What is “Mythos” and “Logos”?

In brief, “mythos” and “logos” describes the transition in ancient Greek thought from the stories of gods, goddesses, and heroes (mythos) to the gradual development of rational philosophy and logic (logos). The former is represented by the earliest Greek thinkers, such as Hesiod and Homer; the latter is represented by later thinkers called the “pre-Socratic philosophers” and then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. (See the book: From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought).

In the earliest, “mythos” stage of development, the Greeks saw events of the world as being caused by a multitude of clashing personalities — the “gods.” There were gods for natural phenomena such as the sun, the sea, thunder and lightening, and gods for human activities such as winemaking, war, and love. The primary mode of explanation of reality consisted of highly imaginative stories about these personalities. However, as time went on, Greek thinkers became critical of the old myths and proposed alternative explanations of natural phenomena based on observation and logical deduction. Under “logos,” the highly personalized worldview of the Greeks became transformed into one in which natural phenomena were explained not by invisible superhuman persons, but by impersonal natural causes.

However, many scholars argue that there was not such a sharp distinction between mythos and logos historically, that logos grew out of mythos, and elements of mythos remain with us today.

For example, ancient myths provided the first basic concepts used subsequently to develop theories of the origins of the universe. We take for granted the words that we use every day, but the vast majority of human beings never invent a single word or original concept in their lives — they learn these things from their culture, which is the end-product of thousands of years of speaking and writing by millions of people long-dead. The very first concepts of “cosmos,” “beginning,” nothingness,” and differentiation from a single substance — these were not present in human culture for all time, but originated in ancient myths. Subsequent philosophers borrowed these concepts from the myths, while discarding the overly-personalistic interpretations of the origins of the universe. In that sense, mythos provided the scaffolding for the growth of philosophy and modern science. (See Walter Burkert, “The Logic of Cosmogony” in From Myth to Reason: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought.)

An additional issue is the fact that not all myths are wholly false. Many myths are stories that communicate truths even if the characters and events in the story are fictional. Socrates and Plato denounced many of the early myths of the Greeks, but they also illustrated philosophical points with stories that were meant to serve as analogies or metaphors. Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example, is meant to illustrate the ability of the educated human to perceive the true reality behind surface impressions. Could Plato have made the same philosophical point in a literal language, without using any stories or analogies? Possibly, but the impact would be less, and it is possible that the point would not be effectively communicated at all.

Some of the truths that myths communicate are about human values, and these values can be true even if the stories in which the values are embedded are false. Ancient Greek religion contained many preposterous stories, and the notion of personal divine beings directing natural phenomena and intervening in human affairs was false. But when the Greeks built temples and offered sacrifices, they were not just worshiping personalities — they were worshiping the values that the gods represented. Apollo was the god of light, knowledge, and healing; Hera was the goddess of marriage and family; Aphrodite was the goddess of love; Athena was the goddess of wisdom; and Zeus, the king of the gods, upheld order and justice. There’s no evidence at all that these personalities existed or that sacrifices to these personalities would advance the values they represented. But a basic respect for and worshipful disposition toward the values the gods represented was part of the foundation of ancient Greek civilization. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the city of Athens, whose patron goddess was Athena, went on to produce some of the greatest philosophers the world has seen — love of wisdom is the prerequisite for knowledge, and that love of wisdom grew out of the culture of Athens. (The ancient Greek word philosophia literally means “love of wisdom.”)

It is also worth pointing out that worship of the gods, for all of its superstitious aspects, was not incompatible with even the growth of scientific knowledge. Modern western medicine originated in the healing temples devoted to the god Asclepius, the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine. Both of the great ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen are reported to have begun their careers as physicians in the temples of Asclepius, the first hospitals. Hippocrates is widely regarded as the father of western medicine and Galen is considered the most accomplished medical researcher of the ancient world. As love of wisdom was the prerequisite for philosophy, reverence for healing was the prerequisite for the development of medicine.

Karen Armstrong has written that ancient myths were never meant to be taken literally, but were “metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way.” (A History of God) I am not sure that’s completely accurate. I think it most likely that the mass of humanity believed in the literal truth of the myths, while educated human beings understood the gods to be metaphorical representations of the good that existed in nature and humanity. Some would argue that this use of metaphors to describe reality is deceptive and unnecessary. But a literal understanding of reality is not always possible, and metaphors are widely used even by scientists.

Theodore L. Brown, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has provided numerous examples of scientific metaphors in his book, Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. According to Brown, the history of the human understanding of the atom, which cannot be directly seen, began with a simple metaphor of atoms as billiard balls; later, scientists compared atoms to plum pudding; then they compared the atom to our solar system, with electrons “orbiting” around a nucleus. There has been a gradual improvement in our models of the atom over time, but ultimately, there is no single, correct literal representation of the atom. Each model illustrates an aspect or aspects of atomic behavior — no one model can capture all aspects accurately. Even the notion of atoms as particles is not fully accurate, because atoms can behave like waves, without a precise position in space as we normally think of particles as having. The same principle applies to models of the molecule as well. (Brown, chapters, 4-6)  A number of scientists have compared the imaginative construction of scientific models to map-making — there is no single, fully accurate way to map the earth (using a flat surface to depict a sphere), so we are forced to use a variety of maps at different scales and projections, depending on our needs.

Sometimes the visual models that scientists create are quite unrealistic. The model of the “energy landscape” was created by biologists in order to understand the process of protein folding — the basic idea was to imagine a ball rolling on a surface pitted with holes and valleys of varying depth. As the ball would tend to seek out the low points on the landscape (due to gravity), proteins would tend to seek the lowest possible free energy state. All biologists know the energy landscape model is a metaphor — in reality, proteins don’t actually go rolling down hills! But the model is useful for understanding a process that is highly complex and cannot be directly seen.

What is particularly interesting is that some of the metaphorical models of science are frankly anthropomorphic — they are based on qualities or phenomena found in persons or personal institutions. Scientists envision cells as “factories” that accept inputs and produce goods. The genetic structure of DNA is described as having a “code” or “language.” The term “chaperone proteins” was invented to describe proteins that have the job of assisting other proteins to fold correctly; proteins that don’t fold correctly are either treated or dismantled so that they do not cause damage to the larger organism — a process that has been given a medical metaphor: “protein triage.” (Brown, chapters 7-8) Even referring to the “laws of physics” is to use a metaphorical comparison to human law. So even as logos has triumphed over the mythos conception that divine personalities rule natural phenomena, qualities associated with personal beings have continued to sneak into modern scientific models.

The transition of a mythos-dominated worldview to a logos-dominated worldview was a stupendous achievement of the ancient Greeks, and modern philosophy, science, and civilization would not be possible without it. But the transition did not involve a complete replacement of one worldview with another, but rather the building of additional useful structures on top of a simple foundation. Logos grew out of its origins in mythos, and retains elements of mythos to this day. The compatibilities and conflicts between these two modes of thought are the thematic basis of this website.

Related: A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion

9 thoughts on “What is “Mythos” and “Logos”?

  1. I agree with your comment in response to Karen Armstrong. I think it foolish of scholars to reject views and ideas when an historical people give us every reason to take them at their word, that they did in fact, for instance, think anthropomorphic beings were the causal agents of seen goings-on in the world. I have read many naturalistic accounts suggesting why this line of thinking may have taken hold, e.g., John Dewey. These accounts seem way more plausible than scholars simply wanting to argue that “nobody could have been so stupid as to truly think gods lived on a mountain top,” or some such whiggish theorizing that imposes our notion reasonable upon peoples from other times.

    Furthering your remark about the scholars arguing that there was no stark distinction or transition between mythos and logos: I think this line of thinking is true, because, just as you say that there was no evidence to think the deities ever existed, I think Hume has done much to show the same of science’s bread and butter, that which we call “cause” and “causation.” Losing the personification of these deities as causal connections did not undo them altogether; we simply no longer referred to them by human first names, rather, we began calling them “laws,” which is, itself, a theological idea.

  2. Nice article. I like your take on mythos-logos, but I have some other thoughts about it.
    First, I think of mythos as the “source” of the entire array of concepts that we see reflected in the “world” around, and within ourselves. Logos would then be the spoken (and visual-sensual) way of relating to what is represented by mythos within our “conscious-unconscious” thought and perception. You could relate this to Kant’s Sensus conmmunis: logicus and aestheticus. A great interpretation is here: http://www.antoonvandenbraembussche.be/media/sensus-communis-3d.pdf . Thus, the mythos of whatever culture is the basis of whatever interpretations of “reality” it may have.

    To take this further, in order to deal with what he perceived to be the decadence of his day, that is precisely why Plato was seeking with his philosophy (notably with The Republic & Timaeus) to bring about “a new mythos.” Indirectly, this led us today to the cult — mythos — of “rationality (‘logos’),” “materialism” and “technology (‘techne’)” (see e.g., Heidegger, et. al.)

    But as Kant and other philosophers, such as Steiner, would perhaps say, in this age of “Globalization” maybe man (“us,” the “world”) is moving toward a global sensus communis. That does not leave out the notion that “a new mythos” is desperately needed today…

    • Thanks for your comment. Kant’s notion of “sensus communis” seems to be similar to Robert Pirsig’s notion of “Quality” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig notes that everyone seems to agree that there is such a thing as Quality, but disagreements arise because of differences among human beings. Even so, there’s often a rough consensus on what things have Quality. If Quality was completely arbitrary, science itself would not be possible.

      • I am not sure what the comments “If Quality was completely arbitrary, science itself would not be possible.” means or what the reasoning behind it is, but I’d like to mention that there is a contingent of philosopher who think that interest-dependence is required by any scientific pursuit. (See van Fraassen’s “The Scientific Image.) For quality to be completely arbitrary could lead to a conclusion that science is arbitrary by extension, especially if it is the case that intersubjectivity is in no way different than a conglomeration of subjective perspectives, as Kuhn (qua extension of Kant) seemed to maintain.

        In the broader scope of this blog post, if such a conclusion that there is no objectivity, only intersubjectivity, and that intersubjectivity is reducible to subjectivity, then logos is mythos that is dressed up in a sort of Occult philospohical mentality, with cryptic symbols, it’s own supposed “secret knowledge,” and the whole nine yards.

      • Yes, I love Pirsig’s book – especially the discussion about “ghosts” and “gravity”…
        Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values — Robert M. Pirsig (pp. 28-32)
        “Let’s tell stories then,” Chris says. He thinks for a while. “Do you know any good ghost stories? All the kids in our cabin used to tell ghost stories at night.”
        “You tell us some,” John says.
        And he does. They are kind of fun to hear. Some of them I haven’t heard since I was his age. I tell him so, and Chris wants to hear some of mine, but I can’t remember any.
        After a while he says, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
        “No,” I say
        “Why not?”
        “Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic.”
        The way I say this makes John smile. “They contain no matter,” I continue, “and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people’s minds.”
        The whiskey, the fatigue and the wind in the trees start mixing in my mind. “Of course,” I add, “the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people’s minds. It’s best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you’re safe. That doesn’t leave you very much to believe in, but that’s scientific too.”
        “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Chris says.
        “I’m being kind of facetious.”
        Chris gets frustrated when I talk like this, but I don’t think it hurts him.
        “One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts.”
        “He was just spoofing you.”
        “No, he wasn’t. He said that when people haven’t been buried right, their ghosts come back to haunt people. He really believes in that.”
        “He was just spoofing you,” I repeat.
        “What’s his name?” Sylvia says.
        “Tom White Bear.”
        John and I exchange looks, suddenly recognizing the same thing.
        “Ohhh, Indian!” he says.
        I laugh. “I guess I’m going to have to take that back a little,” I say. “I was thinking of European ghosts.”
        “What’s the difference?”
        John roars with laughter. “He’s got you,” he says.
        I think a little and say, “Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I’m not saying is completely wrong. Science isn’t part of the Indian tradition.”
        “Tom White Bear said his mother and dad told him not to believe all that stuff. But he said his grandmother whispered it was true anyway, so he believes it.”
        He looks at me pleadingly. He really does want to know things sometimes. Being facetious is not being a very good father. “Sure,” I say, reversing myself, “I believe in ghosts too.”
        Now John and Sylvia look at me peculiarly. I see I’m not going to get out of this one easily and brace myself for a long explanation.
        “It’s completely natural,” I say, “to think of Europeans who believed in ghosts or Indians who believed in ghosts as ignorant. The scientific point of view has wiped out every other view to a point where they all seem primitive, so that if a person today talks about ghosts or spirits he is considered ignorant or maybe nutty. It’s just all but completely impossible to imagine a world where ghosts can actually exist.”
        John nods affirmatively and I continue.
        “My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn’t that superior. IQs aren’t that much different. Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know.”
        “What?”
        “Oh, the laws of physics and of logic — the number system — the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly they seem real.
        “They seem real to me,” John says.
        “I don’t get it,” says Chris.
        So I go on. “For example, it seems completely natural to presume that gravitation and the law of gravitation existed before Isaac Newton. It would sound nutty to think that until the seventeenth century there was no gravity.”
        “Of course.”
        “So when did this law start? Has it always existed?”
        John is frowning, wondering what I am getting at.
        “What I’m driving at,” I say, “is the notion that before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and the stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything, the law of gravity existed.”
        “Sure.”
        “Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere…this law of gravity still existed?”
        Now John seems not so sure.
        “If that law of gravity existed,” I say, “I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent. It seems to me that law of gravity has passed every test of nonexistence there is. You cannot think of a single attribute of nonexistence that that law of gravity didn’t have. Or a single scientific attribute of existence it did have. And yet it is still `common sense’ to believe that it existed.”
        John says, “I guess I’d have to think about it.”
        “Well, I predict that if you think about it long enough you will find yourself going round and round and round and round until you finally reach only one possible, rational, intelligent conclusion. The law of gravity and gravity itself did not exist before Isaac Newton. No other conclusion makes sense.
        “And what that means,” I say before he can interrupt, “and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost! We are all of us very arrogant and conceited about running down other people’s ghosts but just as ignorant and barbaric and superstitious about our own.”
        “Why does everybody believe in the law of gravity then?”
        “Mass hypnosis. In a very orthodox form known as ‘education.’”
        “You mean the teacher is hypnotizing the kids into believing the law of gravity?”
        “Sure.”
        “That’s absurd.”
        “You’ve heard of the importance of eye contact in the classroom? Every educationist emphasizes it. No educationist explains it.”
        John shakes his head and pours me another drink. He puts his hand over his mouth and in a mock aside says to Sylvia, “You know, most of the time he seems like such a normal guy.”
        I counter, “That’s the first normal thing I’ve said in weeks. The rest of the time I’m feigning twentieth-century lunacy just like you are. So as not to draw attention to myself.
        “But I’ll repeat it for you,” I say. “We believe the disembodied words of Sir Isaac Newton were sitting in the middle of nowhere billions of years before he was born and that magically he discovered these words. They were always there, even when they applied to nothing. Gradually the world came into being and then they applied to it. In fact, those words themselves were what formed the world. That, John, is ridiculous.
        “The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind. I don’t get upset when scientists say that ghosts exist in the mind. It’s that only that gets me. Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either.”
        They are just looking at me so I continue: “Laws of nature are human inventions, like ghosts. Laws of logic, of mathematics are also human inventions, like ghosts. The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention. The world has no existence whatsoever outside the human imagination. It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us, ghosts of Moses and Christ and the Buddha, and Plato, and Descartes, and Rousseau and Jefferson and Lincoln, on and on and on. Isaac Newton is a very good ghost. One of the best. Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.”
        John looks too much in thought to speak. But Sylvia is excited. “Where do you get all these ideas?” she asks.
        I am about to answer them but then do not. I have a feeling of having already pushed it to the limit, maybe beyond, and it is time to drop it.
        After a while John says, “It’ll be good to see the mountains again.”
        “Yes, it will,” I agree. “one last drink to that!”

  3. “In the broader scope of this blog post, if such a conclusion that there is no objectivity, only intersubjectivity, and that intersubjectivity is reducible to subjectivity, then logos is mythos that is dressed up in a sort of Occult philospohical mentality, with cryptic symbols, it’s own supposed ‘secret knowledge,’ and the whole nine yards.”

    Why?

    Kant’s philosophy is held together by teleology (i.e., purposiveness) and Providence. If you take those away (along with the “regulative” ideas of reason) then you’d probably be correct. Synthetic a priori knowledge is objective, according to Kant, because we perceive “objects” (phenomena) in experience which correspond to categories of our understanding. We all understand pretty much the same thing because of sensus comunis logicus (within whatever community we are in).

    However, Kant also said that sensus comunis aestheticus brings us further (via a “free play” of imagination and understanding) while logic – tends to bore us in the sense that everything is pre-determined, via the associative imagination & laws of understanding, for us.

    Besides, some would claim that philosophy began with Socrates admitting that he knew nothing at all, i.e., that virtue is knowledge — which he got in touch with via his daimon.

    One could relate this to moral (sublime) feeling for Kant – which is about the only way we can get in touch with our “true” nature – freedom (the “moral law within”). And one can’t forget the role of genius in Fine Art (which combines the “highest” of science and art) which, inevitably, leads us to the highest good.

    • “Why?

      Kant’s philosophy is held together by teleology (i.e., purposiveness) and Providence. If you take those away (along with the “regulative” ideas of reason) then you’d probably be correct.”

      The comment was not made in regard to Kant.

  4. I think Socrates summed this up best when he admitted to knowing nothing – i.e., all knowledge (and thus logos) is based upon mythos…
    It is also probably why he stated that “Virtue (arete) is knowledge.” And it seems that he was made aware of that (i.e., when he was acting virtuously) via his “daimon.”

  5. Pingback: A Defense of the Ancient Greek Pagan Religion | Mythos/Logos

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