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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, December 17, 2007


I’ve forgotten what recommendation led me to read CONCERNING THE GODS AND THE UNIVERSE, though I think it had to do with pointing out that its author had some common ground with Joseph Campbell in terms of categorizing aspects of archaic mythology. The short treatise was written by Sallustius, a Roman scholar who wrote in the era of Julian and who was, according to translator Arthur Nock, heavily influenced by the intellectual milieu of his time, which tended to analyze myth in terms of allegory. Thus he makes a convenient platform for speaking of the uses and potential abuses of the “allegory explanation” with respect to analyzing mythic stories.

In Sallustius’ time, the myths of Greco-Roman antiquity were under fire, both by the critics of the early Christian church and by sophisticated “pagan” philosophers. The latter grouping would be “pagan” only by the strict definitions of the Christian Church, for the philosophers of the allegorizing persuasion were almost as offended as the Christians by the salacious and/or sadistic aspects of archaic myths. Here’s how Sallustius attempts to come to grips with how such scandalous stories can possess any sacrality or cultural importance:

“Again, myths represent the active operations of the gods. The universe itself can be called a myth, since bodies and material objects are apparent in it, while souls and intellects are concealed… Why, however, have the ancients told in their myths of adulteries and thefts and binding of fathers and other strange things?” (p. 5)

One sentence later, Sallustius suggests that the purpose of this “seeming strangeness” of the myths is that it’s a strategy meant to “teach the soul” of the gods’ hidden nature. And this rationale is essentially correct, insofar as he claims that myths serve to communicate a mystery that proves obscure to rational discourse. However, like most allegorizers he makes the mistake of thinking that the mystery can, after a little thought, be summed up by a rational-sounding concept.

Here’s Sallustius on the myth of Kronos devouring his children:
“Of myths, some are theological, some physical; there are also psychical myths and material myths and myths blended from these elements. Theological myths are those which do not attach themselves to any material objects but regard the actual natures of the gods. Such is the tale that the god Kronos swallowed his children; since the god is intellectual, and all intellect is directed towards itself, the myth hints at the god’s essential nature.”

Much later Joseph Campbell would suggest a different set of myth-analyzing categorizations more in tune with the philosophies of post-industrial human culture, which would be less likely to view the Kronos myth are so unattached by “material objects.” In modern parlance, Sallustius would be seen as repressing the more visceral aspects of the Kronos myth, and forcing onto it a purely-metaphysical explanation—an act which recalls for me Northrop Frye’s definition of allegory as “forced metaphor.” But this is not to suggest that Sallustius is wrong simply because he renounced the visceral, as it would be just as easy to imagine an interpretation which forced the metaphor in the opposite direction: toward, rather than away from, the visceral. I don’t recall whether or not Sigmund Freud ever made a detailed examination of the Kronos myth, but given the theories he advanced on similar themes, he would almost certainly see the myth informed by the “material object” of the Oedipus complex, in which a near-victim of Kronos’ appetites, such as Zeus, escapes and kills his tyrant father as a stratagem for marrying his mother, which does in fact take place (though we should keep in mind that Kronos devours his female children as well as his male ones, which might weaken the Freudian thesis).

In his book MYTHICAL THOUGHT, philosopher Ernst Cassirer sough a third approach to the analysis of myth that did not depend on either “the essence of the absolute” or “the play of empirical psychological forces.” For this he evoked the authority of Plato:
“Thus, for Plato, too, myth harbors a certain conceptual content: it is the conceptual language in which alone the world of becoming can be expressed. What never is but always becomes, what does not, like the structures of logical and mathematical knowledge, remain identically determinate but from moment to moment manifests itself as something different, can be given only a mythical representation.”

A strongly-evocative image, such as Kronos eating his children, is just such a “mythical representation.” Since the authors of myths are lost to history, there is no knowing what intent was in the mind of the individuals who first formulated this representation. They may have wished to capture the visceral transgressiveness of a father eating his young, or they may have had some notion comparable to Sallustius’ “theological” interpretation, even if it was probably a good deal less refined than the one Sallustius gives. But if Cassirer is right, then the initial intentions behind the myth are unimportant, for the myth expresses something about a conceptual world that is never “identically determinate,” but which can shift to encompass an array of meanings.

I would give Sallustius credit, though. Even if his specific interpretation of the Kronos myth is forced, he seems to have been among the first to conceive ways in which myths might contain a wide array of meanings, even going so far as to note that some of the myths contained “blended” elements. In his OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY Campbell put forth four categories—given the headings of “the cosmological,” “the metaphysical,” “the sociological,” and “the psychological”-- by which one might analyze the contents of mythic stories. Although Campbell would later use other names for his categories, these remained largely in the tradition of the ones used by Sallustius. Perhaps appropriately, the most telling criticisms of Campbell have been those that focused on his more allegory-oriented interpretations.

In a previous essay I noted that there might be a way to counter the interpretation of Eric Gould, of viewing myth as a failure to bridge an ontological gap between the world we live in and what our minds make of it. I would suggest that Campbell’s categorical approach—as long as it is restrained from pure allegorizing by a Cassirer-like understanding of myth’s indeterminate conceptualizing nature—does bridge the ontological gap, as much as humanity can expect to. Campbell’s categories are, at their base, attempts to discern patterns in reality, whether one is dealing with external realities (what Sallustius calls “material objects”) or internal ones (“souls and intellects.”) To the extent that these patterns are coterminous with the world we live in, then myth in its most conceptual aspect is an intuition of how the world works, and how men relate to it. And as such, it is not simply failed ontology. It is the mirror that shows us both unity and diversity: which, in showing us all of our indeterminate faces, also shows us our identity.

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