The path of bliss: 11 epic quotes from Joseph Campbell

The great mythologist reminds us that our bliss is part of our suffering.

  • The famous academic will forever be known for his message to "follow your bliss".
  • George Lucas admitted that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Campbell.
  • The Power of Myth remains one of the most popular public television series of all time.

Very few biographies can be described in three words, yet the entirety of mythologist Joseph Campbell's career has often been summed up in one simple message: follow your bliss. Problem is, this catchphrase has been stripped of much of its intended meaning. You'll find the hashtag, #followyourbliss, on too many Instagram posts featuring yogis on beaches and mountaintops to count. Campbell would have said that's the wrong track.

Literally, as you'll read in the first passage below. Campbell spent his life sharing the epic stories of the world to rapt audiences. Ironically, his debut on the bestseller's list was posthumous. By the time The Power of Myth, a book based on his interview series with Bill Moyers, was published in 1988, the scholar had passed of esophageal cancer.

His wife, Jean Erdman—still alive at 102—said that Joe would never have liked the fame. In fact, scrolling through the many highlighted pages of Campbell's works in my library, I was struck by how often he notes the tragedy of the modern era is our pivot toward individualism. Many of the ancient agricultural rituals he cites were specifically designed to destroy the ego in favor of community, a message lost in the Instagram age.

Yet his words are not lost. In one of his final interviews, at the Director's Guild in Hollywood in May, 1987, Campbell was speaking about the documentary film, The Hero's Journey. During a panel discussion following the film he elucidated what he meant by following your bliss. We'll begin with that quote at length, for it is a powerful reminder that the things we value most must, by necessity, come at a cost.

One

"I have a firm belief in this now, not only in terms of my own experience, but in knowing the experiences of other people. When you follow your bliss, and by bliss I mean the deep sense of being in it, and doing what the push is out of your own existence—it may not be fun, but it's your bliss and there's bliss behind pain too.

"You follow that and doors will open where there were no doors before, where you would not have thought there'd be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anybody else.

"There's something about the integrity of a life. And the world moves in and helps. It really does.

"And so I think the best thing I can say is to follow your bliss. If your bliss is just your fun and your excitement, you're on the wrong track. I mean, you need instruction. Know where your bliss is. And that involves coming down to a deep place in yourself." — The Hero's Journey (1990)

Two

"The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to coordinate the in-group now can only break it into factions. The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandizer of the nursery ego, not the annihilator of an infantile situation." — The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

Three

"Mythology is psychology, misread as cosmology, history, and biography." — The Flight of the Wild Gander (1951)

Four

"Within the human species there is such broad variation of innate capacity from individual to individual that generalizations on a racial basis lose much of their point." — Primitive Mythology (1959)

Five

"For as the Buddha of the negative way, so is she the prime symbol of the positive. As the living image of the wonder of this world in which we live, she is the ferry and the goal in one." — Oriental Mythology (1962)

Six

"Like it or not, the pathless way is the only way now before us." — Creative Mythology (1968)

Seven

It is not left to use to choose to hazard the adventure of an unprecedented life; adventure is upon us, like a tidal wave. — "Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art" (1970)

Eight

"Art that excites desire, Joyce calls pornographic. All advertising art is in this sense pornographic, since it is intended that the viewer should desire to possess in some manner the object represented." — The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (1986)

Nine

"People say what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're really seeking is an experience of being alive." — The Power of Myth (1988)

Ten

"Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies." — Thou Art That (2001)

Eleven

"Revolution doesn't have to do with smashing something; it has to do with bringing something forth. If you spend all your time thinking about that which you are attacking, then you are negatively bound to it. You have to find the zeal in yourself and bring that out." — Pathways to Bliss (2004)


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