Hughes and Delahoyde

Mythology of Self

How does an individual maintain identity and still become an active and responsible member of the community?

The mythology of self is primary in the cult of individualism and often begins as paradox, articulating the meaning of "freedom" within a world of political and cultural, in essence, social constraints. The mythos of individualism is the story of law and its transgression, and more often than not, it is also the story where the hero breaks or defies the law --in a world defined by oppression, upheaval, turmoil, and change--in order to form a more perfect union. Thus the state theme of cohesion, although foreign to individualism, may be the outcome of individual heroic action.

Greek mythology gives us dramatic and powerful stories of radical individualism; stories like Sophocles' Antigone, the rebel woman, then Euripide's Medea and Plato's "The Apology of Socrates," character prototypes that challenge the absolute powers of the State even if such a challenge means death and agony. As tragic characters, these extraordinary, no, ordinary people become archetypes, models, who define the shifting meaning of love and death between individuals and the State; in the best of times such heroes inspire human civility and excellence. In the worst of times, in regression, watch Young Guns.When idividualism goes awry or vigilante, we get gunsmoke and mirrors.

Prior to the Greeks, in The Epic of Gilgamesh ( 2700 B. C.), the pitfalls of a King's arrogance, his hubris leads to isolation, the effects of living life without human touch, without libido, leads us to extinction or collaboration; essential relationships between the individual and the community sponsor the narrative journey. Learn to live well with others. In early Greek thought, as far back as Homer and oral culture before, the highest achievement (telos) was achieved primarily as an active member of the body politic, the polis. In early AD Roman culture, individualism is spontaneous and impulsive and assuredly leads to anti-social behavior and folly. The monkey mind as Caesar. Yet humanitas means even endangerered species have rights. Individualism is the source of a nation's power. In American democracy, it is the individual that gives authority to the State. In Greek culture individuals were encouraged to think, act, and create according to their talents and their genius with the qualities of a free man--abhor stupid, cowardly, and selfish ways that in fact enslave us all. The amount of faith you have in our cognitive ability to abhor stupid, cowardly, and selfish behavior is directly proportional to the amount of faith you would have in the Mythology of Self as a reliable source for building a civilized and thriving community.

In Greek Tragedy, the dramatic light focuses on the seer. Greek thought clarified and dramatized the standing of the individual--know thyself. Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." The Greeks insisted that each person take responsibility for his actions and his life by learning to make correct choices--thus the power of individualism is defined in relationship to a community and consensus. Ultimately, according to Aristotle, "Man is a political animal."

When politics become so large and complex administratively, radical individualism develops. "Man's fate is solely a personal matter." A sharp departure from Plato's academy, the autonomous individual becomes more the modern citizen--preoccupied with personal and private concerns. We have an obligation to public good; yet when oppression exists, people need an passionate outlet for restless impulses, creative yet idiosyncratic energies, which are innate to human nature. How does mythology create such a narrative release?

The Chosen One--Charter mythology.

Christian tradition elevates individualism: Jesus's question: "What is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world and lose himself, or be cast away?" Being "born again" certainly has no loyalty to the earthly polis and secular political life.

In Christianity, the myth of state played its part as salvation. However, the polis was therefore downgraded, the concern shifted to the individual's soul. The sense of individualism was strengthened by the city of god.

AMERICA: Thomas Jefferson saw the dignity of the individual in the active participation in public life. The spirit of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King--the private life and the upholding of individual right against cultural conformity and public injustice is integral. Thoreau gives us the principle this way: "The majority of one."

The question is not whether the private or the public social ideal is the more conscientious or humane, but rather which one might need emphasis in the present circumstances of American life or politics. In his Inaugural Address, JFK said, "In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty." Indeed, each generation will have to redefine its loyalty to the state.

What is the Greek contribution to the process of redefining the individual's loyalty to the Civilization in which he or she lives? Reason is a signpost. We are rational animals. This is a "Root Idea." For instance, look at Plato's theory of human nature: the soul is divided into three parts--reason, spirit, and appetite. The function of reason is to rule the appetites. The spirit is ally to reason. Reason is the highest personality by proof that only humans have it. Anthropocentric perspectives arise out of human nature itself. (Today we would perhaps be better off to use some objective or cosmic standard.) We are nobler because we seem to rule. Reason thus leads to balance--and knowledge for knowledge sake.

Mythology of Self

Henry David Thoreau--Civil Disobedience. Thoreau acknowledges the consequences of resisting the government. Yet no one can be assumed to have incurred an obligation to submit to the State. If the government "requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law."


The Private life of Benjamin Franklin
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was an incredibly savvy writer. He casts himself as a self-educated,a lone hero struggling against the oppression of the southern plantation system.


American orator and statesman and leading patriot of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry (1736-1799) utilized the literary essay form to orientate American political thought.


Herbert Hoover--Hoover gave his Inaugural Address on Monday, March 4, 1929, which is a precursor to his eventually insisting that the road to progress is paved by reducing, not increasing, government interference in business. Unfortunately for Hoover the stock market crashed seven months after he was elected. He became the fall guy for the Great Depression. Once the crash came, Hoover worked furiously to curb the crisis, but he was hamstrung by his beliefs that the Constitution prohibited the federal government from mandating economic changes. Instead, he pushed voluntary initiatives. To people who were hungry, out of work, and desperate, this came across as so many hollow platitudes.

Greek Political Philosophy

In the Apology, Socrates says, "The unexamined life is not worth living." It seems that each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions by learning to make correct choices. The highest achievement is only as an active member of the body politic, but when politics becomes too large and complex administratively, radical individualism develops. Socrates creates a metaphor saying that he is the gadfly while the State is a noble steed which is tardy in its motions owing to its very size. The gadfly attaches itself to the steed and stirs it into life--the radical individual is then a necessary part of the ongoing development of civilization.

Greek Tragedy:

Sophocles' character Antigone defies the State and carries individual resistance to an ultimate end--death.

The American West

Masculinity and the American West--Let's Rodeo: Essay on "Rugged Individualism" and mythic structures in the United States.
William Kittredge: Death of the Western

American Culture

Breaking the fifties conformity: The Beat Generation

" Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher" by Roderick Nash