The Old Myth And The New

August 29, 2011

There were some ages in Western History that have occasionally been called Dark. They were dark, it is said, because in them learning declined, and progress paused, and men labored under the pall of belief. A cause-effect relationship is frequently felt to exist between the pause and the belief. Men believed in things like the Last Judgment and the fiery torment. They believed people had devils in them, and that disease was a plague from heaven. They believed that they had souls, and that what they did in this life had some bearing on the way in which they would finally experience reality…Altogether, life was very weighty, and there was no telling what might lie behind things. The ages were, as I say, dark.

Then the light came. It was the light that has lighted us men into a new age. Charms, angels, devils, plagues and parthenogenesis have fled from the glare into the crannies of memory…Men were freed from the fear of the Last Judgment; it was felt to be more bracing to face Nothing than to face the Tribunal. They were freed from worry about getting their souls into God’s heaven by the discovery that they had no souls and that God had no heaven. They were freed from the terror of devils and plagues by the knowledge that the thing that was making them scream and foam was not an imp but their own inability to cope, and that the thing that was clawing out their entrails was not divine wrath but cancer. Altogether, life became much more livable since it was clear that nothing lay behind things. The age was called enlightened.

The myth sovereign in the old age was that everything means something. The myth sovereign in the new is that nothing means anything.

Imagination, which is the faculty by which we suppose correspondences among all things and hence see them as images of one another (it is the imagination, the image-making faculty) is understood in opposite ways by the old myth and the new: by the new it is seen as a flight into fancy; by the old it is seen as a flight toward actuality.

In any case, there is the situation: the old myth saw the world as image; the new sees it as a chance concatenation of physical events. This book is an attempt to describe how our experience might look if we looked at it once more under the terms of the old myth. Or, which, probably unaware, we keep the old myth alive by acting as if it were at least useful in organizing our experience. In the way we handle experience, from ordinary conversation to social custom to poetry, painting, ceremony, sex, and ritual, we do obeisance to the old myth. Whether that obeisance is fanciful and superstitious or is an authentic index of the way things are is, of course, the big question. The modern world supposes that it is the former. This books supposes that it is the latter. God (or somebody) will have to let us know which is the case.

– From Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism by Thomas Howard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969)

I just sat up for three hours reading this book from cover to cover, and while I may not agree with every single one of Mr. Howard’s conclusions, I stand wholeheartedly behind his central argument. If I have to choose, at the end of the day I’m with Pascal. My treasure is where my heart is. My money is on the Old Myth.

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