BMCR 2000.07.08

From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought

, From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xv + 368. $75.00.

This collection of papers, the result of the Bristol Myth Colloquium of 1996, provides useful insights on a wide range of issues and authors and serves generally to provoke thought concerning the interaction between myth and reason.

The variety of approaches and the multiplicity of the sources make an authoritative judgement of the whole impossible, the more so since it is the avowed aim of this collection to study specific instances of mythos-logos interaction. (“Anyone wanting to learn about a single consensual view had better stop reading now” p. 15.) Yet for all their variety, the papers are united in challenging the developmental picture that enlightened rationality grew out of the dark recesses of primordial myth. The straw book for this view is Wilhelm Nestle’s popular and influential Vom Mythos zum Logos. In one way or another all the papers of this collection aim to show that Nestle’s demarcation between mythos and logos is not clear, and that elements of each easily coincide and indeed necessarily coincide in any given narrative.

The result of this approach is a miscellany whose effect is seminal rather than synoptic. Though the reader longs for a sustained investigation of the meaning and function of mythos and logos, it is a strength of this collection that it refuses, and therefore spurs the reader to reflect: if all these are cases studies in the relationship between mythos and logos, is there any single theory which can account for them?

And yet in the midst of this variety there is a curious narrowness of perspective revealed especially by the single exception, Geoffrey Lloyd’s paper on Chinese mythology. For he alone places Greek patterns of thought in a cross-cultural framework and thereby shows their peculiarity. The other papers, generally speaking, rightly argue that the distinction between mythos and logos holds up very badly in specific narratives, but this observation fails to answer Nestle’s basic intuition, that the ancients have influenced modern rational science in a distinctive way, and that the Greeks have made a significant and identifiable contribution to that development. The intuition clearly has some merit and needs to be accounted for. The weakness of this collection is that it makes little effort to do so. Nevertheless, it provides a valuable service since it reveals Nestle’s account to be naive as presented and thereby spurs us to develop other means for preserving the intuition. Considering the great variety of papers, it seems most appropriate to provide a brief discussion of each.

Buxton’s introduction outlines the problem: “It has often been maintained, and it is still widely held, that the civilization of ancient Greece underwent a development from myth to reason, or — to adopt the Greek-derived terms which have sometimes assumed talismanic status in relation to the debate — From Mythos to Logos” (p.1). Baldly stated the developmental view is simplistic: it fails to account for the difference among the disciplines and genres at any given time period; there is no attempt to distinguish various classes of people (slaves, women, farmers, urban elites); no attempt to consider the relationship between thought and practice; no attempt to provide a cause for the development.

Glenn Most provides an historical review of the mythos/logos distinction, arguing that Nestle was, even in his own time, woefully out of date. Prior to the eighteenth-century myth was either viewed as false or was allegorically interpreted, a cloak under which the wise man concealed logos. This view changes with Vico and Heyne, who saw myth as the primitive expression about the world by a whole people (perhaps most closely akin to Nestle’s own view). Schelling later proposed to create a new mythology of reason whereby science might be transformed into art, and this leads to the valorization of myth in the nineteenth century and to Nietzsche’s claim that cultures must be bounded by myth in order to achieve integrity.

Sitta von Reden attempts to refine Gernet’s work on the introduction of money and its effect on thought. Gernet had contended that agalmata, embedded precious objects, lose their agalmatic characteristics as they become symbolic (e.g., of authority, like Atreus’ golden fleece) and circulating (in gift exchanges), and thus presage the symbolic and circulating nature of money. Von Reden, by contrast, argues (along with Kurke and Morris) that the mythic content of the agalma continued into the money society, since the aristocracy appropriated the agalmatic aspects of money. She posits a distinction between short-term and long-term exchange, the former being appropriated by the rationalized use of money, the latter remaining the place of power display. This distinction allows for the intrusion of money into a society without destroying the mythic aspects of wealth. She finally argues that the converse is also true, that coin money takes on mythic agalmatic aspects; e.g. Perikles uses his knowledge of public finance (a rational, yet restricted, elite, and authority-filled knowledge) to persuade the people to fight Sparta.

Jan Bremmer applies a modern idea to the ancients in an interesting but dubious way. He starts from Weber’s sense of rationalization: “the increasing systematization of religious ideas and concepts, the growth of ethical rationalism, and the progressive decline of ritual and ‘magical’ elements in religion.” Since Weber had identified the origin of rationalization within religion, Bremmer looks there too, at two marginal groups who opposed conventional animal sacrifice, Pythagoreans and Orphics. Pythagoreanism was of aristocratic origin and self-consciously required an ascetic rule of life. Bremmer argues that it was rational in both Weber’s senses: it was ‘wertrational,’ since it manifested “a conscious belief in the intrinsic value of acting in a certain way, regardless of the consequences of so acting.” Pythagoras broke with traditional habits and designed a new way of life. It was also ‘zweckrational’, since it made “a consciously calculating attempt to achieve desired ends with appropriate means.” Pythagoras made the rules of the tradition explicit and thus potential objects for further reflection. The Orphics likewise rationalized their mythology, and showed the influence of Xenophanes.

Walter Burkert identifies several logical (perhaps better called conceptual) elements of cosmogonic myth which are also used in more philosophical accounts. First, all are ‘just-so stories’, that is, they follow the pattern “in the beginning there was … then came … and then — just so.” The explicit notion of beginning or principle, though it is new and important and followed by many of the preSocratics, is not always present in such tales. Second, cosmogonic myths involve reversal and antithesis. To start the tale of everything, you delete everything: e.g. “when the above skies were not named, nor earth below …” The most common beginning is water which becomes further differentiated. Development in cosmology occurs through biomorphic and/or technomorphic models. Finally, the myths have some purpose, e.g. Enuma Elish: to establish the supremacy of Marduk; Theogony: divine right of kings, precarious reign of Zeus.

John Gould finds that the distinction between myth and reason in Greek tragedy is difficult to fix. What is myth to the audience is not myth to the characters. Moreover, since familial and community stories are often blurred, it is difficult to determine what is myth even for the characters themselves. And the rational use of a myth in one place does not preclude its being used in an opposite way elsewhere: e.g. the Nurse’s and the chorus’ use of the myth of Semele and Zeus in Hippolytus. Again, as the depth of remembered past increases, myth and gnome (a rationalized form of myth) progressively converge. Inferential argument abounds and gnomai form a central part of some of these arguments.

Claude Calame argues that Greeks make little consistent effort to draw the distinction between mythos and logos, and adduces Isocrates’ use of τὰ παλαιά as a way of gaining insight into the relation between mythos and logos. For they seem to be myths, but they function in rhetorical arguments. Myths are used to legitimate political claims: ” mythos qua argument, fits neatly into deductive thinking articulated by logos.” For Isocrates truth exists in the παλαιά just as in the present, and so those old myths are not false, and in that respect not mythical.

Geoff Lloyd questions the notion that every society has its myths. He takes as a case study the Chinese, whose mythology does not form a distinct category. For example we find in Huainanzi chapter 3 a creation story which starts like a preSocratic account and ends like Hesiod with a battle between gods; it then goes on to provide some quite accurate information about the periods of the planets. There is here a striking variety of method and outlook, which Lloyd finds consistently through a number of genres and authors. Even in history where Sima Qian plays down the role of divine intervention this is done without characterizing his forebears’ views as foolish. This serves as the clue to Lloyd’s explanation: the Chinese desire for consensus generally and their reverence for masters tended to erase sharply critical and agonistic attitudes characteristic of the Greeks.

Alan Griffiths considers the story of Evenius in Herodotos 9.92-6 and argues that this oddly mythical story has been consciously placed in the midst of a factual account of the retreat of the Persians. Herodotos moves between myth and logos with ease and consciously exploits the transition. The primary reason for Evenius’ placement in the narrative is that it corresponds to the Arion story of Book I by ring-composition. Both are stories of suffering and redemption and are set in contrasted pairs with the stories of divine punishment of kings (Candaules and Xerxes) which are next to them in their respective books.

François Hartog expands on a suggestion of Calame that the oracles in Herodotos confer meaning on narrative action in the way that only poetry can. He argues with reference to the Croesus case that Herodotos replaces the divine epiphanies of Homer with poetic oracles and makes them into historical motivating forces. But since oracles require interpretation (and are unlike epiphanies which are clear) Herodotos becomes an interpreter; and since oracles also often state punishments (enigmatically), Herodotos the historian has the flexibility to interpret the span of the operation of the oracle, and can thereby “confer meaning on a long period of time.”

Dominique Lenfant argues that monsters display many of the features of myth, but that there is no development toward the rational elimination of monsters. Generally speaking there is little mention of biological monsters in daily life (in contrast to Rome), but rather they appear in myth and ethnography (where they appear at the ends of the world) and express what the Greeks wanted to exclude from their society. They also serve to work between categories, to question the relations between Greek and foreign, beautiful and ugly, civilized and barbarous.

Jacob Stern argues that Palaephatus, far from rationalizing Greek myth, is affirming its fundamental credibility by stripping it of its incredible features. Palaephatus uses the principles that the world has always operated in the same way and that myths convey some confused element of the truth, and gives the myths the most superficial naturalizing reinterpretation. Gods are banished, not naturalized.

Albert Henrichs studies the fluid boundaries between history and myth in the Hellenistic period through a study of human sacrifice. In the Hellenistic period we see a relaxation of the boundary between the human and divine, myth and ritual. Phaenias, for example, foists myth into ‘history’, making it prose fiction. Gods increasingly become culture heroes, men become deified. Again, the violence of Dionysus myths in the Hellenistic period tends to get transposed onto the worshippers — a conflation of myth and ritual.

Penelope Murray points out that Plato uses the terms ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’ without consistent reference; that he uses narrative techniques to distance myth (e.g., placing myth in the mouths of others or at several removes from the narrator); that mythic elements are pervasive in his works and not found just in the great mythic passages; that Plato wants to appropriate myths from the poets and in a variety of ways uses myth to supplement logos.

Christopher Rowe argues that in the construction of the ideal city (in the Republic, Critias and Timaeus) myth is not distinct from logos but necessarily inmixed, since human reason ineradicably displays some of the features we characteristically associate with story-telling. Accordingly Socrates’ description of the ideal city is a myth insofar as it is merely a provisional description which may need to be amended in the light of better knowledge; also it is a myth in that it describes an imaginary city.

Thomas Johansen identifies three uses of mythos in Aristotle. First, it is a term of abuse against Herodotos for fanciful stories. Second, it is a term for a false explanatory account. Because such myths are explanatory, they appear in his scientific work and are part of the endoxa. Third, in accordance with Aristotle’s cyclic theory of history, they sometimes preserve (as, e.g., the idea that the first substances are gods) the remnant of the advanced state of science which existed before the last cataclysm.

Mireille Bélis considers how the murex, inasmuch as it is the source of the purple dye, affected the way people talked and thought about its other functions and uses. Bélis asks how the myth of its discovery affected the view of the murex as a straightforward seafood or in dietetics and medicine. The murex meat, for example, was not especially good but was eaten at the best tables: its status as food was clearly elevated as a result of the exceptional quality of its dye.

Fritz Graf looks at myths of technology. Although technology is often associated with the logos half of the antithesis, myth is associated with invention or discovery. Graf studies the case of metallurgy from a variety of sources, and finds that in general technology has negative moral connotations. The Dactyls or Telchines, who are frequently associated with discovery of metallurgy, are servants of Cybele. Cybele is an ambivalent goddess, foreign, ecstatic, marginal, and for this reason the myths give voice to criticism and dissent regarding technology.