ABSTRACT

Facing the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, a prominent modern philosopher invoked ancient Near Eastern myth. The Myth of the State was Ernst Cassirer’s attempt to make sense of the collapse of liberal democracy in the face of totalitarianism. The events of the 1930s and 1940s unsettled his earlier confidence in enlightenment as the final act in the human drama. The rise of Nazism in his native Germany forced him to acknowledge that the victory of rationality was not a fait accompli. And yet Cassirer never abandoned the belief that a rational society was possible. “The mythical organization of society seems to be superseded by a rational organization,” Cassirer writes. “In quiet and peaceful times, in periods of relative stability and security, this rational organization is easily maintained. It seems to be safe against all attacks.” 1 But not all times are quiet and peaceful. “In politics,” Cassirer concedes, “we are always living on volcanic soil.” 2 Political myth can erupt to destroy rational society – especially during times of crisis. It is, then, an irony of deep significance that Cassirer himself chose to draw on a political myth to explain this problem. The neo-Kantian philosopher evoked the Babylonian story of Marduk’s subjugation of Tiamat as an allegory for this struggle of rationality against the ever-threatening forces of myth.