Joseph Campbell

"If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor."

Joseph Campbell’s Metaphors and their Application to Global Crises.

Renowned American mythologist, writer, and orator, Joseph Campbell, once said, "If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor." This transformative quote from this influential figure summarizes the approach he took towards life. As the author of ’The Power of Myth’, there is undeniablly a profound depth to Campbell’s worldview. His ideas continue to hold relevancy in modern times, providing insights that can help address several global crises, such as climate change, war, poverty, hunger, and human rights violations.

To understand Campbell’s quote in its entirety, one must first understand his philosophy regarding metaphors as a core component of myths. For Campbell, myths were not just stories but symbols or "metaphors of life" that transcended the literal and pointed towards a profound universal truth. He believed these narratives were capable of directing societies, creating belief systems and defining humanity’s understanding of themselves and the world. Consequently, if we alter the metaphor, the story shifts, leading to a change in perception, collective consciousness, and the physical reality we inhabit.

In the context of climate change, for instance, our dominant metaphors and narratives have deeply influenced our relationship with our environment. The prevailing metaphor of the Earth as a machine or resource to be exploited for endless economic growth has propelled us along a destructive path. Campbell would likely argue for a metamorphosis of this metaphor, replacing it with one that regards the Earth not as an inert object to be used, but a living entity to be respected, cared for and understood through a symbiotic relationship. This becomes a new narrative, a 'myth' that guides and inspires both action and empathy towards our environment.

When it comes to war, Campbell may invoke his analysis of the 'Hero's Journey,' a narrative archetype discovered in countless cultures' myths. This universal journey speaks to a cycle of discord, struggle, growth and reconciliation. It is, in essence, a campaign for inner peace projected onto the external world. If we adopted the metaphor of war as a personal internal conflict, then instead of engaging in violent confrontation against others, we might strive to resolve our own antagonisms, fears and insecurities.

On poverty and hunger, he might emphasize the need to shift from a metaphor of scarcity to one of abundance. Our current narrative idolizes wealth and success, often breeding competition, disconnection, and an uneven distribution of resources. Campbell would promote a metaphor that extols generosity, community, sharing and interconnectedness. Such a story would not only question the inevitability of poverty but also motivate solutions that tackle hunger and economic disparity at their roots.

In regard to human rights, he would likely suggest a metaphor alteration from one of hierarchy and division to one of unity and inherent value. As a scholar of mythology, Campbell recognized the repeated theme of interconnectedness and the shared spirit or consciousness beneath physical forms and differences. This reframing could promote a society where every individual is valued and human rights are universally upheld.

Campbell's guidance on what one should refrain from doing is clear: do not cling to old, harmful metaphors. The metaphors we hold on to shape the boundaries of our thinking and influence our actions. Persisting with paradigms that no longer serve us, or worse, cause harm, is a path towards stagnation and destruction.

In essence, Campbell invites us to relearn the language of metaphors, challenging us as individuals or a collective to change our narratives for a better world. His wisdom continually emphasizes the power inherent in the stories we tell about ourselves, each other, and our world. He encourages us to harness this power, establish new myths, new metaphors that honor our human potential, and respect our planet's capacity.

Campbell’s thought-provoking perspective sees metaphors as the cornerstone in shaping human thoughts, actions, and subsequently, the world. His ideology challenges us to question the metaphors that underpin our perception of various global crisis and advocates for a paradigm shift that is likely to initiate significant societal transformation. Though Campbell’s approach may seem abstract, it might be the innovative solutions our world needs to confront its seemingly insurmountable problems. 


Worldviews, in essence, constitute the philosophical lens through which we perceive and interpret our world. They are built upon our beliefs, values, experiences and assumptions about reality. Essentially, worldviews guide our understanding of our existence, shape our thoughts, actions, and attitudes, and silently govern the decisions we make.

Joseph Campbell, with his expansive understanding of mythology, would argue that at the heart of each worldview lies a dominant myth or metaphor. This metaphor provides the narrative structure that anchors a particular worldview, dictating what is seen as important, meaningful, or real within that perspective.

According to Campbell, these myths or metaphors are vital in defining the cultural and societal norms, shaping collective consciousness, and influencing the trajectory of a given society. Therefore, he would suggest that the worldviews we adopt as we move forward as humanity will profoundly influence our future path.

Campbell's theory of the ‘Hero’s Journey’, for instance, is an insightful demonstration of how a metaphor can shape a worldview. The metaphor of the journey signifies the universal human experience of growth and transformation through trials and tribulations. When this metaphor lays the foundation of a worldview, it influences how individuals perceive and respond to challenges, fostering resilience, personal growth, and a spirit of exploration.

In Campbell’s perspective, changing our worldviews begins by revising the metaphors that furnish their foundation. By altering the dominant metaphors of our time, we could consequently shift our worldviews in a direction that is harmonious with global unity, environmental sustainability, socio-economic justice, and overall human progress.

For instance, if we transition from viewing the Earth as a pool of resources ready for extraction to seeing it as a living entity that requires our care and respect, we’d adopt a worldview that prioritizes sustainability and environmental conservation. In case of socio-economic disparities, replacing the metaphor of scarcity with one of abundance could result in a worldview that emphasizes equity, shared prosperity, and collective well-being.

Campbell leaves us with the important realization that the narratives we tell ourselves shape not just our individual lives, but also the world around us. By consciously choosing our metaphors, we can mold our worldviews to enable a more inclusive, harmonious, and sustainable future. In this transformative process, Campbell might have seen the greatest adventure of all, the fundamental ‘Hero’s Journey’ for humanity as a whole.

What about the Middle East?

While Joseph Campbell himself did not address specific geopolitical conflicts, his philosophies and teachings provide a platform upon which we could contemplate possible solutions to the long-standing strife in the Middle East, such as the Gaza-Israeli conflict.

Campbell often emphasized that changing the metaphor underpinning human conflicts is key to their resolution. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the prevailing metaphors is that of "us versus them," which fortifies a dichotomy between the two communities and entrenches resentment and hostility.

To shift toward peace, Campbell might suggest altering this antagonistic metaphor to one that highlights commonality and interdependence. An alternative metaphor could be the 'Shared Homeland,' emphasizing that Israel-Palestine is a shared space, steeped in the same historical grandeur, and home to both peoples. This shift could foster a sense of mutual respect and shared guardianship over the land, encouraging cooperation rather than confrontation.

Furthermore, applying Campbell's 'Hero's Journey' in this context reveals that both Israelis and Palestinians have been on an arduous journey marred by trials and tribulations. Recognizing the other's suffering and acknowledging their journey toward a peaceful homeland will be pivotal in paving the pathway towards change.

It is important to recognize, however, that changing metaphors is not a panacea for complex geopolitical disputes. This process must be accompanied by actionable steps to address underlying issues like territorial rights, refugees' rights, and recognition of each other's sovereignty. The international community's engagement and impartial mediation could be crucial to ensure that such a change is not merely cosmetic.

In essence, fostering a shared narrative that celebrates commonalities and mutual respect, guided by inclusive metaphors, could fundamentally shift perspectives and approaches to this conflict. While Campbell's ideas may not provide a comprehensive solution, they represent a conceptual starting point towards understanding and mitigating such a multi-faceted issue.

One Earth One Chance

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