The purpose of myth, secular Protestantism, and the deification of tools

It took Cervantes 327,360 satirical words to thoroughly dispense with the notion of chivalry. A modern writer could do so within 1000 words. Cervantes was writing at a time when points were proved – or rather made digestible for the populous – through the power of the fable. Through a series of amusing tales and situations, Cervantes describes the journey of one Don Quixote, his misguided notion of knight-errantry, and how he is greeted with ridicule and confusion by all he meets. Thus demonstrating the absurdity of chivalry along the way. There is a joy in the writing, which Cervantes expects the reader to partake in, thus absorbing the satire almost unknowingly, whilst the mind is focused on the story. To say that a modern writer could perform the same task in a fraction of the words is not to say that this indulgent method of message transmission is dead, the great dystopian works of the last century certainly employ it. But in the age of content saturation, the author must do more with less to pull and hold their readership. Cervantes took joy in telling wordy as fuck stories, confident the point beneath would not be clouded by an excess of words*, partly because his readership was more limited in what books they could choose to pick up, and partly because his readership was literally more limited in number; only the more affluent portion of the populous could read, fewer still could read well. Modern writers have no such luxury. Subject to brutal editing, competing with clickbait articles by the thousand, and always aware that what they write will be buried by a time measured in days not decades as competing content rushes to bury it.

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Stories are still used to make points, teach lessons, sound warnings, influence behaviour, whether in short anecdotes at the start of any opinion piece in a newspaper, or in actual novels. What’s the point? In terms of pure argumentation – a series of reasoned premises that lead to a conclusion – the novel is an incredibly inefficient tool of persuasion. But the fable resonates throughout the Zeitgeist so much more effectively than ‘premise-premise-conclusion’ for the simple reason that humanity remembers the irrational, the emotional, the familiar. We are drawn to them again and again, we learn by repetition because otherwise our minds are ever wandering, ever bored. Formal logic, mathematical equations, coding, formulae and pure thought, these require an effort of the intellect to even bring ourselves to even view them, let alone understand and be persuaded by them. We tell each other stories to relax, and it is in this state of relaxation that we absorb messages. The intellect is massaged into submission, allowing ideas to penetrate its hide and enter our psyche. A pure argument will explain its point step by step, reach the conclusion, and leave the stage. A story will repeat ideas and themes in different guises, and this leitmotif is akin to music in its appeal. We notice the rhythm, it speaks to the rhythm of our lives, the pumping of our hearts, the regulatory of our sleeping patterns, our digestive cycles. A life without ordered repetition is deemed unhealthy, an idea ill presented is deemed not worth knowing.

Music is its own point. The human passion is both drawn to music and is music, or as Nietzsche put it ‘through music the passions enjoy themselves’. Words on the other hand are a tool. They are used to extend our inner life to others capable of understanding our language. They are both a shell that we encase ourselves in to protect our true being from others, yet also a door that we open to allow others to glimpse our inner most workings. And like any tool, it is subject to misuse, both practically and aesthetically. But unlike other tools – aside from the fact that language as a concept lacks extension in space – language both serves a purpose for humanity’s ends whilst at the same time being something we enjoy hearing and reading. A well strung sentence, a pristinely cadenced line of poetry, can invoke as much surplus emotion as any work of art or passage of music one wishes to declare profound. If we think of language on a spectrum, with pure instruction at one end, and poetry and song at the other, the myth, the fable, the story, sit somewhere in the middle, which lends much confusion and debate as to their function, as to when it is done well and when it is not.

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Take one look at the endless boredom humanity is confronted with by simply existing and it is enough to explain the appeal of the story over colourless argument as a tool of persuasion. It smuggles language as a tool under the dazzling veil of language as art. What is less clear is whether this boredom need be a necessity of existence.

Boredom is the most neutral word one could use to describe this condition, a condition so pervasive as to be called the default setting of the human mind. Another word would be anxiety, a third would be helplessness, a further description would be the following: An endless, restless, inner monologue, sometimes given life through words, sometimes incapable of such expression, it forces its way out through art, through religion, through the struggle for power, through any act that is not completely necessary for physical survival. Humanity’s mind is so over developed for the mere struggle for survival that a surplus of mental energy litters history, we thrust our energies into the future, reinterpret the past, we dance to exhaustion, consume fables without end, and when these outlets are not available to us, we experience boredom. The paradox of language as tool and language as art form is itself a useful little illustration for one of the great unchecked mistakes of modern thought.

To bring this mistake into the light I will now link the Christian virtue of hard work and wealth accumulation in parallel with living frugally, with the Marxian conception of humanity over other animals as primarily a tool user, and the failure of thousands of years of religion, philosophy, art, and entertainment in soothing the overkill of the mind’s power. A power obscenely surplus to the requirements of  the regular tasks it must apply itself to in order to keep the body it survives upon alive. Humanity in a more primitive time had to work to survive, indeed much of humanity still does. Stated in the most basic terms, the harder one worked, the more and better one survived. This is not so now, for us here at least. But hard work is still considered one of the carnal virtues. And again, the most basic conception of this virtue is that hard work leads to more material wealth, which leads not to a better survival, but a better existence. Of course in reality this is not only false in terms of the fact that hard work does not lead in all cases to increased material wealth, but false when one considers whether the consequences of hard work really do lead to a better existence.

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We still live in a Protestant world in all but name

But it is true that through a series of scientific leaps and bounds in the last 200 years or so, that humanity has leapt forward into an age of untold abundance, with machines overproducing material goods and necessities to the point of obscenity. And here I quote our friend Lewis Mumford, who frames the unease he felt towards the deification of the machine even in the face of the goods it has brought us:

The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus they may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalised, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. 

To say that our spiritual needs have been neglected in the race for untold material wealth is to roll the eyes of anyone unlucky enough to have heard the sentence. But there must be something else going on behind this intellect of ours that is criminally under stimulated. This is not simply to ask ‘why are we never happy?’ But rather ‘why are we so bored?’ The deification of the tool has led to the deification of the system that applies tools to a given ends, human ends certainly, but ends that primarily  meet our physical needs. Our mental needs are in theory serviced by the arts. But are they fit for purpose? Are the arts a suitable surrogate for what was once religion or spiritualism? Indeed I am hesitant to throw the word ‘spiritual’ around too much as this dimension does not exist. But it is a useful label for framing this notion of the restless human psyche, ever at work beneath the long and often experienced periods of boredom. Humanity is not primarily a tool user, and seizing the tools from the few for the good of the many will not bring eternal happiness, because we have mischaracterised our plight. When individuals needed their physical strength to survive they still performed physically demanding rituals, danced to the point of collapse, played music, made sacred artefacts imbued with significance beyond the profane world, and they interpreted symbols, told each other stories, discussed a universe beyond what they could see, and understood their immediate surroundings through fable and saga before they understood the world through the cause of a tool and the effect it had on its environment.

The reason we find stories so addictive is the aid they offer in understanding our own lives. We see ourselves in them, and a world we can understand even if the world described to us is a pure fabrication from the mind of its author.  Even in that most abstract of art forms, music, do we see something of ourselves. The rhythm of our bodies is vindicated through the rhythm of music; the repetition of certain passages mirrors the repetition of our lives, and soothes the brain’s endless, needless commentary on the day-to-day. If music is too repetitive it comes across as a mockery. If it is not repetitive enough we cannot understand it, unless you’re a jazz fan, in which case I admire your totally real ability to see the value hidden from myself but which definitely exists. Art is a form of communication created by a species capable of viewing and understanding reality in the abstract. But this ability has come at a great cost. The cost was contentment, an end, a sense of finality. There are ways out. But it is not clear if they are available to us under the current system, which relies on us understanding the world as a relatively static object, full of smaller objects capable of fulfilling our basic needs, and we understand ourselves as a separate entity, the subject which perceives and does things to these objects.

Art contradicts this idea. It reflects the known universe back at us, allowing us a new lens with which to view it, one that the scientific worldview, the lens of homo faber the tool user, is incapable of providing. But we are so stuffed with the goods of this system, and so acutely aware of  – and guilty about – the people who are not within the protection and care of this system, that to question the machine is almost a form of heresy; ‘first world problems’. Around the world billions are still in the state of exerting all their physical energy to meet the needs of basic survival, there is no doubt as to the benefits that humanity as tool maker has done for our lot. But there is a gaping hole at the centre of it.

Construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Mumford argues that unbending devotion to the megamachine to the detriment of human needs is nothing new

Science has taken our wonderful and beautiful misconception of reality away: the reality that we gave to myths. Through science we understand the universe, we cure disease and provide food in abundance. The evidence for science’s ability to explain and manipulate the world is in your full stomach, it’s the clothes on your back, the car in the street and the roof over your head. But this did not come without a cost. Science it is not the joy in your soul. The power of the imagined worlds we created for each other to communicate, persuade, understand each other are now simple pastimes, offering no more significance than any other pastime designed to temporarily kill our boredom. This is the misery of physical privilege.

We cannot be afraid to ask from whence this misery came and how to dispense with it. This passage from Aldous Huxley points to a possible diagnosis, with which I take my leave after quoting liberally:

Choosing Luther and Calvin instead of the spiritual reformers who were their contemporaries [Sebastian Castellio] Protestant Europe got the kind of theology it liked. But it also got, along with other unanticipated by-products, the Thirty Years War, capitalism and the first rudiments of modern Germany. ‘If we wish,’ Dean Inge has recently written, ‘to find a scapegoat on whose shoulders may we lay the miseries which Germany has brought upon the world…I am more and more convinced that the worst evil genius of that country is not Hitler or Bismarck or Frederick the Great, but Martin Luther…It (Lutherism) worships a God who is neither just nor merciful..The Law of Nature, which ought to be the court of appeal against unjust authority, is identified (by Luther) with the existing order of society, to which absolute obedience is due’.

*yep

Lewis Mumford: Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, in Technology and Culture Vol. 5 1964, page 6

Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy 1945, page 299-300

 

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