The Cautionary Tale of the Mythological Procrustes: Implications for “Ideology”

My purpose in this essay is to define “ideology” by the analogy of an ancient mythical character. Ideology creates fundamental FAULTS in our political culture. Those faults must be corrected by a better understanding of the nature of “ideology” by the citizens of this democracy.

The ancients defined by personifying things they needed to know in their everyday lives, and which they needed to remember. The stories and characters and gods they worshipped were kept neatly in memory by the mythological stories they created as memory (mnemonic=Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory) devices. (Students today create such devices for remembering answers for test questions.) The ancients had to do that because there were no readily available books or print sources generally published in their oral culture.

In Greek mythology, there was Procrustes, one of the numerous sons of Neptune by mortal mothers. In the labors of Theseus, he wanted to free a coastline road of bandits and murderers, taking vengeance on all who dared harm him as he traveled that road, marauders and murderers such as the “Cudgel-man”, the “Pine-bender”, and a monstrous wild sow. Those stories are interesting. However, his slaughter of Procrustes, “the Stretcher”, was the most important.

Procrustes, a mythical giant who was a thief and murderer, would take in travelers, offering them a bed for the night. He tied them to an iron bedstead. If they were too short for the bed, he stretched them until they fitted the bed; if they were longer than the bed, he lopped off their limbs to make them fit.

The “Procrustean Bed” is a well known phrase used by some to make a point about an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced, or any overly rigid method, like Procrustes’ iron bed. We are familiar with the phrase “ONE SIZE FITS ALL” on clothing that will shrink or stretch to fit one’s the body. But the Procrustean bed does not fit the body. That image can be used to define the nature of “ideology”.

Reality is the truth of the iron bed. The bed will not be stretched or shortened. The truth in reality has to be made known first, and statements of reality or truth must be reliable in fitting the facts.

What was Procrustes’ ideology? That everyone who slept in his bed had to fit on it exactly or suffer the stretching or lopping off in order to enforce his idea of a proper fit for his bed, after a measurement was taken.

Procrustean theorizers make up the facts that fit their theory.

  • What is the reality faced by the nutritionist? Are nutritional problems solved by the low-glycemic diet, or the Atkins diet?
  • What is the reality faced by the politician? Are all citizens best served by the Democrats’ plan for health care? Are citizens best served by the Republicans’ view of a program for bringing down the huge budget deficit?
  • What was the German ideology? It was “Das Volk”, the pride of the German people from ancient times in being the pure Aryan, who had a specific look and physique. Hitler had physiognomists measure for set characteristics, for such things as the shape of the nose, to find superior specimens defined by the measures, and used as a basis for purging the populace of inferior (Jewish) “specimens”. Previous to Hitler, Richard Wagner celebrated “das Volk” in his operatic music of the Ring cycle. Hitler loved the Wagner Ring Cycle as music evincing Hitlerian racial politics. In a counter move, Americans wanted to remove the presentation of Wagner’s operas in a counter-ideology during WWII. I personally love the music. If they did that, I concluded, then that would also be a cause for removing everything German from American society, perhaps including me and my name. Some radio stations did remove any Wagner music. It was a long time after the war before Wagner was heard in the Jewish homeland, played by a German orchestra.
  • What is the Republican ideology on the right? The one most quoted and honored and to be “actualized” is Ronald Reagan’s very distinct “trickle down theory”, which is often invoked to demonstrate how the economy should work: tax breaks for the wealthy businessmen in an unregulated market is the best and only way to improve the economy to the extent of increasing return on investments and significantly reducing joblessness by plowing the gains back into the businesses. In another way to say it, the capital gains will feed the rich, and the crumbs will fall off the table to feed the poor. The ideology on the right may tend more toward the undemocratic rule of the strong man, a very Procrustean principle.
  • What is the ideology of the Democrats? Their political appeal is harder to fix, since they take much more liberal positions on the left. Their proposals often make the Repubilcans shout “SOCIALIST!” at the Democrats’ solutions. They believe in a strong, people-oriented, federal system to regulate business and industry and to create institutions for the General Welfare promised in the Preamble to the social contract. That is their ideology, and is set in the social contract of the Constitution of the United States to form a more perfect union. Do they carry their views to Procrustean lengths, or is any Procrustean (arbitrary and dictatorial) solution made impossible if General Welfare supercedes special capitalistic gains by its provision in the social contract? Does the ideology of the Democrats have a broad appeal to the populace, a majority of the less wealthy? If that is true, then how do the Republicans ever take office if the majority vote should be composed of the more numerous “common” folk? If that fact is the case, then the question arises how the majority will vote against its own, ultimate best interests in order to admit the policies favoring the very wealthy into the law of the land. The poorer people will vote for the interests of the very wealthy.

Therefore, the words to describe reality or the truth are not THE truth, nor reality. Procrustes mutilates the words of any statement to bend the truth. The words, whether written down or spoken, are the traveler seeking a bed for the night, but getting a Procrustean treatment instead. Words versus the truth, reality.

Ideologies abound in all walks of life. Many people theorize imaginatively, Procrustean theorizers making up the facts that fit their theory. However, a theory must be a statement that accounts for all known facts.

Nipping ideology in the bud, or avoiding the unreliable and even false meaning in an ideological statement, and searching instead for the factual basis of all claims to know something has been the purpose of this essay. This is an essential skill of every citizen in a democracy for the avoidance of false candidates, inept office holders, and unreliable knowledge.

[[[P.S. I’ve re-read what I have written above and find it a bit murky. I will try to make it clearer a bit later.]]]

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