What would James Hillman say about all this?

James Hillman (1926-2011)

James Hillman, a genius in the field of psychology, is largely unknown to the general public. Only one of his many books, The Soul’s Code (1997), is widely known, and only because Oprah featured it. Hillman’s long time friend and editor, Thomas Moore, wrote a tribute and summary of his life after his death in October, 2011. Moore said, “Jame’s books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.”

Hillman, who was, for a time, director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, founded “Archetypal Psychology,” an extension of Jung’s thought, centered on the poetic, imaginal basis of psyche or soul: “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all. Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.”

He criticized most 20th century psychologies as materialistic and literal, giving no space to soul. With journalist, Michael Ventura, he co-authored We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World Is Getting Worse (1992). He was vehement in his condemnation of the exclusive “inward” bent of most psychotherapies, which deprive the world of our outrage and our energy. He gave the example of a man who works eight or ten hours a day at a meaningless job, at an ugly, uncomfortable desk, under flickering florescent lights. When he goes to a therapist for relief from depression, he’s likely to be asked how he got along with his mother…

Hillman often spoke of “seeing through” the literal statements of individuals or groups, to discover the imaginal underpinnings. As editor of The Essential James Hillman, Thomas Moore gives this example:

“A city council asks James Hillman to comment on its plan to build a recreational lake. Hillman understands the immediate concerns, but he lifts the question out of it’s literal context and considers the need of this city for moisture of soul. It has no pool of reverie he says…This is psychology rooted not in science but in aesthetics and imagination. By taking everything as poetry, Hillman frees consciousness from its thin hard crust of literalizm to reveal the depth of experience. The soul, he says, turns events into experience. But it is image that is experienced, not literalism. The city feels its lack of water and literally tries to build a lake. Only a poetic mind could penetrate that literalism and make an accurate diagnosis. This poetic vision is what Hillman means by psychology.”


No one I’ve ever met or read was better at “seeing through” – using the inner senses to feel the underlying fears, hopes, and fantasies that are the foundations of our conscious ideas and passions. I’ve wished many times over the last year that we still had his voice to clarify the undercurrents which are inexorably tearing down the fabric of 20th century America and the world.  This summer I found words of Hillman that speak directly to our situation…

Mythic Figures (2007)  was the sixth in a series of compilations of his writings. The lecture transcripts and essays collected in this volume clarify one of his sharpest breaks with Jung and most of the field of psychology. Hillman rejected the ideal of a “unified personality” which he felt glorifies the “heroic ego,” which he long had viewed as a culprit in our social and environmental troubles. He argued for  “polytheistic psychology” that recognizes the psyche as composed of a dynamic group of autonomous inner personalities. Rather than assign psychological labels to these archetypes and complexes, Hillman made use of the Greek myths and stories to clarify these inner “persons.” Jung had said, “there are gods in our symptoms,” and Hillman made much of that statement.

In 1996 – twenty one years ago – Hillman gave lecture called, “Hermetic Intoxication: millennial psychology” (chapter 11 of the Mythic Figures collection).

Keenly aware of the explosive growth of the internet, Hillman viewed this as the domain of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who used winged sandals to carry information anywhere, instantly. Noting that Hermes was also the god of thieves – on the day he was born, he stole his brother, Apollo’s, cattle – Hillman lays identity theft at the feet of this winged messenger as well.

The other thread he wove into this essay was the emerging hopes and fears involved in globalism, the emerging “new world order” as President George H.W. Bush put it.  Twenty-one years ago, Hillman sensed the anxieties that the shift in the meaning of national boundaries and cultures would bring:

“Multinational consumerism, tourism, and the worldwide web of Internet communications are the evident and superficial levels of this collective consciousness, this globalism. Within it, and permeating globalism as a subliminal mood, is a sense of diffuse identity, an anxiety about borderlessness, what we in clinical psychology refer to as borderline personality disorders, panic attacks, paranoid defenses, and narcissistic rages. That is, diffuse borders and paranoid purisms, as well as retreats into intense, isolated self-centeredness, worries about one’s immune system, with hatred for everything invasive (including immigrants), a syndrome of characteristics owing to the loss of personal certitude, self-definition and location within well-defined borders.
To find again these personal and local borders we sometimes revert to hostile measures of exclusion. We try to resist the incursions of the Other into our private sphere. We join separatist movements, pledge allegiance to cults where the Other merely mirrors me, thereby avoiding the challenge of difference. These regressive defenses against dissolution attempt to recapitulate the older security structures of the ego, prior to its displacing and deconstruction by globalism. These moves take political form in xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, genocide, or…walls and fences at the U.S. border
Globalism feels like an overdose of hermes, just as the age of reason suffered from an overdose of Apollonic sunlight…Or for another example…the madness of Mars that so seizes a people that any common man or woman can become an enraged killer.” Emphasis has been added for items that have recently been in the news.

I don’t think today’s headlines would surprise Hillman, though he might be startled by the intensity of the fear and fear-driven-anger that moves us as individuals and as a nation.

It’s unfortunate that such a profound voice as James Hillman’s remains so little known. Like all of the great ones who live at the border of psyche and spirit, he counseled us not to ignore our symptoms and pathologies, nor to take them literally and act from them.  He asked us to listen to them, as mysterious messengers, who might have something important to tell us. Until we can do so, as individuals and as a nation, things will continue to fall apart, and we will continue to destroy whatever elements of an imagined past greatness still remain.

6 thoughts on “What would James Hillman say about all this?

  1. I love Hillman’s work! Thanks for giving voice to it! Especially the dynamic conversations he recorded with Michael Meade & Robert Bly in Men & the Life of Desire, lecture series … He also created a talk with Meade called Mythology In the Age of Psychology – which is very good!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s