Original Content at
November 18, 2016
Heroes, Joseph Campbell, and Jordan Peterson
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
The hero's journey begins with the call to adventure. Jordan Peterson writes that life exists within explored and unexplored territory both inside and outside of the mind. A narrative crisis occurs when our story (map of meaning) is inadequate to explain an anomaly. Heroism sets the hero apart from the group. Identification with the hero serves to decrease the unbearable motivational valence of the unknown.
Joseph Campbell's  template for the hero's journey begins with the call to adventure, which represents an encounter with an extraordinary being or world. This moment inspires the hero to go on a journey to explore an encounter outside the ordinary. This exploration requires crossing a boundary, which inevitably introduces danger. Forces oppose a successful crossing. The hero prevails and gains a prize. The hero then returns to the ordinary world, negotiating a return crossing of the boundary with its own dangers. Back in the ordinary world, the hero is celebrated for the prize, which becomes a gift to be disseminated among those to whom he returns. Help often arrives to overcome the obstacles in the way of the prize. The hero must often flee with the prize, as the forces opposing the acquisition of the prize, also oppose its departure with the hero.
Jordan Peterson  has a slightly different template. He writes that life exists within explored and unexplored territory both inside and outside of the mind. Exploration of the unexplored territory is ongoing though without a sense of urgency in normal times. He distinguishes between the knower, the known, and the unknown. Within our communities we develop shared maps for what is known and for what lies outside contemporary knowledge. We develop methods for exploring the edges of the unknown, which become conventional wisdom (or research methodology). When an anomaly suddenly appears to challenge our shared maps, a crisis occurs. Anomalies consist of the strange, the stranger, the strange idea, and the revolutionary hero. A hero emerges to struggle with the anomaly, often against an adversary, and often with help. The very existence of the anomaly and the struggle with it propels the hero into the unknown, which, as for Campbell, involves crossing a boundary -- in this case, the one between the known and the unknown. The result of this struggle is a reconstituted map of meaning and a reconfigured boundary between the known and the unknown. The act of struggle transforms both the hero and his/her community as a new, shared map arises. Peterson has also made some physiological comparisons -- that of the state of ordinary affairs to homeostasis, of the anomaly to perturbation of homeostasis, and that of the successful encounter with the anomaly and its incorporation into a new world view, to the restoration of a new state of homeostasis that absorbs and manages the perturbation.
A narrative crisis occurs when our story (map of meaning in Peterson's terms) is inadequate to explain an anomaly. A good explanation (story) provides the knowledge for how to manage the anomaly. Initially, we are surprised by the appearance of the strange, and we don't know what to do. We have entered the unknown. We have to revise our stories about the world to include the anomaly and how to interact with it, overcome it, manage it, relate to it, and perhaps transcend it. We may need new characters (voices, helpers) to help us. We may have to revise our sense of the rules for how the world works. We may need a new plot. The conclusions of stories are called beliefs. Peterson writes, "I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way -- that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense (p. 13)." We could also say that stories make the world, for stories are the basis of beliefs. Peterson believes that "the world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things." He says, "the world as forum for action is "composed," essentially of three constituent elements". First is unexplored territory" Second is explored territory". Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory (p.14)."
Heroism sets the hero apart from the group. Groups offer their members a limited range of potential meanings, which confers predictability on group interactions. These meanings are based upon shared stories (maps of meaning), none of which can manage the appearance of the strange. The hero experiences fear in the encounter with the anomaly, which is unknown and comes from the realm of the unknown. He or she experiences unprotected exposure to unexplored territory, which generates fear. The conventional story rejects the unknown, which Peterson says "is tantamount to 'identification with the devil,' the mythological counterpart and eternal adversary of the world-creating exploratory hero. Such rejection and identification is a consequence of Luciferian pride, which states: all that I know is all that is necessary to know. This pride is totalitarian assumption of omniscience -- is adoption of 'God's place' by 'reason' -- is something that inevitably generates a state of personal and social being indistinguishable from hell. This hell develops because creative exploration -- impossible without (humble) acknowledgement of the unknown -- constitutes the process that constructs and maintains the protective adaptive structure that gives life much of its acceptable meaning (p.14). He further says:
"Identification with the devil" amplifies the dangers inherent in group identification, which tends of its own accord towards pathological stultification". Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero -- the "savior" -- who upholds his association with the creative "Word" in the face of death, and in spite of group pressure to confirm. Identification with the hero serves to decrease the unbearable motivational valence of the unknown; furthermore, provides the individual with a standpoint that simultaneously transcends and maintains the group.
Campbell presents similar ideas in different language. In his interview with Tom Collins , Joseph Campbell comments upon his fascination with the transcendent, which he defines as "that which goes beyond all concepts and conceptualization, or that which lies beyond all conceptualization." The transcendent definitely dwells in Peterson's unknown.
Heroic journeys can be large or small, but those that fascinate Campbell the most are the ones that reach mythic proportions. In those journeys, we encounter the ground of being. He says that myth puts us in touch with "[t]he ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing [,which] transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you're resting on it and you know it." Peterson calls this the state of creative exploration.
I am interested in the heroic journey as applied to the encounter with illness. Peterson's template may work better in this respect than Campbell's. The person who becomes ill is not dissimilar to Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, Alex Haley, or Moses. Before illness, life is normal and ordinary. Homeostasis has been achieved in biological and sociological terms. Suddenly the illness interrupts this peace and invites the person to take a journey. The illness comes from the unknown. It appears as a stranger, sometimes an intruder into the body. Despite the advances of medical science, we still lack the understanding of why some people get ill and others don't, despite similar exposures and backgrounds. It's a mystery. The illness disrupts our shared map of meaning. We expected life to continue indefinitely in the same manner as it has, and that fantasy is shattered. How will we respond?
I believe Campbell would prefer a transcendent response to illness as an invitation to undertake a spiritual journey. Some respond this way. Others take the journey to their physician and do what they're told or don't do as they're told, still accepting the allopathic medical paradigm. They remain within the conventional story. Others depart into the world of holistic, alternative, or integrative medicine, depending on the phrase most popular at the time. The fundamental choice is whether or not to be heroic -- to be active or passive. I see the heroic response to illness as choosing to actively pursue health as opposed to passively being treated. The business of medicine in the United States is focused upon the passive receiving of treatment and not the active pursuit of health. In his interview with Collins, we read:
Tom: You once said that no human society has been found where mythological motifs are not to be found and celebrated -- "magnified in song and ecstatically experienced in light and power and vision." What about ours?
Joseph: What has happened in ours is that on the official level the accent is on economics and practical politics, and there has been a systematic elimination of the spiritual dimension. But it exists in our poets and our arts. It does. You can find it here. It's in a recessive condition, but otherwise people wouldn't have any spiritual life at all".
It's a terrible lack of anything but economic concerns that we're facing. That is old age and death; that is the end. That's as I see it".
What's moving people's lives is the stock market and the baseball scores. What are people excited about? It's a totally materialistic level that has taken over the world. There isn't even an ideal that anybody's fighting for.
I read Campbell as saying that conventional stories emphasize economics. We ask ourselves, how can I profit from this? How can I make the most money immediately? Campbell prefers the question of "how can I spiritually benefit from what has happened?" In the biomedical story, the health care industry asks itself how it can profit from illness. Patients respond as the story dictates -- as objects or raw material to be worked. I read Campbell as admiring people who respond to the anomaly (even adversary) of illness actively. The hero takes arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing them, ends them (to paraphrase Hamlet). He is not predisposed toward the passive approach.
When we are ill, we must begin to construct a map that tells us why we are ill and what it means, even if that map cannot be verified. Our personal and familial map may bear little resemblance to the official biomedical narrative of the illness. It is often said that patients experience illness and doctors treat disease. We may or may not take up the quest to find transformation that is healing. What intrigues me is the process that goes into the choice (if one can use that word) of one road or the other. How do we find ourselves on the active path or the passive path? Are there middle ways?
We further read in the interview:
Joseph: Another thing Pellagius said is that you cannot be saved by another's act".Pellagius was defending a doctrine of individual responsibility. I don't know where it comes from, but certainly it was typical, I would say, of European as opposed to Eastern points of view".
Tom: That sounds like the line in the King Arthur legend . . .
Joseph: "Each knight entered the forest at a point he had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path." That's from The Quest of the Sangral, 1215 or so in France.
Tom: How do they expect to find their way then?
Joseph: By questing.
Tom: And that's what we all do in life?
Joseph: Yes. Otherwise, you'd follow someone else's path, follow the well-tried ways. No one in the world was ever you before, with your particular gifts and abilities and possibilities. It's a shame to waste those by doing what someone else has done.
It appears that Campbell and Peterson would both agree that the heroic journey toward healing is a kind of questing in which the person takes responsibility, meaning making an active response to the illness in an effort to find wellness. What fascinates me about these quests is their uniqueness. No two paths to healing are the same. Each person finds his or her individual uniqueness. The well-tried ways of the biomedical model are present and available, but so many stories of healing venture far afield of what the doctors prescribes. The hero steps outside the conventional narratives about how to behave and what to choose in the face of illness.
Perhaps the art of healing is the shared construction of a heroic journey in which the afflicted person, in conjunction with helpers, undertakes a journey, often psychological, often transcendental, often deeply spiritual, and crosses into the unknown territories, enters into dialogue with adversaries (sometimes the illness, sometimes other forces, strangers, or beings), overcomes obstacles, finds a deeper state of wellbeing, which may or not be associated with various levels of curing, and returns to his or her community to share the wisdom which has been gained.
Healing may not always mean curing. We know healing has occurred when the story uplifts and inspires us, even if the patient dies. The end does eventually come for us all, anticipated by Alfred Lord Tennyson , in his poem, Ulysses, which speaks to the attitude of the hero when the adversary is illness and the threat is death:
"you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods".
Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
We are uplifted by the quest, by the heroic journey, whatever the outcome. This is the heroes in relation to illness.
1. Campbell, J., The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Peterson, J., Maps of meaning:The architecture of belief. 1999, New York, NY: Routledge.
3. Collins, T. Mythic Reflections an interview with Joseph Campbell. In Context #12 1997 1997 [cited 2016 1 September]; Available from: http://www.context.org/iclib/ic12/campbell/ .
4. Tennyson, A.L., The Charge of the Light Brigade and Other Poems. 2012, Dover: New York, NY.