A Terrible Love of War: a book review

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James Hillman’s extraordinary book, A Terrible Love of War, examines the phenomena of war in our world in an effort to understand its importance, its inevitability, its impact and its meaning. It is divided into four chapters: War is Normal, War is Inhuman, War is Sublime, and Religion is War. While the first chapter lays out the foundation for the argument that war is ‘normal’ because of its relentless presence in the lives of humankind since its very beginnings – and here Hillman does an overview of all the wars and statistics of these wars – the final chapter comes to the meat of his thesis. My focus here is to try to convey some of the main ideas he tackles. I have included a lot of excerpts and quotes from the final chapter, as his voice should be what is heard. I feel his message is important and profound.

In this final chapter of his book, Hillman has tried to expose the unacknowledged force of Mars/Ares hidden within Christianity from its very beginning. He felt that only a ‘contrite awakening to Christianity’s hypocrisy in regard to peace and war could release a new dispensation, a new reformation to rid monotheistic religion of its roots in war and the roots of war in monotheistic religion.”

Hillman begins this chapter by quoting Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Hedges claims that “War is a force that gives us meaning” because it does what religion is supposed to do – raise our lives into Importance, or immanence. It has all the elements:

       Ceremonies of military service, the coercion by and obedience to a supreme command, the confrontation with death in battle as a last rite on earth, war’s promise of transcendence and its sacrificial love, the test of all human virtues and the presence of all human evils, the slaughter of blood victims, impersonally, collectively, in the name of a higher cause and blessed by ministers of several faiths – all drive home the conclusion that “War is religion.” Yet that conclusion provides little for fresh thought. We need to pass beyond what we know to imagining what we may not want to know.

       “War is religion” takes us only halfway. Beyond is a far graver proposition: Religion is war.”

In this chapter he explores the archetypal energy of the god Mars. A mythic god is not a religious god, but rather refers to archetypal patterns that are ever-present in the human psyche across culture, an understanding of which helps us to understand the human condition.

       Religion …..encodes a particular story as the revelation of a particular god’s own immortal truth to a historical human in a specific place at a specific moment. The revelation of this truth to Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Gautama too, are set down in books which then, themselves, take on the sacredness of truth. Scholars speak of “book religions” and “oral(storytelling) religions.” Religion reads the words literally; myths hears the words literarily. Myths ask the psyche to invent and speculate, to listen and be amused: religion, first of all, calls for belief.

       And belief brings with it trouble, because belief posits the reality of its object! This startling idea, logically elaborated by the father of phenomenological philosophy, Edmund Husserl (d.1938), implies that it is not the god of religion that brings the soul to belief, but that the psyche’s “will to believe” (William James) posits the god in whom the soul believes. More crassly stated by the virulent discounters of all religion: all gods of every sort are inventions of human belief to satisfy human needs, and religion is but the opium of the people.

Hillman goes to on differentiate between mythical gods and the gods of religion, because myth never asserts that its gods are ‘real”. Belief, he argues, is the essential psychological component of religion, and it is also the essential component that brings us into war.

       Regardless of whom or what you believe in, belief as a psychological phenomenon urges action. We act our beliefs; do because we believe. The stronger the belief, the more action takes over, the more motivated we become and the surer and narrower our justification for what we are doing. Even believers in peaceful nonviolence assemble, march, and demonstrate. Belief is the short fuse that sets off Mar’s archetypal force and war’s unpredictable devastating course.

       When the claims of any divinity such as Jahweh or Allah or a semi-divinized leader like Hitler or Mao or Khomeini, or an abstracted idea of a people, a class, a race, or a nation is believed to be the prime reality, truth, goodness, and power, it will fight against the claims of all others to the same rank and status. The borders which singleness of belief defends may be both geographical and doctrinal; in either case transgressors shall be expelled, imprisoned, converted, or put to death. Believers become martial in defense and martial in their mission. “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I command you” (Matt. 28:19-20) Toleration is compromising, inclusion treacherous, coercion to the point of violence necessary.

Hillman points out that whatever the object of belief – whether it be the flag, the nation, the president or the god – a martial energy mobilizes. “Decisions are quick, dissent more difficult. Doubt which impedes action and questions certitude become traitorous, an enemy to be silenced.”

The psychology of Christian monotheism requires a dedication to unity. Its psychopathology is intolerance of difference, Hillman states.

Hence the issue of toleration has plagued theological thinkers for ages, leading to schisms, and more schisms. As long as you hold that your god is the perfect supreme deity, all other gods will be lesser. There are no several truths, no other roads to the Kingdom.

Hillman exposes the sad, ironic truth underlying people’s faith in the justness of their wars:

“ In the trenches of World War I French, German, Russian, Italian, English, Scottish, Irish, Austrian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Canadian, and American – to name but a few- engaged in killing each other, invoked the name of the one and the same god. Northern and Southern armies of the War between the States killed each other, calling on the same one god. The god of Israel and the god of Palestine and the god of Iraq is this same one god, and is also the very one invited to White House prayer breakfasts.


       The religions of Jahweh, Allah and God the Father, with all their twiggy denominations, are sister branches of the one monotheistic root of which each claims to be the one and only true daughter. All place Abraham/Ibrahim among the founding patriarchs, and all point to his willingness to kill his son for the sake of their common god as an exemplary lesson. All regard Jerusalem as their own holy city. All still declare that their god is compassionate and have been killing one another for centuries. Of course Jesus is not divine for the other two and Mohammed is not a prophet for the other two, but they all begin in the Bible, grew first in the same religion-bearing earth of the Middle East, and have the strength of monotheism in common. But the commitment to the singleness of vision that monotheism inflicts has them inflicting centuries of terror on one another, and even on others in distant lands not concerned with their gods or their disputes.

       In view of all the appeals for peace addressed to this one Supreme God for deliverance from the evils of war, why does he let them go on? This simple question comes from the heart of those under torture, devastated by bombing, herded into concentration camps. War presents theological dilemmas about the nature and intention of a one and almighty God whose goodness and mercy are exalted by the three great monotheistic religions. By definition this God has the greatest power; there is nothing that he cannot do – that is what omnipotence means. So why does he not put a stop to war? Why is he not cognizant of the appeals for peace since there is nothing he does not know – that’s what omniscience means. Either he can’t stop war or he doesn’t want to. The first rebuts his claim to almightiness, and the second implies that he likes war, or at least by not stopping it, he sustains it.”

Hillman makes a claim for using a psychoanalytic approach and examining our own hypocrisies to come to terms with the causes of war.

       “The blame for war can no longer may be laid on others – their holy wars, their inflammatory priests, their history of belligerence. Psychoanalysis has moved civilization to where it must do what its patients do: take back easy blame from out there in search of the more difficult blame in here. The role of religion in providing the motivating trigger for war is not in their religion, but in literal monotheistic religion as such, anywhere. ….

       Hypocrisy in America is not a sin but a necessity and a way of life. It makes possible armories of mass destruction, side by side with the proliferation of churches, cults, and charities. Hypocrisy holds the nation together so that it can preach, and practice what it does not preach.

These sound like damning statements indeed – but what Hillman is attempting to do in this book and in particular, this chapter, is akin to shock therapy. Until we really understand what we are up to – which means examining the unconscious archetypal forces which are at work in our psyches, we cannot hope for anything other than more of the same.

Hillman tells us that the archetypal energy of Mars or Ares is not in itself the problem – in fact that energy can be helpful if we can be honest with ourselves. It is this aspect that:

…..defends the city, civilization itself, as a shield bearer on the ramparts. He stands and fights for justice, gives courage, has a mighty heart, is tireless, and “hard with spear” driving home point with superior force.

       Also, as Kant explains, the martial spirit constructs civilization by promoting internal dissension between conflicting parties. “The means nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society: since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.” “Man wills concord; but nature knows what is good for the species: she wills discord.” (Kant, Idea for a Universal History) This appreciation is written by perhaps the most humane and gentle philosopher who ever thought his way into the heart of things.

       War defends civilization, not because a war is claimed to be just, or a justified war. The just cause lies not in the end – overcoming evil, repelling barbarians, protecting the innocent – but in the way the entry into war and the conduct of the war maintain the steadfast virtues, the “gentle light” shone on them by Ares. If you look to Mars for help, it is well to be courageously honest; to be in mind of civilization, its history, its frailty, ……..When, however, the martial spirit is confined within any single-minded belief, the result is domination, intolerance, and suppression of other ways of being, and we suffer the horror of war from which we seek escape.

Hillman warns that we are often at risk to succumb to a deceptive haste to rush into war and to be subject to the rush of deceptions that accompany this impulse. Once we have been swayed to act based on these beliefs, it is much harder to stop the train.:

Who would have imagined that restraint is what Mars offers, the restraint of awareness at the beginning? Restraint produced by a sensitive kind of intelligence that feels the rush; resisting the divine possession and the high-pitched shrillness crying for action, which can be met with the courage “to linger”, to hold back and “keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs…and not be tired of waiting.” Kipling’s IF, like the “Hymn to Ares”, presents this kind of courage as a sign of “manhood.”

Hillman suggests that there is a new god afoot in our culture that we have not recognized.

Were Americans to set up statues, as did the Romans, to the personified characteristics that move its national behavior and are idealized as virtues, one of them would surely be Rashness, the god of Haste. Quick, Fast, Instant, Flash, Time-Saver, One-Liner, Sound-Bite – are some of this god’s epithets. This is the figure who makes one act before thinking, and lets action determine what to think: when a problem occurs, it is Haste who asks, “What do we do about it?” “What are you taking for it?”


He goes on to say:

“So it is not war that needs to find a cure, but it’s haste, that shrill cry in the heart brought on by Mars’s fury. In that same heart, fortunately, there is another voice of restraint: Venus vitrix.”

Mythically, Venus or Aphrodite, was the lover of Mars, but Hillman argues, their coupling does not suggest that love is an antidote to war. It cannot be a policy or a public program. Moreover, this is not some vague notion of white-washed loving innocence. He says Christianity must ask itself why, given that it entered this world as a religion of love, and distinguishes itself by the message of love in its founder and apostles – why is it so martial? Christianity has not converted the god of war, and in fact has inspired the greatest long-lasting war machine of any culture anywhere.

Hillman argues that a true coupling with Venus vitrix suggests an aesthetic intensity. War must be restrained by aesthetic passion and the making of culture. And he emphasizes – not the making of art objects in response to war, but rather concentration on the making, on the creative process.

The making invite martial metaphors: slogging through and sticking it out; cutting, breaking, tearing, rending,; suffering wounds and defeat; uncontrollable rage at obstacles. Intermittent sleep. Images, shapes, lines pop up out of darkness as to pickets on night watch. The verge of madness. The loss of self on the continued adventure into no-man’s land.

       Aesthetic intensity offers an equivalent to war by providing an obdurate enemy – the image, the material, the ideal – to attack, subdue and convert. Venusian passion offers the erotics, the sacrifice, a devotion but without doctrine, and a band of comrades dedicated to the same search for the sublime. As war is beyond reason, and religious faith is beyond reason, so too must be the aesthetic parallel to war……..

       Rather than cordoning off the magical power of making cultural beauty, civilization can find demonstrative modes of realizing the passionate Venus. When both accidental and intentional catastrophes hover over our heads, over the planet itself, we must imagine other ways for civilization to normalize martial fury, give valid place to the autonomous human, and open to the sublime. Is civilization so dedicated to repression that it fears an outbreak of culture? Imagine a nation whose first line of defense is each citizen’s aesthetic investment in some cultural form. Then civilization’s wasteful “stress” converts into cultural intensity. All the diabolical inventiveness, the intolerant obsession and drive to conquer compelled toward culture. Would war lose some of its magic?


I love the image of a fierce coupling between Mars and the passionate Venus that in its fire and passion engenders a new civilization with a robust appreciation of the arts and culture. It might actually make our civilization civilized – that would be something to aspire to!

Listen to the poem If  by Rudyard Kipling:

Here is the translation of the Homeric Hymn to Ares, by Evelyn-White: (www.theoi.com)


[1] Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden- helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defence of Olympus, father of warlike Victory, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aether wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.




By |2017-01-17T13:51:31+00:00May 18th, 2014|Myth and Meaning, Relationships, Self Awareness|39 Comments

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  1. ptero9 May 19, 2014 at 12:06 am

    This is the last of Hillman’s books I’ve yet to read. I’m halfway through and can’t bear to finish it. I agree, it truly is one of his best!

    Thanks for the great review!

    • margaretmikkelborg May 19, 2014 at 9:07 am

      Thanks Debra! I found the first chapter heavy going, but so important to bring into consciousness. The whole problem of war and religion is one that very few dare to tackle, which makes this work all the more remarkable.


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