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Reply To: Understanding Campbell


Hello Drewie,

You don’t ask the easy questions, do you?  😉

If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with the question of morality, and then tackle meaning in a subsequent post (so multiple ideas don’t get all tangled up and bogged down in a single post).

In the Power of Myth Bill Moyers does ask Joseph Campbell about the conflict between good and evil, but in relation to mythology. Campbell observes that this concept only emerged in mythology around the fifth century BC, with Zoroastrianism; after the return from the Babylonian Exile, Judaism picked up several key elements that are eventually passed on to Christianity (prior to that, the God of Israel was the source of good and evil – Isaiah 45:7 – “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”)

Campbell did not say there was no such thing as evil – plenty of it – but he makes a distinction between the perspective of the Levantine religions, and that of the other mythologies:

“In the other mythologies, one puts oneself in accord with the world, with the mixture of good and evil. But in the religious system of the Near East, you identify with the good and fight against the evil. The biblical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak with derogation of the so-called nature religions.”

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers

The problem, as Campbell sees it, is with the focus on ABSOLUTE Good opposed to ABSOLUTE Evil. In real life, good and evil are relative: you might think a steak is a good thing, but I’m pretty sure the steer that produced it would have a different take. An act considered evil in Iran is idealized in the United States, and vice versa – and even in the U.S., there are serious disputes about what is Good and what is Evil, especially in religion or politics.

Campbell expands on this theme (from a draft of a manuscript I’ve edited that’s currently being prepared for publication):

Morality is the local and contemporary, and the metaphysical vision is transcendent of that—the ‘elementary idea,’ rather than the ‘folk idea.’ This is the basic problem in religion: relating the ethical notion of good and evil, which is local. There is no such thing as absolute good and absolute evil. This is locally transformed in time and space, and then these two, good and evil, come together in our life.

We have to make decisions about good and evil in life, but in our metaphysical knowledge we must go past, to wisdom⁠.

Now, Nietzsche says the idea of the good man is an inorganic idea.  What you have done has been to cut man in half. Every act has both good and evil results.⁠  What’s good for the tiger is bad for the antelope.

This is a theme that Wolfram Von Eschenbach brings up in his Grail legend of Parzival. He starts out by saying every deed involves light and dark; all that can be done is to intend the light. But the dark will come out, and I think we have learned that: two world wars that were for one thing have yielded another, haven’t they? We’ve been working for virtue and have achieved something else⁠.

The acts of God are like acts of nature, indifferent to good and evil. Heraclitus is the one who said, ‘For God all things are good and right and just; but for man some are right and some are evil.’

Notice that Campbell emphasizes the difference between the decisions we make in life about good and evil and how we behave, and the deeper, metaphysical underpinnings of myth – which is not to say that Campbell believes there is no place for ethics in religion. Bill Moyers points out to Campbell in the small paperback edition of  The Power of Myth that “myths deal with metaphysics,” but religion “deals with ethics, good and evil, how I relate to you, and how I should behave toward you and toward my wife and toward my fellow man under God. What is the role of ethics in mythology?”

Campbell’s response, on page 281:

We spoke of the metaphysical experience in which you realize that you and the other are one. Ethics is a way of teaching you how to live as though you were one with the other. You don’t have to have the experience because the doctrine of religion gives you molds of actions that imply a compassionate relationship with the other. It offers an incentive for doing this by teaching you that simply acting in your own self-interest is sin. That is identification with your body.”

This is the essence of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – or, in Bill Moyers’ formulation, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is thyself”). Variations of the Golden Rule are found in all major religions, including those, like Hinduism, which don’t automatically assume Good = God = Good.

The difference Campbell finds is that religion often codifies an absolute morality (e.g., the Ten Commandments; the Levitical code; Sharia law) at odds with the reality of nature.

From the same yet-to-be-published draft cited above (drawn from obscure interviews and Q & A sessions):


CAMPBELL: The great health-giving and spiritually supporting attitude is that of yielding to nature, even in its ferocity and its terror. We think the ferocity and terror is evil. It isn’t. It’s part of the operation of what is natural.⁠ But there’s a faith in nature that’s involved here which we do not have in our biblical tradition, a faith that all things manifesting themselves in their perfection coordinate to a perfect manifestation in the world⁠. There’s a saying: the processes of nature cannot be evil. That’s a dreadful thought, but realize what the processes of nature involve.

I saw a picture several years ago in an issue of National Geographic of three cheetahs eating a gazelle. The gazelle was still alive. They were at his belly, and the gazelle’s head was lifted. And I said to myself, ‘Do we say yes to that?’ We do⁠.


Sure. That’s what’s tough about it; it’s the essence of the problem. How long can you look at it? How deeply can you see? What can you take? Or are you going to play a little game: ‘Listen to the birds, aren’t they just sweet? Don’t look at the gazelle being eaten by three cheetahs.⁠’

You make your choice. If you want to be a moralist, go ahead. If you want to go love life, do—but know that life is nasty⁠. And it will involve death. Sorrow is part of the world.


No, you don’t participate in it, but you can’t condemn it; this is part of life⁠.

It takes an awful lot of guts really to say yes all the way. Do you have the energy and strength to face life? Life can ask more of you than you’re willing to give. And then you say, ‘Life is something that should not have been. I’m not going to play the game. I’m going to meditate. I’m going to pull out.’

Through life and lust one comes to know something. And then there are two ways of knowing it: one, simply in its sensational aspect, and the other in the way of the mystery that is speaking to you through these. It’s the same mystery, birth and death, and this is the way life works⁠.

Then there are two ways of participating. One is compulsively. The other, after you’ve got something of the experience, is to gain control of your dealing with life and death. It’s a delicate walking on the edge. If you do too much to control life, you kill it. The other option is to let life move.

Elsewhere, Campbell, in reference to Eschenbach’s sense that “every deed involves light and dark; all that can be done is to intend the light” coupled with the idea of “saying yea to it all,”  is asked what if you are threatened by a poisonous snake? Joe’s response was that you kill the snake: “That’s not saying No to snakes; that’s saying No to that situation.”

The above may not resolve your question, but I hope it helps clarifies some of Campbell’s thoughts on the subject and maybe expands the conversation.