We Need New Myths

An incomplete, distorted mythology fuels the arms race,
and a more complete one is modeled
in George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 24
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Militarism is not simply a set of weapons and policies – it’s a state of mind. Mythology can be thought of as both the expression of our collective mind and as the mind’s symbol-laden handbook for development. The myths we live by at present, however, fall woefully short of the mark in terms of their capacity to help us lead more integrated (and therefore peaceful) lives.

Michael Zimmerman is a professor of philosophy at Tulane University, New Orleans, who writes widely on philosophy of technology, philosophies of the self, and Heidegger. Here, however, he is concerned with mythology and its relation to the dangerous predicament in which we currently find ourselves. (Adapted from an essay that appeared originally in Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution, Stanislav Grof, ed., SUNY Press, 1988.)

The present world-situation can be portrayed in the following image: A lifeboat floats on a shark-infested, stormy sea. Two groups of people, clearly afraid of each other, are huddled at either end. Each group has a heroic individual armed with a cannon pointed at the people at the other end of the lifeboat. The heroes tell each other: "If you make a false move, I’ll blow up your end of the boat." While the people at both ends want to be saved from the cannon of the enemy, they are becoming aware that if either cannon is used, everyone will die.

In our situation it is easy to blame the "cannons" or the "heroes." These are not, however, the cause of our predicament, but symptoms of fear produced by an incomplete, distorted mythology – both about ourselves and about the "other." Only a complete mythology can lead us out of this dilemma. The widespread adoption of such a mythology would be tantamount to a new stage in human evolution – a stage necessary for the survival of the species.

What’s wrong with our present myths? What new ones could replace them? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.


By "myth," I mean a symbol that serves to integrate and to provide meaning for human life. Such symbols are at work in religious traditions, legends, sagas, fairy tales, and lore of all ages. Myths do not serve their symbolic function unless they are internalized by someone; only then can they provide guidance and unification. Although sometimes dismissed as merely fictitious narratives of supernatural characters, myths play a basic role in human existence, often even for people who claim to live life wholly "rationally."

One of the most universal myths is that of the hero. The hero myth is particularly important in world religions – both Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha are incarnations of the hero, and following their examples gives people both guidance and encouragement in seeking to become individuated. The myth of the hero usually tells the story of an individual called away from the monotony of everyday life in order to begin the quest for the Self, often represented by an extraordinary object (Holy Grail) or person (beautiful Prince or Virgin). Along the way, the hero must confront evil, darkness, and mortality, often portrayed in the form of dragons and other terrible forces.

Although heroes may slay the obstacles between them and redemption, these slayings are best understood as tamings or integrations of those obstacles. The whole heroic world – including hero, dragon, and treasure – represent psychological aspects of each individual, aspects that are often divided by conflict and fear. Understood psychologically, the myth of the hero describes the struggle involved in the process of individuation. In explaining this process, I follow Carl Jung in distinguishing among ego, shadow, and Self.

Ego is the "island" of rational consciousness floating atop the great sea of the unconscious aspects of the psyche. Shadow refers to aspects of psychological reality which the ego regards as unacceptable: mortality, finitude, limitation, evil, darkness, pain, and so on. Self means the supra- or trans-personal power that originates and sustains the ego, and with which the ego must establish an appropriate relationship. Jung maintains that each individual undergoes at least part of the process of individuation.

The first stage of this process, which takes up most of the first half of life, involves attaining ego-consciousness. This is accomplished by separating oneself from one’s parents and from the collective consciousness of one’s tribe. Mythic symbols celebrating the escape of the hero from captivity, and recounting the hero’s triumph over the dragon, help the young person in the process of establishing an identity separate from parents and authority figures. This struggle for separate existence is both very demanding and guilt-producing. Hence, ego-identity is frequently a tenuous stage of human development, and people often inflate the ego and identify it with the transpersonal Self. Such inflation leads to grandiosity, hubris, and denial of death.

In the second half of life, individuation can continue only if the proper mythic symbols are available. These symbols puncture the inflated ego and disclose that genuine individuation involves going beyond the state of separateness and toward the state of being an individual-in-relationship. The once-solitary ego surrenders to its relationships not only to other people, but also to the transpersonal and collective realms it once denied and repressed. Successful integration and individuation amount to redemption from the suffering and isolation produced by egocentrism. Individuation means being in relationship with (or integrating) not only one’s own mortality, passions, emotions, desires, body, dark side, weakness, and so on, but also the collective, transpersonal, and divine aspects of reality.


This myth-guided process can be illustrated by George Lucas’ famous Star Wars trilogy, which is so popular because it is based on structural elements drawn from universal myths of the hero. A few years ago, Lucas acknowledged that he had been reading Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, before he began producing the first Star Wars episode. Although Lucas’ films are set in a distant era and in another galaxy, they portray the archetypal human struggle to deal with evil, mortality, and limitation. Fortunately, the mythological element in these films is relatively complete and undistorted. The films do not pretend that evil is something wholly outside of and separable from the hero, who represents each of us. There is a dark side to the hero himself, the handsome, blond Luke Skywalker. His great challenge is not simply to destroy the evil force outside of him, Darth Vader and the cruel Emperor, but also to come to terms with and to integrate his own "dark side." Star Wars exhibits important aspects of a genuine mythic symbol.

The trilogy depicts the adventures of a hero called away from his humdrum existence on a drab planet to fulfill his dream of being a heroic star-fighter pilot. At this stage in his life, he is under the sway of an incomplete myth, which suggests that evil is "out there" to be conquered. Through many fantastic struggles, and through meetings with extraordinary beings, he discovers that he must acknowledge and integrate his own dark side if he is to become a Jedi Knight – symbolic of genuine heroic status. So long as Luke denies and resists his own darkness, he risks falling victim to it, as did the mighty Darth Vader, strong-arm of the evil Empire and (as we learn in the second film) Luke’s own father.

Luke is also encouraged to move beyond his one-sidedly rational ego-consciousness. His mentor, an aging Jedi knight, urges him to get in touch with his feelings if he hopes to become accessible to the life energy known as "the Force." In the second film, Luke encounters another Jedi knight, a strange, dwarflike creature who has integrated dark and light, reason and intuition, thought and feeling, good and evil, yin and yang in such a way that he is endowed with extraordinary powers. From his teachers, Luke learns that he must cease dividing himself and reality according to dualistic schemes, which block the Force. He must move beyond the stage of ego-consciousness toward genuine individuation.

In the final film of the trilogy, Luke, Darth Vader, and the evil Emperor are together at the command center of the Empire’s home base. The Emperor tries to entice Luke to come over to the "dark side." Having sufficiently integrated his own dark side, Luke manages to avoid being seduced by the wily Emperor, but ends up in a titanic battle with his father, Darth Vader. Luke mortally wounds his father, at which point the Emperor intervenes and begins to kill Luke in a torturous process. Darth Vader cannot endure this cruelty against his own son; we see him struggling to overcome his long-standing identification with his dark side. Finally, in his moment of redemption, Darth Vader realizes that he had gone over to the dark side because he had denied and resisted it in his zeal to be a perfect Jedi knight. Now dying, Darth Vader finally surrenders to his incarnate, finite, limited, mortal status, instead of striving to be "all good" or "all evil." He halts his son’s torment, and hurls the Emperor into the abyss.

In addition to becoming both individuated and reconciled with each other, Luke and his father have also managed to destroy the dreaded Empire. The Empire is a manifestation of the awful consequences that follow when the ego-consciousness of millions of people is overwhelmed by repressed and projected aspects of their own psyches. The film’s message is clear: winning the battle against the evil embodied in others cannot substitute for dealing with the evil and darkness within oneself. And unless those shadowy, evil aspects are integrated, every person risks "going over" to the dark side.


Unfortunately, back in our own galaxy, we often don’t get the full message. For while myths are symbols designed to guide and integrate the psyche, an incomplete or distorted myth can either be of no use or – worse still – it can further fragment a dis-integrated psyche. All too often heroic myths are distorted because they are interpreted either literally or incompletely. Taken literally, the myth of the hero suggests there is someone else "out there" who has already fought with evil, death, and darkness; the struggle is therefore finished. Such an interpretation lacks psychological power, because the person hearing the myth has not identified with the hero. Even when such identification does occur, a person may still continue to take the myth too literally. The hearer may identify himself with the hero, but may interpret the dragon (mortality, evil, darkness) as being embodied in the stranger, the foreigner, the enemy.

Collectively, such distortions of the mythic message can add up to serious cultural problems. According to Erich Neumann, mass movements occur when the ego is overwhelmed by long-repressed, unconscious, collective contents that force the ego to surrender its separateness and return to a semi-tribal condition, such as occurred in Nazi Germany. There, horrendous crimes were committed when modern technology was mobilized to destroy the "enemies" of the tribal nation-state. Such enemies were carriers of the projected German shadow. In Neumann’s view, the German people were so readily re-collectivized because they lacked a symbol capable of maintaining ego-consciousness in the face of shadowy, collective forces, and because they lacked a symbol capable of helping them to integrate those collective forces to begin with.

Marxism, as Robert Tucker has argued, can be seen as a distorted mythic symbol in which the struggle of good and evil within the individual is projected onto social classes: the blood-sucking capitalist class fights (vainly) to dominate the creative-productive working class. When the capitalist class is destroyed by the proletariat, alienation will supposedly be destroyed as well. If Marxist revolutionaries can bring down the center of capitalism, the United States, world-history will supposedly begin its Golden Age. This myth is so attractive to many people because it portrays in social-class terms the problems that each individual must face. A person committed to the revolutionary cause can through this projection postpone the painful process of their own individuation. It goes without saying, of course, that capitalism is in fact responsible for social ills, but neither the capitalist class nor its individual constituents are the embodiment and source of evil. The dark side is an aspect of every human being; it cannot be eliminated by social revolution.

In mirror-image contrast, many Americans share the distorted heroic myth of the "self-made man" – a wholly independent individual who, by dint of effort and intelligence, conquers the obstacles standing in the way of fame and fortune. Since Marxist communism allegedly denies the value of the individual, the Soviet Union appears to be a threat to individuality, selfhood, freedom, and all the values associated therewith. By destroying the Soviet Union, a distorted mythology suggests, human freedom and self-actualization will flourish as never before.

There is no denying the importance of values such as individual liberty and the right to self-development. Indeed, the mythic symbol of the self-made man, even if distorted and incomplete, can give ego-consciousness sufficient support to resist recollectivization. On the other hand, it can enhance the ego’s false identification with the transpersonal Self, leading to arrogance and grandiosity. The self-made ego over-estimates the value of ego-consciousness, with its rationality and separateness. He or she avoids being "pinned down" by decisions calling for permanent limitations, and is always waiting for the "real thing" which never comes along. Anything standing in the path toward "success" is seen as a deadly threat. The self-made ego projects all evil, darkness, and mortality onto mere "mortal" types, and terrible deeds can be justified because of the "good" motives of the ego seeking to become God incarnate! If a country is populated by such self-made egos, it too is ripe for recollectivization, especially where integrative symbols are lacking. The reader can judge the extent to which American claims to "individualism" are belied by the collective, mass behavior of people governed by the symbol of the self-made ego.


In the history of warfare, no weapon has been invented that was not ultimately unleashed upon someone understood to be the "enemy." And as long as we are caught up in such incomplete, distorted myths, the fears they produce will continue to fuel the nuclear arms race. If the arms race continues, eventually the weapons will be used. The situation is desperate. What is to be done?

The first step would be to experience this despair. At present, however, people deny that they are desperate and imagine that by building more weapons they can protect themselves against death and evil. (Real despair, as Kierkegaard once remarked, is not knowing that you are desperate). The frantic pace of the arms race is a sign of the profound despair being denied by the leaders and citizens of both superpowers. Denial of despair leads to the condition that Robert Jay Lifton has called "psychic numbing," which leads us either to deny the threat of nuclear war, or to continue thinking in the dualistic way that spurs on the arms race. To experience despair means to discover the illusory quality of one’s dream of being able to control everything and make things turn out alright. To experience despair means to encounter both one’s impotence in the face of death and one’s complicity in evil.

Surrendering to despair, then, is a crucial step in retracting the projections of the shadow and in integrating the psyche. Integration frees us from numbness and dualism. It enables us to become involved in finding an alternative to the suicidal arms race, without succumbing to the temptation that "the generals" or "the politicians" are the "bad guys" responsible for our situation. Psychological integration and individuation elicit compassion for people in power who are doing what they think is best in terms of their own understanding. Those who persist in blaming leaders for the current situation are still projecting their shadow and thinking dualistically. A "peace movement" that engages in polarization is engaging in warfare. Military officers and politicians are not the enemy; they are only reflections of who we ourselves are.

The nuclear arms race can be viewed not merely as a threat, but also as an opportunity to begin integrating the projected shadow that gave rise to such weapons. Through this process, humanity could evolve into a higher form of life. The opportunity is to evolve as a species; to move beyond the we vs. them, good vs. evil thinking that is at the root of warfare. Only such a change in human awareness will provide the context necessary for ending the arms race.

For skeptics who wonder how doing something so "trivial" as retracting the shadow can have any impact in the complex realm of international relations, I offer the following example from recent history. Prior to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, the United States had regarded the communist Chinese as the very incarnation of evil: yellow devils who deserved to be "nuked" before their rot infected other countries. Naturally, so long as the United States berated China and insisted that it conform to American expectations, the Chinese persisted in their allegiance to a rigid communist orthodoxy. How well do any of us change in the face of people who are projecting their own shadow onto us and insisting that we change? Even if we recognize some truth to their criticism, we resist giving in to their demands.

However, when Henry Kissinger and Nixon decided that friendship with the Chinese was important both in and of itself and strategically, they created a new context for relationship that involved two steps. First, it was declared that China and the United States would henceforth be in a relationship that, despite disagreements, would endure. Second, both the United States and China retracted much of the evil and darkness that they had been projecting onto each other. The facts about both countries remained unchanged – but suddenly China appeared very differently to people in the United States. Americans began seeing the Chinese once again as exotic, enchanting, mysterious (a less dangerous projection). The Chinese, no longer reacting against the evil being projected upon them, began experimenting with their social and economic system. In the same way, our relationship with the Soviet Union is changing drastically as we continue to withdraw the projections we have cast upon them.

Withdrawing projections does not mean unilateral disarmament; it does mean, however, devising one’s foreign policy and military planning in terms of perceptions that are not distorted by projected evil. For this to happen successfully requires a nondistorted mythology that supports people both in achieving ego-consciousness and in moving beyond it toward nondualistic consciousness.

Currently, many people misinterpret nondualistic thought as the opposite of dualistic thought – if dualistic thought is aggressive and controlling, nondualistic thought must be timid and passive and a genuinely individuated person must be some kind of wimp. But nondualism is not the opposite of dualism; it operates at a different level altogether. Nondualism integrates the psyche in such a way that energy once used to repress or project now becomes available for more creative activity. An individuated person is more "active" than any person driven into incessant busyness by false hopes of evading death, and more "calm" than any person driven into depression or lassitude by unintegrated unconscious forces. The nondualistic, integrated person recognizes differences among things, but does not make them absolute. Nondualism does not mean the end of conflict, but the end of that polarizing thinking that absolutely divides the participants in conflicts. Nondualistic thinking means that even in one’s enemy, one continues to see oneself.

Moreover, nondualistic thinking enables one to see that one’s "enemy" is in fact necessary for one’s own personal development. The war game has hitherto provided the opportunity for heroism, self-sacrifice, nobility, and devotion to duty. But in an age of nuclear weapons, the bloody version of war is no longer viable. What we require is a new game, one that can still inspire people to great heights, but in a way that is more complete and less destructive than war. This game would be a manifestation of a new myth that would take the place of the old myth heralding victory and conquest. The new myth would herald the achievement of completion. The game arising from this myth would provide opportunities for people to find ways of completing themselves, integrating their shadows, becoming whole, through the process of competing with an "enemy." An enemy is useful to motivate a person to discover and integrate those areas which one represses, denies, or projects. A great enemy challenges one to work toward completion, either of oneself or of one’s society.

The superpowers have regarded each other as obstacles to the achievement of their respective purposes. In light of this new myth, however, the superpowers would regard each other as ideal enemies that help each side confront and integrate its own darkness, mortality, limitation, and possibility. Competition would not be aimed at eliminating the enemy, but at cultivating and appreciating the enemy so that the enemy could be more effective in bringing out the best in one’s own side. I do not wish to appear naive. There are people in high places who want nothing more than to obliterate the enemy, and for whom all talk of cooperative enmity is ridiculous. We live in an age, however, that does not permit us the luxury of continuing to think in "sensible" ways. While those pushing the arms race might find it perfectly coherent from the inside, the same arms race reveals itself as insane when viewed from without. As Einstein once noted, it is not possible to use old ways of thinking to solve the problems created by those same ways of thinking.

Although I believe that only a renewed mythology can bring an end to the nuclear arms race, I am also aware that mythology cannot be renewed or invented at will. All individuals can do is work on themselves and with each other to become accessible to a shift towards non-dualistic thinking. A new heroic myth for our times is that each of us is responsible for helping to initiate that shift in consciousness. When our projections are withdrawn, and when our egos are integrated with the unconscious and with the Self, then we are capable of seeing our own humanity in the eyes of our enemies. This encourages them to see themselves in us. At this point, something other than war occurs.

What’s In A Symbol?

by Michael Zimmerman

The process of individuation is guided by mythic symbols, and the very word "symbol" connotes integration. In Ego and Archetype, Edward Edinger explains that "symbol" comes from the Greek sym ("together, with") and bolon ("that which has been thrown").

In original Greek usage, symbols referred to the two halves of an object such as a stick or a coin which two parties broke between them as a pledge and to prove later the identity of the presenter of one part to the holder of the other. . . A symbol was thus originally a tally referring to the missing piece of an object which when restored to, or thrown together with, its partner recreated the original whole object. This corresponds to our understanding of the psychological function of a symbol. The symbol leads us to the missing part of the whole person. It refers to our original totality. It heals our split, our alienation from life. And since the whole person is a great deal more than the ego, it relates us to the suprapersonal forces which are the source of our being and our meaning .


A government should not mobilize an army
out of anger, military leaders should not
provoke war out of wrath …
Anger can revert to joy, wrath can revert
to delight, but a nation destroyed
cannot be restored to existence,
and the dead cannot be restored to life.


Edward F. Edinger, Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche (New York: Penguin Books, 1972).

Robert Jay Lifton,The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979).

Eric Neumann,The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans., R.F.C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press/Bollingen, 1970).

Robert Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

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