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The psychologist of relativism

· Reflections on the death of James Hillman ·

Newspapers have rightly granted space to the death of James Hillman, Jungian psychoanalyst who became a philosopher, maitre à penser of many Western intellectuals – and an even greater number of readers – to whom he offered a way for dealing with life that at bottom is easy and pleasing. I saw him in one of his last conferences in Rome a few years ago: a fragile and intense old man with white hair, surrounded by a crowd of fans as if he were a film star; middle-class people of every age asking him to give meaning to their lives, to help them to live.

Hillman had the ability to intuit first the fortune and then the crisis of psychoanalysis, overcoming it with that which he called, “archetypal psychology,” something which each person could construct for themselves by reading his books, which soon became extraordinary editorial successes. Books written with passion and fantasy, in which the psyche of the human being is described as Anima, and explained by continual recourse to Greek mythology. An invitation to think through “images” and not through concepts.

Just as the oracle of Delphi’s invitation, each person can find peace and equilibrium only through self-knowledge, and this can be attained – according to Hillman – by holding ourselves up to the mirror of mythological situations which help us to understand and not live blindly. Within us are the demons of antiquity, Pan and Psychè, the puer and justice of Aphrodite. Hillman resuscitated the polytheism of Greek mythology in contrast to the monotheistic and rigid model which had so influenced Freudian psychoanalysis: he thus became one of the most convincing apostles of that polycentric religion which constitutes the central axis of relativism, translating it into a philosophical system accessible to everyone and which seems to extend a hand to all.

A cultural and not clinical solution, which he proposes in opposition to a psychoanalytical practice which had begun its parable of decline in Western society, filling a void that was opening in our cultural panorama. And he does it through engaging writing, that is passionate, convincing and never difficult, which proposes easy and easy to understand solutions to the reader.

It is precisely this merit, of an essentially literary type, which must be recognized in an intellectual who openly declared himself an enemy of Judeo-Christian thought, without however really knowing it. Precisely for this reason, in fact, I do not wish to remember him for the works which establish his “archetypal psychology,” and which met with extraordinary success – a few among many: The Soul’s Code, The Force of Character, The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World – but for a small book entitled, Healing Fiction . Here, Hillman explains that the only way to heal the suffering of the psyche is to construct an acceptable story of one’s life and tell it. In a certain sense, it is the key to his entire work, understood as a literary solution to the problems of life.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 19, 2020