Book Review: Myth's to Live By

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The book, Myths to Live By, is a collection of essays and lectures given by Campbell on a variety of topics ranging from whether a mythology is performing its proper function, to mythologies of love and war, to the significance of the moon landing in terms of the human universal unconscious. The essays range in scope from the deeply personal, in the case of the myths about love, to the profoundly infinite, transcending time and space.

Campbell has a gift for making the sublime seem within grasp, and somehow manages to discuss the metaphorical meaning of the Gospels in the same sentence as he points out the finer points of Zen Buddhist psychology. He does this all without losing the reader, and in fact manages to illuminate the connections and the most subtle truths.

Like his other book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By reveals a completely new way to look at the relationship between psychology, dreams, myths, and religion, as well as society and our place in the universe. It is a book to read slowly and carefully; let every sentence seep in until its full meaning is revealed.

Campbell’s prose gets tricky at times, but I think that is to be expected given the  complexity of his subject matter. The essays come across as casual conversations with a friend sharing his thoughts on far-ranging subjects, and he doesn’t really limit himself. Some of the essays start in one place and end up somewhere completely different, but Campbell always manages to relate things in the most surprising ways.

What is the purpose of a properly functioning mythology? According to Campbell, a mythology is the expression of human instinct, acting in very subtle but powerful ways to encourage our behavior. It is meant to prepare contributing, functional members of human society.

One of Campbell’s biggest concerns is that modern society has no effective and properly functioning mythology, leading to widespread inner turmoil and difficulty finding one’s purpose. All the world’s major religions developed in an age when our place in the world, our understanding of it, and our need to relate to other cultures were totally different. The result is either that we have no myth structure to guide our development, or we follow an inappropriate mythology that creates dysfunction.

As a big fan of Joseph Campbell’s writings and ideas, I really enjoyed Myths of Live By. It wasn’t as grandly inspiring as Hero with a Thousand Faces, but went into more depth regarding some topics that weren’t covered in the latter book, and looked at a wider range of subjects. It’s a good book to keep near your bed, to read a chapter at a time and let your subconscious mull over the ideas.

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