Joseph Campbell


In 1987, American journalist Bill Moyers conducted an interview series entitled The Power of Myth with the writer of The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell. The series popularized the fact that George Lucas’ Star Wars movies were inspired by Campbell’s writings about comparative mythology. Shortly thereafter, Campbell died and the interview series, in conjunction with the timing of his death, gave him wide recognition for his ideas and influence.

Perhaps his most contentious proposal of all was that change-makers should focus on myth rather than facts,

“If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.”

For Campbell, the ultimate mystery of life could not be captured in words or images, but are better expressed through symbols and metaphors. He considered mythology to be a positive and necessary aspect of being human. He even went further,

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”

And what kind of change exactly was Campbell himself looking for?

“The story 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… 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.”

Campbell’s ideas mimic many famous pantheists,

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

One of his main influences was Carl Jung, who interpreted dreams through symbolic interpretation. Jung, like Campbell, was a strong believer in the psychic unity of mankind and the value of poetic expression through metaphor and mythology. Jung famously parted with Freud, a devout atheist, on the importance of God and spirituality when it came to change in people. Campbell follows that same line of reasoning,

“God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being. Those are categories of thought. I mean it’s as simple as that. So it depends on how much you want to think about it. Whether it’s doing you any good. Whether it is putting you in touch with the mystery that’s the ground of your own being. If it isn’t, well, it’s a lie. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts. And so, they’re lies. Those are the atheists.”

Campbell’s idea of God (like Jung) is outside of all of that,

“God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, ‘Ah!”

Thus, much like Jung’s perspective, Campbell respects the psychological basis of religion,

“All religions are true but none are literal.”

Another of Campbell’s influences who he quoted most often was Friedrich Nietzsche, who is famous for lambasting Christianity and the personal God idea. Nietzsche himself, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, attempted to create his own mythology of a man who is part responsible for the killing of God and is forced to become his own God. Like Nietzsche, who proposes we should affirm life in the eternal here and now, Campbell says the same,

“The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life. Heaven is not the place to have the experience; here is the place to have the experience.”

“When you realize that eternity is right here now, that it is within your possibility to experience the eternity of your own truth and being, then you grasp the following: That which you are was never born and will never die”

Campbell, like Spinoza, Einstein, Nietzsche and other determinists, insists that knowledge begins with the basic understanding that everything is connected and meant to be exactly as it is,

“The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.”

Campbell further pontificates on the meaning of life:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

In The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Campbell’s main idea is the concept of “monomyth” – the theory that all mythic narratives are variations of a single great story. Basically, it’s the story of a person (the hero) who suffers greatly and reaches an experience of the source of everything, later returning with powerful gifts that set their society free.

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself”

The hero’s path is always a great surprise,

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”

So what to make of all Campbell’s ideas? Campbell has some suggestions:

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”

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