Bibliotherapy

Schelling-On Mythology

Schelling by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1835.

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Today’s sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA are gleanings from Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology’, excerpted from Lesson III. © Translation 1989 Sydney C. Grew.

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At least it is not difficult now to make out the first presupposition common to both: this is that mythology in general is an invention. It has to be decided, though, whether this common aspect also has to be given up, or whether the error lies perhaps merely in the fact that the one viewpoint sees only poetical invention in mythology, the other only philosophical. Yet it should above all be noted that certainly neither of the two, of itself alone, wholly excludes the other. The purely poetical viewpoint does certainly also leave room for a doctrinal content, but admittedly only a fortuitous one, not intended; the philosophical cannot dispense with the poetical element, but for it, now, it is this instead which is the more or less artificial part, and thus fortuitous simply in another way.

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But now it could still specifically be asked whether, in the era of the birth of mythology, poetry and philosophy as such, in their formal contraposition, that is, could indeed have been present at all, since on the contrary we have seen how, once mythology exists and has completely filled consciousness, they both only then start to diverge from it in different directions, as if from a common center, although even now they are moving apart only very slowly. For while the first sign of a departure of philosophy from mythology is found already in Hesiod, it required the whole period from him until Aristotle before philosophy had parted from everything mythical and thus also poetical. How long the road is! —not from the realism of the Pythagoreans to the nominalism of Aristotle, for the principles (ἀρχαὶ) are, for the one, just as much real entities as for the others, just as their inner identity too may certainly be discerned—but from the almost mythical language of the first up to the purely conceptual mode of expression of the second. Now would not precisely this common provenance from mythology, however, be a proof that in it was just where the two were still united, although admittedly neither one of them could function in its own right and as such and still less could the one or the other precede mythology and be itself a factor in it.

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Since, without language, not only may no philosophical consciousness be contemplated, but no human consciousness at all, the foundation of language could not, then, have been laid by consciousness, and yet the more deeply we penetrate into language, the more clearly is it revealed that its profundity exceeds by far that of anything created in the most conscious way. With language it is the same as with organic life; we believe that we see this coming blindly into existence, and cannot deny the unfathomable calculation in its structure even in the smallest detail.

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One is almost tempted to say that language itself is just etiolated mythology, that what mythology still preserves in living and concrete distinctions might be preserved in language only in abstract and formal ones.

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For all these reasons one might now certainly feel inclined to say that in mythology there could not be a philosophy at work which is obliged to seek out the forms only in poetry, but that this philosophy at the same time was itself and in essence poetry; likewise, the converse: that the poetry which created the forms of mythology was not the servant of a philosophy distinct from it, but was itself and in essence also knowledge-generating activity, philosophy. This last point would effectively mean that in the mythological representations there would be—truth, not merely accidentally though, but with a kind of necessity; the first, that the poetical element in mythology would not be something which came to it from outside, but would be something internal, essential, and intrinsic in the thought itself. If we call the philosophical or doctrinal element the content, and the poetical element the form, then the content would never have existed of its own accord, it would have come into being only in this form and would therefore be inseparably and inextricably fused with it.

 Indeed, mythology then would not in general be just a natural production, but an organic one; certainly, a significant step forward in comparison with the merely mechanical method of explanation. But something organic in the following respect as well. Either one of poetry and philosophy, when taken singly, is for us a principle of free intentional invention, but since they are linked to each other, neither of them can really operate freely: mythology would thus be a product of activities in themselves free but acting here in an unfree way, thus, like what is organic, a child of free-but-necessary origin, and to the extent that the word “invention” is still applicable, of an unintentional-but-intentional instinct like invention, which on the one hand would reject everything merely constructed and artificial, and at the same time would, on the other hand, make it possible to see that the most profound meaning and the most real references in mythology were in fact not merely accidental.

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For from the only two principles known to us—philosophy and poetry— there is no path which leads to their effective and real unity, so all that would remain for the moment is pure guesswork. Someone might well propose clairvoyance, much resorted to and for which so much is claimed, and by means of which admittedly a great deal might be explained, if only one could first obtain a somewhat clearer view of this clairvoyance itself. A dream state too would perhaps be found not unacceptable, in the same way that Epicurus can only have regarded the transient phenomena, by which he considers the gods to be authenticated, as dream phenomena. For even in a dream state, what is more, the poetry and philosophy natural to men can “transact” or continue to operate. Even delirium, as a condition excluding all free invention, albeit not every influence of reason and fantasy, should not be rejected out of hand. But what would be gained from all such explanations? Nothing whatever; since every condition which one might postulate so as to explain the development of mythological representations would itself have to be explained, to be given at the same time, that is to say, a historical motivation. The substantiation would have to consist in showing by which natural or divine fore destiny such a condition in any one era was imposed upon the human race or a part thereof; for mythology is above all a historical phenomenon.

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We return to the view that mythology is, in general, an invention. Once this is accepted, then the next external presupposition will be that it was invented by individual people. This assumption is unavoidable for the philosophical explanation. The poetical one will offer some resistance at first, but, as long as it neither renounces all historical application nor has the intention of losing itself completely in the indefinite, will also come in the end to individual poets. But regarded strictly, now, this assuming of individuals to have been the originators of mythology is such an outrageous presupposition that one can only be thoroughly amazed at the mindlessness with which it is asserted so generally, as if there were no other possibility. It is true that in general no one finds it hard to presuppose poets or philosophers, as required; in the case of the indistinct ideas of the primæval time, which one believes oneself justified in regarding as an empty space, into which it is open to everyone to insert what he feels is pleasant or convenient, more or less everything is permitted.

Heyne still required, in addition to his poetic philosophers, the genuine poets (who transform, for him, the philosophical statements into fairy stories), and probably power-hungry priests as well, who turn them into popular religion. Hermann’s philosophers, who are poets too, even if rather timid ones, turn directly to the people; he omitted to explain only one thing: how they set about persuading the people even to give their homespun wisdom a hearing, to say nothing of impressing it on them so deeply that it could have been distorted into a theology for them. But in general, he who knows what their mythology is for a people, would admit the possibility that their mythology was invented for them by individuals no more readily than the possibility that for a people their language, too, had come into existence through the efforts of individuals among them. To introduce a new mythology is not such an easy affair as is for us the introduction of school timetables, textbooks, catechisms and the like. To create a mythology, to endow it with that authenticity and reality in the thoughts of men necessary for it to achieve the level of popularity which it requires even for poetical use, is beyond the power of any individual, or even of several individuals who might come together for such a purpose.

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A chance event like that portrayed above, where, that is, the mythology of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the Indians, in short of the whole world, is supposed to have its origin in a cosmogony of one or a few individuals thought up in a highly fortuitous way, at once disguised, finally misunderstood and believed regardless of that—such a chance event seems to be of the kind before which, all things considered, even many of those would baulk who otherwise hold the view that the greatest and most influential occurrences in this world are brought about by the most fortuitous and trivial causes.

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But now the higher interpretation, which postulated an instinct like invention, will try to raise itself here too to a higher level, and when we show that it is an incongruity to regard mythology as the invention of individuals, will blithely answer us: certainly, mythology was not invented by individuals, it came from the society itself. The mythology of a society is so much interfused with its life and being that it could only have emerged from the society itself. Everything of an instinctive kind operates in any case more in the mass than in individuals, and just as in certain families of the animal kingdom a common constructive urge brings together independent individuals for the production of a collective artefact, so too, among individuals distinct but belonging to the same society, does there arise, of its own accord and as if through inner necessity, a spiritual bond, which must inevitably reveal itself in a common product such as mythology. Indeed, it seems that this spiritual cooperation continued even after the time of the first emergence of mythology. Wolf’s studies on Homer, rather more intelligently formulated than was the case with his contemporaries, long ago set out a great and significant analogy. If the Iliad, and the Iliad and the Odyssey taken together, are not the work of one individual, but of a whole race over the course of more than one epoch, then it must at least be admitted that this race created poetry as if it were one individual.

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In the common language this has only its direct expression; but in what are we to find this common quality itself or its basis, if not in a common world-view, and this in turn, in what can this be originally contained for a society, and given to it, if not in its mythology? It seems thus impossible that a mythology should come later to a society already in existence, whether by the invention of individuals within it or by coming into being for it through a collective instinct like process of generation. This too appears impossible, because it is unthinkable that a society could—exist without mythology.

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In whatever way the emergence of mythology out of or within a society is explained, the society itself will always be presupposed, and thus for instance it will be assumed that the Hellene was a Hellene, the Egyptian an Egyptian, before he received his mythological ideas in one way or another. I am asking you now, though, whether the Hellene does remain a Hellene, and the Egyptian an Egyptian, if we remove his mythology. Thus, he neither received his mythology from others, nor created it himself, after he had become a Hellene or an Egyptian; he became a Hellene or an Egyptian only together with this mythology, because of the fact that this mythology came into being for him. If its mythology comes into being for a society in the course of its history (and this begins for every society as soon as the society is in existence), it thus emerges for it particularly through historical relationships and contacts with other societies, and so the society has a history before it has a mythology. Usually, the opposite of that is assumed. Its mythology is not determined for it by its history, but on the contrary its history is determined for it by its mythology, or rather the latter does not determine, it is itself the society’s destiny (as the character of a man is his destiny), the lot fallen to it right at the beginning. How could anyone deny that with the theology of the Indians, Hellenes, and so on, their whole history is given. If it is impossible that the mythology of a society comes into existence out of or within the society which is already present, then nothing remains but that it might come into existence at the same time as the society, as the individual consciousness of that society, by way of which it emerged from the common consciousness of humanity, and through which, no less than by its language, it is this particular society and is distinguished from every other.

But hereby, as you see, is the basis on which they attempted to establish themselves completely withdrawn from the explanations considered up to now: this basis was a historical one, presupposing, that is, the prior existence of societies, whereas it has become evident here that the emergence of mythology dates from the time of the coming into existence of societies. The origin of the mythology of every society goes back to a period where there is no time for invention, whether it be taken to emanate from an individual or from the society itself, no time for ingenious formulation nor for misunderstanding.

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The mythological ideas, which come into being with the societies themselves, and determine their initial existence, must also have been intended to be understood as truth, and indeed as whole, full truth, accordingly as theology; and what we have to explain is how they could have come into being in this sense. We are required to find other lines of approach for this investigation, for among all those which have been put forward up to now, there is nothing which went back to that region of time. We shall not judge the explanations now passed over to contain nothing at all which is true. This would be too much; but they do not amount to the whole truth, so this still remains to be found, but even now we cannot reach this in a single bound, but only by way of an argument taken step by step, overlooking no possibility.—I like to remind you of the method of the investigation, since I consider it to be possibly one of its main benefits that you learn how a subject so profusely complicated and displaying so many aspects can nevertheless be grasped, mastered, and by way of a methodical progression, finally shown under a full light.—Only the following is certain for the time being, and the clear result of the previous argument: what is true, that which we are seeking, lies outside the previous theories. In other words, what is true lies in that which the explanations hitherto introduced and considered exclude, and now it is at least not difficult to see what they all exclude unanimously and in the same way.

Christoph Carl Pfeuffer (1801-1861) Verso of a medal of F. W. Schelling

More about Schelling : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Wilhelm_Joseph_Schelling
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