On Human's "Primeval Stupidity" - A Remark On Ernst Cassirer

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PostWed Sep 29, 2010 9:03 pm » by Tertiusgaudens


In another thread I have recommended Cassirer's book "The Myth of the State". It deals with the relation of myth and reason thus unfolding the myth status of state. Right at the beginning Cassirer has a look upon a term called "primeval stupidity" of man.

This is a emotive word. Is there something like this? Is it still lingering as our very backround we all come from? Primeval stupidity? IS MANKIND FINALLY COMING FROM STUPIDITY?

Here is a nice study of Frederick Mann:



ERNST CASSIRER AND "PRIMEVAL STUPIDITY"

Compiled and edited by Frederick Mann
© Copyright 2002 Build Freedom Holdings ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


"Myths are not just fairy tales which have no connection to "serious" practical matters. Myths can be inserted like bullets into guns, like rockets into planes, like missiles into plotted trajectories." -- Jon Rappoport

In 'The Myth of the State,' Ernst Cassirer (pronounced "Kaesser" or "Kässer") uses the term "primeval stupidity" ("Urdummheit" in German):

"Many anthropologists have asserted that myth is, after all, a very simple phenomenon -- for which we hardly need a complicated psychological or philosophical explanation. It is simplicity itself; for it is nothing but the "sancta simplicitas" of the human race. It is not the outcome of reflection or thought, nor is it enough to describe it as a product of human imagination. Imagination alone cannot account for all its incongruities and fantastic and bizarre elements. It is rather the "Urdummheit" of man that is responsible for these absurdities and contradictions. Without this "primeval stupidity" there would be no myth."

I use the term "primeval stupidity" to refer to the confusion of human symbols (and symbol systems) with physical reality. An extreme form of primeval stupidity is to regard human symbols as volitional entities. This "habit" could be regarded as typical of the Pathetic Fallacy: The ascription of human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, e.g., the "cruel sea," the "friendly skies," the "threatening clouds." An aspect of anthropomorphism. More broadly: The mistake of attributing human powers, aspirations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, or traits to events, inanimate objects, or human symbols, which do not even possess the capacity for such qualities.

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer describes the implications of the human symbol systems (which include language):

"Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality. There is an unmistakable difference between organic reactions and human responses. In the first case a direct and immediate answer is given to an outward stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed. It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and complicated process of thought. At first sight such a delay may appear to be a very questionable gain. Many philosophers have warned man against this pretended progress. "L'homme qui médite," says Rousseau, "est un animal dépravé" [The man who thinks is a depraved animal]: it is not an improvement but a deterioration of human nature to exceed the boundaries of organic life.

Yet there is no remedy against this natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement [the invention of symbolic systems]. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. [emphasis added] Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. "What disturbs and alarms man," said Epictetus, "are not the things, but his opinions and fancies about the things"."

Compare this to Aldous Huxley's Introduction to 'The First and Last Freedom' by Jiddu Krishnamurti:

"Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds -- the given and the home-made, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols. In our thinking we make use of a great variety of symbols-systems -- linguistic, mathematical, pictorial, musical, ritualistic. Without such symbol-systems we should have no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, not so much as the rudiments of civilization: in other words, we should be animals... But symbols -- as the history of our own and every other age makes so abundantly clear -- can also be fatal... Consider, for example, the domain of science on the one hand, and the domain of politics and religion on the other. Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to, one set of symbols [science], we have come, in some small measure, to understand and control the elementary forces of nature. Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to another set of symbols [politics and religion], we use these forces as instruments of mass murder and collective suicide. In the first case [science] the explanatory symbols were well chosen, carefully analyzed and progressively adapted to the emergent facts of physical existence. In the second case [politics and religion] symbols originally ill-chosen were never subjugated to thorough-going analysis and never re-formulated so as to harmonize with the emergent facts of human existence. Worse still, these misleading symbols [politics and religion] were everywhere treated with a wholly unwarranted respect, as though, in some mysterious way, they were more real than the realities [if any] to which they [supposedly] referred."

In my opinion, there is at least a partial remedy for the "symbolic dilemma." There's a famous painting by Magritte of a large pipe, with the inscription, "Ceci nest pas une pipe." [This is not a pipe.] The point is that a picture of a pipe is not the pipe. Similarly, the word "pipe" is not the pipe. The word is a symbol -- part of our symbolic system. The word is a noise that comes out of our mouths, or scribbles on paper (or canvas), or pixels on a computer screen.

Primeval stupidity (as I use the term) -- or "Urdummheit" -- is the inability to make a clear and sharp distinction between the symbol (in our "symbolic reality") and the thing (in physical reality) it represents. Or supposedly represents. We have many symbols that have no referents or corresponding things in reality. These can be regarded as mythological symbols. Regarding these mythological symbols as part of physical reality is primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit."

On April 21, 1985, Jorge Amador, editor of The Pragmatist, wrote to me:

"I do not need a morality to tell me what to do. Just the pragmatic, utilitarian analysis we are all born with. My brain identifies the various courses of action open to me at any given point. My body or memory then releases pleasure/pain signals for each of the alternatives, and my brain, with the tools of economic analysis, tells me which of the alternatives will produce the most pleasure/least pain, what further effects they may cause and what pleasure/pain these effects may have, and what probabilities of occurring each of these pleasure/pain results has. I then select, as it must happen, the action that I have calculated might produce the highest ratio of pleasure to pain. Any morality that sets an a priori imperative or prohibition on which actions I will take can only get in the way of my maximizing my utility, by creating pains where there were none before attached to the prohibited actions (or attached to doing something other than the "required" actions)."

This "pragmatic, utilitarian analysis" is probably what Cassirer means by "organic reaction." Amador's paragraph can be paraphrased in terms of symbols: "I do not need a symbol to tell me what to do." ... "Any symbol that sets an a priori imperative or prohibition on which actions I will take can only get in the way of my maximizing my utility..."

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer writes:

"We do find... in man a special type of relational thought... In man an ability to isolate relations -- to consider them in their abstract meaning -- has developed. In order to grasp this meaning man is no longer dependent upon concrete sense data, upon visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic data. He considers these relations "in themselves"... Geometry is the classic example of this turning point in man's intellectual life. Even in elementary geometry we are not bound to the apprehension of concrete individual figures. We are not concerned with physical things or perceptual objects, for we are studying universal spatial relations for whose expression we have an adequate symbolism. Without the preliminary step of human language such an achievement would not be possible."

Some of our symbols, like those of geometry, are most useful. However, as Aldous Huxley says above, "But symbols -- as the history of our own and every other age makes so abundantly clear -- can also be fatal... Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to another set of symbols [politics and religion], we use these forces as instruments of mass murder and collective suicide." The inability to examine, evaluate, and judge symbols as symbols, in order to determine whether they are beneficial or harmful symbols is part of primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit."

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer writes:

"Though myth is fictitious, it is an unconscious, not a conscious fiction. The primitive mind was not aware of the meaning of its own creations. But is is for us, it is for our scientific analysis, to reveal this meaning -- to detect the true face behind these innumerable masks."

Being unconscious of our fictions as fictions (and regarding our fictions as part of physical reality) is primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit." Fortunately, it is possible for us to become conscious of our fictions (our mythological symbols) as fictions that may be useful or harmful. The process of becoming conscious of fictions may be triggered by contemplating Magritte's "Ceci nest pas une pipe." In my own case, the process was triggered by reading Lysander Spooner: #TL07: THE CONSTITUTION OF NO AUTHORITY.

All the indented quotes in the rest of this report are from Ernst Cassirer's 'The Myth of the State':

"Perhaps the most important and the most alarming feature in this development of modern political thought is the appearance of a new power: the power of mythical thought. The preponderance of mythical thought over rational thought in some of our modern political systems is obvious. [Editor: I beg to differ. It's not all obvious to most people. For many it takes enormous mental self-examination and effort before it becomes obvious.] After a short and violent struggle mythical thought seemed to win a clear and definite victory. How was this victory possible? How can we account for the new phenomenon that so suddenly appeared on our political horizon and in a sense seemed to reverse all our former ideas of the character of our intellectual and our social life?"

Cassirer may be referring specifically to Hitler's political thought as appearing suddenly. In my opinion, the preponderance of mythical thought over rational thought in politics is an age-old phenomenon -- probably as old as language itself. This may become evident by reading #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK.

"If we look at the present state of our cultural life we feel at once that there is a deep chasm between two different fields. When it comes to political action man seems to follow rules quite different from those recognized in all his mere theoretical activities. No one would think of solving a problem of natural science or a technical problem by the methods that are recommended and put into action in the solution of political questions. In the first case we never aim to use anything but rational methods. Rational thought holds its ground here and seems constantly to enlarge its field. Scientific knowledge and technical mastery of nature daily win new and unprecedented victories. But in man's practical and social life the defeat of rational thought seems to be complete and irrevocable. In this domain modern man is supposed to forget everything he has learned in the development of his intellectual life. He is admonished to go back to the first rudimentary stages of human culture. Here rational and scientific thought openly confess their breakdown; they surrender to their most dangerous enemy. [Editor: In the minds of many, mythical political thought masquerades as rational thought -- to the extent that anyone pointing out the irrationality of modern mythical political thought, is likely to be denounced as "crazy" or insane!"]

In order to find the explanation of this phenomenon that at first sight seems to derange all our thoughts and defy all our logical standards we must begin with the beginning. Nobody can hope to understand the origin, the character, and influence of our modern political myths without first answering a preliminary question. We must know what myth is before we can explain how it works. Its special effects can only be accounted for if we have attained a clear insight into its general nature.

...It is... the "Urdummheit" of man that is responsible for these absurdities and contradictions [the incongruities and fantastic and bizarre elements of myths]. Without this "primeval stupidity" there would be no myth.

...Historically we find no great culture that is not dominated by and pervaded with mythical elements.

...To the true romanticist there could be no sharp difference between myth and reality; just as little as there was any sharp difference between poetry and truth.

...What we find here is a complete change of all former values. Myth that had occupied the lowest rank was suddenly elevated to the highest dignity.

...There were always scholars of high authority who were apt to deny that there is any sharp difference between mythical and scientific thought.

...According to his theory [Sir James Frazer in 'The Golden Bough'] a man who performs a magic rite does not differ, in principle, from a scientist who in his laboratory makes a physical or chemical experiment.

...Frazer was not alone in holding this view. He continued a tradition that goes back to the beginnings of a scientific anthropology in the nineteenth cetury. In 1871 Sir E.B. Taylor had published his book 'Primitive Culture.' But although speaking of primitive culture he refused to accept the idea of a so-called "primitive mind." According to Taylor there is no essential difference between the savage's mind and the mind of civilized man. The thoughts of the savage may, at first sight, appear to be bizarre; but they are by no means confused or contradictory. The logic of the savage is, in a sense, impeccable. What makes the great difference between the savage's interpretation of the world and our own conceptions are not the forms of thought, the rules of arguing and reasoning, but the material, the data to which these rules are applied. Once we have understood the character of these data we are in a position to put ourselves in the savage's place -- to think his thoughts and to enter into his feelings."

We can make a distinction between "rational words" and "mythological words." The difference between the rational thinker and the modern mythological thinker is not in their use of logic or reason, but in the basic words or concepts to which the logic or reason is applied. As I've indicated in Project Abolish Stupidity & Increase Intelligence, there are thousands of concepts/words that constitute "deep stupidities" (they can also be called "primeval stupidities"). Some of these concepts/words are discussed extensively in #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK.

"To answer this question [the connection between myth and language] Max Mueller and other writers belonging to the school of comparative mythology devised a very ingenious scheme. Myth, they declared, is indeed nothing but one aspect of language; but it is rather its negative than its positive. Myth originates not in its virtues but in its vices. To be sure language is logical and rational, but on the other hand it is also a source of illusions and fallacies.

...The mind of man always acts in a rational way. Even the primitive mind was a sound and normal mind; but on the other hand, it was an undeveloped and inexperienced mind. If this inexperienced mind was constantly exposed to a great temptation -- to the fallacy and ambiguity of words -- it is not to be wondered at that it succumbed. That is the true source of mythical thought. Language is not only a school of wisdom but also a school of folly. Myth reveals the latter aspect to us.; it is nothing but the dark shadow cast by language on the world of human thought.

Mythology is thus represented as pathological both in its origin and in its essence. It is a disease that begins in the field of language and, by a dangerous infection, spreads over the whole body of human civilization.

...Human speech is metaphorical in its very essence; it is filled with similes and analogies. The primitive mind is unable to understand these similes in a merely metaphorical sense. It takes them for realities and it thinks and acts according to this principle. It is the literal interpretation of metaphorical names that from the first elementary forms of ancestor-worship, from the worship of human beings, led to the worship of plants and animals, and finally of the great powers of nature.

...[M]yth is, first and foremost, a mass of "ideas," of representations, of theoretical beliefs and judgments. As these beliefs are in open contradiction to our sense-experience and as there exist no physical objects that correspond to the mythical representations it follows that myth is a mere phantasmagoria. The question necessarily arises why men cling so obstinately and forcibly to such phantasmagoria. Why do they prefer to live in a world of illusions, of hallucinations and dreams?"

I once asked a number of libertarians in a room, how many believed there were "government laws" in the room. Most of them raised their hands. I asked them if there were any "policemen" or other "government agents" in the room. No response. I asked them how many still believed there were "government laws" in the room. Most of them raised their hands. I asked them how they knew there were "government laws" in the room. No response. I asked them if they could see or otherwise perceive "government laws" in the room. No response. I doubt whether I had any impact on their political mythology (primeval stupidity).

On another occasion I did a 30-minute interactive workshop as part of my Toastmaster training. I had an audience of about 25 people, including one libertarian. My theme was "Things that governments do." I asked a volunteer to tell me something that "government does."

Reply: "Government builds roads." Question: "Have you seen a government build a road?" Reply: "Yes." Question: Tell me in more detail what you saw; what did the government look like that built the road?"

I continued this interactive process for 30 minutes, including with the libertarian. In each case, I would say something like, "Well, I've actually observed a road being built. I saw people and equipment. I didn't see any so-called "government" building the road."

Whatever examples my audience gave, I demonstrated that the work was always done by individual human beings, sometimes with materiel and equipment. Nobody could provide any evidence of any so-called "government" doing anything. At the end of the workshop I asked them how many still believed that "government does things?" Most of them, including the libertarian, raised their hands. It's unlikely that I had any impact on the political mythology (primeval stupidity) of even one of them!

"...The historians of human civilization have told us that mankind in its development had to pass through two different phases. Man began as "homo magus" [magician] but from the age of magic he passed to the age of technics. The homo magus of former times and of primitive civilization became "homo faber," a craftsman and artisan. If we admit such an historical distinction, our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing. For what we find in them is the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other. The modern politician has had to combine in himself two entirely different and even incompatible functions. He has to act, at the same time, as both a homo magus and a homo faber. He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion. But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically. Nothing is left to chance; every step is well prepared and premeditated. It is this strange combination that is one of the most striking features of our political myths.

Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination. But here we find myth made according to plan. The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They are artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans. It has been reserved for the twentieth century, our own great technical age, to develop a new technique of myth. Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon -- as machine guns or airplanes. That is a new thing -- and a thing of crucial importance. It has changed the whole form of our social life. It was in 1933 that the political world began to worry somewhat about Germany's rearmament and its possible international repercussions. As a matter of fact this rearmament had begun many years before but had passed almost unnoticed. The real rearmament began with the origin and rise of the political myths. The later military rearmament was only an accessory after the fact. The fact was accomplished fact long before; the military rearmament was only the necessary consequence of the mental rearmament brought about by the political myths.

The first step that had to be taken was a change in the function of language. If we study the development of human speech we find that in the history of civilization the word fulfills two entirely different functions. To put it briefly we may terms these functions the semantic and the magical use of the word. Even among the so-called primitive languages the semantic function of the word is never missing; without it there could be no human speech. But in primitive societies the magic word has a predominant and overwhelming influence. It does not describe things or relations of things; it tries to produce effects and to change the course of nature. This cannot be done without an elaborate magical art. The magician, or sorcerer is alone able to govern the magic word. But in his hands it becomes a most powerful weapon. Nothing can resist its force. "Carmina vel coelo possunt deducere lunam," says the sorceress Meda in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' -- by magic songs and incantations even the moon can be dragged down from the heavens.

Curiously enough all this recurs in our modern world. If we study our modern political myths and the use that has been made of them we find in them, to our great surprise, not only a transvaluation of all our ethical values but also a transformation of human speech. The magic word takes precedence over the semantic word. If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years, not a political but a theoretical book, a work dealing with philosophical, historical, or economic problems -- I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined; and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.

...If we hear these new words we feel in them the whole gamut of human emotions -- of hatred, anger, fury, haughtiness, contempt, arrogance, and disdain.

But the skillful use of the magic word is not all. If the word is to have its full effect it has to be supplemented by the introduction of new rites. In this respect, too, the political leaders proceed very thoroughly, methodically, and successfully. Every political action has its special ritual. And since, in the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added], there is no private sphere, independent of political life, the whole life of man is suddenly inundated by a high tide of new rituals. They are as regular, as rigorous and inexorable as those rituals that we find in primitive societies. Every class, every sex, and every age has a rite of its own. No one could walk in the street, nobody could greet his neighbor or friend without performing a political ritual. And just as in primitive societies the neglect of one of the prescribed rites has meant misery and death. Even in young children this is not regarded as a mere sin of omission. It becomes a crime against the majesty of the leader and the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added].

The effect of these new rites is obvious. Nothing is more likely to lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgment and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personality and individual responsibility than the steady, uniform, and monotonous performance of the same rites. As a matter of fact in all primitive societies ruled and governed by rites individual responsibility is an unknown thing. What we find here is only a collective responsibility.

..."The savage," says E. Sidney Hartland in his book, 'Primitive Law,' "is far from being the free and unfettered creature of Russeau's imagination. On the contrary, he is hemmed in on every side by the customs of his people; he is bound in the chains of immortal tradition... These fetters are accepted by him as a matter of course; he never seeks to break forth... To the civilized man the same observations may very often apply; but the civilized man is too restless, too desirous of change, too eager to question his environment, to long remain in the attitude of acquiescence." [Editor: I disagree with the last part of Hartland's quote. The vast majority of modern humans "remain in the attitude of acquiescence" to deep-seated political (and religious) myths all their lives. My experience indicates that it's very difficult indeed to persuade most people to question their deeply held myths (or deep stupidities).]

These words [Hartland's quote] were written twenty years ago; but in the meantime we have learned a new lesson, a lesson that is very humiliating to our human pride. We have learned that modern man... has not really surmounted the condition of savage life. When exposed to the same forces, he can easily be thrown back to a state of complete acquiescence. He no longer questions his environment; he accepts it as a matter of course.

...But here are men, men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. Performing the same prescribed rites, they begin to feel, to think, and to speak in the same way. Their gestures are lively and violent; yet this is but an artificial, a sham life. In fact they are moved by an external force. They act like marionettes in a puppet show -- and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man's whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

For the understanding of our problem this is a point of crucial importance. Methods of compulsion and suppression have ever been used in political life. But in most cases these methods aimed at material results. Even the most fearful systems of despotism contented themselves with forcing upon men certain laws of action. They were not concerned with the feelings, judgments, and thoughts of men. It is true that in the great religious struggles the most violent efforts were made not only to rule the actions of men but also their consciousness. But these attempts were bound to fail; they only strengthened the feeling for religious liberty. Now the modern political myths proceeded in quite a different manner. They did not begin with demanding or prohibiting certain actions. They undertook to change the men, in order to be able to regulate and control their deeds. The political myths acted in the same way as a serpent that tries to paralyze its victims before attacking them. Men fell victim to them without any serious resistance. They were vanquished and subdued before they had realized what actually happened.

...To understand this process it is necessary to begin with an analysis of the term "freedom." Freedom is one of the most obscure and ambiguous terms not only of philosophical but also of political language. As soon as we begin to speculate about the freedom of the will we find ourselves involved into an inextricable labyrinth of metaphysical questions and antinomies. As to political freedom all of us know that it is one of the most used and abused slogans. All political parties have assured us that they are ever the true representatives and guardians of freedom. But they have always defined the term in their own sense and used it for their particular interests. Ethical freedom is, at bottom, a much simpler thing. It is free from those ambiguities that seem to be unavoidable both in metaphysics and in politics. Men act as free agents not because they possess a "liberum arbitrium indifferentiae." It is not the absence of a motive but the character of the free agent that marks a free action. In the ethical sense a man is a free agent if these motives depend upon his own judgment and own conviction of what moral duty is. According to Kant freedom is equivalent to autonomy... It means that the "law" which we follow in our actions is not imposed from without but that the moral agent gives this "law" to himself. [Last sentence edited.]

...Freedom is not a natural inheritance of man. In order to possess it we have to create it. If man were to simply follow his natural instincts he would not strive for freedom; he would rather chooses dependence. Obviously it is much easier to depend upon others than to think, to judge, and to decide for himself. That accounts for the fact that both in individual and in political life freedom is so often regarded much more as a burden than a privilege. Under extremely difficult conditions man tries to cast off this burden. Here the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added] and the political myths step in. The new political parties promise, at least, an escape from the dilemma. They suppress and destroy the very sense of freedom; but, at the same time, they relieve men from all personal responsibility.

That leads us to another aspect of our problem. In our description of the modern political myths one feature is still missing. As we pointed out, in the so-called "totalitarian states" [so-called and quotes added] the political leaders have had to take charge of all those functions that, in primitive societies, were performed by the magician. They were the absolute rulers; they were the medicine men who promised to cure all social evils. But that was not enough. In a savage tribe the sorcerer has still another important task. The "homo magus" is, at the same time, the "homo divinans." He reveals the will of the gods and foretells the future.

...Even in this respect our modern political life has abruptly returned to forms which seemed to have been entirely forgotten. To be sure, we no longer have the primitive kind of sortilege, the divination by lot; we no longer observe the flight of the birds nor do we inspect the entrails of slain animals. We have developed a much more refined and elaborate method of divination -- a method that claims to be scientific and philosophical. But if our methods have changed the thing itself has by no means vanished. Our modern politicians know very well that the great masses are much more easily moved by the force of imagination than by sheer physical force. And they have made ample use of this knowledge. The politician becomes a sort of public fortuneteller. Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership. The most improbable or even impossible promises are made; the millennium is predicted over and over again."

If you have listened to George W. Bush's speeches (especially since September 11th, 2001), you may notice how his political persona resonates with "homo magus" and "homo divinans!" And how he abuses the term "freedom" as political myth -- see below.

"...[I]n the domain of science, according to Bacon, [m]an must begin by freeing himself; he must get rid of his fallacies and illusions, his human idiosyncrasies and fancies. In the first book of his 'Novum Organon' Bacon tried to give a systematic survey of these illusions. He described the different kinds of idols, the "idola tribus" [idols of the tribe], the "idola specus" [idols of the cave], the "idola fori" [idols of the marketplace], and the "idola theatri" [idols of the theater], and he tried to show how to overcome them in order to clear the way that will lead to a true empirical science. [Editor: For an elaboration, see #TL07B: THE NATURE OF GOVERNMENT.]

...In politics we have not yet found this way. [emphasis added] Of all human idols, the idola fori [idols of the marketplace] are the most dangerous and enduring. ...I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

...The belief that man by the skillful use of magic formulae and rites can change the course of nature has prevailed for hundreds and thousands of years in human history. In spite of all the inevitable frustrations and disappointments mankind still clung stubbornly, forcibly, and desperately to this belief. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that in our political actions and our political thoughts magic still holds its ground.

...It is beyond the power of philosophy to destroy the political myths. A myth is in a sense invulnerable. It is impervious to rational arguments; it cannot be refuted by syllogisms. But philosophy can do us another important service. It can make us understand the adversary. In order to fight an enemy you must know him. That is one of the first principles of a sound strategy. To know him means not only to know his defects and weaknesses; it means to know his strength. When we first heard of the political myths we found them so absurd and incongruous, so fantastic and ludicrous that we could hardly be prevailed upon to take them seriously. By now it has become clear to us that this was a great mistake. We should not commit the same error a second time. We should carefully study the origin, the structure, the methods, and the technique of the political myths. We should see the adversary face to face in order to know and combat him."

I presume that the "we" referred to above by Cassirer included some of his contemporaries who also saw some of Hitler's political myths as absurd and ludicrous. Cassirer obviously saw how politicians abuse "freedom" as a political myth. He probably also identified many other surface political myths, such as "the master race," "the Jewish problem," "state education," "the public interest," "fair trade," "equitable redistribution of wealth," "gun control," "national security," etc.

But did he recognize deep political myths -- notions in people's minds such as: "country," "nation," "government," "constitution," "law," "fuhrer," "kaiser," "emperor," "king," "queen," "president," "prime minister," and all the rest? See #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK and #TL07B: THE NATURE OF GOVERNMENT.

In my opinion, despite the brilliant and insightful analysis of political myths in general, a major omission of Cassirer's 'The Myth of the State' is that he doesn't specifically make the case that the notion of "the state" in people's heads is a myth. Nor does he enumerate a list of political myths and explain why they are myths. Hopefully my writings constitute at least a partial remedy for these omissions.

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PostWed Sep 29, 2010 9:10 pm » by Tertiusgaudens


Here is the post I made on Cassirer:

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PostThu May 19, 2011 7:24 pm » by Fracturedpsyche


tertiusgaudens wrote:In another thread I have recommended Cassirer's book "The Myth of the State". It deals with the relation of myth and reason thus unfolding the myth status of state. Right at the beginning Cassirer has a look upon a term called "primeval stupidity" of man.

This is a emotive word. Is there something like this? Is it still lingering as our very backround we all come from? Primeval stupidity? IS MANKIND FINALLY COMING FROM STUPIDITY?

Here is a nice study of Frederick Mann:



ERNST CASSIRER AND "PRIMEVAL STUPIDITY"

Compiled and edited by Frederick Mann
© Copyright 2002 Build Freedom Holdings ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


"Myths are not just fairy tales which have no connection to "serious" practical matters. Myths can be inserted like bullets into guns, like rockets into planes, like missiles into plotted trajectories." -- Jon Rappoport

In 'The Myth of the State,' Ernst Cassirer (pronounced "Kaesser" or "Kässer") uses the term "primeval stupidity" ("Urdummheit" in German):

"Many anthropologists have asserted that myth is, after all, a very simple phenomenon -- for which we hardly need a complicated psychological or philosophical explanation. It is simplicity itself; for it is nothing but the "sancta simplicitas" of the human race. It is not the outcome of reflection or thought, nor is it enough to describe it as a product of human imagination. Imagination alone cannot account for all its incongruities and fantastic and bizarre elements. It is rather the "Urdummheit" of man that is responsible for these absurdities and contradictions. Without this "primeval stupidity" there would be no myth."

I use the term "primeval stupidity" to refer to the confusion of human symbols (and symbol systems) with physical reality. An extreme form of primeval stupidity is to regard human symbols as volitional entities. This "habit" could be regarded as typical of the Pathetic Fallacy: The ascription of human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, e.g., the "cruel sea," the "friendly skies," the "threatening clouds." An aspect of anthropomorphism. More broadly: The mistake of attributing human powers, aspirations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, or traits to events, inanimate objects, or human symbols, which do not even possess the capacity for such qualities.

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer describes the implications of the human symbol systems (which include language):

"Man has, as it were, discovered a new method of adapting himself to his environment. Between the receptor system and the effector system, which are to be found in all animal species, we find in man a third link which we may describe as the symbolic system. This new acquisition transforms the whole of human life. As compared with the other animals man lives not merely in a broader reality; he lives, so to speak, in a new dimension of reality. There is an unmistakable difference between organic reactions and human responses. In the first case a direct and immediate answer is given to an outward stimulus; in the second case the answer is delayed. It is interrupted and retarded by a slow and complicated process of thought. At first sight such a delay may appear to be a very questionable gain. Many philosophers have warned man against this pretended progress. "L'homme qui médite," says Rousseau, "est un animal dépravé" [The man who thinks is a depraved animal]: it is not an improvement but a deterioration of human nature to exceed the boundaries of organic life.

Yet there is no remedy against this natural order. Man cannot escape from his own achievement [the invention of symbolic systems]. He cannot but adopt the conditions of his own life. No longer in a merely physical universe, man lives in a symbolic universe. Language, myth, art, and religion are parts of this universe. They are the varied threads which weave the symbolic net, the tangled web of human experience. All human progress in thought and experience refines upon and strengthens this net. No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man's symbolic activity advances. [emphasis added] Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium. His situation is the same in the theoretical as in the practical sphere. Even here man does not live in a world of hard facts, or according to his immediate needs and desires. He lives rather in the midst of imaginary emotions, in hopes and fears, in illusions and disillusions, in his fantasies and dreams. "What disturbs and alarms man," said Epictetus, "are not the things, but his opinions and fancies about the things"."

Compare this to Aldous Huxley's Introduction to 'The First and Last Freedom' by Jiddu Krishnamurti:

"Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds -- the given and the home-made, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols. In our thinking we make use of a great variety of symbols-systems -- linguistic, mathematical, pictorial, musical, ritualistic. Without such symbol-systems we should have no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, not so much as the rudiments of civilization: in other words, we should be animals... But symbols -- as the history of our own and every other age makes so abundantly clear -- can also be fatal... Consider, for example, the domain of science on the one hand, and the domain of politics and religion on the other. Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to, one set of symbols [science], we have come, in some small measure, to understand and control the elementary forces of nature. Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to another set of symbols [politics and religion], we use these forces as instruments of mass murder and collective suicide. In the first case [science] the explanatory symbols were well chosen, carefully analyzed and progressively adapted to the emergent facts of physical existence. In the second case [politics and religion] symbols originally ill-chosen were never subjugated to thorough-going analysis and never re-formulated so as to harmonize with the emergent facts of human existence. Worse still, these misleading symbols [politics and religion] were everywhere treated with a wholly unwarranted respect, as though, in some mysterious way, they were more real than the realities [if any] to which they [supposedly] referred."

In my opinion, there is at least a partial remedy for the "symbolic dilemma." There's a famous painting by Magritte of a large pipe, with the inscription, "Ceci nest pas une pipe." [This is not a pipe.] The point is that a picture of a pipe is not the pipe. Similarly, the word "pipe" is not the pipe. The word is a symbol -- part of our symbolic system. The word is a noise that comes out of our mouths, or scribbles on paper (or canvas), or pixels on a computer screen.

Primeval stupidity (as I use the term) -- or "Urdummheit" -- is the inability to make a clear and sharp distinction between the symbol (in our "symbolic reality") and the thing (in physical reality) it represents. Or supposedly represents. We have many symbols that have no referents or corresponding things in reality. These can be regarded as mythological symbols. Regarding these mythological symbols as part of physical reality is primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit."

On April 21, 1985, Jorge Amador, editor of The Pragmatist, wrote to me:

"I do not need a morality to tell me what to do. Just the pragmatic, utilitarian analysis we are all born with. My brain identifies the various courses of action open to me at any given point. My body or memory then releases pleasure/pain signals for each of the alternatives, and my brain, with the tools of economic analysis, tells me which of the alternatives will produce the most pleasure/least pain, what further effects they may cause and what pleasure/pain these effects may have, and what probabilities of occurring each of these pleasure/pain results has. I then select, as it must happen, the action that I have calculated might produce the highest ratio of pleasure to pain. Any morality that sets an a priori imperative or prohibition on which actions I will take can only get in the way of my maximizing my utility, by creating pains where there were none before attached to the prohibited actions (or attached to doing something other than the "required" actions)."

This "pragmatic, utilitarian analysis" is probably what Cassirer means by "organic reaction." Amador's paragraph can be paraphrased in terms of symbols: "I do not need a symbol to tell me what to do." ... "Any symbol that sets an a priori imperative or prohibition on which actions I will take can only get in the way of my maximizing my utility..."

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer writes:

"We do find... in man a special type of relational thought... In man an ability to isolate relations -- to consider them in their abstract meaning -- has developed. In order to grasp this meaning man is no longer dependent upon concrete sense data, upon visual, auditory, tactile, kinesthetic data. He considers these relations "in themselves"... Geometry is the classic example of this turning point in man's intellectual life. Even in elementary geometry we are not bound to the apprehension of concrete individual figures. We are not concerned with physical things or perceptual objects, for we are studying universal spatial relations for whose expression we have an adequate symbolism. Without the preliminary step of human language such an achievement would not be possible."

Some of our symbols, like those of geometry, are most useful. However, as Aldous Huxley says above, "But symbols -- as the history of our own and every other age makes so abundantly clear -- can also be fatal... Thinking in terms of, and acting in response to another set of symbols [politics and religion], we use these forces as instruments of mass murder and collective suicide." The inability to examine, evaluate, and judge symbols as symbols, in order to determine whether they are beneficial or harmful symbols is part of primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit."

In 'An Essay on Man,' Ernst Cassirer writes:

"Though myth is fictitious, it is an unconscious, not a conscious fiction. The primitive mind was not aware of the meaning of its own creations. But is is for us, it is for our scientific analysis, to reveal this meaning -- to detect the true face behind these innumerable masks."

Being unconscious of our fictions as fictions (and regarding our fictions as part of physical reality) is primeval stupidity or "Urdummheit." Fortunately, it is possible for us to become conscious of our fictions (our mythological symbols) as fictions that may be useful or harmful. The process of becoming conscious of fictions may be triggered by contemplating Magritte's "Ceci nest pas une pipe." In my own case, the process was triggered by reading Lysander Spooner: #TL07: THE CONSTITUTION OF NO AUTHORITY.

All the indented quotes in the rest of this report are from Ernst Cassirer's 'The Myth of the State':

"Perhaps the most important and the most alarming feature in this development of modern political thought is the appearance of a new power: the power of mythical thought. The preponderance of mythical thought over rational thought in some of our modern political systems is obvious. [Editor: I beg to differ. It's not all obvious to most people. For many it takes enormous mental self-examination and effort before it becomes obvious.] After a short and violent struggle mythical thought seemed to win a clear and definite victory. How was this victory possible? How can we account for the new phenomenon that so suddenly appeared on our political horizon and in a sense seemed to reverse all our former ideas of the character of our intellectual and our social life?"

Cassirer may be referring specifically to Hitler's political thought as appearing suddenly. In my opinion, the preponderance of mythical thought over rational thought in politics is an age-old phenomenon -- probably as old as language itself. This may become evident by reading #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK.

"If we look at the present state of our cultural life we feel at once that there is a deep chasm between two different fields. When it comes to political action man seems to follow rules quite different from those recognized in all his mere theoretical activities. No one would think of solving a problem of natural science or a technical problem by the methods that are recommended and put into action in the solution of political questions. In the first case we never aim to use anything but rational methods. Rational thought holds its ground here and seems constantly to enlarge its field. Scientific knowledge and technical mastery of nature daily win new and unprecedented victories. But in man's practical and social life the defeat of rational thought seems to be complete and irrevocable. In this domain modern man is supposed to forget everything he has learned in the development of his intellectual life. He is admonished to go back to the first rudimentary stages of human culture. Here rational and scientific thought openly confess their breakdown; they surrender to their most dangerous enemy. [Editor: In the minds of many, mythical political thought masquerades as rational thought -- to the extent that anyone pointing out the irrationality of modern mythical political thought, is likely to be denounced as "crazy" or insane!"]

In order to find the explanation of this phenomenon that at first sight seems to derange all our thoughts and defy all our logical standards we must begin with the beginning. Nobody can hope to understand the origin, the character, and influence of our modern political myths without first answering a preliminary question. We must know what myth is before we can explain how it works. Its special effects can only be accounted for if we have attained a clear insight into its general nature.

...It is... the "Urdummheit" of man that is responsible for these absurdities and contradictions [the incongruities and fantastic and bizarre elements of myths]. Without this "primeval stupidity" there would be no myth.

...Historically we find no great culture that is not dominated by and pervaded with mythical elements.

...To the true romanticist there could be no sharp difference between myth and reality; just as little as there was any sharp difference between poetry and truth.

...What we find here is a complete change of all former values. Myth that had occupied the lowest rank was suddenly elevated to the highest dignity.

...There were always scholars of high authority who were apt to deny that there is any sharp difference between mythical and scientific thought.

...According to his theory [Sir James Frazer in 'The Golden Bough'] a man who performs a magic rite does not differ, in principle, from a scientist who in his laboratory makes a physical or chemical experiment.

...Frazer was not alone in holding this view. He continued a tradition that goes back to the beginnings of a scientific anthropology in the nineteenth cetury. In 1871 Sir E.B. Taylor had published his book 'Primitive Culture.' But although speaking of primitive culture he refused to accept the idea of a so-called "primitive mind." According to Taylor there is no essential difference between the savage's mind and the mind of civilized man. The thoughts of the savage may, at first sight, appear to be bizarre; but they are by no means confused or contradictory. The logic of the savage is, in a sense, impeccable. What makes the great difference between the savage's interpretation of the world and our own conceptions are not the forms of thought, the rules of arguing and reasoning, but the material, the data to which these rules are applied. Once we have understood the character of these data we are in a position to put ourselves in the savage's place -- to think his thoughts and to enter into his feelings."

We can make a distinction between "rational words" and "mythological words." The difference between the rational thinker and the modern mythological thinker is not in their use of logic or reason, but in the basic words or concepts to which the logic or reason is applied. As I've indicated in Project Abolish Stupidity & Increase Intelligence, there are thousands of concepts/words that constitute "deep stupidities" (they can also be called "primeval stupidities"). Some of these concepts/words are discussed extensively in #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK.

"To answer this question [the connection between myth and language] Max Mueller and other writers belonging to the school of comparative mythology devised a very ingenious scheme. Myth, they declared, is indeed nothing but one aspect of language; but it is rather its negative than its positive. Myth originates not in its virtues but in its vices. To be sure language is logical and rational, but on the other hand it is also a source of illusions and fallacies.

...The mind of man always acts in a rational way. Even the primitive mind was a sound and normal mind; but on the other hand, it was an undeveloped and inexperienced mind. If this inexperienced mind was constantly exposed to a great temptation -- to the fallacy and ambiguity of words -- it is not to be wondered at that it succumbed. That is the true source of mythical thought. Language is not only a school of wisdom but also a school of folly. Myth reveals the latter aspect to us.; it is nothing but the dark shadow cast by language on the world of human thought.

Mythology is thus represented as pathological both in its origin and in its essence. It is a disease that begins in the field of language and, by a dangerous infection, spreads over the whole body of human civilization.

...Human speech is metaphorical in its very essence; it is filled with similes and analogies. The primitive mind is unable to understand these similes in a merely metaphorical sense. It takes them for realities and it thinks and acts according to this principle. It is the literal interpretation of metaphorical names that from the first elementary forms of ancestor-worship, from the worship of human beings, led to the worship of plants and animals, and finally of the great powers of nature.

...[M]yth is, first and foremost, a mass of "ideas," of representations, of theoretical beliefs and judgments. As these beliefs are in open contradiction to our sense-experience and as there exist no physical objects that correspond to the mythical representations it follows that myth is a mere phantasmagoria. The question necessarily arises why men cling so obstinately and forcibly to such phantasmagoria. Why do they prefer to live in a world of illusions, of hallucinations and dreams?"

I once asked a number of libertarians in a room, how many believed there were "government laws" in the room. Most of them raised their hands. I asked them if there were any "policemen" or other "government agents" in the room. No response. I asked them how many still believed there were "government laws" in the room. Most of them raised their hands. I asked them how they knew there were "government laws" in the room. No response. I asked them if they could see or otherwise perceive "government laws" in the room. No response. I doubt whether I had any impact on their political mythology (primeval stupidity).

On another occasion I did a 30-minute interactive workshop as part of my Toastmaster training. I had an audience of about 25 people, including one libertarian. My theme was "Things that governments do." I asked a volunteer to tell me something that "government does."

Reply: "Government builds roads." Question: "Have you seen a government build a road?" Reply: "Yes." Question: Tell me in more detail what you saw; what did the government look like that built the road?"

I continued this interactive process for 30 minutes, including with the libertarian. In each case, I would say something like, "Well, I've actually observed a road being built. I saw people and equipment. I didn't see any so-called "government" building the road."

Whatever examples my audience gave, I demonstrated that the work was always done by individual human beings, sometimes with materiel and equipment. Nobody could provide any evidence of any so-called "government" doing anything. At the end of the workshop I asked them how many still believed that "government does things?" Most of them, including the libertarian, raised their hands. It's unlikely that I had any impact on the political mythology (primeval stupidity) of even one of them!

"...The historians of human civilization have told us that mankind in its development had to pass through two different phases. Man began as "homo magus" [magician] but from the age of magic he passed to the age of technics. The homo magus of former times and of primitive civilization became "homo faber," a craftsman and artisan. If we admit such an historical distinction, our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing. For what we find in them is the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other. The modern politician has had to combine in himself two entirely different and even incompatible functions. He has to act, at the same time, as both a homo magus and a homo faber. He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion. But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically. Nothing is left to chance; every step is well prepared and premeditated. It is this strange combination that is one of the most striking features of our political myths.

Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination. But here we find myth made according to plan. The new political myths do not grow up freely; they are not wild fruits of an exuberant imagination. They are artificial things fabricated by very skillful and cunning artisans. It has been reserved for the twentieth century, our own great technical age, to develop a new technique of myth. Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon -- as machine guns or airplanes. That is a new thing -- and a thing of crucial importance. It has changed the whole form of our social life. It was in 1933 that the political world began to worry somewhat about Germany's rearmament and its possible international repercussions. As a matter of fact this rearmament had begun many years before but had passed almost unnoticed. The real rearmament began with the origin and rise of the political myths. The later military rearmament was only an accessory after the fact. The fact was accomplished fact long before; the military rearmament was only the necessary consequence of the mental rearmament brought about by the political myths.

The first step that had to be taken was a change in the function of language. If we study the development of human speech we find that in the history of civilization the word fulfills two entirely different functions. To put it briefly we may terms these functions the semantic and the magical use of the word. Even among the so-called primitive languages the semantic function of the word is never missing; without it there could be no human speech. But in primitive societies the magic word has a predominant and overwhelming influence. It does not describe things or relations of things; it tries to produce effects and to change the course of nature. This cannot be done without an elaborate magical art. The magician, or sorcerer is alone able to govern the magic word. But in his hands it becomes a most powerful weapon. Nothing can resist its force. "Carmina vel coelo possunt deducere lunam," says the sorceress Meda in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' -- by magic songs and incantations even the moon can be dragged down from the heavens.

Curiously enough all this recurs in our modern world. If we study our modern political myths and the use that has been made of them we find in them, to our great surprise, not only a transvaluation of all our ethical values but also a transformation of human speech. The magic word takes precedence over the semantic word. If nowadays I happen to read a German book, published in these last ten years, not a political but a theoretical book, a work dealing with philosophical, historical, or economic problems -- I find to my amazement that I no longer understand the German language. New words have been coined; and even the old ones are used in a new sense; they have undergone a deep change of meaning. This change of meaning depends upon the fact that those words which formerly were used in a descriptive, logical, or semantic sense, are now used as magic words that are destined to produce certain effects and to stir up certain emotions. Our ordinary words are charged with meanings; but these new-fangled words are charged with feelings and violent passions.

...If we hear these new words we feel in them the whole gamut of human emotions -- of hatred, anger, fury, haughtiness, contempt, arrogance, and disdain.

But the skillful use of the magic word is not all. If the word is to have its full effect it has to be supplemented by the introduction of new rites. In this respect, too, the political leaders proceed very thoroughly, methodically, and successfully. Every political action has its special ritual. And since, in the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added], there is no private sphere, independent of political life, the whole life of man is suddenly inundated by a high tide of new rituals. They are as regular, as rigorous and inexorable as those rituals that we find in primitive societies. Every class, every sex, and every age has a rite of its own. No one could walk in the street, nobody could greet his neighbor or friend without performing a political ritual. And just as in primitive societies the neglect of one of the prescribed rites has meant misery and death. Even in young children this is not regarded as a mere sin of omission. It becomes a crime against the majesty of the leader and the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added].

The effect of these new rites is obvious. Nothing is more likely to lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgment and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personality and individual responsibility than the steady, uniform, and monotonous performance of the same rites. As a matter of fact in all primitive societies ruled and governed by rites individual responsibility is an unknown thing. What we find here is only a collective responsibility.

..."The savage," says E. Sidney Hartland in his book, 'Primitive Law,' "is far from being the free and unfettered creature of Russeau's imagination. On the contrary, he is hemmed in on every side by the customs of his people; he is bound in the chains of immortal tradition... These fetters are accepted by him as a matter of course; he never seeks to break forth... To the civilized man the same observations may very often apply; but the civilized man is too restless, too desirous of change, too eager to question his environment, to long remain in the attitude of acquiescence." [Editor: I disagree with the last part of Hartland's quote. The vast majority of modern humans "remain in the attitude of acquiescence" to deep-seated political (and religious) myths all their lives. My experience indicates that it's very difficult indeed to persuade most people to question their deeply held myths (or deep stupidities).]

These words [Hartland's quote] were written twenty years ago; but in the meantime we have learned a new lesson, a lesson that is very humiliating to our human pride. We have learned that modern man... has not really surmounted the condition of savage life. When exposed to the same forces, he can easily be thrown back to a state of complete acquiescence. He no longer questions his environment; he accepts it as a matter of course.

...But here are men, men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. Performing the same prescribed rites, they begin to feel, to think, and to speak in the same way. Their gestures are lively and violent; yet this is but an artificial, a sham life. In fact they are moved by an external force. They act like marionettes in a puppet show -- and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man's whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

For the understanding of our problem this is a point of crucial importance. Methods of compulsion and suppression have ever been used in political life. But in most cases these methods aimed at material results. Even the most fearful systems of despotism contented themselves with forcing upon men certain laws of action. They were not concerned with the feelings, judgments, and thoughts of men. It is true that in the great religious struggles the most violent efforts were made not only to rule the actions of men but also their consciousness. But these attempts were bound to fail; they only strengthened the feeling for religious liberty. Now the modern political myths proceeded in quite a different manner. They did not begin with demanding or prohibiting certain actions. They undertook to change the men, in order to be able to regulate and control their deeds. The political myths acted in the same way as a serpent that tries to paralyze its victims before attacking them. Men fell victim to them without any serious resistance. They were vanquished and subdued before they had realized what actually happened.

...To understand this process it is necessary to begin with an analysis of the term "freedom." Freedom is one of the most obscure and ambiguous terms not only of philosophical but also of political language. As soon as we begin to speculate about the freedom of the will we find ourselves involved into an inextricable labyrinth of metaphysical questions and antinomies. As to political freedom all of us know that it is one of the most used and abused slogans. All political parties have assured us that they are ever the true representatives and guardians of freedom. But they have always defined the term in their own sense and used it for their particular interests. Ethical freedom is, at bottom, a much simpler thing. It is free from those ambiguities that seem to be unavoidable both in metaphysics and in politics. Men act as free agents not because they possess a "liberum arbitrium indifferentiae." It is not the absence of a motive but the character of the free agent that marks a free action. In the ethical sense a man is a free agent if these motives depend upon his own judgment and own conviction of what moral duty is. According to Kant freedom is equivalent to autonomy... It means that the "law" which we follow in our actions is not imposed from without but that the moral agent gives this "law" to himself. [Last sentence edited.]

...Freedom is not a natural inheritance of man. In order to possess it we have to create it. If man were to simply follow his natural instincts he would not strive for freedom; he would rather chooses dependence. Obviously it is much easier to depend upon others than to think, to judge, and to decide for himself. That accounts for the fact that both in individual and in political life freedom is so often regarded much more as a burden than a privilege. Under extremely difficult conditions man tries to cast off this burden. Here the so-called "totalitarian state" [so-called and quotes added] and the political myths step in. The new political parties promise, at least, an escape from the dilemma. They suppress and destroy the very sense of freedom; but, at the same time, they relieve men from all personal responsibility.

That leads us to another aspect of our problem. In our description of the modern political myths one feature is still missing. As we pointed out, in the so-called "totalitarian states" [so-called and quotes added] the political leaders have had to take charge of all those functions that, in primitive societies, were performed by the magician. They were the absolute rulers; they were the medicine men who promised to cure all social evils. But that was not enough. In a savage tribe the sorcerer has still another important task. The "homo magus" is, at the same time, the "homo divinans." He reveals the will of the gods and foretells the future.

...Even in this respect our modern political life has abruptly returned to forms which seemed to have been entirely forgotten. To be sure, we no longer have the primitive kind of sortilege, the divination by lot; we no longer observe the flight of the birds nor do we inspect the entrails of slain animals. We have developed a much more refined and elaborate method of divination -- a method that claims to be scientific and philosophical. But if our methods have changed the thing itself has by no means vanished. Our modern politicians know very well that the great masses are much more easily moved by the force of imagination than by sheer physical force. And they have made ample use of this knowledge. The politician becomes a sort of public fortuneteller. Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership. The most improbable or even impossible promises are made; the millennium is predicted over and over again."

If you have listened to George W. Bush's speeches (especially since September 11th, 2001), you may notice how his political persona resonates with "homo magus" and "homo divinans!" And how he abuses the term "freedom" as political myth -- see below.

"...[I]n the domain of science, according to Bacon, [m]an must begin by freeing himself; he must get rid of his fallacies and illusions, his human idiosyncrasies and fancies. In the first book of his 'Novum Organon' Bacon tried to give a systematic survey of these illusions. He described the different kinds of idols, the "idola tribus" [idols of the tribe], the "idola specus" [idols of the cave], the "idola fori" [idols of the marketplace], and the "idola theatri" [idols of the theater], and he tried to show how to overcome them in order to clear the way that will lead to a true empirical science. [Editor: For an elaboration, see #TL07B: THE NATURE OF GOVERNMENT.]

...In politics we have not yet found this way. [emphasis added] Of all human idols, the idola fori [idols of the marketplace] are the most dangerous and enduring. ...I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

...The belief that man by the skillful use of magic formulae and rites can change the course of nature has prevailed for hundreds and thousands of years in human history. In spite of all the inevitable frustrations and disappointments mankind still clung stubbornly, forcibly, and desperately to this belief. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that in our political actions and our political thoughts magic still holds its ground.

...It is beyond the power of philosophy to destroy the political myths. A myth is in a sense invulnerable. It is impervious to rational arguments; it cannot be refuted by syllogisms. But philosophy can do us another important service. It can make us understand the adversary. In order to fight an enemy you must know him. That is one of the first principles of a sound strategy. To know him means not only to know his defects and weaknesses; it means to know his strength. When we first heard of the political myths we found them so absurd and incongruous, so fantastic and ludicrous that we could hardly be prevailed upon to take them seriously. By now it has become clear to us that this was a great mistake. We should not commit the same error a second time. We should carefully study the origin, the structure, the methods, and the technique of the political myths. We should see the adversary face to face in order to know and combat him."

I presume that the "we" referred to above by Cassirer included some of his contemporaries who also saw some of Hitler's political myths as absurd and ludicrous. Cassirer obviously saw how politicians abuse "freedom" as a political myth. He probably also identified many other surface political myths, such as "the master race," "the Jewish problem," "state education," "the public interest," "fair trade," "equitable redistribution of wealth," "gun control," "national security," etc.

But did he recognize deep political myths -- notions in people's minds such as: "country," "nation," "government," "constitution," "law," "fuhrer," "kaiser," "emperor," "king," "queen," "president," "prime minister," and all the rest? See #TL07A: THE ANATOMY OF SLAVESPEAK and #TL07B: THE NATURE OF GOVERNMENT.

In my opinion, despite the brilliant and insightful analysis of political myths in general, a major omission of Cassirer's 'The Myth of the State' is that he doesn't specifically make the case that the notion of "the state" in people's heads is a myth. Nor does he enumerate a list of political myths and explain why they are myths. Hopefully my writings constitute at least a partial remedy for these omissions.

http://www.buildfreedom.com/tl/tl071.html


Wow, that was one hell of a thought provoking read....Thanks for the post tertiusgaudens :cheers:
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The earth is what we all have in common ~ Wendell Berry



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