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Myths of the Twentieth Century

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

The story of the Tower of Babel has for the twentieth century a profound and desolating relevance. It is told in the Book of Genesis that there was a time when “all the world was of one language and one speech.” The fortunate denizens of Shinar thereupon said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower that will reach to heaven.” Then an act of inscrutable malevolence intervened “to confound their language so that they could not understand one another’s speech . . . and they left off building the city”

The world of the nineteenth century also had its common language, with science for its grammar and progress for its syntax. And the men of the nineteenth century were no less bold than those of the plain of Shinar in their scheme for the building of a great city. The time has now come when they no longer understand one another; the plans for the great world-community are abandoned, the citizens of the world are dispersed.

The confusion of tongues came so quickly upon the twentieth century that the consequences were upon us almost before the fact itself was known. As Germany entered the Third Reich, Germans ceased to understand each other. The ordinary medium of speech and writing ceased to function as a means of communication. Then the censorship clamped down, and it became impossible even to seek for understanding. Yet the Nazi dictatorship was only one of a series of acts that sent the world reeling into its cultural crisis.

Those who prepared the way for this debacle were supremely innocent in their intentions. They were men like Bergson, James, Vaihinger, Pareto, Sorel, Spengler, and even Sir James Frazer with his “Golden Bough.” Some were merely seeking a new highway to truth—by intuition rather than by reason; some asked only for a new test of truth—the test of practicality; some were bravely seeking to give a more profound interpretation to other cultures by accepting for purposes of the discourse the beliefs that prevailed in those cultures. They ended by betraying truth itself. For truth became a variable, determined by a personal equation, a problem, or a culture. As the prestige of truth fell, the prestige of myth rose, The word “myth” to the nineteenth century meant a naive and fanciful tale; to the twentieth century it came to mean a primordial substance from which the stuff of all ideas may be drawn. Men began to talk of the myth of science, the Christian myth, the myth of the nation, the myth of socialism, the myth of the general strike.

These developments in the field of metaphysics are not, as they might seem, removed from importance in everyday life. Upon them have fed the Luthers, the Calvins, the Rousseaus of the contemporary world. The Russian university student today takes a required course in “dialectical materialism,” just as the American high school student takes his required course in civics. The Fascists and the Nazis have official philosophers, Gentile and Rosenberg, whose metaphysical conceptions are incorporated in the imposed culture of the state. The great leaders who set the world on its new course at the close of the World War were, most of them, philosophers. Lenin had hammered out his thought on “empiro-criticism,” Balfour on the foundations of belief. Smuts wrote on metaphysics, Masaryk taught it, and Clemenceau left as his legacy a rear-guard defence of positivism. Woodrow Wilson, whatever his reputation for interest in pure theory, was less preoccupied than his distinguished confreres with the specifically metaphysical problems that the nineteenth century left to the twentieth, yet he was in a measure a philosopher too. Only Venizelos and Lloyd George, among the most influential men of the year 1919, were not in some sense active practitioners in the field of philosophy.

The World War not only brought to the top statesmen who were philosophers; it also brought the professional philosophers down from their intellectual pedestals. In every country these men used their high talents to give to the “issues” of the war a cosmic significance. They proved that the iniquities of the adversary had been present all along as implications of a national philosophy and culture, and that the triumph of their own party was necessary in the ethical scheme of the universe. Immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities, Bergson discovered that the war was a conflict between “life” and “matter,” with the Entente powers ranged on the side of life and the Central Powers defending matter. Scheler proclaimed that English philosophy and character were alike manifestations of cant; San-tayana wrote of “egotism in German philosophy”; and the gentle Josiah Royce, himself deeply in debt to Hegel, reached the conclusion that “Germany is the willful and deliberate enemy of the human race; it is open to any man to be a pro-German who shares this enmity.” The philosophers were making a Great Schism out of a mere political conflict. Then, as if to make a permanent record of the prostitution of the philosophic art, the victorious governments issued to each soldier in their armies a bronze medal with the inscription, “Great War for Civilization.”

Philosophy never recovered from its war experience. The international journal literature was re-established, the professors resumed their exchanges, the old problems were still mooted in the old way in class room and seminar, and among the scholars themselves it appeared that the old international society of the intellect would take a new lease on life. But a new relationship with the public had been created. The masses had been induced to taste of the fruit of the tree. War-time vulgarizations were followed by post-war vulgarizations, and ideologies took the place of ideas. The confusion of tongues did not begin at the bottom, among the unlettered, the ignorant, and the naive. It began at the top, among the cultured and sophisticated. It spread downward among populations who were taught to accept philosophies as they were taught to buy war bonds. And there it did not end when the war was over.

The post-war world fell heir to a highly developed apparatus for the propagation of ideologies among the masses. Universal literacy had combined with the linotype, the rotary press, and woodpulp paper to create modern journalism. The use of color in the graphic arts culminated in a poster art that could in the space of a few months set up an iconography as elaborate as that which the medieval church created through generations. Advertising, as an adjunct to competitive business, had played with these media; war propaganda made them its own. Then, in the post-war era, radio was added to the equipment. Public education, organized sports and entertainment were brought into line. The apparatus for the control of opinion can now be tuned like a great organ and made to play whatever music is written in the score. And the modern political police, superior to the police of Joseph Fouche as a Ford factory exceeds in efficiency the establishment of James Watt, can prevent all dissonances and discords.

If this vast apparatus for the propagation of thought had been available at a time when a common ground for thinking was still universally accepted, the world-city of which the nineteenth century dreamed might have risen to its music, like Camelot to the music of the fairy harps.


It is not certain that a twentieth-century mind can really know more than one of the great myths that are in conflict with each other, for a myth is something that is believed, not something that is merely understood. A language can be learned; when a German learns the French language he can understand a Frenchman in so far as language is concerned. But the process by which a Nazi becomes acquainted with the full meaning of liberalism, or a liberal with the full significance of Fascism, is not the process of learning, but of conversion. The Christian tradition has prepared the western world for this peculiar relation of mythology to mind. For Western civilization has tended to define its religion in terms of its myths. In most cultures the religious person is one who is in the possession of powers that he has acquired by religious practices; in modern Christianity he is one who believes a particular cosmology and mythology. “Religion” in contemporary Europe and America comes to be defined as a state of mind alternative to skepticism regarding Christian myths.

There are four great myths in the contemporary western world, all of them grown from one root. These four are: the original Christian myth, from which the others are descended ; its secularized version of the world order or great society; the materialistic version with its eschatology of the proletarian paradise; and the antithetic or reactionary myth of the nation, with its mystery of blood and soil.

The Christian myth presents a narrative of a past, a prediction of a future, and an appraisal of man’s place and problem in the world. This structure is common to all the competing mythologies. The discoveries of science could be harmonized with the Christian myth so long as they merely illustrated the qualities of a universe which was fundamentally God-made and God-directed. The ultimate unit of value in the Christian myth was the human soul; it was for its salvation that the great drama of the universe was enacted. The myth carried with it a profound ethical content in which peace was valued above strife, and love above hatred, The great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages were able to take all the elements of this myth and all then’ far-reaching implications and weld them together in a coherent system.

The myth of the world order or the great society was almost identical in pattern with the Christian myth, except that it left out God. It saw the vision of “the fields of peace.” Woodrow Wilson was profoundly right when he linked up the ideal of political democracy with the ideal of the orderly world, for political democracy merely secularized the tradition of the Church. That every soul was equally valuable was taken intact from the ethos of Christianity and became the democratic ideal that every citizen has equal rights. For a few weeks at the close of the World War the body of ideas organized in this myth and known as “Wil-sonian idealism” was accepted on a world scale and with an enthusiasm that made it the credo of the greatest politico-religious revival of modern times.

But even in 1918, during the brief apotheosis of Wood-row Wilson, the competing myth of the proletarian paradise revealed its strength and comprehensiveness. Like the myth of democracy and the world order, it was universal in its application. It was a system for all mankind. It had its narrative of the past, its prediction of an inevitable future. It drew its special character from its preoccupation with the problem of property, and because the problem of property was so deeply imbedded in it, it was highly materialistic in its metaphysics, highly realistic in its style. Where the Christian myth gave attention to the distribution of salvation, and the myth of the world order and democracy to the distribution of rights, the myth of the proletarian paradise dealt with the distribution of commodities.

Modern nationalism, the fourth great myth, differs from the three others in that it is not, and does not pretend to be, universal. It is a system of thought posited upon the differences between men rather than their resemblances. In the nineteenth century, nationalism was not indeed inconsistent with democracy and the world order, but was an appropriate deduction therefrom. The differences among men which it emphasized were primarily linguistic, and since it appeared that peoples speaking the same language would usually have a preference for living under the same government, it could deduce a political geography from the principles of democracy. But the nationalist mythology that arose after the World War and defined itself first in Italy and then in Germany became an entirely independent body of thought, antithetic to the myth of democracy and the world order, in which the primary elements were not grace and salvation, nor political rights and peace, nor yet labor and commodity, but blood and soil.

Francis Delaisi has observed that the myth of the national state is essentially an agrarian myth. The state is likened to a farm with fixed boundary lines. As such, it may take and lose land. The strength of this way of thinking can be noted in the irredentist propaganda coming out of Hungary. There it is asserted that Hungary lost two-thirds of her forests, one-half of her mines, one-third of her railroads, etc. Were it not for the underlying agrarian metaphor present in the minds of all those who interpret such statements as these, they would seem unimportant or confusing. The same forests are still growing on the same slopes, the same people are cultivating the same fields, yet because the people have shifted their allegiance to a new state, and another public law prevails in the area, Hungary has “lost” territory. Clearly the only interpretation that can be given to the word “Hungary” in such a sentence is that Hungary is, like a farm, an acreage of soil. The material unit of the nationalist myth is real estate rather than commodity. The human element is equally distinct. Man in the Nazi myth is identified neither by his soul (as in the Christian myth), nor by his political will (as in the democratic myth), nor by his capacity for productive labor (as in the proletarian myth), but by his racial character, that is to say, his biogenetic relation to ancestors and descendents. The relation of race to soil is ecological from the standpoint of science; from the standpoint of institutions it is one of inheritance.

All three of the secular myths—democratic, proletarian, and nationalist—which now have the western world as their field of conflict, appear self-evident when viewed from within themselves and by their own believers. All three of them are riven by deep self-contradictions when viewed from the outside by their critics. The internal contradictions inhering in the myth of the democracy and the world order are two: first, in the relation to peace; second, in relation to democracy. The object of world order is peace, but if peace is sought without taking action against peace breakers it will be broken; if action is taken against peace breakers, the action can be none other than war. “Wars to end wars” can become as normal and recurrent as war for any other purpose. The contradiction in the democratic element of the myth lies in the nature of the process by which a consensus is sought and obtained, for consensus or agreement is the product of persuasion. The successful persuader is none other than a ruler, and the processes of persuasion are so varied that democracies may be indistinguishable from dictatorships.

The contradiction in the proletarian myth has to do with the conception of property. Property was defined originally as a relationship between an individual and a thing. The extension of ownership from the one to the many in a given item of property changes the meaning of property. When an entire class (whether it be of laborers or not) owns collectively all the means of production, ownership loses its character. A long step in this direction is already taken in the development of the modern corporation with its large body of stock-holder owners. The communist economy moves in exactly the same direction and somewhat further. In both cases the powers of management come to transcend in importance the rights of ownership, so that property as traditionally conceived disappears in that measure that its general distribution is effected. But management, which replaces it, can be as arbitrary in respect of social justice as ownership. It is the management of Soviet economy that shoots down the leaders of the Trotsky faction.

The antinomies of the nationalist myth of blood and soil are found, like those of the myth of democracy and world order, both in the field of world affairs and in internal matters. First, in respect of the relation of the nation to the world, the myth lays down only one rule of action—the rule of self-interest. But in a world made up of many nations, one which pursues its own interests exclusively will be isolated and weak unless it has allies. In order to secure its interests it must find allies, and in order to find allies it must sacrifice itself for interests not its own. Second, in respect of its internal arrangements, the myth requires that each nation have its own comprehensive culture, its own art, letters, science, and conscience. These are conceived as the products of blood and are found localized on the national soil. This is a more extended application of that sixteenth-century principle cuius regio eius religio which made the demarcation between Protestantism and Catholicism. It is the necessary foundation of the cultural policy of the totalitarian state.

The guarantee of authenticity in such a culture cannot be intellectual. The symphony composed by a German must be adjudged superior to a symphony composed by a Jew, not by any intellectual critique but because the one composer is German, the other Jewish. It is necessary that such a culture should depart from the whole tradition of Europe and “think with the blood” instead of the mind. But this involves a repudiation not only of European culture generally, but of some of the contributions to it made by the sacred race itself. How can Kant live where Einstein is rejected?

No one of these great myths can find common ground with any of the others at the present time. Men who are now fifty years old learned the lingua franca of nineteenth-century thought, and to them the present situation in world culture is nothing but chaos. The younger men, the myth makers, and those who have been schooled in one or another of these myths, are still inspired by that special evangelical fanaticism that a new cult or a cult in conflict with others can generate. The time will come for a reaction against the contemporary myth makers. A generation will doubtless arise to whom all the idols will have feet of clay. It will be so profoundly skeptical of everything that it will be ready for cultural suicide. Even if it should learn again to speak a common tongue, it will speak a language of negation. It will build no city.


Beyond the age of skepticism which lies in the nearer future there is the possibility of a stupendous syncretism which will draw together common elements not only from the West but from the two great cultures of the East, which are also passing through their period of crisis. All these mythologies have very deep roots. The three secular myths of the West have their respective antecedents in the later Roman Empire. Democracy is rationalist like Stoicism; Marxian materialism is Epicurean. It was not for nothing that Karl Marx wrote his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of Epicurus. And the nationalist cult is deeply mystic, like the Eastern religions of the later Roman Empire.

It is ironical, indeed, that this mystical element in the Nazi philosophy should show a resemblance to the specifically Semitic element in the religions of the early Christian era. But one who reads Alfred Rosenberg’s statement of the Nazi creed is constantly reminded of the tradition of mysticism in Western religion. Rosenberg has more in common with Bernard of Clairvaux than with Emmanuel Kant. Professor Orton has suggested in an explanation of this turn in German culture that National Socialism is a revival of the romantic South Germans against the intellectual hardness of the Prussian north. Geographically, Munich is not so far from Clairvaux, and a long way from Konigs-berg. And the Monastery of St. Adolf is the Brown House in Munich. Rosenberg is true to a tradition that is not only South German, but also Christian when he writes of “the new faith, the myth of the blood, that the divine essence of man survives in the blood.” When his extreme straining of historical evidence in defense of the thesis of the primacy of the Nordics has reached the limits of credibility, he resorts to mysticism directly. “Nordic blood is itself a mystery that supplants the mystery of the Christian sacrament of blood.” Against liberal democratic rationalism and dialectical materialism Rosenberg asserts that “the life of a people, of a race, is not a philosophy that develops logically, nor yet a chain of events taking place by natural law, but the building up of a mystical synthesis.”

Rosenberg buttresses his faith against rational criticism by using the legacy left by those well-meaning metaphysical rebels of the first decade of the twentieth century-—James, Vaihinger, and the others: “There is no pure science without presumption,” he says, “ideas, theories, hypotheses, are at the bottom. One soul, one race, puts a question that for another is a problem or a puzzle that has been solved. Democratic councils talk of international science and art, but art is also a creation of the blood. . . . Science also comes from the blood.”

This suggestion, while presented primarily as a rebuttal against Western critics, is not without value in interpreting the complex problem of mythologies throughout the world. In the cultural crises of the East there is contact no less vital than in the West with the most ancient philosophic roots of culture. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, in his “Three Peoples’ Principles,” rings the changes on an old Chinese theme: “To know is easy; to do is difficult.” Gandhi’s tactics of non-resistance draw meaning from a metaphysical analysis of the distinction between action and non-action that was already old in the Bhagavad-Gita. “Knowledge and deed,” “action and non-action”—these are not the basic dichotomies of Western metaphysics. The West begins rather with “matter and spirit,” with the “city of the world and the city of God,” or more recently, materialism and idealism. If there is ever to be a language really common to the world, perhaps it can be invented only after each culture has gone back to its own roots and prepared to build up anew from the ground.

Meanwhile, in everything material the different parts of the world come to resemble each other more closely. Manufacturing, transport, electric power, spread everywhere. That which is called Taylorism or scientific management in America is the Stakhanov movement in Russia. When things are alike, but called by different names, the struggle over names can be no less intense than the struggle over things. But when the time ultimately comes to find again a common denominator in thought as in action, the material conditions will be ready.

There may have been a certain effrontery in the effort of nineteenth-century Europe to build a world city, as if its language were a world language and its thought a world thought. Was its language rich enough, was its thought deep enough, did it have real catholicity, or was it merely provinciality overgrown? A new syncretism great enough to draw together the mythologies of Europe can also be great enough to bring in the mythologies of Asia. Without them there can be no world myth, and until that synthesis comes we can only wait. When the world again has one language and one speech, it can resume the task of building the city.


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