Mariusz Turowski
Politics, community, and mythology


My paper concerns the problem of the political dimension of myth, and perplexities connected with its unifying and reconciling functions. The main focus here will be on the significance of myth in political life, how can it influence relations among members of given political organization, what are features of the myth, when it comes to social rules governing particular community, and whether it is possible to base certain civil and legal structures on "mythological discourse."

1. Roots of political harmony

The main result of the communitarian-liberal debate, that take place several years ago in the domain of political philosophy, was the idea of so called "social thesis". This conception, developed among others by Charles Taylor, acknowledges first of all the social and communal dimension of a human being. Person is no longer understood, as it was in the case of liberal conception, as individual who is liberated, separated, distant from other men and focused on rational actions oriented towards contract and success. According to "social thesis" human being is first of all a participant, member, a part of some broader, deeper and shared context. Other communitarian philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, defined that context as a common narrative encompassing each member of a given community. The narrative dimension of human life refers us to culture, tradition, and history of community. Every activity associated with a person reflects certain narratives and values that are connected with them. Thus human being must be understood as a carrier of some values and meanings, and not as an independent, indifferent and neutral subject of actions.

Communitarian theory had its political and social implication. Although it dissolves recently in so called idea of a "civic republicanism" with consequences first of all for a theory of law, and not for the subject of this paper, we can still notice significance of some communitarian, or post-communitarian, claims for our considerations. Narrative dimension of human life means that also any social organization, relations and institutions should be based on and rooted in something more than mere contract and certain interests. MacIntyre, but also Martha Nussbaum and others, offers us an Aristotelian picture of such a non-contractual, narrative society. Briefly, that society has following features:

  • all individuals are understood as members of a community;
  • community is not based on original contract, but on traditional values and codes of law implemented by historical, sometimes mythological legislator, so called founder of the society;
  • law is strictly connected with ethics and morality;
  • all institutions have to act according to historically recognized and respected norms;
  • the main "institution" of the society is justice, which is based on fair cooperation of members of the community and reflects distribution of good in respect to certain virtues of the members (merit theory);
  • community is understood as an entity, not as a component of individuals;
  • development of the community means achievement of a certain purpose, aim, which is the good life of its members (teleology);

MacIntyre stresses that the most important for societies should be unity and reconciliation, that is secured by Aristotelian political conception. These two features had been lost during the development of modern, liberal states. Liberalism caused moral chaos, lack of norms, incommensurability of ethical vocabularies and practices. Good and peaceful political structure needs some common and deep background, which could serve as a legitimization for all possible social arrangements. That background can be defined as a symbolic or mythical ground of that society.

2. "Myth-reality" relation

There is no room in this paper to deliberate in details various conceptions of myth and mythology. I would like to refer to idea of mythology that can be useful when talking about its relations to politics or society, precisely the one associating mythology with ideology. Both ideology and mythology are understood as a form of legitimization and sanction in given social and political reality. Both secure Aristotelian claims about common background, shared values and ways the members of a given society should act and conduct their lives. The main problem here is how to define transformation of mythology or ideology, which are products of mind, ideas, into certain forms of activity in real life. How to render influence of given ideological patterns or explanations on political decision-making, legislation, organizing of society? This problem indicates relationship between myths and reality.

But of course association of myth with ideology does not mean that those two concepts are identical. There is a long road from, let say, myth of creation and lost paradise to certain philosophy of social life. However I would like to show how those different, on the first sight, worlds come closer in specific circumstances. The crisis situation, when there is a need in one society to find some ways of gaining consensus and compromise but the traditional modes of political discourse are no longer valid can be one of such a special instances. It is precisely the case MacIntyre was talking about. In such situation the only solution would be finding a common basis, something members of society could adhere to. Here becomes visible role of intellectuals, who can offer to such society a certain system of consistent values, which are directed towards uniting and reconciling. This system can be named ideology. Referring to Clifford Geertz's idea of conceptualization of ideologies as cultural systems, we can speak about transition from myth to political reality, which is mediated through ideology. Ideologies themselves cannot cause any concrete political or social behavior. First they must be present at all in social life. This presence is achieved by a symbolic process of mediation the communication between leaders and masses of a given society. This means demonstration for the public some symbols that have rational as well as emotional meanings for it. Ideologies for members of a given society become, in this moment (because of conceptualization - presentation through communication), cultural systems with some codes and meanings. Once it is done, the building of a consensus can again take place. For MacIntyre it would be a new prospect for peace and order based on unity, which itself is rooted in some, now restored, common background.

3. Good life and common nightmares

Having described relation of myth and mythology to reality, we can focus now on consequences of political vision that stands behind that relation (unity and reconciliation). Is the unity based on mythology mediated through ideology and applied to certain society really promising as a political, social and philosophical project?

In order to answer that question I would like to turn to Bette Denich paper on the role of nationalism in the decline of former Yugoslavia. She describes results that can be generated by political structure based on ideological (mythological) discourses. The main observation is that unity of one nation, grounded on consensus secured by ideology, means self-definition and self-determination of one nation in opposition to another, and this leads to conflicts. Consensus that was reached in one society is untranslatable into that from the other society. And, as shows example of the Balkans, those consensuses means definition of one nation's identity against identity of another's. The result of consensus-based-on-unity-originated-from-ideology, according to Denich, is genocide. And here we can find another relationship between mythological world and the real one:

All national ideologies are exclusive in a symbolic sense, typically defining the relation between peoples and states in terms of hegemony and cultural dominance. However, genocide goes beyond dominance and symbolic exclusion to the literal excision of undesired others from the body politics. The transition from exclusionary metaphor into physical extermination is the transformation of meaning that defines genocide.

So, which concepts describe in more relevant way relationship between mythology and political life? On one hand mythology transformed into ideology provides society a basis for identity and sense of belonging. On the other it is impossible to translate mythology of one society into that of another. This divergence is total and absolute. Yugoslavia used to life for almost 50 years as a stable, unified state based on consensus. But suddenly there were unveiled facts from the common history that made future coexistence impossible any more. Croatia and Serbia started to build their identity on narratives that were opposite to one another. It led to the war in 1992 and terrible atrocities that happened on the basis of adhering to certain mythology and national ideology.

It gives us some hints concerning our evaluation of significance of reality of myth for political and social reality. It is difficult to promote the idea that myth can serve as any basis for peaceful coexistence of two nations. Claim about presence of myth in social life becomes problematic. But on the other hand is it possible to escape from mythological, mythical dimension of our life? Traditional liberal separation of public and private spheres may seem here very attractive, but does liberalism always lead to peaceful cooperation of nations and promotion of human rights and universal values? What if one country doesn't seem to fit to liberal standards? What if the country promotes values contradictory to one protected by liberalism? And maybe liberalism offers us one more myth? Maybe it conception is based on another mythical background? Then we should ask about distinction between good and bad myths. Is it possible at all to present such a definition?

A contribution to: The Bright Side of the Balkan - Ohrid Summer School (position paper 1) <powrót>


Wroc³aw, 10.07.2000