The Tower of Babel We Build

September 18, 2019 Updated: October 15, 2019

Ever since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, it has become increasingly difficult to talk of myths and mythology in a world that increasingly craves science. And what this means is that people want facts and are suspicious of anything other than facts. This is the case despite the fact that facts themselves aren’t always what they are cracked up to be.

For we have lost sight of the distinction between facts and truth; indeed, in our post-modern world there is no truth.

So we need to clearly understand that it is not facts that make religions and myths powerful and accepted. No, they depend on being true, which is a completely different idea.

When we talk, for example, of King Arthur and the Round Table, its truth is independent of the existence of King Arthur; moreover, Arthur’s specific existence is unimportant compared with the narratives about him.

As Northrop Frye put it: “A myth is designed not to describe a specific situation but to contain it in a way that does not restrict its significance to that one situation. Its truth is inside its structure, not outside.” For the most important things in life are invisible and not subject to “facts”: Love is invisible, values are invisible, and our souls are invisible.

To take that last illustration—that we have an actual soul—the whole testimony of mankind from the beginning of human history testifies to its reality. Still, that doesn’t make our soul a fact from a scientific point of view, though it be true nonetheless.

We need to return to the myths of old, which reveal profound truths about ourselves and our condition, and which may well help prevent us from falling into serious error—errors that in the context of today may have apocalyptic consequences.

The Tower of Babel

Let’s turn to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible, which occurs in the first nine verses of Chapter 11 of the book of Genesis. It occurs just after the Flood story, and so is the last great prehistoric story before we encounter the more historical-type stories beginning with Abram/Abraham and the creation of the Jewish race.

The story relates that the whole earth had “one language and few words” as mankind settled in the East, in the land of Shinar. The word “Shinar” seems to have two primary etymological meanings: first, to express intense negative emotion or the experience of violence; and second, to be very afraid. This latter definition seems possible as the men explicitly express a fear of being “scattered abroad.” They also want to make a “name for themselves.”

To make a name for yourself, gain a reputation, and to be famous is considered an antidote to that fear of being scattered, reduced, and coming to nothing—an existential fear, in other words.

Thus, they decide to counter their own impotence and fear by building a city, and especially a tower with a “top” that penetrates heaven. And they will do it, significantly, not with natural (that is, God-made) products like stone, but with man-made substitutes, like bricks.

God views this construction, and specifically comes down to see it, and (in the New American Standard Version, 1973) concludes, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

So God, to prevent this, confuses the languages of the world and thereby scatters the people, which prevents the structure’s being completed, as human beings can no longer communicate effectively.

Falling Away From God

“The Tower of Babel,” 1563, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Museum of Art History, Vienna. (Public Domain)

Fundamentally, the story of the Tower of Babel is about heresy, an alternative myth, that simply never goes away and which always leads humans astray.

In essence it says this: Human beings are perfectible, godlike creatures whose hopes and aspirations can be achieved solely through human agency, and the primary vehicle that will enable this to happen is what we call education. Education will lead us to a better tomorrow.

That this is the opposite of what all the great ancients thought is shown by one simple “fact”: Namely, the ancients (for example, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, to mention only three venerable cultures) believed that the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in, or heading for, a brutal Iron Age.

Regression, therefore, not progression was what the trend of human history demonstrated. But clearly, for those building a Tower of Babel, the Golden Age lies ahead.

Those Who Build a ‘Perfect’ World

Let’s take a remote and arcane example of those believing in humankind’s perfectibility: the Pelagian heresy of the fourth and fifth centuries. This heresy, which constantly resurfaces in Christianity in various forms, denies the cardinal virtue of accepting that it is by the grace of God, and not by human will, that salvation is found. Pelagius maintained that humans through their own willpower could be innocent of evil and so be good.

Irrespective of Christian theology here, we can surely detect the Greek word “hubris” in the idea that we can become godlike and good ourselves without reference to God or the gods. Zeus would not have liked it and almost certainly would have punished it.

But if this seems remote, let’s take a much more up-to-date example: Marxism and its offspring, communism. It has often been observed that communism is a religion, but a religion without God. And it is a perfect example of that secularization which is the Tower of Babel, and whose drift can be summed up in one word: progress.

Communism stipulates that we don’t need God; we can create our own value system, our own morality, and our own purposes. This sense of alienation from God or the gods has infected our culture ever since the 19th century.

The Marxist progress is the classless society that must happen: pure utopia, and pure perfection of humanity. Pure false and rationalistic myth.

Of course, socialism mirrors—perhaps “apes”—this kind of Marxist thinking, as does, counterintuitively, “progressive liberalism” in our own day. The philosopher John Gray commented, “What is striking is how closely the market liberal philosophy that underpins globalization resembles Marxism. Both are essentially secular religions, in which the eschatological hopes and fantasies of Christianity are given an Enlightenment twist.”

They are all engaged in building the perfect world, but without any reference to God or the gods: a veritable Tower of Babel.

A Metaphor for Today

“Tower of Babel,” 1594, by Lucas Van Valckenborch. Louvre. (Public Domain)

The quintessential condition of all Western societies stems from “babel,” as in its etymology from the Hebrew verb (balal), meaning to jumble or to confuse, and from which our own word “babble” seems associated. It manifests as confusion, fragmentation, polarization, the absence of any agreed-upon values, and the self being enthroned as its own god.

Consider that never before has there been so much transmission and so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talking to ourselves while no one listens.

All the while technology, science’s twin, promises ever more utopia just ahead: AI, robotics, cures for cancer, living on Mars, living to 150 or 200, and every other fantasy beside. It seems to be two sides of a coin: On one side is complete fragmentation, which is pitched alongside the fantasy—the modern myth—that all will be well because our technology will save us.

Late in the 19th century, L.L. Zamenhof published the first book on Esperanto, an artificial language (still spoken by approximately two million people as a second language in 115 countries) that sought to overcome the curse of Babel—the curse that prevented humans doing what God or the gods could do. But this kind of language proved inadequate for the task.

The real language to reverse the effects of Babel was created in the 20th century and is now flourishing the 21st: It is, of course, the digital language of our computers and cellphones and almost any current device—fridges, cars, missiles, you name it. At last mankind has found a language that all humans understand and as a result can make exponential progress in building its new and latest Towers of Babel.

And there is the danger. We think we can defeat God and subvert his will for us.

Of course, the secularists don’t believe in God or the gods, but even John Gray—an atheist philosopher—said: “Secular thinkers have turned to a belief in progress that is further removed from the basic facts of life than any religious myth.”

In other words, the building of the Tower of Babel is one more example of a colossal mistake that will have dire consequences. As Ayn Rand expressed it: “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of reality.” There’s the rub: The modern dream of progress is just that—a dream, a fantasy, a false myth that needs to be deconstructed for what it is.

The Tower of Babel, on the other hand, is an enduring myth that speaks true. And if from this we wish to consider a solution to the current impasse we are in, then we need go no further than to the root problem: “facts” as a substitute for “truth.”

When people, when cultures start to value truth, then the facts resume their proper place in the scheme of things, and the dangerous, utopian fantasies begin to recede. So let us look at the traditional myths with new eyes, new hearts, and new minds, and let us embrace their truths.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson and Routledge. As a poet, he won First Prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition, recently appearing at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.