Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth

Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com

Many years ago, I came across a book named “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. What began then was what I now see as a lifetime journey. Campbell, in many ways, was like Einstein and Tesla. It’s a rare phenomenon that produces such a person. What Campbell has in common with other stellar intellects is nothing less than the ability to see beyond the physical world. For most of us, we exist in two dimensions, seeing the world through the narrow view of our society. For any of us who has pondered the infinite, the meaning of life found through religion and self-reflection, we have gained a small glimpse of the space beyond cell phones, trophy mates and a constant slavery to the novel, short lived and easily discarded social “brass rings” that dominate secular thinking. This is the realm where Joseph Campbell existed and did his work.

Campbell was a College Professor who spent his life studying the spiritual practices of all cultures of the world, codifying each and comparing all of them. His journey amounted to nothing less than a quest for the common thread throughout all of the myths and religions of the world, the common thread that is inherent to all mankind. What would you find if you searched for the common force that drives all of us, the thing we all must confront in the end? Are we all alike enough, despite our various religions and cultures, that there can be one purpose that underlies all of our struggles for meaning? Seeing beyond cultures and time itself, Campbell ferreted out this one purpose.

In the end Campbell called this one path we all share the “monomyth” or, in more popular parlance, the “Hero’s Journey”. We’ve seen dramatic versions of this journey in movies such as the Star Wars franchise. If you’ve watched any of these movies you are seeing the Hero’s Journey in action; Campbell was friends with George Lucas who has admitted Campbell’s teaching had a profound influence on his creation of Star wars.

Star Wars is a representation of the Hero’s Journey on a very grand scale. But the destruction of an evil empire is not the version of the Hero’s Journey that most of us experience; our lives are smaller in scope and our battles are often more internal and personal.  Despite this Campbell believed that even in our smaller and less spectacular battles there is something extraordinary and profound; the Hero’s Journey is just as significant for a CPA as it is for Luke Skywalker.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Hero’s Journey is that there is a tipping point, a difficult choice to be made; accept the call or resist it. Campbell believed each of us is called to some purpose regardless of our station in life. And those who resist this call to manifest a greater meaning in our lives, to be safe and avoid the risk inherent in the Hero’s Journey, are endlessly miserable in a way they can’t define. If our destiny is to find out who we are, then a challenge to our comfortable lives is the only natural crucible in which we can be forged. Can taking the path of least resistance, the safe route, reveal our greatest traits? Or is it just a placeholder for true meaning in our lives?

There has been very little written about the specifics of the Hero’s Journey; one of the questions that have found difficult to answer is this: what will any of us experience if we answer the call? It may be as simple as overcoming fears, allowing a “Hero” to take a path to being a great artist or something as important and basic as building a family. All of this can take place at a small, individual level, affecting only one person. Why is there no clear map to the specifics of the Hero’s Journey? It is because an integral part of the journey involves the hero facing his or her own demons and overcoming personal obstacles. These challenges are so specific to each person that no generic map can be created to express how an individual’s journey will manifest itself.

For each of us, our only path to finding our “call” is self-reflection, study and, if you are so inclined, prayer and meditation. Like any spiritual practice, the Hero’s Journey and its language are arcane and initially difficult to understand. But for many around the world this path has proved difficult but worth the pain it may bring initially.

It is our choice to ignore this call, perhaps for years, perhaps forever. And if we accept the call, things are not comfortable; we are tested and challenged and it is possible that we might falter. But if we stay our course through forces that seek to defeat us, we emerge on the other side with knowledge that helps us and possibly helps others.

Campbell is not for the faint of heart; much of his work is scholarly and requires absorbing a new set of concepts and a new language. But the trip can be worth the price. Start with a book named “The Power of Myth” which is a transcription of several hours of television interviews with Campbell. After a few readings you will start seeing the parallels between Campbell’s philosophy and your own life, or the life that you have always wished for yourself. This is not self-help; self-help seeks to calm the soul and provide simple techniques to make you happy. The study of Campbell’s works is a journey to something greater and the path is not always pleasant. But neither is a life well lived; nothing worthwhile can be learned without some discomfort.

Campbell, in my favorite of his many quotes, recommends answering the call, tested by a trial by fire as the only way to move forward. The particular quote puts his truth in stark relief: “If you are falling-dive”.

If you are interested in following this path, in “facing yourself”, I would suggest purchasing “The power of myth” and contacting the national Joseph Campbell Association. While Campbell’s books are basic to understanding his philosophy, the association can connect you to people interested in Campbell’s teachings. Take special notice of the national network of “Roundtables”; these are groups that meet locally to discuss various aspects of Campbell’s philosophy and the subject of mythology itself.

This is no cult. A cult is structured to support the organization itself. In the end internalizing Campbell’s teachings is a solitary journey that you must make on your own and the Joseph Campbell Foundation never benefits by it. Progressing in the Hero’s Journey involves using materials ranging from Campbell’s books to other “spiritual” books such as Sidhartha by Herman Hesse.; again, the Joseph Campbell foundation receives no money for the purchase of any of these books or from any of the activities of people attempting to follow this path. In many ways Campbell’s teachings create an “anti-cult”; where the individual ultimately eclipses any group affiliations.

In the end Joseph Campbell was a college professor whose scholarly work caught the attention of millions, though it was certainly not his intention as he navigated his way through a University Professor’s career.  But a serious student of Campbell can gain a lot by immersing himself or herself in the magic of the monomyth.


Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com


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