Lessons of Joseph Campbell's Masks of God

(Friday, April 10, 2009, 10:03 p.m.)

One of the most rewarding reads for me intellectually has been Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God series. Joseph Campbell was an American comparative religion scholar whose "hey-day" was in the 60's. The Masks of God consists of 4 volumes laying out Campbell's overall theory of the cultural evolution of the world's religions:

The main lesson I took away from Campbell, especially from the first 3 volumes is that all of the world's religions stem from the same cultural roots. The hunting and (later) planting societies before Sumeria evolved into the high Mesopotamian hieratic city-state religions of ancient Sumer and Babylon. The Mesopotamian complex culturally diffused out to Egypt, to the Aegean, to China, and to India. Iron-Age (more culturally primitive) chariot fighters conquered much of this complex and morphed essentially matriarchal and lunar religion into masculine solar religion. In the Orient, however, the Bronze Age spirit basically held the day with an essentially pantheist view of religion (meaning that God was immanent in the universe, a part of it). In the West (partly taking the lead from Babylon where things were a political mess with ceaseless warfare and conquest) a new attitude developed where God was separate and external to the universe, and the notion of an outside Creator god (or pantheon of gods) would come to dominate the West. In the Orient, the focus was on the identity of the god and the self with the material universe. In the West, man was irreconcilably separate from the godhead, but there was an emphasis on the idea of personal responsibility for one's actions and a need to set those actions in life in line with the wishes of the mythic creator or creators that stood over the universe. But the strange beauty of all of this is that all of this diversity emerged from the common root of Sumer and Babylon and its roots in the primitive hunter and planter societies.

Another lesson that one can take away (but which I'd already convinced myself of even before reading Campbell) is that the present world religions do not deserve the privileged status they arrogate to themselves on "the Truth". They are all competing "Masks of God", different attempts by different cultures to explain the same universe. The nature of their gods probably says more about the cultures than the true nature of the universe.

One lesson I'd like to end with, however, is the lesson I think he is trying to impart in the introduction of Primitive Mythology, "The Lesson of the Mask". Campbell gives an illuminating example:

"A professor," wrote Leo Frobenius in a celebrated paper on the force of the daemonic world of childhood, "is writing at his desk and his four-year-old little daughter is running about the room. She has nothing to do and is disturbing him. So he gives her three burnt matches, saying, 'Here! Play!' and, sitting on the rug, she begins to play with the matches, Hansel, Gretel, and the witch. A considerable time elapses, during which the professor concentrates upon his task, undisturbed. But then, suddenly, the child shrieks in terror. The father jumps. 'What is it? What has happened?' The little girl comes running to him, showing every sign of great fright. 'Daddy, Daddy,' she cries, 'take the witch away! I can't touch the witch any more!'" (p. 22)

Campbell makes the point later that the child doesn't literally believe that the burnt match is the witch, but she is taken up by the game she is playing and transported emotionally so that she has a mythic experience in which, on some level, she is moved as if the match were the witch. Campbell argues that primitive and ancient religions have this sort of as if experience with their myths and divine figures. They don't necessarily share the dogmatic and literal, historical view of their divine figures that characterizes, for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they have a more poetic, play-acting relationship to their religious beliefs. (Campbell believes that Greek mythology was more in this spirit than in the exclusivist spirit of the Bible.)

Whether or not we accept Campbell's belief that primitive and ancient religion was so undogmatic, the point that I take away from this is what Campbell seems to say later, which is that a poetic, rather than a historico-dogmatic view of one's religion/mythology is a better, more wholesome way to approach religious belief. People are less likely to war with one another over these things when they are treated poetically rather than literally. The argument of who is right and who is wrong becomes meaningless: they are simply different masks for the same god and both masks have their own validity within their own contexts. We are better off being child-like play-actors, moved by our own performance, but not carried away to the point where we insist on the literal truth of our play and feel the need to impress that truth by force on others.

Such it should be with religious views, in my own opinion. However, I do think (as a philosopher) that there is an objective reality behind all of this. Science builds theories and models to try to explain that reality. It does so by making observations of material reality and iterative developing explanations that better fit the observed data. In my own opinion, although our current best models of that universe have not got at the "Whole Truth" (and perhaps may never), they are yielding models of that objective reality that are far subtler, more useful, and more accurate than the old archaic mythological models.

However, the old myths are both prettier and more intuitive to our minds, and they are more stirring of our emotions. That points to a gap between a scientific world-view and the human psyche that will be difficult to reconcile. Some of the beauty and emotional power of the old myths needs to be brought back, but must it be at the expense of objective truth? This is the tension I feel between my own atheism and materialism and my own psycho-esthetic needs, the needs that some might call spiritual needs. I think what Campbell is suggesting hints at a solution, and also strongly suggests one of the great values of conceptual art as a whole, including mythic story.

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