That Campbell Fellow

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


“In a “Fire in the Mind,” an idolatrous biography of Joseph Campbell by the brothers Stephen and Robin Larsen, we learn that while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia University in 1924, Campbell found reading Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Contra Gentiles” tough going, but before the semester started he got through “420 pages of this profound Aquinas person.”

That Campbell found Aquinas uncongenial does not surprise me, as I was an undergraduate at Columbia before Campbell arrived, and while he was there a member of the faculty. In my judgment, his education there was formed by admiration for the wrong authors and the wrong books: by Sir James Frazer’s “Golden Bough,” by James Stephens’s “Crock of Gold”, by William Graham Sumner’s “Folkways”, not by the study of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and William James. His knowledge and understanding of philosophy and psychology were derived from his reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, Schopenhauer, and Jung–all sources of the gravest modern errors.

As a consequence, I have little interest in the details of Campbell’s life and find the Larsens’ fabulous account of the “supernatural events” attendant upon his death appalling. It might have been enlightening, though, to learn how his being reared as a Roman Catholic and being mistaught its articles of faith and its theology led to his rejection of that religion in the late Twenties.

The authors merely tell us that “although the cognitive and emotional gap between his inner convictions and Church doctrine was growing ever wider, never to close again, he had continued to attend Mass and had even done altar service in Paris.”

From what Campbell himself wrote on the subject, I can only conclude that his understanding of the Christian creed and its theology was puerile. In that field he was an ignoramus.

The best example of this is found in “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space”, the book he wrote just before he died in 1987. In that book he clearly and explicitly states his views about the relations of mythology to religion. All his other books merely insinuate his subversive dismissal of all–all, not some–religions as misconstrued mythologies.

Readers will find a few traces of these views in this biography. On page 414, we find Campbell quoted as saying: “Clearly, Christianity is opposed fundamentally and intrinsically to everything that I am working and living for.”

On page 429, Campbell is reported as having difficulty reconciling the basic mythologies of Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, with science. One wonders why mythologies, which are only poetically true, need to be reconciled with science. One might add that Aquinas thought that the dogmas of his religion have factual, not poetical, truth and necessarily have to be reconcilable with everything that was then known in philosophy and in science.

I set forth my criticisms of this view in a book published in 1990, “Truth in Religion.” That effort was initially motivated by my negative response to the celebrated Moyers-Campbell TV programs, entitled “The Power of Myth.” My old friend Bill Moyers seemed to me to have been as taken in by Campbell as are his biographers. He did not critically challenge the extraordinary “misstatements” made by Campbell about Christian beliefs.

Campbell did understand that while myths have poetical truth, the kind of truth all made-up stories have, they do not have the factual and logical truth to be found in historical narratives and in bodies of scientific knowledge. He must therefore have understood the difference between poetical and logical truth, being himself a social scientist. He must have understood the criteria by which the truth of generalizations in sociology or cultural anthropology can be tested, proved, and disproved, criteria he would not himself apply to poetical narratives or mythologies. Hence his statement that all religions are misconstrued mythologies asserts that, although they may have poetical truth, they are “all factually and logically false.”

It may be true that some religions are misconstrued mythologies having poetical but not factual or logical truth. But Campbell held that this is the case with “all” religions. That is an unqualified generalization on his part, and he asserted it as a social scientist–a cultural anthropologist.

How did Campbell support the truth of his scientific generalization? By logical argument? No. By evidence which, in the strict logical sense, has probative force? No. How then? By purely rhetorical means, ill-concealed innuendo intended to discredit, not disprove, religious beliefs.

The subtitle of “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space” is “Metaphor as Myth and as Religion.” Every metaphor can be transformed into a simile, which asserts what something is “like”, not what it is. Myths are full of metaphors, for metaphors are essential ingredients in poetry. Aquinas explains why the divinely inspired language of Sacred Scripture is also full of metaphors (Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 1, Article 9). To say this is only to say that there “is some similarity” between a mythological text and a religious text; it is not to say that all religions are factually false, nothing but poetically true mythologies.

Finally, we come in a “Fire in the Mind” to the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which sums up Campbell’s basic preachment about how one should live one’s life, supposedly distilled from all the “wisdom” he found in the world’s mythologies.

That phrase, despite the great air of mystery and sophistication with which Campbell uttered it, expresses the most simple-minded hedonism: “Do whatever you want to do if it gives you pleasure.” This may be the “wisdom” of the New Age, but it represents the lowest debasement of twentieth-century culture.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

Your comments