Character

9780375501203-it-300The 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.”

The Meaning of Aging

What is the meaning of getting old? Is it something like this:

“the challenge of growing old is not to conquer aging but to enter a natural, meaningful, and profoundly transforming process”?

three_secrets_of_agingIf you think it is, then you will probably like John C. Robinson’s book The Three Secrets of Aging. 

It is good to think that aging can be a meaningful process that can positively contribute to society, rather than just a desperate hanging on in the face of increasing tribulations and eventual infirmity. Again, Robinson gives a positive vision, akin to playing a part in a New Renaissance:

“…the aging experience described here can eventually become the path to a collective transformation and the discovery of a new world.”

Part 1 tells the story of the authors own coming into the aging process and becoming aware that it is not about more ‘business as usual’ with the preoccupations of earlier years, but more about an emptying of consciousness, a spiritual transformation to awareness of who we really are – a sort of modern form of enlightenment, away from the everyday concerns of the ego and its thinking monkey mind. It is the ego and the personal identity that actually keeps us away from our inner core. From this perspective, aging is a process of transformation of consciousness, and the individual is contributing to a collective process of transformation.

Part 2 offers three ‘secrets of aging’. The result of aging is seen as the creation of Elders, wise people who have always been valued by native peoples. The work involves both psychological and spiritual work, transforming loss and change, away from the life we knew with its materialistic concerns, into meaning, wisdom and renewal. Squarely facing our own personal death is a key task of aging, catalysing our initiation. We can finally reach a state of pure consciousness, untroubled by the previous interminable concerns of the ego mind. The author refers to the Cosmic Consciousness promoted by Richard Bucke over 100 years ago.

Eventually, yes, the body will in some way break down, and it will eventually be time to pass on into the Mystery. But that too is all right, a natural part of the process, no longer resisted by the ego.

In part 3 the author offers ‘A Spiritual Blueprint for the Enlightened Elder in the Twenty-First Century’. He highlights the need, in that the effects of our separation from nature are becoming increasingly apparent – the technological ego-maniac period is increasingly running into the buffers.

“Coming to our senses means experiencing the Earth directly as a vast, intelligent, living and divine being everywhere expressed in a marvelous diversity of forms and processes.”

The Master must regain control from His Emissary, in the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary, reviewed elsewhere.

There is much food for thought in this book. For me, John C. Robinson offers an inspiring vision for the process of aging, and its relevance as part of our collective experience.

The bottom line is if you like the overall thesis you are likely to benefit from reading it.

 

 

 

Wisdom

What does it mean to be wise?

Do we just learn more and more facts until eventually, we know so much that we are inevitably wiser? Look around you, the highly respected academics, advisers and some of their preposterous theories? Clever maybe, but not wise.

Do we just gain more experience of the world, of doing things, of managing people, getting our way? Look around you, the top businessmen and politicians – are they managing the world wisely? Cunning maybe, but not wise – although there are remarkable exceptions with obvious wisdom: Mandela, Havel, King, Gandhi… but the list soon runs out.

Do we become judges, so that we weigh complex matters of law in the balance? The judgement of Solomon? Well actually judges seem so constrained by the laws they administer and their ‘sentencing guidelines’, do they actually have the room to be wise? Whatever happened to natural justice?

Do we just live our lives and relate honestly to other people, making the best contribution we can? Think of the neighbours, friends, the family, people you meet shopping? Well a few maybe a, but not in general.

Do we follow a religion and in so doing become good and wise? History shows a lot of examples of religious people doing the exact opposite of wise, but again there have been highly respected exemplars, such as the occasional pope and saint.

Do we simply wait until we get older and become wiser? Well many older people just become encrusted with habitual behaviours, so no guarantees there.

wisdom_emblem_wither
Wisdom Emblem, George Wither 1635

Look at it psychologically. From childhood we develop the psychological ego, which enables us to function in the world. Along with that we develop facility in language, which enables us to be ‘educated’ and to rationalise everything, but tends to distance us from the reality of experience. This enables us to function in modern societies.

However, I suggest that rationalising and language are not the route to wisdom. Wisdom comes from perceiving a situation in its essential whole and doing what is needed for the whole (ie not for the ego), which may be nothing. Rational analysis may be relevant, but will not provide the answer.

So to be wise we must have moved in some degree beyond that attachment to the rationalising ego. In fact we must be operating from our true inner selves.

Evidence suggests that people following some sort of spiritual path, perhaps involving techniques such as meditation which help to see and then detach from the ego, will eventually get more in touch with that inner self – and that is the route to wisdom. This is usually, but not always, a long process – hence there is some association of wisdom with older age. Indeed the infirmities that beset the body as it ages bring the receptive person right up against the illusions of ego, ‘encouraging’ this process.

So, indeed, as in traditional societies, ‘elders’ can be wise – hence the wisdom of the World Council of Elders initiative.

[Looking at our own UK parliament, the famous unwritten constitution has at its heart the ‘House of Lords’, which performs a valuable service in providing a leavening of (hopefully) wisdom to the more youthful follies of the government of the day and the House of Commons. Shame then, that despite some recent progress, key criteria for Party Leaders topping up the population of ‘Lords’ appear to continue to be political subservience and money donation, rather than wisdom. ]

One could almost say that the purpose of human life itself is to go through this process of ego development and then ego dissolution, to become a truly wise person – to make the best contribution to an increasingly wise society.