Wednesday, April 22, 2020

4/22/20: Book Review: The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is a preeminent scholar, writer, and teacher in the field of mythology, and he has had a profound influence on millions of thinkers the world over. To him, mythology is the “song of the universe, the music of the spheres.” He often refers to it as poetry. With Bill Moyers, one of America’s most prominent journalists, they created a thoughtful and engaging television interview that was transcribed into this book, The Power of Myth. This interview touches on subjects from modern marriage to virgin births, from Jesus to Buddha to John Lennon to Star Wars, offering a brilliant combination of intelligence and wit. 

The Editor’s Note to this 1988 book states, “This conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell took place in 1985 and 1986 at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and later at the Museum of natural History in New York. Many of us … were struck by the rich abundance of material captured during the twenty-four hours of filming---much of which had to be cut in making the six-hour PBS series. The idea for a book arose from the desire to make this material available not only to viewers of the series but also to those who have long appreciated Campbell through reading his books.”

The Power of Myth is a glittering explanation of the literary world of the spirit, and the poetry (myth stores) that describe how we deal with the spiritual in our day to day existence. I was not only fascinated by this work, I forced myself to ready it slowly, only a dozen or so pages per day, so that I could more fully absorb and meditate on all the knowledge that passed between these two wonderful thinkers. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

4/10/20: Martin Luther and the Reformation

I’ve been reading Durant’s Story of Civilization V1, The Reformation. It seems there were two key figures that launched the Reformation in Germany, Luther and Erasmus. Although I admire Erasmus much more than Luther, in philosophy and approach, I must admit I found the following summation of Luther both enlightening and a beautiful piece of writing. 

Those years were among the most momentous in history, and Luther had been their strident and dominant voice. His faults were many. He lacked appreciation of the historic role that the Church had played in civilizing northern Europe, lacked understanding of mankind’s hunger for symbolic and consolatory myths, lacked the charity to deal justly with his Catholic or Protestant foes. He freed his followers from an infallible pope, but subjected them to an infallible book; and it has been easier to change the popes than the book. He retained the most cruel and incredible dogmas of medieval religion, while allowing almost all its beauty to be stamped out in its legends and its art, and bequeathed to Germany a Christianity no truer than the old one, far less joyous and comforting, only more honest in its teaching and personnel. He became almost as intolerant as the Inquisition, but his words were harsher than his deeds. He was guilty of the most vituperative writing in the history of literature. He taught Germany the theological hatred that incarnadined its soil until a hundred years after his death. 

And yet his faults were his success. He was a man of war because the situation seemed to demand war, because the problems he attacked had for centuries resisted all the methods of peace. His whole life was a battle—against the sense of guilt, against the Devil, the Pope, the Emperor, Zwingli, even against the friends who would have compromised his revolt into a gentlemanly protest politely heard and carefully forgotten. What could a milder man have done against such handicaps and powers? No man of philosophic breadth, no scientific mind restricting belief to the evidence, no genial nature making generous allowances for the enemy, would have flung down so world-shaking a challenge, or would have marched so resolutely, as if in blinders, to his goal. If his predestinarian theology was as repugnant to reason and human kindness as any myth or miracle in the medieval faith, it was by this passionate irrationality that it moved the hearts of men. It is hope and terror that make men pray, not the evidence of things seen. 

It remains that with the blows of his rude fist he smashed the cake of custom, the shell of authority, that had blocked the movement of the European mind. If we judge greatness by influence—which is the least subjective test that we can use—we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. More has been written about him than about any other modern man except Shakespeare and Napoleon. His influence on philosophy was tardy and indirect; it moved the fideism of Kant, the nationalism of Fichte, the voluntarism of Schopenhauer, the Hegelian surrender of the soul to the state. His influence on German literature and speech was as decisive and pervasive as that of the King James Bible on language and letters in England. No other German is so frequently or so fondly quoted. Along with Carlstadt and others, he affected the moral life and institutions of Western man by breaking away from clerical celibacy, and pouring into secular life the energies that had been diverted to monastic asceticism, idleness, or piety. His influence lessened as it spread; it was immense in Scandinavia, transitory in France, superseded by Calvin’s in Scotland, England, and America. But in German it was supreme; no other thinker or writer cut so deep a mark in German history, and his countrymen loved him no less because he was the most German German of them all. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Thoughts from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

“The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet—and we don’t have such a mythology. The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do.  The task is only to know what is, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all of these beings.”

The USA was the first nation to be founded on the basis of reason, by eighteenth-century deists who believed in a God but not the bible. They did not believe in a Fall. They did not think the mind of man was cut off from God. The mind of man, cleansed of secondary and merely temporal concerns, beholds with the radiance of a cleansed mirror a reflection of the rational mind of God. Reason puts you in touch with God. Consequently, for these men, there is no special revelation anywhere, and none is needed, because the mind of man cleared of its fallibilities is sufficiently capable of the knowledge of God. All people in the world are thus capable because all people in the world are capable of reason. And because all men are capable of reason, everybody’s mind is capable of true knowledge, you don’t have to have a special authority, or a special revelation telling you that this is the way things should be.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

3/21/20: Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steve Johnson

This book is a gem of knowledge, starting with the fascinating observations and insights of Charles Darwin and moving through the history of great idea men to today’s Nano technology thinkers. Johnson gives solid, practical insight into where and how human ideas evolve, and advice on the best ways to foster those ideas. 

I found the first half of the book ten times more interesting than the last half, but it still is a worthwhile read cover to cover. One of the most interesting ideas for me, called negative quarter-power scaling, came in the first pages:

Scientists and animal lovers had long observed that as life gets bigger, it slows down. Flies live for hours or days; elephants live for half-centuries. The hearts of birds and small mammals pump blood much faster than those of giraffes and blue whales. But the relationship between size and speed didn’t seem to be a linear one. A horse might be five hundred times heavier than a rabbit, yet its pulse certainly wasn’t five hundred times slower that the rabbit’s. After a formidable series of measurements in his Davis lab, Kleiber discovered that this scaling phenomenon stuck to an unvarying mathematical script called “negative quarter-power scaling.” If you plotted mass versus metabolism on a logarithmic grid, the result was a perfectly straight line that led from rats and pigeons all the way up to bulls and hippopotami. 

Physicists were used to discovering beautiful equations like this lurking in the phenomena they studied, but mathematical elegance was a rarity in the comparatively messy world of biology. But the more species Kleiber and his peers analyzed, the clearer the equation became: metabolism scales to mass to the negative quarter power. The math is simple enough: you take the square root of 1,000, which is (approximately) 31, and then take the square root of 31, which is (again, approximately) 5.5. This means that a cow, which is roughly a thousand times heavier than a woodchuck, will, on average, live 5.5 times longer, and have a heart rate that is 5.5 times slower than the woodchuck’s. As the science writer George Johnson once observed, one lovely consequence of Kleiber’s law is that the number of heartbeats per lifetime tends to be stable from species to species. Bigger animals just take longer to use up their quota.

Over the ensuing decades, Kleiber’s law was extended down to the microscopic scale of bacteria and cell metabolism; even plants were found to obey negative quarter-power scaling in their patterns of growth.  Wherever life appeared, whenever an organism had to figure out a way to consume and distribute energy through a body, negative quarter-power scaling governed the patterns of its development.