Language, Memes, and Myth

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

In several other essays, I have written about language and knowledge. Now, let’s consider another aspect. That is the structure of shared beliefs. A term that is often used for this is a meme. In current usage, memes are current beliefs that are trafficked between people. This is how influence is negotiated by a consensus around meaning. A meme is something like an idea, that occurs as the result of the mutation of existing beliefs, kind of like how genes mutate. Sort of the epigenesis of cultural notions occurring in the social environment of people. In fact, its pronunciation even sounds like the word gene.

If we accept the premise I have been stating, it follows that there is an accumulation of concepts and beliefs that are passed down through the ages in cultures and societies. Some of these have endured from the remote past of ancient and extinct civilizations.

The Twentieth Century was a century of -ism’s; capitalism, corporatism, globalism, nationalism, fascism, communism, socialism, etc. We’ve also had several millennia of '-isms' through religion. These include the perennial traditions of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hellenism, Mithraism, Gnosticism, Sufism, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam-ism, Occultism, etc. These are examples of high-level belief systems in operation in the traditions of our world for a very long time. Their effect on our lives has been as profound as our biological genetics in creating us and our emerging culture.

In our psyche, we are very much governed by patterns of thought, recognition, and belief that derive from these cultural sources, which are often trafficked as memes. Interestingly enough, new memes are created all the time. This is how culture evolves in societies. All new movements are involved in the creation of new meme thought-forms and reformation of existing memes and belief programs. Memes also have a certain quality that is has caused them to be referred to as “thought viruses.” They tend to infuse language and culture with meaning. Mechanical and automatic cognition, both in logical reasoning and the pattern recognition based on remembered forms, which Gurdjieff described as the 'Mentation of Reason" and the "Mentation of Forms", are used to further conserve the existence of long-established beliefs. Yet the traffic in contemporary ideas or memes in every age feeds into the automated logic of the mind. As a result, a kind of evolution occurs that reforms already existing beliefs, and so culture changes in a pandemic of new ideas. All propagandists, both modern and ancient innately seem to understand this susceptibility in human beings to become both suggestible and malleable with respect to their behavior and beliefs. This form of influence is perhaps actually, the oldest profession in existence, or nearly so.

Mythology has traditionally been an important means of cultural transmission. Webster’s dictionary defines myth from the Greek as “…a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people, or to explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” However, there is also a secondary contemporary usage described by Webster’s that takes it to mean “… an unfounded or false notion, or a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.” All the "...ism's', whether from the political or religious traditions on earth involve myths to some degree.

It is because of the secondary definition o the word Myth, that nearly everyone can be offended by this statement about their particular beliefs, for the very reason that as adherents to them they hold them to be absolutely true. This belief becomes a consensus about reality, which everyone knows to be so in a particular culture, and which cannot be challenged without contention. This includes the modern religion of science, which might be called 'scientism' Though myths have also been used as long as there have been human societies to convey something across the generations, they have always mutated, and many traditions have emerged from more ancient ones as the result of the traffic in memes. Examples include both Buddhism with respect to Vedic traditions and Christianity and Islam with respect to Judaism. Thus they evolve, and yet it is not true to say that myths are false, because often there is some basis in antiquity for them which may have been true at that time. Likewise, it is important to understand them, not as literal truth, but rather as a means of preserving the line of descent in culture through time.

Much that we have inherited from the past that persists in present-day beliefs is either contained or encoded in myths. The study of these myths reveals in many cases the fine levels of understanding held by truly evolved people who have lived before us. Yet we don't always remember this, preferring our modern and contemporary memes to the perennial myths and traditions. A reading of ancient literature from any culture, and especially those of the civilizations we know well that existed from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas and the Indian Subcontinent contains a great deal of knowledge that is surprisingly relevant to modern life.

In many respects, one gets the impression from reading the ancient writings that we still have, that modern-day mankind has degenerated in the drift of modern-day memes to such an extent that many of these ideas from the past seem so foreign to us today. And yet, they also seem to continually resurface, and in fact, many of the cultural memes of today, pertaining to the new age, or spirituality is actually the conservation in new forms of some of the most ancient systems of belief on earth. I find great hope in the realization of this rebirth of perennial traditions in this current century of technological change, as we blend the modern sciences with their ancient predecessors and cultural ancestors.

Photo by Nacho Díaz Latorre on Unsplash

© Copyright 2008 Robert Fertman, All Rights Reserved

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