This is an addendum-essay that further develops Professor Wilson's "Retelling the Story of Reason" in ANAMNESIS, Volume 1, Number 1, 2011.
In my essay, “Retelling the Story of Reason,” I contended that modern thought routinely sets logos, (reason) in opposition with mythos (story-telling), and favors logos. This habit breeds an unhappy myth of its own: mankind was once subject to the vague powers of myth, but has emerged triumphant from such antiquated miasma into the knowing precisions of a rational age. While such a myth gained traction in the modern age, particularly during the Enlightenment, its basic form dates back to Plato. Or rather, it dates back to a certain reading of Plato. My essay called that reading into question, returning to some of Plato’s best-known statements on the “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy, in order to show that, for Plato, stories serve as the condition of possibility for reasoning and mythos naturally and properly interweaves with logos. While Plato certainly distinguishes between the two, his writing provides us ample reason to acknowledge that distinction as subsisting within a natural unity. If Plato is to be believed, the philosopher must reason both in stories and through them, so that sound reasoning might itself be understood as a kind of story-telling.
I built upon this account of Plato to advance three arguments in favor of a modern reunion of mythos and logos. Plato himself provides resources for such a reunion, but so does the classicist and theorist of myth, Marcel Detienne. In a loose reading of Detienne, we might say that the modern separation between logos and mythos has its origin in the methodologies of the classical Greek historians. If we can get behind this division, which Detienne critiques as an ideological contingency rather than a conceptual necessity, we shall find that logos and mythos were once synonymous. If Detienne is correct, then pace Herodotus and his descendants, we have good reason to believe that story-telling is a kind of reasoning, reasoning is a kind of story-telling, and that the prototype of this union is found in an oral culture, where the telling and re-telling of stories serve as a dominant mode of oral reasoning, with its use of interpretation, commentary, and argument. Finally, I consider the Christian-Platonist tradition’s understanding of man as an intellectual animal, whose intellect is by nature ordered to the knowledge of being. In its highest function, the intellect sees the form of beings: as Plato and the Greeks understood, when the truth is fully present to us, it no longer hides within a mere “image” or lingers as discursive definition, but showsforth as its form. If stories are incontestably “forms,” then to see the form of a story must be a kind of rational vision: to see the form of a story may entail a vision of the intellect that bypasses the plodding methods of discursive logic but is nonetheless rational.
These ideas from Plato, Detienne, and classical epistemology argue for a reunion of logos and mythos, and culminate, in my essay, in four theses proposing some positive consequences that might result from it. First, rejoining mythos and logos would further the recognition that all reason is conditioned by the narrative in which it takes place, and yet would not necessarily compromise the integrity of reason that has led to a fashionable historicism among contemporary thinkers. Second, narrative should be admissible as a fundamental part of reasoning, and so we must find a way to articulate that admission in terms other than that of the mere gratuitous example. Third, by admitting mythos and logos as distinct modes of rational inquiry, we effectively relativize both. This, in turn, may foreground the ultimate terms of philosophy: the intellect that sees and the form of being seen. How is the reason arrives at the form of truth is a mere matter of method, but it is the vision of truth made present in the soul that truly matters. Fourth, the intellectual life should itself be understood as a particularly excellent form of life-story. Having excised story-telling from philosophy, we have sacrificed on the altar of logical method the philosopher as human being and philosophy as a way of life.
Having established the possible benefits of a reintegration of mythos and logos in the reflections that follow, I would like to outline some consequences of our forgetting their interrelation. As I note, “Retelling,” explored mythos and logos as representative of the foundation and manifestation of reason in Plato. Following Detienne, I proposed that they are two terms nearly synonymous, differing chiefly in the oral or written context of reasoning they suggest Finally, I contended that if the reason’s search for the knowledge of reality cuminates in the vision of truth in the soul, then,, in seeking the truth, the intellect sees the form of all things, including the forms of human lives composed as stories; for this, I argued with the aid of the works of Jacques Maritain and St. Augustine.
I turn now to the consequences of this forgetting of logos and mythos’ near identity, and begin by observing the rather “literary” revenge mythos has taken on logos. As soon as modern philosophy excluded story-telling from its methodological city, that very human practice reasserted itself precisely as an irrational or illogical form of knowing. While there are historical instances of this reassertion of story-telling (or poetry’s) claim to truth dating back to the age of Plato, in the poets of the Italian renaissance, in Shakespeare,Pascal, and elsewhere, we see it most forcefully in the romanticism inaugurated by Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). There, in a trope typical to his century, abstract “metaphysics” gets unfavorably contrasted with the concrete, morally-binding realities Burke believed we could know only by means of the lived drama of social life. What Russell Kirk would theorize as the “moral imagination,” Burke understood as a refusal of abstract ratiocination and as an emersion of the humane sentiments in the dramatic forms of human events, which are informed with meaning through the weight of ancestry and posterity. While Burke himself does not reduce moral knowledge to the feelings, his vocabulary lends itself to just such an anti-intellectualist position.1 As such, truth becomes dramatic to the exclusion of abstract discourse. Truth comes to reside in the ghetto of the heart, while rationality carries the field by becoming a bloody yet bloodless automaton.2 Such a literary revenge of story-telling seems destined to occupy Burke’s historical position : that of the prophetic cry of a sensibility largely ignored by the mechanics of a confident modern rationalism. Mythos claims to have comprehension of a kind of truth to which reason has no access, but, to the extent such claims are entertained, they are kept to the margins, sometimes lamented, more frequently ignored.
Thirty years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre made clear a related consequence of the divorce of logos and mythos, in After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre contended that all ethical arguments become interminable and incommensurable unless they can occur in the context of a community’s reflections on the nature of the human telos, that is, on the form of the achieved good life for man. To draw speculative pictures of what a good human life looks like requires being able to talk in terms of stories; and, indeed, the “raw data” prerequisite to such speculation about possible good lives consists not of the atomized events of a human life or of abstract propositions about moral right, but rather of formed accounts of entire lives. We need the capacity to interpret human life as a story in order to ask meaningfully how we ought to live. And while we retain this capacity ineluctably in virtue of human life’s finite story form, MacIntyre rightly notes that modern ethics since Hume has refused the admissibility of narrative to rational argument.3 The criteria we actually follow in determining how to live has perversely been excluded from the formal philosophical discipline dedicated to living well. Because of this, a modern person may be moral, but he cannot think ethically.
This ethical impasse relates directly to an intellectual one—another consequence. In the ancient world, philosophy was a way of life, just as the religious life has been in the Christian era.4 It was natural that so much of philosophy should be concerned with, and should appear in the form of, stories in order to represent what the life of a philosopher properly looks like. Because man was seen to be a rational animal, his true happiness could only be experienced by those with the capacity to dedicate themselves to the cultivation of the intellect. The life of the philosopher was that of a man drawn by his own love toward the lasting intellectual fulfillment that, sustained, alone constitutes human happiness. The quest to come to a vision of the good, and the life of contemplation made possible thereafter, was not measurable in terms of its hard, exacting method but only in terms of the kind of joy it made possible. To advert once more to Plato, we may say that while it is easy to distinguish the philosophy of Socrates from the character of Socrates, one misunderstands the nature of the dialogues in doing so. They are bound together as idea and manifestation, or, rather, premise and demonstration.
Those inevitable founding voices of modern philosophy, Descartes and Hume, expressly sought a philosophic method that cut it off from daily life. Philosophy’s method required a self-seclusion of the reason from everyday assumptions and experience. For Descartes, the ambition was to establish a position of certainty regarding pure ideas; for Hume, philosophy served merely to explain and methodize the proceedings of customary behavior in civil society: it described what one already did in any case—changing nothing and certainly not qualifying in itself as a kind of living. The philosopher’s life was no longer understood, therefore, a particularly excellent type of human life, but rather became that of an abstracted commentator spinning logos apart from his own or others’ lives.5
If love and longing have always been associated with poetry, they were always associated with the life of philosophy as well; indeed, Socrates grasped both better than did Aristophanes. To the extent that this association has been lost, we are no longer capable of sensing or even understanding why the ordering of the mind to being and the ordering of the reason to the true, good, and beautiful should be the telos of a well-lived human life. As such, universities have withered to mere husks, whose ivied and rocky piles have ceased to be intelligible to their occupants. Their cloisters were not constructed to set up a parallel realm of abstract methodology in which no one can breathe, but to make possible a kind of life elevated above necessity. If few can imagine this now, fewer still experience it.
We arrive, then, at a further consequence: the shape of higher education has felt the impact of this hollowing out. Our administrators, faculty, and students see that the intellectual “function” seems to have as its object an exacting and abstract method removed from the happiness proper to human life. Disenchanted with this species of reason, recognizing its vacuity but unable to see an alternative, , since the middle of the last century, many of us have been complicit in efforts to make educational institutions—if not the intellectual life—“relevant.” Rather than critiquing abstract rationalism in terms of the drama of intellect and the joy of contemplation known in the past, those in positions of authority set up the facile dualism of abstraction and concretion; they seek to remodel the life of the university on concrete action to the exclusion of what they now view as the fearful loneliness of thought.6
Increasingly, we see students called to “social awareness,” exhorted to “effect social change” by engaging in charitable service as part of or as the total content of their course work. We no longer tolerate a place where these activities might be acknowledged as important, but secondary, elements of a good life; an imperative to ease the material human estate blots out the possibility of an end beyond it and superior to it. We fear to offend the “less mentally-abled” by proposing that the life of contemplation might be superior to the practical life, since it is the point of contact between the human soul and the divine. Instead of thought, we have information sessions: course work in the humanities becomes a positivist form of history and sociology intended to excite indignation and lead to “service,” the raising of funds in a charitable campaign, or, at least, the hand-wringing of “white guilt.”7
At most contemporary American Catholic universities, the Catholic “mission” of the university is most in evidence just at those points on which liberal society in general has already reached a consensus: the distribution of recycling bins, the use of the buzzwords “green” and “sustainability,” hospitality to the disabled, and corporal works of mercy for the poor. In their proper place, I would strongly approve of nearly all these initiatives. If they serve, however, as a substitute for the intellectual tradition to which Catholic universities are scions, then they have at their root a set of ideas that we willfully keep ourselves too busy and diverted to contemplate. This relentless hum of good will serves to distract us from the fact that we no longer believe in the capacities of human reason to know the truth; we no longer believe the truth could regard anything greater than the crude, intractable matter we seek to control in the name of bodily comfort; we begin to suspect, as it were, that if silence should fall upon our mind and our hearts for a moment, we might awaken to discover the world and ourselves are alike empty of meaning.8 One seldom hears, against this restless and evasive nihilism, an authoritative voice raised to echo Aquinas that the ultimate end of human life is our contemplative knowledge of and intellectual assimilation to God.9
I am aware that the world is not dying from an excess of charitable works, though many of those works may themselves be dead to the real spirit of caritas.10 In the West, at least, we see our intellectual and spiritual emptiness compensated for less by self-giving than by consumption.11 In particular, we fixate upon the creation and commoditization of new technologies for, I think, a very curious reason. The narrative of “unstoppable” material progress, of technological advancements that will relieve us of the burdens of mortality, the labors of survival, the contingent determinism of nature regarding our weight, sex, and the shape of our noses—this seems to be the one story still permitted public recognition as rational. The story of technology receives such deference because we confuse the power it provides with reason; it must be good, it must be a testimony to some kind of human greatness. It provides a meaningful narrative to a society otherwise lacking, and it makes us think we are rational gods when in fact we are superstitious slaves. Why else would it happen that the mere suggestion that computers are not an unmixed good can excite wrath in the breasts of otherwise complacent and amiable, if sterile, persons?12
Here, contemporary higher education comes in for one more bit of opprobrium. Most humanities and social science courses preach this narrative of technological progress in such a way that it would seem the summons to charitable service amounts to little more than helping those in poorer countries access the garden of technological delights in which we freely romp. Having said that, many other courses couch themselves as critical of western consumption and power; they generally do so exclusively in the form of criticism—that is, in the attempt to undermine the assumptions of our experience by exposing their manipulative ideological structures. Because this always remains a strictly anti-western or anti-capitalist position that refuses to offer a more robust or dignified account of human life than that offered on every airwave and video screen, even the most savage criticisms of western technocratic and ideological drives to domination wind up merely liberating their students from what little sense of ethical obligation or intellectual calling they are likely to have acquired within this generally amoral order. In a word, the greatest ally of a society entirely organized in terms of exchange between corporations, state social services, and private consumers is the western Marxist tradition of culture critique; in claiming to expose the lines of power to criticism, it merely prompts students to see no purpose to their lives beyond seeking a power of their own. This de facto alliance has overcome its de jure antagonism and become most comically evident in such things as the rise to institutional respectability of media and cultural studies. In the study of cartoons and soap operas, our students learn the most banal of lessons: the bottom line to all the claptrap regarding the true, the good, and the beautiful is the cliché that the “customer is always right.” Sometimes, it just so happens, he does not always know the reason he is right, and that is why the professors of media studies must scribble their monographs.
This singular public narrative of technological progress, power, and pleasure gives rise to the proliferation of private narratives deprived of any ethical or rational status. To wit, the tales of the talking cure, unfolded on the psychologist’s couch. The triumph of the therapeutic reveals at once the vanquishing and the vindication of human life as a story and human reason’s dependence on story-telling. The therapeutic narrative, to be sure, is rife with unfortunate elements. It presumes the total isolation of the feelings of the interior, subjective state from the objective conditions of nature and ethical discourse, so that psychological therapy becomes a stoic exercise in interior adjustment to inalterable external conditions. So, too, it despairs of such confessions having any purchase on reason, or reason any purchase on them. The patient’s task is simply to state the raw feeling of experience, upon which reason operates only to make a diagnosis. This last, private refuge of storytelling not only robs it of ethical or rational force, but it has the effect of narrowing the kinds of stories we are capable of telling about ourselves. As has been noted for decades, we find our popular narratives conform to the stock fixtures of therapy: trauma, mourning, revenge (or “acting out”), and interior-adjustment. And yet, the very fact that human beings feel compelled to tell these stories indicates not how traumatized we all actually are, but our need for the more varied conventions of story-telling that become available when story-telling itself is readmitted to the public realm as a source and basis of wisdom. This re-admittance, and not an increase in the number of psychologists, or the already-under-way switching of method from the “talking cure” to the prescription of psychotropic drugs, is the solution to the conditions modern psychology generally misdiagnoses.
The causes of the aforementioned phenomena are, no doubt, multiple and complex. My argument is not so crude as to suggest that the exile of mythos from logos, or rather, the abstraction of logos from the condition of its possibility, has alone been their progenitor. Other factors have helped misshape the modern university and sent untold millions in search of therapy. But surely there is a causal relation. I have tried primarily to make the case that our age misunderstands the nature of stories and of reason alike; that this misunderstanding has its roots in Plato, but that Plato himself gives us salient reasons to reject it. Further, I have tried to suggest that human experience outside the precincts of classical philosophy detects instinctively the reliance of logos on mythos. Our predicament is that we have failed to take stories seriously enough for them to merit the serious attention of anyone besides our therapist. Plato’s pedagogical theory of poetry has, in this regard, one further lesson to teach us. If we have formed our own pre-rational sensibilities on the irrelevance of stories to rational thought, and on the irrelevance of reasoning to the narrative form of human life, then we risk making ourselves unwittingly insensible to a reality on which our happiness fundamentally depends. Nothing could be more irrational than that.
1. See, Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (J.C.D. Clark, Ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 241-244. Cf. Russell Kirk, Redeeming the Time (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1999), 69-73. Burke’s rhetoric on this point derives most obviously from Swift (see, Burke 301) and should be taken as conclusive regarding his thoughts on the capacities of human reason. However, it is precisely his rhetoric that furnishes a position that emerges in romanticism and after as an anti-intellectual fideism that idolizes tradition, instinct, or emotion.
2. Cf. Pascal, 78; Sec. 277.
3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). See 56-58 on Hume and the problem of modern ethics. See 124 on the story-form of human life.. MacIntyre’s virtue theory may reject Hume’s skeptical epistemology, but it also seeks to meet that epistemology on its own terms, so that MacIntyre, from a certain perspective, stands within the ethical tradition Hume initiated and corrects its deficiencies. From another perspective, of course, MacIntyre tells us that the Enlightenment project to which Hume belonged failed, and its failure opens up room for a renewal of the Aristotelian and Thomist tradition to which MacIntyre explicitly claims to belong (MacIntyre, x).
4. Cf. Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy? (Michael Chase, Trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
5. Thus, Hume could contend that philosophical beliefs “are entirely indifferent to the peace of society and security of government” (Hume, 93).
6. I attempted to describe this drama in “The Dead-end of Disinterestedness” in First Principles (www.firstprinciplesjournal.com), September 2008.
7. See, Paul Gottfried, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002).
8. Pascal is the great psychologist on this point. See, Pascal, 39-42, Sec. 139.
9. “Since all creatures, even those devoid of understanding, are ordered to God as to an ultimate end, all achieve this end to the extent that they participate somewhat in His likeness. Intellectual creatures attain it in a more special way, that is, through their proper operation of understanding Him. Hence, this must be the end of the intellectual creature, namely, to understand God” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Vernon J. Bourke, Trans. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1956) III.25).
10. See, Benedict XVI, God is Love (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), §19-21, 28; he notes that “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work” (§37). Cf. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009): “I am aware of the ways in which charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning, with the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living, and, in any event, undervalued” (§2).
11. In The Conservative Mind: Seventh Revised Edition (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2001), Russell Kirk speaks of the contemporary West as a “consumption-society” (11) while we are all familiar with the term “consumer society” and the demotic redefinition of persons and citizens as “consumers” and “customers.”
12. E.g. Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 170-196.