Ben Halpern

from "History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History" Volume 1; Number 11, 1961.

"Myth" and "ideology" are closely related conceptions which enjoy a wide, and accordingly a very loose, usage in our time. Elsewhere I have employed these terms as the central conceptions of a systematic approach to the historical aspects of culture. 2 Thus, it is not simply a lexicographical exercise if, in the present paper, an attempt is made to reduce the rather confusing popular and technical usages of these words to some fundamental common denominators. In their most spontaneous applications, these terms roughly but quite plainly indicate a subject of great interest to philosophically inclined historians: the effect and influence of culture in history; and they also roughly distinguish two distinct forms of that dynamic influence. They imply, in fact, certain generally though tacitly understood principles of historical knowledge. It is my purpose to make these principles explicit by deriving, by induction from the popular and technical usages of "myth" and "ideology", firm and unequivocal definitions of the meanings upon which there seems to be a consensus.


All words that refer to symbol-consciousness have marked social connotations even in popular usage. Words like "knowledge", "idea", or "value" imply something that can be communicated and understood. But here we surely deal with the least possible degree of social connotation--potential sociality if you will. As against this, words like "science", "art", and "law", or words like "opinion" and "theory" have connotations of actual sociality; they imply something that can exist only if there has been actual previous communication.

This is the same as saying that "science", "art", "opinion", and "theory", have essentially "historical" connotations, in a way that "knowledge" or "value" have not. Certainly, one cannot speak of "science", "art", or "law", without implying a tradition that goes back at least over a span of generations. These words involve in their very definition the idea of history as an accumulation.

When one speaks of "opinion" and "theory" one necessarily implies the plural of these words: "an opinion" is necessarily "one of many opinions" and "a theory" necessarily "one of many theories". Moreover, "opinion" essentially implies "other opinions", and "theory"--"other theories". 3 Thus to use these words means to evoke a fairly detailed picture of a continuing process, which may be analyzed into the following stages: a variety of concrete combinations of ideas ("other opinions" or "other theories") exist initially; a new combination of ideas (the "opinion" or "theory") emerges; and the new combination of ideas strives to overcome the alternative combinations. In short, if we may say that "science", "art", and "law" imply history as an accumulation, "opinion" and "theory" imply history as a dynamic process.

Let us note, however, that we are dealing with two distinct meanings of "history" and that we have segregated two sets of terms, each implying one but not necessarily the other meaning of "historical". "Historical" means "handed down over generations"--that is, remembered from generation to generation, and socially effective from generation to generation. "Historical" also means "socially dynamic", or "pertaining to social change". Words like "science", "art", "law", and "culture" imply the first (cumulative) meaning of "historical", but not necessarily the second meaning: thus "culture", "art", "science", and "law" may quite easily be conceived as no more than historic monuments. On the other hand, words like "opinion" and "theory" imply the second (dynamic) meaning of "historical", but not necessarily the first. An "opinion" or "theory" may quite easily be trivial and evanescent, and never be handed down to succeeding generations.

In "myth" and "ideology", popular usage has terms which necessarily imply both the above meanings of "historical". "Myths" and "ideologies" are major and not trivial concretions of the symbols accumulated in culture over generations; that is, by definition, they weigh enough in the balance of history to be remembered and to exert their effects from one generation to the next. Also, "ideology" necessarily implies "other ideologies" with which it is in dynamic relations; and the same is true, in its own way, of "myth", especially as it is currently used. 4 In fine, with these two terms, popular usage discriminates meanings essentially and integrally related to the domain of the "historical" in both its senses.

If we had not considered "myth" and "ideology" against this particular background, but had asked immediately what connotations are most obviously connected, in popular usage, with these two terms, we should have had to begin with another feature common to both: these words carry primarily a negative connotation approximating "deceit" or "self-deceit", or, at any rate, they signify an "interested" or "subjective" approach to "reality", an attitude going off at a tangent to ''truth". 5 In contrast, a word like "science" usually implies an "objective, disinterested" approach to "reality", entirely harmonious with "truth". However, on closer examination it appears that even popular (at least, "middlebrow") usage is aware of "subjective" aspects in "science", and of possible "objective" references in the concepts "myth" and "ideology". The differences would then reduce themselves to the degree of emphasis on the "subjective" or "objective" side of connotation.

Thus, "science" calls to mind the "indubitable reality" which is its object; but it also means, even in popular usage, the "scientific attitude" or "method", which is the "subjective" relation of the scientist to objects. In an ironic use of the word (as, for example, "scientism"), it has the negative connotation of a "self-deceiving", "subjective" approach to "reality" which deliberately blinds itself to all forms of "truth" not accessible to its own method. It is hardly necessary to cite illustrations of "ideology" taken in utter seriousness as an indispensable guide to historical reality, for this usage is all too familiar; nor need one do more than note in passing that "myth", too, is often taken quite seriously as a key (perhaps, regrettably lost) to some transcendent Reality. 6 Finally we may note that there are a whole series of words, intermediate between "science" and "myth". These words form a kind of progression, the terms of which are the degrees of emphasis on the subjective or objective aspects of each: for example, "religion", "art", "law", "custom", etc.

If we call the whole historical symbolic realm "culture", then it may be analyzed and categorized in two distinct ways: "objectively"--which, we may now note, means precisely "as an accumulation of symbolic products"; and "subjectively" or, in the terms previously used, "as a dynamic process of symbol production amid social change". The categories into which "culture" falls, as an "objective" historic realm of accumulated symbolic products, are "science", "religion", "art", "law", "custom", etc. The names of the categories into which "culture", as a "subjective" or dynamic historical process, could be analyzed do not come as readily to mind. To define them it would be necessary to develop a theory of man's relation to reality in history: that is, a theory of historically effective action, or of historically significant values.

This paper assumes that certain elements of such a theory may be found in those two terms in the popular vocabulary which are the most subjective and most integrally historical in their connotation: "myth" and "ideology", for in them popular thought roughly discriminates two distinct possibilities of man's relation to reality in history. It is the problem of this study to attempt to reduce these rough discriminations into unequivocal and clear definitions.


It would seem a rather futile task, at first sight, to try to arrive at unequivocal definitions of "myth" and "ideology". Both terms have gained wide currency in many fields. They are loosely employed in literary criticism, political discussion and ordinary cultured small talk. We hear not only of "political ideologies", but of "contemporary political mythologies", "racist myths", and the "mystique " of social movements. Certainly, it would seem an unpromising undertaking to try to winnow all this chaff for the pure wheat there may be in it.

However, both terms have been of central importance in certain branches of the literature of social science. Each, in fact, has what amounts to a special discipline devoted to it. The "science of mythology" has been a respectable academic specialty for over a century, and in our own generation the study of "ideology" has also risen, under the name of Wissenssoziologie, to the status of at least a research specialization. 7 In this literature, of course, the two terms which denote the subjects, each of its own "science", have been formally defined. But even a superficial study is enough to show that these definitions are not likely by themselves to give us what we seek: viz ., the analytical discrimination of two distinct historical factors within culture under the names of "myth" and "ideology".

It is enough to reflect that if "myth" and "ideology" do signify such distinct factors they should first of all be defined explicitly in relation to each other. But it is a striking fact that the two special "sciences" of mythology and ideology (Wissenssoziologie) have developed in practically complete disregard of each other.

A rough indication of the degree of insulation between writers interested mainly in "myth" and writers interested mainly in "ideology" may be derived from the index pages of two pairs of books: one pair devoted mainly to the "currently utilizable theory" 8 about the mutual implications of society and mind (Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure compared with Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key), and the second pair concerned, not only with the systematic theory, but with the history of the theory of this topic (Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia compared with Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man).

If one checks Merton's references against Langer's, one notes striking differences. To judge by his failure to refer to them, one might suppose Merton felt that such eminent mythologists as Max Mueller and Gilbert Murray, or students of symbolism and language like Ernst Cassirer, Otto Jespersen, or Grace de Laguna contributed little of value to current theory. On the other hand, all these names receive prominent mention in Mrs. Langer's book. In turn, Mrs. Langer's "study in the symbolism of reason, rite, and art" has no references to such writers as Friedrich Engels, Georg Lukacs, Karl Mannheim, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, or Max Weber. All are cited by Merton.

If we compare the two German scholars--both with historical as well as systematic interests--we find a similar divergence. Mannheim has no reference to Cassirer or to Sir James Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski, Max Mueller, or Gilbert Murray, 9 while Cassirer's Essay on Man has no reference to Mannheim or to such modern students of "ideology" as Georg Lukacs, Ernst Troeltsch, and Max Weber.

This negative observation seems to me to be impressive enough to warrant positive conclusions. It is quite clear, of course, that Merton and Mannhein were entirely familiar with the great mythological scholars, and that Langer and Cassirer knew quite well the various theories of ideology. Hence, their mutual neglect implies that each group felt the writings of the other were irrelevant to its own field of inquiry. There could be two possible explanations for this: first, that each group dealt with a distinct subject matter; or, second, that each had a different approach to the same subject matter. It is apparent, upon further thought, that the theory of myth is so thoroughly segregated from the theory of ideology, not because of a difference of approach, but quite simply because of a difference of subject matter.

In order to make this point clear, let us consider certain other relatively closed schools of thought in this area which are undoubtedly separated by differences of approach. It is noteworthy that such schools exist precisely within the "science of mythology". There are, for example, the philosophical and philological mythologists; the psychoanalytic school or schools (Freudian and Jungian), each with its considerable, relatively segregated, bibliography of studies of myths; the historical anthropologists and the functional anthropologists; and the French sociological students of religion and myth. The subject matter of all these schools is in general the same. If they are relatively isolated schools, it is because they apply different academic disciplines and different principles of explanation 10 to the same matter and more or less the same problems.

No such division into schools exists among the students of ideology. 11 This "science" stands as something distinct from all schools of mythological research, divided by a difference which sets it apart from all of them in common. The difference is one, roughly speaking, of subject matter; certainly, it cannot be traced to such a clearly marked difference of academic approach as distinguishes the psychoanalytic from the sociological or philological mythologists.

What, then, are the gross "subject-matter" differences between myth and ideology, as presented in the "sciences" devoted to each? The first apparent difference is that the students of ideology deal with the characteristic forms of belief of modern men, while the students of myth deal with the characteristic beliefs of antique or primitive men--but also of modern men, to the extent that they seem to be basically similar to the former; myth, the characteristic form of belief of primitive and antique man, is sometimes a significant category for modern man. If myth, then, is a different subject-matter from ideology, the difference is not merely a gross distinction in time alone. This leads us to ask what quality it is that makes myth the characteristic form of belief of antique or primitive man and ideology the characteristic form of belief of modern man.

The answer to this question should give us our first clue to the isolation of myth and ideology as distinct cultural processes within history. For to the critics and students of myth and ideology, both represent systems of belief which are regarded as erroneous or which at least are considered from their subjective aspect: that is, in terms of their social and psychological functions. Hence, essentially the same basic problems face both the science of myths and the science of ideologies: First, how do these erroneous, fantastic, or even (it is often added), morally pernicious ideas arise and how do they achieve widespread currency? This is the problem of the psychosocial and social origin of myths and ideologies. Then, second, since these errors and fantasies are so religiously maintained, what is the social "survival value" they may be presumed to embody? This is the problem of the psychological and social function of myths and ideologies. The difference between myth and ideology is a difference in the way each arises and the way each functions in history.

Let us take first the question of origin. The mythologists all seek the origin of myths in some aspect or other of experience: experience as distorted by language, or by prelogical ways of thought; or special kinds of experience--dreams, communal rites, etc. The students of ideology, on the other hand, seek the origin of ideologies in situations: particularly situations of social conflict and competition. Because of this "an ideology" (as we have noted) always implies "other ideologies with which it is in dynamic relations" -- namely, the ideologies of other persons within the same social situation. This is not necessarily the case with "a myth".

Of course, "myth" does always imply "myths" or even "other myths". That is true because "experience" always occurs as a "particular experience", it has a time and place, it occurs to a particular subject. Consequently, if any belief arises from a particular experience of a particular subject in a particular time and place, and that belief has sufficient historic value to become accepted as a myth, it is always implied that other myths might equally well arise from the experiences of other subjects in other times and places. Thus, "myth" does essentially imply "other myths"--but precisely because "a myth" arises as an integral (individual) expression of a particular situation, those "other myths" are usually conceived as capable of arising from "other situations". Characteristically, "other myths" are the myths of other people at other times and places (that is, they are integral expressions of other situations) while "other ideologies" are characteristically the ideologies of other people within the same situation.

We find a parallel distinction when we consider the functions of myth and ideology. It is frequently suggested by theorists of myth that myth images function as integrating values around which individuals or societies become organized and exist as coherent entities. On the other hand, the function of ideologies, as theorists of the subject agree, is (in terms of individual and group interests) to procure advantages for specific social positions and (in terms of social structure) to segregate and consolidate competing groups around rival ideas. 12

We may draw one further conclusion from the above discussion, before we sum up these preliminary findings. Myth and ideology are clearly distinct phenomena, but they are not necessarily separate phenomena on the same level. In fact, it emerges quite clearly from what has gone before that myth is, in a sense, more elementary than ideology, and ideology, in a way, implies some of the processes proper to myth.

To establish this, we need only refer to our description of the origin of mythical and ideological beliefs. Myth, as we saw, has its origin in a particular expression or distortion of an experience. Ideology arises as an expression of a particular role in a social situation. We feel more or less confident of our meaning when we speak of "expressing an experience". But what is meant by "expressing a particular role in a social situation"? This is at bottom a shorthand way of saying something else. What is actually "expressed" in the origin of an ideology is "a particular experience", exactly as in the origin of a myth; for the very word "express" implies "an experience" as what is being expressed. Moreover, "a situation" itself means a particular way of analyzing experiences: viz ., in terms of the relations obtaining between the various subjects and objects involved in an experience. Thus, what is meant by expressing a particular role in a social situation is the following: expressing particular experiences under the distorting influences (consciously or not) of "interested" motives--that is of motives whose functional meaning is the maintenance of a particular social role.

In the analysis of the origin of myth, quite different distorting influences are typically considered as bearing upon the symbolic expression of experience: the "poetic" character of languages, the "instinctive" urges of Man in the generic sense, etc. The analysis of the origin of ideology begins when socially determined "interests" are take into account as well. 13 But an analysis which takes special factors into account begins at a level where generic factors--the nature of symbolism as such, the generic constitution of man--have already had some effect. The "origin of ideology" is a topic logically subsequent to the "origin of myth". It would perhaps be more proper to speak of the "origin of beliefs" only in regard to myth, while in regard to ideology we are concerned rather with the "moulding of beliefs".

We may make a parallel observation about the historic functions of myth and ideology. We have noted that theorists of myth speak of it as integrating and organizing the individual and the group. Theorists of ideology, on the other hand, speak of it as segregating and consolidating groups in relation to each other. The latter operation is obviously the more special concept and it logically presupposes the former: when a group has been segregated and consolidated in relation to others, it is logically implied that it has also been integrated and organized in itself.

Let me now sum up in rough formulas what we have so far arrived at: 1) The study of myth is a study of the origin of beliefs out of historic experience. The study of ideology is a study of the moulding of beliefs by social situations. 2) The social function of myth is to bind together social groups as wholes or, in other words, to establish a social consensus. The social function of ideology is to segregate and serve special interests within societies in the competition of debate.


In order to refine the conceptions of myth and ideology further, let us examine the use of these terms in two authors, Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim, each of whom attempted a more or less systematic analysis of history, using both conceptions. Here, if anywhere, we should expect to find "myth" and "ideology" clearly defined in mutual relation. But, in point of fact, each has defined only one of the terms explicitly--the one which was of central importance in his own theory--and defined the meaning of the other term only by implication. Nonetheless, from a comparison of these two authors, we shall be able to derive fuller and more precise formulations of "myth" and "ideology" as distinct cultural processes in history.

The basic term in Sorel's system is "myth". He defines its meanings and its historical effect as follows:

. . . myths are not descriptive of things, but expressions of a determination to act. A Utopia is, on the contrary, an intellectual product; it is the work of theorists who, after observing and discussing the known facts, seek to establish a model to which they can compare existing society in order to estimate the amount of good and evil it contains....

Whilst contemporary myths lead men to prepare themselves for a combat which will destroy the existing state of things, the effect of Utopias has always been to direct men's minds towards reforms which can be brought about by patching up the existing system.... 14

We have, thus, a formal definition of "myth", in terms both of origin and function; and to balance it, a definition of its opposite, both in origin and function, which Sorel calls "Utopia". Myth, in its origin, "expresses" a will to act; Utopia "expresses" an intellectual grasp of things, and an intellectual measuring of things. In its function, myth leads to radical change, prepares men for combat; Utopia prepares men for superficial change.

As a follower in some respects of Karl Marx, Sorel was familiar with and used the conception "ideology" too. It is not a very significant term in his analysis, however, and he does not trouble to define it closely or to use it altogether consistently. But from his usage in various passages, it is possible to infer and distinguish two definitions of "ideology".

First, Sorel follows the tradition of the iconoclastic thinkers who use "ideology" as signifying the "conventional lies" of a civilization. In this sense, ideology "expresses the interests" of the status quo, and functions as an "opiate" stupefying the consciousness of the potentially rebellious class so that they are not alive to their own proper myth. Thus,

Proletarian violence... disowns the force organized by the middle class and claims to suppress the State.... Under such conditions, it is no longer possible to argue about the primordial rights of man. That is why our parliamentary socialists, who spring from the middle classes and who know nothing outside the ideology of the State, are so bewildered when they are confronted with working class violence. (460). [Italics have been added in this and following quotations.]

We see, then, that "ideology", in this sense (like "Utopia"), is opposed to myth: in its origin, it "expresses" conventional, "middle class" ideas--that is, the accepted intellectual conventions; in its function, it limits conflict to the bounds permitted by ideas held in common by all of society--"the primordial rights of man". Is "ideology", then, to be identified with "Utopia" and defined as the opposite of "myth"?

That this is not so is clear if we consider the second sense in which Sorel uses "ideology". Here it appears as integrally related to "myth" and as signifying ideas not of conservative but of revolutionary origin:

One serious question must now be asked: "Why is it that in certain countries acts of violence, grouping themselves round the idea of the general strike, produce a Socialist ideology capable of inspiring sublimity?" (240)


. . . others (organizations), less numerous and well selected, lead the class struggle; they are the ones who train proletarian thought by creating the ideological unity which the proletariat requires in order to accomplish its revolutionary work. (300)

Similarly, in regard to historical movements of the past:

The Christian ideology was based on these rather rare but very heroic events; there was no necessity for the martyrdoms to be numerous in order to prove, by the test of experience, the absolute truth of the new religion and absolute error of the old, to establish thus that there were two incompatible ways, and to make dear that the reign of evil would come to an end. (207)

Here "ideology" functions not to restrain rebellion like Utopia, but like "myth", to inspire it. In this case, "ideology" grows not out of intellectual conventions but out of living myth, expressing the fresh experience of the will to act and to change everything radically. Hence, its power (borrowed from myth) to inflame. But, ideology also brings something new, not within the power of myth alone: it "trains thought" and thus creates the "ideological unity" required for effective action. This, of course, is a function of intellect and of intellectual discipline. In this respect, ideology and Utopias are alike.

Let us note also the different relations of myth, ideology, and Utopia to will and action. Myth derives from ("expresses") the will to action and functions as a spur to action. Ideology embodies myth through grasping it intellectually, and hence restrains and stimulates action in two ways: by its own intellectual force and by the force of the myth still alive in it. Utopia guides action solely by its intellectual force.

It should be added that, for Sorel, ideology carries the force of myth beyond the period and the social circles in which the latter expressed a living experience. The tie to myth may grow more tenuous and more formal as time passes and as "social distance" grows, but it still serves to make of ideology something different from the sheer ratiocination of "Utopias".

Thus, Sorel speculated that

It may be that the Bolsheviks will end by succumbing . . . but the ideology of the new form of proletarian state will never perish; it will survive by merging with the myths which will take their substance from the popular accounts of the struggle sustained by the Republic of the Soviets against the coalition of the great capitalist powers. (305)

He gives the following description of the process whereby elements that once formed part of a living myth, directly expressing the experience of men in action are continued, perpetuated, and diffused in the form of a fixed structure immobilized by logic and tradition but still historically effective with the force of inertia.

For about twenty-five years the form of government in France had been at issue after campaigns before which the memories of Caesar and Alexander paled, the charter of 1814 had definitely incorporated in the national tradition, the Parliamentary system, Napoleonic legislation, and the Church established by the Concordat.... Protected by the prestige of the wars of liberty, the new institutions had become inviolable, and the ideology which was built up to explain them became a faith which seemed for a long time to have for the French the value which the revelation of Jesus has for the Catholics. (115f.)

We may now sum up Sorel's contribution towards elucidating the concepts of myth and ideology. Sorel explicitly defines the concept "myth" and he does so by contrasting it with an opposite concept, "Utopia". Myth, he tells us, expresses (and that signifies communicates) a personal experience, the experience of the will to action; while Utopia, a purely intellectual product, expresses or communicates no more than an impersonal grasp of facts and estimation of values.

Ideology, according to Sorel, differs from Utopia by its tie to myth. Ideology is a rational structure with its foundations in myth. Sometimes it builds a machine serving the historic creative forces of an era, and then it communicates the power of revolutionary personal experience of them. In other cases, it upholds a facade behind which work reactionary forces, and then it builds on dead myths which were once historic experiences and whose memory it keeps alive. Utopias, on the other hand, operate with facts known and not felt, and by standards entirely torn up from historic roots.

Sorel traces the diffusion of myth through three historic phases. When it is fully alive, myth expresses the personal experience of heroes--acting individuals of historic stature--and it functions as a means of communicating their feeling of their own will to action, its aim and force, to others. Thus, it stimulates both themselves and others to act.

Secondly, living myth is formed into ideology, which (accordingly) conveys the original aim and force of myth, but in such a rationalized form as to extend its communicability in time and space. One may infer that Sorel assumes the living myth of the heroic minority is not in its pure form directly communicable to a whole revolutionary class. It requires the persuasive qualities of "rational" ideology to "train . . . thought" and "prove, by the test of experience, the absolute truth of the new religion and the absolute error of the old".

Finally, ideology may develop into something beyond itself--a faith. The transition to this culminating historic phase of a myth occurs when a system of proof (or explanation and justification) accepted by a restricted (or partisan) group becomes institutionalized as the conventional view of a whole people or church.


When we consider Karl Mannheim's usage of "myth" and "ideology", a first glance shows striking divergences from Sorel's. The basic concept in Mannheim's system--and the one he explicitly defines--is not "myth" but "ideology". In Sorel, we had to arrive at some definition of ideology by inference from implications. In Mannheim, we must use the same procedure to discover his implicit definition of myth. There is one rather startling similarity: both authors use the same term--"Utopia"--as the polar opposite of the major concept in the analysis of each. The central concept in Sorel, we have seen, is the polar opposition "myth--Utopia"; in Mannheim it is "ideology--Utopia". But the meaning given to "Utopia" by Mannheim is directly opposed to its meaning in Sorel.

Mannheim's basic definitions are these:

. . . Every "actually operating" order of life is . . . enmeshed by conceptions which are to be designated as "transcendent" or "unreal" because their contents can never be realized in the societies in which they exist, and because one could not live and act according to them within the limits of the existing social order....

Ideologies are the situationally transcendent ideas which never succeed de facto in the realization of their projected contents.... The idea of Christian brotherly love, for instance, in a society founded on serfdom remains an unrealizable and, in this sense, ideological idea, even when the intended meaning is, in good faith, a motive in the conduct of the individual....

Utopias too transcend the social situation, for they too orient conduct towards elements which the situation, in so far as it is realized at the time, does not contain. But they are not ideologies, i.e., they are not ideologies in the measure and in so far as they succeed through counteractivity in transforming the existing historical reality into one more in accord with their own conceptions. 15

In this definition, at least, Mannheim formulates the distinction between his basic concepts solely in terms of function, not at all in terms of their origin. Regarding the origin of these cultural processes, we are told here only that both are subjective: they "transcend" the contemporary situation. But "Utopia" is a dynamic subjective idea, because it eventually succeeds in transforming society--and Sorel, let us remember, defined "Utopia" as an essentially static idea incapable of transforming society. 16 By contrast, "ideology" becomes for Mannheim essentially static, conservative: it is a rationalization (in the Freudian sense) of the status quo. Sorel, we recall, regarded ideology as covering the gamut from revolution to reaction; and even in its most static form he thought of it as preserving a reminiscence of the essentially dynamic force, myth.

"Myth", in Mannheim, is that concept whose definition we must derive by inference, since it plays no prominent role in his analysis. His conception of the role of myth in history is implicit in the following passages:

Without. . . a social life situation compelling and tending toward individualization a mode of life which is devoid of collective myths is scarcely bearable. The merchant, the entrepreneur, the intellectual, each in his own way occupies a position which requires rational decisions.... In arriving at these decisions, it is always necessary for the individual to free his judgments from those of others and to think . . . in a rational way from the point of view of his own interests. This is not true for peasants of the older type.... Their modes of behaviour are regulated to a certain extent on the basis of myths, traditions or mass-faith in a leader. (31f.)

We have a case of ideological distortion... when we try to resolve conflicts and anxieties by having recourse to absolutes, according to which it is no longer possible to live. This is the case when we create "myths", worship "greatness in itself", avow allegiance to "ideals", while in our actual conduct we are following other interests which we try to mask by simulating an unconscious righteousness, which is only too easily transparent. (86)

Thus myth is associated with ideology, in Mannheim's usage, as a cultural process with essentially conservative functions. It differs from ideology because it is an irrational rather than a rational cultural form--but this, for Mannheim, only underscores the static, conservative function he assigns to myth. Yet Sorel, as we have seen, regarded myth as the major dynamic force in history.

It would be rather surprising, nevertheless, if Mannheim defined myth merely as a fiction quite without historic dynamism. He was acquainted with Sorel's work and conceptions, and in fact devoted an entire section of his study Ideology and Utopia to the type of thinking that Sorel represents. 17 He was aware, accordingly, of theories in which myth is conceived as a dynamic factor in history.

We find that Mannheim did, in fact, recognize the dynamism inherent in myth and in other irrational cultural processes, but he denied that this dynamism could have historic significance. He believed that for dynamic processes to become historic, one prerequisite was essential: only rational ideas could have historic effects, and that only to the extent to which they corresponded to the empirical trend of events. The dynamism of myth (as the type of sheer irrationality) is discounted as part of a non-historical realm which can only erupt into history in a series of "short-lived explosions". The irrational non-historical realm, he states,

includes the blind biological instincts which in their eternal sameness underlie every historical event.... Besides this sub-historical biological element a spiritual, transcendental element is also to be found in this sphere.... All that has become intelligible, understandable, rationalized, structuralized artistically, and otherwise formed, and consequently everything historical seems in fact to lie between these two extreme poles. (128)

Note that Mannheim's "non-historical realm" includes not only "sub-historical'' (biological, instinctive) but also "super-historical" (transcendental, spiritual) elements; and "transcendental" is the very term he uses to describe "ideology" and "Utopia". We may conclude therefore, that in addition to the rational, communicable form that makes both ideology and Utopia part of history, they both embody irrational drives. The conception, then, is the exact parallel of Sorel's view of the relation between "myth" and ideology. The forces behind both revolutionary and conservative beliefs are irrational, primal expressions of fresh experiences; the role of rationality is to give these forces rational, communicable form, so that they may become historically--that is, continuously--effective and not be dissipated in a series of "short-lived" explosions.

In other passages, Mannheim explicitly considers the irrational elements, both in the revolutionary Utopia and the conservative ideology. For example, a section of his chapter on "The Utopian Mentality" is devoted to the apocalyptic chiliasm of the Anabaptists. [18] It is an idiosyncrasy of his usage that, in this case, he prefers to speak of the irrational element as "spiritual and transcendental", reserving the word "myth" for his discussion of Sorel and other thinkers whom he considers under the heading of the "fascist mentality".

The superior person, the leader, knows that all political and historical ideas are myths. He himself is entirely emancipated from them, but he values them--and this is the obverse side of his attitude--because they are "derivations" (in Pareto's sense) which stimulate enthusiastic feelings and set in motion irrational "residues" in men, and are the only forces that lead to political activity. (122f.)

It would be quite easy to present Sorel's and Mannheim's use of the terms "myth" and "ideology" as constituting a set of direct contradictions, all along the line. It would take the following form:

Sorel's Usage Mannheim's Usage
myth revolutionary reactionary
Utopia reactionary revolutionary
ideology revolutionary-reactionary reactionary

But our analysis thus far has shown that these contradictions, ascribing historic dynamism to one (favored) term and denying it to another (despised) term, are entirely superficial. Both writers agree on a series of distinctions between the main conceptions, "myth" and "ideology". Myth, as the irrational pole of the origin and function of beliefs, is a zone of contact between irrational drives and rational communication--that is, we may add, it is an area where beliefs arise and social consensus is established; ideology, as the rational pole of the origin (moulding) and function of beliefs, is a zone of rational communication and social competition. If we present in tabular array the more basic definitions which are implied in the systems of both writers, it takes the following form:

Sorel's Usage Mannheim's Usage
Irrationality myth myth*
Origin of historic dynamism myth myth*
Source of primal social concensus myth myth*
Rationality ideology ideology
Perpetuation and extension of dynamism ideology ideology
Organization of rational interests ideology ideology

(* expressing both biological drive and transcendental belief)


In order to check the definitions so far arrived at, let us survey briefly the concepts of others who have considered these subjects, beginning with the various schools of the science of mythology. Two points need to be noted in regard to them. First, in many cases they do not consider ideology at all, so that we may expect direct confirmation only of the definition of myth, while the definition of ideology may receive indirect conformation at most; second, they do not, as Sorel and Mannheim do, regard myth as a general process in history, or as an analytic function in socio-historical equations, but rather as a group of static structures, of cultural accumulations. In spite of these differences, we shall see that the mythologists confirm and strengthen the definitions already arrived at.

The basic distinction is that between rationality ("ideology") and irrationality ("myth") as two limits in a continuum which may be designated by the name of "historically significant value". Other distinctions between the historic origin and function of myth and the historic origin and function of ideology are derivative distinctions: for clearly the origin of beliefs is the irrational pole, while the moulding and communication of beliefs is the rational pole, of knowledge; and consensus is the irrational pole, interest the rational pole, of "social solidarity".

That myth is an essentially irrational process, is a basic assumption from which all schools of mythological science take their departure. In the older philological theories (Herbert Spencer and Max Mueller), myth is considered an irrational belief of primitive men (with survivals in contemporary superstition) arising from the deficiencies of language. Because of the ambiguous, metaphorical, poetic character of language, man's early ideas defy the rules of logic and rigorous definition. This theory goes back to the most ancient analysis of myth, that of the Sophists.

It is possible to reverse the theory and regard the apparent absurdity of myth as a consequence of the inadequacy of logical concepts for expressing the ultimate mysteries, unless these concepts are interpreted not literally but symbolically. This was the approach of ancient allegorical interpreters of myth. They sought thereby to reestablish mythical belief as the essential basis of social consensus--after it had been denounced as morally pernicious by such critics as Plato. For example, Sallust ("On the Gods and the World") says:

Now the myths represent the Gods themselves and the goodness of the Gods--subject always to the distinction of the speakable and the unspeakable, that which is clear and that which is hidden: since, just as the Gods have made the goods of sense common to all, but those of intellect just to the wise, so the myths state the existence of Gods to all, but who and what they are only to those who can understand.... But why have they put in the myths stories of adultery, robbery, father-binding and all other absurdity? Is not that perhaps a thing worthy of admiration, done so that by means of the visible absurdity the Soul may immediately feel that the words are veils and believe the truth to be a mystery? 19

More modern theorists conceive myth as arising irrationally in a positive sense--not merely because of the imperfect rationality of language. Cassirer, for example, tells us that instead of being a product of metaphorical language, myth is itself a primordial form of human symbolical activity and, like language, it is pre-logical in nature. 20

He gives us the following account of the origin of myth (and of language):

For a person whose apprehension is under the spell of this mythico-religious attitude, it is as though the whole world were simply annihilated; the immediate content, whatever it be, that commands his religious interest so completely fills his consciousness that nothing can exist beside and apart from it.... When, on one hand, the entire self is given up to a single impression, is "possessed" by it, and, on the other hand, there is the utmost tension between the subject and its object, the outer world; when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy; with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish fulfillment: then the spark jumps somehow across, the tension finds release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a god or a demon. (32)

In contrast he offers the following description of the formation of logical concepts:

... The intellectual labor whereby the mind forms general concepts out of specific impressions is directed toward breaking the isolation of the datum, wresting it from the "here and now" of its actual occurrence, relating it to other things and gathering it and them into some inclusive order, into the unity of a "system". (32)

Thus, the mythical symbol is an irrational "datum" which, because of the intensity and concentration with which it is experienced, becomes "objectified" --that is, memorable. Logical concepts (the formal elements of ideologies), on the other hand, are laboriously worked out through, and on behalf of, the processes of communication and social organization.

The conception of myth as a pre-logical form of human belief, arising among primitive men, is held, of course, by the French anthropological and sociological school, notably by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl. Emile Durkheim and his followers believe that the experience of social communion, especially when heightened by totemic communal feasts, provides the "irrational datum" of man's most fundamental concepts as well as the primordial substance of social consensus.

The psychoanalytic schools obviously recognize the irrational quality of mythical symbols, which they interpret in the light of the mechanisms of the subconscious. The Jungian school regards the symbols (or archetypes) of myth as constituting also the fundamental forces making for personal integration and, of course, social organization. Kerenyi express the point in this way:

To rebuild the world from that point about which the "fundamentalist" himself is organized, in which he by his origin is (absolutely as regards his unique and specific organization, relatively as regards his dependence on an infinite series of progenitors)--that is the great and paramount theme of mythology. 21

Thus, there seems to be broad general agreement on the distinctions we have set up between "myth" and "ideology". But that is not all. The literature of the subject contains these distinctions not only as a series of scattered apercus. There are also many writers who use them in more or less systematic fashion as a theoretical basis for interpreting history. We have seen such an instance in Sorel, with his definition of myths as expressions of will, Utopias as products of intellectual formulation. To be sure, even myths must be formulated (i.e., "rationalized") in order to serve as an ideological cement binding together a revolutionary cadre. But a belief can also exist as sheer ideology, entirely void of mythical élan, when it is committed to the idolatry of empty words. 22 At this point, culture becomes decadent and society, so unified, stagnates. Only petty, interested motives prevail, and the breakdown of social consensus is imminent.

The above distinctions, as made by Sorel, have many parallels in the literature, both in content and in terminology. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche, drawing on Schopenhauer's insights, derives the creative élan of the Greeks from two "art impulses", the "Apollonian" impulse of dreams and the "Dionysiac" impulse of drunkenness, and particularly from the tension between the two, which achieves its dialectical synthesis in Attic tragedy. Opposed to the cultic, mythological world of creative impulse is the "decadent" world of the "impious Euripides", of New Attic Comedy, and of the father of "theorists", Socrates, "the typical nonmystic in whom, through a superfoetation the logical nature is developed to the same excessive degree as instinctive wisdom is developed in the mystic". 23 The Socratic influence undermines music, myth and tragedy--these three phases of vital art--and leads to a decadence of culture which leaves society a prey to primitive appetites.

While Nietzsche does not use "myth" and "ideology" as technical terms, it is easy to identify the very mechanisms with which we are concerned. Creativity is ascribed to "art-impulses" of essentially "unconscious" character (dreams and drunkenness) which express themselves in music, myth, and drama, all closely associated with cultic practices. The antithesis of creativity (which, nevertheless, is essential in order to fixate and transmit creative achievements through general social institutions) is "theory". 24 In Nietzsche's usage "theory" is very close in meaning to "ideology" in the original sense of the Napoleonic French "ideologues". 25 It means, accordingly, the systematic construction of knowledge from consciousness--in which Nietzsche, to be sure, saw the seeds of decadence. However, Nietzsche does not believe in the existence of "pure" theory which is not itself a tool of will. The rise of "theory" is associated by Nietzsche with the dominance of petty, egoistic and group material interests over cosmic, sublime urges. Thus the conception is similar to "ideology" in current usage.

Such distinctions between the roles of irrational myth and rational ideology are not confined to Romantic philosophies of history, whose object is a critique of rationalism. We have found a similar distinction in Karl Mannheim, where every effort is made to reduce the significance of the element of myth in history. Max Weber, who more rigorously than any other thinker of the German school tried to construct and apply an objective, "scientific" system of historiography, has a formula for the dynamic of historical development which faithfully reproduces the basic conceptions of Nietzsche and Sorel and utilizes conceptions essentially the same as those we refer to by the terms "myth" and "ideology".

The basic tool of Weber's historical analysis is a series of constructions (Idealtypen) built upon elementary mechanisms of (rational and affective) value-oriented action. Thus, the fundamental dynamic factor in history is the ultimate value. A "charismatic" leader (as Carlyle would say, a "hero") or an idea with the power of fascination for small groups or large masses, arises in a way which remains mysterious. Once the ultimate value is established, a process of the "disenchantment of the world" ensues. The value is "rationalized" in the shape of social institutions. In the formation of these, economic and other material interests "are not led but lead." Hence, the results of this process are often found to be logically inconsistent with the ideals of the original leader. 26

In a highly paradoxical way, the arch-iconoclast Karl Marx himself implies both irrational "myth" and rational "ideology" as elemental mechanisms of the historical dynamic. "Ideology" means for Marx the whole system of religion, morality, and law, whereby a ruling class "justifies" and upholds the social system dictated by its interests. In a revolutionary crisis, the rebellious class, too, is prone to a type of self-deception:

At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves, in bringing about what never was before, at such very epochs of revolutionary crisis do they anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language. Thus did Luther masquerade as the Apostle Paul; thus did the Revolution of 1789 1814 drape itself alternately as Roman Republic and as Roman Empire. 27

In the mythical guise of historic heroes, the revolutionaries escape the uncertainties of acting toward a future undefined by received ideologies: they enact a role laid down for them in a traditional plot. 28 Inspired with resolution by the mantle so assumed, a revolutionary class is steeled to dare the future, and if objective (material) social evolution has a course parallel to their thrust, they achieve the advent of historical novelty. To be sure, the new course into which history is led has nothing whatever to do with the dénouement envisaged in the legendary plot according to which the heroes are acting. And, when at a later date--without a favorable trend of material evolution--another player tries to assume anachronistically the same mythical role (as in the case of Louis Bonaparte), the performance becomes a farce.

For the proletariat, Marx envisaged a different role. 29 They were to assume the part of heroes in the drama of history without resorting to myth. So, also, they were to constitute, in permanent revolution, a society without class, without the estrangement of man from man, and hence without ideology. The new hero would be inspired--but by the poetry of the future, not of the past. He would be guided by knowledge--like that of science--constantly checked by the trial and error of a society forming itself in permanent revolution; he would fulfill the true destiny of man, as the universal free producer, in the creation of art. 30

Nietzsche said about Socrates that this arch-theorist yet had the genius of a poet in his sheer personal dedication to "theory". His was the poetry of destroying the veils of illusion. In the same way, Sorel says of Marx that his great achievement was to create the living myth of the proletariat. In any case, Marx's attempt to conceive of a social system and a new era wherein both "myth" and "ideology" would cease to be relevant refers to a condition in which history itself appears to be abolished. For premillennial times, Marx, like many of his antipodal counterparts, employing the same conceptions of myth and ideology, constructs the very model of the historical development of cultural forces upon which there is a general tacit consensus.

Harvard University


1 An earlier treatment of the present theme appeared in the Hebrew University's philosophical quarterly, Iyyun, V, 2 (April, 1954), 145-167. Its present formulation owes much to comments by Professor R.K. Merton, who was kind enough to read it in manuscript.[return]

2 "The Dynamic Elements of Culture", Ethics, LXV, 4 (July, 1955), 235-249. Whether there are any specifically historical terms, principles, or "laws" of explanation, is a question to which some philosophers have recently given much attention, cf. Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History (Glencoe, III., 1959), 344 ff. It is my assumption that some sort of general, specifically historical terms or principles are in use (as shown in the present paper) and may be systematically elaborated in the form of a theory (as shown in the paper in Ethics referred to above). With the logical status of such historical terms or principles I am not concerned here; that question would deserve special consideration in the light of William Dray's Laws and Explanation in History (London, 1957). [return]

3 In contrast, "knowledge" is not used at all in the plural. Thus, it refers essentially to an isolated (abstract) relationship of a subject and an object, and is never used for plural or alternative relationships of subjects and objects. So, too, "an idea" or "a value" can readily be understood as referring to an isolated relationship of a subject and an object, while "an opinion" or "a theory" can only refer to a singular instance of plural, usually alternative, relationships of subjects and objects. The plural forms "ideas" and "values" refer both to relationships of a subject to various objects and of various subjects to the same object: the latter usage, implying alternative and not merely plural ideas and values, is, perhaps, the primary connotation of "values" but is secondary in relation to "ideas". The use of "ideas" to signify alternative relations of various subjects to the same object is positively awkward, so that it requires specific qualification to be understood in this sense at all. On the other hand, "theories" and "opinions" connote the relationship of various subjects to the same object with a high degree of regularity; specific qualification must be explicitly added, if they are to be understood in the sense of the relationships of the same subject to various objects. [return]

4 As, for example, by Sorel (concerning whom, see below) and by other contemporary political writers. Of course, the more traditional meanings of "myth" do not necessarily imply the ideas of competition between one myth and another, but, perhaps, the idea of their peaceful coexistence. [return]

5 It is worth noting the historical process whereby both "myth" and "ideology" acquired their derogatory connotations and came to mean a "subjective" or "interested" approach to reality. Etymologically, "myth" means simply a "relating"; hence it was originally quite objective in meaning. It took on negative connotations through the very ancient Greek criticism of myth--a sophistication going back, no doubt, as far as the Homeric epics, which are regarded as implicit critiques and reformulations of earlier myth--and through the subsequent criticism of myth by monotheistic iconoclasm. The long succession of critics of myth finally stamped on the word the meaning of unfounded fantasy which it has since retained. Similarly, the first use of "ideology" was in Destutt de Tracy's Elémems d'Idéologie (Paris, 1803-17), where the word meant the system of purely objective true ideas built up from the clear and distinct elements of perception. The word took on a sarcastic connotation when Napoleon turned against the "idéologues" for reasons of policy and began to ridicule them and their philosophy. See Hans Barth, Wahrheit und Ideologie (Zurich, 1945), 15 ff. [return]

6 Myth reached full recognition as a valid "objectification" of the spirit, on a plane of equality with other forms of human culture, in Ernst Cassirer. Cassirer's view, of course, is in the Idealist tradition that regards all Reality as precisely such as series of "objectifications". [return]

7 "The last generation has witnessed the emergence of a special field of sociological inquiry: the sociology of knowledge (Wissenssoziologie)." R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, III., 1949), 217. [return]

8 Merton, op. cit.. 4. [return]

9 In the English edition of Ideology and Utopia, the translators, Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, added to the bibliography (originally printed by Mannheim together with his article "Wissenssoziologie" in the Handwörterbuch der Soziologie) "some of the more representative contributions of American, English, French, and German thought on this subject". Included are such names as John Dewey, William James, Frank H. Knight, C. S. Peirce, C. R. Mead, Emile Durkheim, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Ernst Cassirer, C. J. Jung, Grace De Laguna, and Bronislaw Malinowski. None are referred to in the text. [return]

10 Thus the psychological school is divided between the Freudian and Jungian mythologists--the former with the basic mechanism of the personal unconscious, the latter with the additional mechanisms of the collective unconscious. The anthropological school is divided between historical and functional anthropologists--the former with the mechanisms of the diffusion of unitary cultural traits, the latter with the mechanisms of the functional interdependence of entire cultural and social complexes. [return]

11 There is, of course, the relatively insulated, mainly American school of fact-finding research on "communication", "propaganda", "rumor", "opinion", "attitudes", "stereotypes", "prejudice", etc. But as we have seen, these themes differ from both "myth" and "ideology" because they are not necessarily historical in the sense defined, of major cultural accumulations, effective over a span of generations. [return]

12 For a brief review, see below. [return]

13 Such an "ideological" analysis of beliefs was, of course, by no means unknown in classical antiquity before the word ideology was ever thought of. [return]

14 Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (Glencoe, III., 1950), 57 f. [return]

15 Ideology and Utopia (New York, 1949), 175, 176. [return]

16 We should note that Mannheim uses "Utopia" in what he concedes to be "conscious opposition to the usual definition", on the basis of a similar terminology employed by Gustav Landauer. Ibid., 174. [return]

17 Ibid., 119-130. [return]

18 Ibid ., 190. [return]

19 Gilbert Murray's translation in Five Stages of Greek Religion (Anchor Book, New York), 192 f. [return]

20 Language and Myth (New York, 1946). [return]

21 C. J. Jung and C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology (New York, 1949), 13. [return]

22 "The idolatry of words plays a large part in the history of all ideologies." Sorel op. cit., 75. [return]

23 The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Modern Library, New York), 1020.--For my analysis, which follows, see Nietzsche's characterization of Socratic and Alexandrian cultures (1046-1048). [return]

24 Where creative genius is ascribed to theorists, as in the case of Socrates or Plato, Nietzsche explains it as a form of poetry or metaphysical will still alive in the "unconscious" of these men. [return]

25 Hans Barth, op. cit. (57, 63 ff. and note 35, 316), examines Nietzsche's comments on and relationship with these philosophers. [return]

26 Cf. the account of H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills in their Introduction to From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York, 1946), 51-55 ("Bureaucracy and Charisma: A Philosophy of History''). [return]

27 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (Chicago, 1913), 9 f. For a brilliant treatment of this whole aspect of Marx, cf. Harold Rosenberg, "The Resurrected Romans", Kenyon Review, Autumn, 1948, 602-620. [return]

28 Cf. Kerenyi, op. cit., 5 f. "Thomas Mann, in his essay on Freud has spoken with good reason of the 'quotation-like life' of the men of mythological times.... Archaic man, he said, stepped back a pace before doing anything, like the toreador poising himself for the death stroke. He sought an example in the past, and into this he slipped as into a diving-bell in order to plunge, at once protected and distorted, into the problems of the present." [return]

29 Cf. Harold Rosenberg, "The Pathos of the Proletariat", Kenyon Review, Autumn, 1949, 595-629. [return]

30 Cf. concerning Marx's anthropology and views about science, art and ideology, Hans Barth, op. cit., 131 ff., 135 ff., and 141 ff. [return]