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Death and immortality: myth and philosophy

donderdag, 02 februari 2012 14:52

An excerpt from the book L'homme face a sa mort, by Fr. Marie-Dominique Goutierre.

...When we look at the question of man's ultimate destiny we immediately touch upon the problem of the relation between myth and philosophy. The religious traditions constantly convey three types of myth: the myths about the gods; the myths about Creation and the origins of the world; and lastly, the myths about man's destiny beyond death. Philosophy was born and developed in Greece within the context of religious traditions and of art, and by emerging progressively from these myths through a search for the truth1: the search for a truth about God beyond the imaginative representations already present with Hesiodus in Theogony, then in Xenophane of Colophon's works; the search for the origine of things, in particular with the philosophers from Milet's school whom Aristotle was to call the “physicians”: Thales, Anaximandre, Anaximene; the search for destiny and meaning, for the finality of human life, first of all with the pythagorian school.

From a historical point of view it is a fact that the mythical discourse preceded the philosophical. Yet is it not the same search, the same concern in man's heart that presides over these two realisations? One is symbolic, closer to our human sensibility and psychology, keeping all the freshness of an artist’s spontaneous sketch. The other is more refined, more precise, closer to the finality which it touches in a way proper to itself and true when it reaches wisdom. But in both cases it is a question of man evoking or saying something about a reality which he does not immediately experience. Either he imagines it and represents it to himself through a myth, or he actually manages to discover it, asserting its existence as something that is evident and saying something true about it through wisdom. Aristotle thus considered that “the love of myth is in a certain way philosophical, since a myth is composed of wonders2” and provokes the surprise and questioning of the intelligence.

In a very particular way man's confrontation with death and with the unknown that the beyond represents, gives rise within him to the search for the truth, or at least to the search for something to hold on to in order to confront it, if not serenely, then at least with the encouragement offered by a glimpse of light in the midst of darkness. It is therefore not surprising that the problem of death and of immortality lies at the heart of all the arts, of all the religious traditions and of all cultures.

On this topic see, among others, W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers
2 Metaphysics, A, 2, 982 b 18.

An extract from A Question of Life and Death, by Marie-Dominique Goutierre, ch.1, “Man and Wisdom”



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