Mythos. A mythos is a system or body of myths, folklore, legends that constitute a self-contained system which explains the nature of the world and humanity. At its heart a mythos is a constellation of first principles which serves as the foundation for morality, normative judgment, and explanations for how the world (and people) work. A mythos is composed of two principle characteristics: 1) it is self-evident and 2) it is true. Oh perhaps you don’t believe it, but to those who adhere to that system it is true and needs no further explanation other than itself. that is to say that a mythos appears to be tautalogical to the outside observer.
As alluded to above, a proper mythos serves as the foundation for a constellation of universals: ethics, morals, norms, and causal explanations. Such universals are incredibly important in that they allow us to communicate with one another on a moral level and share a common understanding of the sacred and the profane, the good and the bad, the better and the worse. They allow for the smooth functioning of a society or social group because people understand what is and is not within the range of acceptable behavior and, whether they act in accordance with the ideals 100% of the time or not, they are omnipresent. Universals as first principles are not morals or standards per se, they are the explanatory principles behind them; why it is wrong to cheat or steal, why being nice is better than being mean. At a certain point these first principles can only be explained by reference to their effects, consequentialst explanations. Yet even consequentialist explanations rely to a degree on the universals they attempt to justify (i.e. explaining why female circumcision is wrong would very likely result in reference to a first principle which would be explained by how it makes life better, but the definition of better itself relies on other first principles).
First principles do not act on the conscious mind. In fact, they are so ingrained that we would have to sit for a while and draw up a list and then reduce that to the foundational principles. We learn them both consciously and subconsciously through overt teaching and subtle social cues. We are, by and large, so attached to our first principles, our mythos, that we are often hard pressed to explain them or justify them without some gymnastics. In everyday life, we tend to interact with people who, for the most part, share our mythos so explaining why something is bad is much easier than if there were no common mythos. An example of this is that it would not be difficult to explain why killing an animal just because you can is wrong if the person you are talking to shares your mythos; it is when they do no that it becomes tricky.
Any mythos is in a sense random in that it relies on first principles for which we have no further explanation. We can explain why we hold a first principle by reference to its benefits (utility) and consequences, but as noted above, we eventually arrive at another first principle within our mythos. Mythic systems are self-contained, therefore our “universals” are not truly universal in that they do not apply to everyone in all situations.
This is not to deny the power of a mythos or to doubt their existence, reality, or efficacy in guiding human behavior. In fact, I think we need a mythos to survive. Humans are storytelling animals and the lack of a grand narrative which provides the basis of a mythic system is practically essential to our wellbeing. For most people the striving for a mythos is satisfied by some sort of religion which provides first principles which give life a certain order. What’s more religion offers the ultimate first principle, the concept of a god or gods which are extrinsic sources of universal principles. Gods are perhaps the highest refinement of mythos because they are self evident and true to their believers, but like any mythos they require a certain leap of faith to transcend objective reality and engage with the concept of an absolute source of order and value.
A mythos is a powerful tool for ordering lives and channeling impulses into socially acceptable pathways, and yet there are as many mythos as there are cultures (though like culturs and languages, probably dwindling as the years go by) probably more. There is a fundamental difficulty, a breakdown of communication when attempting to engage those outside of our mythic system because without the same (or similar) set of foundational principles, we are unable to effectively communicate regarding values. It may be difficult to explain to certain groups why a clitorectomy (femal circumcision) is wrong by referencing human rights or gender equality because more likely than not such groups do not ascribe to those principles. Similiarly it may be difficult to explain universal individual rights to someone from China (as I have seen done several times) without reference to our own values which they may not share. The reason this is significant is that in attempting to engage a person or group with a different mythos, we must be very conscious of our own first principles. Any attempt to explain the right or wrong of something to such a person would likely fall flat or result in defensiveness, or worse claims of imposition of values, if we try to engage them on our terms and in our constellation of values. It would perhaps be more effective, then, to engage those of a different mythos within their own constellation of values using consequentialist examples and linking those to other competing first principles within their mythic structure.
There are those who would rather we turn to religion as the first principle, the mythos. That is one way to do it, and has been the predominant method historically of providing life with order and meaning. Unfortunately there are numerous religions that are heavily influenced by their cultural contexts and a perfect reconciliation of even sects within a religion let alone between religious paradigms would be nearly impossible. This means taking a step above religion to first principles and acknowledging them when we engage with one another on questions of right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous and debased.
Finally there are those who insist that there is an ultimate truth, but we as humans are incapable of comprehending such a truth. In spite of this, we should strive to reach for this elusive truth and order our lives around our imperfect perceptions of truth. The simple response to this is that history provides as many versions of truth as there are civilizations, cultures, and eras, so if there is a higher truth it is awful elusive. Rather than seek such a truth perhaps we should just modestly admit that we will never know and do the best we can for our day and age.