Soul Life: An Interview with Thomas Moore, PhD

Thomas Moore is a writer and psychotherapist best known for his work in the field of archetypal and Jungian psychology. For 12 years, Moore lived as a monk with a Catholic religious order. He has a PhD in religious studies from Syracuse University, and has also achieved degrees in theology, musicology, and philosophy. Thomas Moore is the author of many articles, and the books The Planets Within, Rituals of the Imagination, Dark Eros, and Care of the Soul.

Sounds True: Can you start by telling us what you mean when you use the word “soul?”

Thomas Moore: In every society throughout history, there are certain words that speak about the mystery of our experience. These words just cannot be defined that easily. “Soul” is one of these words. I can try, but some confusion will remain; I think that's part of the nature of this work.

To begin with, when I use the word “soul”, I do not mean it in the strict theological sense—almost as a measurable part of the human personality that survives life, that is immortal. I am not referring to that “soul.” My work is rooted in the philosophy of Plato, and the Neo-Platonists—one of the great philosophical traditions in our Western past. They described the soul simply as a dimension of our experience, part of life's defining mystery, reaching to infinite depths within every person. They believed that soul is source of individual identity, and yet it is so far-reaching that we can never really grasp it exactly.

So when I talk about “soul,” I am doing so as a way to account for the mystery of who we are, which will also allow us to work with—and even deepen—our soul connections.

Sounds True: What does it mean to create a “soul life?”

Thomas Moore: It means first of all to live as an individual—you must cultivate your individual nature. And further, to live in this world with depth and with values, to abide by a philosophy of life that has a sense of the sacred.

Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher of the 5th century, BC, who wrote a great deal about the soul. He said something very profound, simple in a way, that I come back to again and again. He said that the soul has its own source of unfolding. What is this source? It is very deep, very mysterious. To understand this unfolding, you must learn to pay attention to how your own soul is “moving”—this may be felt as desire or longing or fear, perhaps as fantasies, or images that recur. This is one of the central parts of soul life.

As a culture and a society, we would therefore pay attention to what is happening—on the level of meaning. People in the past took this approach. Today, we just try to identify the causes and solutions. The “soulful way” would try to find meaning in the experiences that we have, especially the ones that are difficult or unpleasant.

Other aspects of soul life involve cultivating an appreciation for community and relationship, intimacy and attachment. Art and poetics are essential to the soulful life—these are where the images come from that allow us to appreciate the depths of daily experience. The decisions we make based on soul nourishment are not necessarily the simple way of doing things. Soul, like art, is often very complex.

Sounds True: You state that when people nourish their souls they may appear to be “eccentric.” Why?

Thomas Moore: The soul is so vast and powerful and rich that when we allow it to manifest itself, we stand out from the world around us. That's what I mean by “eccentric.” Sometimes we are even going to appear absolutely mad in some form. This reminds me of Plato's idea that, in living a powerful life, we will experience madness that is not a sickness. It is simply part of life: the madness of love or religion, for instance.

Sounds True: Let's look at a common condition: depression. Is it possible to live a soul life and be depressed?

Thomas Moore: The soul embraces everything—all moods, all experiences. Good and bad, they are all part of the soulful life. When we go back in history, we find that the emotions were not always branded as “sick” or “healthy.” People found a way to imagine a place for all emotions and experiences, through astrology for example, or the theory of humors in medieval medicine. I think that it is a very modern thing to see depression as an illness.

Depression can certainly debilitate a person; it can really cause a lot of pain and trouble. That does not mean that depression is not an expression of the soul. If we can imagine it as an expression of soul, find ways to weave it into our experience, it would not feel so overwhelming and alien. Friends from other countries have told me that they wonder why Americans are smiling all the time. It seems to be so superficial, the perpetual smile and laughter—even these little smiling faces people put on their letters and everywhere. In other countries, people seem to allow the depressive mood to be part of daily experience. They don't expect every day to be a happy day. I think it is in part a cultural issue, then, that depression is removed from our day-to-day values and treated like an illness.

Sounds True: You mentioned in the program that depression can give the “gift of weight” that a soul needs. Can you explain this idea?

Thomas Moore: Well, I get this idea from medieval and renaissance books on medicine, that draw from imagery based on the god Saturn to describe depression. Before modern medicine, it was accepted that Saturn, though he is a very difficult and challenging deity, has many gifts to offer. And one of these gifts is weight. All the planetary deities were associated with a metal: Venus with copper, Mercury with quicksilver; Saturn's metal was lead. These heavy feelings that come to us raw and undeveloped, can be refined and woven into daily experience. This is the “weight” that depression offers.

Sounds True: One of your books is Dark Eros, which is about the life of Marquis de Sade. Can you expand on how people can work with the parts of the self that are dark and inimical?

Thomas Moore: I think, first of all, we need to realize that the darkness around us—things like crime in the streets, the difficulties we have in our own personal lives, our dark thoughts and dreams—all of these have a place. What we call evil and darkness is an elemental part of the way things are, in the nature of people and in the world. It is full of mystery, like death itself, very difficult to understand. And yet it does so much to shape life.

In the book Dark Eros, one of the points I try to make is that we can appreciate darkness at the level of imagination. People love to read and watch murder mysteries, they like to see violence on a movie or television screen. This suggests that it is important to us, at some deeper level, to connect our imaginations with the darker aspects of life. Now, in order to help us, this darkness needs to be refined so that we can reflect on it. If we do that, if we live this darkness soulfully, then I don't see that it is literally destructive. But if we pretend to live in innocence, that this darkness is not part of our lives, the repercussions are severe. We divide the world up into good guys and bad guys; it's very simplistic. We have to find ways to be more complicated, and less innocent, through the imagination.

Thomas Moore

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Thomas Moore is the author of the classic bestselling book Care of the Soul and twenty other books on spirituality and psychology. He has a Ph.D. in religious studies from Syracuse University and has...

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