The philosophical difficulties of Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul’

Thomas Moore. Photo via YouTube.

The first time I read Thomas Moore’s “Care of the Soul,” nearly 30 years ago, was because our minister was enthusiastic about it. Other than recalling that I didn’t get much out of it, I hadn’t given it much thought in the intervening years.

Then, recently, Matthew Dowd started touting “Care of the Soul” on Twitter. Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist and Never Trump conservative, was until recently the chief political analyst on ABC News. His Twitter feed is surprisingly spiritual and inspirational.

Well, I read it again, and I’m still struggling with it. I’d call it a hard book — not because it challenges and pushes you, which would be hard in a good way, but because it’s difficult to understand and make sense of. Some of it is clear enough — the importance of ritual, of the outdoors, of living a purpose-filled life. But too often Moore, a psychotherapist and former Catholic monk, throws us into the deep end without any preparation.

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His method is to examine psychological problems such as depression and narcissism and try to help us understand what they are teaching us. These chapters are accompanied by extensive discussions of Greek and Roman mythology that are supposed to illuminate our path. But even though I moved through these sections slowly and tried to absorb what Moore was writing, I mainly came away scratching my head.

Other Moore-isms are simple enough to resonate. For instance:

Another aspect of modern life is a loss of formal religious practice in many people’s lives, which is not only a threat to spirituality as such, but also deprives the soul of valuable symbolic and reflective experience. Care of the soul might include a recovery of formal religion in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. One obvious potential source of spiritual renewal is the religious tradition in which we were brought up.

As a skeptic who nevertheless has been attending church for most of my adult life, I found that to be a powerful affirmation. Moore also given some thought to the caricature of religion that is marked by dogmatism and the rejection of anyone who doesn’t believe the right way. He writes: “When spirituality loses contact with soul …, it can become rigid, simplistic, moralistic, and authoritarian — qualities that betray a loss of soul.”

I highlighted this as the quote that best sums up the entire book: “Wisdom is the marriage of intellect’s longing for truth and soul’s acceptance of the labyrinthine nature of the human condition.” Yet, in looking at it now, it strikes me that it’s difficult to make more than aphoristic sense out of it without truly understanding what Moore is driving at. Which brings me back to the difficulties I mentioned higher up.

What’s frustrating is that there really does seem to be deep wisdom in “Care of the Soul” that would make sense if only I could find my secret decoder ring. I’d be interested in knowing whether any of you have tried to make sense of Moore and what you took away from it.