Public Myth: its not my idea

William H. McNeill wrote in, The Care and Repair of Public Myth:

Myth lies at the basis of human society. That is because myths are general statements about the world and its parts, and in particular about nations and other human in-groups, that are believed to be true and then acted on whenever circumstances suggest or require common response. This is mankind’s substitute for instinct. It is the unique and characteristic human way of acting together. A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain.

Myths, moreover, are based on faith more than on fact. Their truth is usually proven only by the action they provoke. In 1940, for example, when Hitler had defeated France, the British public continued to support war against Germany partly because they “knew” from schoolbook history that in European wars their country lost all the early battles and always won the last. This faith, together with a strong sense of the general righteousness of their cause, and fear of what defeat would bring, made it possible for them to persist in waging war until myth became fact once more in 1945.

Clearly, without British actions in 1940, World War II would have followed a far different course. Russian and American resources might never have coalesced with Britain’s to create the victorious Grand Alliance of 1945. Germany, in short, might have won. Yet no merely rational calculation of relative strengths and military capabilities in June 1940 would have supported the proposition that Great Britain could expect to defeat Hitler. Action, irrational in the short run, proved rational in the longer run. Myth is what bridged the gap, remaking the reality of June 1940 into the reality of May 1945.

William H. McNeill is Professor of History, University of Chicago, and the author of The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community; Plagues and Peoples; Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force and Society Since A.D. 1000 and other books.

Here is a review of another of McNeil’s works:

McNeill, William Hardy. 1986. Mythistory and Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I read this book over the last 9 days and I loved it.  I have previously read one other McNeill book and have had another that I have meant to read.  The other book was The Pursuit of Power and I read it for one of Dr. Stivers’ grad seminars and did my book review essay on it.

This book is divided into 3 sections: Truth, Myth, and History; The Need for World History; and Masters of the Historical Craft. It is a collection of essays and lectures dating from the 1960s to the 1980s. The first one is McNeill’s presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1985 and is entitled, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians.” I believe this was an excellent choice to open the book and set the stage for his views.

I especially like McNeill’s emphasis on  world history, his scolding of his fellow professional historians and his ethical stance regarding the need for world history and responsible mythmaking.  I particularly adore his views on language and human communication. His main effort in this book is a rehabilitated view of myth.

I want to provide some quotes from the book to, hopefully, whet your appetite.  I may or may not expound further on them, although I hope to allow most to speak for themselves.

“Really important texts are those susceptible of being richly and diversely misunderstood. An author can always aspire to that dignity” (ix).

Part One: Truth, Myth, and History

From “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians”:

“The principal source of historical complexity lies in the fact that human beings react both to the natural world and to one another chiefly through the mediation of symbols” (6).

This may well be the principal source of complexity in much of human life and living. The amount and sheer range of symbolic mediation is primarily what differentiates humans from other animals.

“Shared truths that provide a sanction for common effort have obvious survival value. Without such social cement no group can long preserve itself. Yet to outsiders, truths of this kind are likely to seem myths, …” (7).

“The liberal faith, of course, holds that in a free marketplace of ideas, Truth will eventually prevail” (9).

This is one of the most sincere beliefs we have inherited from the Enlightenment. But it is also one that causes the most tension in our views of ourselves and the market as paragons of rationality as we see over and over that it is not necessarily the case that the Truth will win out.

“Group solidarity is always maintained, at least partly, by exporting psychic frictions across the frontiers, projecting animosities onto an outsider foe in order to enhance collective cohesion within the group itself” (16).

“We need to develop an ecumenical history, with plenty of room for human diversity in all its complexity” (17).

He claims that this is exactly what professional historians have shied away from.

“If we can now realize that our practice already shows how truths may be discerned at different levels of generality with equal precision simply because different patterns emerge on different time-space scales, then, perhaps, repugnance for world history might diminish …” (18).

“The result might best be called mythistory perhaps ( … ), for the same words that constitute truth for some are, and always will be, myth for others, who inherit or embrace different assumptions and organizing concepts about the world” (19 my empahsis).

From “The Care and Repair of Myth”:

Argues that public myth provides the basis for collective action:

“A people without a full quiver of relevant agreed-upon statements, accepted in advance through education or less formalized acculturation, soon finds itself in deep trouble, for, in the absence of believable myths, coherent public action becomes very difficult to improvise or sustain” (23).

Equates all forms of knowledge, to include scientific knowledge, with his rehabilitated view of myth:

“It may seem whimsical to equate scientific theories to myth, but if one accepts the definition of myth offered at the beginning of this article, surely the shoe fits” (26).

Argues that we need generality, not more detail, and that all of the detail generated by microhistories has undermined inherited myth.

“They have consequently undermined inherited myths that attempted to make the past useful by describing large-scale patterns, without feeling any responsibility for replacing decrepit old myths with modified and corrected general statements that might provide a better basis for public action” (36).

Encounters with strangers, and the assorted things that implies, is the driver of history:

“… troubling encounter with strangers constitute the principal motor of change within human societies” (37).

On comradeship and relating to the Other:

“The most problematic of all these human aspirations is how to define the limits of comradeship, This, indeed, is where humanity’s myth-making and myth-destroying capacity comes elementally and directly into play by defining the boundary between “us” and “them.” Broadly inclusive public identities, if believed and acted on, tend to relax tensions among strangers and can allow people of diverse habits and outlook to coexist more or less peacefully. Narrowed in-group loyalties, on the other hand, divide humanity into potentially or actually hostile grouping” (41).

This serves as another reason for broadly general world histories.

To counteract these tendencies, he argues that:

“What humanity needs is balance between a range of competing identities. A single individual ought to be able to be a citizen of the world and hold membership in a series of other, less inclusive in-groups simultaneously, all without suffering irreconcilable conflict among competing loyalties” (41).

From “The Rise of the West as a Long-Term Process”

Early in this essay are several pages on varied aspects of language:

“The main function of words is to generalize experience, imposing categories and classes upon the flow of sensory inputs, and thereby allowing us to recognize useful objects, e.g., “table,” in innumerable and sharply different encounters with things. Beyond that, our words create the social world we live in to a very large degree, permitting us to recognize and respond appropriately to a policeman, a professor, a foreigner, or a fellow citizen as the case may be. …” (46).

“Symbolic discourse thus gives human being their extraordinary capacity to transform the natural worlds by collective effort. It is, indeed, what makes us human” (47).

He argues that microhistorians use the language of those they write about while macrohistorians need a specialized, but generalized, language that still needs to be developed (50).

“Social process” as a topic for macrohistorians, and his primary view of “social process” and how that view has has changed in the 20 years since The Rise of the West was published occupy several pages at this point. His basic argument was and is that contact with strangers, especially those possessing superior skills, is the principal impetus to change in social life.

“A world history should, accordingly, focus special attention on modes of transport and the evidences of contact between different and divergent forms of society that such transport allowed” (57).

His updated view includes a greater role for communication. Intensified communication and cheapened transportation heightens the impact of tensions in social processes.

Part Two: The Need for World History

From “A Defense of World History”:

On the importance of language groups:

“Since shared meanings, disseminated through communications networks, are what shape and govern collective human behavior, historians ought always to take language groups seriously into consideration” (73).

While discussing the quest for precision and exactitude he tells us:

“Epistemological exactitude is unattainable. To insist on it is an excuse for not thinking. For only by using inexact words to organize confusion, lumping together a range of particulars that differ from one another in some degree or other, can the intellectual enterprise proceed at all” (84).

I fully agree with these  statements and they, in fact, clearly elucidate my concerns and doubts about ontologies and similarly highly structured abuses of words and concepts. This is not to say that they are not of use in limited, highly constrained, domains and contexts but that we must be careful of ontological “creep.”

“Beyond Western Civilization: Rebuilding the Survey” is a call to reform the then dying (now dead?) Western Civ course.

Part Three: Masters of the Historical Craft

In this section, McNeill discusses 4 historians he has known in various ways and that have affected his views in 5 chapters. I am not quoting much from these but they do add another kind of value and dimension to the book as a whole.

“Lord Acton”

“Basic Assumptions of Toynbee’s A Study of History”

“Historians I Have Known: Carl Becker”

“For myth-making is a high and serious business. It guides public action and is our distinctively human substitute for instinct. Good myths—That is, myths that are credible, because they are compatible with experience, and specific enough to direct behavior—are the greatest and most precious of human achievements. Why should we not aspire to make such myths? No nobler calling exists among humankind” (165-65).

“Historians I Have Known: Arnold J. Toynbee”

There is a fascinating section in here on not taking notes (192-94).

“Historians I Have Known: Fernand Braudel”

highly recommend this eminently readable and erudite book.

Finally, I’d say that McNeil only touches the tip of the iceberg in identifying mythistory. Don’t be a mark.

An all-seeing Eye of Providence that appears o...

An all-seeing Eye of Providence that appears on the tower of Aachen Cathedral. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– kk

  1. archaeopteryx1 said:

    Intriguing hypothesis – there is, however one point with which I might take exception – “The amount and sheer range of symbolic mediation is primarily what differentiates humans from other animals.” – that we know of, at least until we learn to speak dolphin and whale —

    pax vobiscum,

    • Well, I just don’t know. There is considerable scientific evidence to suggest that our understanding of the intellect of dolphins and pan troglogytes (chimpanzees) – in particular – was a bit too pessimistic. But it isn’t clear how their intellect compares to the human intellect both in terms of degree and quality.

      I know this: the smarts of dolphins and chimpanzees is downright scary.

      – kk

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