Book Review – A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman

A Terrible Love Of War

By James Hillman

256 pp

The Penguin Press

Reviewed By Nick Opyrchal

ISBN 1-59420-011-4

Whenever an abyss of uncertainty approaches, one of the ever-present fantasies that rushes to fill it is the threat of war. This has been especially powerful in 2016 – we heard that Trump will launch the nukes, Hillary will provoke Putin, NATO will be dissolved, refugees will flee ISIS, ISIS will infiltrate the West.. We are constantly bombarded with the threat and fear of warfare, especially in relation to the void left by political uncertainty. It seems like a good time, therefore, to look at one of the last books written by the recently deceased radical psychoanalyst and psychologist James Hillman, which concentrates on the subject of war and it’s relationship (or many different relationships) to humanity.

We are constantly bombarded with the threat and fear of warfare, especially in relation to the void left by political uncertainty

terrible-love-of-warJames Hillman is one of my favourite authors and theorists who fall under the wide umbrella of ‘Transpersonal’ psychology. Part of his appeal to me is the intellectual sharpness – the pointed way in which he wields his ideas. He does not fall in to the honey-trap of new age ideology – overly saccharine and sweet, making everything about unbounded infantile feeling at the expense of clear, critical thinking and creative imagination. Nevertheless his books (with the exception of the Souls Code perhaps) never give the cognitive ego an easy ride: You would find it hard to pick up a book which acts as a guide on ‘how to do therapy the James Hillman way’, although some (such as Re-Visioning Psychology) provide the outline of his model. This can occasionally be frustrating for someone who is used to picking up psychotherapeutic maps in an easily digestible form, but it fits his philosophy of emphasising ungraspable Soul at the expense of what he calls the ‘Solar’ or heroic ego. He does not want to give you another ‘map’ to overlay your Kleinian, Freudian or Jungian approaches. In some ways this makes him more accessible to the lay reader but perhaps slightly less accessible to the clinician who is trained to value clarity of theory.

Hillman’s philosophy is to write in such a way as to give the reader a phenomenological experience of the archetypes he is describing, by using his writing as a means of engaging the creative imagination. In this book ‘A Terrible Love of War’ he describes his writing as being in the style of ‘Mars’ and this seems to come quite naturally to him.. The flow of his writing style is easier to follow than some of his other offerings, although this might be owing to the fact that I am quite ‘martian’ myself as a martial artist. Perhaps this is why Hillman’s uncompromising style appeals so deeply to me in general – in a personal aside from the bulk of the text he talks of his own connection to the martial archetype: playing war games as a child and confessing that he enjoys intellectual conflicts and “cracking (numb)skulls” through critical argument. Hillman draws on the myths of Greek polytheism to illustrate his approach to looking at war; especially interesting is an exploration of the relationship between Mars (war) and Aphrodite (love) – the Love of War of the title. He also talks about the different forms of modern warfare that move beyond the archetype of Mars, for instance the Mercurial, trickster acts of psy-ops, the link between weaponry and myths of Haphaestus, the god of blacksmiths and the Appolonian ‘death from above’ modern drone-based warfare.

he talks of his own connection to the martial archetype: playing war games as a child and confessing that he enjoys intellectual conflicts and “cracking (numb)skulls” through critical argument

The specific examples of wartime behaviour provided by Hillman, not only of violence towards enemies but also towards allied troops, serve to jolt the reader out of the usual fluid experience of reading his work as a flowing and unfolding. Especially jarring for me was reading about the behaviour of General Patton, the lack of psychological sensitivity and the humiliation of his own soldiers who were ‘shell shocked’. Patton seemed to take a central role in this book and he seemed to be Hillman’s choice for a man of Mars in our modern era.


General Patton

Hillman’s explorations of etymology and how it relates to psychology is always interesting, and in this book he looks at how the sanitized term PTSD developed from the more visceral term ‘shell shock’. You never get the sense of moralism from Hillman’s work. The book is not an exploration of how ‘terrible’ warfare is (although the terror is also explored) but an expansion of the ways in which we look at war, a widening of the lens beyond the obvious ‘war is bad’. In this regard I particularly enjoyed the books exploration of ‘the sublime’ in relation to warfare – the almost mystical side to it that has produced religious feelings in it’s participants throughout human existence. Hillman devotes a large segment of the book to this, as he feels that it is something which can often be ignored in more moralistic accounts of war. Hillman does have an altruistic aim in this approach to his subject – to bring out the unexplored and make war less seductive.

A further positive for this book was Hillman’s attempt to bring in continental philosophers such as Levinas and Foucault and explore their work in relation to the subject of the book. It feels as if a convergence between post-Jungian thought and continental philosophy is sorely needed. However I think it would have been better if Hillman had expanded on the relevance of their ideas to a greater extent as it almost seems sometimes as if his references to them seem like ‘name dropping’ rather than substantial reflections on their work.


Overall my experience of ‘A Terrible Love of War’ was positive. I would recommend this book for any psychotherapist who is interested in Hillman’s work, or the psychology of war in general. This is one of Hillman’s works which could be picked up by a casual reader or psychotherapeutic layman and yet still enjoyed.


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