An Astonishing Mind: forever Jung


When it comes to religion, everyone has some kind of position. In the modern context both God and religion are dead, though the devoutly religious among us may deny it. Secular humanism has replaced religion as the moral ground for our actions, with science, reason and logic providing the framework for the understanding and application of our morality. Yet, with all the intellectual tools available to modern man, morality seems more than ever to be some kind of chimera, shifting and reshaping on a situational basis and managed by those in a position of advantage. In other words, our morality, like history, is being shaped by the winners.

The realization that morality has fallen into an instrumental, utilitarian, philosophical box and meted out at the whim of a power elite in the form of justice and human rights based on their current economic and social paradigms immediately brings to mind Jung—and his study of the dark side of human nature, what he called “the shadow.” In all cases, the shadow leads back to our understanding of god. Jung worked through his own view of the nature of man and god by observing his patients and their presentation of archetypical behaviour, and his study of alchemy and mandalas—all connections to ancient symbolism relating to the origins of—and the need for—a personal god, that is some force that is “extra-mundane” or above worldly influence and control. This may seem at odds with the current scientific or philosophic mindset. But before forming a judgment, let’s look at what Jung says.

“Modern psychological development leads to a much better understanding as to what man really consists of. The gods at first lived in superhuman power and beauty on the top of snow-clad mountains or in the darkness of caves, woods and seas. Later on they grew together into one god, and then that god became man. But in our day even the God-man seems to have descended from his throne and to be dissolving himself into the common man. That is probably why his seat is empty. Instead, the common man suffers from a hybris [hubris] of consciousness that borders on the pathological. This psychic condition in the individual corresponds by and large to the hypertrophy and totalitarian pretentions of the idealized State. In the same way that the State has caught the individual, the individual imagines that he has caught the psyche and holds her in the palm of his hand. He is even making a science of her in the absurd supposition that the intellect, which is but a part and function of the psyche, is sufficient to comprehend the much greater whole.”

Jung makes the observation that science is simply an offshoot of our consciousness, the tip of the iceberg of human psychic reality. In recognizing that, unlike the narrow confines of consciousness, the psyche is far larger, Jung identifies the psyche as archaic and primordial, an ancient, universal mind that encompasses all of our evolutionary developments and contains, along with the rational, the Great Terror and darkness that permeates the collective unconscious of all life. He explains:

“In reality, the psyche is the mother and the maker, the subject and even the possibility of consciousness itself. It reaches so far beyond the boundaries of consciousness that the latter could easily be compared to an island in the ocean. Whereas the island is small and narrow, the ocean is immensely wide and deep and contains a life infinitely surpassing, in kind and degree, anything known on the island—so that if it is a question of space it does not matter if the gods are “inside” or “outside.” It might be objected that there is no proof that consciousness is nothing more than an island in the ocean. Certainly it is impossible to prove this, since the known range of consciousness is confronted with the unknown extension of the unconscious, of which we only know that it exists and by the very fact of its existence exerts a limiting influence on consciousness and its freedom. Wherever unconsciousness reigns, there is bondage and possession.”

What Jung is telling us here, is that our consciousness is bounded and contained by the vast, unknowable unconscious, holding us captive within something we don’t understand or comprehend. He goes on…

“The immensity of the ocean is simply a comparison; it expresses in allegorical form the capacity of the unconscious to limit and threaten consciousness. Empirical psychology loved, until recently, to explain the “unconscious” as mere absence of consciousness—the term indicates as much—just as shadow is an absence of light. Today accurate observation of unconscious processes has recognized, with all other ages before us, that the unconscious possesses a creative autonomy such as a mere shadow could never be endowed with.”

So Jung sees the unconscious as a creative ocean and identifies with Carus, von Hartman, Schopenhauer and others who have equated the unconscious with the world-creating principle, in Jung’s words as “the mysterious agent personified as the gods.” God, then, is the personification of the mysterious world creation force. Jung explains:

“It suits our hypertrophied and hybristic [hubristic] modern consciousness not to be mindful of the dangerous autonomy of the unconscious and to treat it negatively as the absence of consciousness. The hypothesis of invisible gods or daemons would be, psychologically, a far more appropriate formulation, even though it would be an anthropomorphic projection.”

In other words, Jung is simply saying that having a god is a healthier psychological proposition than not having a god. But obviously there’s still that modern scientific problem…

“But since the development of consciousness requires the withdrawal of all projections we can lay our hands on, it is not possible to maintain any non-psychological doctrine about the gods. It the historical process of world despiritualization continues hitherto, then everything of a divine of daemonic character outside us must return to the psyche, to the inside of the unknown man, whence it apparently originated.”

So has Jung merely brought us full circle? Not really.

“The materialistic error was probably unavoidable at first. Since the throne of God could not be discovered among the galactic systems, the inference was that God had never existed. The second unavoidable error was psychologism: if God is anything, he must be an illusion derived from certain motives—from will to power, for instance, or from repressed sexuality. These arguments are not new. Much the same thing was said by the Christian missionaries who overthrew the idols of heathen gods. But whereas the early missionaries were conscious of serving a new God by combating the old ones, modern iconoclasts are unconscious of the one in whose name they are destroying old values.”

Jung now begins to address the modern worldview through Nietzsche’s eyes.

“Nietzsche thought himself quite conscious and responsible when he smashed the old tablets, yet he felt a peculiar need to back himself up with a revivified Zarathustra, a sort of alter ego, with whom he often identifies himself in his great tragedy Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche was no atheist, but his God was dead. The result of this demise was a split in himself, and he felt compelled to call the other self “Zarathustra” or, at times, “Dionysus.” In this fatal illness he signed his letters “Zagreus,” the dismembered god of the Thracians. The tragedy of Zarathustra is that, because his God died, Nietzsche himself became a god; and this happened because he was no atheist. He was of too positive a nature to tolerate the urban neurosis of atheism. It seems dangerous for such a man to assert that “God is dead”: he instantly becomes the victim of inflation.”

By inflation Jung means sublimating the non-personal aspects of the psyche, aspects of the vast ocean, as if these were acquired personally, thereby partially regressing into the unconscious resulting in a dissolution of the ego into its paired opposites such a good and evil—definitely a recognizable Nietzschean theme. This, then, begins man’s Promethean struggle without a god. Jung goes on…

“Far from being a negation, God is actually the strongest and most effective “position” the psyche can reach, in exactly the same sense in which Paul speaks of people “whose God is their belly.” The strongest and therefore most decisive factor in any individual psyche compels the same belief or fear, submission or devotion which a God would demand from man. Anything despotic and inescapable in this sense is “God,” and it becomes absolute unless, by an ethical decision freely chosen, one succeeds in building up against this natural phenomenon a positive that is equally strong and invincible.”

What Jung is telling us is that, whether we consciously agree to it or not, our psyche is hardwired to create a god of any natural force beyond our control. But, he points out, we have a choice. We can consciously choose a more powerful counterforce.

“If this psychic position proves to be absolutely effective, it surely deserves to be named a “God,” and what is more, a spiritual God, since it sprang from the freedom of ethical decision and therefore from the mind. Man is free to decide whether “God” shall be a “spirit” or a natural phenomenon like the craving of a morphine addict, and hence whether “God” shall act as a beneficent or a destructive force.

“However indubitable and clearly understandable their psychic events or decisions may be, they are very apt to lead people to the false, unpsychological conclusion that it rests with them to decide whether they will create a “God” for themselves or not. There is no question that, since each of us is equipped with a psychic disposition that limits our freedom in high degree and makes it practically illusory. Not only is “freedom of the will” an incalculable problem philosophically, it is also a misnomer in the practical sense, for we seldom find anybody who is not influenced and indeed dominated by desires, habits, impulses, prejudices, resentments, and by every conceivable kind of complex.”

So what is Jung telling us? That we need to have a god but can’t create a god (such as recasting ourselves as God)? That’s exactly what he’s saying. Jung tells us that it’s not a matter of creating, but a matter of being possessed—like our response to fear—which is something the psyche understands. Our gods are already created.

“Bondage and possession are synonymous. Always, therefore, there is something in the psyche that takes possession and limits or suppresses our moral freedom. In order to hide this undeniable but exceedingly unpleasant fact from ourselves and at the same time pay lip-service to freedom, we have become accustomed to saying apotropaically, “I have such and such a desire or habit or feeling of resentment,” instead of the more veracious, “Such and such a desire or habit or feeling of resentment has me.” The latter reformulation would certainly rob us even of the illusion of freedom. But I ask myself whether this would not be better in the end than fuddling ourselves with words. The truth is that we do not enjoy masterless freedom; we are continually threatened by psychic factors which, in the guise of “natural phenomena,” may take possession of us at any moment.”

And here is where Jung identifies the psychic need for God.

“The withdrawal of metaphysical projections leaves us almost defenceless in the face of this happening, for we immediately identify with every impulse instead of giving it the name of “the other,” which would at least hold it at arm’s length and prevent it from storming the citadel of the ego.”

And in modern terms, we do seem defenceless. Jung continues:

“‘Principalities and powers’ are always with us; we have no need to create them even if we could. It is merely incumbent on us to choose the master we wish to serve, so that his service shall be our safeguard against being mastered by the “other” whom we have not chosen. We do not create “God,” we choose him. So what are the characteristics of that choice?

“Though our choice characterizes and defines “God,” it is always man-made, and the definition it gives is therefore finite and imperfect. (Even the idea of perfection does not posit perfection.) The definition is an image, but this image does not raise the unknown fact it designates into the realm of intelligibility, otherwise we would be entitled to say we had created a God. The “master” we choose is not identical with the image we project of him in time and space. He goes on working as before, like an unknown quantity in the depths of the psyche. We do not even know the nature of the simplest thought, let alone the ultimate principles of the psyche. Also we have no control over its inner life. But because this inner life is intrinsically free and not subject to our will and intentions, it may easily happen that the living thing chosen and defined by us will drop out if its setting, the man-made image, even against our will. Then, perhaps, we could say with Nietzsche, ‘God is dead.’”

And then what? How do we handle this loss of faith?

“Yet it would be truer to say, “He has put off our image, and where shall we find him again?” The interregnum is full of danger, for the natural facts will raise their claim in the form of various –isms, which are productive of nothing but anarchy and destruction because inflation and man’s hybris between them have elected the ego, in all its ridiculous paltriness, lord of the universe. That was the case with Nietzsche, the uncomprehending portent of a whole epoch.”

Thus is Nietzsche and his conscious ego trap dispatched.

“The individual ego is much too small, its brain is much too feeble, to incorporate all the projections withdrawn from the world. Ego and brain burst asunder in the effort; the psychiatrist calls it schizophrenia. When Nietzsche said “God is dead,” he uttered a truth which is valid for the greater part of Europe. People were influenced by it, not because he said so, but because it stated a widespread psychological fact. The consequences were not long delayed: after a fog of –isms, the catastrophe [Hitler and the Second World War]. Nobody thought of drawing the slightest conclusions from Nietzsche’s pronouncement. Yet it has, for some ears, the same eerie sounds as that ancient cry which became the echoing over the sea to mark the end of the nature gods: “Great Pan is dead.”

And on that thought Jung points to the present destruction of the ecosystem itself, through the denial of our gods, those inner psychic forces that might reign in our impulses before it’s too late.

Jung possessed an astonishing mind—as do each of us—into which our gods are apparently extremely deeply rooted. What we choose to do with those gods remains to be seen.


  1. Your last two posts have been the best reading anywhere in cyberspace. Thank you.

  2. That's humbling. Thanks Ms. E. Of course our friend Dr. Jung makes the thoughts and the writing fly. He has some interesting notions on the nature of the soul that I didn't cover here, but are well worth revisiting. Best!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts