The Soul's Code

An Interview with James Hillman
By Mary NurrieStearns


James Hillman is a psychologist, scholar, international lecturer, and the author of over 20 books including "Re-Visioning Psychology," "Healing Fiction", "The Dream and the Underworld," "Inter Views," and "Suicide and the Soul." A Jungian analyst and originator of post-Jungian "archetypal psychology," he has held teaching positions at Yale University, Syracuse University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Dallas (where he co-founded the Dallas Institute for the Humanities and Culture). After thirty years of residence in Europe, he now lives in Connecticut.

Personal Transformation: Your best-selling book, "The Soul's Code," not only introduces, but documents, through fascinating anecdotal stories, the idea that a unique, formed soul is within us from birth, shaping us as much as it is shaped. While this is not a new myth, the possibility that we are fated, or called into life with a uniqueness that asks to be lived, is rejected by our culture. This myth is described as the acorn theory.

Let's begin with a discussion of the acorn theory.

James Hillman: It is a worldwide myth in which each person comes into the world with something to do and to be. The myth says we enter the world with a calling. Plato, in his Myth of Er, called this our paradeigma, meaning a basic form that encompasses our entire destinies. This accompanying image shadowing our lives is our bearer of fate and fortune.

The acorn theory expresses that unique something that we carry into the world, that is particular to us, which is connected to our "daimon," a word rarely used in our culture.

Hillman: That's true. Daimon is an earlier word than demon. It became Christianized as demon because Christian theology doesn't approve of those figures who speak to us as inner voices and so forth. The Greek word was daimon, the Roman word was genius, and the Christian word is guardian angel. They are all a little bit different, yet each expresses something that you are, that you have, that is not the same as the personality you think you are.

And this has our best interest at its heart.

Hillman: You are its carrier so of course it's interested in you.

Yet in our culture many of us find that difficult to imagine.

Hillman: Our culture has no theory of this at all. Our culture has the genetics and the nature theory. You come into the world loaded with genes and are influenced by nature, or you come into the world, are influenced by the environment, and are the result of parents, family, social class and education. These theories don't speak to the individuality or uniqueness that you feel is you. Other cultures have this myth, but American psychology doesn't. I think the book has been an enormous success because it introduces a very old and worldwide idea that has been omitted by our psychological explanations.

Why, in our society, are we afraid to admit this into our lives?

Hillman: I don't think individual people are afraid to admit it. Vested interest in the nature/nurture view, whereby we come into the world empty and are formed by the genetic inheritance we bring as it reacts to the environment, doesn't consider the acorn myth a possibility.

In the acorn myth, the model of growth is one of growing down rather than growing up. Discuss that idea.

Hillman: The myth says that the roots of the soul are in the heavens, and the human grows downward into life. A little child enters the world as a stranger, and brings a special gift into the world. The task of life is to grow down into this world. Little children are often slow to come down. Many children, between the ages of approximately six to fifteen, say, "I don't know what I'm doing in this family; I don't know how I ever landed here." Parents say about children, "Boy, I don't know where this child come from. He's nothing like anybody else in the family," and so on. The perspective is that we came to earth as a stranger and slowly, as we mature, grow into the world, take part in its duties and pleasures, and become more involved and attached. In other cultures, the task of older persons is to not be selfishly concerned, but to grow down into the world to help the younger ones find their places. In other words, as you get older, you become more social, political and responsible.

The acorn theory says that the "daimon" selects the egg and the sperm, that their union results from our necessity, not the other way around. This has huge implications.

Hillman: That's the belief of the myth, and we have to make it clear that this is a myth, not a truth. It doesn't have to be believed, and it's not a theory that has to be proven. It's a worldwide myth, and it's a way of thinking or reflecting about life. It's something you entertain to see what the story does for you. Plato said that those who think this way may find that their lives will prosper, meaning it's not a bad way to think.

I was very influenced by reading the book and reflecting on my life. Looking back, I extrapolated different meanings out of past events.

Hillman: Yes, you can extrapolate different meanings out of events that had been locked up in former theories.

I found it to be like a breath of fresh air.

Hillman: I have heard that from many people. It's the only way I can understand the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have purchased this book.

For me, it was a way to step outside of my culture and look at my life.

Hillman: Did you find that it bore on your own childhood?

Very much so. I looked at my childhood through a different lens. I have done a lot of psychological work and was surprised by memories that were accessed again, in a new and different way. I discovered a new sense of purpose about childhood and a sense of freedom from it.

Hillman: That's really it. There are many stories in the book of people whose disturbed childhoods fit into their actual basic character.

Looking at life this way proposes that our primary instrument of fate is not our parents.

Hillman: Of course, parents have a strong role. The myth itself says that the soul chose your particular parents, and so they are part of your destiny, whether you experienced a lack of parenting, peculiar parenting, single parenting, or adoptive parenting. But that's not the be-all and end-all of existence. We overload parents today, as if they owned and were totally responsible for their children's entire fates. Mothers feel that if they do one thing wrong when the child is three, their poor child will have to go to therapy for four years later on in life. This is a heavy burden. The story of the acorn is that you have your own destiny, and that your parents' tasks are to provide a place in the world where you can grow down into life and to help make it easier for you to carry the destiny you have, which as a child is hard to carry. In addition to your parents, you need fantasy figures. You need strange people who excite your imagination, who may release an image of your calling. You also need mentors or teachers. Van Cliburn, the famous Texan pianist, was taught by his mother, who was a piano teacher and a musician herself. She said to him that while she taught him, she was not his mother. She made it clear that there were two functions, the mentor/teacher and the parent. The mentor/teacher is the person who sees who you are, sees your beauty, falls in love with it, helps and inspires it, giving it a chance to bloom in the world. The mentor is not concerned with your well-being, making sure that you have food, shoes and a roof over your head. That's what parents do. Parents keep food on the table and make sure that you have protection, but they may never see who you are. Many people complain that their parents never saw them. They may have looked in the wrong place for recognition. It's not necessarily parents who can see you. They have other destinies and eyes for other things. They may see other children and not you.

And that's not odd or wrong.

Hillman: In extended families, adults often see things in another's children. Just because your parents don't truly see you doesn't mean they don't love you. Their form of loving is taking care of you, making sure that you sleep and have clothes.

This myth unburdens parents.

Hillman: I think it does. It doesn't relieve them of responsibility, but it unburdens them of carrying the child's destiny.

And unburdens them to tend to the child and also focus on their own destiny.

Hillman: Their responsibility is to make the world a receiving place so children can grow up and follow their destinies. That's missing today. Something is wrong when one out of seven children lives below the poverty line. Most of the welfare arguments about saving money on welfare affect children, not the very old. There is something askew in parents focusing more on their own security for old age than on children.

You said that we are here to make the world receptive to the "daimon." How do we find our "daimon?"

Hillman: First of all, a person has to have this idea. As you noticed when you read the book, it was by getting the idea first that you began to see things differently. The word, idea comes originally from Greek. Idein was a way of seeing. So, if this idea is held in mind and thought about and then used for looking at your past, you may begin to see things that you didn't see before. This is the basic way to answer the question of how. It's not a technique; first of all it's an idea. It helps us look back at all our disturbances and dysfunctions, at how they have been necessary, how they fit in. It helps us look at what we have been doing and what we do well, what the world wants from us. The world may want from us what we do best, which could well be an indication about our calling. It may be a service; it may be friendship. We don't all have to be a celebrity.

Does the acorn theory help us look forward?

Hillman: I don't have anything to say about looking forward.

How can we grow the acorn?

Hillman: There is a chapter in the book about right nourishment. You need a lot of food for the imagination. The advertisers of the mercantile world recognize our need to stir our imaginations. Cars and shoes two very practical items when advertised are sold through imaginative fantasies.

Although they are serving other purposes than nurturing the acorn.

Hillman: Yes, but advertisers recognize that human beings respond to imaginative images and fantasies. That's the first food. The acorn needs around it people who have fantasies and who respond to imagination. That's why teachers who have imagination are the ones younger children are attracted to.

Another advantage of fostering imagination, particularly with the intention to grow the child or the human being, is that it gives some relief from the pressure of this culture, which runs counter to these ideas.

Hillman: We have to realize how counter the culture does go. It wants to produce units that fit into the economic system. Children are told they have to start school early, and they have to learn to read. Why do they have to learn to read? So they can be competitive. They have to be competitive, because the nation needs to have its gross national product stronger than other nations'. In other words, children are not told that education is healthy and good for the soul, or that it brings out the beauty and depth of the human being. In the Greek civilization, education was important because it made for a civilized nation and a cultured citizenship. We are told education is for competition. That's pretty sad, if you think about it.

In this myth, the soul chooses the "daimon" and then chooses its life. Where is our freedom?

Hillman: I have a chapter called "Fate" which discusses the question of freedom and pre-destination, as the Calvinists used to call it. I think both are fantasy ideas. We don't have absolute freedom. There are a lot of things we can't do. You might think you would like to be a cook, and yet are the clumsiest, dumbest person in the kitchen. There is no way you will ever be a good cook. On the other hand, even if you are enormously talented in some particular way, it does not determine every single thing you do. Your life is not predestined, as in Calvinist thought, where everything is written down in the book of life long before your birth and is inescapable. There are choices, accidents, hints and wrong paths, and the ego you, or whatever you call yourself, is a factor in all this. But there is still this other factor that keeps calling. At some moment, people turn, in despair or when they are unable to go any longer on a certain route, and this voice says, "Where have you been? I've been waiting for you to turn to me for a long time."

You mentioned accidents. According to this myth, how do we relate to accidents?

Hillman: Let's first look at how we relate to accidents in our society. We turn to the insurance company and try to get something out of it. We turn the accident into a possibility for money. In other societies we might think that the accident has a "hint" in it. I'm thinking about Churchill, for example, who cracked his head open and had a concussion when he was a young boy. He had to stay inside and not do anything for a while, and that's when he began to do his great reading. The accident of his concussion had great meaning. The idea is to look at the accident, injury or disturbance, as a potential with some sort of meaning in it.

So we relate to accidents by asking how this fits in my life and what this means?

Hillman: Realizing that something else is going on here that I don't quite know about, and remaining open to the possibility that the accident has its own imbedded purpose.

I want to have some discussion on your chapter, "The Bad Seed." I'll bet you had a lot of response to that.

Hillman: I wish there had been more because I think it is so important.

I do too; that's why I want to cover it.

Hillman: Tell me how you took it, and then I'll respond.

We as a culture don't recognize "demon" energy, thus forcing it to emerge in destructive ways. We don't want to deal with evil, and it grows more powerful because we don't attend to it.

Hillman: We don't attend to it, and we don't have an idea about it. We think that people go wrong and then ask what happened. We answer that it must have been drugs or else his father beat him. I give eight different theories about evil, including the old Catholic idea that you could actually be possessed by a devil. Orthodox Christianity, whatever the denomination, always had a place for the devil. I don't want to say that's the reason for evil, but that is one of the theories. I do think you're right when you say our usual thinking doesn't have a place for the demon the serial killer, the person devoted to torture and cruelty, the great murderer, or Adolph Heliochrome I analyzed in the chapter. This is a great mystery in human life. What about these people; can one be called to evil? We have a lot of evidence of people who are. For example, that little girl, Mary Belle, who at age nine strangled two little boys, ages three and four. She showed no signs of remorse or even awareness that she had murdered. How could a little girl of nine do such a thing? Yet we read in the papers again and again of young children killing smaller ones. Where does that come from? Some say it is caused by watching TV. I find that a preposterously easy answer. There's something very unusual about that.

The myth says there is a "demonic" call.

Hillman: There is a call. It is a call to transgress, to go beyond human boundaries, literally a call to transcendence. The curious thing is that religions, including Hinduism, Judaism and satanist cults, have the same idea that you can go beyond the normal by going into the abnormal. We don't have to interpret that people should do this, but it does emphasize that the bad seed is looking for a mode of transcendence, a mode of going beyond the ordinary human so that it becomes inhuman. We need to find modes of ritual, through the arts and ceremonies, which allow that excessive, extravagant, demonic force to find a way of expression without doing it concretely and literally. Art programs in schools are very important because they open the door to that excessive imagination.

And it's non-harmful expression.

Hillman: That's right. Instead we are shutting down art programs which represses and drives into the street those strange desires which the arts have always been a vehicle for.

You also said that we have to mourn the demonic which implies, first of all, that we acknowledge our own capacity for evil. Only by acknowledging its existence can it be dealt with intentionally.

Hillman: And not be identified with. If you recognize it, it's easier to hold it at a distance and know that, while this too is me, I don't have to be it. Hitler was completely subservient to the demonic. He shouted to his people, "Don't you see, I can't be different," and murderer Jeffery Dahmer couldn't understand what came over him.

They weren't aware enough of this evil force. The arts are very important in this regard. The arts help us release and hold this calling at bay.

You also mentioned community service as a way of addressing the demonic, in which people who have been caught for crimes go into the schools, explain how the bad seed works, what it wants, what it costs, and how it can eat up one's humanity.

Hillman: Yes. That's very different than mere punishment which doesn't seem to affect this piece of nature.

Can the bad seed be redeemed?

As far as conversion or something like that, I'm very suspicious, but the religions say it can be redeemed. Within my realm, I don't take that question up. A lot of people, for example, who were attached to the Nixon/Watergate cover-up became evangelical. I'm suspicious of a sudden conversion from black to white because I always wonder about what happened to the old person, where's the demon now.

Let's shift direction. What determines eminence?

Hillman: A sense of calling, devotion to it and long, long practice, whether it's practicing the piano, basketball, or spiritual practice. Eminent people are devoted to repetitious, tedious practice. It's not enough to have a good voice; you have to train the voice and devote yourself to it. A mentor is probably needed, and there are costs.

What does eminence cost?

Hillman: Let's remember first that eminence doesn't mean fame. There are eminent friends and eminent public servants. Sometimes, however the "daimon" asks a great deal from you. You feel as if you've never done enough. You've never written enough, played enough, or fought enough, whatever it is. There is always more because it is like an unquenchable urge. It costs what you might call your normalcy. The cost is being less of a consumer or less involved with your personal security. The focus is on serving the good of the whole, so the cost may not be as great as it seems.

I can relate, in the sense giving my energy over to doing what is asked next in the publishing of the magazine or in my private practice and not doing something that I personally desire.

Hillman: It's the cost of certain personal satisfactions.

For instance, we are doing this interview on a Sunday morning.

Hillman: That's right.

As you look back, what do you identify as your calling?

Hillman: I have been working with, thinking about, and writing psychological ideas for thirty-five years. My calling is just what I'm doing in that book.

You are also a forceful voice in challenging contemporary definitions of psychology.

Hillman: I mean the mode of my challenge is through ideas.

You are also modest.

Hillman: I think that really is the way it is. Fortunately, there is a receptivity to these thoughts now, and other people are thinking them. For me that means these ideas may help psychology and help people who are suffering from ideas they identified with and haven't paid enough attention to.