James Hillman (1926-2011), a prolific post-Jungian psychologist, thinker, and cultural critic, wrote more than 20 books, but The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (1997) is probably his best known work.
In a head-on attack upon the reductionist nature of both the nature and nurture camps of western developmental psychology, Hillman proposes a view of individual destiny based on Plato’s Myth of Er. Are we nothing but helpless products of our mothers in the first year of life or our luck-of-the-draw genetics? Or is there a deeper meaning to how we grow and unfold?
Hillman proposes an “acorn theory,” arguing that each acorn holds the pattern of the oak it may become, just as each soul that enters the world may bear a destiny shaped by intelligence rather than random chance: “what is lost in so many lives and what must be recovered [is] a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”
Hillman expounds his theory in a number of biographical sketches. He writes of Manolete, the most famous bullfighter of 20th century Spain. As a child, he was sickly and frail. “He stayed so much indoors and clung so tightly to his mother’s apron strings that his sisters and other children used to tease him.” Then, at the age of 11, he became fascinated with bulls.
Current psychology theory would hold that Manolete chose a macho vocation to compensate for his mama’s-boy childhood. Hillman wonders if somewhere deep inside, was “the acorn” that realized his destiny was to face down charging, thousand pound bulls, including the one that gored him to death at age 30. Of course that was too frightening a vision for a boy of 8 or 9 to hold! Of course he held tight to his mother!
Hillman also discusses the childhood of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the 20th century’s most influential women. As a child, Eleanor was “funny,” as well as “sullen, stubborn, spiteful, [and] sour…She lied; she stole, she threw antisocial tantrums in company.”
She lost her mother, a brother, and her “playboy father” before she was nine, but all the while carried on a vivid fantasy, “the realest thing in my life,” in which she lived with her father in a large household and traveled the world with him.
Psychotherapy would have regarded her fantasies as delusions and prescribed psychotropic medications to try to return her to normal. But what of the possibility that her visions meant something? What if her fantasies were “invented by her calling,” Hillman asks, and “were indeed more realistic in their orientation than her daily reality.”
“Imagination acted as a teacher, giving instruction for the large ministering tasks of caring for the welfare of a complex family, of a crippled husband, of the state of New York as the governor’s wife, the United States as its first lady, and even of the United Nations. Her fantasies of attending to “Father” were a preliminary praxis into which she could put her call, her huge devotion to the welfare of others.”
Hillman is always provocative, inviting us to look deeper into, or “see through” the ideas that limit soul and it’s individual expression. Psychological literalism is often in his crosshairs, as when he says, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.”
James Hillman, 1926-2011
The Soul’s Code is a challenging book, but valuable as it sheds new light on many unquestioned assumptions about development, the individual, and destiny that need to be questioned.