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The Myth of Myth

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Valery, in his preface to the “Persian Letters,” showed that periods of order depend on the reign of fictions. Human societies are rendered possible by the acceptance of useful myths. It is not true that incest is forbidden by the gods. It is not true that justice always strikes the guilty. It is not true that Jupiter protects those who sacrifice victims to him. But only let a great number of men sustain such “magic edifices” by their belief, and the edifices will offer shelter to these same men.

Pagan images are followed by Christian images, by social images; but always abstract fictions support civilization. Law is strong not because the police are really omniscient (there is still nothing easier than to commit a crime and go unpunished), but because the myth of Law has its temple in our mind. Kings, ministers, parliaments govern, not because they represent a real power (their armies are made up only of their subjects), but because a convention admitted by everybody incarnates in their persons fictitious might.

Then “during a period of order men grow bolder.” Conventions and myths are examined without respect; their true nature and their transparent weaknesses are discovered; men are indignant at having obeyed them. The individual, whose desires have been held in for so long by this imaginary rampart, reproaches himself for his scruples and his cowardice. This is the day of free and “enlightened” spirits. Sincerity and revolution become myths in their turn. The convention of anti-convention, the most exacting of all, replaces the other. “Disorder, and rule by physical violence, return at the expense of order.” Before long men must once more “long for the police or for death.”


Such, during the ten or twelve thousand years that there have been men and that men have been governed, has been the ebb and flow of human societies. The Roman Empire did not survive the myths it had deified; the disorder that followed it was a windfall to the theologies of Asia. The eighteenth-century philosophers believed they recognized the mythical nature of royal power, cut off the head of a King to reassure themselves that he was but a man, then put a crown on the head of a man that they might adore the myth of an Emperor.

Are men condemned then to alternate order and disorder? Must civilizations crumble one after the other? Can nothing but the sufferings of anarchy force us again to respect conventions without which no society can live? It would seem that a wiser race could escape this vicious circle. But the conventions that were formerly accepted are not necessarily the best. They sometimes need to be transformed. How should they be transformed if not by those who deny them?


The reality of history, seems to be more complex than the cycle: Order—Disorder—Desire for Order; Conventions— Contempt for Conventions—New Conventions. Myth begins by being myth, that is to say, word, logos; then it is made flesh. Myth engraves itself on the human heart. After ten thousand years of life in society, thinking and feeling man is not the same as a savage of the primitive forest. The appetites of the individual remain strong. He still suffers from repressions, from prohibitions imposed upon him by laws. But upon individual instincts there has been superimposed a social instinct.

The complete individual, who rejects conventions in order to become master of himself (Gide’s Prodigal Son, Byron’s Corsair), achieves neither equilibrium nor happiness. The tribe is present in him in spite of himself. It is not “society” which condemns him. Society is a myth from which it is possible to escape. But the image of society, in each of us, is not a myth. It is an indestructible reality. The tribal instinct is as strong as hunger, thirst, or desire. Should a man who, lost in the desert and sure of never seeing men again, kill a child or violate a young girl, that man would never again be at peace with himself. The courthouse is a “magic edifice,” but “the moral law in our hearts” is not. The sin against society, or against God, may be imaginary, but not the sin against man. Social man was a fiction, but from this fiction he has been born.


One must therefore distinguish between those conventions which, being new and quite formal anyhow, have remained image or word for us, and those which on the contrary have been assimilated by hundreds of generations and have therefore become instinct and reality. The former may be the object of criticism and of revolution; revolt against the latter is revolt against oneself, from which the individual will perish. “Modesty is no longer Victorian, or Christian, it is human.” The laws of marriage will change; marriage itself will perhaps disappear to make place for new forms of union; but a certain sexual discipline will keep its value, as courage will.

That myths thus transformed into instinct are more powerful than any convention, social or divine, intimate experience shows us. I do not believe that Jupiter will strike me with his thunderbolt if I betray an oath, I do not believe I shall be damned if I break an oath, but I know I shall despise myself if I do not keep a promise made to a child. Justice was once a myth, but man has ended by creating gods.

Can social myths, even when they have become instincts, resist analysis that will bare their secret nature? We see, at the end of the Roman Empire, atheistic philosophers who would have liked, through political prudence, to maintain the images of the gods on their pedestals. But Jupiter ceased to be a useful convention from the day he was recognized as a convention. If Gide’s Prodigal Son, having observed in his mind and flesh these social inhibitions, could have named them and recalled their origins, would he not have exorcised them?

It seems to me that the human spirit can escape this form of destruction and that the whole spiritual movement of our time, even, is toward respect for certain fictions accepted as fictions.

Science is renouncing the knowledge of the absolute. It no longer claims to construct a true system of the universe. It is proposing hypotheses which permit it to explain known facts and which seem to permit foreknowledge of unknown facts as well. It is ready to change these hypotheses if they cease to tally with phenomena. The scientist knows very well that the electron is a fiction. But as far as our means of observation permit us to judge, everything takes place as if this fiction were a reality. The ether, formerly a convenient concept, is being thrown aside by all modern systems. Doubtless some day the electron will be condemned. This acceptance of relativity does not render science impossible. It insures its solidity and its future. Jupiter died from being recognized as fiction because his priests had presented him as absolute. But hypotheses do not die; they are transformed.

It would be well if politics, following the example of science, renounced knowledge of the absolute and agreed to respect conventions (recognized as such) as long as they were useful. Anger against political myth is as insane as a revolution against ether would be, or a riot against Hertzian waves. The King of England is a myth, but he is a convenient myth, and therefore deserves to be venerated. The right of property is a fiction; we may believe this fiction is out of date, as we may believe it is indestructible, but it is comic to hate it and puerile to adore it. Science cannot live without hypotheses, nor can human societies without idols. A people destroys one system of conventions only to adore another.


Myths, condemned by relativity in so far as they are dogmas, find it a support in so far as they are myths. The human spirit recognizes at the same time both its impotence and its strength. Impotence, if it wishes to attain to the absolute. Strength, if it contents itself with pursuing purely human ends. A great many political and moral conflicts have come, in the past, from the refusal to recognize that conventions are but conventions, or from the refusal to comprehend that, though mere conventions, they are nevertheless necessary. Our era seems ready at last to accept fictions as fictions. We know justice is a myth, but we know also that no society, no human life worthy of being lived, can subsist without it. “This generation believes in nothing?” Say rather that it wishes to be free to treat fictions as fictions. But what matter, if it believes in the myth of myth, that is to say in the necessity of maintaining human society through respect for contracts? “Periods of order depend on the reign of fictions.”


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