“I don’t develop. I am.” Pablo Picasso’s quote is one of the opening epigraphs in James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code, an attempt to describe the nature of self and a different way of getting at what drives us and defines us than conventional psychology or religions offer. The book itself is an epiphany. Hillman’s ideas cast light in those murky areas that ascribe identity as “victim” or “biology” or “experience” or “inheritance” or some iteration of all of them. We arrive with a specific drive or fate intact, he says. We are driven all our lives to realize that narrative.
Children are at significant risk for misdiagnosis, Hillman claims, because we rush to slap labels on any behavior we consider aberrant. An extremely kinetic child may be a high-energy person who will make a valuable life through movement. That child can be the scourge of an orderly classroom or controlled by pharmaceuticals but to resort to conventional shorthand to describe a soul with a difference is to misunderstand and deny who that child really is. On the other hand, to recognize and support the unique character of the child is to encourage the possibility of greatness.
If each of us has “a sense of calling, that essential mystery at the heart of each human life” then something more akin to Carl Jung–Hillman was director of the Jung Institute–than Sigmund Freud is at work here. Hillman refers to the daimon Plato wrote about, a guide who perches on your shoulder, much like a guardian angel, and bears witness to your particular calling, the reason you are here, your own soul’s code. Philip Pullman used Plato’s concept whole in his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass). Daemons held the souls of the children in those books and were intimate companions inseparable from the life of each child. In Hillman’s work, daimons are prominent. He uses the metaphor of the acorn. Each life is like an acorn, programmed by an image that is indissoluble and presents the destiny of that individual–just as an acorn contains a future oak tree.
We are born with strong ties to our stars–imaginary, infinite beings who must adapt to the practical necessities of life in a body, on a planet, with other living creatures of every type. We have to learn restriction to navigate this terrain. From being initially limitless, we begin to experience and negotiate limits. Genius is an imperative but it can be crippled by an inability to cope with the real world. Hillman cites celebrities and world figures from Judy Garland and Josephine Baker to Mohandas Gandhi as examples of extraordinary beings who did and didn’t succeed at integrating the magnificent and the mundane.
The Soul’s Code is not a simple theory—Hillman journeys in and out of complexity in making his case. He has sections on nature and nurture, on mediocrity, on the concept of the bad seed, on fate. Not all genius is of the “elite” variety in his view. Individual calling may take the form of service or the spiritual maturity to find conscious joy in the moment. What is important to him is that we acknowledge another track. People are more than a genetic predisposition. They are more than magically divine creations of a distant god. They are something stronger than a film imprinted by experience and environment. People are the embodiment of an essence peculiar to each one. What you were drawn to as a child may well be who you are and determine the course of your life. What’s encoded in your soul is your narrative and if you read it carefully you contribute a complete story to the rest of the world.
The Soul’s Code is dense with food for thought. It’s the sort of book you underline on first read and then re-read for deeper insights. Hillman argues that immediate evidence for the existence of this code is the inchoate longing of the child for something bigger than its own life, the certainty in adolescence that you are meant for greatness, if only you could figure out what that is. The clues are all around us and within us, Hillman says. The daimon on your shoulder is a constant reminder, so get quiet and listen to what it has to say.
The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling James Hillman | Warner Books Edition 1996