instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, August 16, 2004

Introducing a distinction

I recently came across a distinction that is very helpful for understanding other points of view, a distinction with the added bonus -- since the context was a discussion of ancient Greek philosophy -- of using Greek terms, which makes it sound extra-clever.

There are two contrasting views of the world: the mythos view and the logos view. The mythical and the rational, you might say. Mythos doesn't so much explain the world as describe it with story. With mythos, the question of why is not really important, compared to who and what.

Logos (we know the term from St. John's Gospel; it means "organizing thought" as well as "word") explains the world according to some principle. It seeks to answer the question "Why?" Logos is fundamentally philosophical, where mythos is fundamentally poetical. (Though see Mark Shea's Catholic Exchange article for a good distinction between story and poetry.)

When you think about it, an appeal to logos is an extremely bold position. It assumes not only that there is an objective answer to the question "Why?", but that the answer can be known and understood by humans. Neither assumption is self-evident.

What struck me most when I heard about the opposition of mythos and logos in Greek culture twenty-five centuries ago is how familiar I am with it. I am on a mailing list that has a published poet and a philosophy professor who seem incapable of communicating with each other. The philosopher makes jokes about what he will eat if the poet ever offers an actual argument for something he says; the poet is deeply scornful of what he sees as an indifference to suffering in the actual arguments of the philosopher.

If you know my methods and apply them, you'll know how I'd answer the question, "Is the Catholic view that of mythos or of logos?"