The Great Seal of the United States
MOYERS: Isn’t that a story about what happens when human beings destroy their environment? Destroy their world? Destroy nature and the revelations of nature?
CAMPBELL: They destroy their own nature, too. They kill the song.
MOYERS: And isn’t mythology the story of the song?
CAMPBELL: Mythology is the song. It is the song of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body. Once a Zen master stood up before his students and was about to deliver a sermon. And just as he was about to open his mouth, a bird sang. And he said, “The sermon has been delivered.”
MOYERS: I was about to say that we are creating new myths, but you say no, every myth we tell today has some point of origin in our past experience.
CAMPBELL: The main motifs of the myths are the same, and they have always been the same. If you want to find your own mythology, the key is with what society do you associate? Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field. Then they come into collision and relationship, and they amalgamate, and you get a more complex mythology. But today there are no boundaries. The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet— and we don’t have such a mythology. The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do. The task is only to know what is, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all of these beings.
CAMPBELL: Yes. Now brotherhood in most of the myths I know of is confined to a bounded community. In bounded communities, aggression is projected outward. For example, the ten commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Then the next chapter says, “Go into Canaan and kill everybody in it.” That is a bounded field. The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, and the out-group is totally other. This is the sense of the word “gentile”— the person is not of the same order.
MOYERS: And unless you wear my costume, we are not kin.
CAMPBELL: Yes. Now, what is a myth? The dictionary definition of a myth would be stories about gods. So then you have to ask the next question: What is a god? A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and in the universe— the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world. But also there are myths and gods that have to do with specific societies or the patron deities of the society. In other words, there are two totally different orders of mythology. There is the mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you’re a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society. You are not simply a natural man, you are a member of a particular group. In the history of European mythology, you can see the interaction of these two systems. Usually the socially oriented system is of a nomadic people who are moving around, so you learn that’s where your center is, in that group. The nature-oriented mythology would be of an earth-cultivating people. Now, the biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. Nature is condemned. In the nineteenth century, scholars thought of mythology and ritual as an attempt to control nature. But that is magic, not mythology or religion. Nature religions are not attempts to control nature but to help you put yourself in accord with it. But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tension, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annihilation of native people. And the accent here separates us from nature.
MOYERS: Is this why we so easily dominate Or subjugate nature— because we have contempt for it, because we see it only as something to serve us?
CAMPBELL: Yes. I will never forget the experience I had when I was in Japan, a place that never heard of the Fall and the Garden of Eden. One of the Shinto texts says that the processes of nature cannot be evil. Every natural impulse is not to be corrected but to be sublimated, to be beautified. There is a glorious interest in the beauty of nature and cooperation with nature, so that in some of those gardens you don’t know where nature begins and art ends— this was a tremendous experience.
MOYERS: But, Joe, Tokyo today refutes that ideal in such flagrant ways. Tokyo is a city where nature has virtually disappeared, except as contained in small gardens that are still cherished by some of the people.
CAMPBELL: There is a saying in Japan, Rock with the waves. Or, as we say in boxing, Roll with the punches. It is only about a hundred and twenty-five years ago that Perry broke Japan open. And in that time they have assimilated a terrific load of mechanical material. But what I found in Japan was that they were holding their own head against this, and assimilating this machine world to themselves. When you go inside the buildings, then you are back in Japan. It is the outside that looks like New York.
MOYERS: “Holding their own head.” That is an interesting idea because, even though the cities emerge around them, within the soul, the place where the inner person dwells, they are still, as you say, in accord with nature.
CAMPBELL: But in the Bible, eternity withdraws, and nature is corrupt, nature has fallen. In biblical thinking, we live in exile.
MOYERS: As we sit here and talk, there is one story after another of car bombings in Beirut— by the Muslims of the Christians, by the Christians of the Muslims, and by the Christians of the Christians. It strikes me that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world— but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut. What does that say to you?
CAMPBELL: It says to me that they don’t know how to apply their religious ideas to contemporary life, and to human beings rather than just to their own community. It’s a terrible example of the failure of religion to meet the modern world. These three mythologies are fighting it out. They have disqualified themselves for the future.
MOYERS: What kind of new myth do we need?
CAMPBELL: We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. A model for that is the United States. Here were thirteen different little colony nations that decided to act in the mutual interest, without disregarding the individual interests of any one of them.
MOYERS: There is something about that on the Great Seal of the United States.
CAMPBELL: That’s what the Great Seal is all about. I carry a copy of the Great Seal in my pocket in the form of a dollar bill. Here is the statement of the ideals that brought about the formation of the United States. Look at this dollar bill. Now here is the Great Seal of the United States. Look at the pyramid on the left. A pyramid has four sides. These are thQdzqezafx2age four points of the compass. There is somebody at this point, there’s somebody at that point, and there’s somebody at this point. When you’re down on the lower levels of this pyramid, you will be either on one side or on the other. But when you get up to the top, the points all come together, and there the eye of God opens.
MOYERS: And to them it was the god of reason.
CAMPBELL: Yes. This is the first nation in the world that was ever established on the basis of reason instead of simply warfare. These were eighteenth-century deists, these gentlemen. Over here we read, “In God We Trust.” But that is not the god of the Bible. These men did not believe in a Fall. They did not think the mind of man was cut off from God. The mind of man, cleansed of secondary and merely temporal concerns, beholds with the radiance of a cleansed mirror a reflection of the rational mind of God. Reason puts you in touch with God. Consequently, for these men, there is no special revelation anywhere, and none is needed, because the mind of man cleared of its fallibilities is sufficiently capable of the knowledge of God. All people in the world are thus capable because all people in the world are capable of reason. All men are capable of reason. That is the fundamental principle of democracy. Because everybody’s mind is capable of true knowledge, you don’t have to have a special authority, or a special revelation telling you that this is the way things should be.
MOYERS: And yet these symbols come from mythology.
CAMPBELL: Yes, but they come from a certain quality of mythology. It’s not the mythology of a special revelation. The Hindus, for example, don’t believe in special revelation. They speak of a state in which the ears have opened to the song of the universe. Here the eye has opened to the radiance of the mind of God. And that’s a fundamental deist idea. Once you reject the idea of the Fall in the Garden, man is not cut off from his source. Now back to the Great Seal. When you count the number of ranges on this pyramid, you find there are thirteen. And when you come to the bottom, there is an inscription in Roman numerals. It is, of course, 1776. Then, when you add one and seven and seven and six, you get twenty-one, which is the age of reason, is it not? It was in 1776 that the thirteen states declared independence. The number thirteen is the number of transformation and rebirth. At the Last Supper there were twelve apostles and one Christ, who was going to die and be reborn. Thirteen is the number of getting out of the field of the bounds of twelve into the transcendent. You have the twelve signs of the zodiac and the sun. These men were very conscious of the number thirteen as the number of resurrection and rebirth and new life, and they played it up here all the way through.
MOYERS: But, as a practical matter, there were thirteen states.
CAMPBELL: Yes, but wasn’t that symbolic? This is not simply coincidental. This is the thirteen states as themselves symbolic of what they were.
MOYERS: That would explain the other inscription down there, “Novus Ordo Seclorum.” CAMPBELL: “A new order of the world.” This is a new order of the world. And the saying above, “Annuit Coeptis,” means “He has smiled on our accomplishments” or “our activities.”
CAMPBELL: He, the eye, what is represented by the eye. Reason. In Latin you wouldn’t have to say “he,” it could be “it” or “she” or “he.” But the divine power has smiled on our doings. And so this new world has been built in the sense of God’s original creation, and the reflection of God’s original creation, through reason, has brought this about. If you look behind that pyramid, you see a desert. If you look before it, you see plants growing. The desert, the tumult in Europe, wars and wars and wars— we have pulled ourselves out of it and created a state in the name of reason, not in the name of power, and out of that will come the flowerings of the new life. That’s the sense of that part of the pyramid. Now look at the right side of the dollar bill. Here’s the eagle, the bird of Zeus. The eagle is the downcoming of the god into the field of time. The bird is the incarnation principle of the deity. This is the bald eagle, the American eagle. This is the American counterpart of the eagle of the highest god, Zeus. He comes down, descending into the world of the pairs of opposites, the field of action. One mode of action is war and the other is peace. So in one of his feet the eagle holds thirteen arrows— that’s the principle of war. In the other he holds a laurel leaf with thirteen leaves— that is the principle of peaceful conversation. The eagle is looking in the direction of the laurel. That is the way these idealists who founded our country would wish us to be looking— diplomatic relationships and so forth. But thank God he’s got the arrows in the other foot, in case this doesn’t work. Now, what does the eagle represent? He represents what is indicated in this radiant sign above his head. I was lecturing once at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington on Hindu mythology, sociology, and politics. There’s a saying in the Hindu book of politics that the ruler must hold in one hand the weapon of war, the big stick, and in the other the peaceful sound of the song of cooperative action. And there I was, standing with my two hands like this, and everybody in the room laughed. I couldn’t understand. And then they began pointing. I looked back, and here was this picture of the eagle hanging on the wall behind my head in just the same posture that I was in. But when I looked, I also noticed this sign above his head, and that there were nine feathers in his tail. Nine is the number of the descent of the divine power into the world. When the Angelus rings, it rings nine times. Now, over on the eagle’s head are thirteen stars arranged in the form of a Star of David.
MOYERS: This used to be Solomon’s Seal.
CAMPBELL: Yes. Do you know why it’s called Solomon’s Seal?
CAMPBELL: Solomon used to seal monsters and giants and things into jars. You remember in the Arabian Nights when they’d open the jar and out would come the genie? I noticed the Solomon’s Seal here, composed of thirteen stars, and then I saw that each of the triangles was a Pythagorean tetrakys.
MOYERS: The tetrakys being?
CAMPBELL: This is a triangle composed of ten points, one point in the middle and four points to each side, adding up to nine: one, two, three, four/ five, six, seven/ eight, nine. This is the primary symbol of Pythagorean philosophy, susceptible of a number of interrelated mythological, cosmological, psychological, and sociological interpretations, one of which is the dot at the apex as representing the creative center out of which the universe and all things have come.
MOYERS: The center of energy, then?
CAMPBELL: Yes. The initial sound (a Christian might say, the creative Word), out of which the whole world was precipitated, the big bang, the pouring of the transcendent energy into and expanding through the field of time. As soon as it enters the field of time, it breaks into pairs of opposites, the one becomes two. Now, when you have two, there are just three ways in which they can relate to one another: one way is of this one dominant over that; another way is of that one dominant over this; and a third way is of the two in balanced accord. It is then, finally, out of these three manners of relationship that all things within the four quarters of space derive. There is a verse in Lao-tzu’s Tao-te Ching which states that out of the Tao, out of the transcendent, comes the One. Out of the One come Two; out of the Two come Three; and out of the Three come all things. So what I suddenly realized when I recognized that in the Great Seal of the United States there were two of these symbolic triangles interlocked was that we now had thirteen points, for our thirteen original states, and that there were now, furthermore, no less than six apexes, one above, one below, and four (so to say) to the four quarters. The sense of this, it seemed to me, might be that from above or below, or from any point of the compass, the creative Word might be heard, which is the great thesis of democracy. Democracy assumes that anybody from any quarter can speak, and speak truth, because his mind is not cut off from the truth. All he has to do is clear out his passions and then speak. So what you have here on the dollar bill is the eagle representing this wonderful image of the way in which the transcendent manifests itself in the world. That’s what the United States is founded on. If you’re going to govern properly, you’ve got to govern from the apex of the triangle, in the sense of the world eye at the top. Now, when I was a boy, we were given George Washington’s farewell address and told to outline the whole thing, every single statement in relation to every other one. So I remember it absolutely. Washington said, “As a result of our revolution, we have disengaged ourselves from involvement in the chaos of Europe.” His last word was that we not engage in foreign alliances. Well, we held on to his words until the First World War. And then we canceled the Declaration of Independence and rejoined the British conquest of the planet. And so we are now on one side of the pyramid. We’ve moved from one to two. We are politically, historically, now a member of one side of an argument. We do not represent that principle of the eye up there. And all of our concerns have to do with economics and politics and not with the voice and sound of reason.
MOYERS: The voice of reason— is that the philosophical way suggested by these mythological symbols?
CAMPBELL: That’s right. Here you have the important transition that took place about 500 B.C. This is the date of the Buddha and of Pythagoras and Confucius and Lao-tzu, if there was a Lao-tzu. This is the awakening of man’s reason. No longer is he informed and governed by the animal powers. No longer is he guided by the analogy of the planted earth, no longer by the courses of the planets— but by reason.
MOYERS: The way of—
CAMPBELL: —the way of man. And of course what destroys reason is passion. The principal passion in politics is greed. That is what pulls you down. And that’s why we’re on this side instead of the top of the pyramid.
MOYERS: That’s why our founders opposed religious intolerance—
CAMPBELL: That was out entirely. And that’s why they rejected the idea of the Fall, too. All men are competent to know the mind of God. There is no revelation special to any people. MOYERS: I can see how, from your years of scholarship and deep immersion in these mythological symbols, you would read the Great Seal that way. But wouldn’t it have been surprising to most of those men who were deists, as you say, to discover these mythological connotations about their effort to build a new country?
CAMPBELL: Well, why did they use them?
MOYERS: Aren’t a lot of these Masonic symbols?
CAMPBELL: They are Masonic signs, and the meaning of the Pythagorean tetrakys has been known for centuries. The information would have been found in Thomas Jefferson’s library. These were, after all, learned men. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a world of learned gentlemen. We haven’t had men of that quality in politics very much. It’s an enormous good fortune for our nation that that cluster of gentlemen had the power and were in a position to influence events at that time.
MOYERS: What explains the relationship between these symbols and the Masons, and the fact that so many of these founding fathers belonged to the Masonic order? Is the Masonic order an expression somehow of mythological thinking?
CAMPBELL: Yes, I think it is. This is a scholarly attempt to reconstruct an order of initiation that would result in spiritual revelation. These founding fathers who were Masons actually studied what they could of Egyptian lore. In Egypt, the pyramid represents the primordial hillock. After the annual flood of the Nile begins to sink down, the first hillock is symbolic of the reborn world. That’s what this seal represents.
MOYERS: You sometimes confound me with the seeming contradiction at the heart of your own belief system. On the one hand, you praise these men who were inspirers and creatures of the Age of Reason, and on the other hand, you salute Luke Skywalker in Star Wars for that moment when he says, “Turn off the computer and trust your feelings.” How do you reconcile the role of science, which is reason, with the role of faith, which is religion?
CAMPBELL: No, no, you have to distinguish between reason and thinking.
MOYERS: Distinguish between reason and thinking? If I think, am I not reasoning things out? CAMPBELL: Yes, your reason is one kind of thinking. But thinking things out isn’t necessarily reason in this sense. Figuring out how you can break through a wall is not reason. The mouse who figures out, after it bumps its nose here, that perhaps he can get around there, is figuring something out the way we figure things out. But that’s not reason. Reason has to do with finding the ground of being and the fundamental structuring of order of the universe. MOYERS: So when these men talked about the eye of God being reason, they were saying that the ground of our being as a society, as a culture, as a people, derives from the fundamental character of the universe?
CAMPBELL: That’s what this first pyramid says. This is the pyramid of the world, and this is the pyramid of our society, and they are of the same order. This is God’s creation, and this is our society.
MOYERS: We have a mythology for the way of the animal powers. We have a mythology for the way of the seeded earth— fertility, creation, the mother goddess. And we have a mythology for the celestial lights, for the heavens. But in modern times we have moved beyond the animal powers, beyond nature and the seeded earth, and the stars no longer interest us except as exotic curiosities and the terrain of space travel. Where are we now in our mythology for the way of man?
CAMPBELL: We can’t have a mythology for a long, long time to come. Things are changing too fast to become mythologized.
MOYERS: How do we live without myths then?
CAMPBELL: The individual has to find an aspect of myth that relates to his own life. Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function— that is the one I’ve been speaking about, realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery. Myth opens the world to the dimension of mystery, to the realization of the mystery that underlies all forms. If you lose that, you don’t have a mythology. If mystery is manifest through all things, the universe becomes, as it were, a holy picture. You are always addressing the transcendent mystery through the conditions of your actual world. The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned— showing you what the shape of the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through. Today we tend to think that scientists have all the answers. But the great ones tell us, “No, we haven’t got all the answers. We’re telling you how it works— but what is it?” You strike a match, what’s fire? You can tell me about oxidation, but that doesn’t tell me a thing. The third function is the sociological one— supporting and validating a certain social order. And here’s where the myths vary enormously from place to place. You can have a whole mythology for polygamy, a whole mythology for monogamy. Either one’s okay. It depends on where you are. It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world— and it is out of date.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
CAMPBELL: Ethical laws. The laws of life as it should be in the good society. All of Yahweh’s pages and pages and pages of what kind of clothes to wear, how to behave to each other, and so forth, in the first millennium B.C. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to— and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.
MOYERS: So the old story, so long known and transmitted through the generations, isn’t functioning, and we have not yet learned a new one?
CAMPBELL: The story that we have in the West, so far as it is based on the Bible, is based on a view of the universe that belongs to the first millennium B.C. It does not accord with our concept either of the universe or of the dignity of man. It belongs entirely somewhere else. We have today to learn to get back into accord with the wisdom of nature and realize again our brotherhood with the animals and with the water and the sea. To say that the divinity informs the world and all things is condemned as pantheism. But pantheism is a misleading word. It suggests that a personal god is supposed to inhabit the world, but that is not the idea at all. The idea is trans-theological. It is of an undefinable, inconceivable mystery, thought of as a power, that is the source and end and supporting ground of all life and being.
MOYERS: Don’t you think modern Americans have rejected the ancient idea of nature as a divinity because it would have kept us from achieving dominance over nature? How can you cut down trees and uproot the land and turn the rivers into real estate without killing God? CAMPBELL: Yes, but that’s not simply a characteristic of modern Americans, that is the biblical condemnation of nature which they inherited from their own religion and brought with them, mainly from England. God is separate from nature, and nature is condemned of God. It’s right there in Genesis: we are to be the masters of the world. But if you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.
MOYERS: Scientists are beginning to talk quite openly about the Gaia principle.
CAMPBELL: There you are, the whole planet as an organism.
MOYERS: Mother Earth. Will new myths come from this image?
CAMPBELL: Well, something might. You can’t predict what a myth is going to be any more than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight. Myths and dreams come from the same place. They come from realizations of some kind that have then to find expression in symbolic form. And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it. That’s my main thought for what the future myth is going to be. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with— the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about, and what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s got to talk about is the society of the planet. And until that gets going, you don’t have anything.
MOYERS: So you suggest that from this begins the new myth of our time?
CAMPBELL: Yes, this is the ground of what the myth is to be. It’s already here: the eye of reason, not of my nationality; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community. Do you see? And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.
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