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Of This and That: Essays on Religion

four titans of perennialism:
Joseph Campbell and the
Right Reading of Myth

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November 4, 2004

 

[This is a continuation of an article you can access here.]

This observation brings us to the unifying work of Joseph Campbell.

Campbell, like Jung and Eliade, was a prolific writer. His first major work was The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he described a single pattern underlying the myriad hero stories in the world. His magnum opus, The Masks of God, gave a similar treatment to the world's mythologies.

David Miller has made contradictory statements about Campbell's emphasis on unity versus plurality: "the phrase did not read the thousand heroes with one face" and "Campbell's major work was about masks (plural differences), not mask (singular meaning)." However, I see the titles as reflecting, again, the balance between That and This: one hero, many faces; one god, many masks. As with Jung's collective unconscious and Eliade's Sacred, the pattern underlying the hero stories and the God behind the masks represent the undifferentiated That, the "divine reality" of Huxley's Perennial Philosophy. Likewise, the personal unconscious and conscious of Jung, Eliade's manifold Profanes, and Campbell's faces and masks represent "the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness" described by Huxley. E pluribus unum, as both the dollar and Professor Marvel (no longer the Wizard of Oz) proclaim: Out of many, one. But this is the Aristotelian view of universals; had we not better say, "E unus pluribum"--out of one, many? This reflects our Platonic way of seeing This descending from That, rather than That arising from This.

In any case, in the first and last volumes of Masks Campbell cites an otherwise-obscure (in the English-speaking world) ethnologist named Adolf Bastian. As described in Volume IV, "Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) coined the term 'ethnic ideas' (Volkergedanke) for the local, historic transformations of the archetypes, and the term 'elementary ideas' (Elementargedanke) for the archetypes themselves" (653). Note his use of the term "archetype"; Campbell elsewhere asserts that "Jung's idea of the 'archetypes'…is a development of the earlier theory of Adolf Bastian" (I:32). To my knowledge, however, Bastian never used the term per se; Jung borrowed it from earlier theorists.

So Campbell, like Jung, builds a system on the work of Bastian. But in his case, it is a look into mythology and story--and their accompanying art, rituals, etc.--rather than the strictly psychological function. The hero story can serve as a paradigm. The oft-quoted statement of the "monomyth" goes like this: "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" (Hero 30). This is a going forth and a return; implicit in it are five episodes: (1) Home ("the world of common day"); (2) the First Threshold; (3) the Other World ("a region of supernatural wonder"); (4) the Second Threshold; and (5) the Return ("the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure").

From This to That to This.

From Personality No. 1 to Personality No. 2 to Personality No. 1.

From Profane to Sacred to Profane.

From Ethnic to Elementary to Ethnic.

Each crossing is dangerous. So why run the risk? Campbell mentions multiple benefits for the Hero who completes the Quest. He may become a Warrior; a Lover; an Emperor or Tyrant; a World Redeemer; or a Saint (315ff). But the most evocative title given to the returned hero, at least in a study of That and This, is: Master of the Two Worlds (229ff). The one who successfully negotiates the passage develops the "Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back - not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other…" (229).

This last is a crucially important idea. There is an either/or quality to That and This. How can the individual Self be the divine reality? How can one act from both Personalities, No. 1 and No. 2? If the Profane becomes Sacred, how can it still be Profane? How can a Hero dwell in Two Worlds, when one must not contaminate the other?

Yet Huxley says, "You are That." Jung says, "I was actually two different persons." Eliade says that a Sacred Tree is still a tree. And Campbell says of the Hero, "The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment" (237).

A final point. In describing Bastian's work, Campbell makes the point several times that "Nowhere, [Bastian] noted, are the 'elementary ideas' to be found in a pure state, abstracted from the locally conditioned 'ethnic ideas' through which they are substantialized; but rather, like the image of man himself, they are to be known only by way of the rich variety of their extremely interesting, frequently startling, yet always finally recognizable inflections in the panorama of human life" (Masks I:32).

For this reason, I propose a slight adjustment in the Perennial Philosophy, something I call "Neo-Perennialism." As Jung only discovered the collective unconscious through examining many patients; as Eliade could only discuss the Sacred through examples from manifold cultures; as Campbell needed to see the Hero through the Faces, and God through the Masks: So we can only come to That through examination of This. Every person of spirit can look closely at her or his own belief system to find in its metaphors "that which is grave and constant," to quote Joyce, and then make the bridge through that elementary idea into another person's belief system. If I can see that my heaven and another person's nirvana represent the same goal through different metaphors, if I can see that my prayer and your meditation, my priest and your shaman, my precepts and your commandments are all fulfilling the same spiritual end--even if in radically different ways--then I can begin to appreciate the depth and beauty of the life you live, and learn to live it with you.

For what we are talking about is not just a future life in That, but our current life in This as well. In his ground-breaking The World's Religions, Huston Smith wrote in the mid-twentieth century: "We hear that East and West are meeting, but it is an understatement. They are being flung at one another, hurled with the force of atoms, the speed of jets, the restlessness of minds impatient to learn the ways of others. When historians look back on our century, they may remember it most, not for space travel or the release of nuclear energy, but as the time when the peoples of the world first came to take one another seriously" (6-7).

 

References for Part 5: (complete references for Four Titans)

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1968.
---. The Masks of God, Volume I: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1969.
---. The Masks of God, Volume II: Oriental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1962.
---. The Masks of God, Volume III: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1964.
---. The Masks of God, Volume IV: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1968.

Miller, David. "Comparativism in a World of Difference: The Legacy of Joseph Campbell to the Postmodern History of Religions". Found at <http://web.syr.edu/~dlmiller/CompDiff.htm>

Smith, Huston. The World's Religions. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

 

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