The Hero with a Thousand Faces

by 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.

6 Responses

  1. Yes! I did extensive readings in Campbell for my master’s thesis. I am pretty sure he was a closet Theosophist, at least in origin. He definitely “psychologizes” the concept of myth, and becomes the cultural popularizer of that conception, laying the groundwork for a host of neo-pagan “religions” of the last half century. Which are really nothing but spiritual narcissism, almost by definition.

    Interestingly, upon analysis, I also found him to be quite an anti-semite, in the sense of a specific dislike of the Jewish people, although it was usually hidden in, as you mentioned, a general disdain for biblical religion.

  2. Our impressions agree. Quite a shame that Campbell is the public’s go-to guy on the worlds’ mythologies.

  3. Dear Bonald,

    This article seriously disappointed me. Your articles are otherwise so insightful yet here you made a big mistake. I don’t care about Campbell, but I think you seriously don’t understand Buddhism, and you would probably not call it evil if you did. It cannot be understood within the Western traditional framework that empasizes intellectual thought and considers words as something ultimately real, in Buddhism thinking is always secondary to experience and in fact the main purpose of

    Buddhist philosophy is to show how all verbal philosophy is absurd and thus remove the siren call of philosophy and help the student focus directly on experience through meditation, and spiritual development throught that experience.

    As for moral or intellectual distinctions in B. they are understood so that you need them on a lower level of spiritual realization, but won’t need them on a higher level of it. As long as you are an ordinary person, you need to tell right from wrong or otherwise you can never purify your bad karma and keep on generating more bad karma. On a higher level you are simply naturally all-loving, so why would you need morals? At that level you simply radiate kindness on everybody without differentiation. Similarly for intellectual distictions on the highest level of spiritual realization you simply know things instinctively, because of being one with them, you will need no thoughts. However as long as you are not there you need to
    keep the distictinctions.

    Westerner hippies and Campbell-like fans have generally distorted Buddhism by taking this no-distinction approach which was originally reserverd for people who meditated 20 years in a cave, and preached it for ordinary people. Of course this leads to chaos, as they committed the mistake of putting something esoteric, reserved for a small circle, into the exoteros.

    Similarly, the idea of the no-self does not prevent loving the other. On the highest level of spiritual experience one is simply one with others, so he wants to cure suffering everywhere, no matter if that suffering is perceived by the self or the other. Love as a feeling comes from the experience of no separation between self and other, hatred comes from the experience of separation, of putting walls between the self and other or trying to remove the other.

    Christianity as an organized religion arose in the morally corrupt period under Nero. Christianity had to provide everything to Roman society: a functional social and political philosophy, public morals and so on, even the foundations of science. Christianity is like the public education system: it had to teach everything on all levels, it had to serve society on all levels because there was nothing else. And Chritianity’s both roots (Jews and Greek philosophers) are very social in essence. This was something for me – who encountered Buddhist thought earlier than Christian or Ancient Greek one – hard to understand, therefore you will find Buddhism equally hard to understand. To me spirituality was about a strictly personal development like body-building, it had no social or political aspects at all. Later on I needed a political philosophy so I began studying the history of Western Conservatism and base my political ideas on that. And it really confused me that to Plato or Aristotle began discussing ethics in a social framework like when are laws just. To me ethical philosophy was something going way, way beyond any kind of social or political framework, necessarily set up for the sake of common people, to me proper ethical philosophy was about monks and hermits trying to become really perfect. To it was totally two unrelated things, how to behave if you want to develop a perfect soul, and how laws are to be written. It was like confusing the Mr. Olympia body building with the school gym class, kids playing basketball. It was hard to understand. And to properly understand Buddhism will be equally hard for you.

    In India this social-political aspect was provided adequately for society by Hindusim. Buddhism did not need to provide such things – and it didn’t. Originally the Buddha did not want to teach his Enlightenemnt at all – he thought nobody would understand it. Later
    on he agreed to teach a few people, but it was always meant to be a small elite of high spiritual achievers, not a philosophy for the public. (Not a Gnostic elite, not destined to rule others – simply an elite like those who understand the highest levels of mathemathics or quantum physics are an elite.) They were considered to be a small group of enlightened yogis and monks generally being outside socety and their philosophy thus not being in any way social or political. And still most of Buddhism is full of categorical rules, categorical philosophy and so on. Within this small group there would be an even smaller group who were on such a high level that esoteric, secret teachings about how all is one and no distinctions are needed would not confuse them.

    If you want to understand Buddhism properly you need to study what it taught to common everyday people, “householders”, because only at this level it is comparable to the much more social-political Christian-Classical framework.

    Please read this and tell me honestly: do you find this evil?

    I think you will find it not evil at all. And I hope you will see why such a swift and harsh judgement on Buddhism was unfair to it.

  4. Dear Shenpen,

    Thank you for the detailed response and the link, which I hope I will find time to read. I’m certainly glad to hear that uneducated Buddhists are not told that good, evil, and the self are illusions. I’m glad to hear it because I think these beliefs are false and shouldn’t be held by anyone. You say that someone who had become “naturally all-loving” would have no need for morals. While it’s true that such a person would presumably obey the moral law spontaneously, he would still be aware that failing to do so would be wrong and not merely against his inclinations. That is, he would still know morality, because morality is true. You say that knowing there are no selves would not prevent prevent someone from loving other…well, let’s just say “others”, but then you reduce love to a desire to alleviate suffering. Other people are just seen as hosts of pain or pleasure, and it’s the pain or pleasure that is the real concern, not the person himself. On this view, one can be compassionate, but one can’t regard anyone as irreplaceably precious. One can’t love.

  5. My own meagre research has led me to believe that Buddhism together with the more philosophical strands of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta) do make a difference between a higher eternal Self (what might correspond to a soul) and the ego that is created as a kind of individualistic/social excrescence. There is a bias against the existence of a personal self and even the eternal Self is itself “part of” a Whole, rather than a divided limited self. The ultimate aim of Nirvana itself in the original philosophy was to reach the Ultimate Being.

    I hold to the controversial opinion, but not entirely lonely, that Buddha in attempting to de-emphasise metaphysics and the constant grappling with metaphysical questions that do not have a direct bearing on the practice of liberation developed the idea of anatman, mostly as method of abandoning the ego rather than as a doctrine. I do think that this was later corrupted and solidified into a doctrine that denied all forms of Atman, i.e. both the eternal Self and the Ultimate Being. Of course, there are still beliefs in Buddhism which belie earlier beliefs, such as karma and reincarnation. If there is no self, what is it that gathers karma and reincarnates?

    In this sense, the original Buddhism was a sort of Gnosticism, a simplified Hindu monotheism, shorn of its legalisms, ritualisms, overabundant metaphysics, and still obviously incompatible with Christianity.

    Possibly the greatest difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Buddhism is a very strict monist -only the Ultimate Reality exists (or in corrupted Buddhism, only non-reality exists), whereas Christianity is a wide pluralist in that its universe hosts an enormous multiplicity of beings, differentiated and in Order of Rank, so that God is still the Ultimate Reality, but allows the true existence of other beings (i.e. they exist in Him, but are not identical with Him). Christianity also contains a number of eternal dualisms on the basis of this Order, for example, between Creator and created, between Saved and Damned, and also between Body and Spirit (most Christian doctrines indicate that God intended both the Body and the Spirit for everlasting existence).

    I’m aware that some of the above positions elicited for Christianity probably raise some problems (such as the nature of true human existence when God already fulfills all the qualities of a perfect existence), but these are probably problems that arise elsewhere with free will, for example.

    I find erudition in your blog, even though not always in agreement.


  6. Hello Jean,

    Your hypothesis of an original and a later Buddhism makes sense. I’ve also had trouble understanding how to make sense of reincarnation if we have no selves. On the other hand, I’m sure this issue has occurred to “later” Buddhists. Do you know how they deal with it?

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