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Logos and Mythos

September 14, 2013

News articles about Karen Armstrong’s book, The Battle for God, showed up recently.  These articles all mentioned mythos and logos.  I’d heard of those terms before, but I decided to learn more.  One article that I found helpful was this one.  I also relied on a book called Maps of Meaning, by Jordan Peterson.

Both terms are well-known Greek words.  I was confused at first until I realized that the term logos, as used by Karen Armstrong, is not the same as the Christian logos.  That means the divine son or the word of God.  Armstrong’s logos means reason or logic.  It refers to scientific thinking.  It answers the `how’ question?  It views the world as a place of things, providing information on how to make use of these things in the form of stories.

According to Jordan Peterson, a minimal story is comprised of three elements.  These are: the unbearable present, the desired future, and a way to transform one into the other.  The difference betwen the unbearable present and the desired future indicates the motivation to follow that path.  The information contained in such stories is limited to the results of our own explorations or from others who have explored the world before us.

A life lesson for a story from logos might be “The way to get a good job is through education”.  The story has a specific destination, one that benefits the individual.  Simple stories build upon each other to form more complex stories.  However, they become exceedingly complex as the scope increases to encompass the whole word and a person’s entire lifetime.  They become too complex to comprehend, and thereby become inadequate as a means to understanding.

This is where the concept of mythos becomes necessary.  The word means mythology.  It answers the `why’ question.  It views the world as a place of action.  Mythology brings a point of view that can accomodate a wider scope.  The stories of mythology are not intended to be historically accurate.  People, places,  and events  are incidental to the story.  Often these involve gods and imaginary places.  These stories have been refined over generations of retelling.

Stories from mythology carry a moral message.  This is the important part.  Of course, they express the morality known to the authors at the time the story was published.  This is information from the past.  It’s valuable, but must be balanced with current information.  Rather than tell you how to accomplish something, stories from mythology tell you the meaning of something.  Knowing the meaning of a thing means knowing how to act in conjunction with that thing.  This is necessary information for survival.

Morality is simply a set of rules for living your life in society.  They comprise behavior that is mostly subconcious.  Even though we follow the rules, we can’t write them down completely.  We learn morality first from living with our immediate family.  One rule that was written down is “Thou shalt not steal”.  Early on, we learned the consequences of stealing when we took another child’s toy, or perhaps they took our toy.  Our personal morality is reinforced by stories from mythology.  The rules typically benefit the society in which we live, rather than the individual.

The stories of mythos are still stories, although they are too large to be derived from our own explorations.  They contain information that cannot be verified by experience, either ours or other people’s.  These stories do not have a specific destination; they benefit society.  They are our only source of moral information.  This is essential because people want to know how they should act.  They want to behave in a moral manner.

Both logos and mythos provide ways of viewing the world.  They are not in conflict.  Instead, they are complimentary.  Both viewpoints are equally valid.  Both provide information for us in the form of stories.  The difference lies in the purpose of the stories.

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