Plato called it “daimon,” the Romans “genius,” the Christians “guardian angel”; today we use such terms as “heart,” “spirit,” and “soul.” While philosophers and psychologists from Plato to Jung have studied and debated the fundamental essence of our individuality, our modern culture refuses to accept that a unique soul guides each of us from birth, shaping the course of our lives. In this extraordinary bestseller, James Hillman presents a brilliant vision of our selves, and an exciting approach to the mystery at the center of every life that asks, “What is it, in my heart, that I must do, be, and have? And why?”
Drawing on the biographies of figures such as Ella Fitzgerald and Mohandas K. Gandhi, Hillman argues that character is fate, that there is more to each individual than can be explained by genetics and environment. The result is a reasoned and powerful road map to understanding our true nature and discovering an eye-opening array of choices—from the way we raise our children to our career paths to our social and personal commitments to achieving excellence in our time.
Praise for The Soul’s Code
“Champions a glorious sort of rugged individualism that, with the help of an inner daimon (or guardian angel), can triumph against all odds.”—The Washington Post Book World
“[A] brilliant, absorbing work . . . Hillman dares us to believe that we are each meant to be here, that we are needed by the world around us.”—Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
IN A NUTSHELL: THE ACORN THEORY AND THE REDEMPTION OF PSYCHOLOGY
There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow. Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this “something” as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation: This is what I must do, this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am.
This book is about that call.
If not this vivid or sure, the call may have been more like gentle pushings in the stream in which you drifted unknowingly to a particular spot on the bank. Looking back, you sense that fate had a hand in it.
This book is about that sense of fate.
These kinds of annunciations and recollections determine biography as strongly as memories of abusive horror; but these more enigmatic moments tend to be shelved. Our theories favor traumas setting us the task of working them through. Despite early injury and all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we bear from the start the image of a definite individual character with some enduring traits.
This book is about that power of character.
Because the “traumatic” view of early years so controls psychological theory of personality and its development, the focus of our rememberings and the language of our personal story telling have already been infiltrated by the toxins of these theories. Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods. We are, this book shall maintain, less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us.”
So this book wants to repair some of that damage by showing what else was there, is there, in your nature. It wants to resurrect the unaccountable twists that turned your boat around in the eddies and shallows of meaninglessness, bringing you back to feelings of destiny. For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.
Not the reason to live; not the meaning of life in general or a philosophy of religious faith—this book does not pretend to provide such answers. But it does speak to the feelings that there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason, feelings that the world somehow wants me to be here, that I am answerable to an innate image, which I am filling out in my biography.
That innate image is also the subject of this book, as it is the subject of every biography—and we will encounter many biographies throughout these pages. The biography question haunts our Western subjectivity, as its immersion in therapies of self show. Everyone in therapy, or affected by therapeutic reflection even as diluted by the tears of TV-talk, is in search of an adequate biography: How do I put together into a coherent image the pieces of my life? How do I find the basic plot of my story?
To uncover the innate image we must set aside the psychological frames that are usually used, and mostly used up. They do not reveal enough. They trim a life to fit the frame: developmental growth, step by step, from infancy, through troubled youth, to midlife crisis and aging, to death. Plodding your way through an already planned map, you are on an itinerary that tells you where you have been before you get there, or like an averaged statistic foretold by an actuary in an insurance company. The course of your life has been described in the future perfect tense. Or, if not the predictable highway, then the offbeat “journey,” accumulating and shedding incidents without pattern, itemizing events for a résumé organized only by chronology: This came after That. Such a life is a narrative without plot, its focus on a more and more boring central figure, “me,” wandering in the desert of dried-out “experiences.”
I believe we have been robbed of our true biography—that destiny written into the acorn—and we go to therapy to recover it. That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate. Otherwise your identity continues to be that of a sociological consumer determined by random statistics, and the unacknowledged daimon’s urgings appear as eccentricities, compacted with angry resentments and overwhelming longings. Repression, the key to personality structure in all therapy schools, is not of the past but of the acorn and the past mistakes we have made in our relation with it.
We dull our lives by the way we conceive them. We have stopped imagining them with any sort of romance, any fictional flair. So, this book also picks up the romantic theme, daring to envision biography in terms of very large ideas such as beauty, mystery, and myth. In keeping with the romantic challenge, this book also risks the inspiration of big words, such as “vision” and “calling,” privileging them over small reductions. We do not want to belittle what we do not understand. Even when, in a later chapter, we do look carefully at genetic explanations, we find mystery and myth there, too.
At the outset we need to make clear that today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. By accepting the idea that I am the effect of a subtle buffeting between hereditary and societal forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents
This book wants to lift the pall of victim mentality from which individual people cannot recover until the theoretical paradigms that give rise to that mentality have been seen through and set aside. We are victims primarily of theories before they are put into practice. The current American identity as victim is the tail side of the coin whose head brightly displays the opposite identity: the heroic self-made “man,” carving out destiny alone and with unflagging will. Victim is flip side of hero. More deeply, however, we are victims of academic, scientistic, and even therapeutic psychology, whose paradigms do not sufficiently account for or engage with, and therefore ignore, the sense of calling, that essential mystery at the heart of each human life.
In a nutshell, then, this book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the “acorn theory,” which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.
“Before it can be lived” raises doubts about another principal paradigm: time. And time, that takes survey of all the world, must have a stop. It, too, must be set aside; otherwise the before always determines the after, and you remain chained to past causes upon which you can have no effect. So this book devotes more of its time to the timeless, attempting to read a life backward as much as forward.
Reading life backward enables you to see how early obsessions are the sketchy preformation of behaviors now. Sometimes the peaks of early years are never surpassed. Reading backward means that growth is less the key biographical term than form, and that development only makes sense when it reveals a facet of the original image. Of course a human life advances from day to day, and regresses, and we do see different faculties develop and watch them wither. Still, the innate image of your fate holds all in the copresence of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Your person is not a process or a development. You are that essential image that develops, if it does. As Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.”
For this is the nature of an image, any image. It’s all there at once. When you look at a face before you, at a scene out your window or a painting on the wall, you see a whole gestalt. All the parts present themselves simultaneously. One bit does not cause another bit or precede it in time. It doesn’t matter whether the painter put the reddish blotches in last or first, the gray streaks as afterthoughts or as originating structure or whether they are leftover lines from a prior image on that piece of canvas: What you see is exactly what you get, all at once. And the face, too; its complexion and features form a single expression, a singular image, given all at once. So, too, the image in the acorn. You are born with a character; it is given; a gift, as the old stories say, from the guardians upon your birth.
Table of Contents
Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface ix
1 In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology 3
2 Growing Down 41
3 The Parental Fallacy 63
4 Back to the Invisibles 92
5 "Esse Is Percipi": To Be Is to Be Perceived 113
6 Neither Nature nor Nurture-Something Else 128
7 Penny Dreadfuls and Pure Fantasy 155
8 Disguise 172
9 Fate 191
10 The Bad Seed 214
11 Mediocrity 249
Coda: A Note on Methodology 275