The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers : mini book review

The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth

10 words or less: Inspiring examination of the permeation of mythology in everyday life.

Long version: I loved this book. Really loved it. So much so, that as soon as I completed it, I flipped back to the first page and re-read it again. I’ve never done that with any book before. It was overall a great read, and gave me numerous pre-existing foundations to ponder and even more questions to actively pursue the answer(s) to.

The discussion between Campbell and Moyers is fluid and deep. The topic is constrained to the myriad effects of mythology in culture and on the self, but the enormous field leaves a fantastically wide amount of space to cover. Topics such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Philosophers, Physics and even Star Wars are touched on. Reading this book, you can not only see the consistency of plot devices throughout movies and books, but a striking parallel with daily “live” events as well.

As an example, the following discussion covers the effects of mythology on the the apparently simple act of eating, and how the stories and beliefs of eating and hunting manifest in our conscious life.

“Campbell : There’s a wonderful saying in one of the Upanishads: ‘Oh wonderful, oh wonderful, oh wonderful, I am food, I am food, I am food! I am an eater of food, I am an eater of food, I am an eater of food.’ We don’t think that way today about ourselves, but holding on to yourself and not letting yourself become food is the primary life-denying negative act. You’re stopping the flow! And yielding to the flow is the great mystery experience that goes with thanking an animal that is about to be eaten for having given of itself. You, too, will be given in time.”

That’s an interesting story, but in all the animals I have hunted, none have voluntarily given themselves to being food. They have all run, all tried to hide, and tried everything in their ability for me not to kill them. They had no interest whatsoever in becoming my food, and so, by their own instinctual actions, they were actively “stopping the flow”. So by default, isn’t the process of willfully denying the flow (of becoming food) a critical part of being alive? And in the future, when it is possible to consume synthetic meat and food that has never been “alive” in any sense of the word, are we becoming part of a new life-flow, are we attempting to realize ourselves in our own self-made mythology, or is this just another byzantine denial of the perceived inevitability of death?

See? Stuff like that is why I shouldn’t read books like this!

The book is full of quotable material, but taking it out of context risks mitigating the effectiveness of the surrounding conversation and the philosophical path it took to get there. Trust me, though, it’s all good.

My only issue with this book is the complete dependence on God and/or a “higher purpose” to base their structure on. There really isn’t a deep examination of the possibility of a God not existing – on whether the experience of humanity without a God or a living deity is possible and what that would entail. There are moments where this is almost brought out, such as…

“Moyers : And your life comes from where?
Campbell: From the ultimate energy that is the life of the universe. And then do you say ‘Well there must be somebody generating that energy?’ Why do you have to say that? Why can’t the ultimate mystery be impersonal?”

…but that lack of an overt discussion isn’t any reason to skip this book at all.

I really enjoyed this book and think it should be mandatory reading. I rank it as material from a Philosophy 201 class… far more material to digest than a simple 101 class, but not as deep as a 301 or higher class. It’s a big read at 665 pages on my Sony PRS-505, but it’s worth it.

Highly, highly recommended. Five stars.

1 thought on “The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers : mini book review

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