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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

15 JULY, 2015

35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature

By:

In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.

I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since.

He was only thirty-five.

Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.

Emerson writes:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!

Art by Christopher Marley from 'Biophilia.' Click image for more.

A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:

What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.

But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.

We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:

Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:

Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.

Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.

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13 JULY, 2015

How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

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“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter. “Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. And yet, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.

Kindness has become “our forbidden pleasure.”

So argue psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor in the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness (public library).

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

Taylor and Phillips write:

The kind life — the life lived in instinctive sympathetic identification with the vulnerabilities and attractions of others — is the life we are more inclined to live, and indeed is the one we are often living without letting ourselves know that this is what we are doing. People are leading secretly kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life. We need to know how we have come to believe that the best lives we can lead seem to involve sacrificing the best things about ourselves; and how we have come to believe that there are pleasures greater than kindness…

In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness — like all the greatest human pleasures — are inherently perilous, they are nonetheless some of the most satisfying we possess.

[…]

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times — in large part thanks to Emerson — did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success. The need for belonging has become an intolerable manifestation of vulnerability — we’ve stopped believing in our own kindness and the merits of mutual belonging, producing what poet and philosopher David Whyte has elegantly termed “our sense of slight woundedness.” On a mission to examine “when and why this confidence evaporated and the consequences of this transformation,” Taylor and Phillips write:

Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names — sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy… The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,” the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from 'The Well of Being.' Click image for more.

Perhaps because open-heartedness is impossible without vulnerability — an open heart is an aperture through which the world can enter us, but also one through which exploitive and cruel forces can penetrate the softest core of who we are without obstruction — the original meaning of and longing for kindness has been calcified by our impulse for armoring and self-protection. Taylor and Phillips write:

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognize ourselves in each other and feel sympathetic because of our kind-ness… And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where “respect” for personal status has become a leading value.

And yet despite our resistance to kindness, some deeper, dormant part of us still registers it, still cringes upon encountering its absence. This paradoxical relationship with kindness, perhaps more so than anything else, explains the “outrage culture” of the internet:

We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Embedded in our ambivalence about kindness is a special sort of psychological self-sabotage — by denying our own kind impulses, we also deny ourselves the powerful pleasure our acts of kindness produce. Taylor and Phillips consider how, given our natural inclination for kindness, we end up cheating ourselves of this deep spiritual reward:

The forms kindness can take … are partly learned from the societies in which we grow up, and so can be unlearned or badly taught or resisted… Children begin their lives “naturally” kind, and that something happens to this kindness as they grow up in contemporary society.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Picking up where Rousseau left off a quarter millennium ago, Phillips and Taylor consider what it takes to nourish our natural benevolence, asserting that it must begin with embracing the very vulnerability from which kindness springs:

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. This doesn’t mean that people aren’t also resilient and resourceful. Bearing other people’s vulnerability — which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it — entails being able to bear one’s own. Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.

Illustration by Benji Davies from 'The Storm Whale.' Click image for more.

At some point in our lives, however, vulnerability becomes a threat and a trauma. Phillips and Taylor trace the developmental origin of that shift:

The child’s first, formative trauma is his growing acknowledgment of his need for others (in actuality the mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her; parents need their children not to worry them too much). The needy child experiences a trauma of concern (“How can I take care of my mother to ensure that she takes care of me?”), which calls up his natural kindness; but this concern — and the later forms of kindness that emerge from it — is too easily turned away from. This turning away we call self-sufficiency, and when we want to pathologize it we call it narcissism. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we are prone to call failings when we are at our most frightened). Vulnerability — particularly the vulnerability we call desire — is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread.

In a sentiment that echoes Phillips’s illuminating earlier work on why developing a capacity for risk-tolerance is essential to our self-reliance, Taylor and Phillips elegantly capture the dark counterpoint to our tendency to desire safety at whatever the cost:

If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere.

[…]

It is not that real kindness requires people to be selfless, it is rather that real kindness changes people in the doing of it, often in unpredictable ways. Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can… Kindness is a way of knowing people beyond our understanding of them.

But rather than a lament, undergirding these observations is a powerful message of hope: For all of its pervasive undertones of and platforms for outrage, contemporary culture — and the digital universe that is part of it — offers fertile new soil in which to grow the natural inclinations that give rise to the pleasure of communion and kindness. Taylor and Phillips capture this beautifully:

By involving us with strangers (even with “foreigners” thousands of miles away), as well as with intimates, [kindness] is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality. But … the child needs the adult — and his wider society — to help him keep faith with his kindness, that is, to help him discover and enjoy the pleasures of caring for others… People have long known this, and long forgotten it. The history of kindness … tells the story of this knowing, and forgetting, and reknowing, as central to Western ideas about the good life.

In the remainder of the altogether wonderful and acutely necessary On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor explore how we can build a society that nurtures rather than corrupting our natural kindness by learning, from childhood on, to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable risks of making ourselves vulnerable enough to be kind. Complement it with Einstein on kindness, Brené Brown on the crucial difference between empathy and sympathy, Adam Smith’s underappreciated wisdom on benevolence, and George Saunders’s magnificent commencement address on the power of kindness, then revisit Phillips’s insightful mediations on balance and the necessary excesses of life and the essential capacity for “fertile solitude”.

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10 JULY, 2015

Art and the Mind’s Eye: How Drawing Trains You to See the World More Clearly and to Live with a Deeper Sense of Presence

By:

A passionate case for learning “to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.”

“It’s only when we look with eyes of love that we see as the painter sees,” Henry Miller wrote in his forgotten 1968 gem To Paint Is to Love Again. Drawing, indeed, transforms the secret passageway between the eye and the heart into a two-way street — while we are wired to miss the vast majority of what goes on around us, learning to draw rewires us to see the world differently, to love it more intimately by attending to and coming to cherish its previously invisible details. This, perhaps, is why beloved artist Lynda Barry teaches visual storytelling as the infinitely rewarding art of “being present and seeing what’s there.”

More than a century before Miller and a century and a half before Barry, the great Victorian art critic, philosopher, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) examined the psychology of why drawing helps us see the world more richly in a fantastic piece unambiguously titled Essay on the Relative Dignity of the Studies of Painting and Music, and the Advantages to be Derived from Their Pursuit, penned when he was only nineteen. It is included in the first volume of the altogether indispensable The Works of John Ruskin (public library | free ebook).

It’s a beautiful meditation triply timely today, in an age when we — having succumbed to the “aesthetic consumerism” of photography — are likelier to view the world through our camera phones and likelier still to point those at ourselves rather than at nature’s infinite and infinitely overlooked enchantments. To draw today is to reclaim the dignity and private joy of seeing amid a culture obsessed with looking in public.

Self-portrait by John Ruskin, 1861

Ruskin writes:

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect, but that the trees make the lane shady and cool; and he will see an old woman in a red cloak; — et voilà tout!

But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light, and the motes dance in the green, glittering lines that shoot down upon the thicker masses of clustered foliage that stand out so bright and beautiful from the dark, retiring shadows of the inner tree, where the white light again comes flashing in from behind, like showers of stars; and here and there a bough is seen emerging from the veil of leaves, of a hundred varied colours, where the old and gnarled wood is covered with the brightness, — the jewel brightness of the emerald moss, or the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a garment of beauty from the old withered branch. Then come the cavernous trunks, and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes, each with his diadem of dew: and down like a visiting angel, looks one ray of golden light, and passes over the glittering turf — kiss, — kiss, — kissing every blossom, until the laughing flowers have lighted up the lips of the grass with one bright and beautiful smile, that is seen far, far away among the shadows of the old trees, like a gleam of summer lightening along the darkness of an evening cloud.

Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

Art from Lynda Barry's 'Syllabus,' a field guide to visual storytelling. Click image for more.

Drawing not only grants us a more intimate presence with the world but also extends an irresistible invitation for storytelling — that old woman in the red cloak, Ruskin argues, would be a mere passing stranger for the non-sketcher but the sketcher’s mind will envelop her in “an immense deal of speculation” as he seeks to place her properly in the context of the landscape, invariably playing out various possible stories of who she is and how she ended up there. This impulse for creative speculation, Ruskin asserts, is at the core of how the artist sees the world differently:

From the most insignificant circumstance, — from a bird on a railing, a wooden bridge over a stream, a broken branch, a child in a pinafore, or a waggoner in a frock, does the artist derive amusement, improvement, and speculation. In everything it is the same; where a common eye sees only a white cloud, the artist observes the exquisite gradations of light and shade, the loveliness of the mingled colours — red, purple, grey, golden, and white; the graceful roundings of form, the shadowy softness of the melted outline, the brightness without lustre, the transparency without faintness, and the beautiful mildness of the deep heaven that looks out among the snowy cloud with its soft blue eyes; — in fact, the enjoyment of the sketcher from the contemplation of nature is a thing which to another is almost incomprehensible. If a person who had no taste for drawing were at once to be endowed with both the taste and power, he would feel, on looking out upon nature, almost like a blind man who had just received his sight.

The Works of John Ruskin is a trove of timeless wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular piece with Miller’s wonderful To Paint Is to Love Again and Ruskin on the value of imperfection in creative work. If you’re looking to learn this enormously rewarding way of seeing, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is by far the best initiation.

Thanks, Rob

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08 JULY, 2015

Why the Sky Enchants Us: Our Longing for Transcendence and How Myths Elevate Human Life

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“Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures.”

“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it,” Kurt Vonnegut said in a forgotten 1974 interview. Indeed, we have always used myths both to make sense of the world and to codify our civilizational intentions toward it, by building frameworks of good and evil.

A generation after Joseph Campbell’s trailblazing work on the power of myth in human life, religion historian Karen Armstrong — who studies the secular, psychological, and philosophical underpinnings of religion, like compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule — offers a magnificent complementary perspective in A Short History of Myth (public library).

Armstrong writes:

Human beings have always been mythmakers… We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonize about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

The Unborn Fish of ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

One of the most fascinating expressions of mythmaking in our search for meaning has to do with the sky, the sweeping mystery of which has enchanted human beings since the dawn of our species. Ancient astronomers tried to interpret it, Goethe wrote breathtaking poems for it, and Georgia O’Keeffe captured its mesmerism perfectly in a letter to her best friend: “There is something wonderful about the bigness and the lonelyness and the windyness of it all.”

Armstrong traces the origin of the sky’s ancient allure:

Some of the very earliest myths, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, were associated with the sky, which seems to have given people their first notion of the divine. When they gazed at the sky — infinite, remote and existing quite apart from their puny lives — people had a religious experience. The sky towered above them, inconceivably immense, inaccessible and eternal. It was the very essence of transcendence and otherness. Human beings could do nothing to affect it. The endless drama of its thunderbolts, eclipses, storms, sunsets, rainbows and meteors spoke of another endlessly active dimension, which had a dynamic life of its own. Contemplating the sky filled people with dread and delight, with awe and fear. The sky attracted them and repelled them. It was by its very nature numinous, in the way described by the great historian of religion, Rudolph Otto. In itself, without any imaginary deity behind it, the sky was mysterium tremendum, terribile et fascinans [the terrible, fascinating, and fearsome mystery].

Illustration from 'The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina.' Click image for more.

This, Armstrong argues, sheds light on an essential element of our mythical and spiritual consciousness: We often assume that people turn to religion because they want to enlist some higher power in bending the world to their will, to persuade a god or goddess to grant them health and wealth and immortality — but beneath this impulse lies a deeper longing for transcendence all the more resonant amid our secular culture. She writes:

This very early hierophany shows that worship does not necessarily have a self-serving agenda. People did not want anything from the sky, and they knew perfectly well that they could not affect it in any way. From the very earliest times, we have experienced our world as profoundly mysterious; it holds us in an attitude of awe and wonder, which is the essence of worship… The experience of pure transcendence was in itself profoundly satisfying. It gave people an ecstatic experience by making them aware of an existence that utterly transcended their own and lifted them emotionally and imaginatively beyond their own limited circumstances. It was inconceivable that the sky could be “persuaded” to do the will of poor, weak human beings.

And yet, paradoxically, in any successful mythology transcendence exists on a bell curve of satisfaction — too little, and we feel spiritually bereft; too much, and we feel cut off from the reality of life. Armstrong explains:

The sky would continue to be a symbol of the sacred long after the Paleolithic period. But a very early development showed that mythology would fail if it spoke of a reality that was too transcendent. If a myth does not enable people to participate in the sacred in some way, it becomes remote and fades from their consciousness.

The element of air in ancient Indian mythology, from 'Creation' by Bhajju Shyam. Click image for more.

At some point in human history, we did to the sky what we did to animals — we personified it in order to better understand its mystery and relate it to human life. Cultures around the world began praying to various versions of a “Sky God” or “High God” who was believed to have created heaven and earth out of nothing. But the underlying longing remained the same:

When people aspired towards the transcendence represented by the sky, they felt that they could escape from the frailty of the human condition and pass to what lies beyond. That is why mountains are so often holy in mythology: midway between heaven and earth, they were a place where men such as Moses could meet their god. Myths about flight and ascent have appeared in all cultures, expressing a universal desire for transcendence and liberation from the constraints of the human condition.

In order to reap the richness of these myths and their ability to elevate everyday human life, Armstrong argues, it’s important to see them as what they are — not factual accounts of real events but powerful metaphors for transcendence:

When we read of Jesus ascending to heaven, we are not meant to imagine him whirling through the stratosphere. When the Prophet Muhammad flies from Mecca to Jerusalem and then climbs up a ladder to the Divine Throne, we are to understand that he has broken through to a new level of spiritual attainment. When the prophet Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, he has left the frailty of the human condition behind, and passed away into a sacred realm that lies beyond our earthly experience.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

How we’ve sought to transcend the fragility of the human condition is what Armstrong explores in the remainder of the wholly fascinating A Short History of Myth. For a more playful counterpart, treat yourself to a visual field guide to monster myths and a beautiful illustrated cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths, then revisit Bertrand Russell on immortality and why religion exists.

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