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Narrative as Ethics

After yesterday’s encounter with Mr Moron, I mean, Mr Maroon, a religious fanatic arguing that Atheist’s have no code for morality, I want to take a deeper look at ethics and morality from both a religious and secular perspective.

Given my research into the role of narratives in peace studies, I ask: What is the role of narrative in our ethics?

Mr Maroon was holding up his ethical code – the Christian bible – and asking for Atheists to hold up theirs.

“I have the Bible. Atheists have nothing. Atheists have no moral code. I win. You lose.”

A black and white question like that is hard to respond to. Is it A or B? Well what if there’s also a C, D, E or Z?

It’s like the argument “Jesus must have been a liar, a lunatic or Lord” – it starts from a base full of assumptions, and posits three options that ignore the grey. It ignores the humanity of the writers of the Bible, the contradictions between gospels, the hundreds of books left out of the bible. It ignores the option that Jesus could have also been a great teacher, that the stories are part legend, at times drawing on myth to make points that are more true than literal truth. It ignores the historical context that the stories were told, that the chapters were recorded, and the book was edited and translated and interpreted today. I digress.

No, Atheists do not have a book of absolute, unquestionable and unchanging ethical codes. That’s why they put an end to slavery. That’s why women and children are now treated like people. That’s why philosophers are continue to asking and re-ask: what is the “good life” we are aspiring to? and how can we live the good life with others, in just institutions?

For Mr Maroon, not having one book of unchanging ethics (whether they are cherry-picked from or not) is a sign of weakness, a sign of lacking morality, when in fact it is the opposite.

Ethics are not fixed, and the second they seem fixed then we really must be on guard!

Ethics come from culture, and return to culture, as a result of human evaluation and human mediation. We inherit their gifts, and their debts.

Of course Atheists, in rejecting the narrative of a separate “God” watching over us, haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water. No matter one’s theological understanding, the cultural heritage (for better or worse) remains with us. In fact, critiques of environmental destruction point the finger at secular ethics being too rooted in biblical ethics. That is, the notion of us being separate individuals that will one day die was seeded in certain religious narratives (pre-dating Christianity, mind you), that have caused us to think ourselves separate from the ecological systems we cannot live without. But again, I digress.

The culturally-based notions of ethics and our entire ways of being, were evolving long before the Old Testament and long after the writing of the New Testament, are (lucky for us) still evolving today.

What is ethical and what is not is something we must constantly question, evaluate, adjust and re-evaluate.

The stories that were transmitted orally then recorded in text – histories, myths and fictions – have been, and still are, the basis of our morality, and deeper than that, our ethics. From these stories have sprung some of the most rotten and some of the most ripe fruits humanity has bore. The Dark Ages, the Inquisitions, the Crusades, slavery, war, extreme injustices and destruction, can be attributed to stories gone wrong, that have caused actions with horrible consequences – be they intended or not. Religious, political, fictional narratives contain power to bring pleasures and power to bring pain.

Narratives in books, films, songs, and conversation, allow us to imagine ourselves in different situations and imagine how we would like to be treated if that were us. Narratives of history allow us to see the devastation that not questioning certain narratives can be.

Let’s refer to Mr Maroon’s example of the killing of Jews in WW2: those living in Europe who accepted the narratives of their time and obeyed the law as if it were ethical, played a role in the destruction. Those who conformed rather than caused conflict about them, are the reason that such a horrible things were allowed to occur.


Others, like my Opa who (working in Holland at the time) said “no, it is NOT ethical to give Jews an identification with a big J on it as this will increase their chances of being taken away” and proceeded to work for the underground producing fake-IDs for Jews – was acting far more ethically than had he followed the moral of obeying the law.

As a side-note, given the common misconception, it is worth mentioning that Hitler’s religious views are a matter of dispute. While it is common to think of Hitler as an Atheist, given that before WW2 he was promoting “Positive Christianity” – was a Nazi brand of Christianity purged of Jewish elements – and that his book and public speeches often affirmed his Christian faith… maybe that’s a judgement worth rethinking.[2]

Ok, given all my tangents, let me sum up the above:

1. Ethics are not fixed – they should always be questioned or else bad things can be done in the name of ethics (slavery, murder, …) This requires a learning to think critically, and conflict rather than conform when it is necessary.

2. Atheists, theists, panentheists – people following any theology or lack of – require this constant re-evaluation of ethics and their moral application and implications.

3. Narratives are a useful way for this evaluation via imaginative variations to occur.



Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another among other books and podcasts on philosophy I’m into atm.

[1] Picture taken from


Joseph Campbell – The Hero’s Journey

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looks at myths and psychology – showing the connection between the stages of the “monomyth” seen in religion, movies and the journey of each of our lives. I’m using this book along with some other Joseph Campbell books and videos for my class…

“The mythological hero, setting forth from his common-day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragonbattle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again —if the powers have remained unfriendly to him—his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).” p. 227-8.

I wish we had time in class to watch all of this series The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers – the first half of the first video (back to VHS!) was great… definitely worth hunting down a DVD version. Here’s a segment:


I have my class discussing each stage of the “monomyth” / “The Hero’s Journey” in relation to Avatar (everyone has seen and loves) and The Matrix (which half hadn’t seen so we watched in class). Next week is week 4, of 16 weeks. Crazy how fast time is flying by. Anyway enough babbling, here it is – Joseph Campbell’s monomyth:


1. The Call to Adventure
‘This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the “call to adventure” —signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.’ p. 53.

2. Refusal of the Call
‘Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.’ p. 54.

3. Supernatural Aid

‘For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.’ p. 63.

4. The Crossing of the First Threshold

‘With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the “threshold guardian” at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in the four directions — also up and down—standing for the limits c the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is dark less, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the member of the tribe. The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored. Thus the sailors of the bold vessels of Columbus, breaking the horizon of the medieval mind —sailing, as they thought, into the boundless ocean of immortal being that surrounds the cosmos, like an endless mythological serpent biting its tail—had to be cozened and urged on like children, because of their fear of the fabled leviathans, mermaids, dragon kings, and other monsters of the deep.’ p. 71.

5. The Belly of the Whale

The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died… here, instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshiper into a temple where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They are preliminary embodiments of the dangerous aspect of the presence, corresponding to the mythological ogres that bound the conventional world, or to the two rows of teeth of the whale. They illustrate the fact that the devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis… His secular character remains without; he sheds it, as a snake its slough. Once inside he may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. The mere fact that anyone can physically walk past the temple guardians does not invalidate their significance; for if the intruder is incapable of encompassing the sanctuary, then he has effectually remained without. Anyone unable to understand a god sees it as a devil and is thus defended from the approach. Allegorically, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting, in picture language, the life-centering, life-renewing act.’ p. 83-5.


6. The Road of Trials
‘ONCE having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the mythadventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.’ p. 89.

‘The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiator)’ conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed—again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.’ p. 100.

7. The Meeting with the Goddess

‘The ultimate adventure, when all the barriers and ogres have been overcome, is commonly represented as a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World. This is the crisis at the nadir, the zenith, or at the uttermost edge of the earth, at the central point of the cosmos, in the tabernacle of the temple, or within the darkness of the deepest chamber of the heart.’ p. 100.

‘The mythological figure of the Universal Mother imputes to the cosmos the feminine attributes of the first, nourishing and protecting presence. The fantasy is primarily spontaneous; for there exists a close and obvious correspondence between the attitude of the young child toward its mother and that of the adult toward the surrounding material world.’ p. 103.

‘Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world.’ p. 106.

8. Woman as the Temptress

‘The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father’s place.

‘Thus phrased, in extremest terms, the problem may sound remote from the affairs of normal human creatures. Nevertheless, every failure to cope with a life situation must be laid, in the end, to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late. The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale. Therefore it is formulated in the broadest terms. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres”? Those are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals’? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.

‘In the office of the modern psychoanalyst, the stages of the hero-adventure come to light again in the dreams and hallucinations of the patient. Depth beyond depth of self-ignorance is fathomed, with the analyst in the role of the helper, the initiatory priest. And always, after the first thrills of getting under way, the adventure develops into a journey of darkness, horror, disgust, and phantasmagoric fears.

‘The crux of the curious difficulty lies in the fact that our conscious views of what life ought to be seldom correspond to what life really is. Generally we refuse to admit within ourselves, or within our friends, the fullness of that pushing, self-protective, malodorous, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. Rather, we tend to perfume, whitewash, and reinterpret; meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup, are the faults of some unpleasant someone else.

‘But when it suddenly dawns on us, or is forced to our attention, that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odor of the flesh, then, not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, the pure, pure soul.’ p. 111-12.

9. Atonement with the Father

‘The paradox of creation, the coming of the forms of time out of eternity, is the germinal secret of the father. It can never be quite explained. Therefore, in every system of theology there is an umbilical point, an Achilles tendon which the finger of mother life has touched, and where the possibility of perfect knowledge has been impaired. The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate that key knot of his limited existence. The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands —and the two are atoned.’ p. 135.

‘Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster—the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be Sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself; and that is what is difficult. One must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy. Therewith, the center of belief is transferred outside of the bedeviling god’s tight scaly ring, and the dreadful ogres dissolve.’ p. 120.

‘The magic of the sacraments (made effective through the passion of Jesus Christ, or by virtue of the meditations of the Buddha), the protective power of primitive amulets and charms, and the supernatural helpers of the myths and fairy tales of the world, are mankind’s assurances that the arrow, the flames, and the flood are not as brutal as they seem. For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim’s own ego —derived from the sensational nursery scene that has been left behind, but projected before; and the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical nonthing is itself the fault that keeps one steeped in a sense of sin, sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith of the world… It is in this ordeal that the hero may derive hope and assurance from the helpful female figure, by whose magic (pollen charms or power of intercession) he is protected through all the frightening experiences of the father’s ego-shattering initiation. For if it is impossible to trust the terrifying father-face, then one’s faith must be centered elsewhere (Spider Woman, Blessed Mother); and with that reliance for support, one endures the crisis—only to find, in the end, that the father and mother reflect each other, and are in essence the same.’ p. 118-120.

10. Apotheosis

The pause on the threshold of Nirvana, the resolution to forego until the end of time (which never ends) immersion in the untroubled pool of eternity, represents a realization that the distinction between eternity and time is only apparent—made, perforce, by the rational mind, but dissolved in the perfect knowledge of the mind that has transcended the pairs of opposites. What is understood is that time and eternity are two aspects of the same experience-whole, two planes of the same nondual ineffable; i.e., the jewel of eternity is in the lotus of birth and death: om mani padme hum. p. 140.

‘The first wonder to be noted here is the androgynous character of the Bodhisattva: masculine Avalokiteshvara, feminine Kwan Yin. Male-female gods are not uncommon in the world of myth. They emerge always with a certain mystery; for they conduct the mind beyond objective experience into a symbolic realm where duality is left behind. Awonawilona, chief god of the pueblo of Zuni, the maker and container of all, is sometimes spoken of as he, but is actually he-she. The Great Original of the Chinese chronicles, the holy woman T’ai Yuan, combined in her person the masculine Yang and the feminine Yin.”‘ The cabalistic teachings of the medieval Jews, as well as the Gnostic Christian writings of the second century, represent the Word Made Flesh as androgynous- which was indeed the state of Adam as he was created, before the female aspect, Eve, was removed into another form. And among the Greeks, not only Hermaphrodite (the child of Hermes and Aphrodite), but Eros too, the divinity of love (the first of the gods, according to Plato), were in sex both female and male. p. 140-1.

‘”So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The question may arise in the mind as to the nature of the image of God; but the answer is already given in the text, and is clear enough. “When the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, He created him androgynous.” The removal of the feminine into another form symbolizes the beginning of the fall from perfection into duality; and it was naturally followed by the discovery of the duality of good and evil, exile from the garden where God walks on earth, and thereupon the building of the wall of Paradise, constituted of the “coincidence of opposites,” by which Man (now man and woman) is cut off from not only the vision but even the recollection of the image of God.

‘This is the Biblical version of a myth known to many lands. It represents one of the basic ways of symbolizing the mystery of creation: the devolvement of eternity into time, the breaking of the one into the two and then the many, as well as the generation of new life through the reconjunction of the two.’ p. 141-2.

‘Like the Buddha himself, this godlike being is a pattern of the divine state to which the human hero attains who has gone beyond the last terrors of ignorance. “When the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he becomes free of all fear, beyond the reach of change.’1″‘ This is the release potential within us all, and which anyone can attain—through herohood; for, as we read: “All things are Buddha-things’1;8″3 or again (and this is the other way of making the same statement): “All beings are without self.1’ The world is filled and illumined by, but does not hold, the Bodhisattva (“he whose being is enlightenment”); rather, it is he who holds the world, the lotus. Pain and pleasure do not enclose him, he encloses them—and with profound repose.’ p. 138-9.

11. The Ultimate Boon

‘The ease with which the adventure is here accomplished signifies that the hero is a superior man, a born king. Such ease distinguishes numerous fairy tales and alt legends of the deeds of incarnate gods. Where the usual hero would face a test, the elect encounters no delaying obstacle and makes no mistake. The well is the World Navel, its flaming water the indestructible essence of existence, the bed going round and round being the World Axis. The sleeping castle is that ultimate abyss to which the descending consciousness submerges in dream, where the individual life is on the point of dissolving into undifferentiated energy: and it would be death to dissolve; yet death, also, to lack the fire.

‘The motif (derived from an infantile fantasy) of the inexhaustible dish, symbolizing the perpetual life-giving, form-building powers of the universal source, is a fairy-tale counterpart of the mythological image of the cornucopian banquet of the gods. While the bringing together of the two great symbols of the meeting with the goddess and the fire theft reveals with simplicity and clarity the status of the anthropomorphic powers in the realm of myth. They are not ends in themselves, but guardians, embodiments, or bestowers, of the liquor, the milk, the food, the fire, the grace, of indestructible life.

‘Such imagery can be readily interpreted as primarily, even though perhaps not ultimately, psychological; for it is possible to observe, in the earliest phases of the development of the infant, symptoms of a dawning “mythology” of a state beyond the vicissitudes of time. These appear as reactions to, and spontaneous defenses against, the body-destruction fantasies that assail the child when it is deprived of the mother breast. “The infant reacts with a temper tantrum and the fantasy that goes with the temper tantrum is to tear everything out of the mother’s bod)-. . . . The child then fears retaliation for these impulses, i.e., that
everything will be scooped out of its own inside.”‘ Anxieties for the integrity of its body, fantasies of restitution, a silent, deep requirement for indestructibility and protection against the “bad” forces from within and without, begin to direct the shaping psyche; and these remain as determining factors in the later neurotic, and even normal, life activities, spiritual efforts, religious beliefs, and ritual practices of the adult.’ p. 159-60.


12. Refusal of the Return
‘WHEN the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds. But the responsibility has been frequently refused. Even the Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated, and saints are reported to have passed away while in the supernal ecstasy. Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.’ p. 179.

13. The Magic Flight
‘If the hero in his triumph wins the blessing of the goddess or the god and is then explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir for the restoration of society, the final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron. On the other hand, if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero’s wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons, then the last stage of the mythological round becames a lively, often comical, pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion.’ p. 182.

‘The myths of failure touch us with the tragedy of life, but those of success only with their own incredibility. And yet, it’s the mono-myth is to fulfill its promise, not human failure or superhuman success but human success is what we shall have to be shown.’ p. 192.

14. Rescue from Without
‘The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him. For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scattering of the wakened state. “Who having cast off the world,” we read, “would desire to return again? He would be only there.””‘ And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call. Society is jealous of those who remain away from it, and will come knocking at the door. If the hero—like Muchukunda—is unwilling, the disturber suffers an ugly shock; but on the other hand, if the summoned one is only delayed —sealed in by the beatitude of the state of perfect being (which resembles death} —an apparent rescue is effected, and the adventurer returns.’ p. 192.

‘This brings us to the final crisis of the round, to which the whole miraculous excursion has been but a prelude—that, namely, of the paradoxical, supremely difficult threshold-crossing of the hero’s return from the mystic realm into the land of common day. Whether rescued from without, driven from within, or gently carried along by the guiding divinities, he has yet to re-enter with his boon the long-forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete. He has yet to confront society with his ego-shattering, life-redeeming elixir, and take the return blow of reasonable queries, hard resentment, and good people at a loss to comprehend.’ p. 201.

15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
‘The two worlds, the divine and the human, can be pictured only as distinct from each other—different as life and death, as day and night. The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone. Nevertheless—and here is a great key to the understanding of myth and symbol — the two kingdoms are actually one. The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness. As in the stories of the cannibal ogresses, the fearfulness of this loss of personal individuation can be the whole burden of the transcendental experience for unqualified souls. But the hero-soul goes boldly in —and discovers the hags converted into goddesses and the dragons into the watchdogs of the gods.

‘There must always remain, however, from the standpoint of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be effective in the light world. Hence the common divorce of opportunism from virtue and the resultant degeneration of human existence. Martyrdom is for saints, but the common people have their institutions, and these cannot be left to grow like lilies of the field; Peter keeps drawing his sword, as in the garden, to defend the creator and sustainer of the world. The boon brought from the transcendent deep becomes quickly rationalized into nonentity, and the need becomes great for another hero to refresh the word.

‘How teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand thousand times, throughout the millenniums of mankind’s prudent folly? That is the hero’s ultimate difficult task. How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? How translate into terms of “yes” and “no” revelations that shatter into meaninglessness every attempt to define the pairs of opposites? How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void? Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss”? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has meanwhile drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.’ p. 201-4.

16. Master of the Two Worlds
‘Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest.’ p. 212-3.

‘The myths do not often display in a single image the mystery of the ready transit. Where they do, the moment is a precious symbol, full of import, to be treasured and contemplated. Such a moment was that of the Transfiguration of the Christ… Here is the whole myth in a moment: Jesus the guide, the way, the vision, and the companion of the return. The disciples are his initiates, not themselves masters of the mystery, yet introduced to the full experience of the paradox of the two worlds in one.’ p. 213.

‘Jesus makes the point more succinctly: “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” The meaning is very clear; it is the meaning of all religious practice. The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment.

‘His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. The Law lives in him with his unreserved consent. Many are the figures, particularly in the social and mythological contexts of the Orient, who represent this ultimate state of anonymous presence. The sages of the hermit groves and the wandering mendicants who play a conspicuous role in the life and legends of the East; in myth such figures as the Wandering Jew (despised, unknown, yet with the pearl of great price in his pocket); the tatterdemalion beggar, set upon by dogs; the miraculous mendicant bard whose music stills the heart; or the masquerading god, Wotan, Viracocha, Edshu: these are examples. “Sometimes a fool, sometimes a sage, sometimes possessed of regal splendor; sometimes wandering, sometimes as motionless as a python, sometimes wearing a benignant expression; sometimes honored, sometimes insulted, sometimes unknown—thus lives the man of realisation, ever happy with supreme bliss. Just as an actor is always a man, whether he puts on the costume of his role or lays it aside, so is the perfect knower of the Imperishable always the Imperishable, and nothing else.”’ p. 220.

17. Freedom to Live
‘What, now, is the result of the miraculous passage and return”? The battlefield is symbolic of the field of life, where every creature lives on the death of another. A realization of the inevitable guilt of life may so sicken the heart that, like Hamlet or like Arjuna, one may refuse to go on with it. On the other hand, like most of the rest of us, one may invent a false, finally unjustified, image of oneself as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as others are, but justified in one’s inevitable sinning because one represents the good. Such self-righteousness leads to a misunderstanding, not only of oneself but of the nature of both man and the cosmos. The goal of the myth is to dispel the need for such life ignorance by effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. And this is effected through a realization of the true relationship of the passing phenomena of time to the imperishable life that lives and dies in all. “Even as a person casts off worn-out clothes and puts on others that are new, so the embodied Self casts off worn-out bodies and enters into others that are new. Weapons cut It not; fire burns It not; water wets It not; the wind does not wither It. This Self cannot be cut nor burnt nor wetted nor withered. Eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, the Self is the same for ever.”

‘Man in the world of action loses his centering in the principle of eternity if he is anxious for the outcome of his deeds, but resting them and their fruits on the knees of the Living God he is released by them, as by a sacrifice, from the bondages of the sea of death. “Do without attachment the work you have to do…
Surrendering all action to Me, with mind intent on the Self, freeing yourself from longing and selfishness, fight—unperturbed by grief.” p. 221-2.

‘The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become, because he is. “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permanence of Being, nor is he fearful of the next moment (or of the “other thing”), as destroying the permanent with its change. “Nothing retains its own form; but Nature, the greater renewer, ever makes up forms from forms. Be sure there’s nothing perishes in the whole universe; it does but vary and renew its form.” Thus the next moment is permitted to come to pass. p. 225-6.


All quotes are from:

Campbell, Joseph (1949, 2004) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Learn more about Joseph Campbell, access his lectures and discussion forums through the Joseph Campbell Foundation – click here

Humanity: are we an empathic civilisation???

Something many of us probably do not know is that connected to our drive to survive, is an empathic disposition driving the evolution of “civilisation”. Humans have a long history of empathy that unfortunately our history books tend to forget about. The book The Empathic Civilisation – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin, tells another story.

As a commenter on Peace: How Do We Find It? said, “so now all we need to change, is the minds of the entire human population.” That sounds darn right impossible, doesn’t it. It doesn’t sound very promising, nor ethical, BUT if humans are empathic at their core then maybe we don’t have to change people minds – maybe we just have to REMEMBER a part of ourselves we often forget.

Rifkin writes about the change in people’s minds that led to the spread of Christianity around 1500 years ago.

“Cast adrift from their tribal bonds and thrown together with people of different cultures form around the empire, large numbers of individuals suddenly found themselves alone in dense urban environments and without a sense of identity… what was missing was a powerful new narrative that could put every single individual at the center of a compelling cosmic story of creation, tribulation, judgement, and redemption, and, by doing so, recast the very meaning of human existence… it would be a young sect calling itself Christians that would take Rome and the empire by storm with their story.” [1]

This video is not a replacement but it is a brilliant summary of the book:


Oh and this interview with the Rifkin is pretty cool too:


It seems to me that while conflict and competition play important (and positive) roles in life processes, if we have an empathic disposition then conflicts don’t need to have violent and destructive consequences.

Could small shift in the way we frame our story? Could books and clips such as this one contain the butterfly effect strong enough to realise our empathy and better the world for each other and future generations?

Or will it be a new cosmic narrative that addresses our own distorted sense of identity?

Rifkin describes three Industrial Revolutions, each based on a developments in energy/communications technologies:

1. coal/print

2. oil/radio-television

3. (maybe) the Internet/alternative energy

In order to avoid “planetary collapse” in the face of “a rapidly accelerating juggernaut” of climate change and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (or, if you’re a climate change skeptic, then just exchange those two words for human population which is undeniably ridiculous and out of control) a revolution is necessary.

If this third revolution happens, Ruskin writes that it ‘will be marked by a “distributed” model of energy production (and use) that will rely on the new assumption that human nature is not inherently selfish, but rather that people ‘want to collaborate with others, often freely, for the sheer joy of contributing to the common good.‘[2]

How’s your empathic disposition as we come up to Christmas?

Do you think such a revolution is possible?

I do, but that might be summer and the fact that I just got my first scooter, bringing back my pre-India incurable optimism…


[1] The Empathic Civilization – The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin.

[2] As summed in a review in ONE COUNTRY, Bahai Internationa Community New York, Ed. Brad Pokorny.

Have you met TED? Introducing “Narratology”

Which Ted? Ted from How I Met Your Mother, or Ted-Talks? While both are wonderful sources of inspiration, today I will using the former to introduce “Narratology”.

Narratology is the study of narratives, the stories lived and the stories told. The stories in one’s head, and the stories that become one’s reality. The story of you, the story of your people, your culture, your religion, the story of humanity, the story of the universe… stories surround us.

Roland Bathes,  sums up narrative better than I ever could:

The narratives of the world are numberless. …  Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news times, conversation … [and] narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society… Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural. It is simply there, like life itself. [1]

Narrative is, in the words of another great narratologist Theodore R. Sarbin, our “root metaphor.” [2]

How I Met Your Mother has some of the cleverest scripting ever. Besides the fact that it has me laughing, and that it has even had me in tears (when Ted got hit by the car), my favourite thing about this show is the way they play with narrative.

In case you haven’t seen it, every episode is told from told from the viewpoint of a father in 2030 telling his children “how he met their mother”, recollecting his friends’ stories from and seemingly never getting to the part where he actually meets their mother. Episodes don’t always follow exactly on from one another and stories are played out as they would be told – with parts forgotten, exaggerated and imagined. Stories within stories within stories are told from individual people’s different perspectives, capturing many truths about our culture, social nuances, fantasies and life issues.

This is one of my favourite examples… “Blah Blah” and the hot-crazy scale!


Ok, so if you are a keen follower of this blog, you will notice that (once again) I am jumping eclectically from one topic to another. The other day I introduced my plans for studying philosophy, and now I’m talking narratology. Where is my structure? My staged methodolic organised research? It might make no sense to anyone else but it is there, somewhere in my unconscious and subconscious mind, I just haven’t identified it yet.

My approach to research is more intuitively led – and I like it this way, it keeps things fun. I’m also interested the application of the concepts I’m studying – rather than just the theory. The different theories I’m reading about seem to overlap and shine lights on each other.

What does narratology mean for philosophy and religion and big history? What does Social Construction Theory have to do with Faucault’s Discipline and Punish, with power, structure and agency? What does this have to do with our ecological trajectories? What does this mean for me, and the life I am living? These are the sort of questions going through my head.

It might seem mind-boggling, with complicated topics layered upon one another, but I get bored easily, and this keeps me entertained. I would much prefer move organically through the literature, reading whatever topic makes me excited in a moment, rather than over-indulging in one of them and moving sloggishly onto the next. How this pans out in pulling together a large body of academic work… I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see.

As I learn about these very interesting mind-twisting concepts, I will share them. If you get lost in my brain, in the hopping from one topic to another, then I appologise – it probably means I’m just as lost as you!

Long story short – if you haven’t met Ted then you should meet him soon!


[1] Barthes 1966 essay Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives, quoted in Michael J Toolan, Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction (London: Routledge, 1988). p. 6.

[2] Theodore R. Sarbin, ‘The Narrative as a Root Metaphor for Psychology’, in Sarbin ed., Narrative Psychology : The Storied Nature of Human Conduct (New York: Praeger, 1986b).

Redefining the “good life”

There is plenty of evidence that ‘the work-dominated and materially encumbered affluence of today is not giving us enjoyable lives, and that switching to a more sustainable society in which we work and produce less would actually make us happier’:

the stress, congestion, ill-health, noise and waste that come with our “high” standard of living.’

–  the ‘rates of occupational ill-health and depression have been shown to be linked to the number of hours we work

All in all they have shown that ‘once a certain level of income is reached further wealth does not correlated with increased happiness.’

You can probably tell from the last few blog entries that my happiness (although still caught up in many societal-determined aspirations) it isn’t caught up in material wealth. I do not believe wealth equals happiness. And so you may ask: what is it that actually makes me happy? I feel at my happiest when I am dedicating my time to something I feel is worthwhile. It may be writing, reading, helping someone, traveling, exercising, cooking, spending time with family or friends – whatever it is, my happiness seems to be inseparable from (my perception of) the worthiness of those things to which I am spend my most valuable (and limited) asset.

One way we can increase the happiness in our own lives, and decreasing the damage we are causing to lives in developing countries and our environment, is to reflect on our conception of “the good life” and make sure it really is guiding us toward a life we desire. A redefinition of the “good life” would focus on the quality of life rather than quantity of “things”. It would begin by addressing the “time poverty” so often experienced in western society.

We would begin by decreasing our work hours, which would lower our incomes but would also mean less stress and less strain on relationships, less commuting, and would allow us to be rich in something else: time.


Snapped in Bolivia on the Uyuni Salt Lakes. It was even more magic than it looks.


Kate Soper, ‘The Good Life’, New Scientist (18 Oct 2008). p. 54. Soper is based at London Metropolitan University, specialising in the theory of needs and consumption, and environmental philosophy, author of What is Nature? Culture, politics and the non-human. Also see: Cultures of Consumption Project at

‘How We Kicked out Addiction to Growth’, New Scientist (October 2008). p. 53.

When you lose your peace narrative….

Last night during some deep anthropological discussions, the subject of depression came up.

“Depression is the incongruence between creations of your mind and soul, and the creations you are manifesting in the material world.” Lauren explained. “A depressed person feels as if their mind is disconnected from their emotions and from their body. One’s feelings take over their body and although their mind might be wanting one thing, their energy levels prevent them doing it. It’s like the disconnection felt by a person who’s had a stroke… It seems to come down to a loss of hope.”

I know I’ve talked about depression when I was feeling down and lost, but my self-diagnosis may have been a little over the top. I might eat when I’m emotional or annoyed – as a “fuck you” to myself – but I’ve never been unable to get up in the morning and I’ve never lost hope in humanity and life. I guess there are different degrees of everything.

Western societies today have the greatest rates of depression than ever before. Why?

When I woke up this morning after a night of processing all we had discussed, something dawned on me… my last entry was wrong:

NOT ALL of us live by a narrative of peace.

And what happens when we don’t? I guess our minds might travel down a narrative of destruction. A narrative that affirms in our minds that nothing is going to get better. Depression being a possible consequence.

I guess the thing about narratives is that they do change over time – a narrative of destruction can turn into a narrative of peace. How? I’m not really sure. I guess that’s what I’ll look at in my phd if I do it.

One thing I know for sure is that I’m loving narratology already. Simply the idea of interpreting the world and our minds as different narratives seems to provide so much opportunity for understanding. And I haven’t even read a book on it yet!