Reading Room

Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life – Thomas Moore

ReadingRoomMoore“Care of the soul is a fundamentally different way of regarding daily life and the quest for happiness… Care of the soul is a continuous process that concerns itself not so much with ‘fixing’ a central flaw as with attending to the small details of everyday life, as well as to major decisions and changes.”

“Soul cannot thrive in a fast-paced life because being affected, taking things in and chewing on them, requires time. “

In a nutshell

Fill your emptiness by living soulfully. Let your individuality out by accepting your idiosyncrasies and dark side.

Care of the Soul was a number one New York Times bestseller and spent almost a year on that list. It is rare for a self-help title to have also received critical acclaim. This is a popular self-help book, but not like any you may have read. Steeped in a sense of the sacred and the profound, Moore’s thesis is that modern lives lack mystery, and the success of the book would seem to indicate that most of us agree.

You should also find it a peaceful experience, almost like a letter from a forgiving friend; while knowing everything about you, they are unfazed in their belief in your godliness. This effect may derive from a combination of Moore’s experience as a psychotherapist, his years as a monk, and his wide learning. Inspired by myth, history, and art, the book exudes the richness of human experience. Moore’s chief influences are Freud – delving into the psychic underworld, Jung – the belief that psychology and religion are indistinguishable, James Hillman, and the Renaissance men Ficino and Paracelsus.

What is care of the soul?

Care of the soul is “an application of poetics to everyday life,” bringing imagination back into those areas of our lives that are devoid of it, and re-imagining the things that we believe we already understand. Rewarding relationships, fulfilling work, personal power, and peace of mind are all gifts of the soul. They are so difficult to achieve because the idea of soul does not exist for most of us, instead making itself known through physical symptoms and complaints, anguish, emptiness, or a general unease.

Soul work can be deceptively simple. Often you feel better just by accepting and going more deeply into what you apparently hate, for example a job, a marriage, a place. The book contains a quote by the poet Wallace Stevens: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around a lake.” Instead of trying to remove any bad feeling or experience surgically from our mind, it is more human and honest to look squarely at the “bad thing” and see what it says to us. We will not receive the soul’s messages if it is moved out of sight. An intent to heal, either on the part of the sufferer or the helper, may obscure insight into what is actually going on.

Conventional self-help and psychotherapy are problem solving. The literature on the soul, exemplified by Moore, is “problem-noticing and wondering.” The soul has to do with turns of fate, which are often counter to expectations and against the desires of the ego and the will. This is a frightening idea, yet the only way it becomes less frightening is when we start to make space for its movements and respect its power. As Victor Hugo put it in Les Miserables: “There is one spectacle grander than the sea that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky – that is the interior of the soul.”

Enjoying our depth and complexity

Moore asks us to re-examine the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful young man in love with an image of himself in a pond. His soulless and loveless self-absorption results in tragedy, but its intensity eventually pushes him into a new life of reflection and love for his deeper self and nature around him. “The narcissistic person simply does not know how profound and interesting his nature is,” Moore suggests. Narcissus is like ivory: beautiful, but cold and hard. What he could become is a flower, with roots and part of a whole world of beauty. However, killing the Narcissus in us is not the way to go; instead of moving to the other extreme of false humility, it is best to keep our high ideals and dreams and find more effective ways to express them.

With the analysis of myths such as these, Moore counsels that we should avoid the simplistic single-mindedness of some self-help writing. There are many aspects to the self, and by accommodating its competing demands, for example solitariness vs. social life, life expands into something fuller. We can sometimes entertain our ego, at other times be the detached sage. Both are valid, and we don’t always have to be making sure that life makes sense.

No one has a soul like ours

“The uniqueness of a person is made up of the insane and the twisted as much as it is of the rational and normal,” Moore notes. This is attested to by the biographies of just about everyone you have ever admired-even Abraham Lincoln is getting the revisionist treatment. Why should you be any different? Care of the Soul warns us to be particularly careful that our efforts to “iron out the bumps” may only be a drive toward conformity and a sad loss of ourselves.

Most therapists now focus on specific problems that can be tackled in a short timeframe that can restore you to “normality.” Through drugs, cognitive therapy, and sciences like neuro-linguistic programming, there is no need for introspection. Care of the soul never ends, however, as the soul itself is outside of time. Only such things as mythology, nature, the fine arts, and dreams – which all defy time – can give us proper insight into our mystery.

The book has four parts and thirteen chapters, covering the gamut of the human condition. The following themes are from the first half.


We should try not to see love in terms of “making relationships work.” Rather, love is an “event of the soul” that may have surprisingly little to do with who you are with. Love is relief from the mundane, sanitised nature of modern life, a door into mystery, which is why we seize it with such force.


Moore had a young client who had whipped himself into a frenzy about his girlfriend’s suspected affairs. Yet the man also believed that romantic attachment was not modern or acceptable. This purity of ideals had shunted out the possibility of real attachment, and the result was an ugly externalization of jealousy.

Nevertheless, jealousy is not all bad, serving the soul through the creation of limits and rootedness. Flying in the face of modern ideas about “co-dependency,” Moore says that it is okay to find one’s identity in relation to another.


The soul’s power is quite different to the ego’s. With the ego we plan, direct, and work toward an end. The soul’s power is more like a current of water. Though we may never understand its source, we still have to accommodate it and let it guide our existence. With the soul we have to abandon the “consumer logic” of cause and effect and the efficient use of time.


The soul loves power, but violence breaks out when the dark imagination is given no outlet. When a community or a whole culture lacks soulfulness, the soul is fetishized into objects, for example guns. As Oscar Wilde suggested, virtue cannot be genuine when it sets itself apart from evil.


Moore says that any culture that tries to protect itself against the tragic side of life will make depression the enemy, but that in any type of society “devoted to light” depression will be unusually strong in order to compensate for its unnatural covering up. Moore describes depression as a gift: It unwraps our neat little values and aims, giving us a chance to get to know the soul.

Final comments

Late in the book, Moore tells of the summer he spent working in a laboratory, having left the monastic life where he had been cloistered for 12 years. Enjoying his new-found freedom, he was shocked when a workmate said to him with conviction, “You will always do the work of a priest.” The success of Care of the Soul is a perfect example of how self-help literature has taken the place of traditional carers-of-the- soul, to whose rituals and religious instruction we once would have turned automatically.

In place of the “salvation fantasy” that he believes characterises contemporary self-help, Moore tries to return us to a self-knowledge quest that can encompass our shadows and complexities. His book is modelled on the less ambitious manuals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which offered philosophical comfort for the trials of life. Care of the Soul may stand out from today’s self-help writing, but in fact continues an old and venerable tradition.

Renaissance doctors, Moore tells us, believed that each individual soul originated as a star in the night sky. The modern idea, he notes, is that a person is “what he makes himself to be.” We have to value the self-creating freedom that is enjoyed in our time, but Moore’s book gives us something altogether different: the encouragement to wonder what is eternal in us.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

Posted in Reinvention | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reading Room

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling – James Hillman

“At the outset we need to make clear that today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, oReadingRoomHillmanmits something essential – the particularity you feel to be you. By accepting the idea that I am the effect of a subtle buffeting between hereditary and societal forces, I reduce myself to a result.”

“As democratic equality can find no other logical ground but the uniqueness of each individual’s calling, so freedom is founded upon the full independence of calling. When the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that all are born equal, they saw that the proposition necessarily entailed a companion: All are born free. It is the fact of calling that makes us equal, and the act of calling that demands we be free.”

In a nutshell

Not only celebrities and nuns have “callings.” All of us have in our heart the image of the person we can be and the life we can live.

Is there a code to our souls, a DNA of destiny? The question compelled Hillman to trawl through the lives of actress Judy Garland, scientist Charles Darwin, industrialist Henry Ford, musicians Kurt Cobain and Tina Turner, and many others, searching for the “something” that drove them on and made them live as they did. His premise is that, just as the giant and majestic oak is embedded in the acorn, so does a person carry inside them an active kernel of truth, or an image, waiting to be lived. The idea is not a new one: The Greeks had the word daemon to describe the invisible guiding force in our lives, the Romans the genius.

We are a story, not a result

The idea of a soul image has a long history in most cultures, but contemporary psychology and psychiatry ignore it completely. Image, character, fate, genius, calling, daemon, soul, destiny – these are all big words, Hillman admits, and we have become afraid to use them, but this does not lessen their reality. Psychology can only seem to break down the puzzle of the individual into traits of personality, types, and complexes. The author mentions a psychological biography of Jackson Pollock, which stated that the rhythmic lines and arcs of his paintings were the result of being left out of his brothers’ competitions of “creative urination” on the dust of their Wyoming farm!

Such interpretations kill the spirit, denying that inner visions, rather than circumstances, are what drive people. The way we see our lives, says Hillman, dulls them. We love romance and fiction, but don’t apply enough romantic ideals or stories to ourselves. We cease to be a creation and become more a result, in which life is reduced to the interplay between genetics and environment. Another way in which we restrict our existence is in how we see time, or cause and effect. That is, “This happened, which caused me to … “or “I am the product of …” The book looks rather at what is timeless about us, whether we are just born, middle-aged, or old.

Who are our parents?

Hillman is brilliant at exposition of what he calls the “parental fallacy,” the belief that the way we are is because of how our parents were. Childhood, The Soul’s Code argues, is best understood in terms of the image with which we are born coming into contact with the environment in which we find ourselves. The child’s tantrums and strange obsessions should be seen in this context, rather than trying to “correct” them in therapy.

Yehudi Menuhin was given a toy violin for his fourth birthday, which he promptly dashed to the ground. Even at this age, it was an insult to the great violinist-in-waiting. We treat children as if they are a blank slate, without their own authenticity, and the child is therefore denied the possibility that they may have an agenda for their life, guided by their genius.

In terms of our daemon, a parental union results from our necessity: The daemon selected the egg and the sperm as well as their carriers, called “parents.” This certainly turns the tables, but Hillman suggests that it explains the impossible marriages, quick conceptions, and sudden desertions that form the stories of so many of our parents.

He goes further to point out the poverty of seeing our mothers and fathers as, literally, mum and dad, when nature could be our mother, books our father – whatever connects us to the world and teaches us. Quoting Alfred North Whitehead, who said that “religion is world loyalty,” Hillman says that we must believe in the world’s ability to provide for us and lovingly reveal to us its mysteries.

“I must have you”

The Soul’s Code shows how the daemon will assert itself in love, giving rise to obsessions and torments of romantic agony that defy the logic of evolutionary biology. Identical twins separated at birth are often later found to be wearing the same aftershave or smoking the same brand of cigarette, but in the most important choice of choosing a mate there can be great differences.

When Michelangelo sculpted portraits of gods or of his contemporaries, he tried to see what he called the immagine del cuor, the heart’s image; the sculpture aimed to reveal the inner soul of the subject. Hillman says that the same heart’s image lies within each person. When we fall in love, we feel super-important because we are able to reveal who we truly are, giving a glimpse of our soul’s genius. The meeting between lovers is a meeting of images, an exchange of imaginations. You are in love because your imagination is on fire. By freeing imagination, even identical twins are freed of their sameness.

The bad seed

The Soul’s Code is engrossing when it comes to love’s opposite, the “bad seed.” Hillman devotes most of a chapter to the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s habits, reported by reliable informants, give evidence of possession by a “bad” daemon. The principal difference to other lives discussed in the book is the combination of acorn and personality: Not only was Hitler’s acorn a bad seed, but it was wrapped in a personality that offered no doubts or resistance to it. From a single seed, we can see how the fascinating power in this man charmed millions into a collective demonic state. We can apply the same idea to modern psychopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer to understand how they can enchant their victims.

This is not to suggest in any way that the terrible actions arising from a bad seed are justified. However, appreciating the criminal mind in terms of the daemon/acorn gives us a better understanding of it than our conventional idea of evil (that is, something to be eradicated or “loved away”). What makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, but its ultimate aim is glory. As a society, we should be willing to recognise this drive and find ways of channelling it to less destructive ends.

We live in a culture of innocence that despises darkness. American popular culture in particular, with its Disneylands and Sesame Street, cannot accept seeds that are not sugar coated. Nevertheless, innocence actually attracts evil, Hillman says, and” Natural Born Killers are the secret companions of Forrest Gumps.”

The soul mystery

Having spent the book looking at the lives of the famous, Hillman raises the question of mediocrity-can there be a mediocre daemon? His answer is that there are no mediocre souls, a truth reflected in our sayings. We speak of someone having a beautiful soul, a wounded soul, a deep soul, or a child-like soul. We do not say that people have a “middle-class,” “average,” or “regular” soul, he notes.

Souls come from the non-material realm, yet they yearn for the experience of this very physical world. Hillman recalls the film Wings of Desire, in which an angel falls in love with life, the normal life of regular people and their predicaments. To the angels and the gods, there is nothing “everyday” or ordinary about our lives.

Final comments

Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.” Life is not about becoming something, but about making real the image already there. We are obsessed with personal growth, reaching toward some imaginary heaven, but instead of trying to transcend human existence, it makes more sense to “grow down” into the world and our place in it. Hillman is not surprised that the people we call “stars” often find life so difficult and painful. The self-image that the public gives them is an illusion and inevitably leads to tragic falls to earth.

The twists and turns of your life may not be as extreme as those of the celebrities, but they may have a greater positive effect. For character, Hillman says, we now look as much to “the soldier’s letter back home on the eve of battle, as the plans laid out in the general’s tent.” One’s calling becomes a calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and loving rather than to achieving. In this definition, life itself is the great work.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

Posted in Reinvention | Tagged , , | Leave a comment