My last minute review for work: The Soul’s Code — In Search of Character & Calling by James Hillman

Let me say, first off, that I have been reading this book for some time. I haven’t felt as intimidated by a book in years. It’s a psychology book, a philosophy book, a treatise on identity, and a history of some of the world’s most famous people — artists, politicians, musicians, and scientists. It assumes a familiarity with Platonic and Socratic teachings, Greek mythology, modern psychotherapy, and “famous” people.

I took notes. I underlined. I pondered. I thought about what to write. And here it is, the last day of the year, the final day to complete this assignment for work, the fourth book about creativity. Only it’s not about being creative per se, but about how many creative people showed signs of their calling at early ages.

Now, Hillman refers to this concept by a variety of terms: the acorn, the soul, the innate image, the daimon and more. His entire purpose in the book is to build a case in favor of a Platonic idea I will attempt to explain. Each person is born with the seed of his or her purpose. That seed/soul/daimon/indwelling spirit chose to be born into that particular individual because the situation (parents, location, trajectory) would allow it to “grow down” into reality.

He goes into lengthy discussions of nurture and nature, how there has to be “something else” because of studies performed on identical twins who are, in reality, quite different. He discusses the significance of a mentor, someone other than the parents who recognizes the gift latent in the child. He alleges that tuition, or schooling, is often torture for people who have significant daimons because it contradicts intuition, and the child’s rebellious behavior is really the result of the daimon feeling thwarted and forced to conform. Hillman decries medicating everyone who doesn’t conform to our current idea of normalcy, and argues that children need eccentric people in their lives to show the variety of paths life can take.

As if anticipating arguments that all children need some level of education to help their gift along its way, after all, some instruction is required to learn how to read, Hillman has an entire chapter dedicated to stories of accomplished individuals who consumed a steady diet of “penny dreadfuls and pulp fiction.” Including Quetin Tarantino, of course. He discusses Hitler and the idea of the bad seed.

I find it fascinating how Hillman releases the parents from all responsibility — the antithesis of modern psychotherapy, especially Freud. He believes we’ve placed too much emphasis on the parents, especially when, according to his theory, something from the invisible realm determines which sperm and egg and even which parents connect. How else can he explain all of those geniuses “with mismatched parents”? Clearly they had to get together to create this particular individual! Their main responsibilities are to provide plenty of time in nature, allow children to play, have a fantasy about the child’s future (because no expectation is disastrous — some expectation causes the acorn to either grow or rebel and thus reveal itself), “let there be odd fellows and peculiar ladies within the child’s perimeter” (pg. 161), and let the child’s obsessions “be given courtesy.”

The reason for allowing obsession is many people show flashes of what they will become in early childhood, either through obsession or avoidance. The idea is the need/daimon is fully grown but trapped in a child’s body and becomes afraid or frustrated. It’s easiest to understand in the context of the examples he gives, a scientist livid she received a toy chemistry set instead of “real” tools adults use, or the writer who, as a child, craved the finest tools of her craft — ink pots, drying powder, sealing wafers and wax, quills, and a penknife.

Indeed, it’s Hillman’s numerous examples that make the book comprehensible. If I learned anything from this book, it’s about the power of storytelling within any kind of work to engage the reader and make an abstract concept more clear. To be sure, sometimes it felt like he was reasoning backwards using geniuses, and not everyday people, to “prove” his theory. So Picasso refused to do anything but paint as a child, and wouldn’t learn to read or do math. Statistically speaking, how many Picassos are there in the history of the human race vs. how many kids prefer painting to learning math?

In the end, in addition to appreciating anew the power of stories, I also find myself thinking more carefully about the children in my life. Can I see any early glimpses of their individual calling? Does Seth’s obsession with heavy equipment mean he is destined to be in construction? Only time will tell.

For a bit of background and an interview with the now-deceased author go

The New York Times review is here:

If you’ve read it, I welcome your opinion in the comments.


Author: Keri

1 thought on “My last minute review for work: The Soul’s Code — In Search of Character & Calling by James Hillman

  1. Keri, this sentence caught my attention: “Hillman refers to this concept by a variety of terms: the acorn, the soul, the innate image, the daimon and more.” I reread THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Phillip Pullman last year. In the world of the book, each human being has an animal “daemon” — so hard to explain if you have not read the book. The daemon’s are more confidante and conscience than they are pets. I think that Pullman must have been aware of the same concept Hillman is discussing in this book. Fascinating.

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