The individual vs. society – Joseph Campbell, Gandhi, and JFK weigh in

I’m cleaning out my office today, throwing out old student papers and old lecture notes from courses I no longer teach. One of the files I came across was from a one-off course on mythology that I taught in the early 2000s. It was a really neat class to teach, and maybe I’ll propose teaching it again.

In any case, what caught my eye was a quote from Joseph Campbell (Wikipedia article here). It’s long, but because I’m teaching political science this summer, it caught my eye because the first line is so closely related to things we’re talking about in political science:

Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man.

Doesn’t that sound like exactly the opposite of John F. Kennedy’s famous line:

Ask not what what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.

So it got me thinking a little bit more about the relationship between the individual and the state. Here’s the entire Campbell quote on this topic. I’m pretty sure I pulled it from The Power of Myth video series of interviews with Bill Moyers. I showed a couple of those episodes to my class.

Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. . . .

Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?”  Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart.

What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine.

Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role. . . . Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system.

This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it?

It doesn’t help to try to change it [the system] to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being.

That’s something else, and it can be done.

So in some ways this boils down to that classic question of political philosophy about the social contract and what the proper relationship between the individual and the state should be. But Campbell is talking not only about “the system,” which seems to be bigger than the state (the “monster state” he mentions at the beginning of this quote?), but also about the “momentum of history.”

In other words, he seems to be saying you can’t fight City Hall, so don’t waste time trying to change the system. His penultimate statement echoes this familiar Gandhi quote:

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

BUT . . . usually people construe Gandhi’s words to mean that you should “give back” and serve society. See for example Be The Change, an organization devoted in part to achieving a mission to

Make a year of service a common expectation and opportunity for all young Americans.

Which seems the opposite of what Gandhi actually meant if you view his quote throgh the lens of Joseph Campbell’s statement. Campbell says you should learn to live in your period of history “as a human being.” Gandhi said you should “be” the change. Both men seem to be talking about the self and developing a way of existing in harmony with your truest self.

Actually, I just now tried to find out a little more about Gandhi’s quote, like the entire speech or other context it was taken from, to see if he was talking about service and giving back or not. And guess what?

Gandhi never even said that!

According to The New York Times, what Gandhi actually said was

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. . . . We need not wait to see what others do.

So Gandhi does seem to be saying something similar to what Campbell said. You can’t change the system by trying to change the system. You can only change yourself, and by changing your own nature, the system will change.

This idea of individuals focusing on themselves could be described as “selfishness.” It seems counterintuitive that the best way to contribute to society would be to put yourself first and pursue your own self-actualization.

Gandhi, of course, realized that while one individual couldn’t change the system, a large mass of many individuals can. Hence, India’s independence. But still, with the Joseph Campbell quote in mind, it seems that change comes not from the organizing and mobilizing of the masses so much as from the ripple effect of one person’s actions flowing through the medium of other people whose own states of “being” are sympathetically attuned to the same feelings and understandings. Any changes to society arise spontaneously, guided by the “invisible hand” that magically transforms an individual’s self-interested actions into benefits for society.

Political conservatives and classical liberals don’t seem able to articulate this way of thinking very well. It would be interesting to see a thinker run for national office who was capable of introducing such complex ideas into the conversation/debate about who we are and what kind of government would allow all of us to live our best-possible lives.

Or to paraphrase Campbell: to help all of us learn to live in our period of history as human beings.

Here are two other Joseph Campbell quotes I found in my files, no doubt taken from that same Bill Moyers interview series:

People say that 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 seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.

. . .

The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.

If you seek experiences that allow you to feel the “rapture” of being alive, you will in turn bring life to the world. Food for thought.

I think I’m going to take a break and make a Starbucks run so I can focus on the “rapture” of coffee. And then we’ll just see how the world changes. I’m doing my part 🙂

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Books and reading, History, Learning, Life, Political Analysis, WPLongform (posts of 1000 words or longer) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The individual vs. society – Joseph Campbell, Gandhi, and JFK weigh in

  1. I’ve always like Joseph Campbell. Just more reasons why!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That Bill Moyers interview series was really interesting. I think I’m gonna have to go dig it up from a box in the basement and watch it again. On VHS. I still have a player specifically for situations like this😂


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