Joseph Campbell — The Power of Myth

PBS aired the series The Power of Myth in 1986. Bill Moyers debriefed Joe Campbell on his views of myth and religion in a sympathetic interview. The book was created from the abundance of material captured during the twenty-four hours of filming.

The Power of Myth

On first reading The Power of Myth, I thought it pointed the way to a common ground between religious believers and secular humanists. Now, taking a second look, I see issues with most of Campbell’s ideas. Is it possible for a non-believer to find value in the wisdom behind the myths that Campbell so revels in? In this summary, my own thoughts appear enclosed in brackets.

The Value of Myths

Joseph Campbell believed in the value of religious belief to center his life. He became dissatisfied with Christianity in the modern world (he was raised a Catholic, and from there acquired a love of ritual) and went on a quest, immersing himself in a study of all the world's religions. This book surveys the myths of several Native American tribes, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Abrahamic religions. It includes the Norse gods and the ancient Greek gods. It discusses the symbolism in Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce. Campbell even lays out the ancient mythology that George Lucas refers to in Star Wars. "Technology is not going to save us." The message: we will have to rely on the heroism we can find deep within us.

He has identified some common ground among the myths. Far from wishing to undermine religion, Campbell sees valuable wisdom in it. He sees the body of all these myths as irreplaceable guideposts to living our lives. For him these myths serve to remind us of our oneness with each other and with the larger cosmos. They help some of us keep centered, to get in touch with our higher motives, and avoid the excesses of ego. Campbell sees the myths as the way to get in touch with the meaningful aspects of living: for instance warmth toward our fellow human beings.

He does not believe literally, but argues that eternal truths lie behind the religious stories. The Gods presented by religions are but masks behind which lie the ultimate truths. We know that Campbell does not believe in God literally from his discussion of the artifice and the manipulations involved along the way:

" . . . the development of a religion. You see it in the Bible. In the beginning, God was simply the most powerful god among many. He is just a local tribal god. And then in the sixth century [B.C.], when the Jews were in Babylon, the notion of a world savior came in."

Campbell explains how the God of the Bible cannot be easily loved, as he is more an object of fear. It became necessary to bring a suffering Jesus Christ into the picture. "It's Christ on the cross that becomes loveable." Jesus says, "No one gets to the father but by me." (pg 25)

Religions that love nature

Moyers: You tell a story about a local jungle native who once said to a missionary, "Your god keeps himself shut up in a house as if he were old and infirm. Ours is in the forest and in the fields and on the mountains when the rain comes."

Campbell: This is a problem you get in the book of Kings and in Samuel. The various Hebrew Kings were sacrificing on the mountaintops. . . The Yahweh cult was a specific movement in the Hebrew community, which finally won. This was a pushing through of a certain temple-bound god against the nature-cult, which was celebrated all over the place."

Religions for One Tribe vs. Universal religions

There are two totally different orders of mythology. There is the mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world. Then there are myths and gods that have to do with specific societies or the patron deities of the society. The Bible presents the socially oriented system of a nomadic people. Nature is condemned. The nature-oriented mythology would be of an earth-cultivating people.

Campbell: We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. These three mythologies fighting it out [Islam, Judaism, Christianity] have disqualified themselves from the future. 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.

Buddhism: Giving up the ego. Distinguishing that which is enduring from that which is merely passing (pg 279). Valuing reason over the animal passions. Several times in the book, Campbell says “Follow your bliss. Say yes to the adventure.” Joseph Campbell affirmed life as an adventure.

Chapter 2 — The Journey inward:

Campbell: It's a matter of planes of consciousness. It doesn't have to do with anything that happened. There is a plane of consciousness where you can identify yourself with that which transcends pairs of opposites [opposites like male-female, good-evil].
"Eternity is in love with the productions of time." says the poet Blake.

Moyers: What does that mean?

Campbell: The source of temporal life is eternity. Eternity pours itself into the world. It is a basic mythic idea of the god who infuses us. To identify with that divine, immortal aspect of yourself . . .

Campbell: The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for that innocence that is innocent of time, innocent of opposites, and is the prime center out of which consciousness then becomes aware. . . There is a theme in which man is thought of as having come not from above but from the womb of Mother Earth. Often in these stories, there is a great ladder or rope up which people climb. The last people to get out are two great big fat heavy people. They grab the rope, and snap! — it breaks. So we are separated from our source. In a sense, because of our minds, we actually are separated, and the problem is to reunite that broken cord. [For secular humanists, this is less of an issue. We can remind ourselves that humans are part of the animal kingdom. That way we don't feel 'separated from our source'. Origins Reconsidered by anthropologist Richard Leakey traces every step in the evolutionary process starting from the time nine million years ago when the hominid line split off from our nearest ape relatives.]

The great myths explain the rites by which people are living in harmony with themselves and each other and with the universe.

Moyers: the allegorical nature of these stories? . . . You say that mythology is the study of mankind's one great story. What is that one great story?

Campbell: That we have come forth from the one ground of being as manifestations in the field of time. The field of time is a kind of shadow play over a timeless ground.

Moyers: So the one great story is our search to find our place in the drama?

Campbell: To be in accord with the grand symphony that this world is, to put the harmony of our own body in accord with that harmony. To see life as a poem and yourself as participating in a poem is what the myth does for you. I mean of acts and adventures transcending the world here, so that you feel in accord with the universal being.

Campbell: I thought of my boyhood, going to confession on Saturdays, meditating on all the little sins that I had committed during the week. Now I think one should go and say, "Bless me, Father, for I have been great, and these are the good things I have done this week." Identify your notion of yourself with the positive, rather than with the negative.

Campbell: A metaphor is an image that suggests something else. For instance, if I say to a person, "You are a nut," I'm not suggesting that I think the person is literally a nut. Nut is a metaphor. The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.

For example, Jesus ascended to heaven. The denotation would seem to be that somebody ascended to the sky. That's literally what is being said. But if that were really the meaning of the message, then we would have to throw it away, because there would have been no such place for Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe. Even ascending at the speed of light, Jesus would still be in the galaxy. Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal, physical possibility. But if you read "Jesus ascended to heaven" in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward — not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within.

Campbell: Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that's what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.

Campbell: If one dies with such a fixation on the things of this world that one's spirit is not ready to behold the beatific vision . . .
[Here is where I think Campbell, and the religious mindset, set up a false dichotomy. The spiritual realm is not separated from the things of this world. The journey within, at best, can connect us to the realization that we are a part of nature, seeing a oneness with each other and the universe.]

Campbell: You are more than you think you are. There are dimensions of your being and a potential for realization and consciousness that are not included in your concept of yourself. . . Your life is much deeper and broader than you conceive it to be here. What you are living is but a fractional inkling of what is really within you, what gives you life, breadth, and depth. But you can live in terms of that depth. And when you can experience it, you suddenly see that all the religions are talking of that.

[This hidden dimension that religions all talk about — more of the false dichotomy. The concept is a holdover from our pre-scientific age when our own makeup and most of our surroundings were not so well understood, and people thought that we would never be able to understand. Science, on the other hand, relentlessly pushes back the horizon delineating what we do and don't understand, and does not pause to say that some area must never be attempted and remain forever a mystery.]

Campbell: The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don't render the experience, they suggest it. If you haven't had the experience, how can you know what it is? Try to explain the joy of skiing to somebody living in the tropics who has never even seen snow.

Brown Bear

[Here I maintain that the emperor has no clothes. If your religious experience is so delusional that you can't express it, then don't bother me about it. If it relates to our oneness with the universe, with nature, and with humanity and even wildlife (I have always felt that the bear was my brother) then you don't need religion to get to that feeling.]

Moyers: Do you ever think that it is this absence of the religious experience, of joy, this denial of transcendence in our society, that has turned so many young people to the use of drugs?

Campbell: Absolutely. That is the way in.

Moyers: The way in?

Campbell: To an experience.

Moyers: And religion can't do that for you, or art can't?

Campbell: It could, but it is not doing it now. Religions are addressing social problems and ethics instead of the mystical experience.

Campbell: Transcendent properly means that which is beyond all concepts. Kant tells us that all of our experiences are bounded by time and space. . . The ultimate thing that we are trying to get in touch with is not so enclosed. . . The transcendent transcends all of these categories of thinking. Being and nonbeing — those are categories. The word "God" properly transcends all thinking. [There are conjectures that some aspects of the natural world lie beyond the capacity of the human brain to understand. Our brains, after all, evolved for the survival of hominids on the African Savanna starting millions of years ago, where particle accelerators were few and far between. But if Campbell is talking here about mysteries that lie outside of nature, I don't accept that.]

Moyers: Culture, though, has always influenced our thinking about ultimate matters.

Campbell: Culture can also teach us to go past its concepts.

That is what is known as initiation. A true initiation is when the guru tells you, "There is no Santa Claus." Santa Claus is metaphoric of a relationship between parents and children. The relationship does exist, so it can be experienced, but there is no Santa Claus. Santa Claus was simply a way of clueing children into the appreciation of the relationship. . .

People ask me, "Do you have optimism about the world?

And I say, "Yes, it's great just the way it is, and you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better.

Moyers: Doesn't that lead to a rather passive attitude in the face of evil?

[My objection would go further than that. We are in some ways making the world markedly better. The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker documents the decrease in violence over long stretches of history.]

Campbell: You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody . . . good for one is evil for the other.

[He thinks we are all in a zero-sum game. If you went out and started a furniture-making company or a bicycle manufacturing company and employed dozens of people who would otherwise looking for a job, you are not participating in the evil — you are adding to human well-being overall.]

You've got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way; for this is surely the way God intended it. [I agree about saying yes to life. That could be the common ground between atheists and believers. Religious belief can stumble some people into simply marking time in this life, waiting for a grand afterlife.]

Moyers: Do you really believe that?

Campbell: It is joyful just as it is. I don't believe there was anybody who intended it, but this is the way it is. James Joyce has a memorable line, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is all of creation.

Moyers: But if you accepted that as an ultimate conclusion, you wouldn't try to form any laws or fight any battles or—

Campbell: I didn't say that. . . I will participate in the game. It is a wonderful opera — except that it hurts. But affirming it the way it is—that's the hard thing, and that is what rituals are about. [Religion as an aid to those who find it hard to accept the real world] Ritual is group participation in the most hideous act, which is the act of life— namely, killing and eating another living thing.

You've got to say yes to this miracle of life as it is, not on the condition that it follow your rules. Otherwise, you'll never get through to the metaphysical dimension. [I agree with part I of that statement. I have a problem with his description of the metaphysical dimension as something outside the domain of nature.]

The journey of life — and Myth to guide you

Moyers: I like the idea that it is not the destination that counts, it's the journey. (285)

Campbell: When you're on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey. (pg. 285)

". . .the ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others." (xiv) "One of the distinctions between the celebrity and the hero is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society."

Moyers: Myths are full of the desire for immortality, are they not?

Campbell: When immortality is misunderstood as being an everlasting body, it turns into a clown act. On the other hand, if we understand immortality to identify ourselves as a part of an eternal order of things, that is something else again. (pg. 282) To see through the fragments of time to the full power of original being—that is a function of art. (pg 283)

From chapter one:

Myth helps you put you in touch with this experience of being alive. For example, what is marriage? The myth tells you what it is. It's the myth of the separated duad. Originally you were one. Marriage as a spiritual exercise.

[I submit that Campbell brings that warmth himself. It is not the myths that provide it. Another person might immerse himself in these same myths and yet not be touched with the same feeling of brotherhood.]

Who is the master — man or machine? Campbell tells this story: Eisenhower went into a room full of computers. And he put the question to these machines, "Is there a God?" And they all start up, and the lights flash, and the wheels turn, and after a while a voice says, "Now there is."

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