by Julian Tepfers

I begin my enquiry into thought with a joke. It is a demeaning joke, allegedly told by Winston Churchill about his successor to the post of prime minister. “An empty taxi drove up to Number 10 and Clement Attlee got out.” The joke’s humor lies in its incongruity, something emerging from nothing. Of course, it is not truly nothing. It is Clement Attlee, a global tour de force as prime minister, conjured out of an empty vehicle. My argument is centered around the truth in such a seemingly impossible scenario. For just as Clement Attlee needs a vehicle to get around, so does thought. It needs something that can transfer it from one mind to another. So, if thought is to change the world, it needs a vehicle that can take it all around the globe.

However, certain barriers restrict a would-be-global thought to just a few thinkers. In my view, two are particularly important. National language restricts thought within a certain group, and disciplinary language contains it within a particular field. Our would-be-global thought is then trapped within a few privileged minds, unable to escape the prison bars of disciplines and the barbed wire of language. To set this trapped thought free, and make its impact global, we need not just a shared language but a shared form. In Metaphysics, Aristotle comments on substances being either matter, form, or “the third kind of substance which is composed of matter and form” (my emphasis). Would-be-global thought should be of this third kind. The thought as matter exists within a single mind and finds its global actuality only in some global form. The challenge is finding this form, a vehicle, that the trapped thought can escape into and use to traverse the world.

I argue that the form that transports thought is also the form that will produce it. Just like the taxi that transports Clement Attlee to Number 10, it is also the same vehicle that produces him when it gets there. Finding the right form will set trapped thoughts free globally. This form is myth. In this case, myth as conceptualized by Joseph Campbell. Campbell is himself a kind of vehicle, a vehicle that has gathered thoughts on myth into his own corpus and delivered it to the non-academic in an easily accessible way. He carries with him Émile Durkheim’s conceptualization of myth as “a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual and the group” (382), along with Ananda Coomaraswamy’s take on myth as “the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights” (382), alongside many more theories and interpretations. In the front seat alongside Campbell is Carl Gustav Jung, proclaiming that myth is “a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche” (382). In summary, Campbell’s myth is a symbolic repository of the most profound insights of humankind found in their shared psyche, in the image-rich form of a group dream. Tailing Campbell’s entourage of mythologists, I pronounce that myths are a-linguistic and pre-disciplinary. They are ancient vehicles, apt to carry meaning across space and time. Alas, we find ourselves in a “demythologized world” (10), which, according to Campbell, is a shame because “what human beings have in common is revealed in myths” (4). To find common ground in a world of competing languages and disciplines, we must look to these mythic revelations of our common nature.

This primordial pool of stories is one we all share across linguistic boundaries. Dwelling beyond and below modern narratives, mythology is “a shared common narrational scheme” (4). Being such universal blueprints, myths are not only easily transported; they are also easily reconstructed at any disciplinary destination. Build your theory on a shared mythological foundation, and you build it on a foundation within the psyche of each and every one of your readers. Albert Camus reconstructed the myth of Sisyphus into the discipline of philosophy. Sigmund Freud reconstructed the myth of Oedipus into the discipline of psychology. These shared narratives crossed oceans and eras to become the ideal form into which Camus and Freud could pour their thoughts. After choosing such a shared form, their thoughts could now be understood globally. As Joseph Campbell so accurately points out, “in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind” (19). Myths can, therefore, hold more than mere language. They are comprised of a universally accessible meaning and form and can serve as vehicles that can carry thought across both linguistic and disciplinary barriers.

“Let it be remembered how many ideas we owe to the use of language,” writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “how much grammar exercises and facilitates the operations of the mind” (91, my emphasis). This facilitating of the mind’s gearwheels is of crucial importance in answering how this mythic vehicle also produces thought. Aptly, I will use a myth to explain. In The Aitareya Upanishad, we find the story of how the Self creates the world’s guardians. “They said to the Self: ‘Give us a place where we can live and eat.’” Desiring a form, the Self brings them first a cow. To this, the guardians say: “This is not what we desire.” The Self then brings them a horse, but again, the guardians say: “This is not what we desire.” At last, the Self brings them a human form, and the guardians exclaim: “Just right! A human body is just right for us” (2:1-3). Interestingly, the guardians preceded their ideal form, and when presented with it, they immediately recognized it as right and entered into it. Hence, thought as matter exists in all people across the world, just waiting for the suitable form that will unlock its cranial cage and let it loose upon the global stage.

Camus and Freud successfully put their thoughts into ancient mythic form. Nevertheless, “In the realm of knowledge, old discoveries are eclipsed by the new,” writes Rabindranath Tagore, and “Truth in a new form leads to a revolution, but truth in a traditional guise does not even surprise” (153). A purely traditional mythic vehicle may have enough fuel to carry its passenger-thought around the world, but without a modern upgrade it will not have enough power to enter weary minds once it gets there. It is, therefore, of key importance that new myths be made.

Remember then that I am not speaking of myths per se, but of mythic form. I speak of myths as “systems of symbols” (7). The symbols must be kept, but they also can be rearranged. Campbell’s myth, a mosaic of mythological interpretations anchored in the living psyche of humankind, is, in his words, “as amenable as life itself” (382). Therefore, it can adapt as life requires. The key point of my argument is that myths must be adapted in accordance with a mythic language and formula, for it is this that we instinctively know across borders and boundaries. Hegel says of the poet that “he must remain entitled to create always anew from what is already there, from history, saga, myths, chronicles” (216, my emphasis). The myth that is perceived as new but remains firmly rooted in the old is the vehicle that will bear the necessary recognisability and yet pack a punch of surprise. The Rolls Royce, if you like.

The question then becomes where to look for this mythic form. I propose we look to what Karl Jaspers referred to as the Axial Period “with its overwhelming plenitude of spiritual creations, which has determined all human history down to the present day” (21). At that time, around 500 B.C., myths still loomed large in man’s consciousness. However, they had lost some of their sacral nature. Just enough of it so that humankind could seize them and begin to contemplate how they could be used anew. “Myths were remolded, were understood at a new depth during this transition, which was myth-creating after a new fashion” (10, my emphasis). Humankind began to craft its own myths, but the mythic form of old was still remembered in creation. The recent mythic past was still most vivid in man’s memory, and this, in the words of Hegel, “automatically succeeds in clothing characters, events, and actions in the garment of universality” (189, my emphasis). This meant the ideas, creations, and thoughts that emerged were still indelibly stamped with a universal appeal. Retaining the form of their arché, they had yet to fracture into different languages and disciplines. Mythology is such a universal origin, and few capture it better in words than Joseph Campbell: “Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth” (3). Now, we have long boiled over into all sorts of divisions. We must turn down the heat and return to a low simmer when a man could touch myth and commandeer it to his own ends.

The first step is to reclaim poetry as a means of expression. The rise of “the prose of the world,” comments Ranajit Guha, “signals the end of the primordial unity celebrated by poetry since the beginning of time.” (16) Prose, then, propelled the linguistic and disciplinary division marking our time. Since unity of form is our goal, we must return to the poetry which celebrates it. The Axial Period was a time when poetry and philosophy were so intertwined, wrapped in such a loving embrace, that one could not tell them apart. Look no further than to the writings of Xenophanes (93) or Empedocles (161) to see poetry in action for philosophical ends. This concentration of disciplines, their unity in mythic form, is precisely what allows the thought it contains to be extracted in a myriad of different ways.

I place this emphasis on form over matter because form is all we can know. We cannot perceive pure thought. From mythic form we, the receiver, must produce, or rather re-produce, the thought this global vehicle brings us. It is precisely this intellectual interaction with the mythic form that produces thought for both its sender and receiver. In line with my argument, I will draw upon a myth to explain. Think of us all as Pygmalion, interacting with our beautifully formed sculpture Galatea. In the myth, Pygmalion “successfully carved an amazingly skillful statue in ivory, white as snow, an image of perfect feminine beauty – and fell in love with his own creation” (394). Here, Pygmalion is the sender, creating the mythic vehicle that will discharge his thought upon the world. It is, however, an empty vehicle. He wants it to come alive, but it is a form with no matter. So, Pygmalion prayed to Venus, and Venus “signaled her favor” (395). Deus ex machina, the statue was imbued with matter, life, and thought. The returning Pygmalion is the receiver of the thought. As he interacted with the statue, “The ivory gradually lost its hardness, softening, sinking, yielding beneath his sensitive fingers” (396). With this interaction came the realization: “Yes! She was living flesh!” (396) From form to matter for the creator, from form to matter for the receiver. Thought is produced for both. As the story of Pygmalion, would-be-global thought is undoubtedly a metamorphosis where form produces living matter, giving it living feet like Galatea with which to travel the world.

This is how the right form both transports and produces thought globally. Returning to our opening joke, having explained it at length, it is, of course, no longer that funny. It is, however, true. We must trust the taxi to both transport and produce Clement Attlee wherever it takes him. In seeking to release individual thought from its cranial cage and letting it roam free globally, we must likewise trust the vehicle to do its job. This mythic form is what can transport a thought around the world, producing it at every stop, in everyone. We had this form during the Axial Period. It must be brought back to our age, an age that is more interconnected than any age before. All we need is the right vehicle.

Julian Tepfers is a MLitt student in Global Social and Political Thought at the University of St Andrews. His background is in Creative Writing from Kristiania University College, Norway, and in Creativity Theory from the University of Cambridge. He is interested in interdisciplinarity and seeks to bring theories from different fields together in his work, often through a philosophical lens, and always with a creative angle.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, “Dynamism of a Car,” in Musée National d’Art Moderne, via Wikimedia Commons (2018).