Practical Campbell Essay: “The times, they are a’changin'”

Date of Publication: April 24, 2006

Author: Stephen Gerringer

In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer explores Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on where humanity is headed, and the power of mythic images to shape our future. In particular, Stephen explores the highly influential, controversial report that Campbell (among a number of respected thinkers from a variety of academic fields) had a hand in writing, Stanford Research Institute’s The Changing Images of Man (1974).

In the nearly twenty years since Joseph Campbell’s death the world has witnessed innumerable horrific episodes of collective violence: the slaughter of almost a million Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda; years of armed struggle between contending warlords in Liberia, Somalia, and the Sudan; ethnic and religious wars in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo; blood shed between Basque separatists and the government of Spain, between Hindu Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka, between Palestinians and Israelis, between Irish Protestants and Catholics, and between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan; al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001; and the shock-and-awe invasion and occupation of Iraq, followed by a brutal insurgency and sectarian violence …

A list that barely scratches the surface.

Arbitrary geopolitical boundaries may indeed appear invisible to anyone standing on the moon, but for those who live on earth these lines are all too often traced in blood. One can’t help but wonder if Campbell’s confidence in the future isn’t misplaced — the blind optimism that comes from wishful thinking.

And yet there does seem to be a sense that we are in the midst of a period of massive, almost unfathomable change. We no longer inhabit our grandparents’ world — nor, given the accelerating pace of change, will our grandchildren live in ours.

Was Joseph Campbell wearing rose-colored glasses? Did he fail to anticipate the religious and ethnic violence that we’re experiencing today? Or is this all part of a natural process as humanity gropes its way toward that inevitable “change of vision” that Campbell foresaw — and, if so, is there any way to hasten the process? What vision guides us now, and how do we get from here to there? Is Utopia unattainable, Armageddon unavoidable — or might there be some third path open to us? Does the imagery of myth offer clues to what lies ahead?

To answer these questions we step briefly away from myth — or, perhaps, better put, we step inside the myths, go deeper, to the primary images that form the core of a mythology, in search of that vision that is “nothing new nor unnatural.” But we’ll take a curious path to reach the future, backtracking more than three decades into the past, to the halls of a prestigious California think tank, before returning to the now — along the way disturbing conspiracy theorists and dodging shrapnel in the thick of the culture wars.

Download the full essay (PDF)

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