Kant’s Demythologizing of Ancient Stories


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Kant’s views on radical evil were scandalous for many of his readers. They saw Kant as one of the great figures of Enlightenment, of the idea that a human mind, unfettered at last from the tight shackles of tradition, to think for itself at last. For him now to be demythologizing ancient stories seemed to bring back all the old superstitions they had fought so hard to escape.

A statue of Hermes, a Greek deity.
The idea of demythologizing ancient stories is largely based on Kant’s ideas. (Image: Zwiebackesser/Shutterstock)

Was Kant Defending Religion?

Some thought Kant had sold out to the emerging Prussian police state, which looked smilingly—as police states often do—on traditional religious practice. Others thought he had just become massively reactionary in his old age; rumors even began to spread that he might be senile. 

But Kant knew better; and what he knew was that the language of radical evil meant to precisely capture the truth latent in traditional religious understandings: namely, that evil’s elimination from our lives is not straightforward and is not entirely describable in terms of rational human action that is entirely self-willed. 

Kant meant to say that the idea is important without collapsing into or falling back to traditional notions of original sin because he thought those notions failed adequately to capture the individual’s responsibility for their wickedness. His language of radical evil means to be a sober acknowledgment of the profundity of human corruption while also insisting that this is a condition that the human has brought upon him or herself; it’s not an illness, it’s a self-inflicted wound.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Understanding Kant’s Intentions

Those who read him carefully realized he had aligned himself, in his discussion of the nature of human moral action, more with those heretical Christians who insisted that humans and not Christ, not grace, were fundamentally responsible for their moral perfection. 

Once Kant was understood to be not so much defending traditional Christianity by his more extreme Enlightenment followers but still endorsing a kind of Christian heresy, he became more tolerable to them. 

Nonetheless, the crucial thing he had done, which shadows what had been done before, but he was the first person really to do it, and which only became clear over time in the method he used, was to inaugurate or pioneer a method we can call “demythologizing.”

Learn more about the Enlightenment and the problem of evil.

Demythologizing Religious Stories

Demythologizing accounts often suggest that a resolution to a problem we face must go beyond mere cognition, mere thinking about the problem, and the explicit formulations of rational intelligence, and appreciate the power and wisdom of myth. 

Nonetheless, these approaches—a demythologizing approach—insists there’s positive wisdom and insight in them; but this myth is something that only partially gets at the truth of the point, the demythologizer will say, so philosophical analysis or some kind of clear analysis, conceptual clarity, must be applied to clarify and systematize the truth of the matter. 

To do this, you have to recognize the obscure profundity, the demythologizer says, of traditional religion; how it suggests that sheer human experience processed over many generations has a level of insight that the simple activity of one person thinking on their own cannot provide.

Illustration of an ancient warrior and monster fighting.
Demythologizing ancient stories is crucial to understanding the wisdom they contain. (Image: tan_tan/Shutterstock)

The Conflict between Ancient Wisdom and Personal Thought

Again here, we see the conflict: the tension between the wisdom of experience versus the capacities of individual intellectual effort, of theory. 

The demythologizing, even though it’s a very intellectually ambitious practice, is also profoundly suspicious of the idea that an individual, simply acting on their own to think through these problems, is going to come to the right, or profound, or suitable answers. 

Myth has a profundity of meaning, demythologizers will say, and a density of symbolic reference beyond the ability of any philosophical system to articulate fully; and the account says all this even as it does not affirm such religious stories or mythologies as literally true. 

It seeks instead within them to find a deep though incompletely formulated truth about the human. It demythologizes in this way in taking out a myth and looking at it, and identifying it, and reformulating it into something that it thinks of in a clearer and more precise language of rational human cognition.

Can We Truly Demythologize Ancient Stories? 

Another way of framing this question is to ask rather directly: Does such an attempt distort the mysterious mythological message at the heart of a story and render it so rational and articulate as to be flat-footed? 

It’s possible to talk about Moby Dick as a story about a fish. It’s possible to talk about Hamlet as a story about an insecure prince. It’s possible to talk about the Epic of Gilgamesh as a story about a guy who feels sad that he lost his friends. But in each of these formulations, something really important gets lost.

Learn more about Aristotle’s “mundane” vision of malice and evil.

The Echo of Kant

Whenever you hear anyone talking about the profundity of ancient ways of thinking about evil, and how they almost got things right, but now we know better, you’re hearing the echo of Kant. 

Kant turns out, that is, to be behind both the intellectual style of thinking about evil that has grown increasingly popular in the past several centuries—that is, not simply to dismiss the past as irrelevant but to appreciate it, but at the same time handle it with gloves made entirely of reason, so that you try to discern in the muddy past a kind of rational essential message that we can extract; that’s one way he’s been influential.

Common Questions about Kant’s Demythologizing of Ancient Stories

Q: Why did some of Kant’s followers not appreciate him going back to religious stories?

In the age of Enlightenment, they were battling hard to put an end to traditions, and religion was included in this. Demythologizing ancient stories was perceived at first to be a step back to the dark ages.

Q: Why can no one truly demythologize ancient stories?

Somehow when we try to demythologize ancient stories, it appears that something is lost. A part of the meaning or wisdom can’t be dissected rationally; the story can be thrown away.

Q: How has Kant’s view of evil influenced people today?

When we talk about stories in the past and how the people before us got it right somehow, we are demythologizing ancient stories, and that’s the direct influence of Kant’s thought.

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