Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

Quotes & Commentary #23: Campbell

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive … so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Right now I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. A concentration camp survivor and a psychologist, Frankl created what is now school the “Third Vienesse School of Psychotherapy,” in which Frankl posits a will to meaning in contrast with Adler’s will to power and Freud’s will to pleasure. (The Germans and Austrians have a strange fascination with “will” that I find difficult to empathize with.)

Logotherapy is often called existentialist because of its preoccupation with preventing nihilism, and its conviction that humans make their own meaning. Frankl thought that humans could find meaning in any circumstances, even in the dehumanizing torture of a concentration camp. This meaning is what gives us resolve, courage, and hope. Thus, in his therapy sessions, Frankl encouraged his patients to find a meaning in their situation, whatever it was.

This reminded me of the above quotation by Joseph Campbell. As soon as I heard it (Campbell said this in the course of an interview with Bill Moyers), I was struck by how similar his view was to mine. Life, in itself, is meaningless; meaning only exists in experience.

I know from experience that people are apt to get upset when I say this. “What do you mean that life is meaningless?” they say, aghast. Even Bill Moyers, normally in accord with Campbell’s views, fought him on this point. So I think it’s worth specifying what is being argued.

In the past I used to torture myself about the meaning of life. “What is the point of it all?” I would ask myself. “Sooner or later everything will come to an end. The sun will swallow the earth, and entropy will increase until the universe decays into a pool of heat. And in any case, whatever I do or accomplish in my life won’t change the fact that I’m going to die, and thus lose everything.”

Viewed from this perspective—human life as viewed from the cosmos, that is, from nowhere in particular—everything thing I did and could do seemed totally pointless, absurd, just the twitching of organic matter on a watery rock. Viewed this way, as a small-scale physical phenomenon, life is just as meaningless as an asteroid, a star, or the vacuum of space. Joseph Campbell put it nicely when he said: “I don’t believe life has a purpose. Life is a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.”

Life is not unique in this respect. Simply nothing has meaning in itself. Meaning is not a property of objects, and thus has no objective existence. (By objective I mean existing without any observer.) Life exists in itself, and has certain discoverable properties, such as that it chemically reproduces itself. But that’s just a physical process; it’s just as “meaningful” as the nuclear fusion that goes on inside the sun.

This is a consequence of the nature of meaning. In order for meaning to exist, there must exist some perspective; meaning is necessarily subjective—it exists in the mind of an observer. Thus people are committing a category mistake when they ask “What is the meaning of life?” Life, in itself, cannot have a meaning, in just the same way that sugar, without anybody to taste it, doesn’t have a taste. Like life, sugar has a certain objective reality as a chemical; and like life’s meaning, the sweet flavor of sugar only exists in experience.

Experience, then, is where the meaning of life is to be found. But every second of experience is unique and different. Every moment is transitory and cannot be reproduced. Thus life has no permanent, fixed, unchanging meaning, but rather each moment of experience has a different meaning. Meaningfulness has thus no relationship with duration; something that lasts longer is not more meaningful than something that lasts a mere instant.

Once I began to think of meaning this way, as an interpretation that my mind imposes upon objective reality, then I ceased to be troubled by my bleak thoughts about the end of life and the universe. What does it matter if everything will end one day? My future end has no effect on my ability to enjoy my life now. And what does it matter if, viewed from nowhere, life is meaningless? I don’t view the life from nowhere, but from my own perspective. And because a meaning is an interpretation, and all interpretation is arbitrary, that means it is within my ability to choose how to see and understand the world.

There are some barriers to this, however. The main barrier, in my experience, is habit. We can become so used to doing the same thing, day after day, automatically and unthinkingly, that we forget that each moment is unique. Through routine, we become deadened to the distinctness of each passing second. But sometimes we can awake from this malaise, and re-experience the “rapture of being alive.” This rapture is simply the full awareness of the preciousness and uniqueness of each passing moment, achieved by being so fully and completely engaged in the moment that time seems to slow down.

For me and many others, great art, music, literature, and philosophy can do this. So can falling in love, or having a great conversation with a friend. Even moments of great pain can connect us to the rapture of being alive, if we experience them the right way.

I am reminded of something Louis C.K. said during an interview. He was driving in his car when, suddenly, he began to feel very sad. His impulse was to reach for his phone and text some friends—that is, to retreat into his habitual patterns—but, instead, he pulled over by the side of the road and let the emotions hit him. And although the moment was tremendously sad, it was also sublimely beautiful, because it broke through the apathy of routine and connected him with the reality of his experience.

David D. Burns, the psychologist, reported a similar experience when, as a medical student, he had to tell a family that their loved one was dying. He told them the news, and then broke down and cried; and although he recognized the tragedy of the situation, he also recognized that there was something precious and poetic about his sadness.

The more moments like these we have, the more alive we are. This is where meaning is to be found.

Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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