Joseph Campbell

From Academic Kids

Joseph Campbell (New York City, March 26, 1904 - Honolulu, October 30, 1987) was an American professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of mythology and comparative religion.



He was born and raised in New York City in an upper middle class family. As a child, Campbell became fascinated with Native American culture when his father took him to see the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He soon became versed in numerous aspects of Native American society, primarily in its mythology. This led to Campbell's lifelong passion with myth and its similar, seemingly cohesive threads among all human cultures. At Dartmouth College he studied biology and mathematics, but later transferred to Columbia University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925 and a Master of Arts degree in 1927.

Campbell is considered by some to be one of the most famous autodidacts, or 'self-educators' and is sometimes seen as a poster-boy for this methodology. After completing his master's degree, Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate; instead, he went into the woods in upstate New York, reading deeply for five years. According to poet and author Robert Bly, a friend of Campbell, Campbell developed a systematic program of reading nine hours a day. According to Campbell, this is, in a sense, where his real education took place, and the time when he began to develop his unique view on the nature of life.

He went on to study Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and the University of Munich. He learned to speak at least French, German and Sanskrit in addition to English. Campbell began his literary career by editing the posthumous papers of Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. With Henry Morton Robinson he wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, for which generations of puzzled readers of James Joyce have been grateful.

Campbell studied the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who had been a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Campbell's work in mythology sought to bridge the seemingly disparate stances of Jung and Freud and their pivotal debate over the collective unconscious. Campbell also edited the first Eranos conference papers and helped to found Princeton's Bollingen Press. Another dissident member of Freud's circle who influenced Campbell was Wilhelm Steckel (1868 - 1939), who pioneered the application of Freud's conceptions of dreams, fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious to such fields as anthropology and literature.

Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 until 1972.

Soon after Campbell's death, Brendan Gill criticized him in an article, "The Faces of Joseph Campbell," published in the New York Review of Books on September 28, 1989, accusing him of "reactionary" political beliefs. Others repeated the charge in a later exchange about the article in the same magazine. Gill reported that some of Campbell's colleagues at Sarah Lawrence came forward to declare Campbell, who bristled at the insistence that Biblical myth was history, as an anti-Semite. Television commentator Tom Snyder even suggested that viewers write to PBS and to libraries and ask them to cease showing the Moyers/Campbell documentary.

Campbell's original voice

Campbell relied on the texts of Jung as an explanation of psychological phenomena, as experienced through archetypes. But Campbell didn’t agree with Carl Jung on every issue, and certainly had a very original voice of his own. Campbell didn't believe in astrology or synchronicity as Jung had. Campbell's true study and interpretation is in the melding of accepted ideas and symbolism. His iconoclastic approach was as original as it was radical. His take on religion has been compared to Einstein's idea of science in his last days, the search is for a unifying theory. Joseph Campbell believed all the religions of the world, all the rituals and deities, to be “masks” of the same transcendent truth which is “unknowable.” Here we see Campbell as an agnostic, and he also shows his world view to be relativistic at times. He claims Christianity and Buddhism, whether the object is 'Buddha-consciousness' or 'Christ-consciousness,' to be an elevated awareness above “pairs of opposites,” such as right and wrong. Needless to say, many dogmatists dislike him and find his ideas heretical.

"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names," he often quoted from the Vedas. Joseph Campbell was fascinated by what he viewed as universal sentiments and truths, disseminated through cultures which all featured different manifestations. He wanted to show his idea that Eastern and Western religions are the same on a very basic level, that nobody is right but everyone is searching for the same unknown, and indeed unknowable, answer. He began to look paradoxically at moral systems as both incorrect and necessary. Like the postmodern relativists he believes such things as 'right' and 'wrong' are just contrived ideas, but also like them he understands a moral system is necessary from the perspective of a student of mythology and psychology. In this way he melds also the concepts of modernism and postmodernism, although some interpretations place him as a postmodernist before his time.

In his series of books: "Masks of God" Campbell tried to summarize all the spiritual wealth of humanity (a daring task!), in support of his ideas on the "unity of the race of man" [Campbell, Joseph, 1964] and Monomyth, namely that all Myths originate from a common source: the communal past of the human race, starting off on the fertile grasslands of Europe and moving to the Levant and the "Fertile Crescent" of Mesopotamia and back to Europe (and the Far East) where it will be mixed with the newly emerging Indo-European (Aryan) culture. [Joseph Campbell, 1967, "The Masks of God", 4 volumes]

He believed all spirituality is searching for the same unknown transcendent force from which everything came and into which everything will return. He refers to this transcendent force as the connotation, the various metaphors being the various deities and objects of spirituality in the world. He viewed religion as a defense mechanism which attempts to explain religious experience. It's actually very difficult to grasp what Campbell actually believes, as all of his writings are peppered with quotes (or what philosophers call appeals to authority).

Influence of his works

Joseph Campbell was so fascinated by the notion that all the myths, spiritual systems and organized religions were the same that he hoped one day all the earth would unite under one. He voiced concern about global instability and wished to see all humankind unified.

Heroes play a crucial role in his comparative study. In 1949 he published The Hero with a Thousand Faces which set out the idea of the monomyth, a shortened version of all the archetypal patterns Campbell recognized. Most myths only contain a few of these patterns, although at least two franchise-films (Star Wars and The Matrix) exemplify all of Campbell’s archetypal patterns in the order he presented them. Heroes were important to him because heroes are important for societies and often blend in with the mythology of a society. Campbell recognized societies must have heroes to incarnate the society’s 'values.' Again this seems paradoxical, as he agreed with the relativistic notion that there is no such thing as universal 'values,' but the fact that a society requires accepted 'values' does not make them universal, or objectively true. After long study, autodidacticism and contemplation, he wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces and twenty more books. He taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 to 1972 and then he lectured across the country. He went on interviews on NPR, and then he went on PBS to converse with Bill Moyers. Regardless of criticisms, Joseph Campbell has incontestably had a great influence on contemporary world-view and religious debate. When the conversations between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers aired on PBS, first in 1988, The Power of Myth series changed many lives. To many what Joseph Campbell was saying was either different and interesting, or different and blasphemous. Either way, Joseph Campbell was very original and very influential, perhaps one of the most influential Americans of the late twentieth century.

Seminal Joseph Campbell quote: “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life”.This is not an endorsement of masochism, but rather a recognition that life is hardship and an individual should embrace the experience of being alive by living affirmatively in the face of inevitable sorrow and suffering. It's important to note that Buddhism teaches "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world."

Seminal Joseph Campbell quote: “Follow your bliss.” Campbell believed that at the heart of every hero myth was just that message. After the Power of Myth series aired it became a bit of a catch-phrase. Many agree with Campbell’s metaphysical argument that it is a conscious agreement with transcendent forces, but it has been likened by critics to a modern-day “Do what thou wilt,” as Aleister Crowley said, “shall be the whole of the law.”

Joseph Campbell explains his maxim to Bill Moyers:

BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that 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. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.

Campbell also encourages others to read all the myths of the ages and peoples as he did.

"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts -- but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message."


The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) is one of his best-known books: it discusses the monomyth cycle of the hero's journey, a pattern found in many cultures. His four-volume work The Masks of God covers the world of mythology.

Campbell collaborated with Bill Moyers on the PBS series The Power of Myth, which was first broadcast in 1988, the year after Campbell's death in Honolulu. They also jointly authored the book The Power of Myth [ISBN 0385247745] associated with the series.

A recent compilation of many of his ideas is titled Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. The book explains that religion and mythology are actually the same thing and he puts religious symbology in its proper mythological context. One of Campbell's favorite quotes is that "...Mythology is often thought of as 'other peoples' religions and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." He explains that by understanding religious symbols not as historical facts but rather as mythological images, the symbols can take on deeper and more-believable meanings for many people.

George Lucas has said that he based the Star Wars series on ideas in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell.



ISBN 0140194401

Books and articles critical of Campbell

Defenses of Campbell


External links


cs:Joseph Campbell


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