skip to Main Content

Cosmological Myth and Origins of Political Science

Cosmological Myth And Origins Of Political Science

Myths were the common symbolic language of the members of ancient communities. They were not merely tales, but served ancient men as tools by which they interpreted the order they perceived in the cosmos and their lives. The myths were imitations of archetypes or paradigms of reality that over-arched human affairs, of which the highest paradigm evoked was the sacredness of the gods. Their action and their sacredness gave meaning to the world of man.

By means of myths about the gods ancient men expressed their consciousness of their participation in a sacred reality greater than themselves. Thus they also expressed consciousness of the fact that as creatures, they were dependent on the gods. Political order and social order, which they did not distinguish, were perceived as part of a larger cosmos permeated by intracosmic gods.

The cosmos of ancient man was “alive” in that it actively revealed to him. powers personified in gods. One scholar has characterized mythic experience as that of an “I-and-Thou relationship,” not.as a relationship of person versus inanimate object. Ancient man did not see the world around him as a universe of differentiated objects, but as a cosmos composed of other beings whose living presence was manifest in the progress of daily life. The natural phenomena of a thunderstorm were not perceived, for example, as differentiated “natural” phenomena, but as a compact “storm god.” The cosmos itself, the earth, the sea, the heavens, winds, rivers, were gods. Everywhere ancient man turned, he encountered the gods and interpreted his own actions by reference to their decisions. Political order was also understood as standing in direct relationship with the gods. It was not an order which was autonomous or independent of an order higher than itself. Rather it was perceived as an extension of cosmic order. Political community was experienced as a smaller portion of a larger sacred order or cosmos.

As such, Eric Voegelin has called this view ‘microcosmic’ and the form in which it was expressed, the “cosmological myth.”2 The makers of myths attempted, therefore, to depict as best they could the relationship of man himself to the sacred cosmos, its origins, and the relationship of this original creation to political community. Cosmological creation myths explained not only the origin of the cosmos, but also the origin of political order.

Creation Myths and Political Order

A creation myth from India dating from the ninth century, B.C., called Purusha Sukta or “Hymn of Man, ” is representative. It tells the story of the creation by the gods of the animate world, man and society, by means of the primeval sacrifice of Purusha.

The sacrificial victim, namely Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas (a class of semidivine beings) and the rishis (ancient seers). From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it. From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep.

When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called? His mouth became the brahman [priests]; his two arms were made into the rajanya [warriors]; his two thighs the vaishyas [workers]; from his two feet the shudra [slaves] were born. The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth, Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born. From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters (the cardinal directions) from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds.3

The myth expresses ancient man’s experience of the consubstantiality of his own order with the order of nature by describing that order as derivative of the same originative substance, Purusha, as the heavenly bodies and the earth. The Purusha Sukta, therefore, does not merely explain how things came into being. It also indicates how society is a small part of a larger cosmic order, and specifies why society is an ordered hierarchy of priests, warriors, workers, and slaves. The important ritual slaughter of Purusha by priests in ancient Indian society stemmed from their ritual recreation of this original act of creation. By mythically recreating the sacrifice of Purusha, Indian priests consciously participated in the act of creation of the world and society. In this way they conserved the sacredness of social order, and thus continued its existence.4 The order of society ritually and actually depended on their continued sacrifices because order meant the maintenance of cosmic order.

Mircea Eliade has called this phenomenon the “‘myth of the eternal return.” Creation myths, what specialists call “cosmogonies,” were the means by which ancient man regenerated cosmic life by returning to that past moment in sacred time when the cosmos was created. In ancient Egypt, this role of continuing the consonance of social with cosmic order was performed by the king, the Pharaoh, who was the divine mediator through whom cosmic order was extended to the people. The Egyptians believed that without Pharaoh the country would fall into disorder. This idea was expressed most emphatically by the Eyptian political institution of divine kingship. When a king was alive, he was called “Horus,” the falcon god whose eyes were the sun and the moon.

His hegemony and power over social order were symbolized by the flight of a cosmic falcon, one of whose eyes is always visible in the heavens. When the king died, however, he ascended to the heavens and became the god Osiris. The power of Osiris in Egypt was manifest in the Nile, whose powerful contribution to the continuance of life was visual proof of Osiris’ power. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Egyptians included Osiris among the first nine (Ennead) gods of their religion. In this way, they expressed the unity of social with cosmic divine order. Just as Osiris was present among the Ennead at the beginning of creation, so also was present the Egyptian social order, the stability of which was attributed to its cosmic origins. Not only the kingdom, but individual cities of ancient Egypt, as well, understood their own political existence in terms of their relationship to this original creation of the world.

“The Creation by Atum,” a myth of the reign of the Sixth Dynasty (2180 B.C.) king, Pepi II (Nefer-ka-re), whose city was Heliopolis, speaks of the sun god (Atum) as the first of the gods because he arises from the original hill or site of creation.5 The pyramids in which this text was inscribed were images of that primeval hillock and thus symbols of creation of the cosmos. In this way, cosmic order was symbolically interlocked with the political because the hillock originated on the site of the city of Heliopolis and it was there that the creation by Atum of the air (Shu), moisture (Tefnut), and the other gods of the Ennead took place. Pepi II, King of Heliopolis, was understood to be the ruler of a political community which could trace its existence back to the original creation.

This belief lent legitimacy and stability to the reign of the Pharaoh, of course, but it also contributed to the static character of Egyptian society. The Egyptians, and for that matter all cultures formed by “cosmological” myths, valued the unchanging, what we would call the eternal. Henri Frankfort. has described this regard for immutability by observing that “for the Egyptians the past was normative. ,,6 These societies sought their norms in the myths of original creative acts of gods in the past, norms which were their standards of action in the present. It is of great significance that before political theory could develop, before the transition in consciousness from compact myth to fully differentiated philosophic consciousness could proceed, a successful framework for the criticism of myths had to be established.

Reaction Against the Myth: Plato’s Euthyphro

The self-conscious study of politics, with claims to valid knowledge about political reality, in part developed in reaction against the “cosmological” symbols of order of the ancient myths. That reaction was not without problems, as the death of Socrates suggests. The conflict between myth and philosophy was historically the product of what in Greece was the disintegration of mythic consciousness as a continuing force in private and public order. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato attempted a statement about this conflict which shows why a person such as Socrates was so much needed in Athens. The title character of the dialogue is representative of the public confusion concerning the basic questions of how one can live a virtuous life and what the standards are by which one is to live the life of a good citizen. The scene of the Euthyphro is depicted against a canvas of social and personal disorder.

Socrates meets Euthyphro in the Lyceum, a place in Athens near the temple of Apollo designated for legal transactions. Socrates is there to prepare for his own criminal prosecution on a charge that he has corrupted the youth, introduced new gods, and in general threatened the stability of the political community by acts of impiety. Euthyphro, on the other hand, is not there to be prosecuted, but to prosecute his father. An employee of the family estate became drunk and murdered one of the servants. Euthyphro’s father captured him, bound him, and threw him into a ditch, while he sent a servant to Athens to find a priest to advise him what to do. Before the servant could return with the information, however, the man died of exposure.

Traditional Greek worship, we assume, had calcified into ritual practices which led to personal tragedies such as the death of the employee.7 It had ceased to express a living experience of order. Plato was sensitive to this corruption of traditional myths and used the example as an indictment of their failure to effect right action in the lives of those who adhered to them. Euthyphro himself was not only corrupt, to the extent that he was fanatically devoted to the belief that he was acting out of great holiness in prosecuting his father; but also arrogant, in feeling that he was above the common sort of men because he believed he knew with. certainty what the gods required. Though it is Euthyphro’s ignorance which is the overarching issue of discussion, in the background of the dialogue lurks the fact that Socrates will soon be the victim of an upside-down society, a society in which the most devout prosecute their fathers for murder, whose fathers, in turn, neglect persons in their charge while they await information from oracles-a society which kills its most pious citizen on a charge of impiety.

Socrates: Daimonic Man

Socrates is representative of that type of “religious” or daimonic man (daimonios aner)9 who criticized the “cosmological” myths from the perspective of a higher consciousness of divine reality. Within Hellenic culture he was preceded by the sixth century Ionian mystic philosophers who sought a first principle (arche) which expressed experience of the sacred in terms that were, by varying degrees, not mythic. It. is a testament to Socrates’ genius that all these are generally referred to as the Presocratics.10

Political philosophy was the necessary outcome of their philosophic critique of the public myths, because ritual participation in cosmological order could not be sustained among men who had rejected the myths. The philosophers hoped that reason (logos), as opposed to mythic speculation, could be fashioned into a modus to fulfill the public needs of a culture now stripped of socially viable myths. We trace the origin of political philosophy to Socrates because he attempted to fill the vacuum of public order in Hellas with a new mode of public symbolization of order. Political philosophy, as Socrates lived it, and as Plato would develop it further, was the new mode of existence-in-truth, performing the role of statesman for a cosmological society that had dried up spiritually and intellectually.11

The experience of the sacred which was at the root of mythic symbolizations of cosmic order was not rejected by the early Greek philosophers. But these mystic philosophers or daimonic men did seek a first principle which expressed the sacred arche in terms that were, by varying degrees, non-mythic. Still very close to the myth, Thales suggested that the origin of the process of coming into being, growth, and death was water, a symbol of generation in all mythic cultures. Anaximenes, perhaps more revolutionary, said that it was air; and Anaximander made the complete break with the formulation that the arche was infinite (to apeiron) and that the infinite arche of being was divine (to theion), which symbol, itself, was a philosophic revolution. No longer from that point could the question of the beginnings be answered in terms of a mythic god. Anaximander had abstracted the essence of the genderless divine (theion) reality from the mythic gods and chose the neuter article (to) to express that absence of myth.

The arche of nature is not a god (theos), he said, it is the divine (to theion) reality.12 Socrates stood in this constructive tradition of criticism of myth, founded upon a new concept of the divine reality differentiated intellectually from the previous mythical forms. Nevertheless, because Socrates had become the chief representative of the movement of philosophy in Greece, he found himself caught between this new consciousness of order and the old traditional cosmological view. Socrates was aware of the tension created by the opposition of these views and at his trial even suggested that he was unable to reconcile the conflict between human and political virtue in which he found himself. He inquired of one of the judges, Callias, who it was that had knowledge of human and political virtue and could teach it to the young?13

In asking the question, Socrates posed the dilemma of his own life: how to walk the line between fulfilling oneself by being virtuous, and also meet the standards of citizenship in such a way that they do not conflict. Since one of the accepted ends of government was to reconcile any conflict between good citizenship and virtue, Socrates himself was on trial, charged with impiety. When Callias replied, therefore, that certainly he knew of someone, Evenus, a Parian, and what price he charged for the lessons, Socrates remarked that such a person was indeed blessed and admitted that he himself had no such knowledge. Socrates could not account for the Parian’s art, unless it was, he said, a wisdom more than human. Because Socrates had devoted himself to the pursuit of human wisdom and was unable to resolve the conflict in his own life, he implied that Evenus must have plumbed some other source of information.

Socrates was making a telling statement because he was known for his discovery of the principle that knowledge is virtue. And, yet, his inability to act in a way consistent with public virtue, as defined by his judges, did not imply a lack of knowledge (virtue) on his part, because the knowledge claimed by Evenus was simply not human and therefore could not be a virtue. Evenus was ignorant of the dilemma, or he would not have claimed to possess the requisite wisdom. The secret knowledge, which his earlier accusers had imputed to Socrates, was no secret so far as Socrates was concerned. He lay claim only to a certain type of human wisdom, in pursuit of which he came into conflict with traditional Greek society.

The men of the ancient world, who looked upon their society as a microcosmos, experienced themselves as dependent upon the gods. Political order, represented as an extension or analogue of cosmic order, was understood to be dependent on a continued right public relationship toward the gods, who were the source of public order. Nor was social order independent of nature. All aspects of existence were participants in a greater cosmic drama. Political community, therefore, was a partnership in the greater cosmos which included the gods, society, man, and nature.

It is interesting that Plato’s description of Socrates evokes a concept of community and political obligation implicit in the formulations of these ancient cosmological myths. In the Gorgias, for example, Socrates says that heaven, the earth, gods and men are a cosmos held together by community, friendship, orderliness, temperance, and justice. This ordered cosmos, he said, is ruptured by men who seek their own self-interest or pleasure, with the result that they are incapable of friendship or community with others or God.14The concept Socrates has presented, like the view of order of the cosmological myths, is not that of man as an autonomous actor, but as a creaturely participant in a community which contains all that is. All the same, Socrates experienced political obligation which was philosophical, not cosmological. Though the concept of obligation implicit in the cosmological myths could exist side by side in Socrates’ analysis of his dilemma, the nature of the conflict had been altered substantially. The intracosmic gods were not responsible for his tragedy, nor were they the holders of his fate.

Socrates himself would act and choose justice or injustice and thus was conscious that man himself in openness to the transcendent and not the intracosmic gods was the source of public order and disorder. He was in that sense free, and, as a result, was himself responsible for his actions. Socrates’ decision was his own, not an extension in the world of man of an arbitrary act of the gods. In the person of Socrates, political community was perceived no longer as a “microcosmos,” but as a “macroanthropos.”15 To appreciate the power of this insight, which we perhaps take for granted today, we need only reflect that one of its consequences was the death of the man who was its chief representative. From the perspective of traditional cosmological culture, a man such as Socrates who would argue an anthropological perspective which placed man at the center of the universe, rather than focus on the gods of the cosmos who mediated the fortunes of man, was considered impious and a source of corruption in the community.

Yet we have seen that the origin of the political anthropology of Socrates was not an impious atheism; it was the attempt of the philosophers to articulate their experience of the divine in non-mythic terms. For political philosophy to discover the human psyche as the locus of order and disorder in society, it had first to discover the divine arche beyond the. process of physical genesis, growth and decay, and the substance of order as a right relationship of the psyche to the divine. 16  This discovery in turn developed into what we call philosophical anthropology defined as the theoretical act by which individuals and societies may be rightly ordered.

 

References

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion, Rosemary Sheed, trans. Cleveland: Meridian Books, World Publishing Co., 1966.

Frankfort, Henri. The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1956 snd Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Frankfort, Henri and H.A., et al. Before Philosophy. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.

Jaeger, Werner. The Theology of Early Greek Philosophers. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1964.

Pritchard, James B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek .Origins of European Thought, T.G. Rosenmeyer, trans. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Torchbooks, Academy Library, 1960.

Voegelin, Eric. Order and History, Vol. I, Israel and Revelation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.. Order and History, Vol. II, The World of the Polis. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957.

Wilson, John A. The Culture of Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1951.

 

Notes

1. Henri and H.A. Frankfort, et al., Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, an Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), 13.

“The man of the societies in which myth is a living thing lives in a World that, though ‘in cipher’ and mysterious, is ‘open.’ The World ‘speaks’ to man, and to understand its language he needs only to know the myths and decipher the symbols. Through the myths and symbols of the Moon man grasps the mysterious solidarity among temporality, birth, death, and resurrection, sexuality, fertility, rain, vegetation, and so on. The World is no longer an opaque mass of objects arbitrarily thrown together, it is a living Cosmos, articulated and meaningful. In the last analysis, The World reveals itself as language. It speaks to man through its structure and rhythms.” Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, Willard R. Trask, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbooks, 1968), 141.

2.  Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. I, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956),1-11.

3.  This text is found in Ainslie T. Embree, ed., The Hindu Tradition (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1972),25-26. Bracketed information is added here.

4.  Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Willard R. Trask, trans.  (NewYork: Harper Torchbooks, Harper and  Brothers, Publishers, 1959), 81.

5. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969),3. This text is the single best cumulative source of original documents of the ancient Near East in English.

6. Henri Frankfort, Before Philosophy, 35.

7.  “The primitive who sees his field laid waste by drought, his cattle decimated by disease, his child ill, himself attacked by fever or too frequently unlucky as a hunter, knows that all these contingencies are not due to chance but to certain magical or demonic influences, against which the priest or sorcerer possesses weapons. Hence he does as the community does in the case of catastrophe: he turns to the sorcerer to do away with the magical effect, or to the priest to make the gods favorable to him.” Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, 96-97.

 8.  The concept “religious man” is used frequently by Mircea Eliade, in opposition to “profane man,” as a type who is open to experience of the sacred. See Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Willard R. Trask, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, The Cloister Library, Harper Torchbooks, 1961). For a discussion of criticism of myth, see Eliade, Myth and Reality, 111.

9.  Voegelin discusses the implicit significance of the symbol daimonios aner as follows:  When the soul discovers existence to have meaning as a movement toward noetic consciousness, it discovers the discovery to have meaning as an event in history.

“Plato recognizes the historical field constituted by the event, and he articulated its structural points through symbols. In the Symposium, the philosopher who moves in the realm of the spirit (pan to daimonion) receives the name of a daimonios aner; for the man who lives in the older, more compact form of the myth he reserves the thnetos, the mortal of the epics; and the man who has become familiar with the new insight but resists it, he simply calls an amathes, an ignorant man. Though the term thnetos and amathes were previously in use, they now acquire a new meaning through the relation of the existential types they denote to the historically new type of the daimonios aner. A new field of meaning thus emerges, when the older or resistant types are made intelligible as compact or deformed in the light of noetic consciousness.” Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. IV, The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 187.

10.  G.S. Kirk and J .E. Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Critical History With a Selection of Texts (Cambridge: At The University Press, 1964); Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966).

11 We borrow the concept “existence-in-truth” to express the nature of Classical philosophy from James Wiser’s “Political Theory, Personal Knowledge, and Public Truth,” The Journal of Politics (1974) 36:661-674. For an analysis of the educational function of Platonic philosophy in Greek culture see Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of  Greek Culture, Vol. II, In Search of the Divine Centre, Gilbert Highet, trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963).

12 Aristotle, Physics, 203b7, in Kirk and Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, No. 110. For an authoritative discussion of the importance of Anaximander’s discovery, see Werner Jaeger, “The Theology of the Milesian Naturalists,” in The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford: At The Clarendon Press, 1964),24-37. Especially note on p. 31, “As far as I have been able to discover from the remaining evidence, the concept of the Divine as such does not appear before Anaximander.”

13. Plato, Apology, 20a-b.

14. Plato, Gorgias, 507e.

15. Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, 5.

16. See Bruno Snell, “Homer’s View of Man,” in The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, T.G. Rosenmeyer, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Torchbooks, The Academy Library, 1960), 1-22. Snell shows how Heraclitus’ discovery of the psyche transformed the previously dominant Homeric vocabulary of man and in turn altered the Greek depiction of man in the plastic arts.

Dick Bishirjian

Richard J. Bishirjian, was Founding President and Professor of Government at Yorktown University from 2000 to 2016. He earned a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in Government and International Studies from the University of Notre Dame under the direction of Gerhart Niemeyer. He is editor of A Public Philosophy Reader (St. Augustine's, 2015) and The Conservative Rebellion (St. Augustine's, 2015); and author of The Coming Death and Future Resurrection of American Higher Education (St. Augustine's, 2017)

Back To Top