90 Second Book Review: The Myth of the State

I don’t consider myself a philosopher.  I’m more of more a “fan of philosophy” to borrow a phrase from my favorite podcaster.  I still have to look up the definition of meta-physics and epistemology.  I am not sure of the difference off the top of my head between existentialism and positivism.  But that doesn’t keep me from following along, perhaps in the same way that a dog enjoys television.

My latest jaunt into the philosophical realm was “The Myth of the State” by Erst Cassier.  This was a HBP find that I must admit I bought completely based on the title (give me a break, it was something like $3).  What I thought Ersnt would teach me is why the state is an illusion of our collective conscious or unconscious mind.  It doesn’t really exist.  It’s just some people telling other people what to do.  What the book is actually about turned out to be quite different, but just as interesting.

The Myth of the State was published posthumously, and with a little controversy about how it was finished.  It came on the heels of Cassier’s blockbuster (if there can be such a thing in the 20th century as a philosophical blockbuster) Essay on Man (which I happened to add to my tsundoku pile a few weeks back).  In this book, Cassier gives a rather complete (especially for only 300 pages) and fascinating account of how the state has used myth to propagate itself.  If it were written today it might be called something like “Lies the state tells you (for your own good of course)”.

For this review, I will give a brief overview of the first 90% of the book to focus on the concluding chapter.  I think its extremely relevant to what I sense is going on these days.

The opening section attempts to answer the basic question “what is myth” and comes to the conclusion that myth is the stories we create to explain things when we don’t have any better way to understand them. I’ve come to realize how important story or narrative is over the past few years.  Harari argues in Sapiens that its the “one thing” that allowed humans to rule the world (while everything else carries our stuff).  At the top level, narrative seems to decompose into rational stories (aka hypothesis) and mythical stories (aka fairy tales). Cassier completes the opening section with an exploration of the impact that myth has on language, psychology and social life.

With that basis set, the center section, which is the bulk of the book, tells of the different twists and turns in the development of state myths from the time of Plato, who propagated the idea of the “legal” state through to Machiavelli’s contribution of removing the connection between religion and transcendent order (as an aside, the two chapters on Machiavelli contained some of the most interesting analysis of his work that I have ever read) through to the Romantic’s reversal of the Enlightenment view that myth “had been a barbarous thing, a strange and uncouth mass of confused ideas and gross superstitions, a mere monstrosity” to the view that myth was “the mainspring of human culture”.

The final section sets up the few philsophers and thinkers that, in Cassier’s view had the biggest impact on 20th century political myth (aka those that we can thank for the mess we are in).  He begins with a discussion of Carlyle’s theory that Hero Worship is “oldest and firmest element in a man’s social and political life”.  From there, it was just a hop skip and a jump to some of the terrible ideas put forward by Gobineau on race worship and the totalitarian race.

From there of course we end up at Hegel.  I will set the time aside to read what he had to say for himself one day, but I do get the sense that I understand some of Hegel’s ideas better after reading Cassier’s synopsis.  Cassier posits that the form of Hegel’s arguments had for more impact than their content.  What’s more Cassier is of the opinion that Hegel himself would have strenuously objected to the arguments made by people using the form of his arguments after his death (if he could find a way to project from the Absolute Idea…).  That being said, I still can’t get my head around Hegel’s notions about the state being the ultimate expression of freedom.  Perhaps this is an example of what he means that philosophy is only a product of its time, and can’t project forward or backward.

Now to the final chapter.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the concluding chapter hit me so hard I was contemplating the myth of HPB actually being a portal from another universe that sends me things I am supposed to read.  It lays out in 20 or so pages everything that I have experienced in politics as exemplified by the current election cycle.  I am going to attempt to communicate the idea Cassier is trying to get across in this chapter (and arguably in the book overall) with as little commentary as possible.  Just enough to connect the thoughts without just quoting the whole chapter and making a TLDR post RTLDR.

As you read this think about what you’ve just witnessed.  Regardless of who you plan to vote for tomorrow (I’m out of state and darn it if I didn’t forget to absentee ;-), think about the larger context in which this “discernment” process has occurred.  Think about how much or little real content there has been.  Think about how often emotion was employed instead of reason.  Think about who has benefited.  Then let me know if you see any parallels between what Cassier was warning about at the start of WWII and what we’ve all just witnessed from both “sides”.

The chapter starts with a discussion about how “unusual and dangerous situations” drive “modern” man to abandon reason and resort to myth.

The call for leadership only appears when a collective desire has reached overwhelming strength and then, on the other hand, all hope of filling this desire in an ordinary and normal way, have failed.  At these times the desire is not only keenly felt, but personified.  It stands before the eyes of man in a concrete, plastic, individual shape.  The intensity of the collective wish is embodied in the leader. The former social bonds – law, justice and constitutions – are declared to be without any value.

He then claims that “modern” man is too sophisticated to buy into the “simple” myths of our “savage” ancestors:

If modern man no longer believes in natural magic, he has by no means given up the belief in a sort of ‘social magic’.  If a collective wish is felt in its whole strength and intensity, people can be persuaded that it only needs the right man to satisfy it.

Cassier moves on to point to what he views as the most significant development in the 20th century relative to political myth:

…our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing.  For what we find in them in the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other.  The modern politician has to combine himself into two entirely different and incompatible functions. [He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion.  But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically.  Nothing is left to chance’ every step is well prepared and premeditated.  It is this strange combination that is the most striking feature of our political myths.

Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination.  But here we find myth made according to plan.]

Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.  This is the new thing – a thing of crucial importance.

Cassier’s point seems to be that over time, rationality has replaced myth as the primary narrative structure.  This has happened everywhere except in the realm of politics, where myth still reigns supreme, except now we have scientifically created myths.  Myths on steroids.  GMO myths.

Cassier outlines three changes that happened to allow this myth making machine to come into existence:

  1. Change the function of language from conveying meaning (i.e. semantics)  to conveying emotion.  Anyone triggered much these days?
  2. Create of new “magical” rites that “lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgement and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personal responsibility.”  Remember…you have to vote…or else you won’t get your sticker. 
  3. Reinstate “divination” since “Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership.  The most improbable or impossible promises are made.” Which do you trust more: campaign promises or liars?

The book ends with this, actually somewhat hopeful, view:

I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

And, echoing Francis Bacon’s advice that “victory over nature can only be won by obedience”,  he even starts us down the path of how to get there:

We must learn how to obey the laws of the social world before we can undertake to rule it.

Maybe we all need to become at least a fan of philosophy.

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