Mythos and History: A Review of Matthew Boulter’s “Repetition and Mythos: Ratzinger’s Bonaventure and the Meaning of History”
Matthew Boulter. Repetition and Mythos: Ratzinger’s Bonaventure and the Meaning of History. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2022.   History, as popularly conceived, is the collection of “facts” that tell us “what really happened.” Students of proper history, however, are introduced to historiography. The reality of history is far more complicated than the simplistic facts tell… The post Mythos and History: A Review of Matthew Boulter’s “Repetition and Mythos: Ratzinger’s Bonaventure and the Meaning of History” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Matthew Boulter. Repetition and Mythos: Ratzinger’s Bonaventure and the Meaning of History. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2022.


History, as popularly conceived, is the collection of “facts” that tell us “what really happened.” Students of proper history, however, are introduced to historiography. The reality of history is far more complicated than the simplistic facts tell us what really happened conception of history. The same events experienced by different people yield dramatically different narratives. In yielding these different narratives, we slowly learn the importance of conceptualization in interpreting history.
The result of debates over the meaning of history leads one to realize that history is never an unbiased relation of events, names, and dates. As it is told and retold, different aspects of the whole come to light; other aspects are deemphasized or eliminated from the narrative altogether and new aspects that were, in fact, part of the historicity of events become emphasized in the new telling. The broader meaning of these debates is clear: the reality of the historian’s own role in the unfolding of history has entered the popular consciousness. We have finally realized that those who write history are themselves making history.
All this points to another development. In the place of this popular ideal of an unbiased retelling has emerged the assumption that who you are determines how you interpret history. The identity of the historian is the key to understanding how he or she interprets events. The meaning of history is the identity of those who write it. But are the interpretations that go along with one’s identity the only thing that might replace the popular notion of unbiased history? Do we face a naked power struggle between identity groups over how we write, interpret, and participate in our history? Or is there another way?
Matthew R. Boulter’s new book, Repetition and Mythos: Ratzinger’s Bonaventure and the Meaning of History suggests there is such an alternative to the current historiographical and identity crisis that grips history. Despite its title, it is not necessarily just a book about Bonaventure and Ratzinger’s historical philosophy. Its real aim is no less than to explore the meaning of mythos and its relation to history. For Boulter, the key to the meaning of history is not identity, Hegelian “reason,” or science. It is mythos.
Early in the book, Boulter highlights how Bonaventure, in the thirteenth century. and Ratzinger (better known to us as Pope Benedict XVI), in the twentieth century, were both trying to show the dangers of an overly scientistic approach to history. For his part, Bonaventure was attempting to show a middle way between those who wanted to wholeheartedly embrace the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle (thereby constituting an autonomous philosophy that makes claims to truths independently of revelation), and those who favored the complete exclusion of the Stagirite’s thought from theological discussion.
Similarly, Ratzinger was interested in finding a middle way between the nakedly scientific methods of the historical-critical biblical scholars (such as Adolf von Harnack and J. R. Geiselmann) and Church traditionalists. The former were convinced that the whole deposit of revelation was present in scripture and thus only scholars working within the discipline of the historical-critical method could accurately interpret the story of the Bible. On the other hand, the traditionalists held that Church tradition as revealed by the magisterium was the only legitimate source for interpretive keys to history. Thus, both Bonaventure and Ratzinger were concerned with showing how any interpretation of history must draw on the resources of both scientia and pure tradition or revelation. We will return to what such an interpretation might look like below.
In terms of structure, history is akin to Plato’s notion anamnesis (remembering). For Boulter, anamnesis is the reappropriation of knowledge from the deep recesses of our being, brought forth and thereby made new. That which is present in the abyssal stores of memory is drawn upon through a process of dianoia or dialogical reasoning in the Platonic sense. In this way, knowledge springs up from the recesses of the mind as a constantly unfolding reappropriation of things already somehow known. Abstractly speaking, such remembering has the form A–B–A’.
In historical terms, this means that as we draw on memories of events and share our recollections of such events with others, the stories always become something new. In retelling each story, we are necessarily adding to it or taking something away. We are injecting a bit of ourselves into the narrative or making the story compelling for our audience. But, more importantly, it is impossible to tell every single detail exactly as it happened: even the shortest story would require hours of preliminary stage-setting.
Similarly, the historian has a near-infinite set of data at their disposal which can be utilized in crafting their narrative. It is up to the historian to select from this ocean of possibility the one strand of narrative that they will present to her reader. It is this constant movement from event (A)–interpretation (B)–understanding (A’) that forms the structure of history for Boulter.
All this might raise a question: what happens in the crucial middle step of the structure (the “B” or dianoia or interpretation stage)? This middle term is where mythos comes into play. Common interpretation of the term “myth” equates to something like “an ignorant, superstitious falsehood created when scientific knowledge is not available to explain the true nature of reality.” Boulter, following an illustrious line of philosophers such as Plato, Bonaventure, Paul Ricœur, and Christine Pickstock, demonstrates a much fuller and more useful meaning that is far removed from the scientistic strawman presentation of myth and mythos.
Mythos in Boulter’s sense is the interpretive key that informs our most basic apprehensions of events in reality: it is “a metaxological discourse between logos [i.e., universal abstract knowledge] and the bare particularity of [brute facts]” (123). In other words, it is the existential and conceptual “connecting tissue” that bridges the gap between the universal meanings of Aristotelian theoria (i.e., abstract philosophical truths) and the brute facts of historical data. For Boulter, mythos is the meaning we attach to events that helps us to function as persons in the ocean of chaos that surrounds us on a moment-to-moment basis.
This notion of mythos is drawn directly from Ratzinger’s interpretation of Bonaventure’s Collationes in haxaëmeron, a series of theological and philosophical polemics on the biblical creation story and Ratzinger’s interpretation of it in his 1956 Habilittionsschrift. As already mentioned, the historical setting of the Collationes necessitated a rhetorically strong arm on Bonaventure’s part: he had to navigate between the Scylla of reactionary traditionalism and the Charybdis of exuberant thirteenth-century autonomous scientism. He needed to demonstrate that any “rational” discourse had to unfold within the sapiential framework of the life of faith as envisioned by the Church. The cold facts of logical reasoning needed an interpretive framework if they were to contribute to the flourishing existence of the whole human person. A simultaneously intellectual and existential interpretation of the creation story seemed to be a perfect vehicle for such an aim.
Thus, in Boulter’s reading of Bonaventure, the four days of creation that Bonaventure discusses in this incomplete work reflect the structure of the anamnetic intellect discussed above. Boulter lays out the structure in one of many helpful charts:
Day/Vision 1: Light in general (the intellectual light of nature: the mind enlightened).
Day/Vision 2: The firmament (the intellectual light of faith: the mind elevated by grace).
Day/Vision 3: Trees, fruit, & seeds (the intellectual light of Scripture: the mind mythologized).
Day/Vision 4: Heavenly Bodies (the intellectual light of contemplation: the mind suspended) (140).
These four days map onto the structure of anamnesis, with the first two “days” comprising the  first “A” step, and days 3 and 4 corresponding to the “B” and A,’” respectively. It is important to notice how the mythos of the creation story allow biblical meaning to seep into the theory of knowing. For Boulter, the structure of the human intellect only makes sense in the context of the unfolding of God’s creation in the story. Boulter discusses the essential nature of this existential “comportment” for Bonaventure and Ratzinger: faith, essentially informed by mythos in this sense, leads to the affective or existential desire for the fruits of the wisdom of revelation. Without this essential ingredient, any knowledge, and especially historical knowledge will lack meaning.
Thus, the truth of the mythos of revelation is an essential ingredient in discerning the meaning of history given its structure. On Boulter’s reading of Bonaventure and Ratzinger, using mythos to assign an overarching meaning to history as a whole is a necessity, and this notion of mythos is the key to any such endeavor. It is a “middle way” between the abstract universality of Aristotle’s theoria and the particular facts of historical events. Only through the illumination of the existential desire of the whole person made possible by a comprehensive mythos can history be assigned any real meaning.
Boulter’s ability to make connections across the veritable ocean of materials at his disposal shines throughout the book. In addition to his helpful emphasis on the important implications of Bonaventure and Ratzinger’s historical thought, there are also useful chapters on such luminaries as Christine Pickstock, John Milbank, Paul Ricœur, Josef Pieper, Plato, and Kierkegaard. All are perceptively and creatively appropriated into the larger argument with evident command and thoughtfulness. Boulter’s critique of Aristotle’s philosophy of history and his appropriation of Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity on this score are particularly interesting and useful. There is a richesse here that ambitious and interested scholars would do well to study despite its immensely broad scope.
But Boulter’s contribution is more than scholarly. It is evident, given his helpful insights, that the historical debates mentioned above are indicative of a deeper (indeed, spiritual) problem. The modern mythos of “unbiased” or “scientific” history is collapsing all around us; we face the peculiar problem of choosing what should replace it. Public intellectuals on the ideological left and right in the United States and around the world seem bent on an assertion of identity-based meaning for history. Boulter shows us that perhaps we ought to consider something higher and more universal.

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