June 1, 2002

1. Joseph Campbell

In an earlier issue of Phlit (May 18, 2002), I discussed contradictions in the Baroque period, and compared them to the contradiction in our time between the Zen ideal and the Nietzsche ideal — that is, between Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy. In the last issue of Phlit (May 25, 2002), I mentioned that Jung was halfway between East and West, and therefore Jung could build a bridge between East and West. The same is true of the American writer Joseph Campbell.

Like Jung, Campbell sees the weaknesses of the Western-rationalistic-scientific approach. Like Jung, Campbell thinks that Western religions — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. — have lost touch with the modern world and the modern soul, and cannot meet the spiritual needs of modern man. Like Jung, Campbell believes that the East has much to offer, but the East lacks individuality and personality, hence the West cannot swallow Eastern philosophy whole. Jung said, “I suppose that very lack of personality is what makes the East able to accept with such ease collective systems like Communism, and religious systems like Buddhism, which aim above all to annihilate the idea of personality.”1

Some of you are probably saying, “Finally. Finally he’s finding some flaws in the Eastern approach. This is long overdue. For years, he’s been praising the East and damning the West.” But others are probably saying, “What?! What does he mean by ‘lack of personality’? I always suspected that this guy wasn’t a true Buddhist, and now my suspicions have been confirmed. Clearly, he doesn’t understand Zen, he doesn’t understand the East.”

The word “personality” comes from persona (mask), and the word “persona” comes from per (through) and sona (sound), because a mask was something that actors talked through, sounded through. In Jung’s view, “the persona is the product of the sudden imposition of Christianity upon a barbarous Nordic people, with all its resultant inhibitions and uncontrollable drives.”2 When a barbarous Nordic people adopts Christianity, it can no longer “be itself,” it can no longer be natural, it can no longer be spontaneous, it must wear a mask, it must adopt a persona, it must acquire a “personality.” A “person” like this is divided within himself, his animal nature and his spiritual nature collide. He has a world within himself, a stage within himself where dramas are performed by a diverse cast of characters.

This seems to be especially true of Russia, which was especially barbarous when it adopted Christianity. The Russian soul seems to have greater tensions, greater conflicts, than any other. No literature in the world was more apt to explore the world within, explore personality, than Russian literature.

The opposite is true of Oriental culture, though this may be slowly changing since the Orient came into contact with the West. The Oriental soul has fewer tensions and conflicts than the Western soul, hence the Oriental soul is more healthy and stable than the Western soul. When Miguel Serrano was talking to Jung, Serrano said, “there are no neurotics in India, and so far as I know, there are none in Burma, or in Indonesia, Thailand, or China.”3 Jung didn’t contradict this statement, and it seems highly probable that the incidence of neurosis is higher in the West than the East (even if there are some neurotics in the East, even if Serrano’s statement isn’t entirely true).

The relative lack of tension in the Oriental soul is evident in the appearance, the expression, and the behavior of the Oriental. Max Weber, the famous sociologist, speaks of the Oriental’s “striking lack of ‘nerves’ in the specifically modern European meaning of the word; the unlimited patience and controlled politeness.”4

And what is the cause of this placid character, this “lack of nerves”? Weber looks for the cause in China’s avoidance of asceticism and its avoidance of alcohol: “The absence of hysteria-producing, asceticist religious practices and the rather thorough elimination of toxic cults could not fail to influence the nervous and psychic constitution of a human group.”5 The religion and philosophy of China took the world as it was: “Completely absent in Confucian ethic was any tension between nature and deity, between ethical demand and human shortcoming, consciousness of sin and need for salvation, conduct on earth and compensation in the beyond, religious duty and sociopolitical reality.”6 China’s dominant philosophy, Confucianism, did not focus on the world within, but rather the world without. Weber: “[Confucianism] could not allow man an inward aspiration toward a ‘unified personality’, a striving which we associate with the idea of personality. Life remained a series of occurrences.”7

In the West, the emphasis on individuality and personality is evident in many spheres, including politics. In ancient Greece, we find individuality together with democracy (or at least the beginnings of democracy). More recently, the West has protected the individual with a fence of rights and freedoms. Things were different in China: “In terms of natural law,” Weber wrote, “no sphere of personal liberty was sanctioned. The very word ‘liberty’ was foreign to the language.”8

Now let’s come back to Joseph Campbell. Campbell was keenly aware of the virtues of the Eastern Way. The chapter on Zen in Campbell’s Myths To Live By is the best short discussion of Zen that I’ve come across. One of Campbell’s friends was Alan Watts, the famous writer on Zen. Campbell studied Sanskrit, and he also studied the works of Heinrich Zimmer, who wrote about Indian civilization, especially Indian mythology. (Campbell calls him “my very great and good friend Heinrich Zimmer.”9)

But despite his profound appreciation of the East, Campbell recognizes the unique merits of Western civilization:

“It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his self-hood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet — and here is my second point — they are the truly great ‘new thing’ that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species.”10

Campbell discusses the custom known in India as “suttee,” that is, the wife’s self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre. He shows how common such a practice is — among men as well as women — in primitive and Eastern cultures. In such cultures, the individual is entirely subservient to his role in society, his role in the cosmos. “One’s birth determines what one is to be, as well as what one is to think and to do.”11 The ideal is not the development of individuality, but the suppression of individuality.

Campbell discusses the importance of individuality in Western literature. He says that, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the protagonist recognizes individuals in the underworld, and talks to them. The same is true of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. But in the literature of India, the underworld is populated by impersonal spirits.12

Campbell also discusses the importance of individuality in Western art. “Consider the works of Rembrandt or Titian: the attention given in these to the representation of what we call character, personality, the uniqueness, at once physical and spiritual, of an individual presence.” In contrast, Campbell speaks of, “the absence in the Oriental traditions of anything like significant portraiture.”13

Like Jung, Campbell appreciates both Eastern and Western civilization. But in his Myths To Live By, Campbell discusses these two civilizations in separate chapters, he doesn’t bring them together, he doesn’t reconcile the conflicts between them, he doesn’t try to create one world-view that draws on both civilizations. Here, perhaps, lies a task for the Campbells of our time.

Good online resource: Joseph Campbell Foundation.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, 1961 back
2. ibid back
3. ibid back
4. The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, VIII back
5. ibid back
6. ibid back
7. ibid back
8. ibid, VI, 2 back
9. Myths To Live By, ch. 7 back
10. ibid, ch. 4. Jung also recognizes the unique merits of Western civilization:
I have no wish to depreciate the tremendous differentiation of the Western intellect; compared with it the Eastern intellect must be described as childish. (Naturally this has nothing to do with intelligence.) If we should succeed in elevating another, and possibly even a third psychic function to the dignified position accorded to the intellect, then the West might expect to surpass the East by a very great margin. Therefore it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates the East or “affects” it in any way. The possibilities open to him would be so much greater if he would remain true to himself and evolve out of his own nature all that the East has brought forth in the course of the millennia.(Psychology and the East, ch. 1, par. 9) back
11. ibid back
12. ibid back
13. ibid, ch. 6 back