Mythos, Logos

My children get impatient with me, you know, because I’m always reading stuff in some book, and then I go around telling people about the stuff I’ve been reading. Last month it was evolutionary biology. This month it’s Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Battle for God. (I also love her A History of God.) One of the things I liked best about this book is that it gave a comprehensible, sympathetic account of the Iranian revolution in Iran.

But the main thing I like about this book is her explanation of two ways of knowing, which she calls mythos and logos. I’ve been dropping hints about this, so it’s time for me to go into a little more detail. This first part I’m going to quote directly from the beginning of the book:

“We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind….

“Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. …

“In the premodern world, both mythos and logos were regarded as indispensable. Each would be impoverished without the other. Yet the two were essentially distinct, and it was held to be dangerous to confuse mythical and rational discourse. They had separate jobs to do. Myth was not reasonable; its narratives were not supposed to be demonstrated empirically. It provided the context of meaning that made our practical activities worthwhile.”

Armstrong will go on to argue, in the book, that because ancient people ascribed equivalent value to mythos and logos they didn’t feel the need to prove the literal reality of their religious stories the way people do today. It is only in the modern world, where logos has come to dominate our discourse, that the sort of scriptural literalism that we see among fundamentalists has been seen as necessary or useful.

I find these ideas when I contemplate my own religious milieu. Armstrong speaks as if people don’t think in the mythos way in our time, but when people retell the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision, or when they bear testimony that Jesus atoned for their sins, they are speaking out of mythos, not logos. Armstrong seems to think that the mythos understanding of life has been lost in our time, but in the church I see if everywhere I turn. Of course, most people are not consciously aware of these two ways of “knowing,” just as they weren’t in premodern times. But when someone bears testimony of the divine calling of Joseph Smith, I can think, “Oh, she’s talking about mythos, not logos,” and that makes it easier for me to deal with. Perhaps mythos and logos are both true, perhaps even equally true, but perhaps they are true in different ways.

My heroine Simone Weil, who did not have the same terminology, nevertheless said something very similar in speaking of the communion ceremony:

“The mysteries of the Catholic faith – and those of other religious or metaphysical traditions – are not designed in order to be believed by all parts of the soul. The presence of Christ is the host is not a fact in the same way that the presence of my friend Paul in Paul’s body is a fact; otherwise it would not be supernatural. (Both facts are, moreover, equally incomprehensible – but not in the same way.) The Eucharist should not then be an object of belief for the part of me which apprehends facts.”

Those of us who live on the fringe of Mormonism – being, in many ways “in the church but not of it” – are often there largely because we are so solidly grounded in the logos which is the prevailing attitude of our times. We have been educated to value logos and to evaluate everything we encounter according to its standards. We can often see the beauty and desirability of mythos, but because of our training, and perhaps our personal ways of apprehending the world, we cannot accept it as truly true. Perhaps it really is something that only comes to a person by grace.