Our Myth of History

“Myth” is a difficult word to define. In the ancient world, however, reality, or truth, was expressed in terms of myth. Today we assume that myth is “untrue” or false. This dichotomy often leads to an unfortunate undervaluing of ancient texts and stories. At root the problem is that we are on the far side of a paradigm shift. This podcast addresses the question of how we might try to understand myth in a way that fits with the modern outlook. Since historical veracity is the modern paradigm, it stands to reason that history has become the mythology of present-day thinkers.

7 thoughts on “Our Myth of History

  1. Pingback: Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part 4 « כל־האדם

  2. Steve, another excellent lecture. One thesis here I really like is that modern people could do to openly acknowledge that they have truth-containing stories. It would appear that people do “believe in myths” today, where that might mean that they allow unexamined received wisdom to operationally affect their behavior—even when it’s detrimental. (For examples, consider anything that leads to cognitive dissonance today, e.g., students who grew up believing America’s diehard commitment to democracy then learning how widely American foreign policy undermined democracy, especially in Central and South America. Actually, most nations’ foreign policy history seems to readily engender cognitive dissonance in its citizens—I’ve been reading about China and Japan.) I am liking this idea that, if one embraced some kinds of myths as myths like you describe, then you might be more critical and reflective about the other beliefs you let guide your actions.

    In a different vein, do you have any thoughts, as a scholar of ancient religions, on modern practitioners reconstructing Nordic, Roman, Celtic, Hellenic polytheisms, or modern Wiccan mythologies? People into this most definitely have a wide variety of reasons, and part of it might be some’s desire for stories with truth and meaning from traditions a little different from those that dominate their cultures.

    I also liked your reference to George Washington’s cherry tree. I recently finished Bart Ehrman’s lectures on the historical Jesus and he cited that example too, and humorously observed how Washington Irving fabricated a story about the importance of honesty. There’s a meta-story there I think 😝!


    • Good points, all, Ahmed! To address your question about Nordic, Roman, etc. revival religions, I think people are beginning to realize the limits to “objective” means of assessing reality. Science these days quickly becomes so complicated that you must be a scientist to understand it. If you can’t look at the proofs and verify them for yourself, you’re taking someone else’s word that their true. The same applies to religions: if nobody has seen any gods how do we know the Celtic or Greek deities don’t exist? In some ways polytheism is a far better explanation for things (such as Trump’s election, for example) than a monotheistic system. These revival religions are good examples of a system where one size doesn’t fit all.


      • I had to make a probably-boring comment about this, where you say, ‘Science these days quickly becomes so complicated that you must be a scientist to understand it. If you can’t look at the proofs and verify them for yourself, you’re taking someone else’s word that their true.’ I recently read Dan Kahan’s paper, “On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Extraordinary Science Ignorance”: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2794799 which was enlightening on many levels but he has this neat little thought experiment which shows how much worse the problem is:

        “You learn next week that you have an endocrinological deficit that can be effectively treated but only if you submit to a regimen of daily medications. You certainly will do enough research to satisfy yourself—to satisfy any reasonable person in your situation—that this recommendation is sound before you undertake such treatment.

        “But what will you do? Will you carefully read and evaluate all the studies that inform your physician’s recommendation? If those studies refer, as they inevitably will, to previous ones the methods of which aren’t reproduced in those papers, will you read those, too? If the studies you read refer to concepts with which you aren’t familiar, or use methods which you have no current facility, will you enroll in a professional training program to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills? And once you’ve done that, will you redo the experiments—*all* of them; not just the ones reported in the papers that support the prescribed treatment but also those relied on and extended by them—so you can avoid taking anyone’s word on what the results of such studies actually were as well?

        “Of course not. Because by the time you did those things, you’d be dead. To live well—or just to live—individuals (including scientists) must accept much more DRS [decision-relevant science] than they can ever hope to make sense of on their own.”

        (Me again.) So a learned scientist might have a good grasp of the questions and directions in her field. But in another field, she’s just another layperson: she had only one life and she spent it on her field, and not on any of these myriad other fields that advise our day-to-day decision-making. So she and a layperson have to be equally good at the same thing: recognizing scientific authority!

        If I may quote some more, Kahan continues:

        “Science’s way of knowing involves crediting as true only inferences rationally drawn from observation. This was—still is—a radical alternative to other ways of knowing that feature truths revealed by some mystic source to a privileged few, who alone enjoy the authority to certify the veracity of such insights. … But it remains the case that to get the benefits of the distinctive, and distinctively penetrating, mode of ascertaining knowledge they devised, we must *take the word* of those who know what’s been ascertained by those means—while being sure *not* to take the word of anyone else.”

        (This tidbit, on a blog about ancient religion, seemed too funny a juxtaposition to pass up 😂. Kahan is specifically interested in the handful of questions, viz., evolution, genetically-modified foods, climate change, fracking, etc., that despite having garnered scientific consensus via empirical experimentation nonetheless have attracted a large anti-science contingent in some countries. He’s actually interested in understanding what’s special about these specific few questions, in light of the fact that nobody disputes the the vast majority of scientifically-established claims.)


        • Very interesting! I would suggest, without having read the article, that Kahan’s few questions could be multiplied to many. Another specialist (whose name escapes me) has called this a “crisis of authority.” The fact is that overspecialization leads people into a cultural neurosis. We see it all the time with scientists such as Richard Dawkins stepping way out of the bounds of their expertise to comment on things they know little about. We’re told to trust them because they’re scientists.

          Any field of knowledge, even my own humble (I hope!) field of religious studies, requires a scientific approach. Some would argue that the stakes (where you spend eternity, if humans really have a soul) are even higher than those of medical science. It is a very interesting and perplexing dance. I suspect both sides need to give a little and get back into conversation rather than erupting into shouting matches.

          Thanks for pointing out this article. I’ve got my reading cut out for me!


      • Thomas Kuhn is on point, and on fire here:

        “The more carefully [historians of science] study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. … Out-of-date theories are not in principle unscientific because they have been discarded.” (*The Structure of Scientific Revolutions*)

        Since my academese-fu is weak these days, a translation: ‘There exist several former-sciences that are today discarded, but that arose using the same mental techniques as the current crop of sciences.’

        Probably it’d be a stretch to try and stretch this back to the ancients, but Kuhn here is rounding out this idea from this lecture: that disparaging discarded explanations (discarded truths) from ancient times is inappropriate because we still discard scientific explanations and will continue to do so. This is a lecture that keeps on giving 🙇!


        • Thanks, Ahmed. You make a very good point here—the ancients also followed science in a way we seldom credit them with. A colleague of mine does an excellent lecture on ancient science at Rutgers University. Even a glance at the pyramids of Egypt should convince us that they knew a lot more about scientific principles than we give them credit for. Or the Antikythera device. One of the more interesting ideas on this I’ve been reading about recently is that the science may be in place but if it doesn’t help those in authority to consolidate their power, such innovations are left as historical curiosities. The history of science is littered with examples.


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