Wael Al-Mahdi (2010)

Ritual has existed for as long as humanity has been up to its usual business of mastering self and environment.  At the beginning of era of modernity, and with the spread of scientific thinking, myth, ritual and metaphysics were jettisoned, with intellectuals declaring that humanity had outgrown its primitive tools that “explained” previously incomprehensible natural, astrological or biological phenomena.  There is no doubt myth and ritual were one of the ways humans dealt with the unknown, and that the scientific discoveries that made large parts of our world comprehensible (at least in its basics) has done away with the urgent need to ”explain” phenomena.  But the so-called ‘intellectuals’ that declared the death of myth and ritual neglected to notice these psychological technologies lie at the depth of how humans deal with the external world and, more urgently, with their own psyches.  The primordial human as much as the modern human had not only to face up to the surrounding environment, in all its inexplicable, menacing, but also favorable conditions;  he or she was also driven to deal with an autonomous inner world, with all its attending intangibility, haziness, and unpredictability.  Remarkably, for most of human history, the outer world was seldom taken on its own merits, but was constantly contaminated with elements from the inner world, so that groups of humans and later the institutions that represented them had to establish a balanced psychic relationship not only with the natural environment but also with the reflection of this environmenton the psyche.  The growth of modern science, not only theoretical experimental science but science in the wider sense of empirical knowledge of the natural world, has expanded the ‘pale’ of the known, and has allowed modern humans to establish a health balanced psychic relationship with many environmental phenomena;  we no longer invoke Poseidon before a storm or flood, nor do we expect a demon or homunculus to dwell in our computer.  Yet, don’t we still cling to ‘mythical’ ideas whenever our knowledge fails us?  The failure of science is no fault in itself, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, for any reasonable person will expect knowledge and science to have their limits, and these inherent limitations are no excuse to revert to earlier superstitions or justify absurd beliefs that fly in the face of empirical experience.  But we insist on former psychological technologies when faced with the unknown:  we consult soothsayers, carry charms, meditate, visualize the healing powers of our bodies, pay attention to dreams and signs, all in an attempt to establish a more-or-less balanced relationship not with the actual phenomenal itself, but with the psychic representation of the phenomenon.

This brings us back to the idea of myth as story and ritual as action.  The main problem with the psyche is that we cannot observe it directly.  We rely on facial expressions, body language, and theory of mind in order to arrive at an approximate conception of what others are thinking.  When observing ourselves, on the other hand, we can directly perceive our thoughts, emotions, and feelings;  we now know, however, that this doesn’t mean that we know everything about our own psyches.  Philosophers and scientists have always known that the average individual knows little about himself; Socrates even formulated the famous axiom “know thyself.”  The birth of modern psychology has only reinforced this knowledge.  Freud exposed the general self-ignorance of humans and what mechanisms are employed to preserve this status quo.  Jung acknowledged the horrors that lay dormant in the psyche but also emphasized the role of self-knowledge in the deveopment of the individual, the maturing process that he called ‘individuation’; you had to dig out the muck in order to strike gold. 

The psyche has remained largely unconscious for the greatest part of the history of human evolution, and the development of consciousness, as pre-humans became humans, raised the problem of self-knowledge.  Where unconscious instinct had previously ensured the smooth functioning of animal life (so that it can be said that animals have no real problems.  Does your cat have any real problems that it’s aware of?), now humans started to have knowledge of good and evil and thus “fell” from the grace of unconsciousness.  To make matters worse, they realized that they could suffer from sickness, poverty and starvation; that others humans and animals can make them suffer; that the world was large, unknown, and in some aspects utterly ineffable (e.g. the starts and the planets); and that, finally, death would come.

This consciousness, while undoubtedly useful for survival, considering the edge it gave early humans in their dealings with the environment (how else would such a physically limited species survive?), also came with the steep price-tag.  Now humans had the responsibility of assigning values to things, more precisely valuating actions, desires, and even the outer environment.  In this process they were largely assisted by the biological instincts:  food, mating, family, shelter, and status were naturally good, while sickness, starvation, and death were bad.  Early humans also had the daunting task of negotiatingthe inner environment, which was a big a challenge as dealing with the outer world.  Gradually, as consciousness expanded and its problems became more urgent,  and probably at the same time that toosl were being perfected, early humans devised psychological technologies that allowed to understand, influence and establish a healthy balance with their inner environment.  The religious myth, called one of the greatest human inventions by Carl Jung, figured importantly as a tool that helped to put the psychological world in order.  It filled the gaps of knowledge, not by making up a pseudo-scientific ‘explanation’, but by providing the messing pieces of psychic data necessary for the smooth functioning of the psyche.  And because the inner world was partly based on the outer world (but with obviously different rules), it was discovered that direct action could influence it.  This action, more-or-less successful in moulding the inner world into a specific state or in preparation for a certain task, became formulated into ritual.  The need of myth and ritual, the reader will understand, was only necessitated by the growth of consciousness; knowledge of problems of self and environment required a palliative method.  That is why unconscious animals have no need of myth, and why, despite the expansion of modern knowledge, modern humans still need modernized versions of myth to address the central problem of the meaning of life.  It was Jung in his role of educator who brought home to us the need for a religious outlook on life, especially in older adults.  It might be objected that many non-believers and atheists function just fine without the need for a relationship with the divine; but we forget that a person doesn’t suffer from a problem unless he is conscious of it, and that meaning is not sought until its lack is felt.  The most heroic attempt to find meaning in a Godless universe that I know of was Nietzsche’s;  his experiment was unfortunately not brought to a satisfactory end, so we can’t judge its success.  At any rate, we no longer need sacrifice to a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, but we still need to satisfy the god for meaning.

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