Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms

4 February 2010


Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark:

Bifurcating Naturalisms

Recently in Civilizations of Predication and Identity I wrote about listening to a series of Joseph Campbell lectures, The Myths and Masks of God. Campbell distinguishes four functions of mythology — the religious or mystical function (more specifically, he calls it “the mystical, properly religious function”), the cosmological function, the sociological function, and the individual psychological function. (I will not now take the time to define all of these; the interested reader is referred to Campbell’s many works.) In the course of this exposition Campbell formulates a wonderful and compelling definition of what he calls, “the primary religious attitude,” which he says is the:

“…arousing and maintaining, in the spirit of the individual, a recognition and sense of wonder and awe before the absolute mystery of being itself, with affirmation and with gratitude… affirmation of life in being, as it is…”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 3, track 7

What we notice immediately about this is that it is a formulation that any naturalist can enthusiastically endorse. There is nothing otherworldly here, nothing supernatural or superstitious. Anyone, without any shred of belief in another world or without assenting to any theological proposition, can feel a sense of wonder and awe before the absolute mystery of being. Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder. I feel this myself, and I think that contemporary science encourages people to feel this wonder even as it seeks to understand the mystery. Indeed, Campbell in these lectures mentions in passing (mentions so quickly that I am sure many do not hear it, and many probably don’t hear it because they don’t want to hear it) that he prefers naturalistic formulations.

There is a different, but similarly compelling naturalistic formulation of religious experience in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View:

“…although the Lutheran reform prohibited many of the arts that civilize our impulses, it encouraged church music. In small Dutch and German towns the choir and the organ became the only means through which men could enter the world of spiritualized emotion…”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 9, The Pursuit of Happiness

For Clark, spiritualized emotion is the center of human religious experience. Clark had earlier visited this theme in his discussion of iconoclasm during the Reformation, which reflection further deepens Clark’s implicit naturalistic conception of religion:

“…the motive [for iconoclasm] wasn’t so much religious as an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of mind that an unevolved man couldn’t share. The existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them.”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, Protest and Communication

For Clark, religion at its best can serve a civilizing function that refines and elevates the emotional and communal life of man; religion here is a source of edification. Man is improved as man by cultivating what is best within the religious instincts. Clark’s naturalistic conception of religion in terms of spiritualized emotion is a more implicit formulation while Campbell’s formulation is a more-or-less explicit definition, but the similar intention to place religion within the life of man, and especially of man within society, is clear.

So far, so good. But there is more. The naturalistic conceptions of religion formulated by Campbell and Clark diverge when we look into them further. One of the themes that Campbell develops in many of his lectures is that the Western religious tradition has preserved specific features from antiquity that no longer allow the mythology of the West to serve the proper functions of mythology. The particular way in which Western man has elaborated his mythology had led it into a dead end. Western mythology must be freed from specific dogmas if it is to again be a living tradition. Campbell says:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth. And then to have someone come along with an interpretation of that ritual that does not correspond to your experience of it, you are being cut off from the symbolic experience… The function of the church is best served when it gives people occasions and opportunities to participate in these great eternal mythic experiences without telling them telling them how to experience it, without telling what the meaning must be. What I’m saying is that the rites work but the dogmas don’t. When the rite comes along with a dogma attached to it that was formulated in the third century AD in the near east, and the ritual is presented here and you are having an experience of it, forget the dogma and experience the form. No artist sends along with the forms that he presents to you a statement of what they mean.”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

Earlier in these lectures Campbell elaborated on this theme in an especially intriguing way:

“Popular religions all over the world, for the most part, are misunderstandings of… poetic images. The chief way to misunderstand an image is to imagine that it is a fact. One says to one’s beloved, ‘You are a rose,’ ‘You are a swan,’ and she says, ‘Make up your mind.’ She’s what I would call a theologian.” (laughter from the audience follows)

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 4, track 1

There is an entire philosophy of theology implicit in this humorous passage from Campbell, and it would be worthwhile at some time to draw out the implications of this, but for now let us move on.

A very different perspective on rite, ritual, and ceremony in assumed by Clark in his exposition of the antecedents to the Protestant Reformation. Clark visited the museum in the castle on the hill in Wurzberg where there is a significant collection of carvings by Tilman Riemenschneider. Clark said:

“The Riemenschneider figures show very clearly the character of northern man at the end of the fifteenth century. First of all, a serious personal piety — a quality quite different from the bland conventional piety that one finds, say, in Perugino. And the a serious approach to life itself. These men (although of course they were unswerving Catholics) were not to be fobbed off by forms and ceremonies — what at the time were, rather misleadingly, called ‘works.’ They believed that there was such a thing as truth, and they wanted to get at it.”

Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, Protest and Communication

Here Clark clearly interprets northern man around 1500, primed for the Protestant Reformation, as an idealist. (I have been to the same museum and seen the Riemenschneider sculptures there, and I find Clark’s description of them better than anything I could have come up with on my own.) It would not be too much to say that Clark’s interpretation is itself idealist. The very idea that “forms and ceremonies” were something with which unserious men might be “fobbed off” but which serious men would never accept is diametrically opposed to the point of view presented by Joseph Campbell.

Previously, in Civilizations of the Image and of the Word, I mentioned Clark’s tendency to see the world from a Protestant point of view. This is another example of that. But it is also an example of the conception of social consensus based upon ideal aspirations. A few days ago in The Two Sources of Social Consensus I quoted my Variations on the Theme of Life to emphasize the difference between those who view the ideological superstructure of society as a necessary façade, a falsehood that must be propagated for the good of society — a distinguished group amongst which Plato must be counted, for he formulated near the beginning of Western history the idea of a “noble lie” with which the common people would be controlled by elite Guardians — and those who are committed to the idea that the ideological superstructure of society authentically reflect the ideals and aspirations of the people, and who are intolerant of human failings, foibles, and lapses.

While this is a schematic simplification, we could call these two perspectives, here represented by Campbell and Clark, the pragmatic conception and the idealistic conception of society. Both formulations are naturalistic in a thorough-going sense, but the shared naturalism of Campbell and Clark does not lead them to the same interpretation of religious experience. Even two naturalistic formulations of religions can profoundly differ. From this one might conclude that the difference is not necessarily in the religion or its ideas or its practice, but in something that transcends religion, something founded much more fundamentally in the world and in the human psyche.

The different temperaments of Campbell and Clark express themselves in different naturalistic interpretations of the role of religion within human society. These temperamental distinctions are deeper than the social expressions of temperament, and that is why these diverse temperaments manifest themselves in different forms, although repeatedly, throughout history. Campbell is an iconodule; Clark is an iconoclast — respectively, a naturalistic iconodule and a naturalistic iconoclast. Campbell is Catholic; Clark is Protestant — again, respectively, a naturalistic Catholic and a naturalistic Protestant. It is to be expected that these differences, and the dialectic between the two that emerges, will continue to be iterated throughout the future history of our civilization. The pattern is older and deeper than that which exhibits the pattern in its development.

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archimedes bath eureka

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms”

  1. Doreen said

    Seeds Dreaming

    there are seeds dreaming inside my heart
    seeds dreaming the world into being
    seeds dreaming love sprouting in every moment
    seeds dreaming the sun flowing of milk and honey
    there are seeds dreaming inside my mind
    dreaming beautiful thoughts arising in every human heart
    dreaming all bowing in loving reverence to our earth mother
    there are seeds dreaming inside my womb pregnant with
    the one we are all longing for
    there are seeds dreaming inside my heart
    giving birth to god in the world

    by Doreen Holmes

    there are seeds dreaming inside my heart
    giving birth to god in the world

    by Doreen No-One

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