The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (Book Review)

Written by:  Wendell Krossa

I have long appreciated Joseph Campbell’s basic outline of human life story and  human development. But Campbell’s writing can be dense and obstruse at times. Here is some interaction with Campbell’s outline.  This is just part of a larger section of comment on this at my site…

Joseph Campbell on personal story: From his outline of human story in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, notably chapter one- “The Monomyth” (p.1-18). Campbell draws on the long history of human mythology, across all cultures, to summarize the story of human development.

Every human being is the hero of a personal story and engages the hero’s journey or adventure.  Each one of us is living a unique version of the hero’s story.  This is true of the “least of people”, the most forgotten or devalued human persons in our societies.

Campbell speaks of the hero’s journey as the life-development of a human being.  It is about “the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self.”  He states that our journey involves a “threat to the security that we have built for ourselves, the destruction of the world that we have built”, sometimes as traumatic as a death and rebirth.  But this process of development then offers “the reconstruction of a bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life”.  He also details the varied subconscious drives and desires that fuel our crises of self-development (his comments on archetypes).

The hero’s adventure of development can also be viewed as confronting a Monster that must be slain.

Campbell adds that across history and human cultures a Wise Man has appeared to help the hero through the trials and terrors of “this weird adventure of self-development”.  The Wise Man points to the “shining sword” that will kill the dragon-terror (i.e. the monster) and apply healing balm to the hero’s wounds; wounds suffered while battling the monster.

Most ancient societies had initiation rites to help conduct people through the periods of transformation that would change their conscious and unconscious life as they moved to adulthood, what are called “rites of passage”. These rites orient the hero away from attitudes, attachments, and patterns of the life that is left behind.

In the journey of self-development, the person is beginning to “abandon his infantile fixations and to progress into the future”. The varied rites and myths of cultures are employed to carry the human spirit forward through its stages of development.  But there is intense struggle against the hero’s journey as many people remain “fixated to the unexercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood”.

Campbell explains that the passage from infancy to adulthood is necessary for “the individual to die to the past and be reborn to the future”. Death to the past (to the old) and rebirth to the future (to the new) are central themes of all human story.  This includes the death of infantile ideas/beliefs and worldviews, and the discovery of more adult views, something more universal, more human.

During this transition from our infantile past to an adult future, we face the “tyrant-monster…this may be no more than (the hero’s) own household, his own tortured psyche… or it may amount to the extent of his civilization… (The tyrant-monster) is avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine’…the inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world… but within every heart there is also a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will slay the monster and liberate the land”.

Campbell says that the hero must embrace the death of this old tyrant and a rebirth to something new.  This will involve some crisis to attain a higher spiritual dimension that “makes possible the resumption of the work of creation”. There must be a “death to the infantile consciousness, to all the magic of childhood, in order to bring forth the potentialities of adulthood”.  Campbell says that we are looking “to experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life.  We should tower in stature”.

He expands further on this, “If we could dredge up something forgotten, not only by ourselves, but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should indeed become the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day”.  In his other books Campbell has also noted that in our struggle to conquer our personal monsters we gain insights that benefit ourselves and others. We can then bring some boon or blessing to others.

I have repeatedly noted throughout this site that the central discovery of the Historical Jesus was his statement that unconditional love toward all was the supreme ethic of true humanity, it was the height of what it means to be authentically humane (i.e. “love your enemy” too, not just family and friends- Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 6:27-36).  Jesus added that this ethic was based upon the truth that there was only unconditional love at the core of reality (i.e. “be like your Father in heaven”, or God). That discovery of authentic humanity was later buried and forgotten in Christianity.  So the Jesus discovery fits perfectly Campbell’s comment above on “something forgotten” that will refresh and revive human society.  It was a discovery that, better than any other, defines the meaning of mature humanity, of adult thinking and behavior.

(Note on “buried and forgotten in Christianity”- Paul could not get beyond the infantile mythology of retaliation, punishment, and the destruction of his enemies. He embodied/epitomized these childish themes in his Christ myth.)

I have inserted some bracketed additions among the Campbell quotes below in order to more pointedly focus my paraphrase of Campbell’s points.  I want to emphasize that, beyond Campbell’s points, embracing “the unconditional treatment of all” is the central issue in our transformation to adulthood.

I would then reframe Campbell’s comments on human infancy in terms of our inherited animal brain and its base drives that orient us to primitive tribal thinking- i.e. the tendency to favor family and friends and to exclude our “enemies”, the outsiders to our group. I would further define human infancy in terms of the drives to dominate/control others (Alpha behavior), and to retaliate and destroy the competing other.  These are prominent features of animal or primitive tribal mentality, the infantile stage of humanity.

From the earliest human writing (Sumerian), we see that people created authorities to validate this tribally oriented infancy of humanity.  They projected their primitive tribal-like features onto their gods and then used those highest authorities to validate the continuing expression of that infantile behavior (creating infancy-affirming gods).  The sacred has long been used in this manner, to retard people in the primitive behaviors of our human infancy, our tantrum stage.  Note this sacred retardation, for example, in primitive and childish “offense and retaliation” response.  Someone offends me, so I retaliate and hurt back, I get even, I get my tit for tat “justice”, and punish the offender, like fighting kids in a sandbox.

(Note: I would include here Zenon Lotufo’s excellent book, Cruel God, Kind God, where he argues that bad religious ideas like atonement- punishment of wrong, demanded blood payment- inhibit proper human development.  Such ideas, and the violent God that they are based on, retard people at childhood stages of development, according to Lotufo.  They deform human personality.)

Campbell continues that the first work of the hero is to “retreat from the world scene of secondary effects (i.e. our outer battles with others) to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside (i.e. our inner battles with our inherited animal brain and its base drives), and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in (our) own case, give battle to the nursery demons of (our) local culture, and break through to the (unconditional treatment of all as the new adult human ethic)”.  These bracketed parts are my interpretive inserts of Campbell’s points.

Campbell is arguing that the hero’s story is really about personal psychological battles, and not outward physical battles with others.  The hero’s journey is about battling to overcome the infantile ego and its infantile drives and views.  What he called the “nursery demons”- that I would again define in terms of those primitive religious ideas that retard people in childish stages of development.  Especially, the historically childish view of violent deity (retaliating, striking out to hurt and destroy) that supports the rest of our historically infantile mythical thinking.  That mythology of humanity’s childhood has been embedded deeply in the causal zones of the psyche where those ideas still shape human perspective, emotion/feeling, motivation, desire, and behavior, often for the worse.

So Campbell urges that “the difficulty must be clarified and eradicated and a break through made…”.

The hero then brings “fresh visions, ideas, and inspirations to human life and thought. This contributes to the rebirth of society.” The hero breaks through personal and cultural limitations to the authentically human, to the adult human, and to unlimited love. Think of unconditional love as the central discovery to be made by the hero on the way to adulthood. Unconditional alone takes us beyond the childishness of ancient tribal exclusion and domination of others, the endless fighting with others as “enemies”, the tribal mentality that prevents our transformation toward the mature inclusion of all as equal members of one human family. Our past infantile tribalism prevents our transformation into the ultimate maturity of human love as the universal, and unlimited “love of the enemy”.

Thus runs my paraphrase of Campbell, adding the detail of unconditional to his more general points on human development.  Unconditional is the “marvelous expansion”, the “vivid renewal”, enabling us to “tower in stature”, just as Mandela did when he set aside the infantile hatred and tribalism of his past and embraced a universal inclusion of all groups for the future of South Africa.  Unconditional is the “fresh vision, idea, and inspiration”.

Again, two central things make up my definition of human adulthood- the unconditional treatment of all people- i.e. no conditions thinking and behavior- based on belief in an unconditional God.

Campbell also refers to the hero as the dreamer, who has chosen to follow, “not the safely marked general highways of the day, but the adventure of the special, dimly audible call that comes to those whose ears are open within as well as without”.  This person passes through the dark night of the soul, through the sorrows of the pits of hell, through slime and mud to find the clear waters on the other side.  The sustaining virtue of the hero is hope.  He/she- the dreamer- crosses to the other shore, across the difficult, dangerous ocean of life, enduring the task of self-discovery and self-development.

(Note on Campbell’s comment that the hero breaks through “slime and mud to find the clear waters”- Leo Tolstoy also said that he found the life-giving water of non-retaliating, unconditional love in the gospels- i.e. “love your enemies”- but that it was like a pearl “buried in the slime and muck” of the larger gospel context with its themes of retaliation, exclusion of unbelievers, punishment, and destruction.  Jesus’ statements on unconditional love is the forgotten thing, the buried or lost thing that is to be rediscovered.  Campbell himself may be referring to Jefferson and Tolstoy’s earlier comments on slime and muck.)

Read your own personal struggles and development into this life story framework of Campbell.

Campbell ends with the comment that the courageous hero is full of faith that the truth that he finds will make us free.  Where the hero thought to slay “another” (his enemy), instead, he slays himself, his own infantile, animal-like self.  In his journey, he has come to the center of his own existence.