Category Archives: History
This book is a transcript of several conversations that took place between Joseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, and Bill Moyers, journalist. Campbell compares myths across cultures, looking for similarities, in an attempt to show us the importance of myth as man’s way of understanding his relationship to the world in which he finds himself. In essence, if a particular myth reappears in different cultures and epochs, chances are it represents a universal truth about mankind.
Myth is essentially a means of modelling reality using symbols. And when you think about, that’s exactly what science is, too. This point was not covered by Campbell, which I thought was a startling omission – perhaps left out because he does not share this view. Campbell laments modern man’s lack of meaningful myths, whereas I see science as the modern myth unrealised. Man cannot escape myth, because all attempts to explain reality are done by modelling the universe. And even in science, our models change over time as we learn new things that cast old assertions into disfavour – just as the old gods are now replaced my more meaningful symbols of forces in natures: electricity and atmospheric pressure in place of Thor, the god of thunder, for instance. Sadly, this insight, which I personally find vital to my worldview, was not covered.
Even so, I was mesmesised by the breadth of Campbell’s knowledge and his ability to articule it without preparation, when prompted by questions. The book covers so much ground that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what I got out of it, but it was definitely a unique and special read. Of particular interest to me was the notion that the modern man finds mythological significance in movies and television dramas. When I look back at old films and TV series that have endured in my mind as favourites, this is definitely true. Some of my favourites are Mad Max, The Prisoner, Blake’s 7, The Tripods, Forever Knight. The common denominator in all of these is the man who finds himself as an outsider, an individualist, a non-joiner, for reasons that are varied. There is the man who becomes a loner because of his brokenness, the secret agent who refuses to have his will broken, the cold realist who is not quite one of the good guys, the group of boys who fight against a brainwashed society, the vampire who attempts to better himself and conquer his nature. It’s not so much that myths were deliberately built into these fictions; only that it’s possible to draw mythological significance from them. Take Forever Knight, for instance. To many, it’s a tacky story about a vampire cop. To me, it’s about a man who is striving to be fully human – to conquer the beast (his vampire nature) within. He has done awful things in the past, but he remains ever cheerful. Tacky or not, this myth speaks powerfully to me as a human being, because it symbolically mirrors my own strivings.
When talking around the question of what life is all about, Campbell regularly employs the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which really stuck with me. It captures perfectly my own feelings about how the meaning of life is not one thing in particular, but consists in making of life whatever we want to make of it. A multiplicity of potential experience is open to us, but we can only follow one course. It makes the most sense, then, to follow the course that brings you the greatest sense of fulfillment: follow your bliss.
I hold a personal philosophy that I’ve developed through much study over a period of years. It could loosely be called non-dualism or pantheism. I’m always amazed when I read a book and discover that the author totally gets where I’m coming from, using certain words and phrases that reveal his inner depth. This was the case in the final chapter of The Power of Myth, entitled “Masks of Eternity.”
If you’re the sort of one-dimensional rationalist who is stuck with an entirely scientific outlook, presuming that ancient man’s beliefs were just exercises in silliness, you need to read this book. These interviews were also released as a six-part television series (now available on DVD), which might be an even richer way to enjoy them. However, the book does contain more content than the series. The Power of Myth is a book unlike any I’ve read.
I’ve lived a signifiant portion of my life as both a monotheist (there is one God) and an atheist (there is no God). Nowadays, after a great deal of thought, I’m something akin to a pantheist (God is indistinguishable from the universe). In the past, I have been both a materialist (matter is what’s real) and an idealist (mind is what’s real); now I’m a neutral monist (mind and matter are both expressions of an unknown third essence). Those words may carry no relevance to the lives of some readers, but it’s where we stand on these foundational beliefs that affects a great deal of our behaviour, and hence our happiness. Philosophy, defined as the love of wisdom, is where we get our ideas about God, the universe, and the self. For most people, where they stand on those ideas comes down to unquestioned assumptions that are inherited through cultural norms. The real thinker wishes to uncover as many of these assumptions as possible, and determine for himself what to believe. That is the value in reading something like Bertrand Russell’s titanic work on western philosophy.
The volume contains around 800 pages, divided into three parts: (1) the ancient Greek philosophers, (2) philosophy under the triumph of Christianity, and (3) philosophy from the Renaissance to the present (mid-twentieth century). I confess that after about two hundred pages I was feeling quite fatigued, and I had to wonder just how much I was taking in. If you asked me right now to tell you one significant assertion by Empedocles or Protagoras, I would be lost. It’s impossible for the brain to hold this amount of information. But the real value in reading, I realised, was the ability to compare my own personal philsophy with the assertions of past philosophers. I found my own belief in a universe of perpetual flux mirrored in Heraclitus, and my belief in an underlying non-duality of all things reflected in Parmenides.
Following philosophy all through the Christian era was fascinating, in light of my Christian past. I came to realise that Christianity truly is a spent force in the world. Despite pockets of contemporary success, especially in the USA, its influence is nothing compared to centuries past. What we see today is more like a last gasp. Under the pressure of science, there is simply no going back to a universally Christian civilisation. As a general history of Christianity, Russell’s book is incomplete. The same is true of the Greek era. This was the one weakness in the volume, and created an additional difficulty for me in understanding some of what I was reading. Although I have to wonder just how big this book would have ended up, if the author had chosen to be more thorough in his telling of history. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain.
Regardless of how much or how little I can recall, I now have an overall picture of the history of philosophy. Some of the questions asked by philosophers were of great importance; others were intellectual dead-ends, issues of mere syntax. Oftentimes, a philosopher was overly influenced by his culture. Sometimes the success of a philosophy was determined more by political considerations, than pure logic. Ultimately, I came away with a sense of confidence about my own beliefs, since I found nothing to refute them within Russell’s work. And while I love philosophy, an awareness of such of high level of differing ideology through the ages can only make one wonder how far we might yet be from the truth in our present.