The journey to the underworld is a metaphor for an individual’s turn inwards, and their corresponding withdrawal from the external world with its social and interpersonal relationships; the point of making that journey is to learn something spiritual: for spirit can appear personified in the realm of pure soul (i.e., in Hades) as Wise Old Man — so that the individual can learn from him. But what is it that we might thus learn? Is it a piece of insight, some information, a kind of vision, …?
In one of his short essays in Philosophical Intimations (UE 8, 176-191), Hillman gives a few pointers, albeit unhelpfully encumbered in quotations and associative chains. Let’s unpack them.
1. What we might learn (the form of knowledge we might gain) would be something that, once we did learn it, somehow resides in the soul: it is something that is contained in an individual psyche. It has two sources and a weird characteristic.
The weird characteristic of such “knowledge in the soul” is that it is always there. It’s not as if it is put it there, or as if it is generated there, when an individual gains that form of knowledge. Rather, it is a form of recollection: a knowledge that has always been there, but unbeknownst by the individual, then comes to be known in the soul.
We can understand this a little better when we look at why Hillman calls it the “longed-for source of the soul’s knowing” (UE 8, 186). An individual can only long for it, i.e. have an unconscious intimation that there is something to know, yet they don’t know it (as an individual), and they don’t even know (as an individual) what it is that they don’t know.
Today we would say that the knowledge you do not know and which slowly dawns rises from “the unconscious.” Plato proposes something similar when in the Meno, (81c) Socrates says that the soul knows what it knows from having been in the Underworld (Hades)
UE 8, 183.
But the underworld journey produces a change: the individual soul is now transformed in such a way that unconscious knowledge becomes “knowledge in the soul”. Still, it is a knowledge of a quite elusive kind:
[the soul’s] knowing must rather be a state of being, where knowing is desubstantiated, dissolved into a shadow of itself, sheerly a seeing, insight. (Ibd.)
This is like the kind of recollection that remains from a dream, from a spiritual trip, or a deep crisis. It cannot be represented (made present again) with the same force and intensity it had during that experience, but it is still there “in” the individual soul and works forth. The difference, however, is that now (once the individual has gone through the experience, i.e. the dream, spiritual trip, crisis) it is no longer unconscious. There is now consciousness of that knowledge, and such consciousness brings at least an awareness to the individual that there is something to know here. Before the experience, they did not know what they didn’t know — having gone through it, however, they do know in some sense what it is, and also that they can have it only in this ephemeral and elusive way.
2. It is because of this weird characteristic — that the knowledge is always there, but unconscious at first and even later an ephemeral kind of recollection at best — that Hillman now says: “The longed-for source of the soul’s knowing lies in two inaccessible topoi” (ibd., 186).
Note first that we’re in metaphorical space again. The source of this knowledge is not located in literal places; rather, it “lies in topoi”. Topos, of course, is Greek for “place”, but it is also a rhetorical term with a long tradition, and obviously Hillman has chosen it for this ambiguity. The topoi he means are literary or mythical conventions with which we symbolically refer to where the source of this knowledge lies; they are not exact methodical directions for how to get there.
The first of the two topoi is Hades:
The underworld source of all psychic knowledge shadows the life of the soul with its origins and its demise, giving a depth or resonance to all recollections and engagements, and is likely the ultimate intention of all insight.
UE 8, 186.
It is directly connected to the weird characteristic, for Hillman reminds us that a prime characteristic of Hades is invisibility, hiddenness, and depth. Yet in those hidden depths lies the logos of Hades, who “has words for the knowledge, says Socrates, of all noble things (Cratylus, 403e–404b)” (ibd.) And precisely this knowledge, I take it, is what makes the topos of Hades one of the sources of Hillman’s “knowledge in the soul” — for some recollection of this is what we’d expect the individual to bring back from an underworld journey.
The second of the topoi is the principle of intelligibility: the notion that all things, by their very nature, are knowable — even if they are not, in fact, known (at least by us). This one connects in obvious ways to the weird characteristic, too:
We may not know, but we are known, derived from and embraced by a wider intelligence. Our souls are made of intelligence; they are knowledgeable.
UE 8, 187.
This principle (that everything is by its nature intelligible) is the second source of “knowledge in the soul”. In contrast to the first source, there seems no archetypal process (i.e., no pendant to the nekyia), but what is similar is that the source is known through recollection:
when the psyche recollects its source in Intelligence, […] then it is known to itself by its own intelligence and can reply to the inherent intelligibility of all things.
UE 8, 186-187.
3. Given these pointers, the kind of knowledge that emerges appears to be of a rather mystical mould. (That, of course, is quite consistent with the sharp contrast which Hillman draws between it and logos, which would have to be “a literal knowledge, […] a knowledge of positivity, of fact”, capable of a “distinguishing mark”, a “definition”, or an “elemental composition” — none of which is achievable for this sort of “knowledge in the soul”; cf. UE 8, 183-184.) The provenience of such a notion is clearly indicated by the fact that Hillman explicates much of it from quotes out of Plato (and Plotinus): we’re in the middle of speculative Platonist metaphysics here. But I think it is clearly congenial with Jung’s ideas, too, even though Jung himself sometimes (futilely) tried to reconcile it with his view that, in the end, it was based on experience and would thus count as a form of empirical science. Hillman, in contrast, was more aware of the difference, and classified the Jungian perspective as an “ontology of the soul in terms of archetypes” (MA 12) instead (as I’ve remarked before).