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Embracing the Mythic

Posted on: March 13, 2022

Category: Theology

Embracing the Mythic

Before I developed friendships with Westar classical and biblical scholars, I was mostly a philosopher interested in the problem of history. As a philosopher, I learned about a distinction between res gestae and historia rerum gestarum. Later, with my Westar friends, I learned about the “res gestae” or great accomplishments of Augustus Caesar. However, I want to stick here mostly to philosophy.

Res gestae is used as a legal term for the facts pertinent to a particular case, but in philosophy it often means the totality of events. We have to recall some Latin to get this sense. Res means a thing or things, and gestus is an action or a gesture. Gestae is the plural form of gestus, so res gestae means “things done,” “deeds accomplished,” or just “accomplishments.” In philosophy, the expression tends to mean the totality of things done. It means, basically, all the stuff that happens.

The second expression, historia rerum gestarum, at first seems to mean the same thing expressed differently. Historia, of course, is history, and rerum gestarum is the genitive or possessive form of res gestae. This phrase is also translated in a variety of ways, such as, “a history of things done,” “a history of accomplishments,” and “a history of deeds.” You may well ask, why would some philosophers make a distinction between “things done” and “a history of things done”?

The difference is that the first expression identifies an objective state, which we noted is the totality of things done, and the second denotes a subjective state, which is a story about things done. It is possible that historians and Latinist would think the distinction strange and maybe misleading, but the philosopher is emphasizing “history,” not “deeds.” The emphasis of the philosopher turns the distinction between the two expressions into a problem.

Instead of saying the “totality of things done,” we can say “all things done.” Perhaps that is simpler. The emphasis in philosophy falls not on all things done but how the things are reported, how the “historia” (story) is told. In philosophy, history is not the event but the account, and since the account is a creation of the narrator, in philosophy history is myth. History is always a creation. This is the problem.

In ancient writing, the mythic nature of history is pretty obvious. Ancient people wrote history to display their myths. They desired to display in events the essential lessons of life, the heroic narratives of culture, and the reasoning for a government. The res gestae of Augustus Caesar written on his tomb is really a historia rerum gestarum: a mythical story about his greatness. The res gestae account of Augustus is about displaying the deeds that represent the heroic essence of the person.

In the nineteenth century, the ancient idea of heroic history waned, and the rise of critical history began. Supposedly, we are today aware of the problem of history, which is commonly stated with the word “bias.” Almost anyone on the street today is quite capable of accusing another person’s account of things as biased. The accusation reflects the assumption of nineteenth-century critical history, which is the assumption that to do history well, we have to avoid the ancient custom of writing exaggerated or heroic accounts.

The nineteenth-century philosophers also made a second point beyond the idea commonly called bias. We can think of it this way. Res gestae (everything that happens) is the background to historia res gestarum (the story of what happened), but the story is subject to permanent criticism. We can never tell the story without interpreting it, so we always tell “myths” and never really tell history. This permanent problem of history, the problem that history is always myth, became in the twentieth century the central trouble of existential phenomenology, that is, the trouble of being human. We can only occupy one place, at a certain time, under certain conditions. It is not possible to escape this condemnation to myth.

The trouble with humanity, from this philosophical perspective, is that we seem incapable of being happy as a myth. We seem incapable of grasping our lives as myths and celebrating this inexplicable absurdity as joy. What we prefer is the master narrative, which is the ancient habit of obsessing with the heroic. Empires are built on these obsessions that express the desire to control, to define, to set things right, to establish importance, to claim power, to create the world in our own image. It is the obsession with the heroic that prevents us from enjoying the myth.

The two Latin expressions above encapsulate the one problem of being in history. Things happen: that is the background against which we all must live. Things that happen to us must be interpreted: that is the foreground in which our lives are set. Provided the foreground is embraced as myth, there is great flexibility here. It need not be a heroic embrace. It can be comical. It can be about the many characteristics, since the twentieth century, that have become valuable, such as our recognition of difference, our affirmation of pluralism, and our respect for the integrity of nature, the planet, and even the stars.

A problem is always an opportunity. The problem of history is the obsession with the heroic, which is killing us. The opportunity of history is the celebration of the mythic, which can open to life the gift of joy.

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