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

“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.

BP

Legendary Victorian Art Critic John Ruskin on the Value of Imperfection and How Manual Labor Confers Dignity Upon Creative Work

“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

Long before Anne Lamott admonished that perfectionism kills creativity, long before Joseph Campbell asserted that “what evokes our love … is the imperfection of the human being,” the great English art critic, draughtsman, watercolorist, and philanthropist John Ruskin (February 8, 1819–January 20, 1900) made history’s most beautiful and enlivening case for the value of imperfection in his 1853 book The Stones of Venice, eventually included in the altogether illuminating Ruskin anthology Unto This Last and Other Writings (public library).

Writing a generation after the Industrial Revolution had finished revolving society into a new era of manufacturing, Ruskin considers the dehumanizing effects of separating creative work from manual labor, arguing that any creatively fulfilling vocation must marry the two. He calls for “a right understanding … of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy” and a “determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

To put this “right understanding” into practice, he prescribes “the observance of three broad and simple rules”:

  1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
  2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
  3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

Ruskin adds:

The rule is simple: Always look for invention first, and after that, for such execution as will help the invention, and as the inventor is capable of without painful effort, and no more. Above all, demand no refinement of execution where there is no thought, for that is slaves’ work, unredeemed.

Cautioning against the perilous separation of head and hand, Ruskin counters the common objection that those who are creatively gifted in the art of ideation shouldn’t be wasting their time with the execution of their brilliant ideas but should instead be delegating that work to mere laborers:

All ideas of this kind are founded upon two mistaken suppositions: the first, that one man’s thoughts can be, or ought to be, executed by another man’s hands; the second, that manual labour is a degradation, when it is governed by intellect… We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers… It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Art from ‘Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times,’ a visual history of Soviet children’s book illustration. Click image for more.

This dialogue between thought and labor, Ruskin argues, is precisely what demands a necessary degree of imperfection in any healthy creative work, for unskillfulness is evidence that the mind “had room for expression.” Ruskin puts it unambiguously:

No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.

This, Ruskin asserts, happens for two reasons, “both based on everlasting laws.” The first — which Zadie Smith would eco a century and a half later in counseling aspiring writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” — has to do with the necessary discontentment that drives all artists to continue creating:

No great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the beholder be dissatisfied also. I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo; the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture and leave it unfinished. And therefore, if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from ‘I, Leonardo.’ Click image for more.

The second reason springs from life’s inherent cycles of growth and decay, from the notion that our mortality confers meaning upon our lives. Imperfection, Ruskin argues, is both a reminder that we are on a journey the final destination of which is total decay, and a celebration of the beauty of our impermanence:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

Accept this then for a universal law, that [no] noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.

Much more of Ruskin’s enduring wisdom on everything from art to morality can be found in Unto This Last and Other Writings. Complement this particular meditation with Simone Weil on how manual labor mediates creative work and discipline, Alan Lightman on why we long for permanence in a universe of constant change, and Anaïs Nin on the magic of bridging head and hand.

BP

The Crossroads of Should and Must: An Intelligent Illustrated Field Guide to Finding Your Bliss

“Should is how other people want us to live our lives… Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?,” young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a moving letter to his brother while floundering to find his purpose. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” A century later, Joseph Campbell stoked that hearth of the soul with his foundational treatise on finding your bliss. And yet every day, countless hearths and hearts grow ashen in cubicles around the world as we succumb to the all too human tendency toward choosing what we should be doing in order to make a living over what we must do in order to feel alive.

How to turn that invisible inner fire into fuel for soul-warming bliss is what artist and designer Elle Luna explores in her essay-turned-book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion (public library) — an intelligent and rousing illustrated manifesto that picks up where Campbell left off, in the spirit of Parker Palmer’s emboldening guide to letting your life speak and Debbie Millman’s visual-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life.

Distinguishing between a job (“something typically done from 9 to 5 for pay”), a career (“a system of advancements and promotions over time where rewards are used to optimize behavior”), and a calling (“something that we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune”), Luna recounts the pivotal moment in her own life when she was suddenly unable to discern which of these she had. As an early employee at a promising startup, she was working tirelessly on a product she deeply believed in, and yet felt disorientingly unfulfilled. She found herself before a revelatory crossroads: the crossroads between Should and Must.

Luna writes:

Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.

Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.

Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous admonition — “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity,” the longest-serving First Lady wrote in contemplating conformity and the secret of happiness, “[and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” — Luna adds:

When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

She offers a counterpoint:

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own — and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.

And yet as simple as Luna’s elegant prose makes it sound, anyone who has lived through this crossroads — she has; I have — will attest that it is anything but easy; the road is strewn with difficult choices. Luna considers the osmotic relationship between Should and Must, even as we turn away from one and toward the other:

If you want to know Must, get to know Should. This is hard work. Really hard work. We unconsciously imprison ourselves to avoid our most primal fears. We choose Should because choosing Must is terrifying, incomprehensible. Our prison is constructed from a lifetime of Shoulds, the world of choices we’ve unwittingly agreed to, the walls that alienate us from our truest, most authentic selves. Should is the doorkeeper to Must. And just as you create your prison, you can set yourself free.

One of the most common ways in which we imprison ourselves is by comparing ourselves to others and, upon finding our situation inferior, placing blame — on circumstances that we feel are unfair, on the people we believe are responsible for those circumstances, or on some abstract element of fate we think is at play. The self-defeating catch is that we often end up judging our circumstances against others’ outcomes, forgetting that hard work and hard choices are the transmuting agent between circumstance and outcome.

Joseph Brodsky captured this with piercing precision in the greatest commencement address of all time, cautioning: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo… No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.”

Luna touches on this perilous tendency as she considers the origin of Should:

How often do we place blame on the person, job, or situation when the real problem, the real pain, is within us? And we leave and walk away, angry, frustrated, and sad, unconsciously carrying the same Shoulds into a new context — the next relationship, the next job, the next friendship — hoping for different results.

How to get to know Should in the most intimate way possible, so that we can begin to swivel toward different results by moving toward Must, is what Luna examines in the remainder of The Crossroads of Should and Must. In this wonderful Design Matters conversation with one of her creative heroes and influences, Debbie Millman, Luna discusses how the book came to be, the unusual journey that precipitated it, and why her original essay resonated — beyond her wildest expectations — with so many people across so many walks of life:

Must is fantastic, and Must is just on the other side of Should. Should is this world of expectations — it’s like a camouflaged force. That’s one of the tricky things about Should — it can kind of creep in there when you’re not looking. It’s easier — it’s this invisible force moving against us [and] it often comes very early on in life. It can come from the time into which we’re born, the society or the community into which we’re born, the body into which we’re born… It can be a lot of different things that happen early in life [which] really take on that trajectory … and have us often running a different race than the one we were intended to run.

Subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, then explore these ten favorite episodes from a decade of conversations with creative icons.

Illustrations courtesy of Elle Luna / Workman

BP

Stewart Brand’s Reading List: 76 Books to Sustain and Rebuild Humanity

From Homer to home health, by way of Shakespeare, conceptual physics, and a gender-imbalance lament.

UPDATE: The folks at the Long Now kindly invited me to contribute my own reading list — see it here.

On the heels of Brian Eno’s reading list comes another installment in the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library for long-term thinking, the Manual for Civilization. Here, futurist, environmentalist, and Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand — best-known for authoring the era-defining Whole Earth Catalog and originating the commonly (mis-)quoted aphorism that “information wants to be free” — offers his 76-book contribution to the cumulative library of 3,500, including Brain Pickings favorites like Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Bill Bryson’s magnificent illustrated edition of A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Lewis Hyde’s modern manifesto for the creative life, The Gift.

  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery
  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  3. The Odyssey by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  4. The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Memory of the World: The Treasures That Record Our History from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO
  6. The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  7. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
  8. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War edited by Robert B. Strassler
  9. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volumes 1-4 edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
  10. The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
  11. The Nature of Things by Lucretius
  12. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz
  13. The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson
  14. Venice, A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane
  15. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
  16. The Map Book by Peter Barber
  17. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt
  18. The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide by Michael Allaby and Dr. Robert Coenraads
  19. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  20. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  21. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde
  22. Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison
  23. The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray
  24. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 Volumes) by Edward Gibbon
  25. The Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance by Carl Demrow and David Salisbury
  26. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  27. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein
  28. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  29. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  30. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser
  31. The Causes of War by Geoffrey Blainey
  32. Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch
  33. A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson
  34. The Past From Above: Aerial Photographs of Archaeological Sites edited by Charlotte Trümpler
  35. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
  36. Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris
  37. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William H. Mcneill
  38. A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel
  39. The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work by Daniel Hillis
  40. Imagined Worlds by Freeman Dyson
  41. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson
  42. Brave New World (The Folio Society) by Aldous Huxley and illustrated by Leonard Rosoman
  43. Dune by Frank Herbert
  44. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
  45. Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland April–November 1985 by Freeman J. Dyson
  46. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  47. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
  48. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
  49. Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks
  50. State of the Art by Iain M. Banks
  51. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  52. Excession by Iain M. Banks
  53. Across Realtime by Vernor Vinge
  54. The Discoverers: Volumes I and II Deluxe Illustrated Set by Daniel J. Boorstin
  55. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Elinor Ostrom
  56. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington
  57. The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman
  58. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May
  59. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse
  60. One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism by Rodney Stark
  61. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
  62. The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce
  63. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by James Lovelock
  64. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan
  65. Medieval Civilization by Jacques Le Goff
  66. The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History by Norman F. Cantor
  67. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  68. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery
  69. The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Andrew George
  70. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
  71. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand
  72. Grand Design: The Earth from Above by Georg Gerster
  73. The Complete Oxford Shakespeare: Histories, Comedies, Tragedies (Three volume set)
  74. The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook by Robert Porter
  75. Lao Tzu’s Te-Tao Ching – A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts by Lao Tzu and translated by Robert G. Henricks
  76. The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil by Heinrich Zimmer edited by Joseph Campbell

Only one lament: One would’ve hoped that a lens on rebuilding human civilization would transcend the hegemony of the white male slant and would, at minimum, include a more equal gender balance of perspectives — of Brand’s 76 books, only one is written by a woman, one features a female co-author, and one is edited by a woman. It’s rather heartbreaking to see that someone as visionary as Brand doesn’t consider literature by women worthy of representing humanity in the long run. Let’s hope the Long Now balances the equation a bit more fairly as they move forward with the remaining entries in their 3,500-book collaborative library.

Complement with the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, and David Bowie,* then join me in supporting the Manual for Civilization.

* I realize these are all male reading lists. I have been unable to find a published reading list by a prominent female public figure — if you know of one, please do get in touch.

BP

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