Myths to Live By
is a 1972 collection of essays by American professor and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Drawing from a series of lectures Campbell delivered in from 1958 to 1971, the book analyzes the effect of myth-making and belief on humanity’s spiritual life. Campbell differentiates between Western myths and rites and Eastern ones, but traces both to what he believes are the fundamental properties and thoughts that underlie mythology. A central mythological archetype he returns to is that of the “hero” whose mission is to eradicate a perpetual return of evil. Campbell’s work became well-known for providing a broad theoretical framework for myth that nonetheless accounted for local difference in myth content, by likening mythological narratives to evolutionary adaptations.
The collection begins with an essay in which Campbell argues that all of the world’s religions, whether primitive or “sophisticated,” large or small, are equivalent to mythologies. He sets out to trace how each of the mythologies under discussion logically flowed from a society’s need to adapt to its particular conditions. As he traverses the mythologies of the world, he also analyzes their usefulness in his contemporary life. He often suggests that, in fact, the mythologies of the past are not appropriate for a post-enlightenment age that values empiricism and science. However, he believes that even the most obsolete religion reveals fundamental features of human nature. Given that contention, Campbell develops a thesis that humankind is the universe’s mind striving to comprehend itself newly through time as environmental conditions change.
Campbell asserts that it follows from his thesis that humankind is on the precipice of a fuller spiritual self-understanding. As scientific advancement accelerates and forms of human conflict, such as war and political repression, are gradually eradicated, humans will begin to see that the world’s system of religions is not a competitive one, but rather a complementary one. He suggests that this awakening will happen also because humans will begin to depart from literal interpretations of mythologies, coming to understand them on the higher orders of symbolism and metaphor
Campbell distinguishes between Eastern and Western mythologies in two main ways. First, Eastern mythologies are supposed to metaphorically represent the individual’s inner life. Western religions, in contrast, are conceived of as literal records of the history of human relationships and societies, fully external to the human mind. Second, the East emphasizes society over the individual, the latter who should accept his or her natural subjection. The West, on the other hand, prioritizes the individual and free will. Campbell traces how these ideologies are inflected in the respective mythologies’ arts and cultures. He also discusses the mythologization of the dichotomy
of war and peace in Western mythologies. Calls for war throughout history have tended to stem from the Judeo-Christian view that some god has endowed a given in-group with natural supremacy. This tradition was challenged from within with the emergence of the figure of Jesus, who emphasized love’s capacity to extend even over one’s enemies.
Campbell’s collection wraps up with an essay explaining some implications of his central thesis that humankind is moving towards spiritual unity. He argues that all humans evolved to require myths as their primary explanatory instruments, since these myths are the highest-order components of the universe’s “mind.” He suggests that science has shown humankind a reflection of itself that it previously lacked. He expresses his hope that our progression towards mythological synthesis will unite humankind, rather than create another reason to divide it. Myths to Live By
is a work of speculative philosophy about the future of human relations as much as it is a survey about humankind’s complicated spiritual past.