Two Criticisms Of Joseph Campbell

I finished reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth yesterday. I admit that I was impressed by his knowledge and his desire to create a coherent system out of it. However, his beliefs based on his knowledge leave me cold. One of the first is that a person can do no good that does not have evil results either or that she can do no evil deeds that are simply bad either. Campbell points out that life is based on eating: even vegetarians eat life (plants). So there is no way to exist without doing injury to another. I admit to having pondered this in a way: there was a time in my life when I was vegetarian (before my doctor told me I had to eat meat because of my red blood cell count). Yet I want to believe that there is more to life than just killing. More, though a person eats animals, I want to believe that in terms of their deeds towards other humans they might be kind and just as if they were able to walk through life without doing injury to anyone or anything.

I want to believe that though I am not as good as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, I have at times done deeds worthy of them. Maybe I did not live the life, but I have moments of transcendence. I believe any deed of pure giving is a deed of transcendence. When I say “pure giving,” I mean any act which did not expect to get anything in return, and perhaps only God and the person for whom it is done are grateful. I also believe any life empty of “pure giving” has a lack in it.

Anyway, the second thing I did not like about it. Campbell says of a friend, “My friend thought, ‘God did this to me.’ I told her, ‘No, you did this to yourself. The God within you. You yourself are your creator. If you find that place in yourself from which you brought this thing about, you will be able to live with it and affirm it, perhaps even enjoy it, as your life.” Elsewhere he says, “Freud tells us to blame our parents for all the shortcomings of our life, and Marx tells us to blame the upper class in our society. But the only one to blame is oneself. That’s the helpful thing about the Indian idea of karma. Your life is the fruit of your doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.” Despite believing that blaming your family or society for things you do wrong is common malaise which many people have to overcome, I still believe that there is unjust suffering in the world. I believe it so strongly that his claim that it is always the self which causes a person pain repels me. I remember in grade school I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time and was struck–when I found out her ultimate fate–at the wrongness of what happened to Anne. More, I knew why it was even wrong beyond when its wrong for anyone to suffer: Anne was a smart little girl, and very kind and decent. I wished I could have a friend like Anne Frank. I could see no good in the evil in what happened to her.

Bill Moyers saw my point for me, “But what about chance? A drunken driver turns the corner and hits you. That isn’t your fault. You haven’t done that to yourself.” Campbell replies, “From that point of view, is there anything in your life that did not occur as by chance? This is a matter of being able to accept chance… The best advice is to take it all as if it had been your intention–with that, you evoke the participation of your will.”

I left convinced that Joseph Campbell did not know what I was talking about. I worked at a mental health club, and my first patient had the experience which Bill Moyers described: Larry was the designated driver going home from a party. A drunk smashed into his car and he had a major head injury, his teeth knocked out of his head, broken fingers, and broken legs. Larry was very resilient: he taught himself to walk and use his fingers again. Yet my job was to teach him the basic math and grammar which he lost in the accident. I worked with him several years, and though he never read books again, he learned everything else that he needed to be a janitor again. I felt this was–and I know this sounds egotistical–an act of tikkun olam, repairing the universe, on my part. I try not to brag because my doing so cheapens what I did for Larry and the other patients. Yet I felt that it was a terrible act of chance that disabled him but an act of God’s compassion towards both of us that I could help him. I know it seems strange to believe some acts come from chance and others from God, but I do. God works towards the good, but the world resists Him. If I had thought like Campbell that, “Good may come of my helping this man, but also evil,” I never could have helped him. If I had thought, “It was no doubt his fault that he was in the right place at the wrong time,” I am sure it would have hardened my heart.

Though I have not been at that mental health club for a long time, I believe I will visit Monday. It will only be a visit–I am not working there fulltime again–but perhaps my visiting will do good. Regardless, I ask the reader to keep Breakthrough’s members in his or her prayers. They are like St. Francis’ or Mother Teresa’s lepers.

Published by hadassahalderson

I am a professional author who lives in Wichita, KS. I went to Friends University and spent one year at Claremont Graduate University. My published work includes: The Bible According to Eve I-IV and Faust in Love.

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