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Reply To: Seeking Answers



Joseph Campbell’s reference to this guidance from Heinrich Zimmer is repeated in work after work after work, almost as often as he mentions the four functions of mythology, and phrased slightly differently each time, sometimes with more precision, sometimes less. Comparing all of these, along with the various formations in lectures, Campbell’s meaning becomes clear.

Here is my understanding:

First Best Things:
what are beyond words, beyond conception, beyond time and space – impossible to put into words.

Second Best Things:
these are “second best” because they are attempts to talk about what is beyond words with words (i.e. attempts to talk about words by means of the Third Best Things), which is why they are misunderstood.

Third Best Things: everyday conversation.


My old mentor, Heinrich Zimmer, had a little saying: the best things can’t be told—they are transcendent, inexpressible truths. The second-best are misunderstood: . . . metaphoric attempts to point the way toward the first. And the third-best have to do with history, science, biography, and so on. The only kind of talking that can be understood is this last kind. When you want to talk about the first kind, that which can’t be said, you use the third kind as communication to the first. But people read it as referring to the third directly; the image is no longer transparent to the transcendent.” (Pathways to Bliss)

“My friend Heinrich Zimmer used to say the best things can’t be said. This is one of them. The second best are misunderstood. That’s because the second best are using the objects of time and space to refer to transcendence. And they are always misunderstood by being interpreted in terms of time and space. The third best: that’s conversation. We’re using the third best in order to talk about the first and second best.” (The Hero’s Journey)

An example he sometimes uses is “God” – a mystery beyond human perception and conception. Most talk of God in religion uses words from every day conversation (God is “good” – or just, or vengeful, or merciful, or eternal . . . all of which are human qualities that are employed in a futile attempt to convey what transcends all conceptualization). Very much like trying to describe the color red to someone blind from birth (“red is hot” or “red means stop” or red is bright and cheery – all of which mean nothing to someone who never has and never will experience “red”), these efforts are misunderstood

. . . except by those who have had an experience of the transcendent (as Jung said, when asked if he believed in God, “I don’t need to believe – I know”).

Zimmer’s formulation is particularly relevant to discussions of mythology because of Campbell’s emphasis on myth as a prime example of second best things (i.e. metaphorical attempts to point the way toward the first best things).

That doesn’t make your question any less valid or intriguing; I suspect most misunderstandings are a result of gaps between the thoughts of two or more people – differences in expectation, understanding, emphasis, and nuance. But unless the misunderstanding you had 50 years ago revolved around a discussion of transcendent mysteries, it’s likely not an example of those “second best things.”

You write

Does one ever realize what was misunderstood? I ask this question, because it’s after 50 years, and just recently through a conversation, I realized I misunderstood, misjudged, misinterpreted, a pivotal event in my life. Had I not misunderstood, I would have not lived the life I am now living.”

It is rare to realize what has been misunderstood (especially when one’s whole life is built upon that misunderstanding). You don’t mention whether this misunderstanding was fortunate, or unfortunate – but sounds like the Trickster is in play here.

Campbell’s advice? To say “yea” to it all: “If you say no to any detail of your life, you’ve said no to the whole web because everything is so interlocked.”

I am curious what your reaction was when you realized there had been a misunderstanding. Shock? Regret? Or an “aha!” moment, where suddenly everything makes sense?