return to religion-online

The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell

by Robert Segal

Robert Segal is associate professor of religious studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and author of Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (Garland). This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 4, 1990 pp. 332-335, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Of all the charges that Brendan Gill lodged in the New York Review of Books (September 28, 1989) against the heretofore sacrosanct Joseph Campbell, the most stinging was not that Campbell was either an anti-Semite or a political reactionary but that his work appeals to guilt-ridden yuppies seeking a rationalization for their materialistic narcissism. Campbell’s pet litany, "Follow your bliss," purportedly inspires his fans to do whatever makes them happy, including making money.

Gill’s cynical evaluation of Campbell’s posthumous popularity prompts both logical and factual questions. Gill’s argument is based not on any polling of Campbell’s devotees but on speculation. The popularity of Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (originally published by Pantheon Books in 1949) , the book that has most spurred fans to pave their own yellow brick road, peaked not in the ‘80s but in the ‘60s. Campbell first uttered the phrase "Follow your bliss" to his Sarah Lawrence undergraduates decades earlier. Even if that innocuous slogan bestows carte blanche on all who heed it, it does not follow logically that to encourage people to do whatever they most deeply want to do is to encourage them to do any one thing rather than another.

Furthermore, Campbell psychologizes the message he says myth tells. True heroism, to him, is not external but internal: the hero’s literal search for wealth or anything else symbolizes his search for self-knowledge. The land to which he treks symbolizes the unconscious. Even if all disciples of Campbell became investment bankers, their acquisitiveness would be merely the outward expression of an inner quest.

Most important, Campbell’s message is far more mystical than individualistic. Campbell is an uncompromising world ecumenist. As he says at the outset of Hero, he wants to demonstrate that all myths are one in order to demonstrate that all peoples are one. In the recent The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988) , the book based on the Bill Moyers television interviews, he continue to say that "we still need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet."

Gill’s assertion, focusing on Campbell’s private pronouncements rather than on his writings, is not just silly but shallow. Campbell’s inspiration to others has come from his authority as an analyst of myth. His advice carries only as much clout as his insight into myth. Had Gill really wanted to damn his lifelong friend, he would have attacked the man’s theory rather than merely disclosed gossipy tidbits.

I suggest that Campbell’s appeal derives from the unashamed romanticism of his theory of myth. His recent popularity reflects no changing ethos of the generations but only the unprecedented publicity given him by Moyers.

Campbell’s romantic view of myth is the opposite of a rationalist view, one epitomized by the Victorian anthropologists Edward Tylor and James Frazer. To rationalists, myth is a wholly primitive explanation of the physical world. It is the primitive counterpart to science, which is exclusively modern. Myth and science are not only redundant in function but also incompatible in content: myth invokes the wills of gods to account for the origin and operation of the physical world; science appeals to the mechanical behavior of impersonal forces like atoms. There are no modern myths: "modern myth" is a contradiction in terms.

By contrast, Campbell and other romantics see myth as an eternal, not merely primitive, possession. Nothing can supersede it. Where rationalists believe that science better serves its explanatory function than myth, romantics believe that nothing duplicates the psychological or metaphysical content of myth. Read symbolically rather than, as for literalists, literally, myth refers not to the physical world described by science but to either the human mind or the cosmos. To rationalists, science makes myth both unnecessary and impossible for moderns, who by definition are scientific. To romantics, science runs askew to myth, which does not refer to the physical world and is therefore still acceptable to scientific moderns. Like Carl Jung, Campbell dares to pronounce science itself mythic. To rationalists, nothing could be more anathema.

Rationalists regard the function served by myth as indispensable. Romantics consider myth itself indispensable to the serving of its function, which is above all the revelation of the nature of reality. Moderns as well as primitives not merely can but must have myth. Rationalists contend that without some explanation of the environment, be that explanation mythic or scientific, humans would be perplexed. Romantics assert that without the revelation found exclusively in myth, humans would be unfulfilled.

Rationalists grant that myth, like science, can be effective -- functional -- when it is believed to be true, but in fact it is false: myth is a cogent but nevertheless incorrect explanation of the world. Science provides the correct one. Romantics assume that myth is effective not merely when it is accepted as true but only because it is true: the wisdom it offers would not be wisdom if it proved false.

The first aspect of Campbell’s romantic appeal is the elevated status he accords myth. Myth constitutes a collective Bible for all humanity. It alone contains the wisdom necessary for what amounts to salvation. Both the array of functions Campbell ascribes to myth and the scope of his definition of myth guarantee its irreplaceability. Dreams, ritual, art, literature, ideology and science become varieties of myth rather than alternatives to it. An action as well as a belief can be mythic, and the belief need not take the form of a story, which itself can be of any kind.

Because myth defined so broadly is indispensable to the serving of its indispensable functions, Campbell declares unabashedly that without myth, even myth taken literally humans are lost: "For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been . . . the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. . . . With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder. and despair" (Myths to Live By [Viking, 1972]). Because no other theorist makes myth as indispensable, no other theorist, not even Jung, is as much an evangelist for myth as Campbell.

A second aspect of Campbell’s romantic appeal is his esteem for primitives. He maintains that moderns can barely equal let alone surpass them. Rationalists view primitives as intellectually inferior to moderns: where primitives invent myth, which is a childish as well as false explanation of the world, moderns create science, which is a mature as well as true explanation of the world. Campbell views primitives as wiser than moderns: primitives know intuitively the meaning of myth that moderns need depth psychology to extricate. In fact, primitives know the meaning that moderns have altogether forgotten and need Freudian and especially Jungian psychology to recollect. Campbell thus claims only to be rediscovering, not discovering, the real meaning of myth -- a meaning known fully to our forebears. Jung himself, not to mention Freud, never goes this far.

A third aspect of Campbell’s romantic appeal follows from the second: if primitives already know the meaning of myth which moderns are merely recovering, that meaning is always the same. An unbroken tradition binds the hoariest myths to the newest ones. Contrary to the rationalist view, there are modern myths. Campbell singles out the distinctively modern myths of space travel, as typified by the Star Wars saga. But modern myths have the same meaning as primitive ones.

A fourth aspect of Campbell’s romantic appeal parallels the third: not only do all myths bear one message, but the message borne is the oneness of all things. Myths not only assume but even preach mysticism. Myths proclaim that humans are one with one another, with their individual selves and with the cosmos itself. No tenet is more staunchly romantic than the conviction that beneath the apparent disparateness of all things lies unity.

A fifth and final aspect of Campbell’s romantic appeal is his assumption that the mystical message of myth is true. To Campbell, not only is the true message of myth the oneness of all things, but all things are truly one. Myth thus discloses the deepest truth about reality.

As fetching as Campbell’s theory of myth is, it is flawed. First, Campbell operates dogmatically, asserting rather than proving his theory. Because he analyzes surprisingly few myths, at least few whole ones, he rarely puts his theory to the interpretive, not to mention explanatory, test. At the same time he ignores rival theorists. Other theorists of myth define it more narrowly than Campbell; find in myth functions other than the ones Campbell finds; and consider dreams, ritual, art, literature, ideology or science equal, if not superior, ways of fulfilling those functions. Others interpret the meaning of myth differently from Campbell.

Beginning with the third volume of the four-volume The Masks of God (Viking, 1964) , Campbell dogmatically describes the function of myth as fourfold. Myth instills a sense of awe and mystery toward the world; offers not an explanation of the world, which science provides, but a symbolic image for an explanation -- for example, the image of the Great Chain of Being; preserves society by justifying social practices and institutions like the Indian caste system; and harmonizes individuals with society, the cosmos and themselves. Why these disparate four functions, Campbell never explains.

Similarly, Campbell dogmatically insists that the true meaning of myth is ahistorical rather than historical and symbolic rather than literal. He also insists that the symbolic meaning of myth is psychological, metaphysical and mystical: myth preaches not that all is unconsciousness or all ultimate reality, but that unconsciousness and consciousness are one and that ultimate reality and everyday reality are one. Myth finds unconsciousness within, not beyond, consciousness, and finds ultimate reality within, not beyond, everyday reality, which is therefore to be embraced rather than rejected. Why the meaning -- the sole meaning -- of myth must be ahistorical, symbolic, psychological, metaphysical, mystical and world-affirming, Campbell never explains.

Other theorists would demur. Some read myth both literally and historically. Others read myth literally but non-historically. Campbell, equating a literal interpretation with a historical one, assumes that to read the Oedipus myth literally is to believe that there was once a king named Oedipus. Others such as Lord Raglan and Vladimir Propp would suggest that the myth literally describes the life of a hero by no means necessarily believed to have lived. Still others take myth symbolically but neither psychologically nor metaphysically. Émile Durkheim, for example, contends that myth describes society rather than either the mind or the cosmos. Freud and Jung take myth psychologically but not metaphysically. While many theorists of myth assume, like Campbell, that all myths harbor the same meaning, only Lucien Lévy-Bruhl considers that meaning mystical.

Campbell’s interpretation of myths differs not only from that of other theorists but also from that of believers. Mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam and ancient Greek and Roman religions do not teach that heaven and earth or soul and body, let alone god and humans, are one. Indeed, the worst sin in Western religions is the attempt to efface the divide between god and humanity. Mysticism is a minor strain in the West and typically rejects the world rather than embraces it. Campbell’s unruffled response is that Western religions misunderstand their own myths. How he knows better than believers themselves the meaning of their own myths, Campbell never reveals.

Second, Campbell contradicts himself on the meaning, function and origin of myth. On the one hand he regularly interprets the meaning of all myths as mystical. On the other hand he comes to read modern Western myths as espousing self-reliant individualism rather than self-effacing mysticism.

Likewise, Campbell does not always say that myth serves the four functions noted. Most often he considers its prime function a revelatory one: myth discloses a deeper side of both humans and the cosmos. Tied to this function is an experiential one: through myth humans do not merely discover but actually encounter this deeper reality. At other times the function is more mechanical: myth activates the release and even the sublimation of emotions.

Sometimes Campbell says that myth arises out of the unconscious, which is alternatively an inherited, Jungian-like entity and a forged, Freudian-like one. Other times he says that myth emerges from the effects of either recurrent or traumatic experiences. In all of these cases, each society invents its own myths. At other times, however, he says that myth originates in one society and spreads elsewhere. Occasionally Campbell gives these competing explanations in the same book.

Third, Campbell argues circularly. He declares that myth serves foremost to reveal the oneness of all things, but it serves that function only if all things are in fact one. How does he know that they are? Because myth says so! We are to trust myth because myth is trustworthy. Where other theorists turn to psychology, sociology, history and other disciplines to elucidate and evaluate myth, Campbell deems myth both self-explanatory and self-validating. For example, rather than using history to assess myths of primordial matriarchy, he draws from myths historical conclusions about matriarchy. Myth, proclaims Campbell, is always right. Why? Because it is myth.

Fourth, Campbell is lopsidedly comparativistic. Making comparisons is unobjectionable. By definition, all theorists seek similarities among myths, and the quest for similarities is central to the quest for knowledge. But in his search for similarities Campbell brazenly ignores lingering differences. Though he continually professes interest in differences as well as similarities, he finally dismisses all differences as trivial: "Dissolving, the ethnic [i.e., local] ideas become transparent to the archetypes, those elementary ideas of which they [i.e., the ethnic ideas] are no more than the local masks" (Historical Atlas of World Mythology [Harper & Row, 1988])

In Masks Campbell does distinguish between primitive, Eastern, Western and modern Western mythologies. He further divides primitive mythology into hunting and planting myths. Yet he simultaneously asserts that hunters are at heart planters, Westerners at heart Easterners, and modern Westerners like primitive hunters -- in which case all peoples and so all myths are really one. Indeed, all myths turn out to preach the same mystical homily.

A revealing foil to Campbell’s comparativism is Jung’s approach. To interpret a myth Campbell simply identifies the archetypes in it. An interpretation of the Odyssey, for example, would show how Odysseus’s life conforms to a heroic pattern. Jung, by contrast, considers the identification of archetypes merely the first step in the interpretation of a myth. One must also determine the meaning of those archetypes in the specific myth in which they appear and the meaning of that myth in the life of the specific person who is stirred by it. One must analyze the person, not just the myth.

Fifth, Campbell uniformly ignores the adherents of myth. Though he investigates why and how myths originate and function, he never asks who invents and uses myths. He does not care. Hence his insistence that Westerners have systematically misconstrued their own myths. While Campbell’s refusal to defer to the actor is refreshing, his indifference to the actor is startling. Few theorists of myth end with the actor’s point of view -- otherwise they would have nothing of their own to offer -- but nearly all start there: that point of view provides the phenomenon to be explained and interpreted.

Sixth, Campbell typically ignores the story in myths -- most ironic for someone lauded as a masterly storyteller. With the conspicuous exception of Hero, the only place in which he provides a pattern for myths, Campbell ignores the plot and instead isolates either the beliefs underlying the plot or else specific archetypes in the plot. The fact that, as noted, he analyzes few whole myths, and includes as myths creeds and even rituals, underscores how limited for him is the role of storytelling.

A final weakness is that Campbell wrongly pits myth against religion. He assumes that in the West, though somehow not in the East, religion inevitably literalizes and historicizes myth. He sees the typical church father not as Augustine but as Jimmy Swaggart. Actually, mainstream and not just heretical Christianity and Judaism have traditionally interpreted the Bible symbolically as well as literally. Conversely, some of the most fervent antinomians have been literalists. Campbell’s equation of institutionalization with degeneration and of individualism with purity is adolescent. Max Weber noted long ago that the institutionalization of any movement is not only inevitable but also necessary: the alternative is extinction.

Here, too, the difference between Campbell and Jung is acute. Jung is wary of the psychological risks of spontaneous religiosity, praises quintessentially institutionalized Catholicism for its psychological efficacy, nearly equates mainline Protestantism with modern atheism, nevertheless bemoans the decline of Christianity generally, and turns anxiously to analytical psychology as a modern substitute. Campbell, by contrast, far closer to Nietzsche than to Jung, castigates traditional Christianity generally as institutionalized and therefore psychologically impotent, damns his own boyhood Catholicism most of all, revels in the anticipated demise of all Christianity, and sees no need for a substitute for it. Jung suggests that psychology at once replaces religion and interprets its extant myths. Campbell argues that psychology merely restores the interpretations of myths directly imbibed by earliest humanity but haplessly missed ever since by its "churched" successors.

Despite these many criticisms, Joseph Campbell merits praise. He more than anyone else has helped revive popular interest in myth. His indefatigable proselytizing for a comparativist, symbolic, psychological and mystical approach to myth has done much to liberate those raised on a particularist, literalist, historical and antimystical approach to the Bible above all. Campbell’s work is an important introduction to myth. It is simply not the last word.

Viewed 38538 times.