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The European Legacy, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp.

187198, 2007

Eric Voegelins Philosophy of Myth

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JOHN BUSSANICH

ABSTRACT Eric Voegelins Philosophy of Myth is an introduction to the eminent political philosophers
theory of the nature and function of myth in pre-modern cultures, particularly in ancient Greece and
Mesopotamia. For Voegelin archaic myths and symbols provide grounds or foundations for a broad range of
phenomena, from individual objects and events to the entire cosmos. They convey a sense of wholeness and
interconnectedness through a type of analogical thinking. The concepts of compactness and differentiation are
essential components in his overall theory. The former designates the unity of the symbol and the symbolized,
the latter their separation into immanent and transcendent poles in the reflections of Greek philosophers and of
Jewish and Christian thinkers. Both compact and differentiated accounts employ the symbols of the Beginning
and Beyond, viz. the originating source of all things and their transcendent goal. Voegelins treatment of the
mythical and philosophical styles of truth is not limited to the distant past. Throughout history individual myths
or symbols lose their transformative power, but, he asserts, they are regenerated or replaced by new ones
discovered by great souls who have experiential access to the underlying realities.

Myths are stories about the nature of reality and our quest for wholeness, and they have
been a pervasive feature of human culture for millennia. Even now, in an age dominated
by technology, scientism, and global capitalism, myth has not released its hold on the
human imagination. For many observers, scientific rationality long ago replaced myth
and religion as the arbiter of truth, but this progressivist picture is itself a product of
the mythical imagination, albeit a deformed one. Making sense of myth past and
present depends on how one approaches this challenge: reality always outruns our cognitive grasp and all our representations, which are inevitably partial and inadequate.
We can limit our perspective to domains over which scientific rationality exercises its
limited authority. Or, in the face of lifes intractable puzzles and mysteries, we can enlist
critical rationality to explore the myths and symbols which our deepest longings always
call forth.
If one accepts that the psycho-empirical ego and conscious awareness comprise but a
narrow peninsula which juts out precariously into the vast sea of the unconscious and
the supra-conscious and that myths and symbols are some of the best maps of voyages
into the great unknown, Eric Voegelins historically sophisticated and philosophically
subtle account of archaic myth will be of great interest. Unlike post-Enlightenment

Department of Philosophy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131. Email: john.bussanich@gmail.com


ISSN 1084-8770 print/ISSN 1470-1316 online/07/02018712 2007 International Society for the Study of European Ideas
DOI: 10.1080/10848770701208277

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social-scientific theories of myth, which typically explicate the origin, function,


and content of myths from a disinterested viewpoint, Voegelins theory is alive to the
transformative power of myths and symbols. His psychological openness has
affinities with some twentieth-century psychologists, anthropologists, and historians of
religionlike Freud, Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliadewho reject the idea
that myth is a disposable relic of primitive thought. But Voegelins inquiries into archaic
myth eschew the reductionistic tendencies prevalent in these psychologistic theories.
Despite heavy demands made on readers by a theoretical vocabulary derived primarily
from classical and scholastic philosophy, for dedicated students of ancient myth Voegelins
speculative and oracular style may prove both insightful and inspiring. Informed by
encyclopedic empirical and historical knowledge of the great ancient civilizations from
Greece to China, he theorizes that myths and symbols play an essential role in the effort
to think about what transcends human understanding: formulations about the origin of
things and about the ultimate destiny of human existence. Here I shall focus on his
account of the nature and function of myth in pre-modern cultures. Readers who share
his assumptions will profit greatly also from his trenchant critique of scientistic and
rationalist rejections of myth and religion.
Since Voegelin articulates his theory of myth in concert with detailed exegesis of
specific texts, myths, and symbols in their historical contexts, it will be useful to keep in
mind his tripartite typology of civilizations, which is presented in his magnum
opus,Order and History Vols. 14.1 He distinguishes cosmological (Egypt, Mesopotamia,
China), anthropological (Greco-Roman), and soteriological (Hindu, Israelite, Christian,
Islamic) types of civilization. The first two civilizational types correlate roughly with two
distinct modes of symbolization:
The one is the symbolization of society and its order as an analogue of the cosmos and
its order; the other is the symbolization of social order by analogy with the order of
a human existence that is well attuned to being. Under the first form society will be
symbolized as a microcosmos; under the second form as a macroanthropos. The first
mentioned form is also chronologically the first (14.1.43).

These modes represent phases in Voegelins schema for a history of symbolization, which
he conceives as a progression from compact to differentiated experiences and symbols
(14.1.43).
The second symbol or formsociety as macroanthropostends to appear when
cosmologically symbolized empires break down and in their disaster engulf the trust in
cosmic order . . . . At this juncture symbolization tends to shift toward what is more
lasting than the visibly existing worldi.e. toward the invisibly existing being [which]
can be experienced only as a movement in the soul of man; and hence the soul, when
ordered by attunement to the unseen god, becomes the model of order that will
furnish symbols for ordering society analogically in its image (14.1.44).

Note the distinctive emphasis on experience as the foundation of symbolization and


as the source of the shift in its form.
To begin with the first form, Voegelin defines (1) cosmological symbolization as
the mythical expression of the participation . . . of the order of society in the divine being
that also orders the cosmos (14.1.66) and as the symbolization of political order by

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means of cosmic analogies (14.1.78). In Mesopotamia, for example, changes in imperial


rule followed from upheavals among the gods and in Egypt the Pharaoh is a manifestation
of a god albeit a mortal one (14.1.112). (2) Anthropological civilizations symbolize order
by analogy with the order of the human soul. Archaic Greek and Ancient Near Eastern
cultures are similar insofar as they comprise communities of divine and human beings and,
broadly considered, their cosmogonies are also theogonies, for example in the Babylonian
Enuma Elish (or Epic of Creation) and Hesiods Theogony. Yet Greek socio-political order is
based less on cosmic analogies than on individualized divinities, a tendency which leads to
explicit anthropomorphism (14.1.80). Thus, the anthropological type in its mature form
leads to a transcendent idea of the human soul in the Greek philosophers, as for example
in Platos conception of society as man written large. (3) Soteriological civilizations are
centered on the idea of divine revelation and more clearly distinguish the spiritual and
temporal orders.
Cutting across this civilizational typology is Voegelins notion of mythical,
philosophical, and pneumatic styles of truth. (The third, pneumatic style is based on
revelation as found in, e.g., the Old Testaments prophetic books or in the Pauline
Epistles). Significantly, Voegelins three styles do not employ mutually exclusive modes of
cognition, discourse, or representation nor is any one of them or of the civilizational types
superior to the others in every respect. He rejects both the progressivist ideologies of
philosophers like Hegel, who privileges abstract rationality as the supreme style over
myth and faith, and romantic anti-modernists who rank myth above rationality. The
luminaries in Voegelins philosophical pantheon are thinkers like Plato and Schelling,
who make myth central to their search for wisdom, or like Augustine and Aquinas,
who combine philosophy with revelation. But in its purest form, the mythical style of
truth is found predominantly in cosmological cultures and in archaic Greeces
anthropological culture. What is most distinctive about the mythical perspective,
in Voegelins pregnant formulation, is its compactness, the notion that the cosmos is
experienced and represented as a consubstantial, living whole (14.1.12324) without
being split apart into immanent and transcendent poles or, in the post-Enlightenment
variation on this theme, into secular and sacred realms. Compact experiences and
symbolizations eventually break apart to varying degrees by means of differentiated
experiences and symbols which are indigenous to each civilization. For Voegelin
differentiation specifies the developing reflective awareness of the difference between
perceiving subject and intentional object, and also the awareness that reality transcends
the cosmos. It will be noticed that Voegelins concepts of compactness and differentiation
are indebted to earlier theorists of myth, for example to Levy-Bruhls notion that
mythical thinking is pre-logical and that it arises from a mystic communion with
divine beings and forces and the view, developed in various ways, by the Frankforts,
Mircea Eliade, and Ernst Cassirer, that mythopoetic thinking possesses immediacy and
lacks separation between subject and object.2 But what is unique about Voegelins
account is that he does not consider mythical thinking primitive or to be superseded by
science or philosophy as do most other theorists of myth. In a brilliant hermeneutic move
he argues that both the experiences and their symbolizations in these compact and
differentiated modes are analogous and equivalent, a challenging claim which I shall
address below.

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With these principles in mind we can approach Voegelins account of mythical


compactness, for which he developed the phrase primary experience of the cosmos to
suggest that the cosmos in archaic thought is equivalent to all of reality:
The cosmos of the primary experience is neither the external world of objects given to a
subject of cognition, nor is it the world that has been created by a world-transcendent
God. Rather, it is the whole . . . of an earth below and a heaven aboveof celestial
bodies and their movements; of seasonal changes; of fertility rhythms in plant and
animal life; of human life, birth and death; and above all, as Thales still knew, it is a
cosmos full of gods. This last point, that the gods are intracosmic, cannot be stressed
strongly enough, because it is almost eclipsed today by such facile categorizations
as polytheism and monotheism. The numbers are not important, but rather the
consciousness of divine reality as intracosmic or transmundane. In the [Egyptian]
Memphite Theology, imperial order is established by a drama of the gods that, by virtue
of the consubstantiality of all being, is performed on the human plane as the drama of
Egypts conquest and unification. In the Sumerian King List, kingship is created in
heaven and then lowered to earth; and two thousand years later, in Jewish apocalypse,
there is still a Jerusalem in heaven, to be lowered to earth when the time for Gods
kingdom has come. Yahweh speaks from Mt. Sinai, out of a fiery cloud; the Homeric
Olympians dwell on this earth, on a mountain reaching into the clouds, and they have
quarrels and agreements affecting the historical destinies of peoples in Asia and Europe.
The Hesiodic gods Uranus and Gaia are indistinguishably heaven and earth themselves;
they enter into a union and generate the gods, and the generation of gods in their turn
generates the races of man. This togetherness and one-in-anotherness is the primary
experience that must be called cosmic in the pregnant sense (17.4.11819).

The sense of togetherness and consubstantiality vividly captures the tenor of


early mythic thought. The identification of divinities with fundamental aspects of the
cosmosthe Greek gods of heaven and earth or the Egyptian creator gods, who manifest
the various elemental powers Re-Atum/sun, Ptah/earth, and Amon/wind (14.122) or
the manifestations of gods in the form of animal species or the Pharaohs (14.11214)
exemplifies for Voegelin a kind of analogical thinking: The intracosmic sectors of
reality . . . provide one another with analogies of being whose cosmological validity
derives from an underlying, intangible embracingness, from a something that can supply
existence, consubstantiality, and order to all sectors of reality even though it does not itself
belong to the class of existent things.3
The direct, one might almost say intuitive, sort of thinking involved in the more
compact symbolizations prevalent in archaic societies reflects a tolerance that the order
of being can be represented analogically in more than one way. Every concrete symbol is
true insofar as it envisages the truth, but none is completely true insofar as the truth about
being is essentially beyond human reach (14.46).
A key cosmological symbol is the image of the king as ruler over the four quarters,
which is analogized to divine rule over the cosmos. The symbol itself is rooted in the
perception of the motions of the earth and celestial bodies which mark out the four
directions and regions. As an example of equivalent experiences lying behind the same
symbol, Voegelin suggests that a design of four quarters inscribed in a circle, devised by a
Stone Age symbolist, expresses an experience of the Cosmos equivalent to the experience
which motivates the Assyrian royal style of a ruler over the four quarters of the land.4

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Another example is the Babylonian New Year festival in which the king performs a
ritual combat that symbolizes the victory of the god over the forces of chaos while
the priests recite Marduks victory over Tiamat in the Enuma Elish (28.86). What
distinguishes Voegelin from other theorists is his more precise use of the insight that
cosmogonic ritual works together with primordial story to renew order and his avoidance
of scientistic and psychologistic reductionism. Indeed, his evocation of the experiential
dimension of mythic narratives is so vivid that modern readers may feel as if they have
travelled to the distant past via a time machine and are witnessing primordial events!
Notwithstanding the risk of anachronistically projecting into ancient texts meanings that
they cannot bear, Voegelins speculation on myth comprises a valiant effort to penetrate
to the experiences behind the symbols, which, he argues, must ineluctably remain a
dead truth, a broken image, unless the acts of articulation are re-enacted by the reader or
hearer of their original accounts. No more than the truth of myth can the truth of
reason be conveyed by information; it must be acquired by an act of meditative
articulation (28.91).
Voegelins own meditations on the wellsprings of myth suggest that,
a myth is a technique of imputing a ground to an object of experience. That is, if I have
experience of man, of the gods, of a piece of landscape, of a temple, or a custom, or an
institutionthen I want to know, Where does it come from? Then I tell a story of
where it comes from, and that where-it-comes-from is now the ground of it, the aition
[cause or explanatory factor] in that sense. That is not an answer. Everything comes
ultimately from a transcendent groundfor instance, a Creator-God, or, in a
philosophical sense, the nous [mind]. But in myth it comes from very specific things: a
god has created it, a demi-god has created it, an institution has invented it, or a dynasty
has a god for its ancestor . . . . This type of imputation of a groundimputation of
existence and manner of existence of a groundone can now more closely formulate
as: imputation towards another intracosmic object or action. There is a general
experience of the cosmos; everything is within the cosmos, including the gods, and if
you want to explain anything in the cosmos you can explain it only by telling a story:
how it originated from something else in the same cosmos. That is what we might call
intracosmic relating of things to their ground, to other things or actions within the
cosmos; there is nothing outside the cosmos. Thus myth can be definedI think fairly
exactly: there are no exceptions to itas imputation to other intracosmic things as to a
ground. It is myth when you tell a story of an intracosmic ground.5

Thus, not only do myths comprise stories that explain why things are as they are and
thereby imbue human existence with meaning and purpose, they also for Voegelin offer
powerful formulations of and responses to perennial philosophical questions: why is there
something rather than nothing? whence and how does reality arise? In this deeper sense
a mythical symbol is a finite symbol supposed to provide transparence for a transfinite
process.6 Especially in Voegelins later thought, the ultimate referents of myth are the
great symbols of the Beginning and the Beyond.7 Theorizing about myth by means
of such grand abstractions may seem wildly speculative to those who conceive of myth as
primitive story-telling. For Voegelin myth represents a more basic, a simplerthough
no less meaningful or profoundmode of inspiring and describing contact with
transcendent realities than is available in philosophy or in scriptural revelation. In a very
deep sense mythical symbols are unavoidable for humans because reality transcends all

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types of representation and because our formulations cannot dispense completely with
concrete phenomena: The reality of things, it appears, cannot be fully understood in
terms of the world and its time; for the things are circumfused by an ambience of mystery
that can be understood only in terms of the Myth (28.175). Although over time
particular symbols and myths may become referentially opaque, the realities symbolized
do not cease to exist, which is evidenced by the fact that invalidated myths and symbols
are replaced by new or revitalized ones. Voegelin rejects the inevitability of modern
disenchantment with the world, for even though we should have to reject all traditional
symbolizations of cosmic reality as incompatible with our present mode of experience,
we still are living in the reality of the cosmos and not in the universe of physics, the
brainwashing propaganda of our scientistic ideologues notwithstanding (12.9394).
There is an appeal to the poetic spirit in all of us in Voegelins theorizing about myth.
Regarding the origin of the universe, for example, I suspect that for Voegelin the Big
Bang theory is most true in its mythic (and non-empirical) capacity to engage all aspects
of the human imagination in reflecting on the Beginning. In cosmogonic myth the
Beginning appears in the analogical time of a creation story, that is, in the Time of the
Tale (28.74). For Voegelin this is not a literary motif or a piece of structuralist theory
which can be detached from either humans or the reality we symbolize: the adequacy of
the symbolism to the experience points to the miracle of a mythical imagination that can
produce the adequate Tale. We are touching on the problem . . . of an imagination and
a language that is itself perhaps not altogether of this world (28.175). That is to say,
the human urge to conceive and represent ultimate states of affairs, such as the Beginning
and the Beyond, always involves mythical symbols whether in the compact style of
cosmological civilizations or in more differentiated tales like the pneumatic cosmogony of
the Book of Genesis or the philosophical myth of Platos Timaeus. The persistence of myth
throughout history is hardly Voegelins discovery, but his meditations on the great
perennial symbols of Beginning and Beyond, cosmos, and time and eternity reveal the
deep affinity between the earliest forms of symbolizationfor example in Paleolithic
cave-paintingsand the persistent longing for meaning and transcendence. I turn now to
his account of how this capacity for myth-making expresses itself when combined with
critical philosophical insight or individuated religious experiences.
It is a commonplace in the philosophy of history that a break with archaic myth
occurred in many civilizations in the first millennium B.C.E. Karl Jaspers famously coined
the phrase the axial age, the period from 800 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E., which was
dominated by world-historic figures like the Presocratics, Socrates, Plato, the authors of
the Upanishads, Lao-Tzu, and the Buddha. Voegelins take on this momentous transition
eschews the oversimplified binary oppositions of myth vs. reason, polytheism vs.
monotheism, and reason vs. revelation. His analysis of the modes of symbolization in
terms of compactness and differentiation and of the mythical, anthropological, and
pneumatic styles of truth, which combine in multifaceted ways, is far suppler than most
interpretive schemes for construing the diversity of the historical record. To his credit
Voegelin avoids the endemic progressivism of Western thought evident, for example,
in Hegels philosophy of history and in postmodernist announcements of the death of
philosophy, which, motivated by a shudder at the richness of the spirit as it reveals itself
all over the earth in a multitude of hierophanies succumb to a monomaniacal desire
to force the operations of the spirit in history on the one line that will unequivocally

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lead into the speculators present. The speculators, he observes, juggle facts and
chronology with such insouciance, if not impertinence, that sometimes there seems to be
no limit to the game (17.4.4748). The speculatorsfrom the sophisticated
constructions of Hegel to New Age fabulists, who trace back human culture to Earthvisits by stellar astronautsderail, in Voegelins view, because they treat hierophantic
events on the level of phenomena in time, not letting their argument reach into the
structure of experiencing consciousness (17.4.49). It is this existential approach to the
origin of symbols and myths which motivates Voegelins idea of spiritual outbursts, which
occur in many cultures at disparate times, whereby individual sages, prophets, and
philosophers experience a tension towards the divine reality beyond the cosmos. The
central concept employed to indicate the break with the myth is the leap in being,
which occurred most distinctly, he asserts, in Greece and in Israel, giving rise there to the
symbolisms of Philosophy and Revelation, and also in Egypt, China, and India.
The truth of revelation and philosophy has become fatal to the intracosmic gods; and
the removal of the gods from the cosmos has set a dedivinized nature free to be
explored by science . . . . The new truth can affect the belief in intracosmic divinities as
the most adequate symbolization of cosmic-divine reality, but it cannot affect the
experience of divine reality as the creative and ordering force in the cosmos (17.4.53).

Despite the advance in truth, human nature is constant in spite of its unfolding, in the
history of mankind, from compact to differentiated order (15.2.71). The ways the leaps
in being develop new symbols to replace or incorporate earlier symbols require attention
to the specific context:
The Hidden or Unknown God who reveals himself in the movements of the soul will
be identified with the creator-god, while all other gods become false gods, as in Israel,
or he will be identified with the creator-high-god, as a summus deus in relation to all
other gods, as in the Egyptian Amon Hymns; or he will be permitted to coexist with
the intracosmic divinities, as in Hinduism; or he will be discerned as the truly highest
god above the Olympians, and even above the divinities of the philosophers myths, as
with Plato or Plotinus. But he also can become the good god to whom the spark of the
divine pneuma returns when man has escaped in death from the prison of the cosmos,
created by an evil god for the purpose of entrapping the spark, as in certain Gnostic
movements (17.5354).

There is only space to sample Voegelins analyses of the leaps in being. I shall discuss
the paradigmatic Old Testament revelation briefly and then, in greater detail, the
differentiation achieved by the Greek philosophers. The cosmogony of Genesis breaks
with the compact symbolism of the intracosmic gods, characteristic of its Egyptian
predecessors, and identifies the creator-god of the Beginning with the Unknown God of
the Beyond whose presence is experienced in the theophanies of Moses and the prophets.
It is a cosmogonic myth, affected in its structure by the pneumatic differentiations of
consciousness (17.77). Despite differences between the pneumatic myth of Genesis and
Platos noetic myth in the Timaeus, both types of the leap in being share certain features.
(1) Insofar as they extrapolate the genesis of things to an absolute ground (12.75),
they differentiate a transcendent Beyondwhat Voegelin also calls the non-existent
groundand identify it with the Beginning. (2) These spiritual outbursts fracture the

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compact experience of time: the hierophantic event leaves in its wake a Before and an
After (17.50). (3) Theophanies and spiritual outbursts generate new symbols and practices
through the play of the mythopoeic imagination. (4) The Greek and Israelite symbols,
when hardened in the form of philosophical doctrine and scriptural dogma, respectively,
preserved some of the truth at the cost of obscuring the originating experiences. For those
not able to reactivate the engendering experience fully, the surviving truth of the
language can acquire a status independent of the originating reality. The truth of reality
living in the symbols can be deformed into a doctrinal truth about reality (17.87).8
The complexities of the leap in being in archaic Greece are explored in Voegelins
analysis of Hesiod, who begins to break with the myth but whose resymbolization
preserves elements of the older form. In the Theogony Hesiod develops the opposition
between true and false symbols (ll. 2728) and invokes the Muses, the daughters of
Memory, as the sources of his knowledge (ll. 36104). Voegelin construes this as a kind of
revelatory event within the medium of the myth rather than merely as a traditional
literary device. The poets recollection of primordial events like the cosmogony is
mediated by the divine Muses, who provide glimpses of the Beginning beyond the
intracosmic gods in the form of the primordial triad Chaos, Gaia, and Eros: the Muses
have to use Hesiods language of compact divinity, i.e., a language of the gods that
has not yet sufficiently differentiated the tensions of Beginning-Beyond and ParousiaBeyond.9
The Hesiodian speculation, however, does not belong to the same type as the
Egyptian, for the Olympian myth of Homer, to which it applied, was no longer
cosmological. The decisive step toward the creation of the historical form had been
taken by Homer when he transfigured the Achaean fall into the past of Hellenic
society. Unlike the Egyptian speculation, which remained an event within the medium
of the cosmological form, the Hesiodian work has its sequel in philosophy because it
moves within the mnemosynic form of the singer . . . [S]ince the compact symbols of
the myth comprehend shades of experience that escape the differentiated concepts of
metaphysics, while the language of metaphysics lends precision to meanings that
remain inarticulate in the myth, the units of meaning cannot be amply paired off
against each other. Nevertheless, the transition is an intelligible process, because the
experiential substratum provided by Homer remains recognizable in its sameness
through the change of symbolic forms; and this sameness is most clearly recognizable in
the Hesiodian beginnings of the process, when, in faltering and stumbling speculation,
the symbols of the myth point searchingly toward meanings for which later generations
of philosophers will develop a technical vocabulary. The Theogony represents such an
incipient penetration of the Olympian myth with a speculative intention (15.19697).

Voegelin draws on Aristotle in order to characterize the type of symbolization at work


in Hesiods mythopoetry. Hesiods theologizing is distinguished from the philosophizing of the Ionians (Met. 983b29, 982b11ff.), since the theologians speculate
mythically (1000a9). All people are equally excited by thaumazein (wondering), but
they can express their wonderment either through the myth or through philosophy.
Side by side with the philosophos there is, therefore, the philomuthos . . . and that philomuthos
is, in a sense, a philosophos, for the myth consists of wonders (thaumasion) (Met. 982bff.).10
Voegelin rightly detects a connection between the mythic sense of wonder and the
philosophical quest for transcendence: the philosopher, while not disposing of the

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thaumasia of the myth, has a thaumasion in the divine nous (Met. 1072b26). This
association is based in part on Aristotles first-person report: The more I am by
myself and alone, the more I have come to love myths (Fr. 668) (16.3.246). Voegelins
point is not that Hesiod and Aristotle apprehend the same truths or express them in
the same manner. Indeed, since Aristotle rejects anthropo- and therio-morphism
(Met. 1074b115), he eliminates the thaumasia of the polytheistic myth but retains
the knowledge of the philomythoi about the divinity of the ground.11 The analogy
between poet and philosopher reflects similarity of experience in spite of differences in
formal expression.
The differentiation and leap in being, which characterize the transition from the
mythical to the philosophical styles of truth, are accompanied by the philosophers
critique of anthropomorphism. Voegelins account of this critique is far richer than the
standard rationalistic approach.
Is it not probable, we may ask, that human qualities are transferred to gods only as long
as the spheres of the divine and human are not quite clearly set off against each
other? . . . That anthropomorphism is possible only as long as the idea of man is not
too clearly differentiated? That anthropomorphism occurs only when it cannot occur
at all because an idea of man that could be transferred to the gods has not yet
developed? And that it tends to disappear precisely when a transferable idea of man has
been formed at last? . . . Anthropomorphism appears in retrospect as a symbolization of
gods that corresponds to a past phase in the self-understanding of man . . .. Behind the
term anthropomorphism, which has become a scientistic cliche, hides the process
in which the idea of man differentiates and correlatively with it the symbolization
of transcendence (15.24445).
So far as the Greek gods are concerned there is no anthropomorphic representation of
the divine, but rather a theomorphic symbolization of the contents of the human
soul.12

Voegelins inversion of the standard formulation of anthropomorphism exposes


tendentious post-Enlightenment conceptions of human nature which reduce nonphysical realities to the level of imaginative projections of the psycho-empirical ego. In
rejecting this anachronistic explanatory scheme, Voegelin emphasizes the continuity of
insight from mythopoetry to philosophy: Our knowledge of order remains primarily
mythical even after the noetic experience has differentiated the realm of consciousness
and noetic exegesis has made its logos explicit (12.150). Indeed, the philosopher must
acknowledge that the figures of cosmic primary experience are still present in his thinking
about being, and he must include the truth of the primary experience of a divine-worldly
cosmos in his philosophy.13 This interplay of primary and differentiated experience is
most vividly displayed in the case of Plato.
As an example of Voegelins penetrating discussions of Platos use of myths and
symbols, I shall summarize his analysis of the Timaeus, which contains a noetic myth and
a second-order justification of the use of myth in philosophy. Critias reports the story
he had heard from his grandfather Critias, who in turn heard it from Solon, about the
heroic exploits of antediluvian Athens 9000 years earlier in its war with Atlantis.
In this Egyptian myth the entire Republic is described by Timaeus as a muthos when he
discovers Socrates mythic politeia in the distant past: well translate the citizens and

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the city you described to us in mythical fashion yesterday to the realm of fact, and place it
before us as though it is ancient Athens itself (Tim. 26c7d1). Timaeus recounts how
hearing Socrates mythic account the day before awakened the memory of the story he
had heard from Solon in his youth about prehistoric Athens. As he remembered that tale,
he tells Socrates, I was quite amazed as I realized how by some supernatural (daimonios)
chance your ideas are on the mark, in substantial agreement with what Solon said (25e).
Socrates states that its no made-up story but a true account (26e). Voegelin notes that
the act of recollection by which the elderly Critias retrieved the story awakens his
youthful exposure to it, which in turn evokes the prehistoric youth of the cosmos
(15.230). But since the tale is non-historical, Plato finds Atlantis through anamnesis in
the collective unconsciousness that is living in him (15.232), the cosmic omphalos of
the soul in the depth of the unconscious (15.238). Clearly, Voegelins Platonic
conception of the unconscious is more capacious than Freuds or even Jungs. Following
Heraclitus he argues that the psyche is unbounded in its depth:
The omphalos, through which the cosmic forces stream into the soul, has a twofold
function in the formation of the myth. It is first the source of the forces, of the
sentiments, anxieties, apprehensions, yearnings, which surge up from the depth and
roam in the unconscious, urging toward assuaging expression in the imaginative order
of mythical symbols. The fact of this openness toward the cosmos in the depth of the
soul is, second, the subject matter of the myth, broken by the finiteness of human
existence into the spectrum of birth and death, of return to the origins and rebirth,
of individualization and depersonalization, of union or re-union with transcendent
reality, . . . of suffering through temporal existence in separation from the ground and
of redemption through return into eternal communion with the ground. The myth
itself authenticates its truth because the forces that animate its imagery are at the same
time its subject matter. A myth can never be untrue because it would not exist unless
it had its experiential basis in the movements of the soul that it symbolizes (15.23839).

In Platos myths the psyche has reached the critical consciousness of the methods by
which it symbolizes its own experiences (15.237). With existential openness and
interpretive sensitivity, Voegelin urges, we can probe beneath what appears to be Platos
rejection of archaic mythology and literary appropriation of mythical motifs in order to
discover that, although mythical symbols inevitably become historically untrue, their
truth is preserved and consciously resymbolized through Platos imaginative play. Only
in the shelter of the myth can the sectors of the personality that are closer to the waking
consciousness unfold their potentiality; and without the ordering of the whole personality
by the truth of the myth the secondary intellectual and moral powers would lose their
direction (15.240). What distinguishes archaic from philosophical myth, therefore, is the
latters more careful rendering of the movements of the unconscious (15.246). The
constant factors, then, are the forces emerging from the unconscious and the capacity to
shape them into symbols which connect the conscious subject to the depths of psyche and
cosmos. The movements of the depth reverberate in the conscious subject without
becoming objects for it. Hence, the symbols of the myth, in which the reverberations are
expressed, can be defined as the refraction of the unconscious in the medium of
objectifying consciousness. What enters the area of consciousness has to assume the form
of object even if it is not object . . . . The freedom of the play is possible only as long as

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the creator of a myth remains aware of the character of the symbols as a nonobjective
reality in objective form (15.246).
Regarding the Timaeus itself, Voegelins analysis reveals that its great symbols of the
Demiurge, the Receptacle, world-soul, and the cosmos emerge from the unconscious
and connect the finite human mind to the truth via the eikos mythos (29bc, 30b), the
likely story of the cosmos as a living, ordered, intelligent creature which is continually
fashioned out of chaos and necessity. This is a non-empirical truth: it is neither falsifiable
nor apprehensible by discursive reason alone. Myth is not a primitive symbolic form,
peculiar to early societies and progressively to be overcome by positive science, but the
language in which the experiences of human-divine participation in the In-Between
become articulate (12.188). For those resistant to the idea that myth has been totally
eclipsed by the physical and social sciences, Voegelins transcendent philosophy of myth
presents a compelling intellectual and existential challenge in a time dominated by the
technological domination of nature, deculturation, and disenchantment with the world.
If it is to tap the sources of the deepest truths, philosophy must root itself again in the
aspirations which speak the language of myth and symbol:
A descent into the depth will be indicated when the light of truth has dimmed and its
symbols are losing their credibility; when the night is sinking on the symbols that have
had their day, one must return to the night of the depth that is luminous with truth
to the man who is willing to seek for it. The depth is fascinating as a threat and a
charmas the abyss into which man falls when the truth of the depth has drained from
the symbols by which he orients his life, and as the source from which a new life of the
truth and a new orientation can be drawn (12.125).

NOTES
1. CW 14 Maurie P. Hogan, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 14: Order and
History, Vol. 1, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2001). CW
15 Athanasios Moulakis, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 15: Order and
History, Vol. 2, The World of the Polis (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2000). CW 16 Dante
Germino, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 16: Order and History, Vol. 3, Plato and
Aristotle (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2000). CW 17 Michael Franz, ed., The Collected
Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 17: Order and History, Vol. 4, The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge, LA:
LSU Press, 2000). Hereafter references to the Collected Works are cited parenthetically in
the text.
2. Lucien Levy-Bruhl, How Natives Think, trans. Lilian A. Clare (1926; New York: Washington
Square Press, 1966); Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim,
vol. 2, Mythical Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1955); Henri Frankfort,
H. A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen, and William A. Irwin, The Intellectual
Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 1946), paperback edition retitled Before Philosophy: The Intellectual
Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East
(Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1949); Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R.
Trask (1963; New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), and The Sacred and the Profane, trans.
Willard R. Trask (1959; New York: Harvest Books, 1968).
3. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella, eds., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28:
What Is History? And Other Late Unpublished Writings (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1990), 63.

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4. Ellis Sandoz, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 12: Published Essays, 19661985
(Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 1990), 132.
5. R. Eric OConnor, ed., Conversations with Eric Voegelin, Thomas More Institutional Papers 76
(Montreal: Perry Printing Ltd., 1980), 1112.
6. Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, trans. and ed. Gerhart Niemeyer (South Bend: University of Notre
Dame Press, 1978), 21.
7. See the seminal essay The Beginning and the Beyond: A Meditation on Truth, in Collected
Works 28.173232.
8. On the benefits and dangers of doctrine, see 96106.
9. Ellis Sandoz, ed., The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 18:Order and History, Vol. 5, In
Search of Order (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2000), 90. For a more detailed comparison of
Hesiods Chaos and the Platonic cosmogony in the Timaeus, which applies some of Voegelins
insights, cf. John Bussanich, A Theoretical Interpretation of Hesiods Chaos, Classical
Philology 78 (1983): 21219.
10. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 157.
11. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 158.
12. Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper, trans. and eds., Faith and Political Philosophy: The
Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, 19341964 (University Park, PA:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 82.
13. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 79.