For Thomas Moore, author of the bestseller Care of the Soul (HarperCollins), the great malady of our time is not any disease of the body but “the loss of soul.” Although difficult to define, he says, soul is best approached through imagination and makes itself known to us instinctively; it has to do with genuineness and depth rather than transcendence, and is tied to life in its particulars: good food, sex, conversation, true friendship.
A former psychotherapist, Moore believes that mental health is not just a matter of self-help or assertiveness training. Fundamentally, it involves accepting our human foibles and everyday problems without striving for perfection. He describes his approach to life as “polytheistic” and says we must honor all the gods of our humanity — the gods of war and jealousy, as well as the gods of love and wisdom.
Moore was a Catholic monk for twelve years and has degrees in religion, theology, and musicology. His primary perspective, though, is that of archetypal psychology, a branch of psychology founded by Carl Jung and rooted not in science, but in myth and poetry, aesthetics and imagination. (Psychology and religion are, for Moore, inseparable.) The archetypal perspective, Moore contends, frees consciousness from the dry ground of literalism and seeks out the images that give rise to meaning. From this point of view, jealousy is not simply a negative feeling to eradicate, but an impulse deeply rooted in the soul. Like many of the emotions we label “negative,” it can be a “poison that heals.”
I met Moore fifteen years ago at a workshop he was leading for painters, photographers, writers, actors, and dancers wanting to explore the soul of their work. Years later, when Moore was planning a move to Massachusetts, where I live, he called me to inquire about how one gets a mortgage if one is a writer — i.e., a person without a steady income.
Moore now lives with his wife, Hanley, and their two children on a mountaintop in eastern New Hampshire. I related my memories of our previous encounters to him recently as we sat across from each other at a large wooden table in his library, an elegant, high-ceilinged, oak-paneled room modeled, he said, on the principles of the Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino.
Since becoming a best-selling author, Moore spends about ten weeks a year giving readings, lectures, and interviews, and has appeared on many radio and TV shows, including Oprah. His newfound fame and fortune seem to bemuse him, and he retains a quiet modesty and sincerity in person.
In addition to Care of the Soul, Moore has written Soul Mates, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, and The Soul of Sex (all HarperCollins). He is currently completing a book on religion and the soul. I began by asking him about his preoccupation with the soul and his success in bringing discussion of it into the mainstream.
Zeiger: Soul is a word that appears again and again in your books. How do you understand that word and its meaning in our culture now?
Moore: I think soul is a mysterious word, and I want to keep that mystery, rather than explain it away. The phrase “care of the soul” was used over and over in the medieval world. Today, it suggests a different approach to life, the opposite of our usual notions of “improving ourselves”: going to doctors and therapists to get our problems figured out so we can get back on track and “function” better. Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher who lived in Florence in the fifteenth century, described the soul as being midway between mind and body, or spirit and matter, linking them and restraining them from excess. The soul is involved partly in time and partly in eternity, he said. He believed that the worlds of nature and culture have souls, and recommended making a beautiful world and drawing soul from it — a method he called “natural magic.”
The soul unfolds in ways you’d never predict. It’s vegetative, like a plant, and goes down, like roots. The concerns of the soul are home, family, place, intimacy, and beauty. The concerns of the spirit, on the other hand, are: How quickly can I become enlightened? Where can I find a great teacher? How can I have great sex?
Zeiger: There is so much talk about “spirituality” nowadays. Is there a difference between the soul and the spirit?
Moore: Generally, the spirit is the driving force that pushes us forward, while the soul is rich in reverie and memory, with a tendency to reflect, ponder, create, and express. Spiritual people are interested in climbing up a ladder. There are many such images in spiritual literature: the “seven steps to success,” for example. With spirit, we’re trying to get to someplace higher — higher consciousness, elevated states. (No one talks about steps going down, which is the way I’d probably go.) Spirituality creates hierarchies of people, rules by which they can measure how well they are doing: titles, colored belts, initiations.
The soul unfolds in ways you’d never predict. It’s vegetative, like a plant, and goes down, like roots. The concerns of the soul are home, family, place, intimacy, and beauty. The concerns of the spirit, on the other hand, are: How quickly can I become enlightened? Where can I find a great teacher? How can I have great sex? [Laughs.]
People say that all meaning in life comes from the spiritual realm, but I don’t think so. In fact, there is a lot that goes on in the spiritual realm that I think is an escape from life. There is a tendency in much spiritual activity to withdraw from ordinary life, the body, and the world. You don’t find these sentiments in the best spiritual writings, but they’re there in much of the literature. I think anyone pursuing a spiritual life should be careful not to try to force the body into an ideal condition with yoga and fitness, or to force the emotions into an ideal condition with moralism. Spirituality works only if it is connected to the deep soul — to family, body, emotion, ordinary life, failure, ignorance, and imperfection. This is spirituality in tune with the human condition, not perfectionist, and not escapist.
Zeiger: You’ve said that the greed and materialism of our culture taint our spiritual pursuits.
Moore: Yes, they create spiritual greed and ambition. The same people who are out running and trying to get their bodies in shape are often the ones buying books and tapes about spirituality, but spirituality reduced to a kind of “fitness” loses its awesome depth and sublimity. Spirituality isn’t a matter of individuals becoming perfect. It has to do with living a holy life, being motivated by profound compassion, and feeling wide and deep love and sense of community. Whether we’re “fit” or not is irrelevant. Physically ill and emotionally unsettled people can be holy.
Zeiger: What is the relationship between sexuality and soul?
Moore: Soul shows itself in many aspects of life, but particularly in sex. This is because, to use the Jungian term, sex is the “archetype” of life. In sex, we are dealing intimately with such essentials as self-expression, primal relatedness to one another, and the sense of being alive.
The things of the world have much to offer us, if we would only listen to what they have to say. Artists can help us do this. A still-life painting or a poem can show us that things have souls.
Zeiger: In The Soul of Sex, you talk about sex as something woven into the fabric of life and the senses; you say that nurturing one’s sexuality, in the broadest sense, means living through the senses.
Moore: I do think that everything in life is sexual. All the things we do, big or small, involve the ingredients of our sexuality: body, desire, fantasy, pleasure, frustration, sensuousness, relatedness. These ingredients can, of course, be considered singly and separately, but they may be better thought of as part of a larger whole: the erotic life. For example, I’m responding to your questions now partly from a rational standpoint, but also because I take pleasure from it. I find sensuous joy in making myself clear, in relating to the public, and in choosing my words carefully. In this sense, conversation is a type of sexual act. So our sexuality is not restricted to one corner of life, but suffuses the whole.
Let me give you another example: When I was a therapist, I’d say that well over half of my clients came to me to talk about sexual issues. Now, you could say that these people just had problems with sex, but I think it was deeper than that. As we work out our sexuality, we are working out our lives. Our sexuality is, in its most complete sense, connected to the way we live, to the sensuality, pleasure, and beauty in life. All the qualities you see in sex — beauty, body, intimacy, pleasure — form the sexual dimension of our everyday life.
Zeiger: You’ve also said that many couples came to therapy because of an attraction outside the marriage.
Moore: I’ve never objected to married people fantasizing about having sex with others, because the soul wants more life, more freedom, and less guilt. But I don’t recommend acting on all these desires or casually breaking marriage vows. Sometimes, when we yield to desire, we find it doesn’t satisfy our longing.
I think, however, that if we allowed ourselves more freedom to fantasize, we wouldn’t have such widespread sexual confusion and emotional pain. Also, the urge to have sex outside the marriage might be satisfied in some other way — say, by finding work that involves pleasure, sensuality, and intimacy, or by living in a place with those qualities. We are confused: we think that another person has to be the love object, because we understand sex only as an act between two people.
Zeiger: Why are Americans so mixed up about sex?
Moore: One reason is that, despite the ever-present sexual images in our culture, we don’t live very sexual lives. We repress our deeper sexuality, and when you repress something, it becomes a monster in your face. Our society is oversexed precisely because we haven’t really grappled with sex and made it our own.
We believe we’re being moral when we repress our sexuality, and are perhaps even proud of having conquered our desires. In turn, we are quick to judge others for not being so in control. Recall the unbelievable hypocrisies on display during the Clinton impeachment trial. But if we could admit to our own desires and deal honestly with our complex sexual lives, then we might be more tolerant of others as they grapple with theirs.
In addition, our lives are too fast paced and too focused on productivity. A sensuous life requires that one slow down, but we’re not willing to do that, because we tend to justify our existence through work. And look at the places where we work. Go to the fanciest office buildings in New York City. They are not sensuous. You walk into the lobby and find high ceilings, marble walls, no place to sit, no place for the body. And now, with so many of us working in front of computer screens all day, we don’t even look at each other.
We are culturally induced to find meaning in acquiring new and better gadgets and machines. As a result, we’re making our living environments more efficient and less beautiful. So many of the beautiful old buildings are being torn down. I travel a lot on book tours — Atlanta, Denver, Chicago — and as soon as I get into town, people say, “Please come help us fight to save this great old building.” All this beauty is being destroyed in favor of homogeneous boxes; you can’t even tell one building from the next. We don’t realize that, in destroying old buildings, we are also destroying our sexuality.
Zeiger: A friend of mine who teaches at a girls’ prep school worries about how sexualized her thirteen-year-old students are, with their revealing halter tops and tight pants. Yet they don’t know the first thing about sex. She tells me that they are unabashedly engaging in oral sex and, like Bill Clinton, saying that it’s not sex. Their bodies have become commodities that they exchange. It’s scary.
Moore: It is scary. I don’t want to reduce sexual behavior to simple explanations, but here is one thought that might speak to what you’ve described: We have created a society with many spirited entertainments but few deep pleasures. For most, work is not a pleasure, family pleasures seem to have been lost, and beauty has given way to function and profit. In this wasteland — just visit any small town and walk the strip of fast-food restaurants and gas stations — sex becomes exaggerated and problematic. It takes the place of all those other pleasures.
We don’t have the daily physical activity that people in another time had in the normal course of their lives, so sex is now our primary avenue to the body. In what other arena can those kids you describe explore their bodies and get away from the flatness of daily life? And what cultural images do they have to help them deepen their sexuality: Movies full of symptomatic sexuality? Television programs about the extremes of sexual behavior? Songs that take sex to its painful limits?
Zeiger: You emphasize the importance of marriage, family, and kids as the arena in which we work out our lives.
Moore: It seems to me that marriage is a holy state. It’s never easy, but it polishes away our narcissism and deepens our capacity to love. Living with and caring for children does the same. Children are very demanding, but they give us remarkable perspectives on all aspects of life.
That is not to say, however, that the single, childless life is soulless. I’ve been a celibate monk, I’ve been single, I’ve been married, and I’ve gone through divorce. I’m a father and a stepfather. All these ways of life are full of soul. I focus particularly on marriage because marital sex is often felt to be limited and not as exciting as nonmarital sex. To me, sex in marriage can be particularly intense, valuable, and satisfying because it can bring the whole of life together, whereas, when engaging in sex with a relative stranger, one tends to separate one’s heart and emotions from the lovemaking. It is in long-term relationships — marriage and family and children — that we really work out our lives.
Zeiger: You say that we work too hard, that this detracts from the sensuousness of our lives. Is there a positive correlation between sexuality and loafing or leisure?
Moore: Trying to make life productive and profitable is the American way, but it has a negative effect on sexuality. The wish to be productive is a highly spiritual intention, whereas sex is made mostly of soul stuff: deeper, closer to the emotions, less goal oriented. We can be so preoccupied with justifying our lives through hard work and busyness that we don’t allow enough room for sex, pleasure, and sensuality. We might make room in our hectic schedules for entertainment and days off, but this kind of leisure only supports our busy way of life. So I don’t think leisure is the answer, but rather a slower, less goal directed, more relaxed way of life overall.
Zeiger: Now that I’m in my fifties, I notice that my contemporaries and I are slowing down a bit. Being slower and more present to your life can be challenging, and even frightening. Often, frantic work serves as a diversion from the ghosts and the feelings you haven’t wanted to face.
Moore: Yes, allowing soul into our everyday life can be hard for a number of reasons. One is that the whole spiritual realm looks so bright and wonderful. People want to transcend their everyday lives, not be more in them. People don’t want to grow old and face the concerns of the soul. I think our American society, if you could put it on the psychiatrist’s couch, would reveal the psychology of a very young person.
Zeiger: An adolescent?
Moore: Very much an adolescent. Look at this man who has somehow been elected president. George Bush reminds me of the college kids I taught in Texas. I know his type well. I have to wonder: do we want to turn this country over to an adolescent, whatever his age?
Zeiger: Will America ever grow up?
Moore: There are no signs of it. We’ve had more than two hundred years. How long is it going to take? I think we are an eternally young society, and what happens to eternally young people is that, instead of maturing, they burn out. To prevent that, we need to cultivate the imagination and develop our own philosophies of life, rather than unconsciously live the life that advertisers and big business want us to lead. To find our own way, we have to have intellectual and historical background. That’s why my books are full of quotes from great writers of the past.
Religion and sex can be powerful partners or powerful enemies. Many religions have used sex as part of initiation rites or used sexual imagery to represent contact between the divine and the human. The great Roman and Greek statues of the deities, for example, recognize the deep tie between religion and sexuality.
Zeiger: Speaking of that, could you say more about the philosopher Ficino, whom you mentioned earlier? I understand his work has been a great influence on you.
Moore: It has. Ficino lived from 1433 to 1499. As a young man, he became a translator for Cosimo de’ Medici, a wealthy political leader in Florence. Ficino was a royal scholar. He learned Latin and Greek, studied philosophy, and became a priest in his forties. He translated Plato and the Neoplatonists from Greek into Latin, making them more widely accessible, and wrote commentaries about their work.
At one point, the Church held a council in Florence, and the Greeks attended, bringing with them books full of magic and spells and ancient philosophy that no one in Italy had ever seen before. When Medici heard about this, he said to Ficino, “Stop what you’re doing and translate these magical texts for me.” And so Ficino did. He took the Greek traditions of astrology and the magical use of music, imagery, stones, and jewelry, put all of this together with his Neoplatonic philosophy, and created his own unique blend — a fascinating mixture of the Neoplatonists’ soul-centeredness and a way of being in the world in which music and the use of color and wood and other materials are important. This room is modeled on Ficino’s principles: for instance, putting quotations in Latin above the doorways.
Zeiger: What does that one say?
Moore: It’s from Nicholas of Cusa: it says, “Wherever I turn, you are there.” The “you” he refers to is God, but it could also be the anima mundi, the soul of the world. Ficino’s work encourages us to create a life that nurtures the soul, a physical life, a concrete life in our home and our physical surroundings — not just a life of ideas.
Zeiger: You’ve said the soul can be a way out of the dualistic manner in which we perceive most things: mind versus body, thought versus feeling.
Moore: What I mean is that, even when we’re in the mind — in other words, being very rational and intent upon understanding things — there’s still a large unconscious undercurrent there; for example, the fantasies we have as we converse with someone. Even when we’re trying to be completely rational, the imagination is there. The primary activity of the soul is imagination: dream, poetry, art, painting. Can I read you something? [Reaches for a book.] “If there are only two things in the universe, on one side the intellect and on the other side the body, but no soul, then the intellect would never be attracted to the body, and the body would never be drawn to the intellect, but if the soul, conforming to both, lies between them, an attraction will easily occur from one to the other.” That’s Ficino.
Zeiger: You also often quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who says that the things of the world have souls and want us to notice them. We think of a bottle of water, a book, or a wall as just an object, but Rilke would say that they need us to see them.
Moore: Yes, Rilke’s view overcomes the split between the world out there and the me in here. If the world has its own soul, individuality, and will, then we have a basis for dialogue with it, and we do not consider ourselves superior to it. Most of us today, though, seem to feel that the world is a commodity with which we can do as we please.
The things of the world have much to offer us, if we would only listen to what they have to say. Artists can help us do this. A still-life painting or a poem can show us that things have souls.
Zeiger: In our culture, it’s hard even to talk about people having souls. For example, I often feel the presence of my parents, who have died, and that presence speaks to the part of me that I would call soul. But I’m careful whom I tell about this.
Moore: Of course, if you live in a soulful world, then you know that the end of this life is not the end of the relationship, nor of the connection. Mysteriously, the intimacy becomes even greater than it was before.
Zeiger: You’ve referred to depression and illness as a “gift.” This, too, is an unusual point of view in our society.
Moore: My take on depression is influenced primarily by late-medieval and early-Renaissance medical writings on the subject. Ficino thought he was a melancholic person from birth and said that Saturn, which represents depression, is poisonous and dangerous, yet also valuable and necessary. People used to talk about being “in Saturn”: depression as a mood or a state of being that takes you to a faraway place. When you’re depressed, you withdraw from the world around you. And in that faraway place of emotion and imagination, you see what the average person cannot. The melancholic artist can make paintings or write poetry or compose music that is valuable to others because the artist has gone to a painful, disturbing place, but one that is closer to reality than most other emotional places we visit. Today we see depression only as a disease. We don’t appreciate what it has to offer.
Zeiger: I like the idea of depression as a place you are in, rather than something you are.
Moore: Our clinical and medical language is often a worse problem than the depression itself. [Laughs.] I don’t want to make light of depression, but to give it a context. Along with all that pain and suffering, there’s actually something working for you, and you have to be open to that. But in America today, we see cheerfulness and positive thinking as a sign of health, and depression as an illness.
There are many kinds of depression, and I don’t encourage cultivating any of them, but they can be a means of liberation from the tyranny of cheerfulness and the religion of positive thinking. Through depression, we can deepen our character and discover new things about ourselves and the world. If, on the other hand, we go out of our way to avoid depression or combat it, I think we run the risk of developing an unrealistic view of the world.
Zeiger: You’ve also written somewhat favorably about another subject with many negative associations: pornography.
Moore: Most people think that pornography isn’t art, but I think of it as a special formula characterized by dumb scripts, an extreme focus on the genitals, and the absence of romantic love. For some, at least, that formula is appealing. To a degree, pornography is the opposite of what we consider to be the appropriate attitude toward sex: that we should be educated and intelligent about it, focus on the whole person, and use sex to express love. I suspect that, when we require sex always to have those qualities, we defend ourselves unduly against the other sides of our sexuality. I don’t think we should drop our defenses entirely, because sex is a powerful force of the human soul, but we might be more tolerant of pornography if we admitted to our defensiveness.
Zeiger: You’ve called pornography “the return of the repressed, the religious nature of sex presenting itself in dark instead of bright colors.”
Moore: Religion and sex can be powerful partners or powerful enemies. Many religions have used sex as part of initiation rites or used sexual imagery to represent contact between the divine and the human. The great Roman and Greek statues of the deities, for example, recognize the deep tie between religion and sexuality, and some famous Indian temples are packed with images of lovemaking couples. (Of course, many people in India are repressed sexually, but that doesn’t contradict the wisdom of the erotic temples.) Sexual images are numinous — that is, possessed with great power to attract and disturb — because they address some of the same issues that religion struggles with, especially the craving for vitality.
When we don’t allow any real religious power into our secular society, that power gets pushed into the extremes of sexuality. While the churches try to keep sex within strict bounds, ministers and priests are defrocked for their sexual transgressions, and their parishioners commit adulteries and keep bizarre pornography sites flourishing on the Internet. If we could ever get to the point where our spirituality didn’t contradict our sexuality, and our sexuality completely embraced our spirituality, then we would be in the right place.
Zeiger: Where is your work taking you now?
Moore: In the book I’m just finishing, I’m dipping back into my Catholic roots much more, trying to show that what I’m doing now is really an evolution of my early life as a monk, though the Catholic press sometimes sees my work as apostasy, heresy.
I should say that not all the press is critical. Several Catholic publications have published my writing and have interviewed me with considerable understanding. But the conservative wing doesn’t like my work, partly because I don’t use the usual, accepted language. I also refer positively to the Greek gods and goddesses, and any suggestion that paganism has value bothers them. For some Christians, pagan religion still represents evil and temptation. I think, too, that my references to other world religions trouble some Catholics. And maybe they pick up on the fact that I have no intention of subjecting myself to the authoritarianism and mind-control attempts of the church hierarchy. At this point in my life, such rules and threats can’t touch my Catholicism or my spirituality.
To me, the marriage bed is the altar to Venus, a sacred place. The Romans said that adultery offends the bed, not the couple, because the bed is the holy, sacramental object that represents the marriage. Care of the bed and other things having to do with sex is similar to caring for a chapel. The goal of our sexuality — especially in our thinking about lovemaking — should be to evoke the spirit of Venus.
Zeiger: You’ve been accused of focusing too much on the individual and not enough on political efforts to improve the soul of society. Is it self-centered to talk only about the individual soul?
Moore: I have never said that caring for the soul is an entirely individual matter, and I have always tried to push beyond the ego. In almost all my books, I try to offer a deeper understanding. The Soul of Sex, for example, is largely about living in the social, concrete world more erotically. When I write, I’m motivated by the suffering I see everywhere in the world, but I want to get to the root of the problems. If I think the merely social approach doesn’t go deep enough, that doesn’t mean I advocate navel-gazing.
Zeiger: You write a great deal about the marriage bed. What is your marriage bed like?
Moore: My marriage bed is quite ordinary. I admire the way some of my friends surround their beds with mirrors or silky red drapes, but my wife and I prefer simple décor. I do like the bed to be secluded from the rest of the house. The bed’s importance and sanctity come from what goes on there rather than from its appearance.
To me, the marriage bed is the altar to Venus, a sacred place. The Romans said that adultery offends the bed, not the couple, because the bed is the holy, sacramental object that represents the marriage. Care of the bed and other things having to do with sex is similar to caring for a chapel.
The goal of our sexuality — especially in our thinking about lovemaking — should be to evoke the spirit of Venus. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not about the modern idea of people trying to communicate with each other. Nor is it just instinct, nor biology. In The Soul of Sex, I set out to write about sex in a way that was not biological, not psychological, and not sociological. I came to the conclusion that summoning the spirit of sex — which the Greeks called Aphrodite and the Romans called Venus — is still what sex is about, and is what we need to do in today’s world.
The spirit of Venus is a combination of sexuality, beauty, and desire, as well as their shadow elements: jealousy, possessiveness, and obsession. All of these nurture the soul. You must evoke the spirit physically, concretely, so that you have the sense of devoting yourself to it. If that spirit is not evoked, then you can’t have a satisfying sexual life, nor a sensuous society.