“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Tolkien on mythopoetics

I just came across an apt addition to the discussion last week on myth and religion. In a letter to C. S. Lewis, Tolkien writes: “If God is mythopoeic, man must become mythopathic.”

Given that all forms of literalism as regards the scientific or spiritual nature of reality are to be rejected, the only remaining path to the achievement of knowledge of a living nature or faith in a living God is through a sensitivity to the poetic origins of meaning. To argue that, due to modern scientistic-mechanistic explanations, meaning can and should be recognized as a social farce or figment of the brain is to fall prey to a kind of transcendental illusion by forgetting that all such supposedly literal explanations depend upon a substrate of mythopoeia as the condition of their meaningful expression. Also, following on Tolkien’s statement, it’s become apparent to me that meaning isn’t just actively constructed or made (i.e., poiesis), it is passively sensed or felt (i.e., pathos). So perhaps both science and religion, in order to overcome the temptation of monological literalism which results from an overly active pursuit of technical control or spiritual certainty, might develop a more receptive practice of listening for divine revelations in the meandering and multifaceted meanings of nature.




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4 responses to “Tolkien on mythopoetics”

  1. ashramdiary Avatar

    Matt, you have perfectly grasped Tolkien’s meaning in his letter to C.S. Lewis. I’m sure you know that Tolkien’s assertion had an existential effect on Lewis and led (at least in part) to his public embrace of Christianity. Among others influenced by Tolkien (directly or through Lewis) was Bede Griffiths. Thank you also for your many other profound blog posts.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hello Thomas! Thanks for stopping by. I was aware of Tolkien’s influence on Lewis, but not on Bede Griffiths! Does he write about that somewhere?

  2. inthesaltmine Avatar

    I would imagine this fits in nicely with the Dharmic idea of “dependent co-arising” or “codependent origination”, insofar as it leads one to the humble task of attempting to “see” without actually seeing what may possibly arise from a given mythic force upon its implementation. Like the wise man who can say “You know, I don’t think that’s such a good idea…” and be right about it more often than not, leaving you in amazement how he could know such a thing would occur in advance.

    This has been roughly my project, and it is not exactly an easy one. I have found that an attention to Form, manner, etc. helps greatly (as with “casting a spell”, for instance, if the form is bad the spell will not work or will backfire). I’m glad to have somebody close in mind who can also sense the importance of or can otherwise “hear” these things latent within mythic structures!

    All my best to you. – David.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks, David. I always enjoy your reflections. I think your example of how spells can be cast with “poor form” is a telling example of how important style or form is in philosophical discourse. Its not just the content of an argument that counts, but how the argument plays with the vibrational structure of the local physical and psychical environs. I’m thinking here of Latour’s essay on the difference between religious and scientific speech-acts (if you haven’t read the essay, do check it out!). He makes it clear that religious language is meant to transform the listener by bringing forth a new world, while scientific language is meant to transfer information to the listener about a pre-existent world (what he calls “double click communication”).

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