by contemplativeinquiry

What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)