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Arnold Berleant, Myth and Responsibility


A talk by Arnold Berleant
given at the Castine Unitarian Church
Sunday, February 27, 2000


My topic for this morning is “Myth and Irresponsibility.”  I want to share some thoughts with you about the human values that are so much a part of Unitarian-Universalism.  I hope that this will lead us to some fresh ways of thinking about our place in the human community, not just the human community in general, but the personal communities in which we live our daily lives.

Those of you who have come here on recent Sunday mornings may notice that what I am going to say has some common themes with other speakers we have heard.  At the beginning of this month, Scott Jones criticized conventional ways of thinking, the status quo.  And last week Rolfe Gerhardt offered a critical interpretation of the biblical stories of creation.  As we shall see, my topic has led me to be critical of certain conventional ways of thinking.  And I shall be offering a critical interpretation of a number of common myth-like stories.

This similarity of themes reminds me of the seventeenth century philosopher Leibniz.  Leibniz held that the world is made up of self-contained entities which he called monads. These monads had no communication with one another but nonetheless moved in coordination with one another.  He called this “pre-established harmony.”

Let me assure you that the similarity of my theme to the sermons that Scott and Rolfe gave is purely coincidental.  I don’t believe in pre-established harmony and developed my remarks quite independently.  But there you are.  Maybe Leibniz had something after all!

Let me begin by saying something about myths, a common word these days and one that is used in a number of different ways.  Then I want to show how certain kinds of myths serve to absolve us of responsibility.  Finally, this will tell us something rather surprising about what it means to be responsible.

Myths are often spoken of metaphorically.  People tend to label as myths any ideas that they think are mistaken.  But myths have not always been referred to so casually.  In fact, the beliefs they express are considered by the people who held them not as myths at all but as more or less literally true.  Myths, too, are often thought of as having occurred only in the past.  However, I hope to show you that many beliefs people hold today are equally mythical.

When we think of myths, what may first come to mind are the Greek myths.  These are the accounts of the pantheon of the gods of the classical world who inhabited Mount Olympus — Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, and a host of others.  Even today, some two thousand years later, these names, along with their Roman counterparts (Jupiter, Venus, Minerva, Mercury, Mars) are still familiar.[1]  We call these tales and their meanings collectively the Olympian religion.

Of course, the Greeks themselves didn’t think of those beliefs as myths.  Greek myths are our designation of the explanations they gave of why natural events occur and how human actions are determined.  Most people in early classical times considered these explanations essentially true.  That’s what got Socrates into deep trouble when he called attention to behavior the Greeks themselves considered unacceptable, such as gods having emotions of jealousy and anger, or Zeus, the principal deity, killing his own father, Cronos.  Zeus posed other problems for people concerned with morality, for he teamed up with the important goddess Hera and made her his consort when he was already married.  His many girlfriends (I guess we have to call them “goddess friends”) and illegitimate children caused him all sorts of marital problems.  It seems that the moral failings of our leaders have a long history.

In their myths the Greeks were no different from other peoples.  Many cultures from long before recorded history had elaborate oral traditions, and bards sung of the exploits of their heroes for centuries before these epics were written down.  If the Greeks had the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Sumerians much earlier (over 4000 years ago) told the Tale of Gilgamesh.  Such epics are common to many old cultures, such as the Old Norse Eddas, the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the Finnish Kalevala, and the Old English Beowulf.[2]

What are myths and how do they function?   The OED defines a myth as “a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.”[3]  These myths can be of many different sorts.  They can tell of the exploits of culture heroes, recount the origin of the world, or explain how distinctive natural formations, animals, and constellations came into existence.  There are religious myths, social myths, even scientific myths.  We, too, have our myths, although we don’t label them as such.  Such a large and fascinating subject is far too great for us to consider as a whole.


There is one kind of myth, however, that I think is especially interesting to the thoughtful people who come here on Sunday morning. It is a kind of social myth, specifically, myths that justify people in not accepting responsibility.  As I thought about this idea in preparing this talk, I discovered some things that I didn’t quite expect to find.  Perhaps you will have the same experience.

Recently I’ve been listening to audio tapes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which you too can find in the Witherle Memorial Library.  It’s appropriate to listen to these great Greek epics being read aloud, since for centuries before ever being written down, they were sung by travelling bards.  I didn’t have a stomach for the brutalities recounted in The Iliad, but what struck me in listening to these poems and, later, to The Aeneid, was how actively the gods were reputed to take the part of various warriors and other characters during the Trojan war and its sequels.  The outcome of individual fights and of the war, itself, was explained by the competitive action of different gods, who vied among themselves with all the egoism and pettiness of ordinary people.  These outcomes were usually explained as Fate, which could mean either an impersonal power, or the actions of the Olympian gods, or later “three very old women who spin the threads of human destiny.”[4]  The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C. – ?17 A.D.) sung eloquently of the fates in  “The Metamorphoses’’ (O, 328‑329):


“since then my life is a series of wounds.

Can you budge the Fates-fixed purpose?

I share your sadness, but go and see for yourself where the Fates

maintain their tablets of iron and brass, and read what is there  inscribed.

Nothing in heaven or earth, warfare’s din or lightning’s crash,

can change a jot or little of those decrees.”

Other cultures have their own equivalents of fate, such as the Buddhist wheel of life,[5] which is tied up with their belief in the cyclical character of existence.  In the West, the idea of fate took a religious turn in the belief in predestination and a philosophical one in the idea of determinism.

While we moderns profess to be enlightened by a scientific view of the world, this Greek belief is still very much with us.  How often do we resign ourselves to accepting things (which Scott Jones earlier this month called “the status quo”) as unchangeable by calling it fate or by saying “It was in my stars.”  This is a convenient way of accepting things as they are, however undesirable, of absolving ourselves of any responsibility for doing something about an unjust or unwanted state of affairs.  That is not to say that we can change anything we like, but we can do something about most things and may have some influence on what happens.

There are other beliefs that are just as mythical as the belief in fate but which we are less likely to recognize as myths.  Take psychological myths.  Freudian psychology is replete with myths.  In fact, Freud made free use of Greek mythology in identifying common patterns of deviant behavior.  Everyone knows about the Oedipus complex and the Electra complex.  But Freudian psychology has its own mythology, such as the belief that early childhood experiences such as toilet training have an unalterable effect on our later lives. No one will deny that our early upbringing affects us later on, but there is the unmistakable sign of fate in the claim that we are helpless in the face of such experiences.  Psychology is replete with examples of this same kind of thinking — holding our parents responsible for our problems as adults, or allowing ourselves to be victimized by traumatic experiences we have had.  I am not suggesting that such things do not have any influence on us.  That, obviously, would be a foolish claim.  But what I am saying is that to throw up our hands helplessly is a common form of the fatalistic beliefs that we see personified in the actions of the Greek gods.  The need to find an external basis for not accepting responsibility has even led some people to invent false memories to justify themselves.

Besides psychological myths that relieve us of responsibility, there are sociological ones.  Sociological myths work from the same fatalistic premise and come in different varieties.  One example is the belief that someone who has bad companions in youth or who grows up among people who play loosely with the law is destined to do the same.  Now there is no question that we are profoundly influenced by our social surroundings, but that very influence may also lead us to reject its practices and live a different sort of life.  To think that these conditions are our unalterable destiny, condemning us to a particular fate, is quite as mythical as it was for Aeneas to blame the gods for the defeat of Troy.  ‘Destiny,’ in fact, is just another word for Fate, and it is just as mythical.

A related social myth is the basis of prejudice–the belief that if someone happens to belong to a racial, ethnic, religious, or gender group, that person must possess all the stereotypical traits of that group.  Think of all the jokes that rest on that assumption, jokes about women, about Poles, Italians, Jews, Blacks.  As if we were all helpless victims of our birth and are condemned to all the prejudices that an unthinking world heaps on every group!  There is no reason, too, why we must accept for ourselves the prejudices of others and internalize their condemnation, as people sometimes do from a poor opinion of themselves.

Another related social myth is the belief in an unchangeable human nature.  The very idea of human nature is a curious one.  Have we ever seen a human nature?  Have scientists ever located this in the body or in the brain?  Never.  Human nature is a social myth.  This myth constructs a fictitious entity in people — human nature– and then holds that human nature responsible for kinds of behavior we find otherwise unacceptable, such as selfishness, egotism, competitiveness, aggressiveness, cruelty, or violence.  This is little different from the Greeks’ constructing a god or goddess and then assigning responsibility to him or her.  The fact is that we all have a multitude of different impulses and responses, some of which are encouraged and cultivated, and others condemned.  We are generous as well as selfish, kind as well as cruel, supportive as well as indifferent, cooperative as well as competitive.  Which of these are accepted and which rejected are social and personal decisions for which we must take responsibility.

There is still another social myth that is especially pertinent to my topic of responsibility.  It is so pervasive in our culture as to have become entirely invisible; certainly, it is rarely confronted and contradicted.  This is the myth of the self-sufficient individual.  There are many reasons for the rise of this belief, but they do not concern us here.  It’s enough to point out that, at this stage of industrial civilization, mass society, and a global corporate culture, it is entirely out-of-date and out of touch with the realities of our lives.  We have very little control over the quality of the air we breathe (think of the pollution that drifts over Maine from the industrial mid-West) and the water we drink (consider the enormous market in bottled spring water, a boon to Poland Spring).  Think, too, of how vulnerable we are to the vagaries of the economy, now basking in a bullish stock market, now fearing the effects of a recession and plummeting share values.  Over these conditions few of us have any control at all.  How, then, can we be held responsible?  How can we be considered entirely self-sufficient?

There’s even a political version of this kind of mythical thinking, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.[6]   This was the claim made first in the mid-nineteenth century of the inevitability of U.S. territorial expansion westward to the Pacific, and even beyond.  In this case, the responsibility was shifted on to Providence.  John L. O’Sullivan, who coined the phrase, prophesied that it was “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence . . .”[7]  Religion as we sadly see even today in the news, is no exception to mythical thinking.  I haven’t even mentioned the religious myths that claim that damnation or some equally unsavory condition is the inevitable fate of all those who believe in something other than the one “true” religion.  The idea of “manifest destiny” may be a vague recollection from our schooldays, but the same kind of thinking justifies the continuing practice by our government of military intervention as the self-appointed global policeman.


This is quite a list of myths:  of fate and destiny; of infantile experiences, social environment, human nature, self-sufficiency, and prejudicial stereotypes; of predestination and determinism.  You can see here how each of them provides a reason to accept things as they are and not hold people, including ourselves, at least partially responsible for their decisions and their behavior.  While I would be the last person to argue that one can do anything or be anything one’s heart desires, at the same time we are not helpless victims of our upbringing, our background, our gender, or our genes — or our government.

Let me try to put this in another way.  It’s important to distinguish between the effects of experience and treatment and our helplessness as a consequence of them.  We are all affected by our background and our experiences.  But there is a difference between suffering the effects of our experiences and claiming that we are helpless victims of those experiences.  The first is reasonable and understandable; the second mythical.

The question now is, where do we locate responsibility?  Who is responsible?  Or to put it differently, who determines how we think and act?  Was Cassius right when, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar he said, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves…”?

Responsibility rests, I think, partly in our own hands but not entirely so.  It rests in the hands of circumstance, but not entirely so.  We can and do make choices, come to decisions, and perform actions.  What we choose, what we decide, and what we do are, to a large extent, up to us.  Many things influence us in that process, but the final step is our own.  Yet at the same time, we do not think or choose or act in a vacuum.  We live in a society, in a community, and at a particular time in history, and these provide the conditions for our aspirations and the opportunities for our accomplishments.  This means that there is social as well as individual responsibility, social as well as individual irresponsibility.  We are neither entirely independent, self-sufficient persons nor are we pre-cast cogs in the wheel of life, and society is not an impersonal machine, but an institution constructed and maintained by us.

Thus, the usual way of setting the choice between free will and determinism is quite misleading, since these are false alternatives.  What we do makes a difference and where we do it makes a difference, too.  We have real responsibility for our choices and actions, but so too does our community, our society, our country, and the world we live in.  It is a shared responsibility because, as social beings, we are neither entirely self-sufficient nor entirely helpless.

This, I think, is where the values that bring us here this morning have their place.  Once we recognize that we live as part of a community, we can choose to act on this knowledge in small but important ways, such as hosting the coffee hour after services; participating in one of the discussion groups the church offers to enlarge our awareness of ourselves, our society, and our world; and engaging in campaigns to protect a woman’s freedom of choice, to ensure our ability to choose death with dignity, and to promote the values of non-violence and of peace.

These may seem to be small, personal actions but I think they are, at the same time, great responsibilities.  Indeed, the great responsibilities are most often personal ones.  So I want to end with this opening, this opportunity to think about and recognize where our responsibilities lie in our own lives, to reconsider what we as individuals and as a society can do and what we cannot.  If we can liberate ourselves from the myths that make us helpless, then we can begin to understand the parts in our decisions for which we must assume responsibility, and the parts over which other people or other conditions have decided.  When we can do this, we become not only more free but more powerful.  We may not only be able to change our minds but change the conditions under which we live, as well.


[1]  Zeus (Roman Jupiter), Hera (patronage of marriage and female life), Ares (Mars), Athena (Minerva), Hermes (Mercury), Aphrodite (Venus).

[2]  The only Assyrian epic tale, Tukulti‑Ninurta epic, relates the wars between  Tukulti‑Ninurta I of Assyria (reigned c.1238‑c. 1197 BC) and  Kashtiliash IV of Babylonia (reigned c. 1242‑c. 1235 BC).

[3]  myth  1.  “a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.”  OED, VI, p. 818.

[4] “Greek MOIRA, plural MOIRAI, Latin PARCA, plural PARCAE, in Greek and Roman mythology, any of three goddesses who determined human destinies, and in particular the span of a person’s life and his allotment of misery and suffering. Homer speaks of Fate (moira) in the singular as an impersonal power and sometimes makes its functions interchangeable with those of the Olympian gods. From the time of the poet Hesiod (8th century BC) on, however, the Fates were personified as three very old women who spin the threads of human destiny.”  Ency. Brit. (electronic ed.)

[5]   the Buddhist symbol of the wheel of life, bhava‑cakra, with its causal chain of human deeds and succession of existences, entwined by the claws of a devouring monster (Ency. Brit.)

[6]  Manifest Destiny, in U.S. history, the supposed inevitability of the continued territorial expansion of U.S. boundaries westward to the Pacific, and even beyond. The idea of “Manifest Destiny” was often used by American expansionists to justify U.S. annexation of Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, and California and later U.S. involvement in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase in his United States Magazine and Democratic Review (July‑August 1845) to prophesy “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence . . .”  Ency. Brit.

[7]   In Christian dogma, Providence indicates that God not only created the world but also governs it and cares for its welfare.  (Ency. Brit.)