In a previous blog I mentioned the problem outlined by Karen Armstrong in interpreting religious writings. She maintained that there was always tension between Logos and Mythos. Much of the wisdom of the world has been transmitted by myth, fable, allegory or parable. When we get into trouble is when we start to take this material literally. It is illustrated beautifully in that lovely Buddhist saying’ “That when the master points to the moon the fool merely sees the finger. To understand the world and certainly to appreciate it we need to draw on both Logos and Mythos.
Ken Wilbur has made the point that as our understanding increases each new level of understanding transcends but includes the levels underneath. For example when we live in a two dimensional world all non-parallel lines must intersect. However once we deal in three dimensions non-parallel line only intersect if they lie on the same plane. To someone living in a two-dimensional world the notion of non-intersecting non-parallel lines is indeed a paradox. For someone living in a three dimensional world intersecting non-parallel lines is the exception rather than the rule.
Thus we, as human beings, often fall prey to the argument that we must take up one side of a dichotomy or the other. In the case above if we read all the material from the major faith traditions only through the eyes of Logos we would miss much of its most important content. If we read it all through the eyes of Mythos we would be manufacturing allusions where none were meant. Wisdom seems to come from being able to judiciously take advantage of both points of view as it is appropriate. (Mind you that last caveat requires exquisite judgment!) Therefore (as with most of these fundamental dichotomies) it is not a question of Mythos or Logos but a synthesis of both Mythos and Logos.
Albert Einstein took up a similar theme. In 1941at a Symposium on Science, Philosophy and Religion he stated “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” [He stated this however with the caveat that his idea of religion did not admit of an anthropomorphic god who intervened in the universe after being petitioned by believers. He talked of a cosmic God, a concept he found difficult to communicate but one which provided him with inspiration when trying to fathom the laws of nature.]
And what about the dichotomy that we confront in every society where we have to weigh up the interests of the individual against the interests of the collective? Most of us would find intolerable a society that does not care for the disadvantaged. But equally intolerable would be a society that did not allow scope for individual achievement and fulfilment. I can’t imagine a society where the rights of the individual were completely subsumed by the rights of the collective. Yet, alternatively I can’t believe that a society that promoted individual rights to the exclusion of its impacts on the collective would be a satisfactory environment in which to live. So again it is not a choice between individualist or collective rights but some sensible blend of both. Not this or that but both this and that.
John Carroll in his book “The Wreck of Western Culture” makes much of the tension between humanism and romanticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The work of Rene Descartes created a movement that led to the so-called Age of Reason which culminated with the discoveries of Isaac Newton. The profile of science and mathematics was lifted to unprecedented heights. But then along came Jean Jacques Rousseau. As Carroll pointed out, if Descartes could be epitomised by his famous “I think, therefore I am,” Rousseau could have countered with “I feel therefore I am!” Rousseau believed that the clinical application of reason to society unmediated by passion and emotion made society worse rather than better.
In contrast to the tension that seemed to be magnified by many in both camps (Humanism/Romanticism), others seemed to be able to live comfortably with a foot in both. A good case in point was Sir Humphrey Davy. Davy was the most lauded British scientist of his time. He did original work in many fields including the behaviour of gases and the development of chemical batteries. He is of course most famous for his Davy Safety Lamp which allowed miners to have a source of light underground but which would not ignite explosive mixtures of air and methane. He succeeded the illustrious Sir Joseph Banks as President of the Royal Society.
Davy was himself a poet and Robert Southey encouraged him to write poetry. Southey published five of Davy’s poems in his 1799 Annual Anthology. Davy continued to write poetry until his death. He consorted not only with Southey but became great friends with Coleridge. Among his friends were also to be counted Percy Shelley and his sister, Mary, and Sir Walter Scott. Through their association with Davy Southey, Coleridge and Shelley embellished their works with references of scientific discovery, particularly those of Davy and the famous astronomer Sir William Herschel.
So again, rather than embracing one side or the other of the dichotomy there seemed profit in drawing from both sides.
And what about politics? Most western democracies have ended up with just two opposing major political streams. They normally fall under the distinctions of liberal or conservative. Such dichotomies become greatly polarised in their polemics even though they often grow closer to each other in their beliefs. This is a result of wanting to “own” the middle ground. Forgive me if I have told this story before, but I was always amused about a hypothetical discussion between two protagonists in the American political scene. The Democrat berates the Republican, “How can you possibly be a Republican. It is against all reason.” The Republican replies, “I am a Republican because my father before me was a Republican and his father also.” “What sort of a reason is that?” demands the Democrat. “Why what would you have been if your father was a horse thief.” Without any contemplation at all his antagonist replied, “Well, of course then I would have been a Democrat!”
I beseech you then to beware of those who would state there are only two kinds of people:
• Religious or Rationalist
• Liberal or Conservative
• Humanist or Romanticist
• Those who believe in individual rights and those concerned for the collective good
• Republican or Democrat
To my way of thinking there are only two kinds of people:
1. those who divide the world into two kinds of people and
2. those who don’t.
I am always more comfortable in the company of the latter!