Book Review – The Myths We Live By Mary Midgley

The Myths We Live ByThe Myths We Live Byby Mary Midgley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this book Mary Midgley explores the common myths of modern civilisation. According to the author myths are not lies nor are these detached stories but instead these are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. And these myths shape its meaning, the way in which we imagine the world determines what we think important in it. Primarily the author has focussed on three current myths i.e. the social contract myth, the progress myth and the myth of omnicompetent science. The author is clear in her viewpoint that trying to explain world in any particular framework is ultimately going to be futile as reality is always turning out to be a great deal more complex than people expect. The author lays bare the futility of the notion that human behaviour, like the material universe, is amenable to scientific investigation and the society and government should be studied scientifically in the interest of human happiness.

On the social contract myth, the author writes quite succinctly that “on the issue of human rights it has been quite important that the reductive, contractual pattern was seen as the rational one and as being supported by physical science. The idea that people are solitary, self-contained, indeed selfish individuals, who wouldn’t be connected to their neighbours at all if they didn’t happen to have made a contract, looked rational because it reflected the atomic theory of the day, a theory that similarly reduced matter to hard, impenetrable, disconnected atoms like billiard balls. The two patterns, of political and scientific atomism, seemed to strengthen each other, and, for some time, each appeared as the only truly rational and scientific pattern of understanding in its own sphere. Social atomism, expressed as political and moral individualism, got quite undeserved support from the imagery used in science.” Her critique of Marxism is scathing, she believes that Marxism is a misguided attempt at social atomising and that “exaggerated and distorted ideas about what physical science can do for us led, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the rise of powerful, supposedly scientific ideologies such as Marxism and behaviourism. These systems are obviously not actually part of physical science but, by claiming its authority, they have injured its image.” She did not stop at that and said that “Marxist theory moved from an immensely abstract general principle about causation – that all changes proceed from conflict – to deduce results about a particular political conflict in which its founders had already taken sides.”

She did not only attack left ideologies but laid bare the “social Darwinism” behind capitalist ideology. According to her “this (capitalist) deception is even more obvious in the social Darwinist project that has been Marxism’s main rival and that seems to have outlived it, persisting vigorously today as a belief in the supremacy of market forces.” She covers in detail how the Darwinistic notion of heterogeneity has been used with an agenda to call for the utmost political freedom and above all, for free trade. The prophets of Capitalism took Darwin’s theory and misrepresented it to proclaim that commercial freedom would ensure ‘the survival of the fittest’. Herbert Spenser in fact named this as the basic principle of ‘evolution’, a word whose meaning he was largely responsible for developing and which Darwin carefully avoided. Accordingly (said Spencer), the working of this principle must on no account be disturbed by charitable
attempts to help the unfit – that is, the poor.

On the omnipotence of science she quoted Nehru saying that “it is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, of a rich country inhabited by starving people . . . The future belongs to science and to those who make friends with science.” She criticised such notions where there was an attempt to create a whole new ideology, a moral approach that would justify using those facts to change society in a quite particular way. She mentions that the term “scientific” often has not stood for any particular form of scientific knowledge but for a new scale of values, a new priority system, leading to particular political projects. People such as B. F. Skinner, who claimed that ‘we live in a scientific age’, did not just mean an age that used science. They meant an age that is guided by science, an age that, in some way, chooses its ideals as well as its medicines and its breakfast foods on grounds provided by scientific research. This new system was certainly not seen as value-free but as a moral signpost that could take the place of religion.

Another myth author counters is the myth of multiculturalism or multi pluralism which ultimately leads to fanaticism. She warns against failing into the trap and says that “fanatics are not just stern moralists, they are obsessive ones who forget all but one part of the moral scene. They see no need to respect ideals that seem to conflict with their chosen ones, or to work out a reconciliation between them. This frame of mind is not, of course, peculiar to full-time fanatics. It is easy to fall into it whenever one is, for the moment, completely absorbed in some good cause, and good causes often do seem to demand that kind of absorption.”

An excellent eye-opener, people should read more of Mary Midgley to understand what is going wrong with the modern civilisation.

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