James Hillman’s elitism

I’ve been reading James Hillman’s book, The Soul’s Code. I’ve been eager to read some of Hillman’s work, because he’s the only contemporary psychologist, as far as I can tell, who puts forward a daemonic theory of the personality – that’s to say, he seems to believe that we each have a daemon who directs us on our journey through life.

I agree with that idea, mad though it is. That’s basically what the book I wrote, The Wild Man, is about. It’s about my encounter with a daemon figure in various dreams and nightmares, and how this daemon figure has appeared to various other writers and artists throughout history (Augustine, Flaubert, Dickens, Tom Wolfe, loads of them really).

So actually, I guess my theory is slightly different – I believe that, as Plato suggested, daemons are messengers from the gods, or the Cosmic Mind, or whatever, and they appear to certain people who have to try and communicate their message to society, usually in times when society has got out of balance with the gods. Krazee, huh?!!

Anyway, I don’t want to talk today about the daemonic theory of psychology, fascinating as it is. What struck me most about the book, in fact, was its elitism.

What amazed me was that every single ‘case-study’ that Hillman produced to support his idea that we each have a daemon or ‘calling’ was a famous and extremely successful artist or public figure.

So he supports this theory of calling by looking at the lives of: Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, the bullfighter Manolete, Yehudi Menuhin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rommel, Jackson Pollock, RD Laing, Franco, Sigmund Freud…

He draws, in other words, exclusively on geniuses for his theory of human personality. These people might have had personality problems in their youth, they might have been difficult or bored at school, but really this was just their genius calling to them.

Then, later in life, their genius flowered in their literature, or their political career, or their art. The great work they produced justified all that had gone before.

It’s an attractive theory. I guess we could call it the ‘Good Will Hunting’ school of psychology. Inside every one of us there is a genius trying to get out, and all it needs is the right coaching or therapy, and we will flower, and do such things as will make the world wonder. All of the suffering and anxiety will be redeemed by the Great Work that we will do.

But I have two main probems with this theory.

Firstly…not everyone’s a genius! How can Hillman put forward a theory of human personality which relies exclusively for its data set on geniuses, who by their very nature are rare and extraordinary humans?

Geniuses are usually distinguished from the rest of us precisely by their sense of calling, their daemonic drive to work in some particular area, their uncanny and prodigal ability in this area from an early age. That’s why we call them geniuses, because their powers and abilities seem to come through them, as if from some higher spiritual source, rather than from them.

But the other 98% of us don’t have this calling. We don’t have these prodigious abilities. We’re just mediocre, average people, perhaps even below the average level of education or IQ, and yet we’re still struggling with mental illness, struggling with depression or anxiety or stress or addiction.

What can Hillman’s theory do for such people, for the millions of ordinary people suffering out there, who are unlikely ever to be redeemed by some great work of genius?

Secondly, I don’t like the idea that someone with mental illness ‘proves their value’ by creating some great work. Jungians and Freudians often accuse CBT of being capitalist, but actually, that’s a completely capitalist idea – you’re only worth as much as the work you produce. So if you die just before you finish your ‘Great Work’, does that mean you are worth less, as a human being? If you are a bad novelist, does that make you worth less as a human being? Who’s to judge the value of your work, let alone the ‘value of you’?

So those are my two principal objections to Hillman’s work – it seems to me a persuasive account of the 2% of the human race who are geniuses (or is it genii?), but not nearly as applicable or useful for the billions of mediocre but loveable masses who make up the human race, who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that gifted, who are unlikely ever to produce a Great Work.

It’s an elitist theory of psychology, in other words, designed to appeal particularly to the upper middle classes, but not much use at all at the cliff-face of mass mental illness, mass depression, mass anxiety. You can’t start from the genius and work down to the rest of us. You have to start from the ordinary, the unexceptional, the typical. Because a great deal of mental illness is simply typical, unexceptional, repetitive, even boring. Ordinary, everyday hell.

The psychologist can’t just concentrate on the wealthy, the gifted and the powerful- those, perhaps, who need our help least of all. He or she should try to help in particular the poor, the inarticulate, the unblessed.


  • Olly says:

    Hi Jules,

    I liked Hillman’s book, but I agree that his examples are laughably elitist. Its a shame, becuase he could easily have shown, by drawing on more mundane examples, that many people have a vocation to something, no matter how little or seemingly insignificant in the greater scheme of things. I think there is a place for understanding the role of vocation in the mental health of everybody. There is no role for genius in the lives of ordinary folk, but there a role for finding and having a purpose or dream.

    Dealing with dreams, purposes and vocation is not appropriate if a person is suicidal or having a serious breakdown where every day is a strain. But once they are stable enough to be able to consider the future again, then discussion of personal dreams and vocations can be very helpful, for a mind with a positive cause is remarkably robust. As Helen Keller said:
    “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.

    See you soon,


  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Jules,

    I agree that his examples are elitist, but I do think we can apply his theory to all people. We give a genius more attention because he or she does usually contribute great actions, ideas, etc. to our world, but I believe everyone has a “calling.”

    I found his book helpful in that it made me aware of the importance of searching for the soul’s code, not only mine, but others as well.


  • I can’t believe I’m only just now leaving a comment on this post, given that you uploaded it several month ago with its link to my post about daimonic psychology at The Teeming Brain. But better late than never, I suppose.

    I’m just writing to say how fascinating I find your blog to be, Jules. And your WILD MAN book sounds, to put it mildly, like one of those books I’ve been waiting my whole life to read. Any updates on its status? (After I press “publish” on this comment I’ll probably search your blog and find the info I’m looking for, and feel sheepish for not having done that to begin with, but I thought I’d ask first, anyway.)

    Thanks for the ongoing mental-emotional stimulating. Wonderful stuff.

  • amba says:

    Give poor Hillman a break: this is the only book of his that broke through to anything like a mass audience, and his publisher probably instructed him to put celebrities in.

    Also, famous people have a built-in advantage as examples to write about: most people already know them. You don't have to put in capsule biographies of real people or try to create interesting composite characters who still won't stick in the reader's mind the way a known and fascinating figure will.

    We would not be fascinated by famous people if we didn't see aspects of ourselves in them, as well as their strangeness and difference from us. A genius's destiny may reveal itself more clearly than an "ordinary" person's, but that just makes it easier to write clearly and vividly about a process that is nonetheless universal.

  • Marcus says:

    Hey, I don’t think you understood Hillman completely.

    He doesn’t talk about the “daimon” in a way that you have to become a genius, a big “something” in any field. He puts the example of “being a friend” as a daimon calling. You interpret Hillman’s words under the capitalist paradigm we live in, but that’s clearly not what he meant. If you become a good father, and only that in your life even if you’re unemployed and you aren’t a genious or a professional or whatever, can be a perfect “daimonic” call.

    He never claimed the “daimonic” call is to bring forth a genious in you. A “daimonic” call can be be the guy who cleans the dishes in a restaurant. Or it can be, simply, the good co-worker that is always there to give you a hand. It can be whatever.

    “Genius” is a prostituted word by capitalism.

    “success”, “genious”, “achievement”, “career” are not what Hillman had in mind, in my opinion.

    That’s what I understood. I’m not sure I made myself clear. English is not my main language.

  • Marcus says:

    It has nothing to do with “elitism”.

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