In his book, Before Philosophy, Henri Frankfort argues that there are two basic ways human beings have tried to make sense of the world in which we live. This attempt to understand the world he calls "Speculative thought," which he defines as an attempt "to explain, to unify, order experience . . . [It] attempts to underpin the chaos of experience so that it may reveal the features of a structure--order, coherence and meaning." (Frankfort, 11). Frankfort further argues that this speculative thought takes two forms:
Rational Thought: Finding order and meaning in the universe through the use of logic, verifiable fact and open, public discussion.
Mythopoeic Thought: Finding order and meaning in the universe through the use of poetry and myth.
By myth, Frankfort means: "Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth: a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims; a form of action, of ritual behavours, which does not find its fulfillment in that act but proclaims a poetic form of truth." (Frankfort, 16).
With rational thought we tend to regard human beings as something essentially different from the rest of the world. For the ancients, human beings were imbedded in society and that society was imbedded in nature and nature was embedded in cosmic forces. Therefore, nature and the universe were not regarded as something essentially different from human beings. The universe could, therefore, be understood in terms of human emotions, actions or relationships. Natural forces were understood in terms of human experience and human experience and human events were understood in terms of cosmic forces. For example, the cosmic force of rain is understood as the anger of the sky god Enlil, not as the outcome of impersonal climatic conditions.
We tend to think of the world as composed of thinking subjects and on the other hand inanimate objects. We learn about objects through testing and analysis. We think of the objects in the world as things. People, on the other hand, we learn about through understanding, by trying to sympathize with them, by trying to "get inside their heads." In mythopoeic thought, there are no objects in the world only persons. To understand the world mythopoeically, one needs sympathy, not analysis. Objects we understand in terms of universal laws and are able to make generalizations covering a large number of items. "Thous," persons, cannot be understood in terms of laws, but in terms of their actions or personalities. Thus history, especially mythistory, is the key to understanding the gods which dominate the world. Mythology, as the stories about the gods, become the key to understanding the workings of the world.
This is not to say that the ancients were "irrational." One of the most important questions currently being debated in intellectual circles is the question of whether or not rational thought is the only way that the world can be understood or if there is still a legitimate role for mythopoeic thought in the world today.
Text © 1998 by ThenAgain. All rights reserved.