Sunday Reading: The “properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species,” is freedom & individualism
It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet — and here is my second point — they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species…
[Consider the importance of individuality in Western art] Consider the works of Rembrandt or Titian: the attention given in these to the representation of what we call character, personality, the uniqueness, at once physical and spiritual, of an individual presence. [In contrast, we can note] the absence in the Oriental traditions of anything like significant portraiture…
Consider too the difference between the pagan Greeks and the Hebrews of the same time.] The Greeks … are on man’s side, both in sympathy and in loyalty; the Hebrews, on the contrary, on [their] god’s. Never would we have heard from a Greek such words as those of the sorely beaten ‘blameless and upright’ Job, addressed to the god that had ‘destroyed him without cause’ and who then came at him in the whirlwind, boasting of his power.
‘Behold,’ pleaded Job, ‘I am of no small account … I know that thou canst do all things … I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’
Repent! Repent for what?!
In contrast, the great contemporary Greek playwright Aeschylus, of about the same fifth-century date as the anonymous author of the Book of Job, puts into the mouth of his Prometheus—who was also being tormented by a god that could ‘draw Leviathan out with a fishhook, play with him as a bird, and fill his skin with harpoons’—the following stunning words: ‘He is a monster … I care less than nothing for Zeus. Let him do as he likes.’
And so say [all we Westerners] today in our hearts, even though our tongues may have been taught to babble with Job.
- Joseph Campbell, in his 1971 book Myths to Live By