The Soul of the World

The Soul of the World is the second part of James Hillman’s two-part book, The Thought of the Heart and The Soul of the World, in which he sees a world suffering a breakdown in much the same way as individuals suffer. A world ensouled, a psychic reality, in which we imagine with our hearts, connecting each of us to the things of the world, as part of the Anima Mundi. See Here for some of my recent thoughts on first part of the book, The Thought of the Heart. 

“The world, because of its breakdown, is entering a new moment of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality. The world is now the subject of immense suffering, exhibiting acute and crass symptoms by means of which it defends itself against collapse.”

So, is the world broken because individuals are broken, is it us, the family (or lack thereof), the community that are to be blamed for brokenness, or is it just as much the other way around? Are we broken because of the breakdown of the world? The essay was presented in the late 70’s and I think we have begun to turn our gaze outward a bit more, but perhaps we still need a way to enter into a sense of the world as ensouled; a world that, through an awareness of its images we sense is alive needing our attention and love. For some of us, too long have we lived convinced of the world’s deadness which risks alienating us from caring and just as importantly, from feeling cared for by the world.

“Rather let us imagine the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. Then anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each new event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image – in short, its availability to imagination, its presence as psychic reality. Not only animals and plants ensouled as in the Romantic vision, but soul is given with each thing, God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street.”

He is arguing for a readmittance of our animal sense, an aesthetic response to the face of the world, a world that is not just dead matter, but alive by virtue of its images presented in each particular thing. And this response is necessary as “…any alteration in the human psyche resonates with a change in the psyche of the world.”

“To interpret the world’s things as if they were our dreams deprives the world of its dream, its complaint. Although this move may have been a step toward recognizing the interiority of things, it finally fails because of the identification of interiority with only human subjective experience.”

When sense and imagination of the world leave us we are left with “images without bodies and bodies without images, an immaterial subjective imagination severed from an extended world of dead objective facts,” we then sever the heart connection as the hearts way of perceiving is both sensing and imagining. “To sense penetratingly we must imagine, and to imagine accurately we must sense.”

Our modern troubles with the heart lie perhaps not only in the physical heart but this thinking heart of perceiving and sensing. Maybe our suffering hearts are sick from more than just what we eat or how much exercise we get, but from the suffering of the world and our relation to it. But if the world needs our aesthetic, animal sense to re-imagine our contact with it, Hillman reminds us that it’s not so much the beauty of arts and a sanitized, deodorized world that will heal it, but an aesthetic knowing leading us to “thing-consciousness,” felt and seen in all of the objects we encounter in our day-to-day; the chair we sit in, the cars we drive, the inornate and anorexic walls and buildings, erected quickly and built with practicality and efficiency in mind and not for their beauty or the beauty of the world.

Hillman insists that it is in the particular things, even the smallest things, including our need for speed, expansion, the hunger we are unwilling to live with that make up the soul of the world and that only through our attention to these things, and caring for them can the world in turn care for us. This revisioning would be itself an environmental movement, a love affair in which “each of us reworks our background” that is the world, a world alive that is ensouled.

“A world without soul offers no intimacy. Things are left out in the cold, each object by definition cast away before it is manufactured, lifeless litter and junk, taking its value wholly from my consumptive desire to have and to hold, wholly dependent on the subject to breathe it into life with personal desire.

When particulars have no essential virtue, then my own virtue as a particular depends wholly and only on my subjectivity or on your desire for me, or fear of me: I must be desirable, attractive, a sex-object, or win importance and power. For without these investments in my particular person, coming either from your subjectivity or my own, I too am but a dead thing among dead things, potentially forever lonely.”

All quotes from James Hillman, Spring Publications.

24 thoughts on “The Soul of the World

    1. Hi rita. That’s wonderful. Although like many of us, I have/am influenced by many people, the idea of the world as ensouled come from James Hillman, who if you haven’t heard of him, was a Jungian analyst and a gifted writer who has greatly influenced me. Just to give credit where it belongs.
      I enjoyed reading your blog and felt a kinship from your writings and your spiritual/faith journey.
      Thank you for the note!


  1. wonderful… thankyou for sharing… Yes… the human being cannot exist for long without its spiritual essence and soul…. and now is the perfect time to reclaim what we have lost for too long… Barbara


  2. Oh those last lines of dead things and loneliness amid the acute and crass symptoms. off to walk in the falling leaves of autumn, pondering the forevision of Hillman, awakening my animal senses within. Thank your for your deep diving shares!


  3. Erik Andrulis

    I really am growing to like Hillman. This quote, “The world, because of its breakdown, is entering a new moment of consciousness: by drawing attention to itself by means of its symptoms, it is becoming aware of itself as a psychic reality”
    is super, because Hillman is implicitly admitting/recognizing/knowing that It which is experiences the World is the World Itself. And that is profound indeed, the correct interpretation of reality. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Very cool thoughts Ik!
      I like to imagine a conversation between you and Hillman, now that would have been something, because I suspect that although your areas of expertise are different you might have found common ground. I’d like to think so because I enjoy reading you and Hillman so much.


  4. I appreciate Hillman for his insight into how what is happening in the collective consciousness also has bearing on what each of us may be experiencing. Those of us who are ‘sensitives’ especially may find this shattering feeling and collapse more acutely felt. Thanks for keeping Hillman front and center in my gaze.


  5. Don

    I was watching a recent program on the Celtic Druids and found myself fascinated by what can only be described as their animal sense of the world. What struck me was the sheer porousness of it all, no boundaries, just a profound oneness with the “soul” of the world. Marvellous to see. What disturbed me though, and I hope this was not just my Western upbringing, was the lack of differentiation in their system of living.

    I believe that the detachment from and the observation of things that Newtonian physics gave us, thus erecting the inevitable boundaries, was a necessary step in our evolution. Obviously as with all things it was taken to the point of absurdity. I think what we are seeing now is a falling away of those boundaries and a returning to that oneness, that animal sense, but now from a necessary and more differentiated perspective and dimension.

    Again, as usual, a wonderful post Debra. Thank you.


    1. Thanks Don! I agree with you very much in seeing a historical progression of sorts and now we are returning to, revising our sense of individualness and oneness with the world.


    1. Thanks Monika. Yes, I used to berate myself for feeling sad for the world; war, hunger, suffering, as being “not my feelings.” But of course we can be sad for things that touch us deeply, even from a distance.


  6. I agree totally with Julianne. World events are symbolic of the inner workings of individuals , while individuals respond in kind to world events. The need for war will end when no wars rage within humanity’s individual members.You can also examine this from the cellular level.


    1. Yes, I agree Linda, but I am not convinced that the boundaries between self and other or self and world are as fixed some of us imagine them to be.
      I think what I am reading Hillman to say is that the more we come to view the world, or anything perceived to be outside of us as dead matter, we place imagined boundaries and identities on who we are who others are which leads to a sense of isolation and loneliness and distorts our ability to have that animal sense of the world and each other.


      1. Mine too!! Even though I know I understand people, places and things better when I am able to be open to their world, I sometimes want to shelter myself from what can feel like absorbing another’s emotional storm.


      2. funny you mention storm, today I delberately walked around during a storm determined to get some time outside and blogged about it!

        It was very liberating and opened me up. It is important to protect ourselves from taking negative energy in. I use white light daily to protect myself.


      3. Yes, I loved your post about being out in the storm. Sometimes we need to and feel like we can take that in, sometimes, not!
        I pray for protection often and must admit that I have often felt protected directly by my Aunt Bunny and another woman who I am not sure I know.
        It’s hard to even speak of such things though as I some people would say that is quite crazy, yes?


  7. The Universe is like a hologram, a fractal…what happens on a small scale (individuals) both affects and reflects what happens on a large scale (world), just as what’s inside affects and reflects what’s on the outside and vice versa. It’s all interconnected, and so the breakdown and suffering goes both ways. We can address one end (the world or the individuals) but addressing it from both ends will be better.


    1. Yes, agreed. I think what Hillman points to in this book is the historical move away from having that animal sense of the world we once had more of to the more isolated sense of ourselves as being apart from the world we have more of now, and not that either one by itself is preferred.
      Thank you Julianne for making that point.


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