Joseph Campbell

English: Joseph Campbell, late 1970
Joseph Campbell, late 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was an influential American scholar and educator in world religions and mythology.

Campbell’s books and PBS videos (hosted by Bill Moyers) have enjoyed worldwide acclaim. With other innovators like Mircea Eliade, Otto Rank, and Carl Jung, Campbell championed the syncretic study of psychology, myth and spirituality.

Campbell was ahead of many of his peers by seeing the film Star Wars as a contemporary variant, par excellence, of the age-old hero myth.¹ Campbell’s interest in the hero archetype can be traced to the works of Rank and Jung.

Campbell learned several original languages, and had an impressive knowledge of textual data from a wide variety of interconnected fields.

Pedantic and dogmatic critics, however, still entirely dismiss his pioneering attempts. His critics that say his opinions are simplistic. But it’s possible that he’s dumbing things down for a general audience not familiar with the specifics of world myth and religion.

A more serious charge could be that, and contrary to Campbell’s dictum of “follow your bliss,” every once in a while he seems a bit autocratic, particularly in reference to his beliefs about orthodox Catholicism. This isn’t just a problem with Campbell. Many Gnostic,  Fundamentalist, Protestant, New Age, Humanistic, scientific and even environmental thinkers arguably lump “The Church” into one big personal projection of The Big Bad Wolf (as if the Catholic Church is supposed to be perfect here on Earth, which is entirely unreasonable).

ep_greek_man_clr.gifCampbell, himself, was a fallen away Catholic, which may have had some bearing on his somewhat negative treatment of Catholicism. He does seem to highlight the Catholic Church’s past mistakes without fully appreciating its positive aspects—e.g. how the Eucharist enriches the lives of present-day believers.²

Another difficulty in Campbells’ analyses of world religions echoes difficulties found in Jung’s work. At times Campbell seems to say that the various paths in world mysticism evoke identical mystical experiences and lead to the same afterlife abode.

This may be a politically correct view and, for all we know, could be true. But ultimate claims about the afterlife cannot be made with any certainty (unless you believe you have a pipeline to God, as so many zealots do).

These shortcomings aside, Campbell’s contribution to the study of myth, religion and culture is noteworthy (some might say remarkable). His popular PBS lectures, taped just months before his unfortunate death due to cancer, reveal that, in his own dignified way he was just as heroic as a Heracles or Luke Skywalker.

It’s not surprising that his name has become almost archetypal among students of world myth and religion.

Related Posts » Mythic Dissociation, Mythic Eternalization, Mythic Identification, Mythic Inflation, Mythic Subordination

¹ Star Wars creator George Lucas says Campbell’s work was influential for the mythic structure of the film. Lucas had the insight to realize that his sci-fi story would work better if it had an authentic mythic feel. By adapting Campbell’s ideas, Lucas hoped that the Star Wars epic would resonate with the masses, which, of course, it did.

² Creative thinkers like Campbell are rarely one-dimensional, however. He also says that one of his peak experiences came when entering Chartres Cathedral in France.



What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.