In previous posts, we looked at several roles of the hero in myths: the hero as fighter, the hero as lover, the hero as emperor and as tyrant, and the hero as world redeemer. All involved the hero as master of the two worlds, the spiritual world and the material world. But for Joseph Campbell, the hero who completely rejects the material world, the saint or ascetic, is also a hero, albeit an inadequate one (at least in comparison to other types of heroes).

Relationship with the Father

The world-renouncer also has a relationship with the father, as do the other kinds of heroes.

The pattern is that of going to the father, but to the unmanifest rather than the manifest aspect….

Recall that the father is essentially the teacher who tests the hero’s readiness to connect with the Divine. The saint or ascetic skips that teacher and submits to being tested directly by the Divine, which involves annihilating the ego.

Ego here refers to the psychological concept that draws boundaries between us and others. It’s not necessarily an evil thing, but it does keep us chained to the manifest world. For the world-renouncer, there is no “I,” so he has no need for the material achievement or comforts that are so important to being in the manifest world.

Thomas Aquinas holding a building in one hand and a book in the other.

Saint Thomas Aquinas left his “Summa Theologica” unfinished when he renounced the world shortly before his death. Painting by Carlo Crivelli (15th century). In the public domain.

Limitations of World-Renouncer Myths

From the point of view of the myth, though, the saint or ascetic doesn’t give us much of a story. We do see some elements, like the childhood of the hero and the journey to the World Tree, World Axis, etc. (i.e., the place where the hero acquires spiritual knowledge), but once there, the world-renouncer doesn’t make the return. This is the difference between the Buddha remaining in nirvana and the Buddha giving up nirvana in order to travel and teach.

Campbell admits that the stories of these saints are not all that interesting (as far as myths go, anyway).

Their legends are rehearsed, but the pious sentiments and lessons of the biographies are necessarily inadequate; little better than bathos.

Bathos means a sudden change from something important to something trite, strong words from a former Catholic like Campbell. The stories of saints and ascetics are certainly useful in instilling guilt on those who could never renounce the world like that, and guilt is an excellent way to control someone.

Still, calling them trite is a bit extreme. Stories of ego-renouncement have their place in helping us focus on what’s really important in life. I expect they inspire some people, especially if they identify with a particular saint.

But Campbell was all for living a dynamic life and clearly had more respect for the hero who makes the return and teaches what he knows to others. Renouncing the world is, on some level, an act of selfishness and the easier choice, from a psychological point of view. We serve humanity better by remaining in the world and passing on our knowledge, whether it relates to a personal transformation we went through or spiritual knowledge we gained. And that means retaining, but controlling, the ego so that it supports, rather than destroys, our mission.