Joseph Campbell was one of the greatest hermeneutists (the study of the methodological principles of interpretation). He read books. Lots of them. He started with Native American philosophy and kept on going into other myths, philosophies, and literature.
When asked how he meditated, Campbell once answered, “I underline sentences.” Reading awakened something in young Joe. It was calling; it was, as he would call it, his bliss. It was the path that was being made for him as he read more and more. It would lead him to find a golden thread from all traditions on the path of the hero's journey. It would lead him to spiritual beliefs about consciousness and the power of the individual mind. It would lead him on his own journey, which included relationships with everyone from Krishnamurti, to John Steinbeck, to George Lucas.
Many of us who love Joseph Campbell have to make a somewhat embarrassing admission
we love reading and listening to Campbell talk about the great myths and stories and philosophers more than we like to study them ourselves.
Give me Campbell, talking about how the knights of the round table would begin an adventure by entering that part of the forest that was darkest that no one had entered before, over a volume on King Arthur from Sir Thomas Malory any day.
Intense scholars who only want to give you back the text without individual interpretations could dislike or dismiss Campbell. Who better than the best preacher could tell you how any great story was all about you? What a better thing to hear?
“It’s very difficult to find in the outside world something that matches what the system inside you is yearning for. My feeling now is that I had a perfect life; what I needed came along just when I needed it. What I needed then was life without a job for five years. It was fundamental.
As Schopenhauer says, when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another. Then later, you see it was perfect. So I have a theory that if you are on your own path things are going to come to you. Since it’s your own path, and no one has ever been on it before, there’s no precedent, so everything that happens is a surprise and is timely.”
Campbell would also share Schopenhauer’s point this way:
“In the later years of a lifetime, looking back over the course of one’s days and noticing how encounters and events that appeared at the time to be accidental became the crucial structuring features of an unintended life story through which the potentialities of ones character were fostered to fulfillment, one may find it difficult to resist the notion of the course of one’s biography as comparable to that of a cleverly structured novel, wondering who the author of the surprising plot can have been; considering further, that as the shaping of one’s own life was largely an effect of personalities accidently encountered, so, too, one must oneself have worked effects upon others.”
Reading is what fed Campbell and helped him find his path. Interpreting, entwining, and sharing these stories is how he walked it in an incredible way as an author, educator, and sage of our times.
At the heart of it all is this theory he shared about. Find your path, never stray from it, and powers within and around you will come together to fulfill the calling of your life. This is essential to Campbell’s theory of finding one’s wholeness in truly living one’s story by discovering a calling and following it.
“My old mentor, Heinrich Zimmer, had a little saying: the best things can’t be told—they are transcendent, inexpressible truths. The second-best are misunderstood: myths, which are metaphoric attempts to point the way toward the first. And the third-best have to do with history, science, biography and so on. The only kind of talking is this last kind. When you want to talk about the first kind, that which can’t be said, you use the third kind as communication to the first. But people read it as referring to the third directly; the image is no longer transparent to the transcendent.”
I think this is one of the many things that made Joseph Campbell one of the greatest hermeneutists and spiritual teachers. He knew how to talk in a way that pointed to the truth, without ruining it with an explanation. With Campbell, the truth was always near.