The Mystery of Death and the Human Psyche - "The Soul and Death" - Essay by Carl G. Jung

"The Soul and Death"

This is quite an interesting essay from Carl Jung regarding the nature and question of death and the human soul. To summarize it in a few words, Jung makes the claim that death is a teleological part of life. When we are young, we strive and hope towards the flourishing of our future, and when we are old we must not cling to the past but embrace what is to come, death. Only in doing that can we be at peace with ourselves. It is where meaning is found in life - and every religious tradition of our history attests to this. 

I wasn't feeling very inspired by the first part of the essay, as Jung admits that he struggle with the idea of life after death. But then, almost as if another part of him took over the second part of the essay, he launches into a much more interesting discussion on the nature of the human psyche. He makes the claim that the human psyche is far, far beyond what material science has conceived of it so far. There are recorded phenomena in which the human psyche has transcended space and time. And so, Jung goes into that idea, that the human mind is more than the brain, it is something which may transcend all matter, and thus, it may be something that survives physical death. If nothing else, he calls those out as absurd who think that they can simply dispense with the religious tradition and human desire for transcendence. 

This long quote from the end of the essay sums it up so perfectly I have reproduced it here: 

"The nature of the psyche reaches into obscurities far beyond the scope of our understanding. It contains as many riddles as the universe with its galactic systems, before whose majestic configurations only a mind lacking in imagination is unable to admit its own insufficiency. This extreme uncertainty of human comprehension makes the intellectualistic hubbub not only ridiculous, but also deplorably dull. If, therefore, from the needs of his own heart, or in accordance with the ancient lessons of human wisdom, or out of respect for the psychological fact that "telepathic" perceptions occur, anyone should draw the conclusion that the psyche, in its deepest reaches, participates in a form of existence beyond space and time, and thus partakes of what is inadequately and symbolically described as "eternity"-then critical reason could counter with no other argument than the non liquet of science. Furthermore, he would have the inestimable advantage of agreeing with a trend of the human psyche which has existed from time immemorial and is universal in incidence. Anyone who does not draw this conclusion, whether from skepticism or rebellion against tradition, from lack of courage or inadequate psychological experience or thoughtless ignorance, stands very little chance, statistically, of becoming a pioneer of the mind, but has instead the indubitable certainty of coming into conflict with the truths of his blood. 

Now whether these are in the last resort absolute truths or not we shall never be able to, determine. It suffices that they are present in us as a "trend,' and we know to our cost what it means to come into unthinking conflict with these truths. It means the same thing as the conscious denial of the instincts, namely uprootedness, disorientation, meaninglessness, and whatever else these symptoms of inferiority may be called. It is one of the most fatal of those sociological and psychological errors in which our time is so fruitful that one so often supposes that something could become entirely different all in a moment; for instance, that a man can change himself from the ground up, or that some formula or truth might be found which would represent an entirely new beginning. Any essential change, or even a slight improvement, has always been a miracle. Deviation from the truths of the blood begets neurotic restlessness, and we have had about enough of that these days. Restlessness begets meaninglessness, and the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full import our age has not as yet begun to comprehend." (Pg 14, 15)

Just a final thought that was sparked by this essay. I think that Jung is right that it is only death that gives meaning to life. How so? Well, it seems like a pretty universal fact of reality that we cannot appreciate the goodness of things without experiencing their opposite. We must suffer to appreciate peace. We must feel exhausted to enjoy rest. We must be hated to understand how beautiful those who love us are. etc. And it may be that the finitude of life gives each moment more meaning, such that unending life on earth would not have. This is partially why I think that the Transhumanism movement will fail, because people don't want to live an unending life on earth. We long for something more, something transcendent and beyond. I believe that we are made for "the life to come," life after death with God in which there can be no more striving - only perfect and complete love. 

Life as a Parabola Towards Death

Jung begins his reflection on death by saying that, from the perspective of our youth, death is a type of cessation of a meaningful life, something far off. And if I youth were to worry about such things, or if death paralyzed him from taking in that meaning and adventure, we would scold him. "How different does the meaning of life seem to us when we see a young person striving for distant goals and shaping the future, and compare this with an incurable invalid, or with an old man who is sinking reluctantly and without strength to resist into the grave!" 1 And yet, when one reaches old age, knowing that death is near, they are deeply struck by it. "The optimism with which we judge the young man fails us here." In Jung's description, the impending death of an old man is a cause of deep fear. "...fear envelopes the sleepless one like a smothering blanket." Even more difficult is it for those who when they are young are afraid of the adventure of life, and while they are old are afraid of approaching death. 

But can we conceive of death in another way, Jung asks. Can it too, like in youth, become a goal which one may embrace? 2 We are teleological beings. In other words, we have a nature, a desire to fulfill that nature, and goals by which we guide our young lives in pursuit of them. But like any existing thing in the universe made of energy, it too has its own ultimate teleology, that of rest. The second half of life then, is one which is ultimately directed more intensely at this final end. "We straggle behind our years, hugging our childhood as if we could not tear ourselves away. We stop the hands of the clock and imagine that time will stand still. When after some delay we finally reach the summit, there again, psychologically, we settle down to rest, and although we can see ourselves sliding down the other side, we cling, if only with longing backward glances, to the peak one attainted. Just as, earlier, fear was a deterrent to life, so now it stands in the way of death." 3

And so if one does this, if one tries to remain attached to the past in their consciousness and does not have a relationship with the present in their old age, then they will, in Jung's words, become "wooden in old age." Only the one who accepts the changing of life and the approach of death can remain fully alive in those years. To deny death is to likewise deny life in one's youth, it is not to accept the process of life on its own terms. "The negations of life's fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live; not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and waning make one curve." One must live as young person when one is young, accepting the fears and challenges of going out into the world, and one must live as an old person when one is old, learning how to appreciate the life that is around him. "A young man who does not fight and conquer has missed the best part of his youth, and an old man who does not know how to listen to the secrets of the brooks as they tumble down from the peaks to the valleys makes no sense; he is a spiritual mummy who is nothing but a rigid relic of the past. He stands apart from life, mechanically repeating himself to the last triviality." 4

Death as the Teleology of Life

If we let go of the goals of our youth, and embrace a new phase of life in old age, then what is the goal for which we are preparing? What does one achieve in preparing for death and actually dying? (Jung pauses here to make the point that he has struggled with the idea of life after death ... but he recognizes that the vast majority of people that have lived have held religious views on life after death.) 5 Yet Jung doesn't seem to consider himself some type of modern atheist, either. He says that since the Enlightenment that Modern man has sought to categorize religion as another type of philosophical system that man has rationally formulated for himself. Yet he rejects this. He believes that religious belief and symbolism comes from somewhere way deeper than our conscious rational state, and thus that is why it is revelatory over time. There are archetypes of our unconscious that manifest themselves into these forms and shapes. 

"According to this view, all religions are something like philosophical systems, and like them are concocted out of the head. At some time someone is supposed to have invented a God and sundry dogmas and to have led humanity around by the nose with this 'wish-fulfilling' fantasy. ... They are anything rather than thought up ... Even today we can see in individuals the spontaneous genesis of genuine and valid religious symbols, springing from the unconscious - like flowers of a strange species, while consciousness stands aside perplexed, not knowing what to make of such creations. It can be ascertained without too much difficulty that in form and content these individual symbols arise from the same unconscious mind or 'spirit' (or whatever it may be called) as the great religions of mankind."

This depth of psyche of the human soul is not something we understand, Jung states. Rather, what physical nature is to matter, these archetypes are to the psyche. Both are just as true and real as one another. "Hence it would seem to be more in accord with the collective psyche of humanity to regard death as the fulfillment of life's meaning and as its goal in the truest sense, instead of a meaningless cessation. Anyone who cherishes a rationalistic opinion on this score has isolated himself psychologically and stands opposed to his own basic human nature." 

The Mysteriousness of the Human Psyche

And so Jung claims that the pure Rationalist man who conceives of death as something to be gotten over, is close to a type of modern neurosis because he is denying something fundamental about the reality of existence on earth. Rather, there is an aspect that is deep within our being that accepts death for what it is, and prepares for it accordingly. The young person daydreams about the future, preparing for it, while the old person may be dragged back into memory - though still he may daydream and prepare for what comes next in death. 7 Interestingly, Jung claims that he can see within one's psychological condition (or dreams) symbols of an impending death, even if physically they are not present. He argues that the psyche is not as much concerned that there is death, but concerned with how one approaches it, whether they are ready or not. 8 "... I must conclude that our psyche is at least not indifferent to the dying of the individual. The urge, so often seen in those who are dying, to set to rights whatever is still wrong might point in the same direction." 9

In fact, here, towards the end of the essay, Jung begins to discuss consciousness as a whole and its relation to space and time. He recognizes that psychology, as it has progressed, begins to realize that it understands consciousness less and less. Therefore, he mentions that while it may seem as though an individual's consciousness is broken in death, we don't know that it is the case since consciousness appeared in humans in an equally strange manner. "We may establish with reasonable certainty that an individual consciousness as it relates to ourselves has come to an end. But whether this means that the continuity of the psychic process is interrupted too remains doubtful, since the psyche's attachment to the brain can be affirmed with far less certitude today than it could fifty years ago. Psychology must first digest certain parapsychological facts, which it has hardly begun to do as yet." 

What are these parapsychological facts? Jung mentions the telepathy between psyches which transcends the normal limitations of space and time. He admits that science has ignored these phenomena up to that point, but it needs to explore them. [Here I also tend to think of the role that conscious observation plays in quantum mechanics ... seems like there could be a relation.] 10 "The annulling factor would then be the psyche, since space-time would attach to it at most as a relative and conditioned quality. Under certain conditions it could even break through the limitations of space and time precisely because of a quality essential to it, that is, its relatively trans-spatial and trans-temporal nature. ... I have referred to this group of phenomena merely in order to point out that the psyche's attachment to the brain, i.e., its space-time limitation, is no longer as self-evident and incontrovertible as we have hitherto been led to believe." 

Now Jung is careful to avoid assenting to the Greek metaphysics of the past, referencing "thing-in-themselves." [Seemingly sounding like Plato or even Zeno and Parmenides here, those who claimed that the intellectual realm was more real than the physical, or that the physical didn't exist at all.] Yet, he also admits that just because physical space and time seem so obvious and self-evident to us, doesn't mean that they are what it most true. In a Kantian fashion, Jung offers a suggestion that the lens of space-time may only be the mode by which our psyche is bound to experience reality, not all of reality itself. 11 

"... anyone who does justice to the facts cannot but admit that their apparent space-timelessness is their most essential quality. In the last analysis our naïve perception and immediate certainty are strictly speaking no more than evidence of a psychological a priori form of perception which simply rules out any other form. The fact that we are totally unable to imagine a form of existence without space and time by no means proves that such an existence is in itself impossible. And therefore, just as we cannot draw, from an appearance of space-timelessness, any absolute conclusion about a space-timeless form of existence, so we are not entitled to conclude from the apparent space-time quality of our perception that there is no form of existence without space and time. It is not only permissible to doubt the absolute validity of space-time perception, it is, in view of the available facts, even imperative to do so. The hypothetical possibility that the psyche impinges on a form of existence outside space and time presents a scientific question mark that deserves serious consideration for a long time to come." 12

Jung concludes the essay by saying that it is warranted to believe that the human psyche transcends this physical world, even based on the scientific evidence mentioned ... if not for the fact that all of human history has held something of this sort, and from this we have obtained meaning and purpose in our lives. It is silly to think that we could do away with the idea of the soul with Materialism and simply begin anew looking at humanity ... these realities of the psyche are as deep as we are and aren't going anywhere. 13
1 - Jung, Carl. The Soul and Death. From The Meaning of Death ed. Herman Feifel. (New York. McGraw Hill Book Company, 1965). Pg. 3.
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