Thomas Moore brings an impressive background and set of degrees to his psychiatric practice. He was a monk before he got into psychology, and he has a Ph.D and a number of other impressive certificates to his credit. He also plays the piano, he lets us know, as a way of relieving grief and anxiety in strenuous moments such as 9/11, which spurred him into a three-hour communion with Bach.
Care of the Soul he envisions as a “Guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life.” An ambitious goal, and I suppose you could use the book in this way, although if you do, I think it ought to have a warning label or two.
I found Moore impressive and insightful, but have some reservations to mention before I get to the positives. A person in the wrong frame of mind could suffer severe consequences by taking Moore’s advice too literally. He maintains, for example, that it might be a good idea to combat depression by diving into the negative feelings, dealing with the causes, and coming out stronger on the other end. Trying to combat such feelings with drugs (allotropically rather than homeopathically), he goes on, is liable to cover up the root causes of melancholy without solving the problem. With expert guidance, this could be a fine approach. No doubt we’re way too dependent on pills as problem solvers. However, true depression can often end in suicide, and Moore’s remedy as a do-it-yourself cure would be, to say the least a bad idea. He also doesn’t mention that there are millions of people for whom life and relationships would be impossible without the help of psychotropic drugs. I know a few such folks, and they are neither addicts nor idiots. Moore doesn’t offer such caveats.
Too, he keeps harking back to the Greeks and medievals as true guides to body and spirit, reminding us of the beneficial influences of concepts like the four humors. True, he often speaks of these as metaphorical and wants his readers to use them mainly as ways around the concept our scientific age has created that we can have concrete, linear solutions even for situations for which they are inappropriate. Again, well and good, except that the medicine and “science” based on such ideas produced in their day dangerous practices like bleeding, purging, and heavy metal cocktails. His heavily anti-scientific bent could easily feed those among us today who deny all things scientific. Those, who, for example, put their own children and the rest of us in danger by refusing vaccinations. Although I am receptive to much of his message, I wish he’d made the context and limits more clear.
When I taught in an experimental high school way back when, I had the exciting opportunity to invent a course called Dreams, Myth, and Magic. We used Jung’s Man And His Symbols as the central text, along with a wonderful book called The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurence Van Der Post. Van Der Post’s study of the lives and myths of the San People, or the Bushmen of South Africa took a Jungian look at how myths and dreams can be used to guide and structure a peoples’ very existence. Because the Bushmen lived, at the time he was among them, virtually without influence from the modern west, they provided a virtual tabula Rasa for testing some of Jung’s pet theories about the universality of the myth patterns and unconscious sources of dreams and archetypes. Afterwards, the Bushmen quickly became rather famous, and there was even a Hollywood movie out for a while that made fun of the little men as they encountered 20th century modern miracles, a little on the order of the Beverly Hillbillies.
However, my students and I had a good time exploring Jung’s theories of myth and archetypes and dream analysis. I wasn’t and still am not qualified to act as either a scholar or therapist, so we approached it all in a rather literary and historical way. I didn’t want things to get too personal, though we did have some relatively intimate discussions, and I think the course did us all a lot of good. The reading and interactions have provided some good guideposts for me and I hope for my students.
I say all this to demonstrate that I have at least a passing interest and involvement in much of what Moore is “preaching,” and I am receptive. What he calls the “Soul” is more or less what Jung calls the “Unconscious,” or what Freud calls the “Id.” Freud and Jung were trying to separate their work from the theological frameworks which had always been responsible for explaining the mysteries of our existence. Moore, by contrast, wants to dive right back into the world of the numinous and provide an antidote to the intellectualized, materialistic world we have created and in which we have such “faith.”
He prescribes everything from meditation/prayer to arts and crafts. Concentrate on your inner self. Do your own work–housecleaning, dishwashing, gardening. Create–not just buy–your own art and decorations. But he’s not nearly that simplistic. You also need to encounter your own fears, anxieties, failures. Not to “fix” them. The soul is not a mechanical object to be repaired. Instead, you embrace your negatives with the notion that they are single aspects of whole entities, of which you are at any moment experiencing only a part. In that whole entity reside positives you will never know or understand unless you accept the negatives that go with them. And once you have understood the whole you will be a richer being inside and more effective in the world.
One of the most fascinating areas of the book was the idea of animism, the dominant religion of “primitive” cultures whose gods are multi-faceted rather than monotheistic. Seen from this perspective, our personalities are a collection of separate drives and desires and influences that live within us contradictory and often argumentative lives. There is the Daedalus, the inventor in a labyrinth; there is also the Icarus, the son who longs to soar beyond the labyrinth and who destroys himself in the process. There is the Narcissist who in a truncated and undeveloped form sees in the whole world only himself–Freud’s “ego,” undeveloped and dangerous. And the Narcissist who dives into the pool after his own image and comes out on the other side with a vision of the whole world and a wholeness and affection for self without which the true self the whole ego, is either terrifying or insignificant in the world. It was Jung’s idea thyou were to eventually unify all these fragments in the eventual process of “individuation.” Moore doesn’t seem to see that as a goal.
So the book goes, myth after myth, one psychological theory after another, patient and dream anecdotes galore. Moore acts as his own Virgil guiding us on a fascinating journey through his conception of “the underworld” with the idea that if we pay close enough attention, we’ll be able to fashion a way out of our own labyrinth.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one. Or, you could just opt for no growth.