Sunday, April 25, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 31


Hillman's penultimate chapter deals with the question of mediocrity. The adjective "mediocre" refers to something or someone (i) of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate or (ii)rather poor or inferior. Apparently its origins goes back to 1580–90; < MF < L  where "mediocris" means literally "in a middle state" or "at middle height." Mediocrity then would seem to refer to average or middle etymologically, so the second meaning given above is obviously a much later addition, and is far more pejorative in meaning.

Reading this chapter sent me in pursuit of some quotations on the topic and here are my pickings on it: Margot Fonteyn said that "Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."  Fulton J. Sheen averred that "Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius" while  Andrew Carnegie opined that "People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents."  Still again Norman Vincent Peale pointed out that "There is a real magic in enthusiasm. It spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment." Finally, James F. Cooper emphasised  that "The tendency of democracies is, in all things, to mediocrity. "

In addition, then, we can add the ideas of pretentiousness, jealousy, lack of motivation, lack of enthusiasm and to the meaning of mediocrity as well as the fact that politics, especially democracy leads to this rather lack lustr state of being.  Indeed, psychometrics does indicate that most of us belong to that rather "central" and "mean" area under the bell curve.  The geniuses lie to the extreme right and the not so intelligent to the extreme left.  However, needless to say, this is quite a reductionist, though infinitely practical, way of looking at human ability.

However, with Hillman, we must all surely agree that:
No soul is mediocre, whatever your personal taste for conventionality, whatever your personal record of middling achievements. Common expressions make this quite clear.  A soul is said to be old, or wise, or sweet.  We speak of someone having a beautiful soul, a wounded soul, a deep soul, or one that is simple, childlike, naive.  We might say: "She's a good soul" - but terms like "middle class," "average," "usual," "regular," "mediocre" do not adhere to soul.  There are no standard benchmarks for a daimon; no usual angels, no regular genius. (The Soul's Code, p. 250)

Soulless individuals do appear in literature, but they are literally that, soul-less or without a soul.  Such characters would be Golem, the Zombie, the Robot or the existential Stranger.  In short, then, for the soul the idea of mediocrity is meaningless.

Another important distinction Hillman makes is between "talent" and "genius."  Talent or even talents are only a small part of the picture, individual traits, as it were, of the overall calling or character or genius.  It takes character to realise one's genius.  Unfortunately, then, many countless geniuses have gone unfulfilled and undiscovered to their graves.  Indeed their genius never took root.

The Call to Character:

Once again lets listen to the mellifluous prose of Dr. Hillman:
What determines eminence is less a call to greatness than the call of character, the inability to be other than what you are in the acorn, following it faithfully or being desperately driven by its dream.  The acorn theory states that each of us is singled out.  The very fact of eachness presumes, a unique acorn that characterises each person. (Ibid., p. 251)
Then, Hillman introduces a new idea for this writer, that modern feminist writings have pushed historians to recognize the validity of and the heroic nature of ordinary lives which have not achieved recognition through public acclaim. This is very interesting indeed.  I hear traces of the voice of J.F.K. here too - it's the sum total of all our efforts that pushes history along, not just the impetus of the few.


Heraclitus was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers I loved when I was at college.  This is he who said: "One cannot step into the same river twice," that is, namely "things change" and can never remain the same.  Hillman introduces us to another wonderful quote from this ancient sage, viz., "Ethos anthropoi daimon" which can be variously rendered in English as "Man's Character is his Genius," "Man's Character is his Daimon,"Man's Character is his Fate," or "Character for man is Destiny."  These are akin to Shakespeare's comment in the mouth of Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves. (Julius Caesar, I, ii, 139)


Above a cartoon picture of Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.). Quite obviously we do not know what the sage looked like!

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