Extract | Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

Book Extracts

Religious scholar Joseph Campbell, on the power that myths have in shaping the individual and his or her place within society.

Book Cover for Myths to Live By Joseph Campbell



 It is a long time since the idea of writing this book occurred to me. One fine summer afternoon I had explained my plan to a learned Tibetan who led a life of contemplation in a little house on the rocky side of a mountain.

He was not encouraging. "Waste of time," he said. "The great majority of readers and hearers are the same all over the world. I have no doubt that the people of your country. .. are like those I have met in China and India, and these latter were just like Tibetans. If you speak to them of profound Truths they yawn, and, if they dare, they leave you, but if you tell them absurd fables they are all eyes and ears. They wish the doctrines preached to them, whether religious, philosophic, or social, to be agreeable, to be consistent with their conceptions, to satisfy their inclinations, in fact that they find themselves in them, and that they feel themselves approved by them

The Master had nothing to teach me on this point.

Hundreds of times, in the West, I had heard men and women express the desire to find a religion which would satisfy them, or had seen reject a doctrine with the remark: "It does not satisfy me. 

What, then, was that something that wanted to be agreeably caressed, satisfied ? 

It as the collection of false notions, of unreasonable propensities, of feelings of a rudimentary sensuality which is disguised under the appearance of a puppet named "I".

I thought then of the devotees who intoxicate themselves with incense and the stirring sonorousness of the organ in the half shadows of our cathedrals, believing themselves to be on the way to spiritual heights. I thought of all those; whatever might be the religion or secular faith to which they belong, who thrill at the sound of certain names, of certain words which are but empty noises devoid of reality.

"In general," continued the Master, "we distinguish three kinds of individuals: those whose intelligence is completely dull; those whose intelligence is of average quality; able to understand some Truths :which are specially evident ; those endowed with an intelligence better equipped for acute perceptions, who are fit to penetrate below the surface of the world of physical phenomena and grasp the causes which are at work there.

"It is enough to direct the attention to these last, to say to them: 'Look from this point of view, consider that' and they perceive what is to be perceived there where they have been told to look; they understand what is really the thing which one has pointed out to them. "One may proclaim on the high road the Teachings considered secret, they will remain 'secret' for the individuals with dull minds who will hear what is said to them, and will grasp nothing of it but the sound.

"It is not on the Master that the· 'secret' depends but on the hearer. A Master can only be he who opens the door : it is for the disciple to be capable of seeing what lies beyond.

(The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David Neel & Lama Yongden)


 The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth. In ancient times every social occasion was ritually structured and the sense of depth was rendered through the maintenance of a religious tone. Today, on the other hand, the religious tone is reserved for exceptional, very special, "sacred" occasions. And yet even in the patterns of our secular life, ritual survives. It can be recognized, for example, not only in the decorum of courts and regulations of military life, but also in the manners of people sitting down to table together.

            All life is structure. In the biosphere, the more elaborate the structure, the higher the life form. The structure through which the energies of a starfish are inflected is considerably more complex than that of an amoeba; and as we come on up the line, say to the chimpanzee, complexity increases. So likewise in the human cultural sphere: the crude notion that energy and strength can be represented or rendered by abandoning and breaking structures is refuted by all that we know about the evolution and history of life

            Now the structuring patterns of animal conduct inhere in the inherited nervous systems of the species; and the so-called innate releasing mechanisms by which they are determined are for the most part stereotyped. From animal to animal, the responses are consistent within a species. Moreover, the intricacy of some of the fixed patterns of performance is amazing: the nest-building of certain birds -- the oriole, for example, fashioning its delicate hanging nest; or among insects and arachnids, the miracle of a spider web. Were we not so used to such things, we should be overcome with incredulity and wonder at the sight of the mathematical regularity and balance of a shimmering web perfectly suspended between selected twigs at the side of some forest trail, conceived and realized (as we should say of any comparable human work) with an infallible sense for the strength of materials, tensions, balances, and so on. All such little architectural marvels -- beehives, anthills, nautilus shells, and the like -- are produced according to inherited skills ingrained in the cells and nerve systems of the species.

            Our human species, on the other hand, is distinguished by the fact that the action-releasing mechanisms of its central nervous system are for the most part not "stereotyped" but "open." They are susceptible, consequently, to the influence of imprintings from the society in which the individual grows up. For the human infant is born -- biologically considered -- some ten or twelve years too soon. It acquires its human character, upright stature, ability to speak, and the vocabulary of its thinking under the influence of a specific culture, the features of which are engraved, as it were, upon its nerves; so that the constitutional patternings which in the animal world are biologically inherited are in the human species matched largely by socially transmitted forms, imprinted during what have been long known as the "impressionable years," and rituals have been everywhere the recognized means of such imprinting. Myths are the mental supports of rites; rites, the physical enactments of myths. By absorbing the myths of his social group and participating in its rites, the youngster is structured to accord with his social as well as natural environment, and turned from an amorphous nature product, prematurely born, into a defined and competent member of some specific, efficiently functioning social order.

(Myths to Live By - Joseph Campbell pub: Bantam 1972)


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