Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is considered by many today – particularly those of a New Age bent – to be something of a prophet. Certainly, his views on comparative mythology and religion have affected millions. This is not least because of his being championed by Bill Moyers on PBS with his The Power of Myth interviews.

Not only did Campbell have a gift for pithy epigrams – as witness his “Follow your bliss” – he also influenced those who influenced others. Most notable of these is George Lucas, who has praised Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the inspiration for the Star Wars franchise (although Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers also played some part).

But who was he? Campbell – despite his Scottish name – was born to Irish Catholic parents in comfortable circumstances in White Plains, New York. He was sent to the Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut, a boarding school founded – somewhat ironically in Campbell’s case – by Catholic laymen to prepare boys to enter the Ivy League and not lose their faith. From thence he went to Dartmouth and Columbia and did further studies at the universities of Paris and Munich.

He ceased attending Mass in his mid-20s, and spent time with the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti and the novelist John Steinbeck. Out of all of his studies and experiences came his overarching idea of the monomyth – the great mythos underlying all spiritual expressions. His vision was essentially syncretistic (combining different beliefs) and pantheistic, and he called for a new myth to replace the ones that had died for modern man.

Campbell attacked the New Mass as a rejection of the Catholic ethos (though why it mattered to him at that point is another issue). There are conflicting tales regarding his spiritual state at the end of his life. Let us pray that the one having him call for a priest is true.