The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life

The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life

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by James Hillman

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In his bestselling The Soul's Code, James Hillman restored passion and meaning to the concept of identity, arguing that each of us is born with an innate character, the "daimon" or "spirit" that calls us to what we are meant to be. Now, in The Force of Character, Hillman brings the idea of character full circle, offering a revolutionary new


In his bestselling The Soul's Code, James Hillman restored passion and meaning to the concept of identity, arguing that each of us is born with an innate character, the "daimon" or "spirit" that calls us to what we are meant to be. Now, in The Force of Character, Hillman brings the idea of character full circle, offering a revolutionary new vision of life's most feared and misunderstood chapter: old age.

"Aging is no accident," Hillman writes. "It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul." We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures emerge. Thus the final years have a very important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one's character.

Contrary to the current genetic determinism that sees increased longevity as a wasted aberrance created by civilization, The Force of Character presents an explosive new thesis: The changes of old age, even the debilitating ones, have purposes and values organized by the psyche. Memory for recent events may falter, offering more place for long-term recollections. A heart condition in later life brings an opportunity to remove blockages from constricted relationships, while changes in sleep patterns allow the old to experience the profound elements of nighttime that we usually overlook. As Hillman says, "Aging makes metaphors of biology."

In this empowering and original work, James Hillman resurrects the ancient, widespread, and socially effective idea of the old person as "ancestor," a model for the young, the bearer of a society's cultural memory and traditions. Americadisregards old people who aren't young-acting and young-looking. We don't realize that "oldness" is an archetypal state of being that can add value and luster to things we treasure, places we revere, and people's character. When we open our imaginations to the idea of the ancestor, aging can free us from convention and transform us into a force of nature, releasing our deepest beliefs for the benefit of society. For all who read it, The Force of Character will be a seminal, life-affirming experience.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Our culture treats aging like a disease to be cured, but in this provocative volume, iconoclastic psychologist Hillman, former director of the Jung Institute, describes aging as the process through which character reveals itself. Extending a theory he introduced in his bestselling The Soul's Code, Hillman describes character as a force that shapes our genetic inheritance and all our traits, including seeming irrelevancies, into a unique whole. Applying ancient thought in a galvanizing way, Hillman draws on Plato and Aristotle to develop the idea that there is a form or a paradigm that makes each of us a recognizable individual through all the changes we go through in our lives. While modern psychology, he contends, strains out seemingly subjective qualities like modesty or bravery or timidity, favoring abstractions like "ego" and generalizing profiles, Hillman argues that such qualities are "the ultimate infrastructure" of a body and a life. He describes how the aging tend to shift from a focus on maintaining the health of the body to one on what is important for character. "In later years," he writes, "feelings of altruism and kindness to strangers play a larger role, as if psychological and cultural factors redirect, even override, genetic inheritance and its aim of propagation." Hillman maintains that the debilities of age allow us to better savor the irreducible complexities of character. He also describes a sweetening and softening of the old, including the adoption of concerns of charity over profit. Many of the views here may strike readers as romantic. Still, as always, Hillman breathes new life into a venerable concept, and in so doing helps us to rediscover the soulful possibilities of aging. Author tour; simultaneous audio. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Hillman, scholar, lecturer, psychologist, and author of more than 20 books, delves into the human condition of gerontology in his latest offering. He maintains that aging is no accident and analyzes the many facets of human character as they relate to age. His thesis examines how by living longer and becoming older we ultimately allow our true natures, or character, to emerge. Aging, according to Hillman, frees the human spirit and transforms each individual into a force of nature that releases a person s true potential. Also espoused is the belief that physical changes, even debilitating ones, brought on by this stage of life have purpose. A heart condition, memory loss, and even changes in sleep patterns allow the individual further experiences for growth that would be unattainable in any other way. Hard to plow through for the uninitiated, this is a worthwhile listen nonetheless; recommended. Marty D. Evensvold, Arkansas City P.L., KS Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Jungian analyst Hillman applies the concept of identity he developed in to old age. Aging is no accident, he says, nor is old age a result of genes or modern medicine. He argues rather, that character requires the additional years or decades after fertility in order to be confirmed and fulfilled. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
The latest book from James Hillman, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, is a fascinating text that is both insightful and richly imaginative. As always, Hillman's writing is deeply subjective and poetically crafted. A text best read slow, The Force of Character delivers the goods by patiently unraveling the complex psychological motivations that inhabit the psyche of the elderly. Though the gods of old may have taken a back seat in the twentieth century, silenced by the Western model of biology and economics, James Hillman breathes life back into the archetypes. He makes a strong argument for a more imaginative study of old age, a study that encourages a collective acceptance of eccentricity and archetypal living. Contrary to genetic determinism that sees increased longevity as a tired deviation, Hillman describes old age as "ripeness," as a moment in time when we become experienced enough to appreciate the multiplicity of characters that inhabit the human psyche. "Aging is no accident," Hillman writes. "It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul." We become more characteristic of who we are simply by lasting into later years; the older we become, the more our true natures appear. Thus the final years have an important purpose: the fulfillment and confirmation of one's character. The Force of Character reveals much about the author's subjectivity: all quirk and intelligence. Only a craftsman of Hillman's caliber could create such a marvelously readable book out of material that many of us, unfortunately, struggle all our lives to avoid. Aging is Hillman's great opus and The Force of Character is a glimpse into the mind of a man whose organic understanding of life is deeply rooted in compassion. What makes this book so compelling is not that it offers readers a sugar-sweet vision of the end of life--on the contrary, Hillman revels in the pain, the loneliness, the countless ailments and inevitable incontinence that comes as our bodies fail. What makes the book a success is how the author, navigating his own rite of passage, pioneers forward and leads us toward an active appreciation of the aged mind's ability to transform us. Hillman's work goes a long way toward undermining the shame that our speed-conscious western culture projects onto the elderly. It investigates opportunities that await our elders even after their bodies break down and attempts to show how the authentic inside all of us can emerge and flower late in life. There is much that our collective culture can learn from the Hillman's writing as he presents an alternative that does not fit in with the narrow typecasting our cast-away society imposes upon its seniors. Should society embrace such a imaginative and mythological world view, we would be on the road toward a culture where misguided expectations would gradually disappear and the aging would be honored as the divine spirit of living history and poetic understanding.
Parabola Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
The coming "age wave" has a new champion in Hillman, who investigates the brighter side of growing old. Although he has written or edited over two dozen books, psychologist Hillman made his splash in 1996 with The Soul's Code, in which he argued in almost fatalistic fashion that individual destiny is shaped by a soul's "daimon." Whatever. Here, he seems to qualify that predetermination by exploring how human character is only gradually developed/revealed, largely as we age. Like a fine wine or cheese, people become more "in character" as life progresses. Part one looks at "Lasting," the natural human effort to stay young and hang on to this life, the only one we know. He seeks to "decouple death from aging," challenging the prevailing view that we are only marching closer to death with each passing year. There are some fine insights here, such as when he notes that, until this century, death was associated with being young (dying in childbirth or on the battlefield, for example), not being old. He also embraces the elderly's reputed fear of the young as an important and instinctive self-defense mechanism. Older people should preserve their deeper, wiser character by keeping "youthful attitudes at arm's length." Part two examines "Leaving," and is perhaps the meat of the book. With an optimism that borders on Pollyanna's "Glad Game," Hillman takes on a dozen common complaints of aging and shows how they can help develop true character (e.g., impotence improves the erotic imagination and sexual fantasy; the irritating loss of short-term memory only helps to emphasize truly significant memories of pivotal life events). The final section, "Left," experiments with a refreshingconcept: how to remain fully in this life while we are also leaving it. "Can we imagine both going and staying?" he asks. Some fresh and useful approaches, but the second part's relentless sanguinity may alienate some who are aging painfully. (Book-of-the-Month Club selection; author tour)

From the Publisher
"Marvelous . . . For a book about longevity, The Force of Character is just about perfect, not only for the wisdom of its content but also for its tone and pace."
—San Francisco Chronicle

"This is a book that will comfort someone afraid of getting old. Its gentle messages shine through."
—Los Angeles Times

"Provocative . . . Hillman breathes new life into a venerable concept, and in so doing helps us to rediscover the soulful possibilities of aging."
—Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Random House Large Print
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Large Print
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6.09(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.01(d)

Read an Excerpt

Longevity Moving, and being himself, Slow, and unquestioned, And inordinately there, O stoic!—D. H. Lawrence, "Tortoise Family Connections"

In our competitive societies, "lasting" has come to mean outlasting. "I've outlived my father and both grandfathers!" "According to my doctor, I should have been dead three years ago." "My insurance company is losing money on me. I've beat my pension plan and cashed in on Social Security, far more than I ever put in." Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, because my life has outlasted the expectancy curve.

Not only have I defeated my genetic inheritance, my childhood schoolmates, and the actuaries, I've held off death itself. Life: a contest with all others and with death, so that living longer becomes a victory, repeating each year on my birthday that famous passage from St. Paul: "Death is swallowed up in victory.... O death, where is thy sting?"

Our experience of aging is so embedded in numbers of years left to live, as given by longevity tables, that we can hardly believe that for centuries late years were associated not with dying but with vitality and character. The old were not mainly thought of as limping toward death's door, but were regarded as stable depositories of customs and legends, guardians of
local values, experts in skills and crafts, and valued voices in communal council. What mattered was force of character proven by length of years. Mortality was associated with youth: stillbirth and death in infancy; battle wounds, duels, robberies, executions, and piracy; the occupational hazards of farming, mining, fishing, and of childbirth; family feuds and jealous rages; epidemicsand plagues that carried off populations in the prime of life. Cemeteries were dotted with the short graves of children.

The intimate coupling of longevity and mortality, that link which monogamously marries the archetype of old with the idea of death, takes hold of our minds only in the nineteenth century, with the advance of demographics. In France, positivist philosophy promoted the statistical study of populations, which moved death from the realm of the private and spiritual to that of sociology, politics, and medicine. The statistics on life span gave evidence of a falling death rate, which was read
to indicate the progress of civilization. Society as a whole could prove its improvement by advancing longevity figures, and longevity could be advanced by new medical methods (vaccination, pasteurization, sterilization) and programs of public health (potable water; sewage treatment; ventilation).

Demographics took an even firmer grip when Emile Durkheim, one of the fathers of sociology, analyzed suicide statistics, showing that each district in France had a suicide rate that hardly varied from decade to decade. A predictable number of people in any given district could be expected to commit suicide in the coming year. When the incidence of suicide dissolves into the sociology of class, occupation, heredity, religion, age, and so on, then the act of suicide becomes a fact of sociology quite apart from the psychology of the individual who commits it. The statistical fact becomes a societal force, dooming a definite percentage in each district to die by their own hands. Data become destiny.

The life expectancy curve carries a force of its own. If you place yourself on it as a female teenager, say, you may have a life expectancy of at least seventy. At sixty, you find your expected longevity has risen; it may now be seventy-eight, or more. Once you arrive there, the statistical tables may place your life term at eighty-six. And so on. Even if you reach one hundred, actuarial statisticians speak of the "conditional probability" that there are a few more months or years ahead. Statistics con-
firm that the longer you last, the longer you will last, so that with each day of aging you may expect another day on the "actuarial curve to infinity." The curve cannot predict when your longevity will end; instead, it seems to bear you interminably forward. Rather than carrying you toward death and revealing the bare fact of your mortality, the curve functions as a statistical annunciation of immortality!

If "lasting" means more than outlasting statistical expectations, then what is it that lasts? What is the "it" that persists and endures? What could possibly last through all the events of a long life, remaining constant from start to finish? Neither our bodies nor our minds stay the same; they cannot avoid change. What does seem to hold true all along and to the end is an enduring psychological component that marks you as a being different from all others: your individual character. That same you.

But what does "same" mean? I have changed so much and am so different, and yet despite all changes something continues to assure me of being the same. I could lose my social identity, my physical configuration, and my personal history, yet something will remain the same, outlasting these radical vicissitudes. This book maintains that the idea of character provides this lasting core.

If sameness is the philosopher's term for what we experience as our character, we will have to discover more about this deep principle "sameness"—what it is and how it works. No small job, since philosophers have been thinking about sameness ever since Plato made the Same and the Different two of the most basic ideas to enter into the existence of things, form our thinking about them, and even make them possible.1

Philosophers play with the riddle of sameness. Take, for instance, your favorite pair of wool socks. You get a hole in a heel and darn it. Then you get a hole in the big toe—and you darn that, too. Soon the darned holes are more of the sock than the original wool. Eventually, the whole darned sock is made of different wool. Yet it's the same sock. In relation to its looks and in relation to its partner on your other foot, it is still the same sock. They go out together and lie together in the drawer; and even in relation to itself, its identity, it is the same sock, though it is different.

Here philosophers can apply Plato's archetypal ideas of Sameness and Difference. The sock is entirely different from the original as far as the wool goes, but its shape has remained the same. It never becomes a different sock, despite the radical material alteration. Its material is different; its form is the same.

By "form," philosophers mean the look of the sock, by which you recognize it as a sock. (Tube socks raise conceptual problems!) When can a sock not look like a sock and still be a sock? Philosophers also mean by "form" the sock's function as a match to its partner and to your foot (form following function). A third meaning interests us most: form as the active principle governing the way the new wool integrates into the old sock. Form is thus visible shape, and the shaping force of the visible. Do you see that we are getting closer to the notion of character?

A human body is like that sock, sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. Not one square inch of visible skin, not one palpable ounce of bone is the same, yet you are not someone different. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself. The idea of DNAseems too tight to hold the psychic dimensions of our unique image. To embrace our complexity we need a larger idea.

Some Greek philosophers and thinkers of the medieval church attributed this consistency in the midst of alteration to the idea of form. Some further claimed that form individualizes. What causes each person and each thing to be different from other persons and things is the active force of form. No two forms can be alike. We are each maintained in our specific individual image by the principle of form. To use one of William James's suggestive terms, we are each an "each." As "each"es, we are unique because each of us has, or is, a specific character that stays the same.

It is most important here to grasp that we are unique qualitatively. You have your style, your history, a set of traits, and a destiny. You are essentially different from me by virtue of the lasting sameness of each of our individualized characters.
If the difference between you and all others were defined by physics, logic, politics, economics, and law, we would each be a numerical "one" without any necessary characteristics. The law says, "All are equal under the law"; politics says, "One person, one vote"; physics says, "No two bodies can occupy the same place at the same time"; economics puts all eaches into categories—consumers, workers, owners, employers. When each one is interchangeable with any other one, individuality requires nothing more than a different ID number. Since uniqueness depends on the qualitative differences forming the consistent sameness of your individuality, the idea of character is necessary to keep us different from one another, and the same as ourselves.

Let's go back to the sock. If what outlasts the wool is the form, then a preoccupation with physical decay—with where the sock is wearing thin—misses a crucial point. Sure, the sock is showing holes, and stitching up its weak places keeps it functional. But our minds might more profitably be thinking about the mystery of this formal principle that endures through material substitutions. Surely the lasting strength of character counts as much as the durability of wool.

Sometimes the stitchings and darnings don't take. Medicine watches carefully for rejection after transfusions, organ transplants, and bone grafts. The formal principle that guarantees sameness despite the introduction of exotic material is named by medicine the immune system. This system accepts or rejects replacements in accord with its own innate code. The new materials must be integrated into the integrity of the person. Or, as they might have said in church debates nine hundred years ago, the material must be accommodated to the form. It must fit my innate image. The new part—kidney, hip, or knee—must become my knee. The new wool must become me.

What converts this "it" into "me"?

Modern psychology, regardless of school, understands the assimilation of events into a "me" to be a function of character. The schools of psychology use other words for character, such as "personality," "ego," "self," "behavioral organization," "integrative structure," "identity," "temperament." These substitute terms fail to characterize the styles of assimilation that are the hallmarks of individuality. We each respond to the world differently, handling our lives in a particular style. The word "character" implies a bundle of traits and qualities, habits and patterns; it requires descriptive language such as we find in character references, letters of recommendation, primary school report cards, scripts and novels, performance criticism, obituaries. "Ego," "self," "identity" are bare abstractions, telling us nothing of the human being they supposedly inhabit and govern. At best, these words refer to the unifying sameness of people while neglecting their unique differences.

It is refreshing to discover that some of the oldest and most basic ideas of philosophy—Same and Different, Form and Matter—are actually at work in our daily lives, even in our bodies. I find it a delight that these old-fashioned woolly principles are immediately practical and can be discussed as bodily facts. Why must we be exhorted to build character and strengthen character when character is already a given, the staying power that keeps us who we are and holds our bodies to their form? Imagine the body as an ancient philosopher, the body as a place of wisdom—an idea already announced in the book titles of two medical specialists, Walter Cannon and Sherwin Nuland.

Cannon in the 1930s and Nuland in the 1990s both say the body's physiology knows what it is doing. There is a wisdom at work. The idea of character makes more understandable this governing wisdom. Moreover, if we regard character as more than a collection of traits or an accumulation of habits, virtues, and vices, but rather as an active force, then character may be the forming principle in the body's aging. Aging then becomes a revelation of the body's wisdom.

I am emphasizing form in the organization of matter for two reasons. First, to counter the hustlers of materialism, who ask us to buy the idea that we are complex pieces of biotechnology, best compared with the newest computer chips. Whatever form we show results from underlying biogenetic impulses. Form can be reduced to matter; it obeys matter's laws and is shaped by genetic material. Since matter does the forming, there is no need for a separate idea of form.

A succinct, well-written—and fantastic—passage from one of the world's leading cognitive scientists represents a host of similar statements in similar books.

The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life.... The mind is what the brain does; specifically, the brain processes information, and thinking is a kind of computation.... The various problems for our ancestors were subtasks of one big problem for their genes, maximizing the number of copies that made it into the next generation.2

Why do I call this fantastic? Because this account of foraging ancestors, genes facing problems, and natural selection as deus ex machina leaves the big questions begging. Moreover, the statement is set down axiomatically, not as myth or as reductive simplification, but as self-evident truth, and that allows Pinker to go on blithely saying that psychology is engineering.

To reduce psychology to engineering brutalizes the meaning of form. My shape is more than how I'm put together. We all know that the way to last is to stay in shape, but "staying in shape" means more than working out. Do diet, exercise, and bed before midnight satisfy the needs of your shape? The first meaning of "shape" is "create," which relies upon a force that is invisible and yet makes each creature visible in its own style. The blanket term "information processing" covers over the history of subtle thought carried in the idea of form.

My second reason for insisting upon form is to keep a psychological viewpoint when addressing psychological questions. After all, life to the one who lives it is harassed by psychological perplexities for which biochemistry and brain physiology offer little comfort. Why live, why live long and with the probability of biological impairment are questions irrelevant to these sciences. Even should they remove the impairment and prolong the years, the "why" questions remain which no "how" answers can satisfy.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

James Hillman is a psychologist, scholar, international lecturer, pioneer psychologist, and the author of more than twenty books, including The Soul's Code, Re-Visioning Psychology, Healing Fiction, The Dream and the Underworld, Inter Views, and Suicide and the Soul.   A Jungian analyst and originator of post-Jungian "archetypal psychology," he has held teaching positions at Yale University, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Dallas, where he cofounded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. After thirty years of residence in Europe, he now lives in Connecticut.

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The Force of Character and the Lasting Life 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Suesky More than 1 year ago
Life affirming. Best book for anyone with elderly people in his/her life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this volume, I was struck by the similarity in voice to another book i had recently finished. Both authors spoke with the voice on an archetype I have learned to distrust: The Senex. Hillman now talks about character and aging, whereas previously he talked about the Puer's youth and connection to soul. Once more, as with the 'acorn' teory, once you get through the Jungian jargon, you are left with commonplaces about the aging process. Another disappointment.