If you subscribe to Karl Popper’s famous ‘paradox of tolerance’, you should consider its corollary, what I would call, the ‘paradox of myths’. According to Popper, the pursuit of tolerance has the strange effect of nurturing intolerance as the way by which tolerance is made possible. We see this perverse principle in action in relation to our time’s most toxic topics and debates. Self-proclaimed liberals proving to be quite illiberal in pursuit of their liberal agendas while some proponents of emancipation are all too keen to stamp out dissent in an effort to bring about change. Progress may be an invisible force like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but it turns out it always needs a hand, or a push, from its impatient, almost chiliast evangelists.
Since the Enlightenment, the project to dismantle the underlying myths and narratives of the West has been pushed without interruption, in full assurance that the pursuit of science unencumbered by myth would carry human society to new and better horizons. What this project has done, however, was to dismantle one set of myths only to replace them with another. At every point of mythological iconoclasm, it became clear that no temple can survive without images, so new icons were set up to take the place of old images. Today we are as entangled in myths as we’ve ever been. It’s just that the stories have changed, that what we tell ourselves and each other about the world and our place in it is different. So I see a paradox whereby ‘mythlessness’ is a generator of new myths. For instance, one of the defining features of the modern project has been its commitment to secularisation. This means a lot of things, but it’s also about a new narrative about the tapering off of religion in the West as time goes on. It’s what Charles Taylor called ‘subtraction stories’, myths we have come to tell ourselves about the inevitability of diminishing performance of religion and faith across the first and second modernities.
There was never a myth-vacuum which needed to be filled. The space has always been filled with myths of one type or another. For the first time in human history, we believe that we can do away with mythology. Instead, we tell ourselves a story about doing away with mythology which, by virtue of what I’ve called the paradox of myths, generates its own mythological charge. It’s a bit like Auguste Comte, the father of positivism (another self-proclaimed myth-busting project) who, by affirming that ‘philosophy is dead’, was nevertheless making a philosophical statement.