Authorities, Mythology, and Doing Your Own Research

  • Thomas Bulfinch on mythology vs. Scripture;
  • How PragerU dismisses climate change;
  • My advice: do note “do your own research”; find an authority to trust that does not lie about reality.

I own books that I’ve had for decades and have never read. Any book collector, or serious reader, does. The other day I picked one of those up, an edition of The Age of Fable, subtitled “Bulfinch’s Mythology”, after author Thomas Bulfinch, who lived in the 19th century, when this book was published after his death in 1867. It was the standard work on classical mythology, says Wikipedia, for nearly a century, until Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, the book taught to my 8th grade class.

I’m only going to mention one thing about the book, a passage from page 13 of this edition. (I believe these editions from the “International Collectors Library” were purchased by my parents, as with a set of encyclopedia and a set of Harvard Classics that occupied our house, as resources for us children, even though they never read books, or had such education, themselves.)

First, page 1 of the book, the first after an Author’s Preface, a Foreword, and a Biographical Note, begins thusly.

The religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct. The so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men. They belong now not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste. There they still hold their place, and will continue to hold it, for they are too closely connected with the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern, to pass into oblivion.

And then he begins Chapter 2, on page 13, thusly. Without a trace of irony.

The creation of the world is a problem naturally fitted to excite the liveliest interest of man, its inhabitant. The ancient pagans, not having the information on the subject which we derived from the pages of Scripture, had their own way of telling the story, which is as follows…

Is it not a tad presumptuous to dismiss the beliefs of “ancient pagans” while presuming that one’s own religion, via “pages of Scripture,” is instead the true story?

But every generation does this, every adherent to a modern religion, does this: dismiss all the others, especially the old ones. Does Bulfinch truly think the opening pages of Genesis are a better story of creation than those in the Greek myths? On what grounds? They are all incoherent, fanciful at best, especially in light of modern knowledge, even the knowledge available to Bulfinch in the 1860s. (Of course, Bulfinch was basically rewriting Ovid, the sources say.)

Actually, my reaction to this passage is about something else entirely. Bulfinch seems secure in his belief that the “Scriptures” are an authority for what he believes to be the story of the creation of the universe. So then: in what way did the Greeks (and later Romans) appeal to any kind of authority for their beliefs, what we now call myths?

This would be a fascinating area for study, for further reading. Were what we call the Greek myths a serious religion, in the way modern religions are? I suspect not. Or were they tall tales passed along over time, like the American stories of Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett, or for that matter, of the American Founders, whom modern conservatives venerate as near-Gods (and whom they presume, despite evidence, endorsed Christianity)?

I suspect somewhere in the middle. And I’m sure these answers are known. And I actually have a couple books that might inform this question, and I will check them out.

Finally, I will acknowledge that acquaintance with the Bible, as with those Greek myths, will always be valuable for understanding much of the literature written over the past two thousand years. But just as no one takes the Greek myths as fact, someday no one will take the Bible as fact either. Give it a thousand years, if humanity survives. Myths fade; reality survives, even if humanity does not.


This is a relatively incidental story — one event in one specific locale — but it contains an essential point, that aligns with the theme of this post.

Houston Landing, 21 Nov 2023: Conservative PragerU video questioning climate change shown in dozens of Houston ISD classes, (via JMG Houston School District To End PragerU Indoctrination After 73 Schools See Video Mocking Climate Change.)

I’ve posted about PragerU before. Key passage:

A Friday lesson intended to teach students at dozens of Houston ISD schools how to think objectively included a video that mocked the idea of human-caused climate change from PragerU, a Florida nonprofit criticized for pushing biased, conservative viewpoints. Meant to help students discern fact from opinion, the seven-minute clip encouraged viewers to “do your own research,” citing examples that push back on the idea that humans have caused climate change.


I had a lesson and advice at the end of yesterday’s post, and the two items today suggest another lesson and further advice.

Do NOT “do your own research.” First of all, it is presumptuous of you to think you can identify, through a few minutes on Google or YouTube, some great truth that no one else has discovered, when there are so many scientists and other experts who have spent their lives building on the research and conclusions of earlier scientists and experts to build the body of knowledge that has created our modern society.

Second of all, by relying on social media, you are opening yourself to all the disinformation agents out there, lying to your for their own advantage. See my notes on the Lee McIntyre book.

The correct answer is: identify someone, or some source, that is trustworthy, and trust them. No one can contain all the knowledge of the world necessary for understanding it, and you can’t either. You have to depend on other people, or institutions, whom you can trust not to be lying to your for their own ends. So, do not trust social media, which is infected with agents out there trying to fool you, for their own ends.

Myself: I trust the MSM, the NY Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, Slate, Salon, Vox, and so on, while always being aware that they can make mistakes, and if they do, they will correct them. I would never in a million years watch Fox News, or listen to whoever is the latest incarnation of Rush Limbaugh. Do their fans not realize how they’re being played??

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