The Cult of Ares

Book cover
A Terrible Love of Warby By James HillmanPenguin Press. 256p $23.95

The trouble with philosophers is that they think ideas are everything. The trouble with Jungian psychologists is that they think timeless archetypes shape all human behavior. James Hillman is both a philosopher and a Jungian psychologist, and he is vulnerable to both charges; but in this rambling, rhapsodic meditation on the mythical dimensions of war, he makes such an illuminating guide that we are bound to forgive him. Now 78, this peripatetic guru has written his 30th-or-so (and, he surmises, his final) book. It could not be more relevant.

It is true that, like some American politicians, Hillman pays little attention to the complex historical matrices out of which wars and murderous combatants arise. On the other hand, he is never so irresponsible as simply to demonize insurgents and their ilk as monsters possessed by irrational rage against democracy or freedom. Hillman mostly leaves history, about which he is quite knowledgeable, to the historians; what he wants to explore is the soul of the warrior.


He begins by reminding us that war is a perennial, not an accidental, feature of human life. But how could this be, if fighters did not experience, at least on occasion, what Yeats called a terrible beauty? Hillman summons up a dazzling cloud of witnesses, literary and otherwise, to the erotics of war, from Homer to Philip Roth, from Troy to the Milvian Bridge to Antietam to Iwo Jima to Vietnam, with excerpts from letters and journals by generations of soldiers on every kind of battleground. Now the fight was at its wildest, writes a U.S. lieutenant from Germany in World War II. We dashed from one building to another, shooting, bayoneting, clubbing. The wounded and the dead lay in grotesque positions at every turn. Never in my wildest imagination had I conceived that battle could be so incredibly impressiveawful, horrible, deadly yet somehow thrilling, exhilarating. And such ecstasy cannot be dismissed as rare sadistic perversity. Not for nothing have the poets made Mars and Venus lovers.

Hillman calls this the religion of war, and it certainly has its own powerful creed, code and cult. Nor, however much of a pacifist Jesus may have been, has Christianity managed to avoid centuries of cross-fertilization (or cross-contamination) from this horrific brand of piety. Just look at some of the more bloodthirsty scenes in the Book of Revelation or The Battle-Hymn of the Republic or current talk about the crusade in Iraq by Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin and others. (Ignatian spirituality, readers of America presumably know, is profoundly shaped by military metaphors.) In any event, Hillman makes a crucial point in arguing that it does no good to pretend that the instincts of war aren’t thickly rooted in the depths of our subconsciousness, or that the nightmares of war are never interrupted by transcendent, even blissful, flashes of generosity, brotherhood, selfless love and, yes, beauty (think of Saving Private Ryan). Is it just a coincidence that the most popular politician in America right now is the war hero Senator John McCain?

Hillman presses his case for the presence of Ares in our DNA with marvelous eloquence and zest. Wars could not happen unless there were those willing to let them happen. Conscripts, slaves, indentured soldiers, unwilling draftees to the contrary, there are always masses ready to answer the call to arms, to join up, get in the fight. There are always leaders rushing to take the plunge. Every nation has its hawks. Moreover, resisters, dissenters, pacifists, objectors, and deserters rarely are able to bring war to a halt. The saying, Someday they’ll give a war and no one will come’ [sic] remains a fond wish. War drives everything else off the front page.

Perhaps the only serious flaw in Hillman’s case is the abrupt way he discounts the testosterone hypothesis, war as a more or less exclusively guy-thing. He mentions the legendary Amazons and alludes to, without naming, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and female suicide-bombers in Chechnya. Patriarchy, he somewhat dubiously claims, does not originate war but serves war to give it form and bring it to order by means of hierarchical control, ritual ceremony, art, and law. Perhaps the validity of such sky-writing generalizations cannot be fully tested until the distant day when women win full equality.

At any rate, the inevitable question remains: having traced war into the very structures of humanness, what in heaven’s name are we to do about it? Of course, if 10,000 years of civilization have failed to come up with a satisfactory answer, we can hardly fault Hillman’s for sounding lame: he calls for aesthetic intensity. Noting the relentless Philistinism of warlike nations, including the United States, he bids us imagine the creation of beauty transforming civilization’s wasteful stress.’ War might lose some of its sublime magic if all [its] diabolic inventiveness, intolerant obsession and drive to conquer were compelled toward culture. Needless to say, Hillman cannot tell us just how that might be done.

But then again, concrete fixes are not what grand visionaries like Hillman are all about. In this warmhearted, learned, intensely personal yet densely theoretical Last Hurrah, he bids us look past the clichés of conservative patriotism and liberal meliorism into the scary abysses of our Martian selves. Given the hideous stories on the nightly news these days, it’s an invitation that is hard to resist.

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