Mythsticks - The Flight of the Wild Gander by Joseph Campbell

4 Primitive Man as Metaphysician

‘Primitive Man as Metaphysician’ is the subject of the third chapter. Here, Campbell first characterizes people, in William James’s terms, as either tough or tender minded. He explains that these two types will interpret myth quite differently. Dr Radin said, ‘From the man of action’s viewpoint, a fact has no symbolic or static value.’ The tender-minded thinker, on the other hand, ‘is impelled by his whole nature, by the innate orientation of his mind, to try to discover the reason why there is an effect, what is the nature of the relation between ego and the world, and what part exactly the perceiving self plays therein.’ Campbell laments the tough-minded nature of most anthropologists, and quotes a putative Haitian proverb, ‘When the anthropologist arrives, the gods depart’. In my experience, the same effect is seen when reading the expert examinations made by some sociologists of the closed societies that they choose to call New Religious Movements (despite the fact that many of the groups they examine make no claims to be religious — such as est or Landmark Trust). It is as if such people seeing the last days of Bergen Belsen would be concerned with the quality of the inmates’ pajamas. Ever dependent on the need to measure, and so blinded to qualities.

William Butler Yeats - The Ten Principle UpanishadsThe Metamorphoses of Ovid
Next, Campbell explains the need to penetrate symbols and see to what they refer. Where a tough-minded person will see metaphors as literal history, the tender-minded understands their reference to universal qualities. By comparing the creation myth of a Pima American Indian and one of the Sanskrit Upanishads an essential, and profound, unity of thought can be seen. Brief comparisons are made showing similar ideas in Nordic, Babylonian and Egyptian tales, and in the writings of Ovid. Comparison could easily be drawn with the Hebrew creation myth. Out of darkness came light. From the One came the Many. From the unknowable came the known. So much is held in common by us all, no matter our belief. But even the most elegant mathematics cannot reach before the Big Bang.

Now Campbell comes to the teachings of Immanuel Kant, commenting again on this same relationship between the unknowable and the known. He comes to ‘theology as a misreading of mythology’: ‘Unless the myths can be understood — or felt — to be true... they lose their force, their magic, their charm for the tender-minded and become mere archeological curiosities, fit only for some sort of reductive classification.’ From here he leads to the contrary observation, ‘Wherever myths still are living symbols, the mythologies are teeming dream worlds of such images.’ But tough-minded theologians reduce these living worlds into ‘petrified propositions’, and, rather than paths to fulfillment, turn them into strict rituals of human abasement. So insights become rules, and words a cage, quite empty of meaning.

September 2004