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Mythos and Logos

23 August, 2007

A thread running all the way through Karen Armstrong’s book ‘The battle for God’ is the difference between mythos and logos, and how we get into trouble if we confuse the two.

According to Armstrong, historically, these are the two different – but complementary and equally necessary – ways of thinking about the world, and of arriving at truth. She says:

“Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind”.

Logos, on the other hand, was

“the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled (people) to function in the world. Logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. … We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action. … Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel”.

She goes on to say:

“Logos had its limitations. It could not assuage human pain or sorrow. Rational arguments could make no sense of tragedy. Logos could not answer questions about the ultimate value of human life. A scientist could make things work more efficiently and discover wonderful new facts about the physical universe, but he could not explain the meaning of life. That was the preserve of myth and cult. Paraphrasing Armstrong, many of religion’s (and society’s) problems today stem from expecting religion to be concerned with hard facts and practical rules, or expecting logos to provide answers to the kinds of question that only mythos can answer.

I find this argument intriguing, but strangely unsatisfying and am trying to work out why…

Anyways, I recommend the book.

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