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Socially-transmitted Values -- Writer's Poke #364

Joseph Campbell’s insights are endlessly fascinating. He suggests that humans are different from animals; spiders, for example, innately knows how to spin a web from birth. Humans, on the other hand, have a pretty long learning curve. Just consider: how long did it take you to learn how to tie your shoes? Ride a bike?
Tying shoes and riding bikes aren’t normally considered to be cultural rituals, although at least in Western culture, it might be argued that both are milestones of sorts. More to Campbell’s point, however, is the idea that values are “socially transmitted,” and “myths are the mental supports of rites.”

What this means in the most basic sense is that we all learn what it means to be human. What it also indicates is that there is not one right way to be human. Just as different species of spiders might utilize different spider web patterns, humans utilize different myths. These myths may have different parts in common, but essentially we are defined by the myths our specific society chooses to follow.

Campbell suggests that a worldwide decline in the value of ritual occurred around 1914. This is the year often associated with the genesis of modern society. World War I taught European and American cultures that past rituals no longer worked. In the context of war, for example, the idea that two armies could face each other on the battlefield in the traditional way proved hopelessly out-dated. Charging the enemy no longer works when the enemy has machine guns.

Is it true that societies must “progress”? Campbell suggests this is the case; and while ritual may, on the surface, appear to be counter to the “progress” philosophy, he also seems to suggest that the power of ritual is its ability to free up our thinking. Rituals provide a necessary pattern that, somewhat ironically, produces organic spontaneity.

How do myths prepare us to be spontaneous? What do you think about the idea of preparing to be spontaneous?

“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” – e.e. cummings


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