My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Myths to Live By (1972) by Joseph Campbell is a collection of lectures/essays taken from a series of Campbell’s talks at The Great Hall of the Cooper Union Forum in New York City between 1958 and 1971.
“My continuing pleasure in lecturing there derived in part,” explains Campbell, “of course, from the old-fashioned, simple grandeur of the Great Hall itself and the knowledge that Abraham Lincoln once spoke from the very stage on which I stood” (p vii).
Even then, in that Great Hall where great men stood and lectured on things past, things present and things yet to come, Campbell foretold of a great calamity that was befalling the world.
At the time, however, the world could not have known how important Campbell’s warnings (or proclamations?) could be to the globalized world we have and live in today. When Nietzsche called man “the sick animal,” das kranke Tier, he could not have been too far off in his assessment because, as Campbell writes, “our nature is not like that of the other species, stereotyped to fixed ways” (p 241). And that is how the world finds humanity—the sick species that howls at the moon:
“What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (p 253)
Long, long ago in a place that had no name for fire, the first human beings were in fact emerging and stalking around flames in awe and wonder and fear because they believed that somehow the heavens had opened up and gods spit down such power to bestow into their hands and this was to be worshipped, even shunned.
“However, there was among them one who had in his dawning soul the potentiality of something better,” writes Campbell, “and that potential was evident in his sense of awe before the unknown, his fascinated curiosity, with a desire to approach and to explore” (p 240).
With such “awe before the unknown” and with such “fascinated curiosity” and with “a desire to approach and explore” I invite you now to read, suspend any judgments (“Judge not, that you may not be judged”), and like those ancestors of ours who first harnessed fire, so too we might be able to harness a new kind of fire, the fire of Reason. A reason not of thinking or the mind or science or religion but of the soul reasoning with all of its faculties. Are you brave enough to continue? I believe you are…
Science, as the second function of myth, pertains to the awe and the hopes of understanding the cosmological dimension, “the dimension,” explains Campbell in an interview in The Power of Myth, “with which science is concerned—showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through. Today [and even in our time and into a hundred years from now] we tend to think that scientists have all the answers. But the great ones tell us, ‘No, we haven’t got all the answers. We’re telling you how it works—but what is it?’ You strike a match, what’s fire? You can tell me about oxidation, but that doesn’t tell me a thing” (p 39).
So I must ask: what is God? Of what substance is God made? Where did God come from?
Religion is an attempt to understand, to explain and to teach about God and the Universe in a spiritual sense and focus. But what is God?
Scientists have classified the known world—still waiting for the unknown to be discovered—and can give names to strange new wonders and help explain how these unfamiliar objects work—but that doesn’t tell us a thing. We need to know more… We want to know more… because that is exactly what makes us human and sets us apart from the animal kingdom.Science has explained that religious lore when set against historical proof is inaccurate—and despite the surmountable evidence and truth to this, people are still debating with much ‘fire and damnation’ between Evolution and Creationism. If “creationism” simply means acts created through divine powers (and not just rejection of sound reason) then, in my mind, both evolution and creationism may exist as one—nothing has been rejected, but only explained, expanded. A divine power, which remains a mystery to humanity and science, set in motion the acts of evolution to fulfill acts of all of creation. This contains reason.
Yet Americans war with words at this debate. And many retreat back into their known “myths”, which as Campbell defines in The Power of Myth and elsewhere, “The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world” (p 28).
Since the world has become globalized in the last hundred years, and since science has done much to refute most, if not all, religious accuracy, humanity — and I mean people from around the world — have lost the power of their personal myths; people have lost themselves in this strange new world and they do not know what to do—other than retreat back into old myths that no longer hold any power, and this too is bewildering and fills one with great fear and anxiety.
Yet here we are.
How then shall I begin? (Yes, I am only beginning…)
Let us start with a recent news report I witnessed a few days ago while riding a train north from Hong Kong to mainland China. On the small television set in the train I saw the Middle Eastern group often referred to as ISIS (more so for the West’s ideology and its clever attempts at implying the false non-Christian mythic symbol ISIS, the Egyptian goddess), short for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, despite also having the less popular acronym ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, destroying their own mythology.
ISIS, just in the last week, filmed themselves smashing ancient artifacts in Iraq once belonging to the time of Nimrud, and many other times now lost, in northern Iraq and other priceless Assyrian motifs. In addition, ISIS and their holy sledgehammers smashed various Muslim mosques in stern beliefs of fulfilling their dead Prophet’s Koranic commands.
Here is the problem Campbell predicted some forty plus years ago: the men and women of this newly emerged and globalized world today are lost, confused, scared, and are retreating into past religions and past belief systems in hopes of restoring order to their eternal and infinite souls.
Science, in its grand wisdom to show what is and what is not (but still failing to prove the existence of the One True God) has proven, quite accurately, how religions—from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity—are historically inaccurate and un-conforming to today’s standards for the creation and existence of codes of conduct and morality. Much the same as Zoroastrians came face-to-face with themselves in a world where their religion was once dominate but soon snuffed to ash in the growing wind of grandfather fata growling, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
“And so we are right now in an extremely perilous age of thunder, lightning, and hurricanes all around,” remarks Campbell in 1971’s “Envoy: No More Horizons”, “I think it is improper to become hysterical about it, projecting hatred and blame. It is an inevitable, altogether natural thing that when energies that have never met before come into collision—each bearing its own pride—there should be turbulence. That is just what we are experiencing; and we are riding it: riding it to a new age, a new birth, a totally new condition of mankind” (p 255).
That “new birth” leading to a “new age” has not come and humanity finds itself remaining in an “age of thunder and lightning”.
ISIS destroys, in essence, its own heritage and its own past which pertains to absolutely nothing to that of the West simply because these once familiar and holy and remarkable motifs that at one time or another spoke to these people from these Middle Eastern regions (namely Iraq, Iran, Syria, etc.) and these symbols and motifs and statues are dead things, lifeless in every spiritual sense and are no longer “spiritually” speaking to these people from this region as mythological symbols should and these motifs have become strange, unholy and terrifying.
Since these mythological symbols have been destroyed inside the mind and spirit of these men belonging to ISIS so these men feel they must destroy the actual physical objects that no longer carry any significant meaning and spiritual value as the objects once did.
“When the world changes, then the religion has to be transformed,” explains Campbell in The Power of Myth, “That is a fact we had better to do. But my notion of the real horror today is what you see in Beirut [much as we are witnessing in Iraq and the Levant in our own time]. There you have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and because the three of them have three different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group [much like children might say] says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God’” (p 26).
Can anyone possess the God, the One True God. I know not how or why. I think no one can “have God”.
For one, religion as humanity has known it for the past several thousand years has changed, and that includes every religion known to all nations and all creeds. Religion—whether a Jew, Hindi, Christian, Muslim—no longer exists as it once did. I can hear the learned men and women now scoffing; I can hear the wisest of the holy men and women now turning their eyes in contempt. But think about it…seriously stop and consider, reason, explore the unknown:
“For there is no divinely ordained authority any more that we have to recognize,” writes Campbell in Myths to Live By, “There is no anointed messenger of God’s law [no matter how bad ISIS or other Muslims and Christians alike want there to be]. In our world today all civil law is conventional. No divine authority is claimed for it: no Sinai; no Mount of Olives. Our laws are enacted and altered by human determination, and within their secular jurisdiction each of us is free to seek his own destiny, his own truth, to quest for this or for that and to find it through his own doing” (p 248).
God is not dead; He has just been renamed, and we no longer have the myths to support this change. We need myths that encompass the entire planet, not just a chosen set of people.
Yet, much the same as Americans fighting to keep their religion alive by saying, “God did, he really did, create the world in only six days and rested the seventh!” so are ISIS and other Islamic extremists, according to their own religion and sets of stories, fighting to keep their religion alive, and all this is perfectly natural. How so? Let’s listen to what the expert in mythology says about humanity’s ongoing frustrations:
“What is occurring is completely natural,” explains Campbell even in 1971 and in Myths to Live By, “as are its pains, confusions, and mistakes…And now, among the powers that are here being catapulted together, to collide and to explode, not the least important (it can be safely said) are the ancient mythological traditions, chiefly of Indian and the Far East, that are now entering in force into the fields of our European heritage, and vice versa, ideals of rational, progressive humanism and democracy that are now flooding into Asia” (p 255).
Just a few months ago I bore witness to Occupy Hong Kong, an event filled with protests and rallies being remarkably peaceful and on the opposite extreme we have ISIS’s binge of destruction and mayhem, and on the rather residual level that ISIS is now faced with—change that cannot be undone, awaking to find a world both strange and unfamiliar.
These spiritual events, if you may allow me to call them that—since that is exactly how I interpret these psychological turmoils and struggles of consciousness the world is faced with in my time on earth—refer to the inward potentials of our species to grow, evolve into a unified human species no longer separated by dogmas and no longer bordered by beliefs and no longer distinct in religious radicalism but unified in its understanding that we are, in fact, and have always been, one species meant for greater acts (than war, hunger, and poverty) we have thus far exemplified in the propensity of the human will to endeavor.
William Blake once wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
And this is how I see the world before us: infinite. Even if you do not. Even if ISIS cannot.
In 1970 Campbell remarks on the horizons set before humanity:
“And with each expansion of horizon, from the troglodyte cave to the Buddhist temple on the hilltop—and on now to the moon—there has been, as there must inevitably be, not only an expansion of consciousness, in keeping with the ever-widening as well as deepening insights into the nature of Nature (which is of one nature with ourselves), but also an enrichment, refinement, and general melioration of the conditions of human physical life…
“It is my whole thesis, consequently, that we are at this moment participating in one of the very greatest leaps of the human spirit to a knowledge not only of outside nature but also of our own deep inward mystery that has ever been taken, or that ever will or ever can be taken.
“And what are we hearing, meanwhile, from those sociological geniuses that are, these days [and still even in 2015], swarming on our activated campuses? I saw the answer displayed the other day [as I often do on the internet] on a large poster in a bookstore up at Yale: a photograph of one of our astronauts on a desert of the moon, and the comment beneath him, ‘So what!’”
So what? I would consider this an irreverence of the highest form. Humanity unites the known world and stands atop the moon too give us images that still move us and unite us on one accord today and there remain some with the minds of children who remark, “No biggie.”
Such comments deserve no place in such a world ever-changing to new heights of consciousness. Such comments come from the mind of one who is not ready for change, to evolve to see the mystery unfold before them. Such comments are unholy.
We all have consciousness and this is a power not often used. “The important thing about each of us,” Campbell writes, “is the quality of his consciousness” (p 128). And out there, in the world, and the internet, the quality of consciousness found in a majority of men, women, children is considerably poor and malnourished. And the reason for this is because of the Monster State. “Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man,” explains Campbell, “When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute [and even at this hour]” (p 8).
I have no answers here. I promised you none. I only asked you to explore with me the connections I see each second of my life, seconds which overwhelm me, tire me. I simply wanted a companion to walk beside me on this journey of discovery. And so you have…
But I would like to end with a quote from Chief Seattle, who replied to the U.S. president in 1852 when asked to sell some land. Chief Seattle replied that land and sky belonged to no one and could not be owned and, therefore, could not be sold or purchased. He concluded thus:
“As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all” (p 43, The Power of Myth).
We are brothers and sisters after all, and we are infinite—if only we choose and believe to be.
Keep reading and smiling…
Now on to The Power of Myth.
More of Joseph Campbell’s Books:
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 440,000+ followers