James Hillman on world change and political polarization

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

For decades, James Hillman brought us unique observations on modern life from the perspective of a depth psychology that embraced soul as its highest value.  Recently, I’ve wished I could hear his take on our current climate of political divisiveness, but Hillman, who died two years ago at the age of 85, wasn’t here to watch our most recent shenanigans.  Happily, I recently stumbled upon a pair of interviews in which Hillman discussed this very subject and set it in a context of massive cultural change.

Author and journalist Pythia Peay published the first interview on The Huffington Post in February, 2011 (Jungian Analyst Explains the Psychology of Political Polarization).  The occasion for their talk was the mass shooting in Tucson, which had happened a month earlier.  The most prominent victim was Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Tragically, memory of that event, just two and a half years ago, has been lost in the wake of more recent carnage, including the Nevada school shooting earlier this week.  Though Hillman’s comments focused on the role of political divisiveness in the attempt to kill a congresswoman, his additional statements now seem eerily relevant to the 12 year old in Sparks who was so alienated that he ended his life with murder and suicide.

Hillman began with a general discussion of polarized thinking.  “Polarity,” he reminds us, is an electrical engineering term.  Batteries have poles; the psyche is far more nuanced than that, dwelling in shades of gray rather than black or white.  Ideological extremes subvert our ability to judge individual issues on their merit.

When asked if violently polarized politics caused the shootings, Hillman changed the focus to another kind of cultural rigidity and its effect on the Tucson shooter:

“I think that this kid was made a loner by an American educational system in which there is no room for the weird or the odd…We need to have an educational system that’s able to embrace all sorts of minds, and where a student doesn’t have to fit into a certain mold of learning. Our educational system has become so narrowed to a certain formula, that if you go through a weird phase, you’re dropped out — often at the age of schizophrenia, 19-23 — and that’s the danger.”

Arguments in the wake of gun violence bog down in specifics, like background checks and how many bullets a magazine should hold – we don’t ask why and how we’re producing more and more people prone to mass violence.  In the end, says Hillman, for a culture that pays so much lip service to “the individual,” we are terrified of real individuality, and attempt to stamp it out.

In the second interview, America and the Shift in Ages, Hillman suggests that much of that rigidity has to do with futile attempts to shore up outmoded systems and institutions during a period of massive change.  Not just one but “three or four” myths that are central to our culture are collapsing.

Everything we fear has already happened said Hillman:  “The fragility of capitalism, which we don’t want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States; and American exceptionalism. In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. But we’re in a stage of denial.”  Other beliefs and structures are crumbling as well, he said.  White supremacy, male supremacy, the influence of monotheistic religions, and the belief that we are “the good people.”

If such institutions do not appear to be in decay, it’s because they are so staunchly defended, and that, Hillman says, is a sign of their lack of vitality — “If they were vital they wouldn’t need to be defended. And the fanaticism we’re witnessing goes along with the deterioration of the vitality of these myths.”

Many of our fundamental beliefs are under scrutiny and need to be.  Hillman mentions the meaning of “freedom.”  For many, freedom means, “I can do any goddamn thing I want on my property; that I am my own boss and don’t want government interference; that I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and can’t do.”  This, he says, is the freedom of an adolescent boy.  What of the different kinds of freedom, such as “freedom from the compulsions to have and to own and to be someone?”  What of the freedom Nelson Mandela found in prison?

Hillman cites economic assumptions that need to be questioned as well.  Falling demand needs to be stimulated, according to current assumptions, but from an ecological point of view, that’s exactly what the world needs at this time.  Sustainability models, which may be our hope for the future, terrify those in positions of power.

Many of our current fears, says Hillman – from fear of immigrants crossing our borders, to fear of failing education, to fear of cancer, to economic insecurity, terrorists, and of course fear of “the other” political party, results from the lack of a wider framework in which to understand the massive shifts that are already underway.

There is no going back, but as obsolete structures crumble, we can glimpse, if we look, new forms emerging.  Hillman gave the example of a “Bioneers” conference he attended where Paul Hawken showed a film that was simply the names of individuals and organizations involved in trying to innovate ways of building communities, economic systems, and ways of dealing with the natural world.  Hawken said there were thousands of names, and the film could roll for weeks.

Hillman said it’s important not to try to fit emerging structures into the patterns of the past.  For our peace of mind, a new kind of faith is required:   “I think it’s a matter of being free-wheeling, and trusting that the emerging cosmos will come out on its own, and shape itself as it comes. That means living in a certain open space — and that’s freedom.”

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007.  Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007. Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Such words are a fitting conclusion to the lifework of a man who lived in defense of Anima Mundi, the World Soul and who taught that animals, trees, and rivers are intelligent and alive, and that at some deep level of the psyche, we can hear their voices.  In Hillman’s life work, observation of the modern psyche led to conclusions that mesh with the myths of the ancestors.

A thousand years from now, people will read of our times and shudder, as we do in contemplating the rigors of life in the middle ages.  A few visionaries stood out from the rest, those like Saint Francis, Dante, and Leonardo, who pointed toward a more benevolent and expansive future.

We cannot write our own history, but we can wonder how it will look to those in the future.  I am convinced that James Hillman will be remembered when most of what passes for news on TV is blessedly forgotten.

55 thoughts on “James Hillman on world change and political polarization

  1. We aren’t producing “more and more people prone to mass violence.”
    “Over the past 30 years, there has been an average of nearly 20 mass shootings a year in the U.S., each involving at least four victims killed, but with no upward or downward trajectory. ”

    Another thing to remember is the population:
    2000’s: 281M–308M
    1990’s: 248M–281M
    1980’s: 226M–248M
    1970’s: 203M–226M

    We add tens of millions to the populations every decade, and we are not seeing a correlated increase in mass shootings.

    In fact, violent crime is down over the past decade.


    • It’s hard to know what’s behind the statistic of an average of 20 per year. I’m not talking about intra-family events sparked by jealousy, feuding, etc. A 2012 New York Times piece said worldwide, mass shootings (4 or more victims) averaged 2 per decade until 1980, and the trend has been dramatically upward: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/24/opinion/brooks-more-treatment-programs.html?_r=2&src=recg

      A piece in Psychology Today claims that “According to the 2010 FBI crime data, since 1980, single victim killings have dropped by more than 40 percent. While that’s very good news, there’s a new sobering trend: Mass murders are on the rise.” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201207/mass-murders-are-the-rise

      I was a teenager in 1966 when Charles Whitman killed 17 people from the Texas bellower, and I clearly remember how everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he was found to be suffering from a brain tumor. We want our mass shooters to be crazy or at least the victim of serious bullying. Our greatest fear is that otherwise normal people will snap, but apparently they do. When the press goes silent about motive, as in the Aurora, Colorado shootings, you know that there’s no diagnosis to reassure us…


      • The NYT article had a count done by the author, no expert in this area, and he added in world-wide killing sprees.
        Professor James Alan Fox – The Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University disagrees with the author of your article, and he’s been studying this for three decades.

        From an article by Prof. Fox titled: “Top 10 Myths about Mass Shootings”

        Myth: Mass shootings are on the rise.
        Reality: Over the past three decades, there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the United States, each with at least four victims killed by gunfire. Occasionally, and mostly by sheer coincidence, several episodes have been clustered closely in time. Over all, however, there has not been an upward trajectory. To the contrary, the real growth has been in the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage, thanks in large part to technological advances in reporting.


      • Professor Fox’s suggestion that some of the myth of increased mass shootings results from the technology and nature of the news media rings true – last night the local news breathlessly announced that we were in for “possible thunder storms and winds up to 25mph” – hardly unusual for this time of year.

        Part of what I was getting at in the mass shooting area is summarized in this report of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is claimed to be taken directly from FBI reports. It covers the period from 2009-2013 and includes a description of each event. http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/A_U.S.%20news/US-news-PDFs/Analysis_of_Mass_Shootings.pdf

        In that period, there were 93 mass shootings – almost 2 per month – in 35 states. In 57%, “a current or former spouse or intimate partner” was the primary target.” And 67% took place “entirely in private residences.” Many of Prof. Fox’s points were confirmed – assault type weapons were used in only 15% of the incidents, and most of the shooters would have passed background checks, though a few might have been screened out for past incidents of domestic violence.

        But pulling back from statistics, even accepting that mass shootings are flat over 30 years, even as population increases, some questions remain.

        1) Filtering out domestic violence, is it true, as most of us perceive, that horrific incidents, like Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado, are on the rise?

        2) Apparently there was an uptick in incidents ca. 1980. How big and uptick and how come? What happened at that time?

        3) And granted that statistically, driving is far more dangerous than going to school or a movie theater, what does it say about us that with 20 a year as the new normal, we tend to shrug it off – as I did with the news of the naval yard shooting. As it came on the radio, I was running late, grabbed my coffee with a “Crap, not again,” and ran out the door without much more thought.


      • Here is where the problem resides:

        The population in the world has more than doubled since 1960, so for the rate of mass-shootings to remain the same, the raw number would have to double, just to remain at the same rate. It hasn’t.

        In the U.S., 1960 the population was 180 Million (I just googled the census).

        In 2010, the U.S. population was just shy of 309 Million.

        For the rate of homicides to remain the same, the number of mass shootings would have to have increased by a factor of 1.71.

        Any increase would have to be above the increase in population to be an increase in mass-shootings.

        That isn’t the case.


      • Another related way to think about it:

        If one percent of the population is insane (not suggesting that, just making the math easy to follow), in 1960 U.S.A. there would have been 1.8 Million insane people out of a total population of 180 Million.

        In 2013 U.S.A., if the level of insanity remained one percent, there would be 3.08 Million insane people out of a total population of 308 Million.

        One would expect more problems in a country of 3 million insane than in one with 1.8 million insane citizens.

        The media always ignores this, and as I presume they are of average intellect, one can also presume a bias that would preclude providing this information.


      • The population of the world has more than doubled since 1960, yet the numbers of mass shootings is basically static since the 1970’s.

        That should tell you something about the hype going into this problem.


  2. By placing the current social, political, and economic struggles in the context of their spiritual or soulful dimensions, you bring new clarity to the struggles before us.
    I wish I had answers for where the economy is going and what new forms will emerge, as one part of the current upheaval. But to see these as already irreversible means to focus on the future, rather than futile attempts to preserve a past that is collapsing.
    Hillman, of course, had much to say about our personal relationship to money, wealth, labor, and time. He needs to be heard more widely.


    • I can’t imagine Hillman ever becoming a best seller, but I’m sure he’d agree that change will come one individual at a time. Just like Wendell Berry, I think he imagined change as a bottom up affair, not something that’s going to happen from the power elites.


    • One thing you can do to find articles and interviews is just google on “James Hillman” or “James Hillman on Anima Mundi.”

      There’s an ongoing effort to collect some of his writings by topic in ebook format, so there is, for instance a new kindle edition called Animal Presences which it sounds like you might like.

      One of the kindle editions is also called Archetypal Psychology which sounds like a new version of an earlier book of that title in which Hillman outlined his basic ideas. This ebook was released just a month ago.

      A very good intro to the range of his basic ideas is A Blue Fire, assembled and edited by his friend, Thomas Moore.

      And finally, The Souls Code, which was featured on Oprah and came closest to going mainstream are late life musings on character and destiny, based on the image of the acorn containing the pattern of the oak.

      In one of his examples, Hillman discusses the life of the most famous 20th c. bullfighter in Spain (cannot remember his name). As a kid, he was a notorious mama’s boy, literally hanging onto his mother’s skirts. Mainstream psychology would assert that he grew up and chose the most macho of all callings to compensate. Hillman turns it around, saying, what if he knew, in his depths, that it was his destiny in this life to stand and face charging 1000 pound bulls? At nine years old it would be too much to handle – of course he clung to his mother! The latter view accords a lot more dignity and wisdom to the soul.

      Anyway, enjoy!


  3. The problem often not addressed is the labeling by the people in charge of potential threats. I was a school teacher. If I saw a person in class that did not fit the norm but a potential threat to society I was suppose to label him and report him. This puts me on the limb. Suppose I am wrong? Suppose I am right? Either way I am now in the forefront of stopping an individual or destroying that individual or helping that individual. How do I know I am right?


    • The whole “duty to report” issue was one of the least comfortable parts of studying counseling psychology, and one factor in my decision not to pursue that field. As an intern, we had weekly supervision groups to bounce that stuff off – do you have anything similar?

      The basic guidelines for us went along the notions that everyone now and then says something like, “I’d like to kill my boss.” You don’t report that. But if the client shows you his gun or tells you when and how he’s going to do it – that is reportable.

      Of course that’s an obvious example and thus not so useful. In the end, you can’t know with certainty, and you have to trust your instincts…


      • The situation of black and blue marks was an issue. Sometimes a child would have them and they were wear and tear of being a child. Sometimes, I just did not know.
        You had to worry that the reporting did not back up into you and a crazy parent would not go after you. I met a lot of parents and some of them were on the fringe. There are some scary people out there.


  4. So glad I came across your two posts about James Hillman, an important reminder for me to read the two books I have on my bookshelf (Soul’s Code and Force of Character), nestled between two of my favorite authors (Thomas Moore and John O’Donohue). I agree that we need a deeper complexity of thought in this culture, many shades of grey and gray (more than 50, anyways :-)).


    • I’m also glad you stopped by, and please visit again. I mentioned to someone else that Thomas Moore edited a collection of some of Hillman’s earlier writings, A Blue Fire, which suggests some of the range of his thought. With books by both of those authors on your shelf, you will probably enjoy it.


    • I don’t know anyone who is paying attention that doesn’t share your doubts, but I guess for me, survival of at least some is the only useful working assumption. I do think things will have to get a lot worse before we change our ways.


  5. Excellent post, thank you! It does appear that our society has become quite callous and indifferent to pain and suffering. In 1976 about 20 or 30 of us from a certain high school were waiting for a group from another school to come up the arroyo so we could have a rumble. Word got out that a kid from the other side had a knife on him. That was clearly out of bounds and he got surrounded by kids from both sides and he was convinced to throw the knife to the side and we proceeded to have our rumble with sticks and fists. Nobody got seriously hurt. Nowadays people just open fire and the ones with the largest magazines win.
    I think people fear diversity, the fear of the unknown is a powerful and scary feeling. When a person is different from others they get singled out, shunned and usually bullied. With firearms so easy to obtain, the natural instinct is to exact revenge on a society the easiest way known. While we did not have the best conflict resolution tools available growing up, it was a more innocent life. I have had to learn to live and let live as far as my expectations of others go and while it is a struggle at times, it has certainly made my life easier.


    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Dave. So many thoughts come to mind from the experience you discussed!

      I remembered a psych professor, who was a friend of Hillman, in a discussion of repression. In the sixties, he said, we were all about ending repression, but there’s an analogy to Pandora’s box. Repression also was the mechanism that kept us from acting out scenes of violence that as you said, would have been unthinkable not too long ago.

      Hillman observed that these days, the darkest nightmares of Freud’s patients 100 years ago are now played out on our streets; they’re the stuff of the evening news. In an editorial on this week’s LAX shooting, I read that 10,000 people in this country have died of gunshot wounds since Sandy Hook and all the political chest-thumping and vows that it had to stop.

      People are frightened and full of despair these days, but that can switch to anger at the drop of a hat, can’t it?


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    • First, though I sometimes disagree with comments, I really don’t evaluate them one way or another. Even if I did, I’d never post it online. Comments represent people interested enough to respond, and to discourage that in any way would be flat out stupid.

      Twitter feed is @morganmussell.


  7. I rarely comment, but I browsed a great deal of remarks on
    James Hillman on world change and political polarization
    | The First Gates. I actually do have a few questions for you if it’s allright.
    Is it only me or does it appear like a few of these comments look like they are written by brain dead individuals?
    😛 And, if you are writing at other social sites, I would
    like to keep up with you. Could you post a list of the complete urls of your social networking pages
    like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?


    • First, though I sometimes disagree with comments, I really don’t evaluate them one way or another. Even if I did, I’d never post it online. Comments represent people interested enough to respond, and to discourage that in any way would be flat out stupid.
      Twitter feed is @morganmussell.


  8. I am not sure If I do or do not (and to what extent on both parts) agree with the conclusions. However, I was richly rewarded by the piece itself. Not only with the thoughtful writing but also, the Dialogue it opens. These are conversations we need to have. This is a wonderful way to approach them . Well done.


    • Thanks, and thanks for the reblog. I think Hillman and my readings of him over time are far more about questions than answers. He named one of his key methods, “seeing through,” identifying the deeper themes and subtler currents under surface events and trends, which is inevitably an imprecise exercise. I think he aimed to get people’s thought and imagination stirring in new ways, and if my piece did that for you, I am more than satisfied!


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