Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious - Paragraphs 1 - 43 - Carl G. Jung

Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

This post looks at the first half of an essay by Carl Jung entitled Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Here Jung makes a fundamental claim, that religious spirituality is something which man uses to understand the nature of his unconscious mind. In these symbols and dogmas, sense can be made of all the drives and experiences that are going on beneath the conscious surface in the realm which is ancient, shared with other creatures, unconscious, and interior to ourselves. Jung also laments the loss of this religious symbolism, claiming that reason pails in comparison trying to understand the unconscious. At the same time, though, he makes the claim that Catholic dogma - as metaphysical reality - is something which man made because he was scared of the chaos of the unconscious mind. 

While I find this article interesting so far, I must say that I disagree with Jung's starting premises. He is starting from the premises of Naturalism, that everything is just matter and energy. With that starting point he is then trying to explain the phenomena of the religious in Materialist terms. It is interesting how he tries to connect the religious to the unconscious, and there is certainly some truth to that, but it is clearly not a convincing argument against the traditional metaphysical view of religion. He is just assuming that he is correct in his Naturalism, and therefore his Materialist explanation must be the correct one because he explains some of the data given the starting premises. 

The Mysterious Being of Archetypes

The idea of the "human unconscious" is one while existing in previous centuries, was surely more fully developed in the 20th century. Empiricism and materialism did take their toll with how the idea was understood, though. For example, Freud took it up as the place of forgotten or repressed memories, something more like a personal unconscious which may affect how we live or act. While Jung does not deny the existence of a personal unconscious, the collective unconscious is something distinct. It is not something based on one's experiences or learning, it is something innate in the human person universally. 1 "It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us." It is something that we must be able to bring forward from unconscious mystery to conscious demonstration. In other words, the collective unconscious is something we attempt to be capture through the use of "archetypes," or universal symbols.

An earlier history of this idea can be seen in the Christian thinkers of the first several centuries after Christ. Even these men, though, took their inspiration from the earlier form of the collective unconscious which exists in Plato's conception of the eternal forms. 2 These are realities which are primordial and have been around as long as man has been around. Originally, the contents of the collective unconscious first bubbled over into the conscious through the use of myth, fairytale, tribal lore, and "esoteric teaching." Archetypes are not equivalent to these specific stories or myths, though. Rather, the archetype if the primordial form which remains in the unconscious before it is pulled forth and given this particular set of flesh and bones at this time in history. "In this sense there is a considerable difference between the archetype and the historical formula that has evolved. Especially on the higher levels of esoteric teaching the archetypes appear in a form that reveals quite unmistakably the critical and evaluating influence of conscious elaboration." 

Like a universal platonic form taking on this particular designation in matter as an individual representation of it, so too the archetypes. "The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its color from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear." In a footnote, Jung makes a helpful distinction between archetypes, as such, and archetypal ideas. 3 Archetypes, as such, are attempts to universally symbolize unconscious patterns of behavior, something mysterious which transcends our full understanding. 4 We are familiar with archetypal ideas, though, presented in specific myths and teachings. Pin-pointing what exactly archetypes are in themselves as existing in the human person, is much more difficult. 5 

[Here I cannot help interjecting and drawing a parallel here to what Plato and Aristotle did with nature and what Jung is doing here with the human person. Plato and Aristotle noticed the universal patterns in things which generate something like a shared identity among them. This identity was something mysterious which transcended the physical senses, yet was seen through them. Then give the name "form" to this identity. Here Jung is applying the same idea regarding the human psyche and giving it the name "archetype." Both are names for the same reality which tries to get a the root of the metaphysical nature of things which is beyond the changing empirical world.]

How Man's Description of the World Mirrors His Interior Values

Jung then makes the claim that myths are the projection of the drama of the human unconscious expressed through a nature analogy. "He simply didn't know that the psyche contains all the images that have ever given rise to myths, and that our unconscious is an acting and suffering subject with an inner drama which primitive man rediscovers, by means of analogy, in the process of nature both great and small." These unconscious realities get manifested through some type of either occult or religious symbolism and worship. Over time, these images become more and more abstracted from the individual and more powerful in themselves at expressing the universality of the human experience. Jung makes the point that this is why psychology, as a scientific discipline, has come around last of all; because the inner contents of the human unconscious were already well expressed in religious terms. 6 

Jung continues to claim that many in the West are now being drawn towards Eastern religions because the once psychological projections of Christianity have over time become hardened into metaphysical doctrines. They have become tropes to believe, rather than an experience to be pondered. He claims that for those who took Christian symbols to the extreme of true metaphysical belief ended up in a "Kierkegaardian neurosis" because of paradoxes, or in an interior I-Thou mystic relationship which by all accounts landed them back into the interaction with the self, not the transcendent. [Quite a cynical view of religion, if I may add]. "Thanks to the labours of the human spirit over the centuries, these images have become embedded in a comprehensive system of thought that ascribes an order to the world, and are at the same time represented by a mighty, far-spread, and venerable institution called the Church." 7

Jung uses as an example, Brother Nicholas of Flue who apparently had a vision of the Trinity. Flue sought out images that would help him express and understand what he had seen. On coming in contact with certain representations of the Trinity, it helped him to realize the nature of his vision. Then he, himself, had his vision painted as the Trinity. Jung says, though, that there is a gap between what he actually experienced and what he codified its symbol to be. 8 Jung talks about other visions that Flue had, along with particular symbolic images he was interested in, making the conclusion that ... "The connection between the great vision and the Trinity picture, and of both with the wheel-symbolism, therefore seems to me very probable on psychological grounds." 9 Instead of unpacking what these "visions" meant psychologically, Flue simply unified them into his doctrinal belief in God by holding them to be visions of the real Trinity. Jung says that this occurrence wasn't odd for the time. There were people who were having these psychological experiences, fitting them inside Christian dogma lest they be persecuted, but still paving the way for an eventual split and development of the human psyche such as what happened in the transition from Yahweh to the Trinity and from Catholicism into Protestantism. "Not long afterwards the Yahwistic conception of God went through a series of rebirths in Protestantism. Yahweh is a God-concept that contains the opposites in a still undivided state." In other words, what these monks had experienced of the human psyche through their unique lifestyle was also dismissed and assimilated into a rigid dogmatic belief, projecting it outside the psyche. 10

Jung also mentions some who were not able to incorporate these experiences into Christian doctrine. Some were killed, some broke apart mentally, and some were forced into a type of heresy in order to accommodate the paradoxical experiences. To summarize much of this section, Jung is saying that man has projected the contents of the collective unconscious of his psyche outward into religious images, embodying them fully there. "Dogma takes the place of the collective unconscious by formulating its contents on a grade scale. The Catholic way of life is completely unaware of psychological problems in this sense. Almost the entire life of the collective unconscious has been channeled into the dogmatic archetypal ideas and flows along like a well-controlled stream in the symbolism of creed and ritual." 

An Awakening of Reason and Loss of Religious Symbolism

Jung then talks about another stage in this process. With the Reformation, and the iconoclasm that went along with it, we see the effect of a forgetting of the value and meaning of ancient symbols. When we forget their meaning, we see them as hollow and useless. 11 On the other hand, Jung speculates that maybe man never really understood their meaning at all, but just acted them out generation after generation. Either way, corresponding with the Protestant rejection of these religious symbols and dogmas was the awakening of the age of reason. Yet, Jung mentions that even when man tries to turn his reason towards these religious symbols he is still approaching them from the very limited perspective that he has on understanding the world. "And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls 'reason' - which in point of fact is nothing more than the sum total of all his prejudices and myopic views." 

Having rejected the authority of the Church, stripped the ancient symbols of their power, and continually splintered into more groups, the modern man is left unshielded from the confusion of the world. "...a house whose walls have been plucked away, exposed to all the winds of the world and to all dangers." 12 This then always leads to people seeking out new symbols and systems which express the same truths but with unexplored details. Jung does not think that the West should try to fill its void of Christian symbolism with some other foreign tradition from the East. It wouldn't be authentic. "Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with out developing consciousness, has got lost." 13

What, then, should man do today? Can he be without symbols? That is indeed a difficult position to be in. But if he cannot appreciate symbols of his own tradition, will he be content with a culture not his own? And if he is ill content there, then he will try to fill in the void of belief with political doctrines. Yet these too are futile. What man is left with is a form of nihilism. To remain in a state of spiritual poverty regarding one's deepest values is a state that leads to desperation. "... spiritual poverty seeks to renounce the false riches of the spirit in order to withdraw not only from the sorry remnants  ... of a great past, but also from all the allurements of the odorous East; in order, finally, to dwell with itself alone, where, in the cold light of consciousness, the blank barrenness of the world reaches to the very stars." 14

The Dark Waters of the Unconscious Psyche

It is the presumption that our reason can possess the wisdom that the religious had in the past that leads us into loneliness and nihilism. "But when spirit becomes heavy it turns to water, and with Luciferian presumption the intellect usurps the seat where once the spirit was enthroned." 15 Jung equates this watery bottom of values as an encounter with "a living symbol of the dark psyche." When one encounters the active and unconscious forces deep within the human mind without any guiding value system it is a terrifying thing. 16 

If fire, above, and the heavens represent the structure of religious dogma, it is water, beneath, and below that represents the chaos of the unconscious mind. "Water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious. The lake in the valley is the unconscious, which lies, as it were, underneath consciousness, so that it is often referred to as the 'subconscious,' usually with the pejorative connotation of an inferior consciousness." 17 Jung makes the case that for one to reach the heights of the spirit, one must first go down into the depths of the chaotic psyche. One must descend into the realm where the conscious mind is not in control, but the ancient systems are. "The unconscious is the psyche that reaches down from the daylight of mentally and morally lucid consciousness into the nervous system that for ages has been known as the 'sympathetic.'" 18 

These ancient systems are those that are shared by many creatures. They are not the conscious self which operates in external space, making clear division between the self and the other. Rather, this part of us operates only within, unconsciously, and is something putting us in common with many others as a collective. To journey into the unconscious is to encounter all the drives of a living creature in their goodness and wickedness. It is the not self-aware conscience but the unconscious "caverns of the psychic underworld." "...whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever does to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the 'persona,' the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face." 19

1 - Jung, Carl Gustav. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. (New York: Princeton University Press, 1990). 3
2 - 4
3 - 5
4 - 6
5 - 5
6 - 7
7 - 8 
8 - 9
9 - 10
10 - 11
11 - 12
12 - 13
13 - 14
14 - 15
15 - 16
16 - 17
17 - 18
18 - 19
19 - 20