The title of this posting has expanded well beyond my initial idea for it, and as I explored a number of resources in the research phase of the writing process, I began to see part of the reason why there is a kind of muddling in the terminology between all of those listed in the title. In particular, I spent the better part of a day selecting possible excerpts from the works of Joseph Campbell, who was “the world’s foremost authority on mythology, a preeminent scholar, writer, and teacher whose work has had a profound influence on millions,” according to the book jacket on his popular book entitled, “The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.”
Throughout most of the sources I reviewed, there were a number of instances where the main subjects of mythology or mysticism were accompanied by references to metaphysics and the mysterious. Instances of expansions on one or the other of the main topics invariably inferred a metaphorical component in order to explain the mystery surrounding the profound mystical or metaphysical concept. Clearly, there is something to be explained here, and in order to get to the heart of the matter, it became necessary to proceed at greater length than I originally anticipated.
Mysticism is still quite mysterious to many of us, as its adherents and practices are much less prevalent in the 21st century, especially in the Western world, and in order to explain metaphysical concepts, metaphors are often employed. The many characters in the stories of mythology are also heavily invested in presenting what are now understood to be metaphors for the reality we live everyday as human beings, which, in ancient times, seemed to have mystical characteristics as well. Zeus lived on Mount Olympus with the other “gods,” and the fortunes of the people on Earth were thought to be guided and influenced strongly by them all, in very particular ways, and the interactions of humans with the gods often caused a great furor in the tales of vengeance and salvation in varying degrees, according to the whims of those gods.
Many of the world’s religions have employed similar approaches to “explaining” how the universe came to exist, and how all the events in the world could be dealt with by examining the recommendations and directions contained in the literature specific to each of their belief systems. Ancient writings abound with parables, fables, and allegories, all aimed at clarifying and elucidating the many challenging aspects of everyday life to the masses, and what better way to enlist their cooperation than to weave a mysterious tale of what happened to those who did not cooperate with the gods.
There are some basic definitions of these terms which address them as stand-alone concepts, which offer the general reader a place to begin:
Metaphysics – from “The Ideas of the Great Philosophers” by William and Mabel Sahakian
“Metaphysics refers to the study of ultimate reality, that is, the study of what transcends physical things. Objects which manifest themselves to the senses are phenomenal; consequently, philosophers distinguish between phenomenal existence (the object as it appears to the senses) and metaphysical reality (the object as it truly or ultimately is).
“Aristotle’s writings transcend physical or phenomenal experience and consider ultimate reality…To Aristotle, metaphysical reality is an essence which is itself inherent in phenomena…The Being of a thing, the principles which govern it, its nature, are part of the phenomenal whole…”
“Immanuel Kant relegated metaphysics to the area which transcends human experience, hence…beyond the reach of legitimate knowledge…leaving the phenomenal world as the only genuinely knowable.”
“Schopenhauer associated metaphysics with experience, emphasizing analysis of the empirical or phenomenal facts of experience.”
“Rene Descartes postulated that reality consists of two elements: mind and matter. These two entities exhaust the whole of reality, for what is not mind is matter, what is not matter is mind, and the only other possibility is the combination of both.”
Descartes, in his writings where he replied to the objections posed to his ideas wrote:
“In metaphysics…there is nothing which causes so much effort as making our perception of the primary notions clear and distinct…they conflict with many preconceived opinions derived from the senses which we have got into the habit of holding from our earliest years, and so only those who really concentrate and meditate and withdraw their minds from corporeal things, so far as is possible, will achieve perfect knowledge of them.”
As you can see by just these few examples, even just coming to some agreement on the meaning of the terms themselves is difficult for philosophers and scientists alike. In our modern society these days, while we seem to have figured out a great deal more of what the ultimate reality within the physical universe might consist; even modern physics has arrived at a place where we are questioning the very foundations of the reality within which we currently exist.
The other terms are only slightly less contentious as there are clearer beginnings for approaching the mystical, a better grasp of what constitutes the metaphorical, and a general understanding of something we can’t figure out as being mysterious.
Since Campbell gives a very thorough look at each of the main subjects, I thought to begin with his approach to mythology as a way of introducing each of the terms and the aspects they have in common, in order to present the most relevant example of how they seem to be sometimes used interchangeably by others.
Joseph Campbell’s scholarly pursuit of mythology while he lived is one of the best places to begin a more thorough discussion of several of the main topics in the title of this post, and I will be posting the second installment of this treatment shortly.
All of the quotes here about mythology and its connections to the mystical, metaphorical, and the mysterious appear in the publication of the transcripts from the PBS documentary, “The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers.”
“The first function of mythology — myths and mystical rituals, sacred songs and ceremonial dances — is to awaken in the individual a sense of awe, wonder, and participation in the inscrutable mystery of being…People say that what we’re seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. What we seek is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel that rapture of being alive.”
“Myth is created to connect humans with the mystery of life; it defines the metaphors that exist within our world. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are. And myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent. We are looking for a way of experiencing the world that will open to us the transcendent that informs it. We are looking for some accord with the mystery that informs all things. Myth connects us with the archetypes that occur within nature, such as the serpent in religious stories, and give us a way to connect the stories of the past with the lives we live today. Through myth, we find a way to accept the unknown. Although we must recognize that these stories are not entirely true, but just a metaphor, we are still presented with a story that gives us an idea of where these unknown aspects of life came from.”
We seldom consider the complex ideas surrounding the transcendent these days, and seem enamored of a materialistic or scientific worldview, and if you ask most people, they will likely have very little familiarity with the stories of ancient mythology, and may not even consider our modern myths like those which appear in Star Wars series and modern science fiction as being anything of the sort.
For anyone interested in learning more about how an appreciation of mythology can help us understand our modern world better, I recommend checking out the writings of Joseph Campbell, including, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.”
Next time…The Mystical is Often Metaphorical
2 thoughts on “Metaphysical, Mystical, Mythological, Metaphorical, or Just Plain Mysterious?”
Interesting and I agree it is very compelling to study and think about what we mean by the various terms “myth”, “mystical” and so forth. I prefer modern myth and had not realized until I read your post that sci-fi is a form of myth. You are quite right of course and I use intelligent sci-fi to realize in my own mind how, in ideal terms, I would wish the world to be.
Coupled to that I am spending much time each day in meditation – in other words a practical application of mysticism. I am finding that it “works” to the extent of achieving a greater sense of “enlightenment” and the ability to choose the way I wish to live, to “be”.
In any event, I am glad you are back in the land of the living!
You are clearly expanding your view of how you might live your best life and enhance your experience of life and it shows in your writing on your blog.
The idea to express how the terms I listed could be defined, in an attempt to clarify them for myself and my readers and visitors, came after a recent conversation with a friend who posed the question, “Is it mystical or metaphysical?” Once I started THAT conversation, other terms came up and it seemed like a natural development to attempt clarification. What I’ve found along the way, aside from some interesting reading, was how much variety there is out there in the approach to the topics. I’m enjoying the process and hope to provide some insights as I go through them.
You are very kind to welcome me back in the land of the living, and I am quite happy to be among the living once again!
Kind regards…John H.