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Ernst Cassirer and the traps of myth

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Ernst Cassirer and the traps of myth

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On the occasion of the centenary of the publication of the first and second parts of
“Philosophy of Symbolic Forms”, Ernst Cassirer, illustrious exponent of neo-Kantianism in
twentieth century, deserves further presentation effort.
The philosopher Cassirer was among the first to reintroduce the study of myth and its manifestations into the world of philosophy. Myth is not just a cultural phenomenon, but an intrinsic structure that represents a fundamental expression of human discernment. Similar to art, science and language, myth has its own logic and rationality.

Mythical consciousness

The mythical conscience has never abandoned the life of modern man, it persists and grasps his existence, and the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century have consecrated its substantial rebirth. The myth in politics becomes an instrument of power, influences and manipulates the masses with a force seductive similar to a spell. With particular interest, one can examine the analogy proposed by Cassirer between the primitive world and the contemporary one in the context of the use of magic.

To magic

In primitive societies, magic was used in moments of absolute gravity; during crises or wars. Only when the rational means of resolution reached their limits was the village sorcerer consulted. Magic was in a sense a last resort.

Cassirer completes the framework by comparing the ancient use of witchcraft and myth with contemporary political language. In moments of crisis man resorts to irrational tools – the myth rises from the bowels of the past. The roots of the myth are deep and penetrate the most intimate extensions of the intellect. Cassirer, following a Nietzschean perspective, identifies in the cult of Dionysus the most intense form of human feeling: the arcane nostalgia of the individual to be freed from the chains of his own individuality, to immerse himself in the eternal flow of the universe. This implies the beginning of an involvement in something greater than oneself, accompanied by the abandonment of all personal responsibility.

Totalitarian policies

Totalitarian policies tap into this sentiment. They free the individual from any personal responsibility, and give him a collective one. The process of these political models is of a mythological nature, it clings to the visceral feelings of its population and, similar to enchanters, they enchant individuals to the dissolution of individuality. In an imperceptible way, the lives of individuals are inundated with a vastness of new rituals, whose unchanged monotony and repetition give the reassuring perception of being part of a larger whole. Individual freedom is sacrificed on the altar of myth.

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