The Story of Our Stories: Part III

Continued from Part II

Meta-narrative and the Individual

“You are the Hero of your own story.”

– Joseph Campbell

Thinking of ourselves as heroes is an intoxicating idea. What better way to imagine the arc of our lives than slaying dragons and the rescuing princesses? We imagine that we are lionized the way we lionize politicians, business leaders, artists. We value people that make their lives their own, that carve out their own destinies.

This is the idea that a person can, and should, be an individual, that they should forge their own path through the darkness of existence. The rights of the individual, and the liberty of the individual, should come before the needs of the state. It is the story of human dignity, in whatever form that might take.

We believe that a person should be able to chose the path for themselves. That we should be free to work, free to build lives, free to speak, and free to worship as we please. It is the cornerstone of our civic religion. It is a good and noble thing.

But there are problems with the way we venerate the individual.

As the famous Dryfusard Emile Durkheim put it, Individualism is a religion, and:

A religion which tolerates acts of sacrilege abdicates any sway over men’s minds.

These days, we tolerate many, many acts of sacrilege against the individual. We venerate the individual so long as they’re making choices we like. We Americans are less concerned with protecting the rights of others that are unlike us. We agree that we are the heroes of our own stories, but only so far as they conform to a specific arc, like they do in the higher levels of business, sports, or education.

Further, we are constantly trading a dynamic society for a ‘nice’ one, one that is outwardly peaceful and comfortable, but fundamentally unjust. One of the best books on the subject is The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen.

Cowen contends that, as a society, we are less concerned with freedom than we are with security. We’ve imprisoned massive numbers of people, policed our communities to death, stifled freedom of speech and assembly, and made people generally afraid. We want order above all.

Individualistic societies always trade chaos for freedom in some form. We don’t seem interested in making that trade anymore. We are much more concerned with keeping life quiet and predictable, rather than maximizing freedom.

The reason we’ve been doing this is because we don’t subscribe to the veneration of the individual as Durkheim describes it. It is more in line with what we understand as Campbell’s Hero: the individual as a validation of strength.

We believe that the will of a single person made manifest in the world is the ultimate power. People with the ‘strength’ can ‘put a dent in the universe,’ and make their mark on a hapless, wallowing society unappreciative of their genius. Duty is quaint. Greed rules.

As a moral system, this is probably among the most terrible. If pure self-interest is all that matters, then we really don’t need to worry about society. We need not care for the future, because we won’t be here. We hesitate to act collectively. If there’s a strong leader at the top, sure, we can follow that. But this is a brutal way of looking at the world. It is legitimation through, and only through, power.

This is a dead end for a human being. We know this implicitly, even if we don’t articulate it. We know that alone, we are weak, scared, and desperate. We need to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We can’t depend on only ourselves. 

This is why we can live in an age of comfort yet feel an utter desperation. It’s why we die less of all sorts of diseases, but die deaths of despair at increasing rates. Perhaps it’s why we need to think of ourselves as heroes in the struggle, no matter how comfortable our lives might be. You know, like Joseph Campbell said.

But did he say that?

A writer and critic Mary McCarthy might’ve said something similar but not that exact quote. There is no proof that Joseph Campbell wrote the above quote. However, on page 388 of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell writes:

The problem with mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great coordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all the meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group – none in the world: all is in the individual.

Campbell understood the context of these original myths. He understood that human beings cannot exist only as individuals; they have to exist as a part of something larger than themselves.

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