The Myths We Live By

The Myths We Live By

The Myths We Live By

The Myths We Live By


Mary Midgley argues in her powerful new book that far from being the opposite of science, myth is a central part of it. In brilliant prose, she claims that myths are neither lies nor mere stories but a network of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world.


Symbolism and significance

We are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But in fact they are a central part of it: the part that decides its significance in our lives. So we very much need to understand them.

Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning. For instance, machine imagery, which began to pervade our thought in the seventeenth century, is still potent today. We still often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we ourselves could make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of 'genetic engineering' and 'the building-blocks of life'.

Again, the reductive, atomistic picture of explanation, which suggests that the right way to understand complex wholes is always to break them down into their smallest parts, leads us to think that truth is always revealed at the end of that other seventeenth-century invention, the microscope. Where microscopes dominate our imagination, we feel that the large wholes we deal with in everyday experience are mere appearances. Only the particles revealed at the bottom of the microscope are real. Thus, to an extent unknown in earlier times, our dominant technology shapes our symbolism and thereby our metaphysics, our view about what is real. the heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone - steel and glass, plastic and rubber and silicon - of his own devising and sees them as the final truth.

Of course this mechanistic imagery does not rule alone. Older myths survive and are still potent, but they are often given a reductive and technological form. Thus, for instance, we are still using the familiar social-contract image of citizens as essentially separate and autonomous individuals. But we are less likely now to defend it on humanistic or religious grounds than by appealing to a neo-Darwinist vision of universal competition between

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