Over the past week or so I’ve found myself reading Joseph Campbell’s series The Masks of God, and came to a passage which, in many ways, summarizes a lot of my thoughts over the past two years or so.
“The myth of eternal return, which is still basic to Oriental life, displays an order of fixed forms that appear and reappear through all time. The daily round of the sun, the waning and waxing moon, the cycle of the year, and the rhythm of organic birth, death, and new birth, represent a miracle of continuous arising that is fundamental to the nature of the universe. We all know the archaic myth of the four ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, where the world is shown declining, growing ever worse. It will disintegrate presently in chaos, only to burst forth again, fresh as a flower, to recommence spontaneously the inevitable course. There never was a time when time was not. Nor will there be a time when this kaleidoscopic play of eternity in time will have ceased.
There is therefore nothing to be gained, either for the universe or for man, through individual originality and effort. Those who have identified themselves with the mortal body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything — for them — must end. But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all — including themselves — revolves, everything is acceptable as it is; indeed, can even be experienced as glorious and wonderful. The first duty of the individual, consequently, is simply to play his given role — as do the sun and moon, the various animal and planet species, the waters, the rocks, and the stars — without resistance, without fault; and then, if possible, so to order his mind to identify its consciousness with the inhabiting principle of the whole.”
– Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God – Oriental Mythology
I feel that our actions are unconsciously guided by a higher organizing principle, leading humankind and all life on Earth to unfurl into ever changing novelty and diversity of ever greater complexity and magnificence. When I try to step back and look at our species from as high a perch as possible, I see us struggling with a way to organize ourselves into a greater structure. Like all forms of architecture, you can only build a structure if it has a sound foundation, and we’re constantly striving to erect greater and greater structures out toward the stars and beyond. All of us are like individual gears and components in this vast machine which none of us understand fully.
But I’m speaking rather abstractly. Let’s take it down a notch and get a little more concrete. The main focus of the minds of men seems to be the idea of love. When I say love I mean it in a very broad sense. Love is the principle by which mankind organizes itself. In some sense it may be something far greater than mankind. Let me explain.
I’m going to go over all of this rather quickly, but I think I can at least give a broad outline of what I want to discuss. Human love has its precursors in our animal ancestors long ago. It begins with the development of our sense of self. Broadly speaking, our sense of self comes from our ability to perceive the internal states of others and relate those to our own. In our animal ancestors, this came through interpreting things like bodily gestures, facial expressions, tones of growls, grunts, and other forms of primitive communication. These sorts of internal states laid the groundwork for the development of further emotions and self understanding, such as empathy, sympathy, identifying with others, and love.
These forms of communication, along with the ability to internalize the states of others, are what gave rise to our ability to organize into much greater units. There was a long development here, spanning millions of years. Our earliest forms of bonding were sexual. This included sexual bonding and mate selection. You have things like the mother infant bond, and males competing for control over females. In most animals you see this as the primary form of bonding. In many species, the males protect their females and children, and compete for mates. Since our ultimate origins come from the fact that we’re DNA replication machines, males oftentimes control the females in order to manage who they can and cannot mate with. Males don’t want to raise another male’s children. These sorts of ancient instincts are still embedded in us today.
In humans, you see this all the time. For example, many believe the woman should be subjugated to the man, and throughout most of our history women have been treated largely as property. Why is this? It’s the same reason a male sea lion battles others on the beach to control a harem. It primarily about controlling who that woman mates with, and it’s an unconscious instinct to make sure that any child that that woman gives birth to carries that particular male’s genes. This is also the same reason why young teenage girls always go up to the cute boys at school and say, “You don’t want to date her, she’s such a slut!” Why would a man care if she’s a “slut”? Us men love sex! If she’s good at it, that’s even better, isn’t it? You’d think, but that’s not what’s going on here. The teenage girls are trying to unconsciously tell the man that if he were to have a child with that woman, there’s no guarantee that the child would be his, because she sleeps around. He may raise another man’s child, wasting his valuable resources and time. You’ll have to study evolutionary psychology. Fascinating stuff.
But anyways, this ancient instinct is the foundation by which our love is built. It gave rise to family, which is to this day humankind’s strongest bond. Both men and women put great effort into making sure their children succeed in the world, driven on by unconscious instincts to pass on their genes to the next generation. My mother is always urging me to get married, and I don’t think she has any clue as to why she cares so much about it. My father also was talking to me earlier today. He felt compelled to relate a story to me about having children, basically pointing out that a man should raise a family and have children and that it’s selfish not to. Once again, this is all driven by the same instinctual processes. But if these instincts weren’t in place, our species would die out.
Let’s go a bit further. Mankind has also evolved further in its ability to organize together into groups. Besides just the family, we have evolved a primitive form of morality, we have desires to belong to a group, we seek “purpose” in our lives, we develop friendships, admire things like loyalty, chivalry, and justice, and so on. All of these things allow us to organize further into groups. They’re tools. They’re the foundation by which mankind can organize. But they’re not enough to get us past the small tribe. We need something more. How did we get to where we’re organized into the vast global economy we have today?
This required ideas and the development of our brain. Ideas have a reality all of their own. Some of the earliest, crude organizing ideas were religion. Early gods and tribal deities play the same role that smell does in many animal species. If you take a rat, they have families and oftentimes live together. How do they know whether a rat is “one of us” or “one of them”? They have a peculiar scent which all members of that family have. You can take one of these rats away from their den, spray a foreign scent on it, and then put it back, and the other rats will tear their once beloved brother to shreds. Religion is the same way. A god or tribal logo is a form of identifying “one of us” from “the other”. It extended the family unit to include others not directly related genetically, allowing them to work together.
But as our species grew, this sort of method of organization caused a lot of conflict. We all know of the wars and conflict religion brings about. As more and more people cover the Earth, religion has had to give way. We began to have secular governments, allowing people of different faiths and religious beliefs to live together peacefully, and work together within a free economy.
This is all getting really complicated very quickly. I can’t take this story much beyond this point. For example, religion plays a much deeper roles in the lives of many people, and is more complicated that what I’ve made it. The origins of trade, government, and economies could span many volumes. This rough outline is so cursory, it doesn’t really do the topic justice. But I wanted you to have a more firm grasp on what I meant when I talk about seeing an organizational trend throughout all life on Earth, even in human beings.
Now we can finally get back to what Joseph Campbell was talking about. When speaking about oriental philosophy, he spoke of individuals having a duty to play a certain role in the grand scheme of life. I don’t feel it’s a duty. That makes it sound like some sort of moral imperative that people have to deliberate over and then choose to fulfill this “purpose” for their lives. No. People are guided on to do these things without them even knowing they’re doing them. It’s just happening and we’re a part of it.
When I open up the newspaper, I see most of the articles are about love, personal relationships, family, and social issues about how to organize our world and distribute our collective resources. How will we educate the young? Who will pay for these things? What sort of safety net will we have? And so on. We’re constantly striving to build a more complex structure, and our species is trying to grow. You’re naturally wired up to to be a part of it. When you stick up for the poor, fight for some political movement or position, debate morality, and so on, you’re taking part in this global discussion of how mankind will organize itself into ever greater complexity.
Where it all goes, I have no idea. Now we have the internet which is the most remarkable thing in existence. Ideas are being transferred between minds at the speed of our digital technology which is practically the speed of light. We may even start merging our brains with those machines, allowing us to absorb information at the same speed as our machines. Remember, the core process which allowed us to organize to begin with was the ability to internalize the states of others. Right now we do this though journalism, novels, movies, gossip, body language, and so on. Imagine when we can directly beam emotions, thoughts, and other information directly into one another’s brains, bypassing much more crude and imperfect forms of communication. People will much more deeply understand one another. The consequences will be immense. We’ll be able to sort and sift through complicated ideas, and think through their consequences far more quickly, allowing us to grow even more. Mankind will likely expand out into space and the cosmos. I find it fascinating reflecting on this whole development, and studying how it all happened.
When I think of love, I think of this sort of force which is bringing things together. In this sense, many of the laws of physics are a form of love because they hold the matter of this world together, just as ideas and emotions bond people together. The process of biological evolution is a form of love, as is economics or law. They all share a common organizational theme. Something new is evolving everyday. Things change whether you want them to or not. Maybe the universe is always changing, always growing, creating new novel forms for all of us to enjoy for all of eternity.