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Temptations of Clarity

BY Mark C.E. Peterson May 8, 2022

Art and math intersect at the Taj Mahal. Aleks Krotoski, 2010. CC 2.0.

Improvement makes straight roads; but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.
William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

It turns out that all boundaries are blurry, but humans like straight lines and clear boundaries. We’re taught—shoot, we’re conditioned—to look for sharp clarity even in the muddiest places.  Remember this? “Don’t you get out of line, mister!” That thing? Eliminating ambiguity, un-blurring the lines, is damned useful, but there’s a downside: real life is never precise and neither is the world we live in. Still, there’s a powerful temptation to believe that the search for clarity must always trump the muddy experience of real life. I’d like to suggest that this can make you crazy.

Like this: Aristotle noticed that carpenters and mathematicians have entirely different interests in triangles. Looks innocent enough, right? On the perfectly-clear side, you can know a lot about triangles. For instance, you can know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Clearly. If you’re a mathematician. But what if you’re a carpenter? Carpenters make triangles all the time, but they know that no triangle, in the physical world, can ever be a perfect, mathematically precise triangle. You cannot cut perfectly straight lines with a circular saw… or even a laser.

Amusingly enough, this blurred boundary between mathematics and carpentry drove the Pythagoreans crazy. Think about it: if I get some plywood and cut out a right triangle, two sides of which have a length of 1 foot, say, that would mean the length of the hypotenuse would, mathematically speaking, be the square root of 2. Now, since the square root of 2 is an irrational number that goes on forever, you’d have to ask yourself whether that edge of the plywood goes on forever.

It doesn’t, of course. Weird to think about, though… 

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All you can do is—and here’s the punchline—get close enough. Embrace the blur between theory and practice. In the real world, getting close enough works out fine. Triangles, and everything we can know about them, are terrifically handy when it comes to building things in the physical world, but any expectation that the world can provide theoretically, mathematically perfect triangles will, over time, make you crazy.

So what’s the mythological hypotenuse here? 

The hero’s journey, Campbell’s monomyth, is a theoretical structure based on the data he had available—primarily the works of Heinrich Zimmer and the ton of reading he did during his days up at Woodstock. It’s a terrifically useful way to understand structures in the real world (in your own life, for instance) but, like that plywood, can we expect that our lives will fit his theoretical model perfectly?

That’s the blurred boundary between Campbell’s theoretical model and the lived experience it can help clarify. But again, there’s a danger of letting the craving for clarity drive us crazy.  

When we lose track of that blurred character, theories become ideology—a set of totalitarian prescriptions. Campbell saw this clearly.

The difference between an ideology and a mythology is the difference between the ego and the self: ideology comes from the thinking system and mythology comes from the being.

The Hero’s Journey (book), p. 266

Every once in a while you run across a fan of Campbell or, ahem, an academic somewhere who treats the hero’s journey as ideology, but the hero’s journey is itself a metaphor and, remembering one of Campbell’s favorite observations, it’s easy to get stuck on the metaphor.  When you do that, you lose the meaning.

Now one way you can tell that you’ve gotten stuck on a metaphor, or reduced it to ideology, is to notice that it’ll begin to display weird contradictions. Let’s take Campbell’s wonderful story about the tiger raised by goats who one day discovers he’s really a tiger. The moral of the story is that we’re all tigers but we think we’re goats. 

This is a wonderful way to understand the discontinuities in life, to explain the blurred boundaries between who we think we might be, who we might still be without knowing it yet, and who we turn out to be in real life. But if you turn the metaphor into some kind of theorem (like Pythagoras’s), the clear lines suddenly become sharp enough to cut itself to pieces: I mean, if we’re all tigers, there wouldn’t be anything to eat. No more goats. Taken as mere theory, the myth becomes problematic. That’s one indication that a theoretical model is beginning to rub up against reality. 

There’s another blurred boundary here between what Campbell called your “tiger-face” and the face you show the world.

When al-Hallaj or Jesus let the orthodox community know that they were tigers, they were crucified. And so the Sufis learned the lesson at that time with the death of al-Hallaj, around a.d. 900. And it is: You wear the outer garment of the law; you behave like everyone else. And you wear the inner garment of the mystic way. Now that’s the great secret of life.

The Hero’s Journey p. 271

The attempt to make boundaries utterly clear and concise lands you in trouble or, if you push it, can even get you crucified.

Hitting a boundary layer like this is a reminder to treat the myths as relational narratives and not algorithms, as signs pointing beyond themselves and not as maps, as useful suggestions waiting for your own experiences to validate them and not as adamantine dogma, the fossilization of thought. 

As frustrating as this can be, it’s a sign of mental health.  Embracing the blurry boundaries in life turns out to be required for an authentic life, one that depends on recognizing the relative truths provided by clarity and ambiguity and how, across a blurred boundary, theory and practice can inform one another.

Pretty geeky stuff this week! 

But thanks for musing along.


Discuss this MythBlast with the author and the rest of the JCF community in our forums, Conversations of a Higher Order.

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and former President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

Monthly Gift

Envoy: No Horizons

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

This eSingle is an excerpt from Joseph Campbell’s book Myths to Live By.

Campbell famously compared mythology to a kangaroo pouch for the human mind and spirit: “a womb with a view.” In Myths to Live By, he examines all of the ways in which myth supports and guides us, giving our lives meaning. Love and war, science and religion, East and West, inner space and outer space-Campbell shows how the myths we live by can reconcile all of these pairs of opposites and bring a sense of the whole.

Weekly Quote

“One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight’s dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart.”

Featured Audio

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Myth Resources

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In his now classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig brings us a literary chautauqua, a novel that is meant to both entertain and edify. It scores high on both counts.

Phaedrus, our narrator, takes a present-tense cross-country motorcycle trip with his son during which the maintenance of the motorcycle becomes an illustration of how we can unify the cold, rational realm of technology with the warm, imaginative realm of artistry. As in Zen, the trick is to become one with the activity, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all details–be it hiking in the woods, penning an essay, or tightening the chain on a motorcycle.

In his autobiographical first novel, Pirsig wrestles both with the ghost of his past and with the most important philosophical questions of the 20th century–why has technology alienated us from our world? what are the limits of rational analysis? if we can’t define the good, how can we live it? Unfortunately, while exploring the defects of our philosophical heritage from Socrates and the Sophists to Hume and Kant, Pirsig inexplicably stops at the middle of the 19th century. With the exception of Poincaré, he ignores the more recent philosophers who have tackled his most urgent questions, thinkers such as Peirce, Nietzsche (to whom Phaedrus bears a passing resemblance), Heidegger, Whitehead, Dewey, Sartre, Wittgenstein, and Kuhn. In the end, the narrator’s claims to originality turn out to be overstated, his reasoning questionable, and his understanding of the history of Western thought sketchy. His solution to a synthesis of the rational and creative by elevating Quality to a metaphysical level simply repeats the mistakes of the premodern philosophers. But in contrast to most other philosophers, Pirsig writes a compelling story. And he is a true innovator in his attempt to popularize a reconciliation of Eastern mindfulness and nonrationalism with Western subject/object dualism. The magic of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance turns out to lie not in the answers it gives, but in the questions it raises and the way it raises them. Like a cross between The Razor’s Edge and Sophie’s World, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance takes us into “the high country of the mind” and opens our eyes to vistas of possibility. –Brian Bruya

Featured Work

Hero’s Journey, The (book)

This masterfully crafted book interweaves conversations between Campbell and some of the people he inspired, including poet Robert Bly, anthropologist Angeles Arrien, filmmaker David Kennard, Doors drummer John Densmore, psychiatric pioneer Stanislov Grof, Nobel laureate Roger Guillemen, and others. Campbell reflects on subjects ranging from the origins and functions of myth, the role of the artist, and the need for ritual to the ordeals of love and romance. With poetry and humor, Campbell recounts his own quest and conveys the excitement of his lifelong exploration of our mythic traditions, what he called “the one great story of mankind.”

Book Club

“There’s hardly a tale centering a young person that isn’t at some point broadly referred to as a “coming-of-age” story, as if children are nothing but transitional creatures, pre-adults waiting to evolve into their final form. The chasm between childhood and adulthood is broadened and examined in this month’s book: Lydia Millet’s 2020 novel A Children’s Bible. This is a story that will remind adult readers of the ever-present unease of youth, an endemic harshness that keeps children acutely aware, by nature, of death and danger. Millet weaves the reality of current climate crises with Christian allegory to highlight evergreen questions central to humanity’s monomyth: What world have we inherited, and what will we leave behind for the next generation when our time is up?”

Gabrielle Basha
Communications Manager
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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