A potent myth


The essence of myth is its power over people’s minds. This power of myths, and stories, and ballads, is acknowledged by Plato—for they feature in The Republic—and by many who have contributed to the Talmud. Moreover, the Scottish rebel Andrew Fletcher mentioned the idea that ‘if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.’ (Political Works, 1704, Part 7).

As pupils have observed over the years, some myths are more powerful than others, and can excite the feeling described by C.S. Lewis: ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’ (An Experiment in Criticism pp. 48-49).

William L. Shirer, on Wagner’s myths and their influence on so many Germans:

‘It was not his political writings, however, but his towering operas, recalling so vividly the world of German antiquity with its heroic myths, its fighting pagan gods and heroes, its demons and dragons, its blood feuds and primitive tribal codes, its sense of destiny, of the splendor of love and life and the nobility of death, which inspired the myths of modern Germany and gave it a Germanic Weltanschauung which Hitler and the Nazis, with some justification, took over as their own.’ (The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 91-92)

The great German myth of the early 20th century (and not only German) was in element the belief of Callicles, and other Athenians of his time, that might is right (see last post). But by the 20th century it had been nourished, spiced and made more potent by such things as:

  • the Romantic Movement and its idolising of pagan beliefs (see, as one example, John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn);
  • the 19th-century revival of interest in the ancient world and therefore the Roman concept of a nation destined to rule;
  • ‘evolutionism’, as distinct from the theory of evolution;
  • the writings of Nietzsche, including Also sprach Zarathustra;
  • the aesthetic and the substance of Wagner.

It was a myth of destiny, of war, of empire, and of eugenics. It was Rome, Athens and Sparta combined.

Of interest to students:

  • William L. Shirer, The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, 1960
    ‘The standard, indeed the classic, history of Nazism.We should be thankful to the historian whose solid work will permanently preserve the truth.’ – Hugh Trevor-Roper
  • D.H.Lawrence, A Letter from Germany, 1924
    This uncanny premonition of what was to come can be found in the Texts menu above.
  • C.S.Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, CUP, 1961
    A book querying the procedures of evaluative criticism.

Next post: Argumentum ad hominem.

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