Take Comfort in Rituals

26 September 2010


Like a great many other people, I stopped at a Starbucks close to my office for my near-daily hot chocolate and saw their new marketing slogan emblazoned on the door: “Take comfort in rituals.” When I got back to my office I Googled the slogan and found that a great many bloggers have already entered the fray on the slogan. It would be easy to dismiss this in an entirely cynical way, but I think it bears serious consideration. It may be a mere marketing slogan, but it also points to deeper things.

Many times in this forum (for example, in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms) I have quoted a line from Joseph Campbell that directly addresses the significance of ritual:

“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.”

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

So if a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth, as Joseph Campbell holds, and visiting your local Starbucks is a ritual, as the Starbucks marketing team holds, in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks? This is a good question, and in a sense it goes to the heart of many posts I’ve written about the role of mythology in industrialized society. You see, today we mostly lack explicit myths, though we still engage in rituals. These are rituals in search of a myth.

Another point to which Joseph Campbell returned repeatedly, citing a passage from Jung’s autobiography, was how Jung came to a point in his life when we asked himself, “By what myth am I living?” and he realized that he didn’t know. Once he had asked the question and had realized that he didn’t know by what myth he was living, he knew that he had to discover the myth by which he was living. The discovery of the myth by which he was living became a quest.

Joseph John Campbell (26 March 1904 – 30 October 1987) said that “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” So does that mean that we are “living mythologically” by going to Starbucks?

While many of us might not like the idea of a daily stop at Starbucks being a ritual, it certainly does have ritualistic aspects. And the marketing team at Starbucks is right: people do in fact take comfort in their rituals. So in the midst of a hectic day at work, a typical customer might stop at a familiar Starbucks and order a familiar drink and consume that drink in the midst of familiar surroundings. I can easily imagine that this ritual of coffee drinking is felt to be something of a respite in a day filled with schedules and meetings and demands.

We find rituals comforting. Why? At least one reason is their familiarity. Most of the surprises that the world has in store for us are unpleasant surprises. Watch the local news in your city and you will encounter a list of crimes, fires, and broken water mains. These are unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises are rare. To engage in a ritual is to settle in to a familiar algorithm of life in which each step follows the preceding step with gratifying predictability. While this may unfortunately eliminate a few pleasant surprises, it also eliminates (or minimizes) a far greater number of unpleasant surprises.

Perhaps one of the sources of our comfort with familiarity is the conditioning of our lives by settled civilization. I have observed that settled civilization begets settled forms of thought, and there is no more settled form of thought than that prescribed by a ritual. Not only can our actions follow a familiar course of predictable steps, but our thoughts too can be ritualized, falling into a comfortable rhythm of a familiar sequence of ideas in which the equilibrium of one’s mind is not disturbed. Ritualistic thought is perhaps a kind of meditation.

Rituals, then, may comfort us because they are familiar and they help to keep us calm and peaceful in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable world. This is perhaps a place to start, but it is only a start. We have not even attempted to answer the question above in regard to, “in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks?” I do not yet have even a suggestion in answer to this question, though I suspect that interesting ideas would emerge from pursuing this question more systematically. In fact, I will need to think more about this.

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I’ve considered a follow-up Starbuck’s slogan in From Rituals to Stories.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Theses on Easter

4 April 2010


Theses on the Occasion of Easter Sunday

A Theoretical Account of Ritualized Celebration

1. Distinctions must be made among myth, ritual, and celebration.

1.1 Myth, ritual, and celebration, though distinct, are logically related.

1.11 A celebration is an occasion for a ritual,
A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth,
Therefore a celebration is an occasion in which to participate in a myth.
Q. E. D.

1.2 Rituals of burial are older than agricultural rituals of life-death-rebirth, even extending to other species (Neanderthals, now extinct), and may well be the origin of life-death-rebirth rituals.

2. Among the most ancient of continually observed celebrations is that of the life-death-resurrection of the Year-God, eniautos daimon.

2.1 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, is at least as old as settled, agrarian society.

2.11 Agriculture and the written word together produced settled, historical civilization.

2.12 Settled historical civilization has defined the norm of human history from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution.

2.2 Settled agrarian society coincides with the origins of civilization.

2.21 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, coincides with the origins of civilization.

3. Once the breakthrough to history has been made by way of the written word, it is the nature of historical civilization to commemorate nodal points of the year, whether with solemnities, festivities, or both.

3.1 Historical civilization is predicated upon the presumed value of the history that brings that civilization into being.

3.2 Nodal points of the year celebrated in historical civilizations are observed as validation of their historicity through the performance of rituals.

3.21 In a temperate climate, summer and winter solstices and spring and fall equinoxes are nodal points of the year.

4. The mythology of a settled, agricultural civilization emerges from the same regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.

4.1 The calendrics of celebration emerges from the regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.

4.11 The mythology and calendar of celebrations of settled, agricultural civilizations come from the same source.

4.2 Celebrations are the points of contact between the two parallel orders of mythological events and the actual historical calendar.

4.21 A civilization validates its mythology by establishing a correspondence between mythological events and historical events.

4.3 Enacting a myth in historical time, by way of a ritual, makes that myth literal truth by giving to it a concrete embodiment.

5. Easter is one species of the genus of life-death-rebirth celebrations.

5.1 The particular features of the Easter celebration are the result of the adaptive radiation of the dialectic of sacrifice and resurrection.

6. Easter is that species of life-death-rebirth celebration specific to Christendom.

6.1 Christendom was primarily a construction of the Middle Ages.

6.11 Christendom was the legacy of Medieval Europe that disappeared with the passing of medieval civilization but which, like the Roman Empire before it, is with us still and remains a touchstone of the Western tradition.

6.12 Christendom was an empire of the spirit and of the cross as Rome was an empire of the will and of the sword.

6.13 To have once been Roman, and then to have been Christian, and finally to have become modern, is the condition of Western man.

6.2 Easter is a celebration specific to civilization, the civilized celebration par excellence.

7. The naturalistic civilization that is emerging from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution represents the first significant change in the social structure of human society since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

7.1 With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have ceased to be an agrarian society.

7.2 For the first time in history, life-death-rebirth celebrations face interpretation by a non-agrarian society.

7.21 Not only should we not hesitate to find new meanings in ancient celebrations, of which Easter represents the latest adaptive radiation, but rather we should actively and consciously seek meanings relevant to the present in such celebrations.

8. As the painters of the renaissance drew upon the traditions of pagan antiquity already at that time a thousand years out of date, so too the post-Christian Western civilization will draw upon the traditions of Christendom for hundreds if not thousands of years to come.

8.1 The period of time that we have come to call the modern era — roughly the past five hundred years — has not been the modern era proper but rather has been the period of the formation of modernity.

8.2 Modernity simpliciter has but begun.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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