“The mythical consciousness is ubiquitous, although normally poorly revealed. If it is present in every understanding of the world as endowed with values,
it is also present in every understanding of history as meaningful.”
—Leszek Kolakowski, The Presence of Myth
According to the grand narrative of Western progress, the history of the modern world was to be one of gradual demystification, disenchantment, and demythologization—all thanks to the steady advance of reason and science. We know how that worked out, and not only because the dream of reason produced more than its share of myth-spawned monsters, from the “super race” of Nazism to the End of History promised in the various instances of truly existing socialism. But if the world today appears to be awash in unreason—think QAnon and its many cognates—large credit should go to reason itself: to the myth of Reason as the sole and sufficient guide to the True and the Good.
For all its contributions to humankind’s material betterment, the rationalist program fell short even on own progressive-utilitarian terms, repeatedly failing to deliver the greatest material good for the greatest number. Perhaps its greater failure, though, was its reduction of the Good to such a low common denominator, a reduction that has arguably contributed to a host of contemporary ills, from the collapse of communities to alienation and anomie. That humans need meaning at least as much as their daily bread is a truth that compelled many of the great thinkers of the last century, from Theodor Adorno to Hannah Arendt to Leszek Kolakowski, to take up the study of myth and myth-making to explore their role in human understanding as irreplaceable expressions of the human drive to find meaning and values in our individual and collective lives. They found that reason itself needed myth if there was to be real human progress and not just the bootless repetition of various utopian schemes for progress. “Myth,” as Adorno and his Frankfurt School colleague and co-author Max Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment, “is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.”
If the paradoxical relationship between reason and myth is inescapable and fundamental, it can also quite obviously be a force for evil as well as good, for oppression and domination as well as liberation and freedom. This is nowhere more evident than in our political lives. The growing intellectual interest in political mythologies attests to the urgency of that fact. Acknowledging the necessity of myth may help us think more clearly, critically, and constructively about our political myths—where they come from, how they are shaped, how they are manipulated or abused, how they change or evolve, how they can subserve democratic practices, institutions, and leaders or subvert them.
The mythical narratives that orient people and shape the way they think about the political order they inhabit (or would like to inhabit) come in a variety of forms and genres. There can be religious political myths as well as historical or legendary ones; there are scientific or pseudo-scientific political myths as well as intellectual and theoretical ones. Such myths can be represented in actual narratives or in a variety of symbolic forms, from paintings to monuments to triumphal statuary. However they are represented, political myths are never static—or at least they should not become so. As the political theorist Chiara Bottici notes in A Philosophy of Political Myth, “Political myths live out of history: They have to remain open to change because they must provide significance to changing circumstances.”
The thematic essays of the present issue address many of the varieties, uses, and interpretations of political myths, beginning with the philosopher Plato—or at least an account of that philosopher—who incorporated myth in what might be called the originary work of Western political philosophy, the Republic. Related to her book-length study of that subject, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought (reviewed in our previous issue), political scientist Tae-Yeoun Keum here argues that Karl Popper’s famous but flawed interpretation of Plato as the first authoritarian derived in part from a quite common misunderstanding of how myths function in Plato’s work and in political philosophy more generally.
Reflecting the many dimensions of this topic, other essays range from the role of captivity stories in forging an early but enduring American identity, the function of the myth of small-town America, the passing of the myth of the vital center in American politics, the ascendance of king-like figures in positions of national leadership around the world, and the striking differences between the political myth embraced by many struggling white Americans and the one that has sustained black Americans since Reconstruction.
Of the many sources of America’s current political disunion, one is clearly our very different and hyper-partisan uses of our crucial democratic myths. In “A Democratic Mythic?” political theorist Stephen K. White argues that the myths most potentially destructive of democracy too often consist of selectively “frozen” features of our central democratic narratives. While this is undoubtedly true, partisans on both sides of our political divide need to find respectful ways of working through our cherished political myths in order to address their inconsistencies and shortcomings, so that creative myth-making may again serve to unite rather than divide a nation.