Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

Myths Have Their Reasons…

Exploring myth as background and subject matter for politics.

Isaac Ariail Reed

Plato’s Cave (detail), sixteenth century, attributed to Michiel Coxie (1499–1592); Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai, France; Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Myths Have Their Reasons

We presume we know what we are talking about when we cite the First Amendment. When pressed, we may defer to the expert interpretations of a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases, or a judge whose perspicacity we respect. Nonetheless, when imagining life together under the Constitution, we have a set of understandings about what the First Amendment has to say about the relationship of government and religion, or about what it means to have a free press, or about the right to “assemble.” Indeed, even when we disagree on its application, certain background meanings obtain. Typified stories of famous cases, “classic” legal defenses, or sayings first communicated to us by a teacher are brought to mind; memories of movies in which characters dramatically invoke the amendment, play in our mind’s eye. In other words, the cultural background of the First Amendment is made up of stories and images: of students wearing unpopular religious symbols (or offensive T-shirts) to school, of churches contesting the regulation of their employment practices by the federal government, of open speech in the street and newspaper editors leaned on by politicos in back rooms, of Forrest Gump being swept into an antiwar rally.

Is it possible to work on, and in some way ameliorate, those understandings—the images and stories around the First Amendment being just one example—which are not only regarded as axiomatic but whose very status as such is essential to getting on with life and, indeed, to “doing politics” together? Specifically, are certain tacit rules and intuitions about fairness necessary to the public process of democratic deliberation? How can a world-in-common be cultivated among citizens in a way that prevents politics in a pluralistic society from descending into a cycle of violent revenge?

Tae-Yeoun Keum’s new book, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought, does not offer direct answers to these and related questions. The overt intellectual work of her text concerns Plato’s Republic and its reception by early modern and modern political philosophers. Nonetheless, in taking up in a refreshingly original way the problem of political myth, Keum, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides an entrée into the discussion of the meaningful background for democratic deliberation. Her subtle and careful text suggests that myth and work on myth are both the cause of and the possible solution to the polarization of political life as it manifests itself in, and depends upon, culture.

Keum’s book addresses the long and fraught reception of three myths that appear in the Republic: the Myth of Metals, the Myth of Er, and the Allegory of the Cave. After a careful reading of the myths themselves, she pursues two themes in her journey across the history of Western political thought: the relationship between the binding power of myth and the ambitions for rationality and autonomy that constitute, or supposedly constitute, Western philosophy; and the particularly challenging and contested reconfiguring of this relationship in the onset and efflorescence of political modernity.

Part of what is fresh and contrary about this book is Keum’s contention that political theory needs to do more than recognize that the opposition between mythos and logos is overdrawn (a common observation, given a finer point in Chiara Bottici’s 2007 book A Philosophy of Political Myth). Keum draws the correct, if uncomfortable, conclusion from the work on mythos up to this point, namely, that there must be something like a “mythical tradition” in political thought. She then sets out to reconstruct this tradition. In so doing, she arrives at an intriguing position: Myths are inevitable, they are not mere popularizations, and, crucially, they do not radically undercut the more argumentative parts of classic philosophical texts. Rather, myths are part of the work of philosophy, particularly political philosophy.

In his widely read and reviewed 2012 book Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, the historian Peter Gordon explored the significance of an important twentieth-century philosophical encounter by introducing the idea of a “normative image of humanity.” Gordon’s point was that different images of what it is to be human bound and oriented Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in their respective arguments and investigations (the former, toward the view that to be human is to be “thrown” into inescapably finite existence; the latter, toward the view that to be human is to be capable of a spontaneous creativity that allows us to impose a conceptual order through the use of symbols). These images, Gordon insisted, were simultaneously metaphorical, affective, and conceptual. Such an orientation to image, Gordon wrote, “may be rational but need not necessarily be so” (emphasis in the original). Keum recapitulates and complicates Gordon’s concept of “normative image” by attending also to narrative and figure, thus making myth, more than just image, the background to philosophical argumentation wherein one will find a philosopher’s deepest commitments.

This introduces some interesting complications because figuration (e.g., of a king, saint, or hero) and narrative (in particular, fantastical stories) are notorious for their condensation of multiple meanings, for their extended and eerie connotations, and for their embrace of ambiguities and affective commitments that elude straightforward interpretation. Keum is highly attentive to the bizarre way in which myths seem to be both popularizations, publicly accessible in their meanings in a way that dialectical arguments are not, and compelling thoughts that themselves bind the most intellectual of philosophers. Even gloriously alienated modern intellectuals who object vociferously to the illusions and dangerous fantasies woven by “myth” cannot help but find themselves in its throes. Keum’s efforts to make sense of philosophers’ use of myth reveal the great and productive tension that animates Keum herself—between her expertise in and command of academic political theory and her more creative affection for the diffuse and less tightly disciplined projects of the philosophy of culture.

Her reading of Plato gives an early indication of the ambitions of her argument. It is a reading grounded in a careful appreciation of ambiguity:

A distinctive feature of these mythic claims is that they are at once authoritative and provisional. That is, in the myths of the Republic, a nature reformed by education is presented as stable, accompanied by a sense of inevitability or destiny. Yet recurring revisions in the sequence of myths, of what gets to be designated as the nature of an individual, bring attention to the provisional character of such claims; a state of the soul equated with an individual’s true nature might come up for revision later on in the educational curriculum.

Keum will later make similar arguments about the use of myth by More, Bacon, Leibniz, Shelling, and Cassirer. The focus is not always education (specifically, in Plato, the education of the guardians), but the core point recurs. Keum shows that there is something about myth—especially its literary elements of story and figurative detail—that both binds the receiver of the tale and, simultaneously, invites revision.

It is with this understanding of the core of her argument that we can turn to the bold distinction with which Keum opens her book. In a certain sense, the introduction to the text—before we even meet its hall-of-fame cast of characters—is the most theoretically compelling part of her argument. Therein, Keum takes as a working definition of myth “a kind of deep, tacit framework in the background of our worldviews,” and draws a distinction between this understanding, which she calls “deep myth,” and “literary myth” (that is, “a narrated tale”). The latter is defined by a “unique form of orally transmitted narrative fiction” that features “fantastical or supernatural elements, which we tend to encounter as the cultural artefacts of ancient or otherwise remote civilizations.” Keum’s question—indeed, the fundamental question of her book, rightly raised if never quite definitively answered—is What is the relationship between deep myth and fantastical tales and the making (and unmaking) of political cultures?

Keum notes an important parallel between the two: deep myths understood as “dense imaginative frames that are taken for granted in culture,” and “literary myths,” defined as “orally translated tales of a fantastic nature.” To a certain extent, both deep myths and literary myths (which compel us as good stories) resist critical scrutiny. In so far as they do, and in so far as myth is still with us, this resistance to critique has been part of the persistence of enchantment into the modern age. Here, Keum departs from Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas and reconstructs, instead, arguments from Hans Blumenberg, who considered myth a “problem of the human condition.” And this means, Keum says, recasting an observation by Blumenberg, that “language, including the language of philosophy, is continually drawn to the same pregnant metaphors and figurative patterns found in mythological expressions.” Keum thus takes the position that the very possibility of meaningful philosophy—that is, philosophy grounded in human life and providing meaning to action in the world—is dependent upon the figurative and the metaphorical. Neither political theory nor politics itself, then, can dispense with myth entirely.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, after the introduction, as Keum homes in on close readings of canonical philosophers, she increasingly focuses on literary myth and its approximation in these philosophers’ texts. Particularly incisive are her reading of Leibniz’s rendering of the Petite Fable at the end of his Theodicy and her meditation on how Cassirer could conclude his Myth of the State (which, Keum notes, “emphatically celebrates the progressive triumph of modern rationality over its mythic origins”) by retelling a Babylonian myth. In both cases, she makes it clear that narrative and figuration were indispensable to the development of these thinkers’ works. But it becomes less clear, as intellectual history comes to the foreground, what the role of deep myth was in the history of political thought and, inversely, how literary myth functioned in the political world. In this regard, it appears that Keum sidles up to, but does not fully elaborate on, what I take to be the central purpose of the concept of political myth—namely, to put the cult back into culture in the analysis of politics, and thereby to provide an intellectual apparatus for understanding the binding power of certain stories and figurations, whose rendering of the world is articulated in literary myth but whose true power flexes itself in the relationship between politics and the common sense of everyday life.

In other words, my (perhaps idiosyncratic) reading of Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought is that it is a project that transgresses the standard boundaries of political theory, particularly by taking on clearly sociological and anthropological concerns. It is, quite simply, a project of the human sciences, the case for which Keum makes with considerable eloquence. Her reconstruction of Cassirer’s complex relationship to Plato renders her scholarly contribution interdisciplinary in the best sense of the term.

Midway through her book, Keum breaks out of the Platonic shell that frames it and takes up the ambitious call for a “new mythology” sounded by Schelling, Hölderlin, and their roommate G.W.F. Hegel in The Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism in 1796–97 and rediscovered by Franz Rosenzweig in 1917. With Cassirer by her side, Keum shows that almost as soon as the French Revolution broadcast itself to Europe, the perceived lack of myth in modernity was felt simultaneously as an intellectual loss and a foreboding intuition of myth’s vicious (eternal?) return.

The ambitious reaction of the German Idealists to the news of revolutions in both France and Haiti stands out as a moment of intense intellectual self-reflection in the search for meaning, a moment that may indeed mark the birth of modern hermeneutic social theory. For her part, Keum is anxious to show that Plato was never absent from these discussions concerning myth and modernity, “man” and nation, spirit and science. In this, she succeeds. But I believe her book will be remembered less for its re-reading of Plato than for the doors it opens for political theory—to the philosophy and sociology of culture, on the one hand, and to the intellectual history of modern thinkers grappling with modern times, on the other. In regard to those openings, a few questions are in order.

Does the strangeness of mythical tales (“literary myth”) truly come from the tendency to encounter them as artifacts of “ancients or otherwise remote civilizations”? Keum’s opening chapter presumes that the days are long gone when literary myths qua fantastical tales were written or retold for avid audiences by working storytellers self-appointed as interpreters of “the culture.” Presumably, this task has been taken over by the modern or postmodern “intellectual,” or even the hyper-rational policy analyst. But someone forgot to tell the creators of the Marvel Comic Universe, or for that matter George Lucas, that the days of myth are over. Lucas, who toured with Joseph Campbell, speaking to rapturous audiences about the supposedly eternal truths of Star Wars, may not be what we rational academics like to think about when we imagine a twentieth-century Homer. But that’s who we’ve got. More to the point, it appears that precisely the relationship between the authoritative and the provisional that Keum finds in Plato’s myth can be found in the struggles to absorb, revere, and yet revise and retell “canonical” stories from the movies. What is more obviously authoritative to millions of Americans than The Empire Strikes Back? Yet what is more contested—to the tune of billions of dollars—than the next entry in the Star Wars franchise? Is this not literary myth sprung anew, a dialectic of naturalization and revision in mythological storytelling?

To be sure, Keum shows how the European intellectuals in her book read the mythical tales of the ancient Greeks not just as strange but as subject to potentially dangerous interpretations that defy presumably rational proscriptions governing collective civic life. Handed down through the ages, these tales were both prized as sources of ancient wisdom and dismissed as blighted, prescientific, and pre-Christian struggles by the unenlightened to achieve insight about the world. With the birth of modern anthropology in the age of high European colonialism, this “othering” of the mythological took on much more pernicious dimensions. But I do not think that mythological strangeness and “othering” are coterminous.

Did not the ancient Greeks find their own myths strange (and wondrous), and did they not have their own complex relationship to these stories, a relationship poorly characterized by the binary of belief/disbelief? And could not the same be said about the complex entanglement of belief, ritual adherence to, and alienation from biblical imperatives and stories that constituted “traditional” (pre-Reformation, Western) Christendom? In short, fantastical stories are always strange, and maybe especially so for the alienated intellectuals whose job it is to take them apart and explain them to others with whom they share a society or a civilization. Myth is received as strange not because it comes from elsewhere but because it thematizes the very strangeness of the society in which it occurs.

If one assumes that this is indeed the case, the “modernity problem” for myth becomes far more vexing and important than we might have expected. Keum’s excellent book joins other recent attempts by Hans Joas and Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm to study myth, the sacred, and the myth of disenchantment under the rubric of “modernity.” For Keum, it appears that the very legitimacy of the modern age is, if not itself a mythological (meta)project, at least a (meta)project that seeks to articulate something about where myth is thought to have been. Keum argues that the authors in the mythic tradition, starting with Plato, “suggest an account of the opaque imaginative frameworks undergirding society that bears comparison to Hans Blumenberg’s verdict on myth as a phenomenon that answers a human need for significance against the absolutism of an indifferent world.”

In this regard, a possibility emerges: that the vaunted reflexivity of modernization is not the sudden appearance of rationality on the stage of history nor the acid skepticism of a virtuosic and miserable disenchantment, but rather the intensification of a “self-conscious approach to myth” that is to be found in Plato, and thus, also, in Nietzsche. For this reason, I suggest that what Keum describes as the “distinctively self-conscious, and even playful, use of the literary medium of myth” has not been dispensed with in late modernity—because it is only through such play on myth in literature that work on myth can change culture, and thus change politics. Literary myth is the entry point for transforming the tacit grounds for meaningful action, a transformation that is required to escape certain modern dilemmas identified by Cassirer when mythological binding meets the violence of modern state power. Keum’s book, remarkable in its understanding of myth as both the background for and subject matter of “politics,” shows us why the escape is such a difficult one. Perhaps her underlying insight is best put metaphorically. To become “critical” and “reflexive,” and work toward a culture that admits of a politics both more moral and more free, is never a matter of erasing certain lines and redrawing them, as in a sketch, but, rather, a matter of bending a rigid metal sculpture into a better shape. Work on myth, indeed.