Joseph Campbell is considered one of the most influential and controversial mythologists, anthropologists, literary scholars and philosophers of the modern era. His contemporaries assert that Campbell surely was far above mentioned characteristics. In the global philosophical scope he was the last survivor of the modernist era. Campbell’s philosophical system genuinely combined both art and science. In his obituary Campbell’s colleges admit that he was “a hero of our time; not coincidentally, much of his work was about the heroes of history and prehistory” (Obituary, 1987).
Indeed, Campbell devoted the biggest part of his scientific activity to the study of myth and a hero, however despite the majority of scholars conducting similar studies before him, Campbell’s implications were highly practical and easily projected on the existing reality.
Joseph Campbell was born in 1904 in a relatively wealthy family in New York. Being a child, Campbell visited the American Museum of Natural History and was significantly impressed with Native American customs, traditions and myths.
He soon began studying numerous aspects of Native American society, primarily its mythology. From the critical standpoint, it was the start point for Campbell’s lifelong passion to the myth and human culture. Unfortunately in 1919 fire destroyed Campbell’s family house along with his exceptional collection of Indian books and relics. Although at Dartmouth College he was primarily involved in studying mathematics and biology, later at Columbia University Campbell specialized in literature and art. In 1927 Campbell wrote his master thesis on the Arthurian legends.
Critics consider Campbell to be one of the most famous autodidacts, self-educating experts, and practically this peculiarity has been reflected in his methodology. Interestingly, upon the completion of his master program at the university, Campbell decided not to pursue the path of the doctor. He isolated himself in New York woods and educated himself during five years. According to some evidence, during that period Campbell developed a systematic program of reading, which in the end constituted the core of his real education. The isolation itself helped Campbell to develop his unique scientific methods and view on the nature of life.
Later on Joseph Campbell continued his studying in Old French and Sanskrit at the Universities of Paris and Munich. His literary career began with editing and translation of Heinrich Zimmer’s posthumous papers. During the same period, Campbell started studying the ideas of famous psychologists and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. From the critical point of view, Campbell’s work in mythology to the some degree bridged controversial and disparate stances of Jung and Freud and their central debate over the collective unconscious. In addition to the substantial influence of Freud and Jung, Campbell was impacted by Wilhelm Steckel, psychologist who was the first to apply Freud’s conceptions of fantasies, dreams and the unconscious to the fields of literature and anthropology.
Campbell’s philosophical system, beliefs and methodology were always sharply criticized during his lifetime. Even after his death, his contemporary Brendan Gill accused Campbell in “The Faces of Joseph Campbell” in reactionary political beliefs. Other critics in further exchange about the articles claimed that Campbell hold strong anti-Semite beliefs.
Campbell based his theoretical assumptions on the texts of Jung as an explanation of psychological phenomena, as experienced through archetypes. However, Campbell did not comply with Carl Jung’s philosophical system on every issue, and surely had a very original voice of his own. Campbell questioned the application and truth of Astrology and synchronicity as Jung firmly believed. Campbell’s true study and interpretation lay in the declaration of accepted ideas and symbolism. His iconoclastic approach was both original and radical. His conclusions about the religion, its mission and foundations have been compared to Einstein’s idea of science in his last days.
From the practical standpoint, Joseph Campbell considered all the religions of the world, all the rituals and deities, to be “masks” of the same transcendent truth which is “unknowable.” It is due to Campbell’s philosophical system both relativistic and agnostic. He argued that 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. For these beliefs, claims and “heresy” he was significantly disliked by many dogmatists.
As Campbell quoted from the Vedas, “truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names” (Dale, 96). Joseph Campbell was taken with what he viewed as universal sentiments and truths, which have disseminated through cultures, featuring different manifestations. Campbell wanted to reveal his idea that Eastern and Western religions are similar even identical on a very basic level, therefore nobody is right but individuals are searching for the same unknown. He started evaluating and criticizing moral systems as both incorrect and necessary. Similarly to the postmodern relativists, Campbell believed in the idea that “right” and “wrong” are just intricate ideas. However, he understood to the very degree the necessity of a moral system. From this critical standpoint, Joseph Campbell united the concepts of modernism and postmodernism, however some interpretations characterize him as a postmodernist thinker.
In his famous series “Masks of God” Campbell attempted to give the summary – such an ambitious objective – of the spiritual wealth of humanity, and simultaneously to provide a decent well-grounded support to his ideas on the “unity of the race of man” and monomyth. The latter became the philosophical idea that all Myths spring from a common origin: “the communal past of the human race, starting off on the fertile grasslands of Europe and moving to the Levant and the “Fertile Creasant” of Mesopotamia and back to Europe (and the Far East) where it will be mixed with the newly emerging Indo-European (Aryan) culture” (Campbell, 51).
Campbell affirmed that the spirituality is searching for the same unknown transcendent force from which everything originated and into which everything will return. He referred to this transcendent force as the connotation, his philosophical interpretation of various deities and other spiritual objects of the world. According to Campbell, religion constitutes a defense mechanism which attempts to explain religious experience. However, many scholars notified that Campbell’s “religious experience” can be a mere functioning of brain chemistry, and not transcendent force.
Joseph Campbell affirmed that all the myths, spiritual systems and organized religions represented homogeneous substances, therefore he believed one day all people would unite under one. His major concerns always were global instability, deterioration of morality and ideals. From the critical point of view, study of myth and hero became the real apogee of Campbell’s scholar work. In 1949 Campbell wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” where he developed and explained the idea of monomyth, a concise idea for Campbell’s archetypal patterns. The majority of myths include only a few of these patterns, though Star Wars and the Matrix stories embody all of Campbell’s archetypal patterns in the order he developed them.
The idea of hero was important to Campbell because the hero represents the unique value and importance for societies and usually the image and idea of the hero blends with the mythology of a society. As Campbell pointed out: “Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of mankind have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.
Religions, philosophy, arts, the social forms of primitive and historical humankind, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic magic ring of myth” (Campbell, 73).Campbell asserted that societies must have heroes to exemplify the society’s “values.” In addition, Joseph Campbell affirmed that “…the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale – as the flavor of the ocean is contained in the droplet of the ocean, the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea, the symbols of mythology are not manufactured. They cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche. And each bears within it undamaged the germ power of its source. What is the secret of this timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it derive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach?” In the conclusion of his argument Campbell asserted that, “most remarkable of all, however, are the revelations that have emerged from the mental clinic.
The bold and truly epic-making writings of psychoanalysis are indispensable to the student of mythology, for whatever may be thought of the detailed and sometimes contradictory interpretations of specific cases and problems, Jung and their followers have demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times.” Campbell asserted that societies must have heroes to exemplify the society’s “values.” Critically, this idea contrasts with another Campbell’s notion that there are no universal values, however, simultaneously the fact that a society requires accepted “values” does not make them universal, or objectively true.
After publishing his “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell logically continued his theoretical and methodological explorations of the concept of myth. He successfully attempted to theoretically construct it in famous the Masks of God series, particularly in “Occidental Mythology” published in 1964. In this work Campbell developed the four functions of the myth:
1) Metaphysical function. Executing this function myth arouses and supports a sense of awe before the mystery of being. Myth adjusts consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence. It impels a realization of a transcendent mystery source, and through this process of realization the universe becomes a holy picture.
2) Cosmological function. It deals with the image of the world that is the focus of science. This function of myth reveals the shape of the universe, but in such a peculiar way that the mystery still comes through. According to this assumption, the cosmology should agree to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture. The function presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it.
3) Sociological function. Myth encourages and maintains the specific moral order of the society out of which it originates. Particular traditions, customs, rituals, laws and social roles evolve significantly. This function of myth establishes in members of cultural group a system of sentiments that may lead them spontaneously to its ends.
4) Psychological function. The myths indicate the path according to which society lives under certain circumstances. According to Campbell it constitutes the pedagogical function of mythology that leads a human through different stages of life. During the early childhood, an individual is dependant on parents, however when maturity comes he/she bears responsibilities, and so on. This function of myth brings integrity, enrichment and realization into changing lives of humans.
Practically, Joseph Campbell was primarily interested in the psychological function of myth. He greatly emphasized the process by which literature reflected psychological dynamics (Osbon, 124). However, interestingly this emphasis on psychology brought a considerable wave of criticism towards Campbell’s ideas. Specialists in sociology and history affirmed that the primary purposes of myths were of sociological nature.
In 1972 retired from Sarah Lawrence College, Joseph Campbell concentrated on writing. His philosophical interest ranged beyond the texts to other dimensions of the mythic imagination. Campbell affirmed that timeless wisdom can be approached from three perspectives. The mythic story would provide a necessary access to the mysteries beyond conscious knowing (Noel, 217).
The ritual could be considered as another direction towards wisdom, since various ceremonial practices characterize major myths and give participants an opportunity to experience the whole story through dramatic re-enactment of part of the text. The image represents the third means of entry. The idea of image can be different, varying from a sacred image such as a statue or painting to a dream or the imagination. For instance, pondering mythic stories communicate images to mind (Noel, 219). Simultaneously, the content of the image can be interpreted through consideration of the metaphor that image implies.
During 1980s, Joseph Campbell published extensive Historical Atlas of World Mythology aimed to investigate the major mythological periods. In the atlas, Campbell suggested a stage model of cultural development. According to this model, the earliest era of shamanistic hunter-gatherers was characterized with the beginning of symbolic thinking. The next stage of planters was marked with rituals of birth, death, and rebirth.
Goddesses, heroes, and priests symbolized the third stage of cultural development. The third stage involves high civilizations of Goddesses, heroes, and priestly orders. In the stage of modern period, individuals comprehend illumination as internal state. According to Campbell, societies do not practically experience those stages simultaneously, thus there are some societies which exhibit the characteristics of every stage.