Thursday, July 7, 2011

Imagining and the Soul

"What converts this "it" into me"?  --The Force of Character by James Hillman*

Writing about character isn't so fashionable these days; in our psychologically steeped society, we are conditioned to think more about personality, ego, identity, integrative structures, and other such rational terminology for what has been thought of in previous generations simply as "character". And despite the apparent Oneness which most religions teach, you each have your style, your set of traits both physical and emotional, and a destiny. "You are essentially different from me,' says Hillman, 'by virtue of the lasting sameness of each of our individualized characters." Hillman argues that despite all the changes in a single lifetime, all the progressions made into the future, you are the unique sum of character; character provides 'a lasting core.'

"It's refreshing to discover that some of the oldest and most basic ideas of philosophy-- Same and Different, Form and Matter-- are actually at work in our daily lives... [What] keeps us who we are and holds our body to its form? Imagine the body as an ancient philosopher, the body as a place of wisdom... character, this governing wisdom... an active force...  the hustlers of materialism [form counters materialism, advances function] who ask us to buy the idea that we are complex pieces of biotechnology, compared to computer chips... results from underlying bio-genetic impulses.'
'Form can be reduced to matter." Equally fashionable and in doubt, in Hillman's eyes, is the discipline of Cognitive Sciences. Here the temptation is overwhelming to reduce a human being to an "organ of computation," a reptilian brain and so forth. Equally fantastic is the absence of myth or reductionism in its presentation. Rather there is an air of statement or axiom, self-evident 'truth.'

In contrast Hillman, the philosopher, the scholar, turns to thinkers such as Aristotle, especially Aristotle whose idea of Form in relation to the body and soul has guided much Western thought for more than two millenia. Aristotle believed that the soul is the form of the body, the original of its movement... the interests of body and soul are the same. The soul forms the body, in this view; while without a body, a soul cannot be located. Because of this Aristotle believed that the soul's beauty was harder to detect than beauty of a bodily form. The soul is, in tradition, the element concerned with goodness and beauty, justice and courage, friendship and loyalty. The soul is also variously described by its actions, such as courageous, timid, vacillating, or kindly, loving. "Through these characteristics we come to know the nature of our soul and to assess the souls of others."

Insisting that the soul has a definite, intentional, intelligent idea, Hillman strikes against the cliche idea of soul today that concludes it "all gossamer, no fiber; a refuge, a fairytale land, a mood, a symbol... He counters these cliches, insisting "the idea of  Form gives shape and character to soul, and demands more rigor in thinking about it. Further the character in this reckoning fulfills itself "by doing what it is naturally suited to do, which is also its pleasure. Aristotle called this natural activity, energy." Thus, the character imagined is as much a product of our imagination as our experiences; this "does not mean that our images are purely personal fantasies and that imagination is a function inside each privately enclosed skull."

Imagination is more than a mental function. The creative forces in the world, as the world soul, produce the images that we perceive; some come to us in idleness, in daydreams, in sleep, in sudden, clear insights, or after long struggles in meditation. The philosopher Emmanuel Kant remarked that without imagination, we should have no knowledge whatsoever.  We do not have to visually perceive these imaginings to feel feelings, think thoughts; we do not have to optically view poems, or characters in stories or movies to 'see' them or their character in our imagination. More than anything, imagination is one of the great "archetypal principles like love, order, beauty, justice, time. We sense these principles coursing through us." Beauty and order, for example, are not placed in the world; we find them there. Thus if  "character is a complex of images, then to know you, I must imagine you."

* author James Hillman is a well known thinker, Jungian psychologist and scholar.

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