Civilizations of Predication and Identity

31 January 2010


Every time I listen to a Joseph Campbell lecture that is new to me I am convinced that it is the best lecture from him that I’ve yet heard. At present I am listening to “The Myths and Masks of God” and I already find myself influenced by its line of thought.

It is not only Campbell’s erudition and powers of synthesis that come through in these lectures, but also his admirable outlook on life. In these lectures he relates an anecdote about having lunch with a student who asked him a question that took him a little by surprise: “Have you ever hated life?” He said that he thought about the question and eventually answered that, no, he couldn’t think of any time when he had hated life. The student then replied that he was the only intellectual she knew that didn’t hate life. And this attitude comes through. Often the audience is laughing uproariously at his witticisms. Campbell’s lectures, then, are not only informative but also entertaining.

One of the intellectually satisfying things in Campbell’s lectures (and presumably also in his books, but I’ve only listened to the lectures and read his posthumously published journals of India and Japan; I haven’t even bothered with the books that made his reputation) is his willingness to mind distinctions and recognize alternatives. Many lesser lights in fields of similarly compelling emotional interest (like mythology and comparative religion) are more concerned to “give bad reasons for what is believed on instinct” (as F. H. Bradley famously put it) than about giving a careful scholarly account. In this, Campbell shows himself as a first class thinker.

There were many points in the lectures I’ve been listening to most recently when he pauses in relating the story of a myth to acknowledge at a crucial point of decision that things could develop in different ways from this point. Later, when he is reviewing another myth, he brings the listener back to the distinction drawn earlier and shows how this distinct mythology tradition grew out of a different people taking a different line of development from a crucial point of development in a story. (This is all very abstract, I realize, but I’m not going to type out an example as this would take too long; by all means, listen to the lecture yourself.)

Campbell similarly avoids descending into a mindless syncretism in which all traditions are claimed to be telling us the same thing at bottom — the night in which all cows are black. He states forthrightly that the fundamental ideas upon which distinct civilizations are based are almost incomprehensibly different. Fortunately, he tries to make this different comprehensible to us, and he does a marvelous job.

Campbell suggests at one point that eastern civilizations and western civilizations are based upon two fundamentally different religious perspectives, and goes on to further identify these fundamentally different religious perspectives as being based in turn on two fundamentally different mystical experiences. The tradition of the east, Campbell says, is based upon an identification of the human and the divine, in which mystics experience themselves as divine. The tradition of the west, in contrast, in based upon a difference between the human and the divine, so that the mystical experience of the west is the attempt to forge a relationship with the divine, which latter is understood as being outside ourselves, not intrinsically within us.

This may be a bit too schematic to hold in detail in all cases, but it is an interesting point of departure for further inquiry. If Campbell is right — or approximately right — in this, and further if he is right that civilizations grow out of religious traditions which in turn grow out of distinct mystical experiences, one might then go on to say that the civilizations of the east are civilizations of identity while civilizations of the west are civilizations of predication. This puts Campbell’s religio-mystical insight into a metaphysical perspective.

As I see it, describing civilizations in terms of fundamental metaphysical types constitutes the more profound analysis. Certainly fewer people think in metaphysical terms than in religious terms, and one can expect the better part of thoughtful listeners will be able to follow and remain interested in Campbell’s exposition, but for the ultimate task of understanding and exposition, the more abstract perspective is to be preferred, even if it doesn’t touch the heart of the ordinary person. But among those who do touch the heart of the ordinary person (were that person to pause and listen), Campbell is certainly among the best. In this, he may have no peer.

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