On Ernst Cassirer’s his An Essay on Man (1944), ch. 6-7, and Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key (1942), ch. 6-7. This discussion featuring Mark, Wes, and Seth follows the introduction of these books and the argument that we are primarily symbolic creatures in ep. 290.
Why do people produce ritual, mythology, and religion? According to Cassirer and his follower Langer, these are spontaneous, symbolic modes of self-expression. We should not see modern, scientific, literal thought as opposed to mythical thought as reason vs. irrationality, but need to understand that the kind of metaphorical thinking that went into myth is a necessary precondition for literal thinking and an engine for its continued growth. The two have a dialectical relationship, in that the earlier mythological type of thinking is still latently a part of modern thinking, though this is often unrecognized given our scientific mindset.
Cassirer argued against Darwinists who merely look at human behavior with a functionalist eye: What survival strategy do these activities serve? So if the ancient Greeks thought that lightning is Zeus throwing thunderbolts, a Darwinist might see that as an attempted scientific explanation of lightning, but of course this would be a very bad one, that does not in fact help us to survive at all: to predict where lightning will strike or what to do about it. Rather than interpret myths as bad science, Cassirer argues that it is a projection of social relations onto the world, bringing people in relation to it as to a society. So in the face of potentially hostile, alien nature, the message of myth is that we’re all connected and can be at home in the world. This explanation better acknowledges the richness of human needs than Darwinist ones that focus merely on survival strategies.
Langer presents this as a historical progression, where ritual is developed first, then myths, then religion. So you might think that first people made up stories about gods, then developed rituals to serve them, but to Langer, the ritualistic activity as morale-booster for the community comes first, aimed initially at some indefinite super-human forces, then stories get superadded onto these. Another progression and contrast that she describes is between fairy tales, which are basically dream fantasies put into narrative form, and religious mythology, which are not about some hero (like Jack who climbed the beanstalk) winning glory for himself but about coming to terms with cosmic forces (like Prometheus giving fire to humanity and being punished for it). Mid-way between these are stories of heroes like Hercules, Hiawatha, and Maui who are at once human and have some fairy-tale-like adventures but also take actions with cosmic effects. Again, the personalities of the gods that such a hero might interact with are secondary and come later than the cosmic actions themselves.
Cassirer targets in particular the view that religion is all about our recognition of our powerlessness and dependence on the divine, which he sees as a Christian view that has been projected back on to older religions. No, the purpose that ancient people had in developing myths is to establish that even though nature looks hostile, we actually have power over it. To give Langer’s example: People performed rituals such as rain dances (presumably when it already looked like it was going to rain) to show that they were participants in making things happen and not just passive victims of natural forces. If it didn’t actually rain, well, then in that case the ritual was just not consummated, because nature was taken to be one of the players in the ritual along with the dancers.
Cassirer’s attitude toward Christianity (and monotheism more generally) is actually very positive, and the main progression he traces through the development of religion is from a wholly negative, taboo-based routinization whereby ritual gets hardened into having every action prescribed and policed, into a religion that gives people the opportunity to not just avoid violations of law, but to get on the side of God and so have not just prohibitions but virtues and ideals to shoot for. In this new moral landscape, our motives and thoughts matter, not just our actions, and so we get the notion of moral choice and thus personal freedom.
Despite much of the framework we discuss initially coming from Cassirer, we found Langer’s presentation here easier to follow and with more helpful details, so our discussion draws most heavily on her text, which we’ll continue with in ep. 292 when we get to her philosophy of art, which is the area she’s best known for, not only in this book but in the subsequent Form and Feeling (1953) which goes into detail about the various types of arts. We’re reading ch. 7 from that along with ch. 8-10 from Philosophy in a New Key, if you’d like to read along with us.