From Myth to Reason
April 11, 2022

Many have summarized the intellectual history of Greece as an evolution from the mythos to logos. William Nestle’s Vom Mythos zum Logos (1940) is the classical statement of this reading. On the opening page, Nestle claims mythos and logos are “the two poles between which man’s mental life oscillates. Mythic imagination and logical thought are opposites,” the former being “imagistic and involuntary,” rooted in the unconscious, while the latter is “conceptual and intentional, and analyzes and synthesizes by means of consciousness” (quoted in Glenn Most, “From Logos to Mythos,” in From Myth to Reason?, 27).

For Nestle, the emergence of reason was like the original emergence of land from a water-robed earth: “for primitive man the world surrounding him and his own nature were covered over by a mythical layer of beliefs, which only over a long period of time gradually retreated enough for larger and larger areas to be uncovered and illumined by rational thought” (quoted in Most, 25).

As Most most points out, Nestle’s evolutionary narrative is itself mythic. He personifies basic concepts, translates mental concepts into material terms, attributes near magical powers to selected geniuses of logos. Chillingly, Nestle, writing in Stuttgart in 1940 and though no Nazi, argues that the great maturation from mythos to logos “seems to have been reserved from the Aryan peoples” (quoted p. 30).

Throughout the centuries, the distinction always tilted in favor of logos. Reason could question myths; myths couldn’t challenge reason. Allegory was one of the main devices for rationalizing the irrational, but allegorists “never looked for traces of Mythos in their Logos, but only for traces of their Logos in the Mythos” (32).

Allegorists assumed that myth-makers already grasped logos, and “cloaked the Logos in Mythos in order to protect it from the ignorant masses, or to guarantee that only a few elect would have access to it” (32). For advocates of logos, myth was merely accommodated logos. No truth can be told only in mythic terms. Truth is in reason, not in narrative.

Allegorists had a problem: “even if the content of the Mythos always reveals itself in the allegorist’s hands to be nothing other than the Logos, none the less the conversion mechanisms which transform that Mythos into his Logos remain resolutely arbitrary and cannot themselves ever be successfully subsumed into the Logos” (33).

Beginning in the 18th century, the relation of mythos and logos flipped into reverse. Not entirely: variants of traditional allegory persist all the way to the present. But among some thinkers – Vico, Herder, and Christian Gottlob Heyne – a different, historicist approach emerged.

There were two key shifts. First, these writers claim that mythos has its own philosophical content, without being translated into logos. Second, the philosophical content of myth isn’t a universally valid, timeless logos, but is specific to the era when the myth was formulated. That is, these thinkers insisted on “the pluralization of forms of Logos” (40).

The use of use mythos to critique logos “became one of the central traditions of German philosophy since the nineteenth century.” It comes to a climax in Nietzsche, who exposed the mythic foundations of Greek rationality and the Enlightenment. Beyond critique, Nietzsche “reinvented polemically the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo to counter the Socratic scientific rationality that had come to dominate the world after the fifth century.” Like the German Romantics, Nietzsche insisted “only a culture bounded by myths could achieve unity and identity” and concluded “modern culture could be redeemed only if a new mythology could arise” (40-1).

Thinkers in this tradition worked from the “conviction that traditional Logos, the form of rationality we have inherited from our philosophical predecessors as being universal, unalterable, and perfect is in fact radically defective and can only be improved if we restore to its proper place the neglected or repressed truth contained in myths.” The advocated, in short, “the mythification of the Logos” (42).

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