The Soul’s Code by James Hillman (New York: Bantam Books, 1996)335 pages
Book Review by Ozodi Osuji
James Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code is a welcome read; it is a refreshing breath of air given the aridness to which science has relegated human beings.
In an attempt to reduce human beings to scientific parameters (which requires that every proposition must be observable and verifiable) Western psychology has reduced human beings to their genes and environment.
Why are you the person you are? Psychology says that your biological inheritance and social experience made you who you are. You were born with a bundle of genes and those interacted with your physical and social environment and produced what you now call yourself. Your personality and self-concept is a product of your biological constitution and your social learning. You are nothing but the throw up of genes and environment. Genes themselves are the throw up of past environments so all you are is the throw up of the environment.
Beginning with the Big Bang, the universe produced space, time and matter and those transformed to plants and animals on planet earth. People are the result of the concatenation of elements; there is nothing more to them than matter.
Any talk about spirit and soul is rubbish because those cannot be verified in the empirical world. Throw out religion and metaphysics that claim that human beings are more than their bodies.
In our world we can only observe biological, chemical, physical and social processes and can, more or less, ascertain the roles those play in determining people’s behaviors. We cannot say anything for certain about the role of God, spirit and soul in the formation of the human self. Indeed, if we try very hard we could say that concepts like God, spirit and soul are the products of human wishful thinking. We have not seen God or spirit or soul; those are ideas in our minds; we made them up.
Sigmund Freud, in his book, The Future of an illusion told us that we made up the idea of god. Why did we do that? We live in a precarious environment where our lives could be snuffed out at any moment by environmental factors, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, diseases, and plagues, not to talk about the fact that other people can kill us. We feel vulnerable and think that we could use a little protection from a power greater than the environment. Thus, we posit an imaginary powerful force and call it god and imagine that it protects us.
Alas, god seems a product of our wishes and does not appear to exist independent of our wishes hence cannot protect us.
If you want to live on planet earth you have to do what it takes for you to live; no external force appear to protect you; those who rely on god to protect them are snuffed out by nature. It seems true that god is make belief, our made up idea.
Pure observation suggests that science is correct in its postulation that we are the product of nature. Be that as it may, something in me keeps telling me that I am more than my body and experience.
I wonder whether the wish to be more than meets the eyes is magical thinking hence delusional. If we are mere animals that happen to be able to think and understand aspects of our world and one keeps thinking that one is more than an animal one has delusion of importance (grandiosity).
On the other hand, a part of me asks: if psychiatry is so smart and knows all about people, how come it has not healed one psychotic? Not one schizophrenic, manic, deluded person or even depressed person has been healed by a psychiatrist alive or dead; certainly, not one personality disordered person or anxious person has been healed by the psychotherapists that tell them what supposedly caused their problems and proffer interesting solutions to them.
The mental health field does not heal any one beyond filling miserable wretches with neuroleptic medications that eventually destroy their visceral organs. If this profession is unable to heal folks should we take its views seriously?
Clearly, the mental health field is able to describe mental disorders but it does not fully understand them and certainly does not heal them. Whereas we must respect it we must look deeper in our efforts to understand ourselves.
Professor Hillman (he taught psychology at Yale University) tells us that there is more to us than meets the eyes. He posits what he called acorn theory of human character.
According to this view, each human being is like acorn, a seed and within it is the oak tree that the seed produces.
In other words, each person comes to the world with built in characteristics, image, daimon, call it what you like. He hypothesizes that before birth forces that we might call spiritual work together to select the child’s body, parents, society and events that would happen to him in his life; these forces give him a fate, a destiny that is uniquely his. Even sicknesses are chosen to play roles in the individual’s life experience.
In other words, each of us came here to live a certain life and really cannot live a different life. That is to say that the individual is more than his inherited body (genes) and social experiences; he is a unique soul who is here to live a certain life. It does not matter what that life is the important point is that he has to live it.
Some are here to be philosophers or scientists, political leaders etc.; some are here to be garbage collectors (somebody got to do that very critical job that must be done for it is upon doing it that people survive; without removing garbage people would die from assorted diseases from germs).
As Hillman sees it, each of us has a destiny that before he was born he and many forces chose; he is therefore not a victim of his genes and the environment, as science tells us that he is.
Apparently, some people, in childhood recognize what they came to do and throw themselves into doing it; such persons are those we call child prodigies, such as Mozart who was composing symphonies at age five, or geniuses such as Albert Einstein who at age twelve had a dream that led him to discover the theory of relativity.
Unfortunately, some people do not affirm their mission; he gave many reasons why some folks fail to validate their life’s calling.
Where one’s life calling is not accepted one tries doing other things but would not succeed in them for one is here to do specific things. Indeed, if you try to succeed in other things the forces that placed you into this world would place obstacles on your path and make sure that you failed in those things; they would not stop until you have recognized your vocation and followed it one hundred percent and did it 24/7.
In making sure that you failed in doing those things that are not part of your life’s mission they are doing you a favor for they are trying to help you recognize what you came to do and do it. In this light, failure is not a curse but a lesson for the individual to learn; the lesson is for one to figure out what one came to do and do it whole heartedly.
Other persons do not know what one came to do and therefore cannot tell one what to do. Indeed, the unseen forces guiding one will not overtly tell one what to do for they accept ones freedom to live one’s life; to tell one what to do amounts to taking ones freedom away from one and they would not do that. They would just make sure that one does not succeed in doing what one did not come to do but will not positively tell one what to do. If you applied for a job and did not get it those who rejected you are doing what the unseen forces want them to do to you: prevent you from doing that job hence waste your time.
Some of us wish that the gods would tell us what to do, or that every person we meet would enable us to do something to succeed in everything we try. However, as Goethe pointed out, when we are doing what we came to do, are totally committed to doing it the entire universe tends to commit to helping us succeed; doors that were hitherto closed when we did what was not part of our destiny suddenly open for us; people around us do what enable us succeed in our line of calling.
Success is a matter of being your true self and living according to the dictates of your true self. Each of us came here to do a certain thing (or to do nothing, which is also a choice and is okay); one must do what one is here to do; one cannot do what other people are here to do.
We cannot scientifically prove or disprove Hillman’s hypothesis. If we accept Karl Popper’s views on what constitutes science: that a thesis must be amenable to refutation then we must say that Hillman did not posit a scientific thesis. We can neither prove nor disprove Hillman’s hypothesis so it lies in the realm of mythology not science.
But something tells me that he has a point that needs to be explored. Science seems to be shortchanging people by telling them that they are only their bodies and social experiences.
If we are determined by our bodies and social experiences then we are the victims of the environment. If we are victims of our environment, as science makes us out to be, well, we are nothing special. But if, perchance, we play some role in determining our destiny we have some power.
Hillman’s book is really a critique of contemporary Western psychology, especially its psychotherapy. Anyone who has been around the psychotherapy field knows that crimes are being committed by psychotherapists, especially psychiatrists.
A child is acting out at school; the teacher sends him to the school psychologist; she does her little song and dance called assessment and labels him ADHD or Conduct disordered or learning disordered. Now what? She recommends medication. The local psychiatrist prescribes medication for the kid (usually Ritalin or Adderall or even neuroleptic medications such as Risperdal, Zyprexa or anti mania medications such as Lithium, Depakote and so on).
So a kid is disturbing a classroom and he is subjected to these medications, eh? And do those medications change his behavior? Of course not, they merely subdue the child’s body and he stays quiet in the classroom.
A teenager dares to talk back to his teacher, or parents and other authority figures and he is told that he has ODD, opposition defiant disorder and sent to a psychiatrist and he is given medications. The idea is that the teenager should not rebel against society.
History teaches us that adolescents rebel against society and through their rebellion social changes are made possible. Now, such rebellions are discouraged through medications and psychotherapy; fearful therapists cherish social conformity.
If the individual has mental disorders, such as mania and or schizophrenia, psychotropic medications are obligatorily prescribed. The medications actually do not heal psychotics; they merely make them docile and socially manageable.
And the medications are taken for life; if the patient goes off his medications his issues are exacerbated. Since the poor wretch is now sentenced to a life of taking questionable medications those who produce the medications make loads of profit and the drug pushers that prescribe them are paid handsomely (medical doctors whose level of education is nothing compared to what it takes to be scientists make three times the money scientists make).
Actually, if psychotherapists listened to the mentally ill and tried to help them they could succeed. Consider the manic person who claims to be the most important person in the world or the richest man in the world or John Lennon (famous) etc. it does not take too much awareness to realize that this person feels inferior and is compensating with superiority. He could be counseled to give up his wish for superiority and grandeur.
The desire for grandeur could be replaced by working for social interest, doing something good for other people and seeking reasonable existential meaning (existential therapists like Victor Frankl, Rollo May and R. D. Laing point out that until we find what makes our existence seem meaningful we tend to have existential angst and live pointless existence).
Some people see their lives as pointless and meaningless; they try to mask that existential depression by positing grandiose goals and pursue them; pursuit of such grandiose goals gives their lives pseudo meaning.
It is obvious that people need to accept the meaninglessness of existence and find a way to obtain a sense of meaning without embracing the grandiosity offered by psychosis.
Schizophrenics who claim to be god obviously are using the idea of god to give their empty lives pseudo worth and meaning. Clearly, they have to give that up and replace it with something else.
Mystics tell us that they are one with god but also believe that all people are equally god. Mystics are not using the idea of God to make themselves seem superior to other people; they are using god to give their lives meaning.
The type of god identification that mystics like Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna had could be a replacement for the fantasy god that psychotics identify with. Simply stated, existential counseling goes a long way to redirecting folk’s psychological direction.
I am not saying that schizophrenia, disorganized type, can be healed through psychotherapy alone; I believe that there are biological disorders in most mental disorders hence the need for judicious application of pharmacotherapy.
If truth is said, I must admit that I have not seen psychotics healed by mere talk therapy. Nevertheless, R.D Laing had a point in talking about psychosis having something to do with escape from an insane society and desire for union with something greater than ones ego.
If therapists spend more time on their clients they could help them. These days medications are the primary modality of treatment; therapists seldom listen to their patients talk (oh, he is exhibiting word salad, he is confabulating, exhibiting illogical associations, neologism, so ignore him; better still, give him Haldol; that ought to reduce his response to internal stimuli).
You enter a psychiatrist’s office; in fifteen minutes he prescribes medications for you and you are out of the door.
No one is really trying to understand the mentally ill or help them (and should somebody help them; who said so and why is it the therapist’s job to do so; why don’t you help them; better still, why don’t they help themselves; must it always be other persons who help psychotics?).
Hillman is criticizing his profession. He sought to improve the field by injecting what folks call spiritual matters into it.
It is helpful to explore spiritual matters and their influence on human life provided that the spiritual angle is not overdone. Folks can go on tangencies and over emphasize spirit and ignore biology and sociology.
Human behavior is influenced by biological and sociological factors; we cannot discount those; while dealing with biosocial factors we have to keep trying to understand the unknown factor in human behavior.
James Hillman implies that the individual brought together his parents to borrow their genes to construct his body. The particular body that the combination of genes from the two parents enables one to do what one came to do. Only a person with one’s body could do the type of things one does.
This is speculation but it is an antidote to science’s reductionism that sees us as having no minds before birth, as determined by matter.
Hillman presents in a scholarly manner the new age idea that the individual creates his reality and that every person does what they do for one to learn from it. People must do what they do for one to live the type of life one came to live. You cannot change people and it is not for you to try to do so; it is for you to learn from them and change you.
James Hillman tells us that each of us has a calling, a vocation and a mission that he came to fulfill in this world. He tells us that nobody else can tell us what our mission is and that only we can figure it out. Those who appear to be successful, happy and peaceful human beings appear to be those who, in Joseph Campbell’s terms, are living their bliss, those who are doing what they came to do, which invariably is what they are interested in doing, have aptitude in doing and are trained to do. Abraham Maslow, in talking about self-actualization pretty much said the same thing.
Hillman suggests that science is wrong in telling us that we are victims of our genes and the environment; he suggests that we are more than our bodies and experiences.
I recommend reading James Hillman’s book although I must say that once its thesis is grasped the balance of the book is repetitive and tedious; it reads like what one would expect a professor to write, academic, and showing lack of conviction. You could understand the thesis Hillman is trying to propound by reading good old new age literature, such as the writings of Jane Roberts (Seth speaks etc.), Robert Monroe (Journeys out of body) and Helen Schucman (A course in miracles).
November 20, 2013