The metaphysical sickness of Joseph Campbell

I have an abiding interest in mythology, so whenever I find a new bookstore, I always stroll down to the “myths and folk tales” section.  Usually there’s only a few things there.  Half are anthologies (Bullfinch, etc.); the other half are Joseph Campbell.  Campbell never interested me; from what I’d heard, his explanations of myths were entirely individualistic–symbols of the journey each (self-absorbed) individual must take–ignoring myth’s crucial social function, as if the functionalist revolution in anthropology had never happened.  Still, while I was separated from my books and needed something to read, I thought I might as well see what it is that the general public has been feeding itself.  I bought a used copy of Cambell’s most famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Having read most of it, I can now say that the book isn’t as banal as I’d thought it would be.  In fact, it is deeply evil.

Campbell has two keys that he uses to interpret myths (or, rather, two Procrustean beds on which he mutilates them).    The first is that myths represent forces of our subconscious.  From Freud, Campbell got some bizarre ideas.  He thinks that we each have a subconscious that is dominated by our desire for our own mother.  Mother-lust is the steam pressure that makes our psychic engines go.  At critical role-changing moments in life, we have to dip into the subconscious to redirect our primordial desire to nurse.  Everything that’s wrong with the world comes from the fact that we got angry at our mother the first time she wasn’t there to feed us.  For some reason, Campbell imagines that the first occasion for feeling an emotion is the only occasion, so that every form of discontentment we subsequently feel is deep down a rage against our mother for not letting us nurse whenever we wanted to.  (Does this sound absurd?  Read the book, and give me a less crazy-sounding exposition of Campbell’s psychological musings.)  From our mother-rage, we got the erroneous idea that there is a real distinction in the world between good and evil.  Campbell calls people who believe that some things are good and others are evil (i.e. everyone but a moral inbecile) “infantile”.  To one who’s let go of his mother-rage, such distinctions are meaningless, because the destruction of one form is the creation of another.  So, for example, if I were to set fire to a schoolbus full of children, infantile Christians might find this “evil”, but to Campbell, it would be just part of the joyful dance of being, whereby one form (children) gives way to another (ashes).  Anybody who thinks differently must want to screw his mother.

Freud is one half of Campbell’s brain.  The other half–the worse of the two–is Buddha.  Campbell insists that we all renounce Christianity, with its vindictive God who draws very definite distinctions between good and evil, and embrace the evil, false, repulsive religion of Buddhism.  According to Campbell, the true point of every myth (although he has to reinterpret most of them to the point of unrecognizability) is when the hero in a moment of intuition realizes the illusary nature of all distinctions:  evil=good, being=nothing, man=woman (Campbell is particularly enthused by sexually ambiguous gods), god=man, me=you=everybody.  In otherwords, the hero acheives Buddhist enlightenment and becomes both a moral and an intellectual imbecile.

Campbell is, of course, quite impressed with Buddha’s doctrine of anatman–that there is no self.  Like other superficial commentators, he imagines this to be merely a help in overcoming egoism.  Not being a philosopher (or a serious thinker of any sort), Campbell never stops to think about the consequences of dissolving the sense of personal identity.  Not only self-regard, but personal responsibility (e.g. the obligation to keep promises I made yesterday) disappears.  Not only do I cease to love myself, I cease to love others–since they don’t have enduring selves either, according to the wicked and inhuman doctrine of the Buddha.

Some of Campbell’s promotions for Buddhism are inadvertently funny.  For example, it is a bit much to hear someone so enamored of the great religion of renunciation condemning Christianity for being insufficiently life-affirming.  Then again, there’s his constant whining about how Christians are so much crueler towards other peoples than anyone else, evidently forgetting his earlier claims that such concerns are infantile.

Categories are bad.  Logic is bad.  Forms are illusions that we have to get behind to acheive Nirvana.  It’s so easy to poke holes in Cambell’s thought.  (No doubt he would regard the desire for logical consistency as infantile.)  What could drive any man to believe this rubbish?  There must be some deep motivation at work here.

Christopher Dawson points out that all religion begins in the intuition of Being.  There are however, two such intuitions, corresponding to what Aristotle identified as the two types of being:  being in act and being in potency.  Both potency and act possess a sort of universality that can bewitch the mind.  The better religions derive from the idea of pure Act, the confluence and coincidence of all positive perfections that we call God.  Being in act has a special intelligibility.  As Aristotle pointed out, the law of contradiction only applies to actual being.  (For example, a cup of water may be both potentially hot and potentially cold, but it can actually be only one or the other.)  The worse religions (Buddhism, gnosticism) find actuality limiting because of its intelligibility–the fact that it’s always just one thing, and not also its opposite.  For Campbell, the great intuition is to see what he calls “being” as the thing underneath all forms, the thing that endures as it sheds one form and takes on another.  Fellow Aristotelians will recognize this principle (which he takes to be ultimate) as matter, i.e. potency.  Pure potency (primary matter) has a sort of universality to it.  It is, in a sense, everything and nothing at once.  In its all-encompassing aspect, it mirrors its opposite, the pure actuality of God.

Joseph Campbell is possessed by a metaphysical sickness.  He hates the intelligibility of being.  He dismisses the actuality of things that makes them one thing and not another, and therefore he strives to look away from the aspect of things by which they resemble God.  To have a nature, an essence, is too restrictive.  He has a nostalgia for the primordial waters that covered the Earth when it was “without form and void” before God said “Let there be light.”  Understandably, he resents the God who spoke those words.

11 Responses

  1. Bonald:

    Interesting article. I share your view of Campbell. He had some decent, grade-school insights into certain semi-universal themes in the myths of the world’s cultures, then cranked them through a rigid Freudian/Jungian thought system and ended up with his peurile “thought.” Precisely the sort of feel-good inanity that passes for insight among stoned college freshmen.

    I’m intrigued by your take on Buddhism. You don’t exactly assert it here — so forgive me if I’m putting words in your mouth — but you seem to fall under the common misunderstanding that it’s an essentially nihilist creed. Leaving aside the Aristotelian distinction between action and potentiality for a moment, allow me to clear something up about Buddhism. The term “nirvana” has been variously translated as “nothingness,” “void,” and “extinction.” These are terrible translations. The word literally means “blowing out,” as of a candle flame. What one must understand about this term is that the ancient Indians had a physical conception of fire as something that was constantly present in all things. Any individual flame was considered (and this is in their physics, not metaphysics) to be the universal flame trapped in a given instantiation. When you blew out a candle, you released the flame energy back into its mother-element. So the Buddha conceived of nirvana as a human soul being reunited with its mother element, which is Brahman, or God. In Christian terms, it’s analogous to the the soul of a fallen man being reunited with God, the ultimate source of being.

    None of this really refutes the distinction you are making between being in act and being in potential, but I felt the desire to hash that out a little more distinctly. Can you elaborate on why Buddhism is so evil? I don’t necessarily disagree, but I also don’t quite see your reasoning.

  2. Hello Daniel,

    I should first acknowledge that my understanding of Buddhism comes from enthusiastic Westerners. Since you seem to know more about this religion than I, you may be able to correct me if I’ve been mislead. Also, what I have to say won’t apply to the various folk religions that have grown up around Buddhism, which seem to me to be more like conventional paganism. Here, then is my beef with Buddhism as I understand it.

    As I understand it, Buddhism is primarily a religion of renunciation and detatchment. Our main problem is that our consciousness and our desires are fixated on the phenomenal world. The Buddha gives us a way to liberate ourselves from these desires. It’s true that most religions demand a renunciation of disordered attachments to the things of this world so that one can give oneself to God. However, attachment to God reimmerses one in the world through membership in the community of believers and other consecrated associations that make God’s presence manifest.

    What the Buddhist finds when he renounces the world seems too ineffable to reenter the world and sanctify it. It’s not clear to me that the goal of Buddhism isn’t just a mental state with no external object whatsoever. If it does involve contact with a transcendent Other, whatever it is cannot be described in words, expounded in dogmas, represented in rituals, or affirmed in community. It is entirely private. This is what Western liberals love about it–Buddhists have no dogmas, no Church like the Christians, and no sacred polis like the pagans. How progressive! The Chinese Confucians had a better word, though: anti-social. A dogma can be shared, but not an indescribable intuition. A sacred order can be entered into, but breaking free from the cycle of desire and reincarnation is something we can each do only on our own. The Confucians rightly feared that Buddhism would be a de-sacralizing influence, that it would sap the significance of our familial and public duties.

    As for the denial of the self, I assume that this is equivalent to Humean phenomenalism. Being an Aristotelian (albeit a heterodox one), I think this denial of enduring selves is incorrect. Most people who recommend it (like Campbell) do so for its supposed moral benefits. As I explain in my post, I think the opposite is actually true.

  3. Dear Bonald,

    I said in my other comment about the Dalai Lama that I would wait a day to respond on this thread, but upon re-reading this, I feel ready to give it a stab. While we’re making personal confessions, I’ll tell you I was raised a traditional Anglican, spent a good 12 years doing some serious practice and academic study as a Buddhist, and have relatively recently come back into the Church of my ancestors. I have rejected Buddhism as an incomplete and false creed, but I retain a modicum of sympathy for its tenants and its (sincere) adherents. This might be excessively long, but here goes…

    Although you’ve put it in terms I wouldn’t have originally used, I do think you’ve hit the nail on the head with Buddhism. It is indeed a religion of renunciation and, especially, detachment. The goal of the good Buddhist is to sever all ego-attachments, up to and including the attachment to enlightenment. The very excellent side of this detachment philosophy hinges on the doctrine of EGO detachment. One is meant to differentiate between one’s ego, which is temporal, and one’s true nature (or Buddha-nature) which is eternal, and therefore is the property of Brahman, or God. One studiously renounces the immanent self in favor of the numinous Self.

    This is actually excellent practice, I still believe.

    The problem with Buddhism is something I think you hit on very squarely in your original post. It assumes that the immanent is somehow different in kind from the numinous self. I have come in my own life to reconfirm that the sacred and the profane meet together in the human soul in a way that is inextricable. That is, what makes us fallible is the very same stuff that makes us the brothers of angels. Selfishness and ego-centrism, to be sure, are still to be avoided. But extinction of the “small” self is not desirable or even possible, because it is the “small self” that one should desire to make large. Not large like a rival of God (that is Satan’s way), but open and peaceful and strong, like Christ. But still one’s SELF… not just some released flame. Christ and God save individual souls, not abstractions.

    Nevertheless, I assert that classical Buddhism is not so impersonal and airy as it’s made out to seem in the West these days. The doctrine of reincarnation (which many Western Buddhists do away with because of its apparent silliness) teaches that each self, or atman, has a particular karma to live out. That means, in terms of this discussion, that souls are indeed unique and have unique paths to salvation.

    I’m not sure who said it first, but I heard it first from a fellow Anglican with Buddhist training (or Buddhist with Anglican training), Alan Watts, “Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export.” That is, it takes the metaphysics of the classical Indian world and strips them of all particularity, leaving pure philosophy behind. You touch on this with your mention of Confucianism. This helps explain the wild popularity of Buddhism through the ancient and medieval ages in all parts of Asia, and explains the many radically different Buddisms (to get a little pomo) we see today, from Sri Lanka to Japan. I would agree if you were to assert this is a major failing in Buddhism.

    Also, I’d like to mention that when I was an 18-year-old smitten with the Beat Generation and whatnot, I was more attracted to what’s called “Mahayana” Buddhism. But also that when i became a more serious seeker after truth, still stuck in the Buddhist mode, I migrated to the “Hinayana” or Theravada school. This seems important to me… I assert the Theravada Buddhists are closer to the truth. The Mahayana’s (Tibetans, most Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese) are far more airy and Gnostic. They even claim — paging Eric Voegelin — that they are the recipients of a secret doctrine that Buddha taught only to his disciple Mahakasyapa, and which was buried for 500 years until they revived it. The Theravadas (India, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia) are much more “boring,” and they simply claim to have carried on the teaching of Buddha as it can be found in the original Pali scripture (and no one disputes this… the Mahayanas simply dispute that it was the right thing to do, not that it was actually done). Incidentally, the Mahayana-Theravada split is unlike any major religious schism that I know of. The Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant split is a tempting one, but really doesn’t work at all. Neither does the Shiite-Sunni split make a good analogy.

    The “stripped for export” nature of Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, is why it’s so appealing to Western liberals. They are allowed to pick and choose like from a buffet the tenets that make the feel warm and fuzzy, without brining along any dowdy old tradition. It carries the stamp of a authenticity (a religion older than Christianity or Islam!) without requiring any real dedication to tradition or, ironically, any renunciation. I assert this is more a failing of the Westerners than of Buddhism per se.

    Well, I fear I’ve just rambled on without directly making a point. I think we already see eye to eye on this. I guess my main assertion is that I don’t see the wickedness of Buddhism that you mention in the original post. Again, I believe it is a false creed, so in that sense I can understand why it’s wicked. But not any moreso than any other religion. Thank you for the engaging discussion.

  4. Bonald… upon re-reading your above response, I actually think you’ve already answered my question quite well. The anti-social nature of Buddhist enlightenment, a movement away from the world rather than back into it, and the way it can function as an excuse to neglect our temporal duties. Certainly many individual Buddhists have overcome this temptation, but I agree that the philosophy itself tends to encourage a deracinated mode of “being holy.” Thank you.

  5. […] some time as a member, so his opinions carry far more weight than mine.  Our exchange can be read here.  Below is a crucial part of his analysis. [Buddhism] is indeed a religion of renunciation and, […]

  6. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. I especially liked your point about their different attitudes toward individual souls. I’ve added a new post to draw my other readers’ attention to our discussion.

    I hope you’ll stay in touch.

  7. […] his pernicious Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues (or, rather, asserts) that the meaning of all the world’s myths and religions is that human […]

  8. I really enjoyed reading your site. keep posting all your valuable analysis in the site. Thank you

  9. Thank you.

  10. Sorry, but I think you have a real misreading of Joseph Campbell’s ideas.

  11. Important message: you are so far buried in your delusions. There is a way out. The worst form of delusion is when one has no idea they are deluded! There is a way out of your mental shit storm.

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