“Coerced to the social pattern, the individual can only harden to some figure of living death”
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was an academic whose work on comparative mythology and religion has been vastly influential.
His emphasis on the role of universal archetypes in shaping human thought and culture was close to that of Carl Jung.
Campbell believed in “the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of mankind”. (1) He echoed Adolf Bastian’s view that this general psychic unity could be seen in the form of shared elementary ideas (Elementargedanken), which were overlaid with levels of specific cultures and practices (Völkergedanken).
These elementary ideas came from within us, from within the species, he said: “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”. (2)
At the core of this universal thinking was the idea of a natural state of harmony and order, he explained: “The Egyptian term for this universal order was Ma’at; in India it is Dharma; and in China, Tao”. (3)
This natural anarchic harmony, this organic sense of Tao and order, had come under constant attack throughout history, he said, not least from Christianity.
From the Christian point of view, God was separate and above the world and it was a heresy to source creative power to the level of nature and humanity, thus undermining the concept of divine authority.
Any such dissident notions therefore had to be crushed ever time they resurfaced from the inner well of the universal human unconscious, leading the Church in the West to be known for the brutality of its “increasingly hysterical” attacks on so-called heresy. (4)
Today we found ourselves living in a Waste Land where “the myth is patterned by authority, not emergent from life” (5) and where “force and not love, indoctrination, not education, authority, not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives”. (6)
“Isolated societies, dream-bounded within a mythologically charged horizon, no longer exist except as areas to be exploited,” he warned. (7) “Coerced to the social pattern, the individual can only harden to some figure of living death; and if any considerable number of the members of a civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have been passed”. (8)
Campbell is best known for The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) and The Masks of God series, published between 1959 and 1968. At the time of his death he was working on a Historical Atlas of World Mythology.
Video link: Joseph Campbell on Jung, the Self and Myth (5 mins)
1. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (London: Souvenir Press, 2011), p. 5.
2. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (London: Fontana Press, 1993), p. 4
3. Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, p. 149.
4. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 629.
5. Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, p. 373.
6. Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, p. 388.
7. Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 387-88.
8. Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, pp. 5-6.