A Soul Man's Guide To Living Well

Thomas Moore offers advice for enriching life: some of it good, some loopy

The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life by Thomas Moore (New York: HarperPerennial, 1997, 396 pp., $13.50)

THE RE-ENCHANTMENT of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore, falls roughly into the category: “spirituality for self-improvement.” It is third in a trilogy that began with his very successful Care of The Soul (1992), followed by Soul Mates.

In the bookstore Moore's works are found in the pop-psychology section, and though, no doubt, much could be said about his innovative approach and contributions to the self-help genre, it is his attempt to re-introduce and re-vitalize the concept of “soul” that gives his work broader implications for the religion-minded.

To put Moore's notions of “soul” in proper context, we probably have to go back to the 17th century and the philosopher Rene Descartes, who introduced a belief in the separation of mind and body as distinct metaphysical substances, thus overturning the classical Aristotelian-Thomistic view of the soul as the form of the body, where “form” and “matter” were considered as two complementary aspects of one thing.

Descartes' separation, however innocuous it appeared at first, in the course of several centuries of development has grown to an almost unbridgeable chasm, with “mind” on one side creating a radically subjective empire for itself, while “body” on the other is diminished to the slave-status of occupied territory.

“Ideas have consequences,” and Descartes' idea is at root responsible for many of the unhealthy strains—call them “neuroses”—now afflicting the Western mind. (See John Paul II's comments on Descartes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.) Cut to the present and enter the psycho-professionals, Thomas Moore being one of them, whose study and practice are directly concerned with the unhealthy side of the Western psyche.

At some point an insightful few of them must have realized that mind-body dualism was one major cause of people's psychological problems, but how to go about correcting it? For to use the psychoanalytical tools forged in the tradition of Descartes would amount to asking people to try to think their way out of problems caused by their way of thinking.

The impasse could only be breached by first getting around Descartes, which Thomas Moore has done by looking back even further than the 17th century, back to the 15th century, to the Italian Renaissance and the concept of “soul” expounded in the various writings of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), who, if I may be forgiven for stating the obvious, was truly a Renaissance man.

Of course, to get around Descartes, Moore could have looked back even further, to the scholastics of the Middle Ages, but there he would have found a concept of soul very precisely defined and integrated into a highly-developed system of dogma and morality, i.e., religion. Reading The Re-Enchantment of Daily Life, one sees that Moore is much more comfortable with the Renaissance, whose humanism embraced the imaginative paganism of classical Greece and whose pre-scientific curiosity brought magic up a notch to alchemy, both of which Moore endorses and both of which have marketing appeal to New Age audiences.

“‘Soul’ is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance. I do not use the word here as an object of religious belief or as something to do with immortality” (Care of the Soul).

Moore's concept of “soul” comes across better when using the adjective “soulful” as applied to music or poetry. Where his second book, Soul Mates, examined soul in human relationships, his third book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, attempts to bring it into the realm of culture.

Thomas Moore was raised Catholic and lived in a monastic religious order for 12 years; he now is married and has two children. He has degrees in theology, musicology, philosophy, and has taught religion and psychology, as well as having worked as a psycho-therapist. His prescriptions for bringing soul into daily life, which, again, may be seen as ways of re-integrating mind and body to overcome Cartesian dualism, start with an appreciation for nature: for water, trees, rocks, and material things in general as having qualities and values independent of utilitarian exploitation.

He then looks at the home and other human habitats and offers suggestions for making them more enchanting. Subsequent chapters deal with politics, art, the psyche, stories, the sacred, ritual. His vision pretty much encompasses an entire world-view, as did the Renaissance men he admires.

He has many worthwhile things to say: on resisting the secularization of culture, the need for silence—especially in churches, for having children around, for cultivating a more imaginative way of life and for trying to see the sacred in the things around us. Unfortunately, he also has many loopy things to say: about amulets, astrology, and the “little people.”

He seems to be a sort of syncretist-pantheist and when he speaks of putting “magic” into life, he is using the word in a literal more than figurative sense. But then again, since he advocates an imaginative rather than rational approach, he may intend that magic, earth-spirits, etc., be regarded as real only in the sense of being real objects of the imagination. The reader will, at times, feel he is being taken on a post-modern moon walk.

Without overlooking the heterodoxy of Moore's system, one can sympathize with his overall thrust toward integrating mind and body. At this point in time, Catholicism needs to entail more than just being able to walk around with a mind full of true propositions. The word must become flesh in a consistent culture that recognizes its connections—and responsibilities—to the entirety of creation. The trick to doing this, though, is not with magic, as Moore would have it, but with the sacramentalism embodied in the person of Jesus Christ and expressed in his body the Church.

Brother Clement Kennedy is a Benedictine monk at Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, Calif.