Some Remarks of Hillman on Renaissance Neoplatonism and Archetypal Psychology

Bruce MacLennan

James Hillman, one of the founders of modern archetypal psychology, which is a further development of Jung's ideas, has written about the roots of archetypal psychology in Renaissance Neoplatonism [HRP 193-211]. He makes the argument that what enabled the Renaissance was not (as is commonly supposed) the rediscovery of humanity or nature, but the rediscovery of soul and its paradoxical nature, for while it is in us, we are also in it. That is, the imaginative world of the soul has an objective existence independent of our individual egos. He identifies Petrarch's descent from Mont Ventoux as the turning point because, as you will recall, it was there that he consulted Augustine's Confessions at random and, from what he read, realized that the world inside is just as large and real (just as given) as the world outside. In that passage (X.8) Augustine described his imagination as "a large and boundless chamber," both a power of his and a part of his nature, yet beyond his comprehension. "Therefore is the mind too strait to contain itself."

Apropos our discussion in class of levels of meaning beyond the literal, Hillman writes:

Neoplatonism abhorred outwardness, the literalistic and naturalistic fallacies. It sought to see through literal meanings into occult ones, searching for depth in the lost, the hidden, and the buried (texts, words, leftovers from antiquity). It delighted in surprising juxtapositions and reversals of ideas, for it regarded the soul as ever in movement, without definite positions, a borderline concept between spirit and matter. ... [I]t recognized the signal place of imagination in human consciousness, considering this to be the primary activity of the soul. Therefore any psychology that would have soul as its aim must speak imaginatively. It referred frequently to Greek and Roman mythical figures - not as allegories, but as modes of reflection. [HRP 198]

For the Renaissance Neoplatonists classical antiquity provided a "theater of the mind," an imaginal world or vessel to contain and provide structure for the archetypal images in their souls [HRP 199].

Hillman continues on with remarks that are relevant to our discussion of the ancient authors who form our circle of friends or colleagues, and their opposites:

Renaissance Neoplatonists also evoked ancient thinkers in their personified images. The great men of the past were living realities to them because they personified the soul's needs for spiritual ancestors, ideal types, internal guides and mentors who can share our lives with us and inspire them beyond our personal narrowness. It was a practice then to engage in imaginative discourse with persons of antiquity. Petrarch wrote long letters to his inner familiars, Livy, Virgil, Seneca, Cicero, Horace, and sent regards to Homer and Hesiod. Erasmus prayed to divine Socrates. Ficino set up an academy similar to the one in Athens and reenacted the Symposium in honor of Plato's birthday, supposedly November 7. Machiavelli sought solace in the company of ancient heroes, poets, and legendary figures such as Moses, Romulus, and Theseus. [HRP 198-9]

We also discussed Neoplatonism's unbalanced emphasis on spirit and neglect of matter, and its value-laden hierarchy. In part the rejection of the body is only apparent:

When "body" is disparaged in Ficino in order to affirm soul, it can be psychologized to mean the empirical, literal, physical perspective, particularly the perspective of practical action which had less significance in Ficino's scheme of things than did Venus and the voluptuousness [sic]. ... The opposition is less between soul and fleshly sensual joy - for voluptuousness in Ficino was a model for spiritual delight - than between interiority and outwardness, or what we have called the metaphorical and the literal perspectives. [HRP 255n62]

Ficino's philosophy encourages us to see with the eyes of the soul rather than those of the body, "to look beyond the opaque surfaces of reality," "to plumb the depths of one's own soul so that the whole world may become clearer in the inner light" [Garin quoted at HRP 201].

However there are differences between archetypal psychology and Ficino's philosophy:

Other basic divergences between Ficinian Neoplatonism and archetypal psychology concern Ficino's emphasis upon light, hierarchy, and love. His was a more spiritual psychology, a height rather than a depth psychology; for him the downward direction was into darkness. Archetypal psychology recognizes the validity of all fantasy, not only of the "higher" sort, and gives to pathologizing a fundamental rather than an accidential role. In Ficino's own life it was also not accidental. [HRP 254-5n55]

I would put it this way: These archetypal structures are part of our common biological, cultural and personal heritages. They are rooted in matter as much as in spirit. They are, if you like, divine. In any case, they are potent and given, and they transcend the ego. Further, these structures are autonomous and independent of our moral systems, both personal and social. They are no more purely good nor purely evil than is the force of gravity. Therefore, it behooves us, personally and collectively, to become aware of these forces so that we are not driven blindly by them (Fortuna dragging us by the forelock). Instead, we can work in conscious consonance with them (in dialogue with Providence).


Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. All of chapter 4 is especially worth reading in this context.

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©2001, Bruce MacLennan. Last revised 2001/4/29 15:44 PM