The Force of Character, James Hillman, Ballantine 1999
Reviews of James Comey’s recent book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership brought to mind this article I wrote, that first appeared in Conjunction Issue 40, July 2006.
The later years of life have a bad press in the modern world. Whereas in the past the aged were revered and respected, in today’s youth-oriented culture they tend to be seen as simply past it and somewhat irrelevant. Yet we live longer and longer. Why is this, and what is the purpose of such long life?
Psychologist James Hillman addresses such questions in The Force of Character. He takes us through many of the apparently negative aspects of aging and tries to draw lessons on why we go through these experiences. The body gradually declines, memory becomes unreliable, sometimes is largely lost, mental faculties may be impaired. But this is all part of a life process that does not have to be seen as negative. There is wisdom and learning to be gained from these challenges, just as with the different challenges of earlier life. And Hillman characterises three stages of this later life process – lasting, leaving and left.
This is not the place to explain these stages, but the key insight Hillman puts forward is that this is all about the development of character – as we get older the inessentials are gradually stripped away and what remains is the essence of the person, the character. Character is what makes us different from others, the essence of our uniqueness and “what gives sense and purpose to the changes of aging”.
This is a different concept to ‘personality’ or ‘ego’; it is almost impersonal. Hillman likens this to the bringing of ‘fate’ back into psychology: “Psychology shorn of fate is too shallow to address its subject, the soul.”
Character can influence events and people. Hillman quotes cases where the emphasis of particular characteristics by a strongly developed character has an unexpectedly significant effect on others. Dennis Skinner, the MP for Bolsover, comes to mind!
Character cannot be objectivised; it requires descriptive language to describe it – adjectives such as ‘stingy’, ‘sharp’, ‘opinionated’, adverbs such as ‘slowly’, ‘carefully’, ‘deliberately’.
This is starting to sound a bit like astrology, and in particular astrological psychology. [Non-astrological readers ignore this paragraph!] Where the Natal Chart provides a sort of map of the essence of an individual, the aspect structure highlights basic motivations at a deep level, the planets, influenced by the signs, show how we most effectively operate in the environment represented by the houses. I could even extend this to suggest that the three charts provide a sort of map of Hillman’s concept of character. And the Life Clock identifies those times in life that are most propitious for the development of character, for becoming what we are in our essential selves.
Hillman’s book is an interesting read, although its origin as a stitching together of separately written pieces is sometimes apparent. You may well learn something about aging that you didn’t know. And it’s interesting to come across the development of some new psychological thinking that is totally consistent with the viewpoint of astrological psychology. Indeed, Hillman recognises the link with astrology:
“Character had [its oldest] refuge: astrology, where it still thrives today.”