What is the meaning of Joseph Campbell?

The Real Power of Myth

True Lies

by Craig Payne, from Touchstone Magazine.

power of myth
power of myth

For students who are part of that ever-growing “revolt into orthodoxy” of which G. K. Chesterton spoke, the typical college classroom presents numerous opportunities for debate. The views of modern Gnostics, often cloaked in classical or traditional language, are continually foisted on unsuspecting students. One of the modern Gnostics often encountered in the classroom is the popular author and video lecturer Joseph Campbell.

Campbell died in 1987, but his influence seems to have grown since his death. His books, particularly The Power of Myth, a compilation of interviews conducted by Bill Moyers, are bestsellers on college campuses. The videotaped interviews with Moyers, repeatedly broadcast on public television, along with another series of video lectures of Campbell (“The World of Joseph Campbell”), have become multipurpose tools for this Gnosticism—they are routinely presented in classes on psychology, history, sociology, anthropology, myth studies, religion, and so on.

Our Inquiring Minds

Impressionable students or others reading Campbell’s books or viewing his videotapes often think of him as a path-breaking pioneer who shed the worn-out straitjacket of religious dogma and found the mystical truth at the heart of reality. But Campbell is just another manifestation of an ancient (and persistent) intellectual system which specifically denies reality as it is given to us to know it: Gnosticism. Fascination with Campbell is just another New Age fad. Owen Jones points out in an article on Campbell:

Many Americans, even devout Christians and Jews who ought to know better, often lack even the most basic spiritual and theological understanding that would help them handle the mysterious problems of pain, evil, suffering, and death. This spiritual illiteracy is the context in which the burgeoning interest in mythology and other forms of esoteric spirituality have begun to take on the form of a social movement complete with an intellectual system.1

The popularity of myth studies may be attributed to the fact that they purport to examine the central questions of life: Why are things one way, and not another? What is the ground of our being, the ground of the universe we inhabit? The modern philosopher Eric Voegelin posits these questions as the two principal questions of life, the questions of “existence” and “essence”:

The quest for the ground . . . is a constant in all civilizations. . . . The quest for the ground has been formulated in two principal questions of metaphysics. The first question is, “Why is there something; why not nothing?” and the second is, “Why is that something as it is, and not different?”2

Man, because of his part in the world- Logos or ordering principle that makes the chaotic universe into a cosmological vision, “does not live in order to live, he wants to know why and for what he lives.”3 Before the path of self-sacrifice—in order to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful for its own sake and not for its potential usefulness—is chosen, man searches for meaning, even eternal meaning behind existence: “He recognizes not only that there is something, but that something ought to be. He not only sees a reality but tries to see a meaning for what is real.”4

Man asks the eternal question: What is life’s purpose? Myth appears to organize existence into purposeful categories. However, if life has no purpose (meaning an objective purpose outside of the mere facticity of “what occurs”), then is not the orchestration and organization of meaningful pattern done by the myth-maker also purposeless, no matter how skillfully wrought or how many believe in the artistic contrivance? Is any imposition of meaning an artificial construction rather than a reflection of reality—or, more bluntly, is it a cold-blooded lie? Is myth purely social in function and origin, the “useful lies” of the clerics and artists merely a form of social cement to bind the masses into the coherent enterprise of society? In our look at modern myth studies we must come to the inescapable question of truth.

Truth—Real or Imagined?

“To my way of thinking,” writes David Bidney, “the central and inescapable issue is the relevance of the question of truth to mythic belief.” Bidney goes on to say:

If myth be conceived as an intrinsically subjective mode of experience, then it may be said to have a purely psychological and ethnological value as a record and expression of uncritical, “physiognomic” emotional experience. The “truth” of myth would then lie in its factual and historical subjectivity. But if the mythic and religious intuition of the solidarity and continuity of cosmic life be accepted as true in the sense of being in accord with a non-mythic reality, then myth may be interpreted allegorically. . . . The truth of myth is then a function of the interpretation of myth. If one accepts the truth of the original intuition of the solidarity of life and the dramatic character of its underlying forces then myth symbolizes allegorically a fundamental metaphysical and religious truth. For the sociological approach, however, the truth of myth consists in its symbolic expression of ritual and has no cosmic reference.5

Or to put it more simply for our discussion here, the “truth” of myths for the sociological interpreters is entirely subjective—there are no objective truths to which they point.

Chief among these “symbolists” who hold that myth has no actual “cosmic reference” is Joseph Campbell. While some critics consider Campbell’s views of myth romantic and not sociological, I consider Campbell to fall squarely within the ranks of Bidney’s sociological interpreters. For Campbell, any search for meaning in life is an illusion—rather, only “an experience of being alive” is important.6 Campbell rejects the ordering principle, the world- Logos, and in effect celebrates what Emil Brunner would label as subhuman, the human who lives merely “in order to live.”7

Campbell attacks “literalists” who miss the “symbolic” truth of myth and are “going back to something that is vestigial.”8 Ironically, he himself is a literalist (or using the more exact philosophical label, a materialist) in that, as Bidney neatly inverts it, he “does not acknowledge any reality other than symbolic reality,”9 symbolic reality being merely a function of the human mind. Since any idea of a nonsymbolic reality as a referent for myth is precluded, myth’s function (no matter how often Campbell speaks of the transcendental or the bliss of mystical experience) becomes simply sociological and/or anthropological (i.e., literal). Campbell’s views therefore fit into a sociological view of myth, in which “not nature but society is the model for myth.”10

The Reality Behind the Myth

The question then confronting the student of myth is: What is the source or authority or model of the social mythos? To put the question another way: Is the mythic vision of truth only valid insofar as it is socially useful, capable of creating cultural order and order-maintaining heroes? And if so, is this mythic vision of any real or ultimate value? What becomes of the Ultimate when its myths reflect only the human society which conceives of it?

For Campbell, as he casually mentions from time to time, God himself is the ultimate metaphor. He states in The Power of Myth:

The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. . . Every religion is true in one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.11

By literally I take Campbell to mean univocally in the Thomistic sense (i.e., language corresponding exactly or perfectly to its object). By thing I assume he means an object, or something material. If so, what Campbell presents is a truism, but a truism intended to have consequential effect. By saying the “transcendent” is “not literally any thing,” Campbell actually intends to say, “The transcendent literally is not.” As one writer has noted, Campbell has “an Emersonian gift for casting atheism in the language of faith.”12

Even if we admit the analogical nature of language and deny its univocality (as Aquinas did), this does not deny the ens or essential existence of the topics of language. Admitting that language does not have a literal or even necessary relation to its object does not deny the literalness of the object itself. In more specific terms, admitting that our predications about concepts are essentially analogical in nature does not necessarily require us also to deny that the concepts themselves are essentially unitary in meaning.

Revelation—Historical or Psychological?

However, in Campbell’s view, Christians and Jews have mostly missed the point because of their insistence on historical revelation. In particular, the notion of divine transcendence limiting itself in localized time and space is “folly to the Gentiles,” as the Apostle Paul said it always would be. In his best-known scholarly work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell rejected “the concrete clutter of facts and events”13 and asserted that “the knowledge of the transcendent principle” is “beyond the phenomenal realm of names and forms.”14 He believed that the notion of historical revelatory truth is the “blight” of the Bible and the “Christian cult.”15

Mythology to Campbell, as it was to Jung, is “psychology misread as biography,”16 and “the divine being” is “a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all”17; we are called to “Know this and be God.”18

It is important to recognize that to Campbell “the divine being” or “the transcendent” is merely this psychological principle; any evangelism to the contrary is “general propaganda,” “superfluous,” and even “a menace.”19 This, of course, did not prevent an occasional quote from Jewish and Christian sources when they suit his purpose, since “truth” even can break out of “doctrine” at times. To Campbell, religious doctrine is concretized and therefore “ineffectual” myth.20 To the religious believer, however, the “doctrine” exists to balance truth with truth.

Others also have pointed out Campbell’s misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Christian teaching in stronger terms than I am using. Educator and philosopher Mortimer Adler writes, “From what Campbell himself wrote on the subject, I can only conclude that his understanding of the Christian creed and its theology was puerile. In that field he was an ignoramus.”21 Elsewhere Adler evaluates Campbell’s philosophical stance:

Professor Campbell was undoubtedly a very good social scientist in the field of cultural anthropology. But his competence in dealing with philosophical matters, especially in the field of philosophical theology, is highly questionable. His judgment in this area reflects the dogmatic materialism that is so prevalent in contemporary science, especially in the behavioral sciences.22

Furthermore, Campbell’s judgments may have been motivated by animosity rather than scholarship: “Clearly Christianity is opposed fundamentally and intrinsically to everything that I am working and living for,” he said in his biography.23

The Paradox of Christian Truth

So how does one who rejects dogmatic materialism and is open to the idea of religious truth approach the idea of myth?

To the religious person, the balance of truth with truth to form doctrine is occasionally expressed as complementarity, to use Niels Bohr’s term, or more frequently as paradox. “Whether they are appraising the world or seeking to understand man’s place in the cosmos,” writes Reinhold Niebuhr, “. . . the wise men usually resolve the paradoxes of religion and arrive at a simpler and more consistent truth which has the misfortune of being untrue to the facts of human existence.”24 Niebuhr freely admits, “We are deceivers, yet true, when we affirm that God became man to redeem the world from sin. The idea of eternity entering time is intellectually absurd.”25 Yet, he explains, “The Christian religion may be characterized as one which has transmuted primitive religious and artistic myths and symbols without fully rationalizing them.” He goes on to say:

Buddhism is much more rational than Christianity. In consequence Buddhism finds the finite and temporal world evil. Spinozism is a more rational version of God and the world than the biblical account; but it finds the world unqualifiedly good and identical with God.26

In Campbell’s muddled theological thought both of these rationalist themes are apparent. He rejects the idea of finiteness and temporality inherent in the Incarnation (the “concrete clutter of facts and events”), yet accepts “the affirmation of all things”:

Since in Hindu thinking everything in the universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to anything in the world?. . . Who are we to judge? It seems to me that this is one of the great teachings, also, of Jesus.27

Here Campbell misrepresents the Christian belief in the sacramental, incarnational universe. Again, Campbell’s materialist notions of “divinity” cause him to rationalize away the point of Christian doctrine, a point that he then feels compelled to explain—to Christians!

Of course, Christians agree somewhat with Campbell’s division between mythic or symbolic truth and the literal. As John Knox puts it in Myth and Truth, “The tests of truth are various.”28 Knox argues through the idea of truth in “images” or metaphorical truth, but comes to a halt: “The myth claims a kind of relation to objective, factual truth which other forms of allusive discourse do not claim.”29 After stumbling over Tillich’s idea of “objective reference” and drawing from it the bland inference that “a myth is not an authentic myth if it is not believed,”30 Knox brings the point to a head: “How does one believe a myth?”31 In this Knox follows Rudolf Bultmann: both believe that “myths give to the transcendent reality an immanent, this-worldly objectivity.”32 But they depart from Christian orthodoxy in demanding that the myth of Christ be separate from the kerygma or announcement of a this-worldly event. Other Christians, as Knox concedes, insist to the contrary that “we cannot separate the proclamation that God acted in Christ from the story of what that action was.”33

For example, C. S. Lewis maintains the union of myth and fact in Christ: “If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. . . . the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, man.”34 He explains this elsewhere:

As myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heavens of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. . . . By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth; that is the miracle. . . . To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all other myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.35

It seems, then, that Lewis would not disagree with David Bidney, but would rephrase Bidney’s conception of a “non-mythic reality” into that of a mythic reality that also transcends the solely mythic. In simpler terms, this would be a truly transcendent myth, using transcendent in its classical and Christian sense and not in its Campbellian misuse as “immanent” or even “worldwide.”

As historian Cornelius Loew has noted, any religious convictions, even in the linguistic roots of the word, “point to someone or something . . . which is experienced as an exterior force by those who hold the conviction.” This “experience from outside” is perceived as an “objective referent” to the one holding the convictions.36 Loew points out that the Hebrews and Greeks, in particular, maintained this conviction of transcendence or “apartness”: “The life-orienting story that the Hebrews developed (sacred history) expressed the conviction that there is an ultimate other than man, society, or the cosmos.”37 Whether or not this “ultimate,” this “objective referent,” actually exists, it is important to note that in the dual tradition out of which Christianity grows the story or myth of divine action cannot be separated from the action itself.

The Union of Myth & Time

“In the beginning was the Word” is much like “In the beginning God created” in that both statements have meaning only in reference to or by virtue of the story (myth) in which they are found. Both therefore lie outside of chronological history. Both may be said to correspond roughly to the “Once upon a time” of fairy tales (which elevates the status of fairy tales considerably, while not denigrating in the slightest the status of sacred Scripture). This is why attempts to find the historical date for Genesis 1:1 seem to be inevitably frustrated, for the only knowable “date” is “In the beginning.”

In the case of John 1:1, however, an important and qualitative change takes place, for here the Word (myth) which exists “in the beginning” is also said to become a part of chronological history (i.e., become “flesh”). In answer to the query of Levi-Strauss, “Where does mythology end and where does history start?”38 Christianity claims that myth and history have become concurrent: God’s supreme action finds itself in a historical Person.

“The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories,” writes J. R. R. Tolkien. “But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.”39

Mircea Eliade notes religion’s “rejection of profane time and the periodical recovery of the Great Time,”40 or the New Testament’s distinction between chronos and eternal life, not as a future event but as a present reality to its possessor, established as an archetype or repetition by the Liturgy. Therefore, in view of this dual concept of time, the religious person, whatever his or her historical context, “always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.”41 This person further believes that “human existence” only “participates in reality” to the extent that that existence is “religious.”42 Nature (or flesh, in the Christian view) is sanctified without ceasing to be natural; the myth becomes history without ceasing to be myth. The religious believer clings to this paradox as the means to an understanding which transcends understanding.

The Transcendent Mythic Vision

But this understanding on the part of the religious believer is the perception granted by vision, for the ultimate irrationality cannot, of course, be apprehended by rationality, but only by the paradoxical dialectic; it seems incapable of systematic articulation without, as Aquinas puts it, a great admixture of error on the part of the articulator. Nevertheless, the dialectic of faith exists. “All those contradictions,” as Pascal writes, “which seemed to take me furthest from the knowledge of any religion are what led me most directly to the true. . .”43 Religious faith, then, becomes not reason’s goal, but its necessary condition. How else to reason without the fundamental and primary element of an all-embracing vision or perception?

When faced with the order of the “useful lies” of mythic art and the apparent disorder of reality, including the ultimate realities with which both mythic art and religion insist they deal, the religious believer has reason for perplexity. But the paradox of the Incarnation, the paradox of the immersion of mythic order into the flux of historical reality, at least leaves the door open intellectually to the idea of religious truth, the idea of a redemptive mythic order that transcends the merely psychological or sociological view of myth, and which arises out of actual spiritual experience.

The cleric and the mythic artist are not finally the same. They are, however, on the same side: the side of redemption, the side of faith, the side of truth. The ideals of historical truth and of the symbolic, aesthetic truth known to the myth-maker, merge, blend, and become a single coherent vision, to the eye of faith

1. Owen Jones, “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” in The Intercollegiate Review 25.1 (Fall 1989): p. 14.
2. Eric Voegelin, Conversations with Eric Voegelin, ed. R. Eric O’Connor (Montreal: Thomas More Institute, 1980): p. 2.
3. Emil Brunner, The Scandal of Christianity (London: London Press, 1951): p. 54.
4. Ibid., p. 55.
5. David Bidney, “Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,” in Myth: A Symposium, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970): pp. 15-16.
6. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Doubleday, 1988): p. 5.
7. The Scandal of Christianity, p. 54.
8. The Power of Myth, p. 12.
9. ”Myth, Symbolism, and Truth,” p. 15.
10. Ibid., p. 15.
11. The Power of Myth, p. 56.
12. Matthew Scully, “Adler v. Averroes,” in National Review (November 19, 1990): p. 50.
13. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968): p. 180.
14. Ibid., p. 89.
15. Ibid., p. 249.
16. Ibid., p. 256.
17. Ibid., p. 319.
18. Ibid., p. 319.
19. Ibid., p. 390.
20. Ibid., p. 389.
21. Mortimer Adler, “This Campbell Person,” in National Review (February 17, 1992): p. 49.
22. Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth (New York: Macmillan, 1990): p. 60.
23. Stephen and Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell (New York: Doubleday, 1991): p. 414.
24. Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Scribner’s, 1937): pp. 210-11.
25. Ibid., p. 13.
26. Ibid., p. 7.
27. The Power of Myth, p. 67.
28. John Knox, Myth and Truth: An Essay on the Language of Faith (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1964): p. 18.
29. Ibid., p. 23.
30. Ibid., p. 27.
31. Ibid., p. 29.
32. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner’s, 1958): p. 19.
33. Myth and Truth, p. 47.
34. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955): p. 236.
35. Quoted in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis, ed. Clyde S. Kilby (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968): p. 214. Emphasis in original.
36. Cornelius Loew, Myth, Sacred History, and Philosophy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1967): p. 3.
37. Ibid., pp. 5-6.
38. Claude Levi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 1979): p. 38.
39. J. R .R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966): pp. 71-72.
40. Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities, trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Harper & Row, 1960): p. 30.
41. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1959): p. 202.
42. Ibid., p. 202.
43. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1988): p. 146.


Moyers: You changed the definition of a myth from the search for meaning to the experience of meaning.

Campbell: Experience of life. The mind has to do with meaning. What’s the meaning of a flower? There’s a Zen story about a sermon of the Buddha in which he simply lifted a flower. There was only one man who gave him a sign with his eyes that he understood what was said. Now, the Buddha himself is called “the one thus come.” There’s no meaning.
What’s the meaning of the universe? What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it.

From The Power of Myth

Craig Payne is an instructor in humanities at a community college in south-eastern Iowa. He lives in Ottumwa, Iowa, and is a member of an interdenominational church. 

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