Through the lens of genetics, I see myself as a composite of traits inherited from my parents. Through a sociological lens, I am a member of a particular economic class fulfilling certain social roles. From the viewpoint of developmental psychology, I am the product of my childhood traumas and the treatment I received from early caregivers. In the light of neuroscience, it is the wiring and firing of my brain cells that makes me who I am.
We might argue that we need to see ourselves through these lenses simultaneously. But there’s a problem here. Although I seek myself down a dozen such avenues and peel away layer after layer of the onion that is me, when I get to the center I find there is… no there there. I am merely the result of various influences, a victim of circumstance, with no essential self at the core.
Such is the identity crisis we postmodern people face.
The late James Hillman, a maverick Jungian psychologist, summed up the problem this way: “Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential - the particularity you feel to be you.” In his 1996 manifesto, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, he offers a solution to this dilemma with his “acorn theory.” Beyond nature and nurture, he posits the existence of a third force shaping a person’s personality and character, namely the imprint of our unique individuality that is stamped on each of our souls. This imprint - or “acorn,” as he puts it - carries in seed form our habits and mannerisms, loves and hates, predilections and passions. It is that irreducible essence to which a man of 80 refers when he claims he is the same person he was at age 10. Only now, near the end of life, is the image contained in the acorn displayed for all to see, in the form of the full-grown oak tree that is his biography. The process of growing this oak tree, becoming the person one was meant to become, is what gives meaning and purpose to life, according to Hillman: “For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling, that there is a reason I am alive.”
Three years after his death at the age of 85, Hillman’s ideas seem more vital than ever. As the forces of globalization, economic downsizing, and runaway technology seem to reduce human beings to ant-like insignificance, Hillman would restore dignity and value to the individual. I believe his acorn theory has particular relevance for those of us in the field of education who lament that our schools are losing touch with a central piece of their missions: the care of young souls and the fostering of community.
How We Understand the Self
Though he practiced as a Jungian analyst for 40 years, Hillman believed individuals did not need therapy as much as their inherited ideas did. A brilliant cultural critic, he leveled some of his sharpest analysis at contemporary psychotherapy and psychiatry, whose reductive quantitative methods he saw as incompatible with the irrational soul or psyche they profess to study. Instead, he found more fitting source material in art, myth, philosophy, and other products of the imagination, and from a neglected stream of the Western cultural tradition that extends back to the Romantic era, the Renaissance, and ancient Greece.
In those cultures, as in virtually every civilization up until the Enlightenment, the idea of an individual calling appears as a perennial motif. “For centuries, we have searched for the right term for this ‘call.’ The Romans named it your genius; the Greeks, your daimon; and the Christians, your guardian angel,” Hillman writes. Perhaps Plato gives it its fullest articulation in the last chapter of The Republic. The souls are gathered in the underworld waiting to be reborn. One by one they pass before the goddesses of Fate and Necessity to select their “lot” or “portion” for the coming lifetime - that is, their place or station in the world, and their particular character and destiny. Once they cross the River Lethe, they will lose all memory of their heavenly contracts, and so each soul is assigned a daimon to accompany it through life and hold it to its pre-birth intentions.
“The daimon motivates. It protects.... It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper,” Hillman writes. “It wants to be seen, witnessed, accorded recognition, particularly by the person who is its caretaker.”
Instead of controlled studies and statistics, which he saw as irrelevant to individuals, Hillman turns to biographies to prove his theory. His book is filled with stories from the lives of eminent men and women that reveal how the acorn announced itself early and remained stubbornly consistent to the end. Consider the philosopher R. G. Collingwood at the age of seven happening upon a volume of Immanuel Kant in his father’s library. Although he could not understand the words, he was certain the book contained matters of urgent concern for him. Consider Eleanor Roosevelt, who at age 10 spent her solitary days imagining herself managing a large household for her father and accompanying him on his travels. Was her soul preparing for the destiny that awaited, in which she would indeed preside over a great household in devoted service to an important man? And then there is Yehudi Menuhin, already called to the life of a maestro at the age of four, asking his parents to buy him a violin so he could learn to play. When his parents gave him a metal-stringed toy instead of the real thing, he flew into a rage. The daimon would accept no compromise.
Through these and other stories, Hillman challenges the orthodox developmental view that sees lives unfolding according to a one-way causality, with earlier experiences bringing about those that come after. Instead, he asks us to “read a life backwards,” to see the end of the story, the innate image in its finally realized form, as an even more powerful factor in shaping a person. In other words, the oak tree determines the acorn as much or perhaps more than the acorn determines the oak.
What About the Growth Mindset?
Just a minute, you say. Isn’t this the type of essentialist thinking educators have been trying get away from? Doesn’t seeing a child as having a fixed or innate nature contradict the “growth mindset” we work so hard to cultivate? Perhaps. While Hillman would never condone stereotypes or self-fulfilling prophecies, he would caution that growth mindset comes dangerously close to the kind of heroic fallacy that suggests that with hard work and willpower one can accomplish anything. Such thinking belongs to the myth of the self-made man, a primary fuel for American capitalism, which divides the world into winners and losers and strikes terror in the soul in the process.
Instead of growth mindset, Hillman takes a different lesson from the acorn theory. The tree that evolves from the daimonic acorn is no ordinary tree rooted in the earth. Rather, it resembles the mystical Tree of Life in the Kabbalah whose roots are in heaven. Thus the process of maturation is not so much about growing up as growing down. The task is to bring the soul’s innate potential out of an invisible, ideal realm and make a place for it among the rough-and-tumble realities of mundane life.
Children and young people struggle with this process most of all because the distance between their heavenly daimons and the earthly circumstances into which they must incarnate is so wide. They are further frustrated when their daimons’ attempts at self-expression are opposed or misunderstood, or mislabeled as symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, oppositionalism, or some other behavioral or learning disorder.
Teachers and mentors make all the difference in a young person’s life. According to Hillman, they are often able to see and encourage the child’s daimon more effectively than the child’s parents can. While parents may be blinded by their hopes and fears for their child and their personal investment in their son or daughter, the teacher brings a more objective eye. The act of recognition is life-giving to the daimon, Hillman writes: “Seeing is believing - believing in what you see - and this instantly confers belief to whoever, whatever receives your sight…. Such sight blesses; it does transformative work.”
Good teachers are always practicing this kind of daimonic perception, but the field of education has done little to encourage it. While we seek the Holy Grail of differentiation through ever more elaborate assessment tools and medical or psychiatric diagnoses, the daimon or angel is routinely overlooked. That is hardly surprising, Hillman says, given that we do not even acknowledge its existence. “It is impossible to see the angel unless you first have a notion of it; otherwise a child is simply stupid, willful, or pathological,” he writes. “Even in the sciences you only begin to see the phenomenon in the sky or under the microscope if someone first describes what you are looking for; we need instruction in the art of seeing.”
Instruction in the art of perceiving daimons would require a vocabulary with which to describe what we see, one that is less diagnostic than phenomenological, consisting of qualities, values, and essences. The classical system of temperaments based on the four medieval humors provides the rudiments of such a daimonic language. Teachers in the Waldorf schools routinely use this ancient typology to discern the prevailing soul qualities or moods in their students. The temperaments also serve as the basis for Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, which claims a person tends to use one of four functions to process experience. These functions are thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation, each of which can be outwardly directed, as in extroversion, or inwardly directed, as in introversion.
Other typologies may also be helpful as far as they go. But Hillman, who was skeptical of systems, would urge us to find a richer and more nuanced vocabulary. Again following Plato, he believed the soul’s code takes the form of a pattern or image, which should not be analyzed or categorized so much as appreciated aesthetically. Instruction in reading such images would surely include an education in the archetypes, those fundamental deep structures of life and psychic experience that are reflected in mythology, religion, literature, and dreams. Hillman himself often differentiated phenomena using the archetypes as they are personified in the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. Thus, when attempting to capture a person’s essence, he might ask which deity does he or she serve? At whose altar is he or she worshipping? Is this a child of Ares or Aphrodite, Apollo or Dionysus?
Finding Purpose, Sparking Motivation
As schools seek to tap into students’ intrinsic motivations and instill a sense of purpose in those who lack direction, I believe they would do well to look to the acorn, the source-spring of authentic purpose and motivation. And yet any campaign to perceive and champion the spark of individuality in students will be futile if the adults in the school lose touch with their own daimons in the process. This becomes more of a danger with each passing year, as teachers increasingly are required to prove their worth in accord with measurable outcomes, evidence-based practice, and stepped-up performance standards. But if adults sacrifice their own daimons to serve children, no one is helped, Hillman warns. His caution to parents on this score applies equally to teachers: “When your child becomes the reason for your life, you have abandoned the invisible reason you are here. And the reason you are here as an adult, as a citizen, as a parent? To make a world receptive to the daimon. To set the civilization straight so that a child can grow down into it and its daimon can have a life. This is the parenting task. To carry out this task for the daimon of your child you must first bear witness to your own.”
In other words, our students don’t just need effective classroom managers or skilled instructors who can instill a love of learning. They need relationships with adults who have stayed true to their acorns in spite of the rigors and ordeals of growing down. Such adults bear the marks of idiosyncrasy and even oddness that are the signatures of the daimon. They have character - not in the moralistic sense, but in the sense that we mean when we say of someone, “He’s a real character.”
Young people recognize this daimonic substance and are nourished by it. How else to explain their endless fascination with a particularly colorful or intense teacher’s quirks, obsessions, or sense of humor? These are the teachers who live on in students’ memories and imaginations. As important as any content they convey, such teachers impart a sense of what it means to follow one’s daimon regardless of the lumps one may have to take. They grant students permission to move beyond conventional ideals of success, reassuring them there is more to life than being a savvy professional or smart consumer. Thus Hillman’s message to teachers would not be know thyself so much as be thyself. The corollary for administrators would be: Allow your teachers to be themselves. Recognize and cherish their daimons, as these may be your school’s greatest asset.
The cultivation of the daimon in students and in teachers may seem a luxury in uncertain times like these, but I would argue it is more important now than ever. As the Internet floods our awareness with endless information, people, and possibilities, our own inklings and promptings are easily drowned out. It’s natural to compare and despair, to ask, as a depressed ninth-grade student I worked with once did, “What’s the point of me?” The ratcheting up of demands due to heightened competition from a global economy only makes things worse - for students and for teachers. The result is a lot of anxious, overwhelmed, externally focused human beings.
I am reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with two senior girls. Both top students, they found themselves stumped when asked to write a college essay on something they were passionate about. They hadn’t had a chance to discover their passions or anything else unique about themselves, they said, because they had been too busy keeping up with five hours of homework a night along with all the other expectations their high-powered prep school imposed on them. As I listened to their laments, I heard something more than the usual applying-to-college jitters. This was a genuine existential crisis. Beneath their competent performance selves, these girls felt like there was nobody home. They had become alienated from their acorns.
After the conversation, I was filled with dismay to think an education considered among the best money could buy would leave students feeling so empty. I wished that instead of being competitive pressure cookers, our schools might become daimonic incubators, daimonic communities, dedicated to appreciating the unique beauty of each person. Such schools would affirm a kind of soul-level diversity that goes beyond the racial, ethnic, and sociological differences we now seek to promote. Students in these schools would know themselves to be equals even given radical discrepancies in the hands they have been dealt by nature or nurture. Indeed, only a daimonic mission can ground a school in the respect, affection, and imagination required for true diversity.
As Hillman writes, “We are equal because each brings a specific calling into the world, and we are unequal in every other respect - unfairly, unjustly, utterly unequal, except in the fact of each’s unique genius. Democracy rests, therefore, upon the foundations of an acorn.”