Discovering a “magical, timeless, and potentially life changing” writer.
Through his profession as a comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell made it his life’s quest to uncover many of the universal truths and mysteries that underpin this great tide of existence of which we are all a part: what it is to be a human being and, more to the point, what it is be a heroic human being. Regrettably, the kind of spiritual journey that Campbell enthusiastically committed himself to is one that increasingly few people in the modern world undertake, which makes his work all the more admirable. He was an eclectic student of mythology and religion, with an uncontrollable thirst for knowledge and wisdom, whose words will be relevant for as long as human beings live on this earth.
“Regrettably, the kind of spiritual journey that Campbell enthusiastically committed himself to is one that increasingly few people in the modern world undertake…”
Too few people today appreciate that a single book has the potential to transform an individual’s life. The first book that I remember truly captivating me and having an illuminating effect on my sense of life and self was Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. While I have since learned that The Hero with a Thousand Faces is rightfully heralded as Campbell’s magnum opus, The Power of Myth was a more than sufficient introduction to the writer’s rich world view. In the book, Campbell expresses that which the reader knows deep down to be true: the central narratives and images of mythology and religion are depicted as emblematic of diverse elements of the human condition, which transcend time and place. Much like the great myths and spiritual practices that informed his own philosophy, Campbell’s insights can help the reader to garner forms of wisdom and, thereby, avoid forms of suffering.
Overcoming the fears and distractions that lead one astray, accepting the internal call to adventure, and undergoing a liberating transformation of consciousness is essential to the hero’s journey, according to Campbell’s conceptualisation. And this is not to be read as a wishy-washy hippy ideal, but rather as a pattern in the human experience that has been decoded from an array of mythologies from across the globe, stemming back to ancient times. Struggles are, of course, an inherent part of life, yet Campbell insists that we are capable of responding to them mindfully, using them as vehicles for the attainment of higher human purposes and experiences, and ultimately coming to participate in life heroically. He asserts that: “The hero is the one who comes to participate in life courageously and decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancour, disappointment, or revenge.”
“This is not to be read as a wishy-washy hippy ideal, but rather as a pattern in the human experience that has been decoded from an array of mythologies from across the globe…”
At one point in The Power of Myth, Campbell cites some of the most iconic truth seekers and spiritual leaders from our collective canon – Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha – to demonstrate the importance of the journey inwards and of the reforming of oneself as a means of reforming the world. It is, to put it simply, the act of dying to the past, being reborn to the future, and of learning to live out of your own dynamic and centre. There are of course numerous powerful examples of the hero’s journey throughout history that one can point to. One example is the psychological, moral, and spiritual development of Malcolm X, as outlined in his brilliant autobiography which I read recently.
Wherever you look today, the lack of strong mythology and spiritual rituals is evident. You only have to look at the rise of far-right nationalism, the disregard for the natural world, and the spotlight that our culture places on mere superficial concerns to see that we are a civilization experiencing an existential crisis. What we have today is a competitive and materialistic society that is not in the service of humanity, governed instead by a system that is willing and able to manipulate minds and suppress souls in the interest of its own self-preservation. The impositions of the modern world have caused many to lose touch with their inner selves and their inner sense of reality, direction, and joy. Reflecting on modernity, Campbell says that “what we lack isn’t science, but poetry that reveals what the heart is ready to recognise”. If you read any book by Campbell with a degree of openness and curiosity, you are bound to encounter poetry that sparks an enlightening response in you, and that is what makes his writing magical, timeless, and potentially life changing.
Perhaps Joseph Campbell’s greatest gift was his ability to interpret and poetically articulate how one can live a complete human life by forging their own path and rising to meet their own unique potentiality.