The modern myth of civilization is an epic tale of progress. It is a story of the inevitability and ultimate beneficence of technology. It is a legend in which civilization is our manifest destiny as a species, the shining jewel at the pinnacle of our evolutionary trajectory. It is also patently false, a delusion.
Unfortunately, delusions are notoriously difficult to dispel. They are impervious to logic and conflicting evidence. By definition, a delusion is a state of belief that is resistant to the intrusions of reality. Those who operate under the influence of a delusion are adept at dismissing inconsistencies among their beliefs and reality, and easily navigate through mountains of competing evidence with the aid of a variety of very effective defense mechanisms.
But the real problem with the myth of modern civilization is not that it is false, nor that it is unresponsive to countervailing facts. It’s that the conceptual frame it provides leads us to act on the world in ways that are counter to our best interests—and to the best interests of every other life-form on the planet! A patently false system of belief that served as the grounding of a truly human way of life would not be a problem, despite its lack of veracity. The modern urban legend is a problem, but not because it is false. The modern myth is a problem because it provides validation for the ravenous consumption of the planet in much the same way that belief in divine kingship provided a source of justification for the destructive and oppressive activities of the first civilizations in Sumer and ancient Egypt.
The causal arrow between the emergence of civilization and the development of a mythic rationale for its existence points in two directions. Thus the problems of modern civilization are not going to be solved by simply weaving another kind of story. Nevertheless, it is an interesting exercise to consider what kinds of stories we might create as we reframe our situation in more human ways. What kind of mythic legend might we tell about our eventual rejection of civilization in favor of more authentic modes of living?
Perhaps we can look to the original legends of civilization, the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Homeric tales, as a template. The legend of Odysseus, if I can be granted a wee bit of allegorical license, provides an interesting pattern for a new kind of epic legend: a story of how the human species, after uncountable years abroad, eventually regains its place in the world. Odysseus’ leaving home and going to war represents our species’ transition from its evolutionary basis in foraging band society to lifestyles based on domestication and conquest, and all of the misery and strife that transition caused. Now, lost and under the beguiling spell of modern civilization, we find ourselves shipwrecked on an island with a powerful nymph, where life is a superficial paradise and yet we suffer chronic discontent. For Odysseus, Calypso’s island was a very empty place, and, of course, he was being held against his will. Despite its virtually unlimited array of momentary pleasures, modern techno-culture is hollow and unfulfilling; the island of civilization is not our home, and we are, like Odysseus, held hostage and forced to attend to desires that are not truly our own. And, like Odysseus’ voyage home, our journey back to a life that is consistent with our human nature will be fraught with obstacles. There are storms on the horizon. And even if we manage to find our home shores again, ultimate success is not guaranteed. Things have changed since we left all those years ago. Our fortune has been squandered and our castle is crowded with men of bad intent. But we are not alone. We have our tirelessly devoted wife—the all-providing natural world which has never abandoned us. And we have our son—our genetic connection to the past—who has been abused, but is strong and itching for a fight. And, despite overwhelming odds, we yet possess the strength to string the bow and the steadiness to send the arrow on its narrow path.
But first we need to free ourselves from our seductress. We need to leave the island. Odysseus was able to break free only by enlisting the sympathy of his patron goddess, Athena. Athena no longer has ears for our kind. She is a goddess of war, and as such her sympathies are with the power complex of the machine.
Who, or what, is our patron goddess?