinking in terms of logical thinking.
- Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Bantam, 1984.
This is a fascinating novel in its own right, but of particular relevance here is the narrator’s distinction between classical understanding and romantic understanding. This distinction addresses aspects of the mythos/logos distinction from a different angle. The narrator introduced the concept of “Quality” as a way to overcome the classical/romantic dichotomy.
He approaches the problem through the philosophy of science, and I found his comments on the scientific method to be particularly thought-provoking: Where do hypotheses that science tests originate? Are there an infinite number of hypotheses to any given problem? Can scientific results ever be conclusive when it is impossible to test an infinite number of hypotheses?