It’s important to note at the outset that Joseph Campbell did not write this book as a cohesive piece. It was pieced together by Johnson E. Fairchild of the Cooper union Form from a series of twenty-five talks Dr. Campbell gave at Forum between the years 1958 and 1971. As such, the talks vary on them and content and do not carry through them a cohesive thought or focus. However, all the talks were on the subject of mythology, and Campbell’s work is cohesive enough that they stand together well as a collected work.
Given that the chapters each encompass a specific (but different) subject, I have tried to read the book with the main questions of my study in the forefront of my thought. Those questions are:
- What does it mean to be truly human?
- How have different cultures and beliefs answered that question through the ages?
- How can we (as individuals and as a society) work to realize the highest potential within the human?
- How will the answers to these questions impact my own practice and daily life?
With that in mind, I attempted to approach this book critically, looking for any instances where Campbell specifically speaks to the issues of humanity and human potential. Perhaps the best way to annotate this particular book is to those instances as I have notated them, and try to draw a cohesive thread through them.
Beginning with Chapter 1: The Impact of Science on Myth, Campbell brings out his main themes, the inescapable patterns that exist in all myths, the “meta-narratives” that can be found to recur in myths throughout cultures and times. Campbell believes that these recurring narratives are a significant part of what makes us human. He states, “Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth.” He describes how Cortez and his Spanish explorers found stories in Aztec Mexico that so closely paralleled their own “True Faith” that they could not explain the similarity. They explained this by inventing myths of their own, one about the early apostles actually journeying to North America, and the second about the devil deliberately “throwing up parodies of the Christian faith, to frustrate missionaries”(p. 09).
It would seem then, that perhaps one of the things it means to be human is to have a narrative, a story, in which to place ourselves. That narrative often (but not always) seems to involve a creation tale, a flood, a virgin birth, and a hero incarnate who dies and is resurrected. And don’t mistake that I’m talking just about Christian history here; you could do an extensive study of ancient myths with those characteristics and never even need to involve Christianity.
Campbell also seems to believe that it is inherent within human cultures to think themselves to be somehow special, or “elect.” Some, like Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth, would say that this is the “Ego” within the human being, and that it is more an indication of our current state of evolution than it is representative of humanity as a species. Campbell himself, after a long list of cultures and beliefs that he says have been “prone to interpret their symbols literally, and so to regard them selves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the absolute,” then goes on to state that such claims can “no longer be taken seriously” and seems to indicate that he himself thinks we have already moved past this stage (p. 10).
Moving forward in chronology of humanity, Campbell traces the shift from cultural myth to scientific inquiry. But he is quick to point out that science doesn’t seem to have brought us closer to any final answers about meaning or existence. Science itself, he says can only make its hypotheses based on what is known at the time. Thus there must always be room for development and change, as more information becomes known. In fact, he says, it is that change, not arrival at “truth” that is the point of the process:
“And is there no implied intention, then, to rest satisfied with some final body or sufficient number of facts?
No indeed! There is to be only a continuing search for more—as of a mind eager to grow. And that growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of modern Western man…”(p. 17).
Indeed, he says later about the search for knowledge and meaning that, “the only absolute is mystery”(p. 18).
In dealing with the question of what separates us from the rest of the natural order, Campbell points to a “differentiating figure” separating human from animal physiology; he states it in the form of two “fundamental realizations:”
1. Knowledge of individual death (our own mortality) and
2. Endurance of the Social Order (that things will go on without us)(p. 22, 23).
It is this second realization, that things will go on without us after we are gone, that, when combined with the apparent stability of the current social order, has led to people (at least in the modern West) taking those social orders for granted. Whereas primitive or previous human societies devoted great portions of their time to simply preserving that social order, today it seems to have a life of its own. Without this need to “participate” in order for the social structures to be maintained, the individual becomes an end in himself. This is an undeniably significant change from ages past, and creates an entirely new relationship between humans and the stories they use to find meaning.
This shift can certainly be seen in much current debate about Christian theology, as in the dominant themes of popular Christian theologian (and Anglican Bishop) Tom Wright, who, in his book What St. Paul Really Said, takes direct aim at the ‘individualized’ brand of belief we have inherited, stating instead that the Apostle Paul’s message was “not how individuals… come to faith… but rather the question of who belongs to Abraham’s family”(p. 121). In other words, who has a covenant with God, (as the Jews believed they did), and is by association, “saved.” This notion of corporate versus individual redemption could be said to be at the heart of why so much modern religion fails to connect with the ills of society.
Campbell again picks up this them in Chapter 3: “The Importance of Rites.” Here he reinforces the need for social structures, and the idea that we find our place, our meaning, often through our relationship to those structures. He draws a parallel between structure and hierarchy in the natural sphere, and the need for structure in the fully realized human life and society. Referring to the tendency in Western culture to abandon many of its long-held traditions and rites, Campbell states: “the crude notion that energy and strength can be represented or rendered by abandoning and breaking structures is refuted by all we know about the evolution and history of life”(p. 44).
Here he is raising a very important question in terms of the development—the evolution—of the human being, and seems to be stating clearly that destruction in any form cannot go hand in hand with what we might call progress. His thought could be said to correspond with that of Wendell Berry who, in his essay “Style and Grace” in What are People For, talks of the “connective power of culture… that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66). Berry is here speaking in the context of shared experiences that build relationship and community. He is specifically talking about fishing, but it’s not a huge stretch to see that fishing for him is every bit the “rite” about which Campbell speaks. By association, we might be able to say that “love” in the sense Berry uses it here, is analogous to that second “differentiating figure” which Campbell takes as the mark of human awareness. It is the realization that things will go on after us, and that perhaps they are worth investing in (whether people, cultures, relationships) just because they, or their effects, will outlive us.
If there is a conclusion to be drawn about Campbell’s idea of human potential, and the responsibility we bear toward the fulfillment of that potential, it might be summed up in the story he tells at the end of Chapter 5: “The Confrontation of East and West in Religion,” the legend of Shiva and Kirttimukha. Shiva, having been confronted by a terrible demon that threatened the overthrow of the gods, created a ferocious beast, with the head of a lion and a voracious hunger. The demon wisely threw himself at Shiva’s mercy, which left Shiva to deal with a ravenous beast of his own creation. The beast, seeing that Shiva was protecting his supposed prey said to Shiva, “What then shall I eat?” Shiva replied, “Why not eat yourself?”
So the beast began consuming his body, all the way up until he reached the face, where Campbell writes:
“…the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life itself, which lives on itself. And to that sunlike mask, which was now all that was left of that lionlike vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, ‘I shall call you “Face of Glory,” Kirttimukha, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever knowledge of me’”(p. 103).
Campbell draws this meaning from the tale: that life is wondrous and terrible, that all societies are horrid and inequitable, and that they will always be, but that the message is to learn how to live in it, to work to change yourself in the midst of it, and make peace with both the wonder and the terror that is life. He concludes:
“So if you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (p. 104).
This then is the goal, or at least one of them: not to avoid the suffering inherent in life, but to embrace it as counterpart to the good; to recognize that the wonder and the pain are counterparts, and that they are meaningless without each other. To be fully human is to be fully alive to the depth of joy and sadness that life brings, and to experience both as willingly and readily as one can. It also means that we must not experience these emotions in isolation, but that they are fully realized only when they are shared with others, and lived out in the context of relationships. There the sadness can be turned to wisdom, the immediate joy refined into lasting happiness, because we realize that yes, we are mortal, and we will one day fade. But the relationships that we form, the structures we build around them in the forms of families and communities… these will live long after we fade, and they are our lasting gift to those we love.
Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.
Campbell, J., & Fairchild, J. E. (Feb. 1993). Myths to live by. New York: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Penguin (Non-Classics) [Imprint]; Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated Publisher Record.
Tolle, E. (Feb. 2008). A new earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. Farmington Hills: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Walker Large Print [Imprint]; Gale Publisher Record.
Wright, N. T. (Aug. 1997). What saint paul really said: Was paul of tarsus the real founder of christianity. Cincinnati: Books In Print, (c) 2005 R.R. Bowker LLC; Forward Movement Publications Publisher Record.