Anarchy Is Not a Disorder: A Critique of James Hillman

James Audubon's Eagle and Lamb.
James Audubon’s Eagle and Lamb.

This past Saturday on Facebook (the social life of parents with toddlers), Jason McCarty posted a quote from James Hillman that launched into an extended discussion between Jason, Amanda Lowe, Brent Potter, and me. I won’t recap the whole discussion, but it’s worth reflecting on one aspect of the conversation where we latched onto what I perceived to be a misuse of the term anarchy by Hillman.

Here is the quote that stimulated the discussion:

“For the soul’s multiplicities need adequate archetypal containers, or—like fallen angels in a maze—they wander in anarchy. Anarchy begins when we lose the archetype, when we become an-archetypal, having no imaginative figures to contain the absurd, monstrous, and intolerable aspects of our Protean natures and our fortunes. In Proteus and Fortuna everything has a place: no shape or position is inherently inferior, moral or immoral, for the where turns and the soul’s ambiguity means that vice and virtue can no more be separated from each other than the eagle and the lamb.”—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, p. 203.

I think Hillman misuses the term “anarchy” in this context. He interprets anarchy to be the opposite of archetype. But these words do not have common roots. They are not opposites. Anarchy comes from the Greek, arkhos, ruler. So anarchy is to be without a central chief or ruler or without top-down authority—radical democracy for example. Whereas, archetype derives from tupos, a model, and arkhe, primitive. An archetype is like the Platonic eidos—a primitive, basic or fundamental structure. The two actually can be complementary. A primitive or fundamental structure usually emerges in a bottom-up way rather than a top-down structure. So perhaps anarchy is the superior way to access the archetypal dimension by dispensing with top-down imposition of structure and relying instead on the organic unfolding of a dynamic structure.

Lowe agreed with a resounding “Yes!”

Brent Potter pointed out that Hillman would see anarchy and archetypes not as opposed to one another, but as complementary. Surely, I see can that. Although, I think, even so, Hillman uses the term anarchy as a synonym for disorder, and I have a problem with that usage. It perpetuates a common misunderstanding that serves as an impediment to the appreciation of anarchy as a political philosophy and philosophy of life.

Anarchy does not reject structure. On the contrary, it rejects the coercive imposition of a top-down oppressive structure that can have a tendency to stifle the creative and organic flow of the dynamic natural structures of everyday life among normal people going about their business.

Our conversation then shifted to pondering how a social anarchy could actually function in society without leading to chaos. We decided that a truly radical anarchy would be in dangerous of cycling into a vicious circle of violence without some kind of structure unless there was some democratic consensus to live together in a way that is non-violent and guided by a lived ethic of love and solidarity. Of course, this is easier said than done.

The interesting point worth considering is how much this vision of society, put forth by a long tradition of anarchy, is actually a political philosophy that is much more consistent with existentialism than either the left or right side of the political spectrum in current American politics. Existentialism remains suspicious of top-down, essentializing structures, and draws upon phenomenology to follow the contours of the innate and dynamic structures of the lived world that we inhabit in our ready-to-hand engagement with things and in our caring comportment with others.

I think it is time that this connection between anarchy and existential thought is fleshed out and thought through more carefully than it has previously been thought. And practiced too. We are certainly at a point in time when new political solutions seem more needed than ever.

Brent Potter ended the conversation by suggesting that not everyone is interested in changing the world, and some might be better off worrying about changing themselves or their small little world. I find this to be quite consistent with the anarchist notion of “direct action.” If something needs done, do it. You don’t need to go to a central authority or to change the whole system. Just go, find people who are with you in solidarity, and work together as much as possible to make your humble goals come to fruition. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture, or get seduced into the notion that “I’m too insignificant to make a difference.” Get out there and get it done.

I think it was Mother Theresa who said that we should do small things with great love. And, because I love irony, I would point out that this is perhaps the only valid way to ever really change the world. You know, butterflies and hurricanes and such.

— Brent Dean Robbins

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