Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Joseph Campbell - Biography

Joseph Campbell, was an American professor, writer, speaker, anthropologist, and mythologist. He was born on March 26, 1904 and died on October 30, 1987. Joseph (John) Campbell is most famous for his work in the fields of both comparative mythology and comparative religion, and especially for his theory of “monomyth”, a term he borrowed from the renown Irish writer James Joyce (1882 - 1941). This is central concept which Joseph Campbell would also refer to as the “hero’s journey”. Joseph Campbell’s philosophy is today typically abridged to by what would become a popular phrase of his: “Follow your bliss”. Joseph Campbell would become a professor at Sarah Lawrence University and would stay there most of his career from 1934 to 1972. He would marry in 1938 with his student there, Jean Erdman (1916 - ), a dancer and choreographer.

Joseph Campbell was born on March 26th 1904 in New York City, where he also grew up in a Catholic family of upper middle class. As a child he would become passionate for Native American culture as a result of his father taking him to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Joseph Campbell would quickly become an expert in many aspects of American Indian culture, and specifically its mythology. This would fashion a passion for him in myths and related tales, folk stories, legends, fables etc. It is through such readings that Joseph Campbell would start to notice how they all seemingly have common traits and that regardless of the culture to which they belong.

Joseph Campbell would attend Dartmouth College where he would first study biology and mathematics before changing his focus and study humanities at Columbia University. Campbell would end up graduating with a BA in English literature (1925) and an MA in medieval literature (1927) respectively. As a side note, he would also be a very good athlete, winning for instance several races.

Joseph Campbell would eventually come to study both Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and at the University of Munich. Indeed, he would learn other languages on top of his native English, which would includ French, German, Japanese and Sanskrit. In 1924 he would meet the religious philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti by chance on a steamboat from Europe to the US. Together they would talk about Asian philosophy. This impromptu encounter would kindle Joseph Campbell’s lifelong study of Eastern thought. Joseph Campbell would later recall that the experience of talking with Jiddu Krishnamurti would have changed his life. After the trip Joseph Campbell would decide to stop being a practicing Catholic.

Having put his formal academic studies in hiatus at the completion of his Master’s degree, he would decide on his return to the United States to abandon the idea of getting a doctoral degree. Instead he would prefer to isolate himself in the woods not too far from New York City, spending his time reading intensely for five years. According to his poet and writer friend Robert Bly (1926 - ), he would have developed at the time a systematic program allowing him to read for nine hours each day. Joseph Campbell would later feel that it was during that period that he received his real education. Furthermore, it is at that point that he began developing his unique vision on the nature of life.

Joseph Campbell would begin his literary career by editing posthumous articles of the Indian culture scholar Heinrich Zimmer (1890 - 1943). He would also co-write with Henry Morton Robinson (1898 - 1961) the literary criticism work A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), for which generations of readers who had struggled with James Joyce’s last work would be forever grateful. The term “monomyth” came from that late book, which Joseph Campbell would in turn use and develop further as a concept in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). He would affirm there that all myths follow the same archetypal patterns. The idea of “monomyth” is described further in the book such as in the following passage:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Joseph Campbell would also study the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875 - 1961), who had been a disciple of Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939). Carl Jung had studied under Sigmund Freud and would collaborate closely for six years with him before diverging theoretically, culminating in Carl Jung’s resignation of the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910. The research Joseph Campbell would do on mythology sought to link the seemingly disparate stances of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, including their pivotal debate over the notion of collective unconscious. Another dissident member of Freud’s circle who would influence Campbell was Wilhelm Stekel (1868 - 1939), who as it turned out would be the first to apply Freud’s ideas about dreams, fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious, to many fields such as anthropology and literature.

In a similar way as his call to “follow your bliss”, Joseph Campbell himself would follow an original path. While he would agree with Carl Jung’s texts explaining psychological phenomena by using archetypes - which in Jungian psychology is a primitive mental image inherited from early human ancestors and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious - Joseph Campbell would not agree with him on everything. Joseph Campbell had his own original convictions. Unlike Carl Jung he did not believe in either astrology or synchronicity.

The originality of Joseph Campbell’s theory would lie in the fusion of received ideas and symbolism. His iconoclastic approach would be as innovative as it was radical. Joseph Campbell’s position with regards to religion would be compared to Albert Einstein’s scientific work: the search for a unifying theory. Joseph Campbell believed that all religions of the world, that all rituals and deities, were only “masks” of a single transcendent truth that is elusive and ultimately unknowable. In this way, he would describe together Christ’s consciousness as well as that of the Buddha's as being of a level of perception above the typical binary oppositions such as good and evil. Needless to say that many fundamentalists consider his ideas to be heretical.

One of Joseph Campbell’s favorite quotes was from the Veda, the most ancient Hindu scriptures: “Truth is one, though the Sages know it as many.” Joseph Campbell was fascinated by what he saw as universal truths expressed in different forms across cultures. He would seek to demonstrate that Eastern and Western religions are the same deep down, and that neither is absolutely right, but rather that they both are looking for the unknown answer, which appears to be elusive ultimately. He would become interested in the various moral codes out there, considering them as both incorrect and yet necessary. Arguably, in the same way as certain postmodern relativists, he would see the notions of good and evil as highly subjective concepts. Like postmodernists he would understand that a moral system is necessary for anyone studying in field like mythology or psychology. In this way, Joseph Campbell would manage to merge modernist and postmodernist concepts, even though some of his interpretations would be such that he would be considered more as a postmodernist in the end.

In his series of four books entitled The Masks of God (1962 - 1968), Joseph Campbell would attempt to summarize the world’s main spiritual stories in order to support his ideas on the unity of the human species. This theory includes the notion that most of the belief systems of the world have a common geographical ancestor.

Joseph Campbell believed that all forms of spirituality are the search for a single unknown force, which he would come to qualify more as eminent rather than transcendent and which, according to him, is simultaneously inner and outer, in contrast with being only external, and from which all comes from. This is for him where everything exists and in which everything eventually returns. Joseph Campbell would refer to this force as the connotation of what he called “metaphor” (as in his 1986 book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion). Metaphors is the term with which he would name the various deities and spiritual objects in the world.

In this way all mythical heroes begin their journey after a call to adventure, which always implies that the hero leaves the environment in which he or she grew up. The hero typically then faces a first obstacle in the journey, which once faced usually with the help of a mentor or spiritual guide, allows entry into a more spiritual world, generally represented by for example a dark forest, a desert, a cave or even a mysterious island etc. At this point the hero undergoes in this new environment a series of tests allowing one to surpass the mentor and finally reach the object of the quest, which often is a reconciliation of the father, a sacred union, or a grand finale, that symbolically represents a kind of liberation. The hero then returns home completely transformed by the experience of his initiatory journey.

Joseph Campbell would maintain that almost all mythical heroes, regardless of the time and culture in which they live, follow such path, containing at least one of the parts of this structure. In more contemporary works, for example the Star Wars trilogy (made by his friend George Lucas), but also The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings, all very closely stick to the archetypal pattern delineated by Joseph Campbell. Even the TV series Lost follows very similarly with the role of Jack. According to Joseph Campbell heroes have a very important function in society because they can convey universal means to liberate oneself and thrive.

Over the years Joseph Campbell would inspire and influence many. Some include the musician Tori Amos, the writer and producer Christopher Vogler, as well as George Lucas who would state having used the ideas of The Hero with a Thousand Faces as well as other Joseph Campbell works in order to write Star Wars. Joseph Campbell would die from esophageal cancer on October 30th 1987 in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the age of 83.

Joseph Campbell was an American professor, writer, speaker, anthropologist, and mythologist. (March 26, 1904 - October 30, 1987)