“Hail to thee blithe spirit, bird thou never wert”. Thus begins an ode to a nightingale. But what does the poet have in mind? He writes a paeon to a bird and then states that the feathered creature never was a bird. Is he lying to his readers? No, he is telling us a truth that lies beyond the truth. In metaphor he is stating that the warbling trill of a nightingale exists in the realm of superlatives. He expresses this truth by using the music of verse. As a result the poet lifts his reader to a more exalted plane than if he had simply said that the nightingale has a pretty song.

I had a friend with whom I would go hiking. In many ways he tended to be extremely concrete (even more concrete than my wife accuses me of being). As a brilliant engineer and inventor he had acquired international recognition and fame. Like many of his background and training he held fast to the idea that for a fact to be true it had to be measured. Otherwise they could not be labeled as factual or true. He and I would have lively discussions on the trail about whether there are different ways to express truth besides physical measurements. Because he was a militant atheist I would often use religious myths and metaphors as examples of truths that can’t be measured.

Why have certain myths and legends endured  for millenia? Could it be that they are more than interesting stories? I would like to suggest that they convey universal truths about the human condition. If they did not they would have been consigned long ago to the dust bin of history. To illustrate I might reflect on the myth of Adam and Eve. Symbolically the story tells us that all humans are born into bliss and innocence. They are expelled from that Eden when they bite the apple (mothers breast). Never again can they return to infant state of stress free existence. Everyone is destined to experience greater difficulties and greater struggles as they age as decreed by God in the myth.

How better to describe the rivalry and murderous jealously of siblings than the story of Abel and Cain or that of Horus and Seth. As pointed out by Freud, a son’s competition with his father is laid out in the tale of Oedipus. Jason and Medea tell of the murderous revenge of the jilted. Struggles for power are set forth in David and Saul, David and Absolom. and so on ad infinitum.

These stories shed light upon human conflicts and dilemmas. Perhaps there exist more direct and simpler ways to plumb the human spirit. Yet the indirect and often occult nature of the myth reveals truths about humans that simpler and more direct narratives fail to. In that sense they represent psychological and behavioural truths that can not be submitted to the tyranny of a yardstick.

Not too many generations ago these ancient stories were part of the heritage of most educated persons. No longer is this true. No longer do people read these tales that so beautifully illustrate the challenges of being human. We are poorer fas the result of it.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Bob Levis says:

    I hope my comment won’t be the end of a dialogue!!

    1. First let me say something about the meaning of the words we use. For me (who else?), we are each utimately responsible for the meaning of the words that we use in trying to formulate for ourselves a philosophy of life, the words we use in trying to communicate effectively with someone, etc. For example, I just used the word “ultimately.” What do I mean by this? First of all, it has a meaning in this context. And, here, the famous statement, “The buck stops here.”, would apply for me (again, who else?) Secondly, in trying to get a dialogue going, as I am here, both with a possible reader (!), and, of course, with myself (!), I am using words which I hope are meaningful in the sense that I intend them. Should any one else, including myself, ask, “Just what is your meaning here,” I would be prepared to respond, in which case I would use other words, etc..

    Here I am reminded of a nephew of mine who once asked why I used so many exclamationg marks in my letters to him. And, again, here I would have to go back to each use of an exclamation mark and try to explain what I am up to. Then, after generalizing a few of my uses of an exclamation mark, I might try to generalize what is common to all of these uses that I have analyzed.

    The theologeon, Paul Tillich, spends a lot of time discussing the words “truth,” “myth,” and “symbol.” Etc., etc.!!! (Right now, my wife, Sylvie, wants me to get dressed properly for lunch with my son, Alan, etc.!

  2. Bob Levis says:

    fyi: As a result of just re-reading the posting of our octoginaralo and my comment, I plan to get out my Tillich file. He was my teacher back in 1949, when I was a philosophy student at Columbia University. I took his class after finding out that my service as the Commanding Officer of the 1708 Labor Supervision Company in Paris, back in ’45-’46 (I was the American equivalent of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes), I found that, though I hadn’t learned much German in my year with the German POWs, I had learned how to understand a heavy German accent which Tillich definitly had}, made him relatively understandable, etc., etc.!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *