I have talked in previous articles on the importance of myth and story, and that how we apprehend and interpret reality depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and which we consider to be true. The point of talking in this way is to draw attention to the idea that facts are often the enemy of myths because they can lead to a literalism that is simply devastating—a devastation that is not merely an academic matter, but one writ large in blood for the last four centuries at least.
To go back to the original Catholic and Protestant divisions and conflicts would be to go too far for the purposes of this short article. Indeed, what I would like to do is to include myth’s short form, and explain in one simple and transparent example just how devastating this tendency can be.
What is myth’s short form? The metaphor (and its cousin, the simile). This is not just the story compressed into linear narrative, but the idea compacted into a brilliant image that bursts forth with meanings, as myths, in their longer form, do.
An example of a great metaphor comes in the poem “Rupertismus” from “Poems of John Cleveland” by the now forgotten 17th-century metaphysical poet:
For beauty, like white powder, makes no noise,
And yet the silent hypocrite destroys.
The metaphor is beauty, “the silent hypocrite,” which is powerful enough, but add to it the simile “like white powder,” and a whole range of fascinating readings emerges: white powder as a cosmetic concoction that women wear that makes them silently dangerous; or white powder as gunpowder, in which beauty is seen as explosive although initially and apparently inert and idle; or even white powder as a drug that hypnotizes and addicts the viewer to his or her own destruction.
As Aristotle observed, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.”
Thus, when we come to writings of real significance and authority, we need to take account of this; we need to read with metaphor always in mind, or else we get trapped into a literalism that is seemingly factual but which denudes the text of its real power, power that derives from its real meaning. In other words, we distort, we misrepresent, we “say the thing which was not” (Jonathan Swift), or we lie.
When Literalism Becomes Dangerous
We have had over 100 years of socialism. Recently, the ex-finance minister for Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, said, “Socialism is in retreat, as it deserves to be, because we socialists have messed up big time, for decades if not for a century at least.”
That is a worthy and candid admission that you won’t find many socialists admitting; and if it is true of socialism, then it is even truer of communism and Marxism: We have had over a century of catastrophic failure, starvation, and bloodshed wherever this pernicious philosophy, and its ilk, has taken root.
As I write now, even in the UK, there is a dangerous drift going on, whereby a quasi-Marxist government opposition is getting closer to achieving power—and once, and if, it gets in, goodbye thinking, welcome the thought police. And perhaps as obnoxious as the policies themselves is the self-congratulation of these people, always virtue-signaling, always for the people, but by people who know better than the people: the oligarchs.
But where does so much of all this nonsense come from? How is it that people go about believing this nonsense long after history has demonstrated its fallacious and pernicious nature?
I like to reflect on Karl Marx and his notorious—and celebrated—riposte to sound spiritual teaching. The book of Deuteronomy tells us, “And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), and this is reiterated as spiritual teaching in the New Testament when Christ says, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Two points to notice here. First, that when you consider that the whole point of communism was/is to free the workers from the tyranny of capitalism, then how is it that Marx could miss that the flight from Egypt was exactly that—a freeing of the workers, the slaves? Lewis Feuer, as quoted in Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life,” observed that “ideologies retool the very religious stories they purport to have supplanted, but eliminate the narrative and psychological richness.” In other words, ideologies are a systematic dumbing down of the myth, replacing it with a simplistic, theoretical, and binary narrative of them and us.
But secondly, and to return to the metaphor, according to Olaf Stapledon, communism “declared that ‘bread’ was man’s whole need, and that all spiritual values were mere Capitalist dope.” Or, as put by Bill Martin Jr. in “Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation,” “man does indeed live by bread alone.”
Bread is a particularly rich metaphor, and we cannot explore it fully here. But take the Gospel of John (6:27). A crowd of 5,000 people followed Jesus after he miraculously fed them. In response, Jesus did something no political leader would: He rebuked the crowd for following him simply because he had given them bread. He exhorted them to “not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” Something other than bread can fulfill ultimate human needs, and Jesus claimed to offer it.
Whether one is a Christian or a Jew or not, that message is still relevant today. For what Marx did in advocating the exact opposite was to provide a materialistic ideology that spawned the politics of the Soviet Union, which then traveled around the world with devastating consequences to human life. He saw neither the inner meaning of the expression, that merely to live economically is to live like an animal, for that is all animals do, and this is to deny our humanity, nor that this message was a call from Moses and/or Jesus (who “trusted Him who is invisible”) to a new way of living.
In the former case, then, living as animals leads to behavior like animals, which can be summed up in the expression “dog eat dog,” which actually very accurately describes how the Soviet Union subsequently became—with even family members informing on each other. And in the latter case, it meant a total failure to come to terms with transcendence and a morality grounded in a higher than human authority.
The consequences of failing to heed or understand myth and metaphor, then, are profound. Karl Marx was a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t understand either myth or metaphor, and so misread and distorted the texts for political ends. He deliberately distorted the myths and metaphors so that their richness was impoverished, and human beings were turned against human beings.
As Aristotle noted, “When the storytelling goes bad in a society, the result is decadence.” That is the history, the legacy, of what Marx achieved.
In this series, Myths: Mapping Our Way Home, James Sale revisits why myths—all but discounted today—remain crucial to understanding our place in the universe, if not to our very survival.
James Sale is an English businessman and the creator of Motivational Maps, which operates in 14 countries. He has authored over 40 books from major international publishers, including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge, on management, education, and poetry. As a poet, he won First Prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition.