The Last Myth

The standard account of the rise of science starts with the Presocratics rejecting religious myth for explanation by rational accounts. It’s interesting to compare this to Lucretius’s panegyric of Epicurus in De rerum natura 1. 62-79, which is a pretty straightforward myth about… the rejection of religion by rational accounts. After praising the power of Epicurus’s mind to vault over the walls of the world, and his superhuman power of will to rise beyond superstition, Lucretius concludes with this solemn, spondaic clause that

Opteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.

[Religion] is torn down, and this victory makes us equal to the gods (caelo).

Here we are not just writing philosophy or science in verse, but striking a definitive mythological note. It is a liberation myth, where we are no longer in terris oppressa gravi sub religione (oppressed on earth by the solemnity of religion) but made equal to the gods who once kept us in line with threats and demands upon our substance.

All this raises the question whether the familiar idea of the replacing of myth by rational philosophy and science is not, in actual fact, the apotheosis of myth. It is the myth that announces the end of, even the impossibility of the truth of any myth. This apotheosis gives us that distinctively modern sense of myth as the false, primitive, fantastic, and unbelievable. Mythopaeic strives for its ultimate accomplishment in going beyond merely being invisible (for most fundamental beliefs are invisible) and attaining to the status of being seen as unnecessary and even impossible.  We need no fantastic stories about gods! We can just look at the world and see it as it is! Just look at all these results, based on nothing but reason and experience! Just look at this solemn, white-coated scientist leaning over to look into some apparatus and record the plain results in symbolic runes – what could be less like crazy poeticizing than this!

All this has the uneasy likeness to a more familiar story where the definitive act of heaven is to be made subject to men and rejected and killed by them: he has come unto his own, but they knew him not.  Or maybe we have cast off myth once and for all. How could we tell the difference? Or is it just this inability to tell the difference in these sorts of matters that makes the myth necessary in the first place?

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