More ways to distinguish between spirit and soul

In my previous post, I have discussed Hillman’s criterion for distinguishing between spirit-work and soul-work from The Myth of Analysis. Hillman has also written an entire essay on this topic: “Peaks and Vales: the soul/spirit distinction as basis for the differences between psychotherapy and spiritual discipline” (UE 3, 65—90; see also RVP 76-70). He explicitly traces his view back to Jung’s “tripartite psychology […] based neither on matter and the brain nor on the intellect, spirit, mathematics, logic, metaphysics. […] his base is in a third place between: esse in anima, ‘being in soul’.” (Ibd., 68; Hillman’s emphasis.)

To do full justice to the subtlety of this formulation, we should note that the three elements listed here are not merely three nouns (matter, intellect, soul), but rather three ways of being. Neither in Jung nor in Hillman are we dealing with a naive inventory of reality (“What things is the universe made of — just matter? only ideas? both? or even three sorts of things…”).

When we are talking modes of being, we can see that the formulations between the three components differ in significant ways. First, we might think that everything is made of matter, or everything can be reduced to matter, but it would be strange to say that humans “are in matter”. Likewise, spirit or intellect is something we may reach for, or aspire to, but again individuals are never said to “be in spirit”. Yet in Jung’s frequent formulation “esse in anima”, the idea is not that we interpret the world as made of soul, or that we are reaching for soul, but rather that as persons we also live in soul (and that he took his psychological work as the production of transformations in soul).  Soul, among other things, is an immersion metaphor. Hillman elaborates: “concern with soul immerses us in immanence: God in the soul or the soul in God, the soul in the body, the soul in the world, souls in each other or in the world-soul.” (MA 26, 27.) The “in” in the phrase, esse in anima, is more than reminiscent word-play (with the mediaeval phrasings in the universals dispute) — it points to an essential idea in both Jung and Hillman.

Now in “Peaks and Vales” Hillman lists three more criteria (in addition to the one I already discussed, namely: a necessary personified component) which indicate a focus on soul rather than spirit: pathologizing, love for anima, and polytheism:

Anyone who is engaged with these three factors, regarding them as important, as religious even, seems to me to be engaged in therapy and psychology. Anyone who tends to dismiss pathologizing for growth, or anima confusions for ego strength or spiritual illumination, or who neglects the differentiation of multiplicity and variety for the sake of unity is engaged in spiritual discipline. (UE 3, 84.)

None of these three notions is self-explanatory, and we’ll have to unpack them. But first let’s note that just as interesting as what Hillman means by them is what he contrasts them with.

For instance, there is an almost universal assumption in my experience that “personal growth” and/or an “integrated personality” would count among the goals of therapeutic efforts. But if Hillman is right, that is not psychotherapy at all, but really a form of spiritual practice. There is nothing wrong with spiritual development, of course, but if there were a one-sided focus on it, we would also have a corresponding lack of care for the soul. More importantly: souls may be damaged in the process in such cases where we further a spiritual purification although there may already have been a starving of soul going on.

This is not a new insight, although perhaps one that has been too widely forgotten. Mystics of older times have pointed out that on the spiritual path there comes a stage where less is more in terms of spiritual practice, because the soul needs to work on its own through its dark depths. John of the Cross, for instance, says that in such stages it is “useless […] for the soul to try to meditate because it will no longer profit from the exercise. […] They fatigue and overwork themselves, thinking that they are failing because of their negligence or sins. Meditation is now useless for them because God is conducting them along another road, which is contemplation and is very different […]” (Dark Night 1.10.1-2; Collected Works, 381.) Thus even people who have dedicated their entire life to spiritual development cannot only do that, but have to catch up on soul-work along the path, and that’s an essential component, without  which “they either turn back and abandon the road or lose courage, or at least they hinder their own progress” (ibd.).

So generally, if we don’t understand the distinction between soul and spirit well enough, we don’t understand that spirit-work is not the only work to be done, and we may either neglect soul-work or even try to supplant it with spirit-work, which is probably going to backfire.

Given this motivation, what do we make of Hillman’s list of three aspects (if we don’t want to call them criteria) on which to tell apart soul-work and spirit-work? What does it tell us about soul-work (and the soul) when we distinguish it from spirit-work by characterizing it as pathologizing, love of anima, and polytheism?


By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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