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To Be Human Among Titans and Gods

Nagasaki Peace Park. Photo by Taylor Dobson.

In Sake and Satori (being the second volume of Asian Journals), Joseph Campbell provides an account of his travels in the Far East during the spring and summer of 1955. Addressing his time in Japan, (which comprises the bulk of his travels), one finds that the romantic notions of an exotic, spiritual, and mysterious culture slowly give way to sobering undercurrents of cultural and political malaise—especially in international matters. I suppose this is the case with all nations to varying degrees; but at the time, with the relatively recent end of World War II, areas of cultural identity and international relations were surely more pronounced in the collective awareness of the country.

The following is but a small sampling of the many areas and causes of tension that Campbell names: Communist ideologists, U.S. agencies, Japanese unions, senator junkets, illiteracy among foreign staffs, Christian missionizing masquerading as democracy, U.S. Army personnel, and, of course, a fair share of less-than-optimally-cultured tourists. These factors alone would require decades, if not lifetimes, of work to manage into some sort of balance. However, Campbell dives beneath the turmoil of sociopolitical symptoms to search out more universal sources of these problems. 

One Wednesday in June, he reflects on how each faction is particular to its specific system and (here I am surmising based on what follows) to the tools of its trade. “Specialization and technology—yes,” writes Campbell, “but—without culture, humanity, civilization, it is identical with the menace that all of mankind despises: Titanism.” (Asian Journals, 532) Following this reflection, he adds, as if storing a platform for later reference: “Discovered theme, then: Titan or God?”

More on Titanism in a moment. First, let’s examine the above content more carefully. Within specializations and their accompanying technologies, (whether they be mechanical, psychological, political, etc.), individuals and organizations become experts in their fields; however, such expertise often comes at the expense of recognizing larger, more general contexts—namely, the culture of which they are but a part. To accomplish specialization to a very high degree, one must embrace one’s field whole-heartedly—or, to put it less romantically, one-sidedly. And so, each specialized group or individual runs the risk of becoming a sort of know-it-all whose interpretations and evaluations of universal phenomena are overshadowed by the context of their specialization. 

That said, specializations and the invention of their subsequent technologies are natural to evolution. The problems arise when one does not consciously incorporate one’s expertise into a more collective scope—in which case, one becomes titanic, and is infected by a certain hubris and thoughtlessness that effaces one’s own foundations from consideration. This pattern is quite popular among corporations and industries who destroy the Earth’s environment for the sake of monetary profit. 

Now, as the Greek and Roman myths tell us, the Titans rebelled against the gods of Olympus, who in archetypal terms, represent the natural governing order of the cosmos. But the Titans were defeated and imprisoned beneath the earth in Tartarus where their efforts to escape have since been felt above as earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, and so on. In short, because the Titans did not recognize their place in the grander scheme, they were (literally) put in their place. 

However, the myth of the Titans’ rebellion is far more complex than being a mere demonstration of the laws of cosmological balance, or of the consequences that accompany any challenge to that balance. For their quest, although one-sided, is still one of self-empowerment which, as mentioned above, is natural to the evolution of all beings. So, how are we to manage this conflicting situation? 

To this question I wish to introduce readers to Glenn Slater’s “Re-Sink the Titanic” (Spring vol. 62, 1998 pp. 104-120). Among many other things, this exceptional essay on the archetypal applications of the Titan-myth suggests a simple solution: sacrifice. And by “sacrifice” I believe what is meant is an offering of conscientiousness and of thoughtfulness to a higher order, whether that order is social, political, environmental, or cosmological. These days, I am compelled to use the word “offering” in place of “sacrifice” simply because my students are regularly put-off by the latter. Whatever the reasons, and regardless of word-choice, either term refers to an action or intention that reunites one, to whatever degree, with the foundations, be they social, environmental, or cosmological. Consider Socrates, who offers (or sacrifices) the recognition that he doesn’t know, and suddenly, his perspective is opened to possibilities, exceptions, and truths that otherwise would have been dismissed in the presumption of knowing. 

In like fashion, Campbell writes “…there is no point in trying to play the role of God” (which is precisely a Titanic endeavor). Instead, he employs the myth’s lesson, and concludes that being less than God is a healthy and accurate sacrifice or offering: “[W]e just haven’t what it takes for [being God]. But we could be human….” (532) The irony is that while recognizing a position of being less than, one tacitly acknowledges the presence of a more than. And, I would hazard that by doing so, one invites the influence of that more-than into what would otherwise be an isolated endeavor, cut off from its source.


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