Saturday, March 20, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 5

The Paradigm of the Myth of Er


As those familiar with Western philosophy will know, responsibility and right action, personal choice and conscience - that is all ethical questions - loom large within the remit of its intellectual territory.  We in Ireland are well aware of the currect moral/ethical questions with which we are faced as a nation.  These last few days have witnessed the arrest of Seán Fitzpatrick the erstwhile chief executive of the ill-fated Anglo-Irish Bank for suspected fraud and the not quite abject, but quite contrite, apology of Cardinal Seán Brady for not reporting sexual abuse to the Gardaí, but rather solely to his religious superiors 35 years ago.  Professor Gerard Casey of the UCD Department of Philosophy rightly pointed out in a TV programme on RTE 1 recently - all human organizations and systems have an in-built force to preserve themselves at all costs, and that this is a quality shared by all human organizations.  There is more to be added to that erudite and wise reflection, namely, that those who embrace any organization in all its rules and indeed actions, are often those who seek to get to the top within it.  Hence, these "system climbers" will be more than likely anything but "whistle-blowers."  They will be consciously or unconsciously system defenders, colluders and those who cover up.  And so power, self-aggrandisement and sheer egomania are often rather ignobly interwoven with downright avoidance and sheer lies to protect the besmirched institution.

The early Greeks were concerned with right action and Socrates wielded his wise method of argumentation in its pursuit.  Like the Christians would years later in the theologies of St Augustine, St Irenaeus, St Ambrose and many other theologians, Greek philosophers like Plato sought to explain how evil people often seemed to prosper while often the innocent suffered.  How could this happen at all?  And so Plato offered his readers the myth of Er to explain that if the good did not get justice in this life, they would in the next life.  Likewise if the wicked prospered and indeed lived long and comfortable lives this side of the grave, then rebirth at the far side in a lesser form of life would be the punishment.  Here we can see why later Christen theologians siezed on the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (the last mentioned to the grreatest extent) to back up their formulations and defences of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.  Whether such "places" or "states" as Heaven or Hell or Purgatory or reincarnation actually exist is beyond the scope of these thoughts here.  I merely mention this myth as myth, that is myth qua myth.  For this writer, myth is a different form of truth, but a truth nonetheless - call it an imaginative truth if you will, which is a meaning-maker and a meaning-carrier.  Hence, a literal understanding is far from my intentions.  I deal with metaphor, the world of metaphor where meaning is so wont to live.

In short, then, we may say that in order to explain his theory that the morally benevolent are rewarded after death, and that the opposite is true of immoral people, Socrates tells Glaucon the "Myth of Er". This section of The Republic is one of the first extant texts to deal with the issue of responsibility and choice in personal action, which has become a central questions of Western ethics. Be this as it may what interests me here is the use the archetypal psychologist James Hillman uses of this myth to boulster his own myth or theory of the acorn.  Somewhere in the middle of his telling of the myth of Er, Plato tells us that as the souls of the dead are reincarnated in various higher or lower forms of life. Then each reincarnated soul was assigned a deity to help them through their life. (Hillman's acorn or daimon or genius).  They then passed under the throne of Lady Necessity, and continued on to the Plain of Oblivion, where the River of Forgetfulness (River Lethe) flowed.  There each soul was required to drink some of the water, in varying quantities, apart from Er. As they drank, each soul forgot everything that had ever happened in any previous life.  Hence archetypal psychology is about helping the soul to identify and become aware of its unique destiny, its unique daimon, its unique genius, its unique self or vocation or calling in this world. 

Now, lest all this appear very esoteric, or more like the visions the likes of a Timothy Leary or other similar or even dissimilar pot-head would have aften smoking a joint, I hasten to remind the reader that we are here dealing with myth, with the very nature of mythology, with truth of a different order, but truth nonetheless.  We are dealing here with the truth of the imagination, the truth of the soul, the truth of the identity of the self, with psychological truth which is of a different order entirely.  When the rather tiresome debates of religion versus science or science versus religion rehash themselves again and again rather boringly, one can only lament that a lack of understanding of the psychology of religion must surely be a great cause of this sad intellectual irritant.

A picture from the map room in the Vatican Museum.  Sardinia, I think. I took this photo in February 2010.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 4

Hillman's opening sentence in his extraordinary book The Soul's Code is a truism to say the least: "There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow." (p. 3)  One cannot but agree with him, and see that there is much in this sentiment that agrees with the more existentialist approch to psychotherapy which we have discussed in these pages a while back.  He launches into his myth of the acorn immediately.  Those of us brought up as Roman Catholics have always been taught that each of us has a vocation or calling in life.  Obviously priesthood, religious life, nursing and teaching were traditionally seen to be the real vocations in life - in other words these professions were more than mere jobs, they were sheer commitments to a way of life and a way of being.

Now, here in a non-religious but very spiritual sense we have a psychologist/philosopher proposing his own unique sui generis take on what vocation is through the myth of the acorn.  This book is all about this sense of fate in the sense of a calling, what each of us is uniquely cut out to be.  He proposes his theory of the acorn as "the redemption of psychology" which is a grand proposal to say the least. 

Hillman makes the interesting point that we are "less damaged by the trauma of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood." (Ibid., p. 4)  He suggests we can repair all the damage caused by this faulty remembering by learning to become aware of what our real nature is, what our real calling is.

Terms Hillman uses for is sense of Calling:

Rather than summarising the chapter I'll bullet the terms he uses for his myth of the acorn in the first chapter.  We are born with each of the following:
  • sense of fate (p. 3)
  • calling (p. 3)
  • vocation (p. 3)
  • destiny and meaning (p. 4)
  • acorn (passim)
  • destiny is written into the acorn (p. 5)
  • the plot of one's story (p. 5)
  • more than nature (genes) and nurture (rearing) - it's about myth and mystery  (p. 6)
  • character (p. 6)
  • innate image (p. 6)
  • "I don't develop, I am" - Picasso (p. 7)
  • Plato's myth of Er, the soul is companion = the daimon (p. 8)
  • daimon (Gk) = genius (Latin) = guardian angel (Christian) = genie = jinn (p. 9)
  • a call that comes from the heart - English Romantic poets, especially Keats.  (p. 9)
  • Neoplatonists referred to an imaginal body, the ochema, which carried you like a vehicle. (p. 9)
  • Lady Luck or Fortuna (p. 9)
  • Egypt, it was the ka or ba with whom one could converse. (p. 9)
  • For the Eskimos, and others who follow Shamanistic practices, it is your spirit, your free-soul, your animal-soul or your breath-soul.  (p. 9)
  • Ethnologist Ake Hultkrantz: "the soul originates in an image," and is "conceived in the form of an image." (Quoted, ibid., p. 9)
  • Spark of uniqueness = inspiration (p. 11)
  • Guiding providence (p. 12)
  • motivation = "the oakness of the acorn." (p. 27)
  • A genius belongs to everyone (p. 29)
  • enchantement = romantic enthusiasm = imagination and poetry and story (p. 32)
  • importance of beauty (p. 35)
  • beauty redeems psychology (p. 37)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 3

James Hillman is a most unique psychologist whom the American journalism Scott London in an interview, reproduced in his blog, describes thus:

James Hillman has been described variously as a maverick psychologist, a visionary, a crank, an old wizard, and a latter-day philosopher king. Poet Robert Bly once called him "the most lively and original psychologist we've had in America since William James." (See Scott London's blog)
He is also the founder of the school of psychology called archetypal psychology which takes its prevenance from the Analytical Psychology of Jung, of whom James Hillman is an important follower and interpreter.  Archetypal psychology is a polytheistic psychology, in that it attempts to recognize the myriad fantasies and myths (gods, goddesses, demigods, mortals and animals) that shape and are shaped by our psychological lives.  While Hillman's psychology is part of the Jungian tradition and related to Jung's original Analytical Psychology, it also makes a radical departure from it in some respects, a major one being the fact that Hillman has little time for the concept of the ego.

However, at this stage I must say some words about mythology and its role with which Freudian as well as Jungian approaches to therapy are replete.  The same is the case for the Hillmanian approach.  There are many theories as to why myths grew up in ancient societies, and, indeed, why they insist on persisting in modern society.  Myths, no matter to what society or culture they belong, serve as meaning-makers.  They give meaning to the lives of human animals at certain stages in their growth as civilizations.  As meaning-makers and meaning-bearers, I believe that myths carry great social and psychological importance.  Carried in myths, we find the whole gamut of human emotions from love and loyalty through envy, jealousy, betrayal all the way across to hatred.  Hence, they are bearers of our very identities, of our struggles as a community or culture or society to grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.  Jung, following along from the work of Sigmund Freud, saw that dreams truly were "the royal road to the unconscious," and that furthermore our dreams carried within them common symbols or important archetypes which were common to all cultures and societies.

Needless to say, our man Hillman is a "dedicated follower" of myth and of its social and psychological truths.  These posts were inspired by his uniquely important book The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Bantam, 1997.  In that book he expounded his very own mythic understanding of the Soul.  This is what he calls his "acorn myth,"  going back to Platonic roots which suggests that we come into the world with a destiny, although Plato uses the word paradigma, or paradigm, instead of destiny. The acorn theory says that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul.

Plato and the Greeks called this image the "daimon".  The Romans called it "genius," the Christian churches "Guardian Angel" while today we use more abstract terms like "heart," "spirit" and "soul."  This reality, call it what you will, is central to James Hillman's theory or myth of the acorn.  This myth proposes that each life is formed by a particular image, an image that is the very essence of that life and calls it to a destiny, just as the mighty oak's destiny is written in the tiny acorn.

Above, another photo I took nei Musei Vaticani.  Egyptian again!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 2

Hillman was born on April 12, 1926, in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  He identifies himself as Jewish and European in ancestry. Some personally interesting facts for this writer is New Jersey where many of my relatives live, and the fact that he graduated from Trinity College Dublin, the oldest university in Ireland, in 1950. He also had some army service, which is always enriching for anyone as war experience does tend to focus one's mind on the essentials. In this respect, he served in the US Navy Hospital Corps from 1944–1946.  As well as studying in TCD, Dublin he also studied at the Sorbonne, Paris.  Then, to round off this international education he received his PhD from the University of Zurich in 1959, as well as his analyst's diploma from the C.G. Jung Institute in the same year.  Some time later he was appointed as Director of Studies at the institute, a position he held until 1969. Throughout all this time, and right up until the present, the subject of his study has essentially been Archetypal Psychology.  However, he is also well known for publishing books on mythology, philosophy and art.

Most of my remarks in these pages will be focussed on his 1997 book, The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, which was on the The New York Times Best Seller List that year. I see by my inscription on this book that I first read it back in February 1998. His works and ideas about philosophy and psychology have also been popularized by other authors such as Thomas Moore.


This is a term that is often too easily used, and abused indeed.  It is used so often  and across such a wide range of denotations and connotations that, like such kindred terms as "heart" and "love," its meaning has become very elusive indeed.  People use it in everyday language, while theologians and religions of various hues use it in a far more particular and precise way, while psychologists and followers of the various New Age movements and therapies use it in a more flexible and fuzzy way.

First, let me look at how the term is used in common parlance.  We often use the sentence "such and such is soul-destroying work" quite frequently to indicate any work that is dispiriting, that deflates our enthusiasm, that leaves us flat and bored, and, in the extreme case, leaves us depressed and despairing.  Or again we hear such a saying such as "X is the life and soul of the party."  We know immediately what kind of person X is - he or she is lively, fun to be with, enlivening and uplifting to all the company about them.  So soul is something greater, something overarching as it were, something which shares in the "sense of more-ness" to which I referred in the immediately previous post.

In Roman mythology, Psyche was a mortal being renowned for her utter beauty, so much so that Venus (known to the Greeks as Aphrodite, the goddess of love) sent her son Cupid (known to the Greeks as Eros) to shoot one of his golden arrows into her before she would awake so that she would fall in love with an ugly suitor  which Venus would have purposely placed nearby.   However, things go awry and Cupid ends up falling in love with this woman of infinite beauty.  To cut a rather long and tortuous story short, Cupid eventually flies to Mount Olympus and begs Jupiter (Zeus) to help them. Jupiter calls a full and formal council of the gods and declares that it is his will that Cupid marry Psyche. Jupiter then has Psyche fetched to Mount Olympus, and gives her a drink made from ambrosia, granting her immortality. Begrudgingly, Venus and Psyche forgive each other. Psyche and Cupid have a daughter, called Voluptas or Delight, the goddess of "sensual pleasures", whose Latin name means "pleasure" or "bliss".

Interestingly, Greek mythology saw Psyche as the deification of the human soul. She was portrayed in ancient mosaics as a goddess with butterfly wings.   Indeed, there is a butterfly in India named after her.  The Greek word psyche literally means "spirit, breath, life or animating force".  It is no wonder, then, that when we desribe the soul in common parlance we mean such an animating force as I have described above.

In like manner, the Greek myth, on which the Roman was based, is very much similar to its Italian counterpart.  It offers the additional detail that Psyche was originally the youngest daughter of the king and queen of Sicily, and the most beautiful person on the island.

It is also interesting to note that the story of Cupid and Psyche is part of The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses, a Latin novel, which is the only extant Roman novel we have also, by Apuleius (second century A.D.). It is both a charming fairytale and an allegory of the search of the Soul for happiness and fulfillment.

In psychoanalysis and other forms of depth psychology, the psyche refers to the forces in an individual that influence his/her thought, behavior and personality.  The word is borrowed from ancient Greek, and refers to the concept of the self, encompassing the modern ideas of soul, self, and mind. The Greeks believed that the soul or "psyche" was responsible for behaviour and it was represented almost always by the butterfly.  I remember once reading some theological article which referred to the butterfly as being a symbol of immortality and resurrection - no wonder, after all theology owes a lot to Greek philosophy.

However, Carl Gustave Jung does differentiate between psyche and soul where the former word psyche refers to the totality of all psychic forces totality or processes, conscious as well as unconscious.  Soul, on the other hand, as used in the technical terminology of analytical psychology, is more restricted in meaning and refers to a "function complex" or partial personality and never to the whole psyche. It is often applied specifically to "anima" and "animus," e.g., in this connection, it is used in the composite word "soul-image."

Also, it is important to note the following disambiguation from the meaning of the term soul in Christian theology. This conception of the soul as outlined in the above paragraph is more primitive than the Christian one with which the reader of this blog is more likely to be more familiar. In its Christian context soul refers to "the transcendental energy in man" and "the spiritual part of man considered in its moral aspect or in relation to God."  (Jung, 1968: note 2 par. 9)

To be continued.

Above a picture of Leptosia Nina, more commonly known as the Psyche butterfly.

In the footsteps of James Hillman 1

Over the years certain philosophers, psychologists or psychiatrists have grabbed my attention and they have been discussed widely in these posts. In the world of psychiatry Freud, Jung, Laing and Storr have long been favourites. In the area of philosophy I have long been enthralled by Nietzsche (late nineteenth century) and the existentialist school (middle twentieth century) in general. In the psychological/psychotherapeutic world I have read and studied the books and therapies of the likes of Carl Ransom Rogers, Rollo May, Erich Fromm and more recently Irvin D. Yalom. But there is still another psychologist, quite unorthodox, but in the Jungian tradition whom I admire and with whom I am quite fascinated, namely, James Hillman. 

Hillman (born 1926) is an American psychologist. He studied at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, developed archetypal psychology and is now retired as a private practitioner. So in the next few posts I will try to present a brief taster of his theories. As just indicated his big thing is the notion of archetype and what he terms archetypal psychology. Now, instead of diving straight into this rather intricate psychological approach let me start in an unusual way, attack from the side as it were, rather than head on, which would bring about too much intellectual bloodshed for this author. I will start with a well-known piece of wisdom which will form the heading of the next paragraph.

The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

I rememeber hearing this piece of wisdom many years ago when I was a young student.  It was our lecturer in education, Sr. Marcellina Ó'Sullivan who mentioned this as a throw-away remark.  However, I have often found in life that it is the throw-away remarks that remain with me rather than the substance of the lectures.  This struck me as a young man of twenty as being a wonderfully rich insight.  Just think for a minute what a weighty piece of wisdom this is.  Let's take a few simple examples.  Take any set of words which we place randomly together.  Each can be defined, or the object or concept represented by them imagined by the hearer.  Now, say, we shape these words into a meaningful sentence, and we have something more than the sum of the meaning of all 7 random words.  We now have a sentence with an overarching meaning which indeed is greater than the sum of its parts.  Likewise take the concept of any random thing like chair, table, tree, flower or whatever and we find that truly the whole concept or object is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.  What is this thrust to "more" or thrust to "the greater" called.  The answer is that it is a reality represented by the strange word "synergy."  This concept/reality is defined as 'the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects' (New Oxford Dictionary of English).

Another Interesting Word: Syzygy

In psychology, Carl Jung used the term "syzygy" to denote an archetypal pairing of contrasexual opposites, which symbolized the communication of the conscious and unconscious minds: the conjunction of two organisms without the loss of identity. Examples include deities of Life and Death or of Sun and Moon, which are frequently depicted as male and female, and having a mutually opposing and mutually dependent relationship.  This word, too, brings with it a sense of this "moreness" in the essential nature of things, both animate and inanimate.

In the end, I believe, that archetypal psychology is a pursuit of whatever this "moreness" to the essential and real nature of the human person is.

Above, yet another picture which I took nei Musei Vaticani, Febbraio, 2010