On Soul, Character and Calling:
A Conversation with James Hillman

By Scott London

James Hillman studied with the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1950s and later became the first director of studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich. After returning to the United States in 1980, he taught at Yale, Syracuse and the universities of Chicago and Dallas. He also became editor of Spring Publications, a small Texas publisher devoted to the work of contemporary psychologists. And he wrote some twenty books of his own.

James Hillman
James Hillman

In spite of these achievements, Hillman was hardly an establishment figure in the world of psychology. If anything, he was looked upon by many in the profession as a profoundly subversive thinker, a thorn in the side of respectable psychologists.

As the founder of archetypal psychology — a school of thought aimed at "revisioning" or "reimagining" psychology — Hillman argued that the therapy business needs to evolve beyond reductionist "nature" and "nurture" theories of human development.

Over a period of almost five decades — until his death in October 2011 — he wrote, taught and lectured about the need to get therapy out of the consulting room and into the real world. Conventional psychology has lost touch with what he called "the soul's code." Overrun with "psychological seminars on how to clean closets or withhold orgasms," psychology has become reduced to "a trivialized, banal, egocentric pursuit, rather than an exploration of the mysteries of human nature," he wrote.

One of the greatest of these mysteries, Hillman believed, is the question of character and destiny. In his bestseller The Soul's Code, he proposed that our calling in life is inborn and that it's our mission in life to realize its imperatives. He called it the "acorn theory" — the idea that our lives are formed by a particular image, just as the oak's destiny is contained in the tiny acorn.

In this interview, which appears in the July 2012 issue of The Sun magazine, we explore the idea of character and calling. Hillman never liked to give interviews and was a notoriously prickly conversationalist. He told me he harbored a deep mistrust of journalists and interviewers. "People have a terrible desire to talk about themselves," he said. "They call it sharing, but it's really chewing out someone else's ear. Well, I don't have that desire."

So why consent to an interview with me? "Because I'm a nice guy," he said with a mischievous grin. Ideas are like children, he added, "and you should try to get your children into the world if possible, to defend them and help them along. I don't think it's enough just to write and throw it out into the world. I think it's useful to have to put yourself out there a little bit for what you believe."

Scott London: You've been writing and lecturing about the need to overhaul psychotherapy since the early 1960s. Now all of a sudden the public seems receptive to your ideas: you're on the bestseller lists and TV talk shows. Why do you think your work has suddenly struck a chord?

James Hillman: I think there is a paradigm shift going on in the culture. The old psychology just doesn't work anymore. Too many people have been analyzing their pasts, their childhoods, their memories, their parents, and realizing that it doesn't do anything — or that it doesn't do enough.

London: You're not a very popular figure with the therapy establishment.

People are itchy and lost and bored and quick to jump at any fix. Why is there such a vast self-help industry in this country? Why do all these selves need help? They have been deprived of something by our psychological culture, a sense that there is some purpose that has come with them into the world.

Hillman: I'm not critical of the people who do psychotherapy. The therapists in the trenches have to face an awful lot of the social, political, and economic failures of capitalism. They have to take care of all the rejects and failures. They are sincere and work hard with very little credit, and the HMOs and the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies are trying to wipe them out. So certainly I am not attacking them. I am attacking the theories of psychotherapy. You don't attack the grunts of Vietnam; you blame the theory behind the war. Nobody who fought in that war was at fault. It was the war itself that was at fault. It's the same thing with psychotherapy. It makes every problem a subjective, inner problem. And that's not where the problems come from. They come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism. They come from architecture, school systems, capitalism, exploitation. They come from many places that psychotherapy does not address. Psychotherapy theory turns it all on you: you are the one who is wrong. What I'm trying to say is that, if a kid is having trouble or is discouraged, the problem is not just inside the kid; it's also in the system, the society.

London: You can't fix the person without fixing the society.

Hillman: I don't think so. But I don't think anything changes until ideas change. The usual American viewpoint is to believe that something is wrong with the person. We approach people the same way we approach our cars. We take the poor kid to a doctor and ask, "What's wrong with him, how much will it cost, and when can I pick him up?" We can't change anything until we get some fresh ideas, until we begin to see things differently. My goal is to create a therapy of ideas, to try to bring in new ideas so that we can see the same old problems differently.

London: You've said that you usually write out of "hatred, dislike, and destruction."

Hillman: I've found that contemporary psychology enrages me with its simplistic ideas of human life, and also its emptiness. In the cosmology that's behind psychology, there is no reason for anyone to be here or do anything. We are driven by the results of the Big Bang, billions of years ago, which eventually produced life, which eventually produced human beings, and so on. But me? I'm an accident — a result — and therefore a victim.

London: A victim?

Hillman: Well, if I'm only a result of past causes, then I'm a victim of those past causes. There is no deeper meaning behind things that gives me a reason to be here. Or, if you look at it from the sociological perspective, I'm the result of upbringing, class, race, gender, social prejudices, and economics. So I'm a victim again. A result.

London: What about the idea that we are self-made, that since life is an accident we have the freedom to make ourselves into anything we want?

Hillman: Yes, we worship the idea of the "self-made man" — otherwise we'd go on strike against Bill Gates having all that money! We worship that idea. We vote for Perot. We think he's a great, marvelous, honest man. We send money to his campaign, even though he is one of the richest capitalists in our culture. Imagine, sending money to Perot! It's unbelievable, yet it's part of that worship of individuality.

But the culture is going into a psychological depression. We are concerned about our place in the world, about being competitive: Will my children have as much as I have? Will I ever own my own home? How can I pay for a new car? Are immigrants taking away my white world? All of this anxiety and depression casts doubt on whether I can make it as a heroic John Wayne-style individual.

London: In The Soul's Code, you talk about something called the "acorn theory." What is that?

Hillman: Well, it's more of a myth than a theory. It's Plato's myth that you come into the world with a destiny, although he uses the word paradigma, or paradigm, instead of destiny. The acorn theory says that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul.

The same myth can be found in the kabbalah. The Mormons have it. The West Africans have it. The Hindus and the Buddhists have it in different ways — they tie it more to reincarnation and karma, but you still come into the world with a particular destiny. Native Americans have it very strongly. So all these cultures all over the world have this basic understanding of human existence. Only American psychology doesn't have it.

London: In our culture we tend to think of calling in terms of "vocation" or "career."

Hillman: Yes, but calling can refer not only to ways of doing — meaning work — but also to ways of being. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues. In his book on ethics, three or four chapters are on friendship. In the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it's hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it's not a vocation.

London: Motherhood is another example that comes to mind. Mothers are still expected to have a vocation above and beyond being a mother.

Hillman: Right, it's not enough just to be a mother. It's not only the social pressure on mothers by certain kinds of feminism and other sources. There is also economic pressure on them. It's a terrible cruelty of predatory capitalism: both parents now have to work. A family has to have two incomes in order to buy the things that are desirable in our culture. So the degradation of motherhood — the sense that motherhood isn't itself a calling — also arises from economic pressure.

London: What implications do your ideas have for parents?

Hillman: I think what I'm saying should relieve them hugely and make them want to pay more attention to their child, this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst. Instead of saying, "This is my child," they must ask, "Who is this child who happens to be mine?" Then they will gain a lot more respect for the child and try to keep an eye open for instances where the kid's destiny might show itself — like in a resistance to school, for example, or a strange set of symptoms one year, or an obsession with one thing or another. Maybe something very important is going on there that the parents didn't see before.

London: Symptoms are so often seen as weaknesses.

Hillman: Right, so they set up some sort of medical or psychotherapeutic program to get rid of them, when the symptoms may be the most crucial part of the kid. There are many stories in my book that illustrate this.

London: How much resistance do you encounter to your idea that we chose our parents?

Hillman: Well, it annoys a lot of people who hate their parents, or whose parents were cruel and deserted them or abused them. But it's amazing how, when you ponder that idea for a little bit, it can free you of a lot of blame and resentment and fixation on your parents.

London: I got into a lengthy discussion about your book with a friend of mine who is the mother of a six-year-old. While she subscribes to your idea that her daughter has a unique potential, perhaps even a "code," she is wary of what that means in practice. She fears that it might saddle the child with a lot of expectations.

Hillman: That's a very intelligent mother. I think the worst atmosphere for a six-year-old is one in which there are no expectations whatsoever. That is, it's worse for the child to grow up in a vacuum where "whatever you do is alright, I'm sure you'll succeed." That is a statement of disinterest. It says, "I really have no fantasies for you at all."

A mother should have some fantasy about her child's future. It will increase her interest in the child, for one thing. To turn the fantasy into a program to make the child fly an airplane across the country, for example, isn't the point. That's the fulfillment of the parent's own dreams. That's different. Having a fantasy — which the child will either seek to fulfill or rebel against furiously — at least gives a child some expectation to meet or reject.

London: What about the idea of giving children tests to find out their aptitudes?

Hillman: Aptitude can show calling, but it isn't the only indicator. Ineptitude or dysfunction may reveal calling more than talent, curiously enough. Or there can be a very slow formation of character.

London: What is the first step toward understanding one's calling?

Hillman: It's important to ask yourself, "How am I useful to others? What do people want from me?" That may very well reveal what you are here for.

Suppose that throughout your childhood you were good with numbers. Other kids used to copy your homework. You figured store discounts faster than your parents. People came to you for help with such things. So you took accounting and eventually became a tax auditor for the IRS. What an embarrassing job, right? You feel you should be writing poetry or doing aviation mechanics or whatever. But then you realize that tax collecting can be a calling too. When you look into the archetypal nature of taxation, you realize that all civilizations have had taxation of one sort or another. Some of the earliest Egyptian writing is about tax collecting — the scribe recording what was paid and what wasn't paid.

So when you consider the archetypal, historical, and cultural background of whatever you do, it gives you a sense that your occupation can be a calling and not just a job.

London: What do you think of traditional techniques for revealing the soul's code, such as the wise woman who reads palms, or the village elders whose job it is to look at a child and see that child's destiny? Would it be helpful to revive these traditions?

Hillman: First of all, I don't think you can revive traditions on purpose. Second of all, I think those traditions are going on underground. Many people will tell you about some astrologer who said this or that to them, or some teacher. So it's very widespread in the subculture.

What I try to point out is the role an ordinary person can have in seeing the child's destiny. You have to have a feeling for the child. It's almost an erotic thing, like the filmmaker Elia Kazan's stories of how his teacher "took to him." She said to him, "When you were only twelve, you stood near my desk one morning and the light from the window fell across your head and features and illuminated the expression on your face. The thought came to me of the great possibilities there in your development." She saw his beauty. Now that, you see, is something different from just going to the wise woman.

London: In The Soul's Code, you tell a similar story about Truman Capote.

Hillman: In Capote's case, his teacher responded to his crazy fantasies. He was a difficult boy who threw temper tantrums in which he would lie on the floor and kick, who refused to go to class, who combed his hair all the time — an impossible kid. She responded to his absurdities with equal absurdities. She took to him. Teachers today can't take to a child. It will be called manipulation, or seduction, or pedophilia.

London: Or preferential treatment.

Hillman: Right. James Baldwin is another example. He attended a little Harlem schoolhouse of fifty kids. Conditions were appalling. His teacher was a Midwestern white woman. And yet they clicked.

You see, we don't need to get back to the wise woman in the village. We need to get back to trusting our emotional rapport with children, to seeing a child's beauty and singling that child out. That's how the mentor system works — you're caught up in the fantasy of another person. Your imagination and their come together.

London: Of all the historical figures you studied while researching The Soul's Code, who fascinated you the most?

Hillman: They all did. All these little stories fascinated me. Take Martin Scorcese, another filmmaker, for example. He was a very short kid and had terrible asthma. He couldn't go out into the streets of Little Italy in Manhattan and play with the other kids. So he would sit up in his room and look out the window at what was going on and make little drawings — cartoons, with numerous frames — of the scene. In effect, he was making movies at nine years old.

London: What about someone like Adolf Hitler, the prototypical "bad seed"? Is he an example of a destiny gone awry, or perhaps the fulfillment of some sort of twisted destiny?

Hillman: It's a puzzle. How can Hitler, or some other murderer, appear in this world? I don't think any single theory can account for the phenomenon, and I think it's a mistake to try to reduce it to being brutalized by your parents or having grown up in some horrible situation — like Charles Manson. Jeffrey Dahmer had a wonderful father. His father even wrote a book saying that it was his fault that Jeffrey was the way he was. His father had strange dreams in his youth that were very similar to some of the crimes that Dahmer committed. So the father took responsibility. But he was not a bad father at all. When Jeffrey was four, they were carving pumpkins for Halloween, and Jeffrey screamed, "Make a mean face!" He would not let his father put a smile on the pumpkin's face. "I want a mean face!" he screamed. He was in a fury.

So I think there is such a thing as a bad seed that comes to flower in certain people. The danger with that theory is that we begin to look for those "troublemakers" early on and try to weed them out. That's very dangerous, because it could work against kids who are just routine troublemakers. But then you look at a child like Mary Bell in England, who was ten when she strangled two little boys — one three and one five. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances. She had a "bad" mother, so to speak. But to think that she would note have "flowered" if her mother had been in therapy, or that (as psychologist Alice Miller thinks) there would have been no Adolf Hitler if Hitler's family had been treated — that's just naive.

London: You've written that "the great task of any culture is to keep the invisibles attached." What do you mean by that?

Hillman: It's a difficult idea to present without leaving psychology and getting into religion. I don't talk about who the invisibles are or where they live or what they want. There is no real theology in it. But it's the only way we can get out of being so human-centered: to remain attached to something other than humans.

London: God?

Hillman: Yes, but it doesn't have to be that lofty.

London: Our calling?

Hillman: I think the first step is the realization that each of us has such a thing. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn't necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It's more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.

London: When you talk in those terms, it seems to me that the boundary between psychology and theology gets a little blurry. Psychology deals with the will, and religion deals with fate. Yet this is not clearly not one or the other, but a bit of both.

Hillman: You're right. It isn't such an easy thing as the old argument of free will versus predestination. The Greek idea of fate is moira, which means "portion." Fate rules a portion of your life. But there is more to life than just fate. There is also genetics, environment, economics, and so on. So it's not all written in the book before you get here, such that you don't have to do anything. That's fatalism.

London: What is the danger for a child who grows up never understanding his or her destiny?

Hillman: I think our entire civilization exemplifies that danger. People are itchy and lost and bored and quick to jump at any fix. Why is there such a vast self-help industry in this country? Why do all these selves need help? They have been deprived of something by our psychological culture. They have been deprived of the sense that there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with them into the world.

London: Is it possible never to discover that "something else" — to turn your back on it, or to resist it and therefore "waste" your life?

Hillman: I tend to think that you fulfill your own destiny, whether you realize it or not. You may not become a celebrity. You may even experience lots of illness or divorce, or unhappiness. But I think there is still a thread of individual character that determines how you live through those things.

London: It seems to me that illness and divorce an prompt you to explore some themes in life more thoroughly than others.

Hillman: Certainly. I just read about John Le Carre, the great spy novelist. He had an absolutely miserable childhood. His mother deserted him when he was young. His father was a playboy and a drunk. He was shifted around to many different homes. He knew he was a writer when he was about nine, but he was dyslexic. So here was a person with an absolutely messed-up childhood and a symptom that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do most. Yet that very symptom was part of the calling. It forced him to go deeper. Any symptom can force you to go deeper into some area.

Many people nowadays who discover that they have a major symptom, whether psychological or physical, begin to study it. They get drawn very deeply into the area of their trouble. They want to know more than their doctor. That's a curious thing, and not at all the way it used to be. People used to trust their doctor. They went to an expert. Now people have new ideas and are thinking for themselves. That's a very important change in our collective psychology.

London: You write that one of the most stultifying things about modern psychology is that it's lost its sense of beauty.

Hillman: Yes, if it ever had one. Beauty has never been an important topic in the writings of the major psychologists. In fact, for Jung, aesthetics is a weak, early stage of development. He follows the Germanic view that ethics is more important than aesthetics, and he draws a stark contrast between the two. Freud may have written about literature a bit, but an aesthetic sensitivity is not part of his psychology.

London: And this has trickled down to therapists today?

Hillman: Yes. Art, for example, becomes "art therapy." When patients make music, it becomes "music therapy." When the arts are used for "therapy" in this way, they are degraded to a secondary position.

Beauty is something everybody longs for, needs, and tries to obtain in some way — whether through nature, or a man or a woman, or music, or whatever. The soul yearns for it. Psychology seems to have forgotten that.

London: But doesn't psychology have more in common with medicine than the arts?

Hillman: Well, one strand of psychotherapy is certainly to help relieve suffering, which is a genuine medical concern. If someone is bleeding, you want to stop the bleeding. Another medical aspect is the treatment of chronic complaints that are disabling in some way. And many of our troubles are chronic. Life is chronic. So there is a reasonable, sensible, medical side to psychotherapy.

But when the medical becomes scientistic; when it becomes analytical, diagnostic, statistical, and remedial; when it comes under the influence of pharmacology and HMOs — limiting patients to six conversations and those kinds of things — then we've lost the art altogether, and we're just doing business: industrial, corporate business.

London: Doesn't this have to do with the fact that, at a certain point in its development, psychology adopted the reductive method in order to gain the respectability of science?

Hillman: I think you're absolutely correct. But as the popular trust in science fades — and many sociologists say that's happening today — people will develop a distrust of purely "scientific" psychology. Researchers in the universities haven't picked up on this; they're more interested in genetics and computer models of thinking than ever. But, in general, there is a huge distrust of the scientific establishment now.

London: As people rebel against the scientific approach, they often wind up at the other extreme. We're seeing many new forms of self-help and personal-growth therapies based on non-rational beliefs.

Hillman: The new age self-help phenomenon is pretty mushy, but it's also very American. Our history is filled with traveling preachers and quack medicine and searches for the soul. I don't see this as a new thing. I think the new age is part of a phenomenon that's been there all along.

London: In some respects, you are a critic of the new age. Yet I noticed that a couple of reviewers of The Soul's Code have placed you in the new age category. How do you feel about that?

Hillman: Well, some reviewers have a scientistic ax to grind. To them, my book had to be either science or new age mush. It's very hard in our adversarial society to find a third view. Take journalism, where everything is always presented as one person against another: "Now we're going to hear the opposing view." There is never a third view.

My book is about a third view. It says, yes, there's genetics. Yes, there are chromosomes. Yes, there's biology. Yes, there are environment, sociology, parenting, economics, class, and all of that. But there is something else, as well. So if you come at my book from the side of science, you see it as "new age." If you come at the book from the side of the new age, you say it doesn't go far enough — it's too rational.

London: I remember a public talk you gave a while back. People wanted to ask you all sorts of questions about your view of the soul, and you were a bit testy with them.

Hillman: I've been wrestling with these questions for thirty-five years. I sometimes get short-tempered in a public situation because I think, Oh God, I can't go back over that again. I can't put that into a two-word answer. I can't. Wherever I go, people say, "Can I ask you a quick question?" It's always, "a quick question." Well, my answers are slow. [Laughs]

London: You mentioned Goethe earlier. He remarked that our greatest happiness lies in practicing a talent that we were meant to use. Are we so miserable, as a culture, because we're dissociated from our inborn talents, our soul's code.

Hillman: I think we're miserable partly because we have only one god, and that's economics. Economics is a slave-driver. No one has free time; no one has any leisure. The whole culture is under terrible pressure and fraught with worry. It's hard to get out of that box. That's the dominant situation all over the world.

Also, I see happiness as a by-product, not something you pursue directly. I don't think you can pursue happiness. I think that phrase is one of the very few mistakes the Founding Fathers made. Maybe they meant something a little different from what we mean today — happiness as one's well-being on earth.

London: It's hard to pursue happiness. It seems to creep up on you.

Hillman: Ikkyu, the crazy Japanese monk, has a poem:

You do this, you do that
You argue left, you argue right
You come down, you go up
This person says no, you say yes
Back and forth
You are happy
You are really happy

What he is saying is: Stop all that nonsense. You're really happy. Just stop for a minute and you'll realize you're happy just being. I think it's the pursuit that screws up happiness. If we drop the pursuit, it's right here.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." It's also available in Spanish (translated by Enrique Eskenazi) and Italian (translated by Rinaldo Lampis). An expanded version of the interview — with a few additional questions contributed by journalist Russ Spencer — appeared in the March 1998 issue of The Sun magazine under the title, "From Little Acorns: A Radical New Psychology." It was republished by The Sun in July 2012 in a special section honoring Hillman after his death.