Care of the Soul

by Thomas Moore

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1383

First published: New York: HarperCollins, 1992

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Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Handbook for living; mysticism; spiritual treatise

Core issue(s): Acceptance; guidance; healing; redemption; self-knowledge; wisdom

Overview

Modern behavioral psychology has denied the existence of the human soul, believing instead that a person’s actions are key to understanding. In this way, a “cure” can be found for atypical behavior. Author Thomas Moore believes this neglect of the human soul has led therapy astray. According to Moore, only by looking deeply inward to the soul can a person discover the key to coping with life’s problems.

Moore first addresses the question of just what the human soul is. To Moore, it is the center and core of every human being. It is the locus of the spiritual side of a person, beyond the reach of rational inquiry, yet is key to understanding the essence of life and its challenges. The only way to explain the workings of the soul, he says, is through metaphor and myth. Myths have always served to illuminate universal truths about human triumphs and sufferings. Many have to do with love and power. Myths begin to unravel the mysteries of life in a way that rational inquiry cannot. They explain, in a symbolic way, a person’s relationship to the world and can produce a profound sense of acceptance and understanding. In contrast, modern psychology has focused on developing a “cure” for life’s problems by redirecting patterns of behavior. This empirical approach obscures the fact that there are much deeper origins. Problems of love and hate, jealousy and envy, depression and failure are too complex to be cured by a modification of one’s behavior, if they can be cured at all.

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To reach the level of understanding of the soul, one must first acknowledge its existence. This requires a journey deep inside oneself. This effort of self-discovery may be painful but is essential. It is a journey taken throughout history by many people, which is why myths have a universal ring. Despite humanity’s technological advances, the human condition has not changed. To illustrate how myths can teach us about ourselves, Moore recounts the ancient Roman story of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image in a pool of water and, in an attempt to merge with that image, falls into the pool and drowns. This is more than a story of self-love; it is also about a journey to self-knowledge. To love oneself selfishly is to have no soul, Moore says, and the myth teaches us that our self-image may not be what it first appears. Thus the myth helps us to unravel a fundamental mystery of the soul and may lead to a transformation of one’s self-image.

One of the major themes of the book is self-acceptance. A divorce, the loss of a job, the passing of a loved one—all of these common experiences can pose a tremendous psychological shock. There is no “cure” for such events, only acceptance. To move beyond such problems is never easy and requires considerable soul-searching. To neglect the role of the soul during such times is to deny the depth of the problem. Such times are difficult but in fact may be opportunities to learn and grow. Even those in the grip of psychological depression may emerge from it with new opportunities, if they see the depression as an important and necessary stage in the growth of the soul.

Moore also reflects that modern life moves at a hectic pace, and many times people leave no time for reflection or contemplation; the speed of the outer world often leaves the inner world behind. Removing oneself from the world for a time has been part of the spiritual life of many cultures and, Moore asserts, is an essential part of caring for the soul.

The author’s work is deeply influenced by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology. Mythology and the analysis of dreams played a large part in Jung’s thinking. He saw myth and dreams as important tools in exploring the soul. James Hillman, a disciple of Jung who developed archetypal psychology—a form of therapy that stresses the importance of myths and symbols—is also frequently referred to by Moore. Hillman’s thesis of psychology as a “way of seeing” and his humanistic approach are evident in Moore’s work.

Another influence was the Renaissance thinker Marsilio Ficino, whom Moore discovered while searching for a topic for his doctoral dissertation. Ficino, a Neoplatonist, wrote about the divinity of the soul and the importance of a spiritual life. Ficino turned to mythology for insight, a practice that contributed to Moore’s own work as a therapist.

Knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology are also key to Moore’s philosophy. Classical mythology was a way of making sense out of the world through their personification in the actions of the gods. The humanness of the Greco-Roman gods provided Greeks and Romans with a way of conveying universal truths and explaining the triumphs and tragedies of existence in myth. Such myths unlock the mysteries of the soul by symbolically portraying universal themes such as suffering, jealousy, love, hate, and death. Moore’s approach is polytheistic; he draws from Asian religious traditions as well. Like Joseph Campbell—perhaps the most the famous writer on the subject of myths—Moore sees the same motifs repeated in all cultures.

Christian Themes

Thomas Moore spent twelve years of his life preparing for the priesthood, although he was not ordained. There is no question, however, that those years had a profound effect upon his thinking. He understands the importance self-denial, a simple life, and contemplation. The Bible, he says, is “a compendium of insight into the nature of the soul.” He talks of the importance of ritual and symbolism, which is so much a part of the Catholic Church. Christians understand that spirituality needs to be reinforced by going to church and reserving time for worship.

The Christian conception of the soul and the symbolism inherent in biblical writings are consistent with Moore’s idea of soul. He uses the example of Jesus standing in the River Jordan, waiting to be baptized before he begins his life’s work. Symbolically, Jesus is standing in the swirling waters of time and fate—a “stream of events”—in which at some point every individual must find a place. The stories in the Gospels can be read for inspiration as we make our way through life. The formal Christian teachings, rites, and stories, Moore says, “provide an inexhaustible source for reflection on the mysteries of the soul.”

The title of this work, Care of the Soul, may suggest that this is a “self-help” book. The author takes care to explain that this is not the case. “Self-discovery” is a better characterization. As a practicing psychotherapist, Moore relates several times in the book how analysis of the soul has helped his patients. He does not, however claim to “cure” people. Moore is suggesting a new way of thinking about the inner life that brings about understanding, acceptance, and wisdom.

Sources for Further Study

  • Armstrong, Karen. A Short History of Myth. New York: Canongate Books, 2005. An introduction to the history and meaning of myths and mythology in Western culture.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor, 1991. A good introduction to the significance of myths in modern life by one of the most famous scholars of the subject.
  • Hillman, James. A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman. Edited by Thomas Moore. New York: Harper and Row, 1989. A collection of essays by a modern disciple of Carl Jung and the foremost spokesperson for a soul-oriented psychology.
  • Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1978. Hillman’s most important work, a primer on his school of archetypal psychology.
  • Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Edited by Aniela Jaffé and translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. A collection of memories, thoughts, and philosophical reflections compiled shortly before the 1961 death of the founder of analytical psychology.
  • Moore, Thomas. Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. New York: Gotham, 2004. A sequel to Care of the Soul offering specific advice on dealing with life’s challenges.

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