Sage Words for the Modern Age

by Sean Cribbs

In 1949, Joseph Campbell published what many consider to be his magnum opus, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I just finished the book the other day, after reading it off-and-on for two years. Through the course of the book, he analyzes and codifies aspects of the ‘myth of the hero’ from perspectives of cultures around the world. However, in the epilogue he makes clear the larger purpose of the investigation, which is to place in context the similarities among our myths and outline the dilemma of the modern man. What struck me most about his words in the epilogue was their relevance to the current day, even fifty years after their publication. I’d like to quote him a few times below.

On the interpretation of myth

Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Müller); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these. The various judgments are determined by the viewpoints of the judges.

The origin of the modern dilemma

…the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research, have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed. In the fateful, epoch-announcing words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Dead are all the gods.”

…today no meaning is in the group-none in the world: all is in the individual… The lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two… The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.

On the relevance of religion

The universal triumph of the secular state has thrown all religious organizations into such a definitely secondary, and finally ineffectual, position that religious pantomime is hardly more today than a sanctimonious exercise for Sunday morning, whereas business ethics and patriotism stand for the remainder of the week. Such a monkey-holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather, a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that through every detail and act of secular life the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness.

The limits of universality

But there is one thing we may know, namely, that as the new symbols become visible, they will not be identical in the various parts of the globe… Therefore, it is necessary for men to understand, and be able to see, that through various symbols the same redemption is revealed. “Truth is one”, we read in the Vedas; “the sages call it by many names.”

(emphasis added)

The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man.

The modern hero

“Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal… not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.

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