Campbell was born and raised in New York City in an upper middle class family. As a child, Campbell became fascinated with Native American culture when his father took him to see the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He soon became versed in numerous aspects of Native American society, primarily in its mythology. This led to Campbell's lifelong passion with myth and its similar, seemingly cohesive threads among all human cultures. At Dartmouth College he studied biology and mathematics, but later transferred to Columbia University, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925 and a Master of Arts degree in 1927.
Campbell is considered by some to be one of the most famous autodidacts, or 'self-educators', and is sometimes seen as a poster child for this way of learning. After completing his master's degree, Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate; instead, he went into the woods in upstate New York, reading deeply for five years. According to poet and author Robert Bly, a friend of Campbell, Campbell developed a systematic program of reading nine hours a day. According to Campbell, this is, in a sense, where his real education took place, and the time when he began to develop his unique view on the nature of life.
He went on to study Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and the University of Munich. He learned to speak at least French, German and Sanskrit in addition to English. Campbell began his literary career by editing the posthumous papers of Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. With Henry Morton Robinson he wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, for which generations of puzzled readers of James Joyce have been grateful.
Campbell studied the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who had been a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Campbell's work in mythology sought to bridge the seemingly disparate stances of Jung and Freud and their pivotal debate over the collective unconscious. Campbell also edited the first Eranos conference papers and helped to found Princeton's Bollingen Press. Another dissident member of Freud's circle who influenced Campbell was Wilhelm Stekel (1868 - 1939), who pioneered the application of Freud's conceptions of dreams, fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious to such fields as anthropology and literature.
Campbell's original voice
Campbell relied on the texts of Jung as an explanation of psychological phenomena, as experienced through archetypes. But Campbell didn’t agree with Carl Jung on every issue, and certainly had a very original voice of his own. Campbell didn't believe in astrology or synchronicity as Jung had. Campbell's true study and interpretation is in the melding of accepted ideas and symbolism. His iconoclastic approach was as original as it was radical. His take on religion has been compared to Einstein's idea of science in his last days, the search is for a unifying theory. Joseph Campbell believed all the religions of the world, all the rituals and deities, to be “masks” of the same transcendent truth which is “unknowable.” Here we see Campbell as an agnostic, and he also shows his world view to be relativistic at times. He claims Christianity and Buddhism, whether the object is 'Buddha-consciousness' or 'Christ-consciousness,' to be an elevated awareness above “pairs of opposites,” such as right and wrong. Needless to say, many religious exclusivists find his ideas heretical.
"Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names," he often quoted from the Vedas. Joseph Campbell was fascinated by what he viewed as universal sentiments and truths, disseminated through cultures which all featured different manifestations. He wanted to show his idea that Eastern and Western religions are the same on a very basic level, and that nobody is right but everyone is searching for the same unknown, and indeed unknowable, answer. He began to look paradoxically at moral systems as both incorrect and necessary. Like the postmodern relativists he believed such things as 'right' and 'wrong' are just contrived ideas, but also like them he understood a moral system is necessary from the perspective of a student of mythology and psychology. In this way he melded also the concepts of modernism and postmodernism, although some interpretations place him as a postmodernist before his time.
In his four-volume series of books "The Masks of God", Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads of the world, in support of his ideas on the "unity of the race of man"; tied in with this was the idea that most of the belief systems of the world had a common geographic ancestry, starting off on the fertile grasslands of Europe in the Bronze Age and moving to the Levant and the "Fertile Crescent" of Mesopotamia and back to Europe (and the Far East), where it was mixed with the newly emerging Indo-European (Aryan) culture.
He believed all spirituality is searching for the same unknown transcendent force from which everything came and into which everything will return. He referred to this transcendent force as the connotation of what he called "metaphors", the metaphors being the various deities and objects of spirituality in the world.
Hero mythology and the monomyth
Heroes played a crucial role in his comparative studies. In 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces set out the idea of the monomyth, a streamlined version of all the archetypal patterns Campbell recognized (Campbell's archivist at the Pacifica Graduate Institute says he borrowed the term from James Joyce's novel "Finnegans Wake"). Campbell wrote that almost all hero myths, throughout history and across cultures, can be shown to contain at least a subset of these patterns. In contemporary popular culture, three film series, Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings (along with Tolkien's original book series) hew very closely to Campbell’s archetypal pattern. Heroes were important to him because they conveyed, to him, universal truths about how one should live one's life and about an individual's role in society.
- “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life” - this was not an endorsement of masochism, but rather a recognition that life contains hardship and an individual should embrace the experience of being alive by living affirmatively in the face of inevitable sorrow and suffering. This was an echo of a Buddhist teaching that calls for "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world."
- “Follow your bliss.” - Campbell believed that at the heart of every hero myth was just that message. After the Power of Myth series aired it became a bit of a catch-phrase. Campbell intended it to mean that one should follow the natural order and cycles of life, though, like Aleister Crowley's “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” it has been misunderstood by critics as a call to craven libertinism.
Joseph Campbell explains his maxim to Bill Moyers:
- BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
- JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
- "Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts -- but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message."
Influence of his works
Soon after Campbell's death, Brendan Gill criticized him in an article, "The Faces of Joseph Campbell," published in the New York Review of Books on September 28, 1989, accusing him of "reactionary" political beliefs. Gill reported that some of Campbell's colleagues at Sarah Lawrence came forward to describe Campbell as bristling at the insistence that Biblical myth was history. A National University professor named Tom Snyder wrote an essay in 1991 entitled "Myth Perceptions: Joseph Campbell's Power of Deceit"  that accused him of launching a single-minded vendetta against organized religion.
Campbell's scholarship has also come under attack; and the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut satirized Campbell's views as being excessively baroque by offering his interpretation of the monomyth, called the 'In The Hole' theory; loosely defined as "The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble."
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) is one of his best-known books: it discusses the monomyth cycle of the hero's journey, a pattern found in many cultures. His four-volume work The Masks of God covers the world of mythology.
Campbell's widest popular recognition came with his collaboration with Bill Moyers on the PBS series The Power of Myth, which was first broadcast in 1988, the year after Campbell's death in Honolulu. The series presented his ideas on archetypes to millions and remains a staple on PBS. A companion book, The Power of Myth, containing partial transcripts of their conversations, was released shortly afterward.
A recent compilation of many of his ideas is titled Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. The book explains that religion and mythology are actually the same thing and he puts religious symbology in its proper mythological context. One of Campbell's favorite quotes is that "...Mythology is often thought of as 'other peoples' religions and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." He explains that by understanding religious symbols not as historical facts but rather as mythological images, the symbols can take on deeper and more-believable meanings for many people.
- The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work-(Campbell, Joseph, Works.) By Joseph Campbell, Phil Cousineau, Stuart L. Brown New World Library; 1st New Wo edition (2003) ISBN 1577314042
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces Princeton University Press; (1948) (Reprint edition 1972) ISBN 0691017840
- The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion-New World Library (Reprint Edition 2002) ISBN 1577312090
- The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (Masks of God) Penguin Books; Reissue edition (1995) ISBN 0140194401
- Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal (Collected Work of Joseph Campbell Series) New World Library (2003) ISBN 1577314034
- Myths to Live by Penguin Books; Reprint edition (1993) ISBN 0140194614
- Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce By Joseph Campbell, Edmund L. Epstein, Joseph Campbell Foundation New World Library (2004) ISBN 1577314069
- Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation New World Library (2004) ISBN 1577314719
- The Power of Myth Co Written with Bill Moyers Anchor; Reissue edition (1991) ISBN 0385418868
- Creative Mythology New York: Arkana (1991) ISBN 0140194401
- Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor New World Library (2001) ISBN 1577312023
- Transformations of Myth Through Time Perennial; 1st edition (1990) ISBN 0060964634
- Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (1988)
- Joseph Campbell - Mythos (2002)
- Sukhavati - Place of Bliss: A Mythic Journey with Joseph Campbell (1998)
- Joseph Campbell - The Hero's Journey (1997)
Books and articles critical of Campbell
- Robert Ellwood, The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell
- Daniel C. Noel, editor, Paths to the Power of Myth
- "Galactic gasbag" by Steven Hart from Salon.com (Article contesting Joseph Campbell's alleged influence on George Lucas's Star Wars).
- Brendan Gill, "The faces of Joseph Campbell" from New York Review of Books, September 28, 1989
- Cosma Shalizi's rejection of Joseph Campbell
Defenses of Campbell
- 188 stages of the Hero's Journey
- Joseph Campbell Foundation
- The Joseph Campbell Library at Pacifica Graduate Institute
- Center for Story & Symbol
- Nautis Project
- Portraits of Joseph Campbell
- Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey at MonoMyth.org
- The Hero Cycle as seen in the Star Wars saga
- Starwars Origins - Joseph Cambell
- How myth became the legend of Joseph Campbell - Sunday Herald newspaper