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Saturday, January 1, 1966

The Flight From Reality: 16. From Ideology to Mythology I

Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania. Among his earlier writings in THE FREEMAN were his series on The Fateful Turn and The American Tradition, both of which are now available as books.

The study of the history of ideas has produced some interesting re­sults. Among these is the conclu­sion that at any given time in a so­ciety there is apt to be a prevailing set of ideas. These are not, of course, readily apparent to the su­perficial observer, not even to the superficial historian. Superficially, it is the disagreements among men, their debates, the points over which they contend that catch the atten­tion. But beneath these there are often broad and fundamental areas of agreement in terms of which discourse takes place and disputed questions are settled, or compro­mises are worked out.

These broad areas of agreement which constitute the prevailing ideas have been called by a variety of names: weltanschaung (world outlook), frame of reference, basic premises, ethos, underlying philos­ophy, and so on. Historians can often discern that this ethos (or whatever name it should be called) is reflected and articulated in the arts, literature, politics, religion, morals, and institutions of a peo­ple. Periods in history have now quite often been given names which are meant to signify the prevailing ethos at that time: the Age of the Renaissance, the Age of the Baroque, the Age of the En­lightenment, and so on.

Such classifications should be ac­cepted, however, with some reser­vations. The extent of agreement, even upon fundamental premises, can be easily exaggerated. Neat classifications appeal more to those who have only a passing acquaint­ance with an “Age” than those who have studied it deeply. Dissent from the prevailing ethos can be uncovered at almost any point in history. There is a tendency, too, to exaggerate the extent of the change from one of these periods to the other. There is a continuity in the basic ideas and beliefs of Western Civilization which cuts across the periods which historians define. Also, there is a relativism implied in many of these accounts of changing world outlooks which should be entertained cautiously. Prevailing ideas do change, to greater or lesser extent, from epoch to epoch, but this does not mean that one set of ideas is as good as another or that truth is relative to the premises of a given age. The results of logical deduc­tions are relative to the premises from which they are deduced. Their truth content, however, depends upon the validity of the premises, that is, upon their conformity to reality.

The Age of Meliorism

With these reservations in mind, let it be asserted again that at a given time in society there is usu­ally a prevailing ethos. This work has to do with such an ethos. Now, according to the unconventional wisdom of our age—that is, accord­ing to the uninhibited imaginations of a goodly number of would-be seers — we live in an Age of Tran­sition. Indeed, it is often held that we have been in the slough of this transition for some time. At best, such a nonclassifying classification is a convenient dodge. It certainly avoids coming to terms with the ethos of our time, with describing it, with classifying it, and with holding it up for examination. Moreover, it is not a classification that can be validated with evidence. True, there can be assembled evi­dence that changes are occurring. But such evidence exists for all times for which there is any evi­dence. In short, to call an epoch an age of transition does not distin­guish it, or classify it, from any other age.

We may indeed hope that much of the contemporary ethos may be transitory; it has certainly focused upon the ephemeral. But when the presently prevailing ethos has passed from the scene, its passing will not mark the end of an Age of Transition. For this ethos has a distinctive character. Moreover, it has been with us for a sufficient time to enable us to classify it with confidence. Ours is an AGE OF MELIORISM. The prevailing ethos supports continuous reform with the ostensible aim of improvement.

For seventy or eighty years this ethos has been building. The men whose thought is reckoned to be so influential upon our times have been meliorists: Edward Bellamy, Lester Frank Ward, John Dewey, William James, Thorstein Veblen, Charles A. Beard, Louis D. Bran­deis, Woodrow Wilson, Walter Lippmann, Herbert Croly, and so on. The words which connote ap­proval in our society are quite often those conducive to the reform effort: e. g., innovative, inventive, imaginative, progressive, creative, cooperative, flexible, pragmatic, open-minded, and involved. The arts, literature, religion, social thought, and education are per­meated with the innovative and re­formist spirit. There exists a bountiful literature describing the need for amelioration and contain­ing proposals for collective effort to bring it about.

Ideological Origins

This work, thus far, has been an attempt to describe the historical development of this ethos and its propagation in American society. The story has been traced from the breakdown of philosophy to the birth of ideology to utopianism through the elaboration of a new conception of reality and creativity to some of the ways that meliorism (or socialism) was made attractive to Americans. In the final analysis, Americans generally began to ac­cept the programs and policies of melioristic reform as they began to view things from a new ethos, a new outlook, a new frame of refer­ence, or from a different set of fundamental premises. Men were drawn into this framework in a variety of ways: by being told that it was democratic, that it was an extension of that to which they were already devoted; by an appeal to concern for others; by having the programs of education for the young instrumented to this new way of looking at things which, when accepted, constituted a new frame of reference.

The intellectual sources of this melioristic frame of reference are in various ideologies. Nineteenth century thought has been categor­ized, at least once, by the phrase, the Age of Ideology. Certainly, ide­ologies abounded in the nineteenth century. All thought tended toward the formation of ideologies. This tendency was mirrored in the lan­guage which came to be used to de­scribe the products of thought. The attachment of the “ism” suffix in­dicates the ideological tendency of the system of ideas to which it re­fers. This formation of words be­came epidemic in the first half of the nineteenth century. As one his­tory book points out, “So far as is known the word ‘liberalism’ first appeared in the English language in 1819, ‘radicalism’ in 1820, ‘so­cialism’ in 1832, ‘conservatism’ in 1835. The 1830′s first saw ‘individualism,’ ‘constitutionalism,’ ‘humanitarianism,’ and ‘monarchism.’ `Nationalism’ and ‘communism’ date from the 1840′s. Not until the 1850′s did the English-speaking world use the word ‘capitalism’…”¹ Many others were to follow: “romanticism,” “Marxism,” “Dar­winism,” “scientism,” and so on. Some of these concepts with the suffix “ism” were not ideologies, properly speaking, but the tenden­cy to attach the “ism” to all con­cepts and beliefs reflects the ideo­logical propensities of thinkers.

Tangled in Abstractions

A great variety of ideologies de­veloped in the wake of the break­down of philosophy in the nine­teenth century, and some even be­gan to appear earlier. Rousseau propounded a democratist ideology, Bentham and the utilitarians an economicist ideology, Comte a so­ciologist (or socialist) ideology, Hegel a statist ideology, Marx a materialistic and historicist ideol­ogy, Mill an ideology of liberty, Spencer an evolutionist ideology, George a neo-physiocratic ideology, and so on.

Technically, an ideology is a sys­tem or complex of ideas which purports to comprehend reality. Actu­ally, modern ideologies have usu­ally been both more limited than this would suggest and much more zealously attached to by their pro­ponents. The makers of ideologies have usually operated in some such fashion as the following. They quest for and think they have found the philosopher’s stone, a magic key that will unlock the mysteries of the universe. It is some abstraction from the whole of reality. For Rousseau it was the general will, for Comte the stages of the development of the mind, for Hegel the conflict of ideas, for Marx the class struggle, for Spen­cer it was the evolutionary process, for Mill something called liberty, for George the unearned incre­ment on land, for Bentham social utility, and so on. With the phi­losopher’s stone in hand, the ideo­logue proceeds to spin out — to rea­son abstractly — an account of how things got the way they are, what is wrong with the way things are, and what is to be done about them, if anything.

The ideological version of real­ity is at considerable variance with existent reality. This is under­standable, for the ideologue has not only proceeded by reducing it to abstractions — which are always less than and different from the reality to which they refer — but also hung all his abstractions upon some central abstractions. If he concludes, as he seems invariably to do, that things should be brought into accord with his ideo­logical version of them, he becomes a reformer. Indeed, all that does not accord with his version is irra­tional (and those who oppose it, anti-intellectual), for he has reached his conclusions logically, that is, by abstract reason. It is as if an inventor should construct an automaton on the basis of his anal­ysis of actual men and then pro­claim that all men should be like his mechanical figure. Utopias are just such parodies of the possibili­ties of reality, and are no more de­sirable than men would be if turned into mechanical contraptions.

The ideologue tends to fanati­cism. Whatever it is that he thinks will set things aright — that is, bring them into accord with his mental picture of them — becomes for him a fixed idea. This fixed idea may be democracy, equality, the triumph of the proletariat, the coming of the kingdom, the single tax, the realization of an idea for society, or whatever his panacea happens to be. Come the proletar­ian revolution, one will say, and the good society will be ushered in. Employ creatively his abstraction, the “state,” another will hold, and a great and productive social unity will emerge. Extend democratic participation into every area of life, and life will be glorious. Abolish property, abolish govern­ment, single tax the land, redis­tribute the wealth, maintain ra­cial solidarity, organize interest groups, form a world government, develop an all embracing commit­ment to the nation, use government to make men free, and so on through the almost endless num­ber of enthusiasms which have animated those under the sway of some ideology or other. The totali­tarianisms they create when they try to put these ideas into effect stem from the total commitment to a fixed idea, an abstraction, in the first place.

Forgotten Influences

Meliorism has drawn such intel­lectual substance as it has had in America from these nineteenth century ideas. It drew sustenance from democratism, from egalitari­anism, from nationalism, from uto­pian socialism, from Darwinism, from Marxism, and from statism. But the attempt to reconstruct society has not usually been ad­vanced by the avowal of an ex­plicit ideology. After the early years of the twentieth century, American intellectuals began to avoid ideological labels for the most part, even as more and more of them were influenced by ideas drawn from ideologies. Even those who thought of themselves as socialists became less and less defi­nitely aligned with an explicit socialist ideology. There has been considerable talk lately of an end to ideology; a book has been writ­ten on that theme. And yet, the pressure toward melioristic reform continues to mount, and the argu­ments for reform and the direc­tion that it takes is still drawn from ideology.

In general, American reformers, those who have gone by the name of “liberal” for a good many years now, have no consistently explicit ideology. Certainly, the generality of Americans who have come to expect and favor reforms are un­aware of holding any ideology. What has happened is that many of the ideological assumptions that propel us toward melioristic re­form have become a part of the mental baggage of most people. They have taken on a frame of reference, a way of looking at things, which makes increasing governmental activity seem natu­ral to them.

Myths and Images

How did this come about? In the main, ideology was subsumed into mythology. People pick up the ideology through the myths which they have come to accept. A myth­ology is a body of myths or legends which purports to account for the way things are. In traditional usage a mythology is a kind of sacred history for a pagan reli­gion. It contains the stories of the doings of the deities, and is a means of inculcating religious teachings. In the common parlance, a myth is a commonly believed view of something that is not true to fact, that will not stand up un­der careful scrutiny. However, some contemporary scholars use the word in a much more neutral and descriptive manner. The fol­lowing definition tells what an­thropologists are apt to mean when they refer to myths:

Myths are the instruments by which we continually struggle to make our experience intelligible to ourselves. A myth is a large, con­trolling image that gives philosophi­cal meaning to the facts of ordinary life; that is, which has organizing value for experience. A mythology is a more or less articulated body of such images, a pantheon…. This is not to say that sound myths of general application necessarily support religions; rather that they perform the historical functions of religion—they unify experience in a way that is satisfactory to the whole culture and to the whole personality.”

Another writer, thinking along the same lines, defines mythology in this way:

Briefly stated, what I have in mind are first, the images (imagined scenes or objects) and imagents (imagined actions or events) under­lying, sustaining, and activating some conceptually represented, de­velopmental philosophy of life, or ideology, individual and social, and second, more particularly, a large assemblage of narratives in prose or poetry, each illustrative of a better or worse course of action, a better or worse state of being, or a better or worse mode of becoming, for an individual, for a society, or for the world at large.3

Psychological Justifications

It is symptomatic of the con­temporary state of mind that elaborate and serious studies of mythology should be made, tricked out in the paraphernalia of schol­arship. It is one more indicator of the loss of confidence in our cul­ture, for to many such intellec­tuals all beliefs are inculcated by myths, and all myths stand more or less equal in their sight. The test of an adequate mythology, one gathers, is the extent to which it is psychologically satisfying. Note, too, that such studies tend to justify myths, just as William James justified religion, on psy­chological grounds. Their truth or falsity is not to be objectively determined; they are useful and ap­propriate, in general, if they sat­isfy the individuals in a given so­ciety.

Even so, it is these latter usages of “mythology” to which I refer when I say that ideology has been subsumed in mythology. There are some differences, however. It is assumed, in the above, that the stories and legends by which myths were purveyed were imaginary. This is not the case, at least gen­erally, with the twentieth century mythology which propels us toward ameliorative reform. The stories and legends are quite often as accurate factually as modern research can make them. At any rate, the details are factual, or are supposed to be. Their mythi­cal character is most profoundly to be found in the assumptions which are provided from ideology.

This modern mythology, the mythology of meliorism, is pur­veyed as history. That is, it is what people understand to have happened in the past, though it is most revelant to what is now hap­pening and the trends presently at work. This does not mean that it is only something taught in the schools from history books. On the contrary, it has been purveyed in popular nonfiction, in imaginative literature, in newspapers and magazines. The mythology is evoked in political speeches, in sermons, in newscasts, in lectures, and in all of the ways that people communicate with one another. That is to say, it is a part of the way people see, interpret, and un­derstand (or misunderstand) what is going on.

A Century’s Distortion

The basic mythology concerns American history from about the time of the Civil War to the pres­ent. The myths can be found in al­most any textbook on the subject. The following is a bare boned sum­mary, hopefully not a parody, of some of the central myths found in such accounts. America was plunged into crisis in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This crisis portended catastrophe if something were not done. The signs of the crisis were all around: industrial depressions, increasing tenant farming, the growth of slums and tenements, periods of unemployment, labor strife, fall­ing industrial wages, falling ag­ricultural prices, the decline of craftsmanship, and generally wors­ening conditions. The sources of the crisis, according to the myth­ology, were to be found in pro­found underlying changes that were taking place. These changes are evoked by such words as indus­trialization, mechanization, urban­ization, and, perhaps, proletarian­ization. Fundamentally, rapid changes in technology, and the manner of its utilization, were producing vast maladjustments in society.

These changes called for funda­mental alterations in attitudes, in social institutions, and in the pat­terns of behavior of a people. In­stead of this having taken place, however, older American patterns had been extended and had ossi­fied. Individualism had become rugged individualism, economic liberty become license to plunder the resources of America for pri­vate aggrandizement, the govern­ment of the people an instrument for advancing the fortunes of a nascent plutocracy. Vernon Louis Parrington, no mean mythmaker himself, describes the development this way:

The war… had opened to capi­talism its first clear view of the Promised Land. The bankers had come into control of the liquid wealth of the nation, and the industrialists had learned to use the machine for production; the time was ripe for exploitation on a scale undreamed-of a generation before….

It was an abundant harvest of those freedoms that America had long been struggling to achieve, and it was making ready ground for later harvests that would be less to its liking. Freedom had become indi­vidualism, and individualism had be­come the inalienable right to pre­empt, to exploit, to squander….

In such fashion the excellent ideal of progress that issued from the so­cial enthusiasms of the Enlighten­ment was taken in charge by the Gilded Age and transformed into a handmaid of capitalism. Its duties were narrowed to the single end of serving profits and its accomplish­ments came to be exactly measured by bank clearings….

Having thus thrown the mantle of progress about the Gold Dust twins, the Gilded Age was ready to bring the political forces of America into harmony with the program of pre­emption and exploitation….4

In consequence of these things, according to the mythology, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Farmers were oppressed by high and dis­criminatory rail rates, and work­ers were being exploited by robber barons. The wealth of America was being channeled into the hands of a few beneficiaries of special privilege by both government action and inaction. Farmers were muttering, becoming angry, beginning to organize. Workers were feeling the pinch of deprivation, becoming increasingly discon­tented, and beginning to organize. These clouds upon the horizon surely portended a coming storm.

Let the Problem Fit the Answer

The solution to the problem is usually carried implicitly within the mythology. Fundamental ad­justments must be made in keep­ing with the changed condition. The power of the people collec­tively, that is, government, must be used to tame these forces let loose in the land, to restore balance and harmony, to bring about an adjustment. But, as everyone who is familiar with the mythology knows, the cavalry did not come dashing to the rescue, or, to be literal, the government did not act forcefully to bring about this har­mony in the late nineteenth cen­tury. True, it did begin to tinker, to prohibit trusts and regulate in­effectively the railroads, to allot a few crumbs of the governmental bounty by way of inflation to the poor and dispossessed. But these were puny efforts beside the mas­sive transformation called for by these forces at work in society.

Things did begin to look up in the early twentieth century, ac­cording to the legend. Reformers began to be heard in the land; pol­iticians began to advance some of their programs; even Presidents began to use the language of re­form. Local governments, state governments, and even the United States government began to make faltering efforts at more compre­hensive reforms. But alas, the effort was short-lived; the advance gave way to retreat once more in the 1920′s. Business returned to the saddle once more; the roaring twenties witnessed the last fling of a moribund capitalism. The public was drawn into this Roman holi­day, spending its substance in ri­otous living or engaging in the speculative boom occurring on the stock market.

The Great Depression

The long expected catastrophe finally came — the Great Depres­sion. As fate would have it, the country was saddled with the last of the rugged individualists, Her­bert Hoover, when the day of ac­counting arrived, and he fiddled with puny ameliorative efforts while Rome burned. The situation went from bad to worse. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., himself a myth-maker of the first order, describes conditions on the day of the first inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt:

The fog of despair hung over the land. One out of every four Ameri­can workers lacked a job. Factories that had once darkened the skies with smoke stood ghostly and silent, like extinct volcanoes. Families slept in tarpaper shacks and tinlined caves and scavenged like dogs for food in the city dump. In October the New York City Health Department had reported that over one-fifth of thepupils in public schools were suffer­ing from malnutrition. Thousands of vagabond children were roaming the land, wild boys of the road. Hunger marchers, pinched and bitter, were parading cold streets in New York and Chicago. On the countryside un­rest had already flared into vio­lence….5

Following Roosevelt’s inaugural address, of course, “across the land the fog began to lift.”

Whether the fog lifted or not (some think it settled permanently upon Washington), government in­tervention was certainly under­taken in earnest thereafter. According to the legend, government took up its proper role in affairs.

It began to tame the wayward and destructive forces let loose by in­dustrialization, to bring order out of the economic chaos induced by an economy of private aggrandize­ment and cutthroat competition, to take sides among the citizenry to rectify the imbalance between labor and management and between agriculture and industry. The United States government under­took planning, regulating, control­ling, subsidizing, inflating, har­nessing, spending, and taxing with a right good will. Of course, it took some time for those in gov­ernment to learn just how to manage all these things in the best possible way. Some relics of the depression remained throughout the 1930′s, and it was only after the outbreak of the war that full prosperity was finally restored. But the right direction had been taken, so the mythology goes. Gov­ernment has now mastered most of the economic forces which once wrought such hardship in the land: that is, depression, unem­ployment (well, not quite!), de­structive competition, hoarding (of money), and so on. There remain problems, of course, and the proc­ess of reform must go on, but the basically right direction has now been taken. The great progress that has been made in the last thirty years should be attributed to this governmental activity.

And How It Was Cured!

Government intervention, then, has produced great and lasting good. One will rarely find a dis­senting voice about this in text­books. On the other hand, it has done little if any demonstrable harm. This summary of the myth­ology can be closed with a quota­tion to this effect from one of the most consistent mythologizers of this generation, Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania:

That nightmare of “federal con­trol” which haunts the dreams of our conservative friends is an hal­lucination. I cannot think of one example of the “heavy hand of the federal government reaching out into our private lives” that has ac­tually been restrictive of our per­sonal freedoms or detrimental to our economy…

The federal government has been subsidizing education in this country ever since the Northwest Ordinance of 1784 [sic]. No harm and much good have resulted. The same is true of social security, housing, urban re­newal, and government plans for the health care for the aged.7

There is enough truth in this account to make it superficially plausible. Men can thrust their ex­periences into this framework, and it will seem to make sense of them. After all, two generations of publicists and researchers have collected mountains of facts with which to buttress the mythology. In like manner, two generations of interpreters have woven these facts into smooth and plausible ac­counts of what has been and is happening. Nor is there any rea­son to suppose that many of them have any doubts about the correct­ness of their interpretations. For aught we know, the deluders are deluded by their own delusions.

Be that as it may, the above summary is of a full-fledged myth­ology, believed and accepted by millions of Americans, so far as judgments of such things can be made. To perceive its mythical character, it will be helpful to ex­amine some of the myths that go to make it up, and to see how they took shape. Such an examination will be forthcoming.

The next article in this series will further cover “From Ideology to Mythology.”



¹ R. R. Palmer with Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958, 2nd edi­tion), p. 431.

2 Mark Schorer, “The Necessity of Myth,” Myth and Mythmaking, Henry A. Murray, ed. (New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 355.

3 Henry A. Murray, “The Possible Na­ture of a ‘Mythology’ to Come,” in Ibid., p. 300.


4 Vernon L. Parrington, The Begin­nings of Critical Realism in America: 1860-1920 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1930, 1958), pp. 8-19.

5 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933 (Bos­ton: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 3.

6 Ibid., p. 8.

7 In Edward Reed, ed., Challenges to Democracy: The Next Ten Years (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963), p. 102.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.