3 out of 4 stars
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Mythic Worlds and the One You Can Believe In is written by Harold Toliver, an award-winning American academic and writer. In the first few pages of this book, Toliver highlights the fact that an estimated one hundred and sixty million people died as a result of conflicts in the twentieth century alone. He argues that many of these wars can be attributed to ‘errors in perception, to the propaganda that encouraged them, and to fervent beliefs contradicted by the natural continuum.’ His book, he informs us, is an effort to dismantle some of these ‘harmful myths of the commonwealth and blind faith partisanship.’
In the first section of the book, the author examines what he terms the ‘myths of origin’ that are told about the universe and humankind. He seeks to determine what is actual, what is hypothetical, and what is completely false by comparing these stories with what science and common experience say about the natural world. The second section considers ways in which the development of language may have contributed to the simultaneous development of humankind’s capacity to construct narrative and legend. Section three looks at how enhanced knowledge of the universe has succeeded in detaching humanity from some of its myths. Finally, the fourth section looks at how myths have been used to galvanize groups and populations into taking collective action, including the use of warfare.
There are some interesting arguments made in this book. I was convinced by the author’s debunking of the idea, perpetuated by notable thinkers like John Ruskin, that the evolutionary narrative is dedicated to progress. Toliver provides several examples to show that evolution ‘produces many imperfect things not on the way to anything better.’ Similarly, he argues cogently that myths and ideas which induce groupthink can be both beneficial and dangerous: beneficial because that which makes people think alike develops their coordination and cooperation; dangerous because such uniformity of thinking is often used to promote imperialistic conquest.
Too often, however, these interesting arguments get buried under a wealth of detail. At times, it seems as if the author is attempting to strengthen his arguments by using the whole of human history and culture as supporting evidence. There are thirty pages of references at the end of this book, with everyone from Aeschylus to Zoroaster getting a mention. The works of mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, and writers from every era are examined and discussed. World religions and mythologies are explored. Language development from earliest times to the present day is outlined and analyzed. Historical figures such as General Custer and Adolf Hitler make cameo appearances. Contemporary culture also gets a mention, when recent movies are used to support a particular point. The result of all this detail, in my opinion, is that often the point the writer is trying to make gets lost under a mountain of citation, disputation, and erudition. As the point gets lost, so too does the reader.
This book will not appeal to people of faith, as the author consigns religious belief to the category of unhelpful myth. He does not give us an anti-religious polemic in the style of Richard Dawkins, but he is quite clear about his thoughts on this score. He writes: ‘That a supreme being is watching one’s every move and keeping score is still a surprisingly contagious idea in moral philosophy disconnected from the evolution of humankind.’ The book may also offend supporters of the Republican Party in the United States, as the likes of George W. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Trump are all mentioned disparagingly.
The book is professionally produced. I picked up fewer than ten typographical errors, although it has to be said that the author is perhaps too sparing in his use of commas. For the most part, the book is polished and well-written. I enjoyed some of the points put forward by the writer, but I found this a tough book to read overall. Other people may take a different view. Those who enjoy academic debates and have no problem picking their way through abstruse, arcane arguments may find this book more to their liking.
I would give Mythic Worlds and the One You Can Believe In three out of four stars.
Mythic Worlds and the One You Can Believe In
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