Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,

CS Lewis: The Funeral of a Great Myth (for the debate on atheism as religion)

There are some mistakes which humanity has made and repeated so often that there is now really no excuse for making them again. One of these is the injustice which every age does its predecessor; for instance, the ignorant contempt with which the Humanists (even good Humanists like Sir Thomas More) had for mediaeval philosophy, or Romantics (even good Romantics like Keats) felt for eighteenth-century poetry. Each time all this 'reaction' and resentment has to be punished and unsaid; it is a wasteful performance. It is tempting to see whether we, at least, cannot avoid it. Why should we not give our predecessors a fair and filial dismissal?

Such, at all events, is the attempt I am going to make in this paper. I come to bury the great Myth of the nineteenth and early twentieth century; but also to praise it. I am going to pronounce a funeral oration.

By this great Myth I mean that picture of reality which resulted in the period under consideration, not logically but imaginatively, from some of the most striking and (so to speak) marketable theories of the real scientists. I have heard this Myth called "Wellsianity". The name is a good one in so far as it does justice to the share which a great imaginative writer bore in building it up. But it is not satisfactory. It suggests, as we shall see, an error about the date at which the Myth became dominant; and it also suggests that the Myth affected only the "middle-brow" mind. In fact it is as much behind Bridges' Testament of Beauty as it is behind the work of Wells. It dominates minds as different as those of Professor Alexander and Walt Disney. It is implicit in nearly every modern article on politics, sociology, and ethics.

I call it a myth because it is, as I have said, the imaginative and not the logical result of what is vaguely called ‘modern science’. Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as ‘modern science’. There are only particular sciences, all in a state of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another. What the Myth uses is a selection from the scientific theories - a selection made at first, and modified afterwards, in obedience to imaginative and emotional needs. It is the work of the folk imagination, moved by its natural appetite for an impressive unity. It therefore treats its data with great freedom - selecting, slurring, expurgating, and adding at will.

The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence’, just as the central idea in the myth of Adonis is Death and Re-birth. I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth. Before proceeding to describe it and (which is my chief business) to pronounce its eulogy, I had better make clear its mythical character.

We have, first of all, the evidence of chronology. If popular Evolutionism were (as it imagines itself to be) not a Myth but the intellectually legitimate result of the scientific theorem on the public mind, it would arise after that theorem had become widely known. We should have the theorem known first of all to a few, then adopted by all the scientists, then spreading to all men of general education, then beginning to affect poetry and the arts, and so finally percolating to the mass of the people. In fact, however, we had something quite different. The clearest and finest poetical expressions of the Myth come before The Origin of Species was published (1859) and long before it had established itself as scientific orthodoxy. There had, to be sure, been hints and germs of the theory in scientific circles before 1859. But if the mythopoeic poets were all infected by those germs, they must have been very up-to-date indeed, very predisposed to catch the infection. Almost before the scientists spoke, certainly before they spoke clearly, imagination was ripe for it.

The finest expression of the Myth in English does not come from Bridges, nor from Shaw, nor from Wells, nor from Olaf Stapledon. It is this:

As Heaven and Earth are fairer, fairer far
Than Chaos and blank Darkness, though once chiefs:
And as we show beyond that Heaven and Earth
In form and shape compact and beautiful,
In will, in action free, companionship,
And thousand other signs of purer life;
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness.
(II 206-215)

Thus Ocean, in Keats' Hyperion, nearly forty years before The Origin of the Species. And on the Continent we have the Ring of the Nibelungs. Coming, as I do, to bury but also to praise the receding age, I will by no means join in the modern depreciation of Wagner. He may, for all I know, have been a bad man. He may (though I shall never believe it) have been a bad musician. But as a mythopoeic poet he is incomparable. The tragedy of the Evolutionary Myth has never been more nobly expressed than in his Wotan; its heady raptures never more irresistibly than in Siegfried. That he himself knew quite well what he was writing about can be seen from his letter to August Rockel of 1854. "The progress of the whole drama shows the necessity of recognizing and submitting to the change, the diversity, the multiplicity, the eternal novelty of the Real. Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own downfall. This is all we have to learn from the history of Man - to will what is necessary and to bring it ourselves to pass."
[TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: here I have slightly improved on Lewis' surprisingly clumsy rendering of Wagner.]

If Shaw's Back To Methuselah were really, as he supposed, the work of a prophet or a pioneer ushering in a new Myth, its predominantly comic tone and its generally low emotional temperature would be inexplicable. It is admirable fun: but not thus are new epochs brought to birth. The ease with which he plays with the Myth shows that the Myth is fully digested and already senile. Shaw is the Lucian or the Snorri of this mythology; to find its Aeschylus or its Elder Edda you must go back to Keats and Wagner.

This, then, is the first proof that popular Evolution is a Myth. In making it, Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence. "The prophetic soul of the big world" was already pregnant with the Myth: if science had not met the imaginative need, science would not have been so popular. But probably every age gets, within certain limits, the science it desires.

In the second place, we have internal evidence. Popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism differs in content from the Evolution of the real biologists. To the biologist, Evolution is a hypothesis. It covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market, and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions. At least, that is what I think most biologists would say. Professor D.M.S. Watson, it is true, would not go so far. According to him, "Evolution is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or... can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible." (Watson, quoted in Nineteenth Century, April 1943, "Science and the BBC".) This would mean that the sole ground for believing it is not empirical but metaphysical - the dogma of an amateur metaphysician who finds "special creation" incredible. But I do not think it has really come to that. Most biologists have a more robust belief in Evolution than Professor Watson. But it is certainly a hypothesis. In the Myth, however, there is nothing hypothetical about it: it is basic fact; or, to speak more strictly, such distinctions do not exist on the mythical level at all. There are more important differences to follow.

In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes: in the Myth, it is a fact about improvements. Thus a real scientist like Professor J.B.S. Haldane is at pains to point out that popular ideas of Evolution lay a wholly unjustified emphasis on those changes which have rendered creatures (by human standards) ‘better’ or more interesting. He adds, ‘We are therefore inclined to regard progress as the rule in evolution. Actually it is the exception, and for every case of it there are ten of degeneration.’ ("Darwinism Today, Possible Worlds, p.28.) But the Myth simply expurgates the ten cases of degeneration. In the popular mind the word ‘Evolution’ conjures up a picture of things moving ‘onward and upwards’, and of nothing else whatsoever. And it might have been predicted that it would do so. Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of ‘Evolution’ it wanted. It wanted the Keatsian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the Titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious, treaty-entangled Wotan. If science offers any instances to satisfy that demand, they will be eagerly accepted. If it offers any instances that frustrate it, they will simply be ignored.

Again, for the scientist Evolution is purely a biological theorem. It takes over organic life on this planet as a going concern and tries to explain certain changes within that field. It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements. Granted that we now have minds we can trust, granted that organic life came to exist, it tries to explain, say, how a species that once had wings came to lose them. It explains this by the negative effect of environment operating on small variations. It does not in itself explain the origin of organic life, nor of the variations, nor does it discuss the origin and validity of reason. It may well tell you how the brain, through which reason now operates, arose, but that is a different matter. Still less does it even attempt to tell you how the universe as a whole arose, or what it is, or whither it is tending. But the Myth knows none of these reticences. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things--perhaps Deity itself--in the remote future. For in the Myth, ‘Evolution’ (as the Myth understands it) is the formula for all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’. To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.

The drama proper is preceded (do not forget the Rhinegold here) by the most austere of all preludes; the infinite void and matter endlessly, aimlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what. Then by some millionth, millionth chance--what tragic irony!--the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama; just as everything always was against the seventh son or ill-used step-daughter in a fairy tale. But life somehow wins through. With incalculable sufferings (the Sorrows of the Volsungs were nothing to it), against all but insuperable obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself; from the amoeba up to the reptile, up to the mammal. Life (here comes the first climax) ‘wantons as in her prime’. This is the age of the monsters: dragons prowl the earth, devour one another, and die. Then the irresistible theme of the Younger Son or the Ugly Duckling is repeated. As the weak, tiny spark of life herself began amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, shuffling, not yet fully erect, promising nothing: the product of another millionth, millionth chance. His name in this Myth is Man: elsewhere he has been the young Beowulf whom men at first thought a dastard, or the stripling David armed only with a sling against a mail-clad Goliath, or a Jack the Giant-Killer himself, or even Hop-o’-my-Thumb. He thrives. He begins killing his giants. He becomes the Cave Man with his flints and his club, muttering and growling over his enemies’ bones, almost a brute and yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery, and nearly everything else (his name in another story is Robinson Crusoe), dragging his screaming mate by her hair (I do not know exactly why), tearing his children to pieces in fierce jealousy until they are old enough to tear him, and cowering before the terrible gods whom he has invented in his own image.

But these were only growing pains. In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate. Passing hastily over the historical period (in it the upward and onward movement gets in places a little indistinct, but it is a mere nothing by the time-scale we are using) we follow our hero on into the future. See him in the last act, though not the last scene, of this great mystery. A race of demi-gods now rule the planet (in some versions, the galaxy). Eugenics have made certain that only demi-gods will now be born: psychoanalysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity: economics that they shall have to hand all that demi-gods require. Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory.

And now, mark well the final stroke of mythopoeic genius. It is only the more debased versions of the Myth that end here. For to end here is a little bathetic, even a little vulgar. If we stopped at this point the story would lack the highest grandeur. Therefore, in the best versions, the last scene reverses all. Arthur died: Siegfried died: Roland dies at Roncesvaux. Dusk steals darkly over the gods. All this time we have forgotten Mordred, Hagen, Ganilon. All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool--all suns will cool--the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness. ‘Universal darkness covers all’. True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories: enden sah ich die welt.

I grew up believing in this Myth and have felt--I still feel--its almost perfect grandeur. Let no one say we are an unimaginative age: neither the Greeks nor the Norsemen ever invented a better story. Even to the present day, in certain moods, I could almost find it in my heart to wish that it was not mythical, but true. And yet, how could it be?

What makes it impossible that it should be true is not so much the lack of evidence for this or that scene in the drama or the fatal self-contradiction which runs right through it. The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all. Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists--which are taken over by the Myth--you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational--if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel--how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from biochemistry which results from physics’. But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’. The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one’s suspicion that we touch here a radical disease in their whole style of thought. But the man who does see it, is compelled to reject as mythical the cosmology in which most of us were brought up. That is has embedded in it many true particulars I do not doubt: but in its entirety, it simply will not do. Whatever the real universe may turn out to be like, it can’t be like that.

I have been speaking hitherto of this Myth as of a thing to be buried, because I believe that its dominance is already over; in the sense that what seem to me the most vigorous movements of contemporary thought point away from it. Physics (a discipline less easily mythological) is replacing biology as the science par excellence in the mind of the plain man. The whole philosophy of "Becoming" has been vigorously challenged by the American "Humanists". The revival of theology has attained proportions that have to be reckoned with. The Romantic poetry and music in which popular Evolutionism found its natural counterpart are going out of fashion. But of course a Myth does not die in a day. We may expect that this Myth, when driven from cultured circles, will long retain its hold on the masses, and even when abandoned by them, will continue for centuries to haunt our language. Those who wish to attack it must beware of despising it. There are deep reasons for its popularity.

The basic idea of the Myth - that small or chaotic or feeble things perpetually turn into large, strong, ordered things - may, at first sight, seem a very odd one. We have never seen a pile of rubble turning itself into a house. But this odd idea commends itself to the imagination by the help of what seem to be two instances of it within everyone's knowledge. Everyone has seen individual organisms doing it. Acorns become oaks, grubs become insects, eggs become birds, every man was once an embryo. And secondly - which weighs very much in the popular mind during a machine age - everyone has seen Evolution really happening in the history of machines. We all remember when locomotives were smaller and less efficient than they are now. These two apparent instances are quite enough to convince the imagination that Evolution in a cosmic sense is the most natural thing in the world. It is true that reason cannot here agree with imagination. These apparent instances are not really instances of Evolution at all. The oak comes indeed from the acorn, but then the acorn was dropped by an earlier oak. Every man began with the union of an ovum and a spermatozoon, but the ovum and the spermatozoon came from two fully developed human beings. The modern express engine came from the Rocket; but the Rocket came, not from something under and more elementary than itself, but from something much more developed and highly organized - the mind of a man, and a man of genius. Modern art may have "developed" from savage art. But then the very first picture of all did not "evolve" itself: it came from something overwhelmingly greater than itself, from the mind of that man who, by seeing for the first time that marks on a flat surface could be made to look like animals and men, proved himself to exceed in sheer blinding genius any of the artists who have succeeded him. It may be true that if we trace back any existing civilization to its beginnings, we shall find those beginnings crude and savage; but then, when you look closer, you usually find that those beginnings themselves come from a wreck of some earlier civilization.

In other words, the apparent instances of, or analogies to, Evolution, which impress the folk imagination, operate by fixing our attention on one half of the process. What we actually see all round us is a double process - the perfect "dropping" an imperfect seed which in turn develops to perfection. By concentrating exclusively on the record of upward movement in the cycle, we seem to see "evolution". But if we are to be guided by the analogy of Nature as we now know her, it would be reasonable to suppose that this evolutionary process was the second half of a long pattern - that the crude beginnings of life on this planet have themselves been "dropped" there by a full and perfect life.

The analogy may be mistaken. Perhaps Nature was once different. Perhaps the universe as a whole is quite different from those parts of it which fall under our observation. But if that is so, if there once was a dead universe which somehow made itself alive, if there was absolutely original savagery which raised itself by its own shoulder strap ito civilization, then we ought to recognize that things of this sort happen no longer, that the world that we are being asked to believe in is radically unlike the world we experience. In other words, all the immediate plausibility of the Myth has vanished. But it has vanished only because we have been thinking it will remain plausible to the imagination, and it is imagination which makes the Myth: it takes over from rational thought only what it finds convenient.

Another source of strength in the Myth is what psychologists call its "ambivalence". It gratifies equally two opposite tendencies of the mind, the tendency to denigration and the tendency to flattery. In the Myth, everything is becoming everything else: in fact, everyting is everything else at an earlier or later stage of development - the later stages being always the better. This means that if you are feeling like Mencken, you can "debunk" all the respectable things by pointing out that they are "merely" elaborations of the disreputable things. Love is "merely" an elaboration of lust, virtue merely an elaboration of instinct, and so on. On the other hand, it also means that if you are feeling what the people call "idealistic", you can regard all the nasty things (in yourself or your party or your nation) as being "merely" the underdeveloped forms of all the nice things: vice is only underdeveloped virtue, egotism only underdeveloped altruism, a little more education will set everything right.

The Myth also soothes the old wounds of our childhood. Without going as far as Freud, we may yet well admit that every man has an old grudge against his father and his first teacher. The process of being brought up, however well it is done, cannot fail to offend. How pleasing, therefore, to abandon the old idea of "descent" from our concocters, in favour of the new idea of "evolution" or "emergence": to feel that we have risen from them as a flower from the earth, that we have transcended them as Keats' Gods transcend the Titans. One then gets a kind of cosmic excuse for regarding one's father as a muddling old Mime, and his claims upon our gratitude or respect as an insufferable Stammenlied. "Out of the way, old fool: it is we who know how to forge Nothung!"

The Myth also pleases those who want to sell things to us. In the old days, a man had a family carriage built for him when he got married, and expected it to last all his life. Such a frame of mind would hardly suit modern manufacturers. But popular Evolutionism suits them exactly. Nothing ought to last. They want you to have a new car, a new radio set, a new everything every year. The new model must always be superseding the old. Madam would like the latest fashion. For this is evolution, this is development, this is the way the universe itself is going; and "sales-resistance" is the sin against the Holy Ghost, the élan vital.

Finally, modern politics would be impossible without the Myth. It arose in the Revolutionary period. But for the political ideals of that period, it would never have been accepted. That explains why the Myth concentrates on Haldane's one case of biological "progress" and ignores his ten cases of "degeneration". If the cases of degeneration were kept in mind, it would be impossible not to see that any given change in society is at least as likely to destroy the liberties and amenities we already have as to add new ones: that the danger of slipping back is at least as great as the chance of getting on; that a prudent society must spend at least as much energy on conserving what it has, as on improvement. A clear knowledge of these truisms would be fatal both to the political Left and to the political Right of modern times. The Myth obscures that knowledge. Great parties have a vested interest in maintaining the Myth. We must therefore expect that it will survive in the popular press (including the ostensiby comic press) long after it has been expelled from educated circles. In Russia, where it has been built into the state religion, it may survive for centuries; for

It has great allies.
Its friends are propaganda, party cries,
And bilge, and Man's incorrigible mind.


But that is not the note on which I would wish to end. The Myth has all these discreditable allies; but we should be far astray if we thought it had no others. As I have tried to show, it has better allies too. It appeals to the same innocent and permanent needs in us which welcome Jack the Giant-Killer. It gives us almost everything the imagination craves - irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except my reason. That is why those of us who feel that the Myth is already dead for us must not make the mistake of trying to "debunk" it in the wrong way. We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man's role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all lesser poetries have been renounced and imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense; but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it. For my own part, though I believe it no longer, I shall always enjoy it as I enjoy other myths. I shall keep my Cave-Man where I keep Balder and Helen and the Argonauts; and there often revisit him.
Tags: articles by others, cs lewis, culture history, evolution, science
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