Sunday


A few days ago in Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus I expounded what I called the myth of the happy family. In that post I made a number of corollary claims that I had planned to develop more fully, but which I did not at that time expand upon.

Two unexplained asides in the following paragraph, taken that from post, in particular require further elaboration:

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

The two items above that I want to discuss are:

“a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level”

“the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility

As for the first item, one of the important distinctions between the function of myths in traditional (non-industrialized societies) and the function of myths in contemporary societies is that contemporary societies are mass societies. Those mythologies that date to the Axial Age derive from societies in which the presence of a living god or the presence of a living prophet in the midst of the people was considered commonplace, and possibly also the conditio sine qua non of political society. The great gulf between the rulers and the ruled in traditional societies was paradoxically wedded to an intimacy born of very small societies

Intimacy between rulers and the ruled in traditional societies has been a casualty of mass society. Today rulers and ruled communicate through mass media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet. However skilled contemporary politicians become in the exploitation of mass media, it is still mass media and it is not a personal, face to face encounter — not even from a distance.

The exponential increases in population that accompany the early stages if industrialization and urbanization (the result of improved nutrition and improved medical care) create mass society, and mass society can only be reached through the mass media. Even if a politician today preferred to meet constituents face to face, it is physically impossible for any one individual to meet millions of people; any politician who disdained the mass media would be defeated, so that the use the mass media is strongly selective. However, once mass media becomes the primary tool of political communication, it changes the nature of communication. Mass communication is de-personalized. Another word for “depersonalization” is “dehumanization.” We have all felt this, that the bureaucratic organization of mass society is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, even if we hesitate to admit to ourselves the full implications of this feeling.

A small, traditional society is dominated by personal relationships and interactions on a human scale. As we have seen, this is impossible in industrialized societies. In anonymity of mass society, social sanctions and social rewards that functioned efficiently in small, traditional societies function inefficiently or not at all. It would be extraordinarily difficult, in the midst of a large conurbation to, for example, enforce “shunning,” since a shunned individual or family could simply move to another neighborhood within the same large city. It is not at all unusual in our time for individuals to “re-invent” themselves by suddenly finding new friends, going to different places and participating in different events than those that has previously given structure to their lives. This kind of personal reinvention was impossible in the past for those who remained within their community.

In traditional societies, mythologies were coextensive with the closed social group that constituted the society. If anyone was alienated by the mythology that permeated a traditional society, they would have to leave because they could not avoid it. This is no longer true. Today, a particular mythology may be dominant, but the minorities that do not share the mythology are significant. In the early modern period, several nascent nation-states sought to purge their countries of non-conforming elements, as when France sought to expel or convert the Huguenots and Spain sought to expel or convert the Jews. For ideologically-motivated monarchs who sat at the head of the dominant mythology, there was a strong desire to “clean house,” but this strategy turned out to be economically ruinous. The practice has not entirely disappeared, as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews and recently several exercises in “ethnic cleansing” have sought to purge the body politics of elements deemed undesirable, but in democratic capitalism such efforts are difficult to carry out and counter-productive.

As a result of these trends, the dominant myth of a given mass society is probably only felt on a visceral level by a core minority in positions of privilege and status. This dominant minority that lives the myth might prefer that everyone shared their personal commitment to the mythology they understand to be central to their society, but such mythological conformity can no longer be enforced in fact, and an attempt to enforce it would be so socially disruptive that it would threaten the social cohesion of the society and therefore the myth itself.

As for the second item, that social mobility is largely excluded by the myth of the happy family, I suppose that some readers might find this an odd claim for me to make, since the myth of the happy family is so closely associated in the minds of many with the “American Dream,” and for many, again, the American Dream is nothing but social mobility: the you will eventually live better than when you started out, and that your children will live better than you, possibly joining the professional class and moving up in society not merely in terms of income and comfort, but also in terms of social status.

There are as many versions of the American Dream as there are hopeful Americans (and would-be Americans) dreaming for a better tomorrow for themselves and for their children. But in so far as the strong form of the myth of the happy family persists (and it is arguable that it no longer persists in its strong form at all today, even though it does persist in several weaker permutations), it excludes from under its “sacred canopy” anyone whose social status advances to the point that the rituals of domesticity by which individuals participate in the myth become impracticable or impossible. If you are always away rushing to meetings or flying to conferences, you can’t be at home to participate in daily family rituals. If you’re too busy to attend to domestic responsibilities yourself, and you hire help to clean or mow the lawn or to take care of your children, with each domestic responsibility relinquished there goes along with it one domestic ritual, and one less opportunity to participate in the myth of the happy family.

At least one of the drivers of social change in our time, which includes the process I have attempted to describe of seeking a new social consensus for the organization of industrial society, is the fact that the dominant minority who truly believe in and viscerally have felt the myth of the happy family are those who have been most successful and therefore most forced by circumstances to abandon the rituals of the happy family in order to attend to their duties to larger social wholes. Such individuals, trapped by their own feelings and beliefs, produce rationalizations and justifications for being absent from the formative events in their childrens’ lives, but precisely because they are true believers in the myth they know in their hearts that these rationalizations and justifications are just that — rationalizations and justifications.

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Thursday


The Myth of the Happy Family in

Mid-Twentieth Century Industrialized Society


In an early post to this forum, Social Consensus in Industrialized Society, I suggested that, since the advent of the industrial revolution, industrialized societies have passed through two stages of social consensus in the social organization of industrialized society. At present I consider industrialized societies to be in search of a third social consensus for the structure of an industrialized society. I have returned to this theme on several occasions, and wrote about the mythological dimension of industrialized societies in The Role of Ritual in Industrialized Society and Ritual and Myth in Modernity.

The first stage of social consensus under industrialization was the “factory system” that closely resembled the social organization of agricultural society, of which early industrial society was the immediate successor. The second social consensus of industrialization was the sanitized image of mid-twentieth century normalcy of neighborhoods, schools, churches, and hospitals. An important difference between these two previous forms of social organization is that the first was a mere accident of history — a displacement of the organization of agricultural production into industrial production — while the second was based on a modern myth.

A social consensus with a mythology attached to it is something far more powerful that a social consensus that comes about as a result of the accidents of history — i.e., a form of social organization that a society blunders into as a result of doing the best it can at each stage of development. When a myth is attached to a social consensus, that social consensus becomes a model to which people aspire to live up to.

What was the myth of the second industrialized social consensus? For convenience I will call it The Myth of the Happy Family, although the mythology is much larger than happiness or families narrowly construed. Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This imperative of likeness makes the myth of the happy family a mythology of conformism and rigid social roles. It is to be noted that this was not a religious mythology, but a domestic mythology.

I have many times quoted Joseph Campbell to the effect that a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. The rituals by which one participated in the myth of the happy family were the rituals of domesticity: father coming home from work, hanging his hat up, saying, “Honey, I’m home!” as he closes the door, with his wife standing there with a martini already prepared and handing it to him while two beaming children stand in the background, ready to hug their father after he has kissed his wife. The ritualized family evening meal follows next.

The larger social myth associated with the myth of the happy family is the myth of the happy family extrapolated, extended, and expanded to include social wholes: church, school, neighborhood, community, and nation were all to be “one big, happy family,” and the pater familias who presided over this beneficent and hierarchical structure was “the father of his people.”

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

While the living and working conditions of the working class during the early industrial revolution under the “factory system” were appalling, and are remembered as such — there is no nostalgia for these conditions — the myth of the happy family continues to have its adherents. It retains a seductive quality precisely because of the power of its strong social roles and unambiguous expectations for individuals. People who feel discomfited by the complexities and shifting expectations of the contemporary world look back to the myth of the happy family as a model still to be instantiated by industrialized society.

This mythology still today influences how we live our lives — not only because of nostalgia, but for concrete, economic reasons. In fact, the myth of the happy family influences our architecture, as I tried to show in Industrialized Space and Time. Recent attempts at architectural traditionalism incorporating front porches and driveways and garages confined to alleyways are intended to reproduce a neighborly community where families sit on their front porch sipping lemonade and chatting with their neighbors who stroll by, all without being interrupted by vehicular traffic. It sounds silly to talk about it in this explicit way, but given the price of housing in industrialized countries there is serious money at stake in this quaint vision.

It is possible that contemporary developments are pushing us toward of social consensus that might be called The Myth of the Happy Individual. I don’t think that this myth has fully taken form yet, and I am not predicting that it will fully take form, but there are signs of it throughout contemporary society. There is an implicit paradigm of the well-lived life today as consisting of a highly diverse collection of personal experiences, as exemplified in a “bucket list” of things that an individual would like to experience before “kicking the bucket.” This is the vulgar version, but you may also recognize the happy individual as the fully self-actualized individual perched on the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Both myths — the myth of the happy family and the myth of the happy individual — are equally pernicious. Both engender far more unhappiness than happiness precisely because they attempt to enforce happiness as a norm. If your family isn’t happy, then there is something wrong with it and you’d better get it fixed. If you’re not happy, there is obviously something wrong with you and you probably should be in therapy. Life is hard enough as it is; to add the extra burden of the expectation of happiness makes it unbearable more often than not.

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Thursday


Asked to recite some examples of institutions, it is not likely that language would be among the examples cited, but language is an institution, and moreover the institutions of language are the institutions of communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding. In so far as human experience involves communication, cooperation, reasoning, and understanding (inter alia), it is pervasively linguistic. That is to say, human experience is institutionalized in language.

I find the institutionalization of human experience in language interesting at present because language provides an excellent example of the distinction between formal institutions, based on an explicit social contract, and informal institutions, based on an implicit social contract, that I recently discussed in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power. Roughly speaking, spoken language is an informal institution while written language is a formal institution. We ought also to note in this context that spoken language has a deep history that goes far back into the Paleolithic, may be coextensive with biologically modern human beings, and which may also be shared by other species (both extant and extinct). On the other hand, written language is historically recent (from the perspective of the longue durée), emerging within the Agricultural Paradigm, seems to be exclusively human, and marks the distinction between prehistory and history proper (at least, in traditional historiography).

The institution of language demonstrates quite vividly how implicit social contracts can and do change quite rapidly, and, more importantly, more rapidly than explicit social contracts. The formal institutions of explicit social contracts often possess explicit mechanisms for recognizing change (for example, in relation to language, whether or not an English word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, or, in French, whether some usage is recognized by L’Académie française) — a due process, as it were, that is most familiar in the case of the explicit social contract of legal codes. The existence of explicit mechanisms for change suppresses spontaneous change, whereas spoken language thrives on spontaneous change.

One of the most familiar ways in which inter-generational conflict is expressed is in the different linguistic usages of older and younger generations. The implicit social contract of spoken language can be spontaneously changed by a single clever remark, coinage, or pronunciation. Since the ordinary business of life is largely driven by the fashion of the moment, a spontaneous change may be picked up and imitated by others quite quickly (this is now known as “going viral”). I read somewhere that the Castilian Spanish shift to pronouncing “s” and “c” with a lisp (i.e., pronouncing them as “th” as in “Barthelona,” which some Castilians say, but no Catalonian says) was the result of the imitation of a particular aristocrat who spoke with a lisp.

With the example in mind of language expressed both as a formal and as an informal institution, it is then interesting to consider socio-political social contracts in this context. I think we find that, as with language, implicit social contracts can and do change with some degree of rapidity, while explicit social contracts tend to change much more slowly. As observed above in relation to the law, if due process must be followed in, for example, changing the constitution of a nation-state, this will happen much more slowly than political opinion changes in those areas of social and political life not subject to formal institutions. At times this tension between formal and informal institutions, and their different rates of change, can result in revolution, when the implicit socio-political contract has changed very rapidly over a large proportion of a population even while the explicit socio-political contract has not changed (or not changed enough to satisfy public opinion).

In a couple of posts (The Totemic Paradigm and Why Revolutions Happen) I have mentioned Nietzsche’s idea of a “morality of mores” (In German: “die Sittlichkeit der Sitte”, also translated as the “morality of custom”), which Nietzsche compelling described thus:

“…those tremendous eras of ‘morality of custom’ which precede ‘world history’ as the actual and decisive eras of history which determined the character of mankind: the eras in which suffering counted as a virtue, cruelty counted as a virtue, dissembling counted as a virtue, revenge counted as a virtue, denial of reason counted as a virtue, while on the other hand well-being was accounted a danger, desire for knowledge was accounted a danger, peace was accounted a danger, pity was accounted a danger, being pitied was accounted an affront, work was accounted an affront, madness was accounted godliness, and change was accounted immoral and pregnant with disaster!”

Nietzsche, Daybreak, Preface, section 18

In his lectures, Joseph Campbell does not use Nietzsche’s terminology, but it is obvious in describing the rituals of early human societies that he has something very similar in mind, especially in his discussions of what Yeats called the “primary mask” that societies impose upon their members. Many of these rituals of social initiation and communal conformity are horrendous to modern eyes, and they embody much of what Nietzsche described in the above-quoted passage.

The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes: by way of ritual. The extreme taboos that applied to the violation of ritual was itself a reaction to how easily practices can change when there is no permanent point of reference (like a written text) to secure consistency over time. One could argue the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.

Which brings us back to the evanescent nature of implicit social contracts. When I was musing over the above ideas yesterday, I realized that the only reason that we have in our history the “morality of mores” and horrific initiation rituals is because of the all-too-real and constant possibility of change. That is to say, these are reactionary developments — a social embodiment of the Freudian Verneinung, i.e., the negation that in its violence paradoxically confirms exactly what it seeks to deny: “I had a dream of an old man, but it was not my father!”

The situation of early peoples attempting to preserve their traditions and way of life — preserving life itself, as it were, the only life than they knew — was deeply problematic, and they knew it. They did what they could with their limited technology to preserve what could be preserved, but this presented insuperable problems. Civilization emerged as a “solution” to some of these insuperable problems.

These problems persist today in different forms. I discussed the desire of dictators to preserve their personal or dynastic rule in The Imperative of Regime Survival. There I quoted one of my favorite passages from Gibbon:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.—Part III.

The principle that Gibbon expresses here (a principle I have elaborated elsewhere in Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone) is formulated in terms of formal legal institutions — an assembly of legislators — but it is equally true in pre-literate proto-civilizations that possess only the informal institutions of spoken language and social ritual, both of which, without some method for the preservation of tradition, would rapidly mutate beyond recognition due to the openness to change of informal institutions.

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From Rituals to Stories

19 November 2010

Friday


A few weeks ago in Take Comfort in Rituals I offered a commentary on the then-current Starbucks slogan that had been emblazoned across their many locations. This “ritual” campaign did not last long, as I noticed that the slogans disappeared not long after I wrote about them. Now a new series of slogans have appeared at Starbucks, and it looks like the marketing team has made the transition from mythology to narrative, as they have gone from promoting rituals to promoting stories.

In so far as a myth (embodied in a ritual) is a special case, a particular example, of a narrative, the passage from mythology to narrative represents a passage to a greater level of generality, and therefore possibly also a connection to the perennial, universal truths of the human condition. And what could a marketer desire more than to establish some connection between a brand and the universal truths of the human condition?

In The Totemic Paradigm I discussed the significant and growing role of narrative theory in many aspects of contemporary thought, from analytical philosophy of mind to psychotherapy. It would not surprise me in the least if someone on the Starbucks marketing team has tapped into this vein of thought, and in so far as popular culture learns from serious scholarship, we are the better for it. George Lucas struggled with his screenplay for the original Star Wars film until he happened upon Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces, which provided a template for the schematic science fiction hero story that he then went on to write.

While it may seem cynical or crass for the Starbucks marketing team to expropriate narrative theory for selling coffee — or, rather, selling the experience of drinking coffee — if our experience of coffee can be reconfigured and recast as more of a cultural experience and less of a consumer experience, we are probably the better off for it.

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Take Comfort in Rituals

26 September 2010

Sunday


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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Theses on Easter

4 April 2010

Sunday


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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Thursday


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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