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Carl Jung on The Self and The Bounds of Knowledge

[Carl Jung on The Self and The Bounds of Knowledge]

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the alchemist’s statements about the lapis, considered psychologically, describe the archetype of the self. Its phenomenology is exemplified in mandala symbolism, which portrays the self as a concentric structure, often in the form of a squaring of the circle.

Co-ordinated with this are all kinds of secondary symbols, most of them expressing the nature of the opposites to be united.

The structure is invariably felt as the representation of a central state or of a centre of personality essentially different from the ego

. It is of numinous nature, as is clearly indicated by the mandalas themselves and by the symbols used (sun, star, light, fire, flower, precious stone, etc.).

All degrees of emotional evaluation are found, from abstract, colourless, indifferent drawings of circles to an extremely intense experience of illumination.

These aspects all appear in alchemy, the only difference being that there they are projected into matter, whereas here they are understood as symbols.

The arcanum chymicum has therefore changed into a Psychic event without having lost any of its original numinosity.

If we now recall to what a degree the soul has humanized and realized itself, we can judge how very much it today expresses the body also, with which it is coexistent.

Here is a coniunctio of the second degree, such as the alchemists at most dreamed of but could not realize.

Thus far the transformation into the psychological is a notable advance, but only if the centre experienced proves to be a spiritus rector of daily life.

Obviously, it was clear even to the alchemists that one could have a lapis in one’s pocket without ever making gold with it, or the aurum potabile in a bottle without ever having tasted that bittersweet drink—hypothetically speaking, of course, for they never succumbed to the temptation to use their stone in reality because they never succeeded in making one.

The psychological significance of this misfortune should not be overestimated, however.

It takes second place in comparison with the fascination which emanated from the sensed and intuited archetype of wholeness.

In this respect alchemy fared no worse than Christianity, which in its turn was not fatally disturbed by the continuing nonappearance of the Lord at the Second Coming.

The intense emotion that is always associated with the vitality an archetypal idea conveys—even though only a minimum of rational understanding may be present—a premonitory experience of wholeness to which a subsequently differentiated understanding can add nothing essential, at least as regards the totality of the experience.

A better developed understanding can, however, constantly renew the vitality of the original experience.

In view of the inexhaustibility of the archetype the rational understanding derived from it means relatively little, and it would be an unjustifiable overestimation of reason to assume that, as a result of understanding, the illumination in the final state is a higher one than in the initial state of numinous experience.

The same objection, as we have seen, was made to Cardinal Newman’s view concerning the development of dogma, but it was overlooked that rational understanding or intellectual formulation adds nothing to the experience of wholeness, and at best only facilitates its repetition.

The experience itself is the important thing, not its intellectual representation or clarification, which proves meaningful and helpful only when the road to original experience
is blocked.

The differentiation of dogma not only expresses its vitality but is needed in order to preserve its vitality.

Similarly, the archetype at the basis of alchemy needs interpreting if we are to form any conception of its vitality and numinosity and thereby preserve it at least for our science.

The alchemist likewise interpreted his experience as best he could, though without ever understanding it to the degree that psychological explanation makes possible today.

But his inadequate understanding did not detract from the totality of his archetypal experience any more than our wider and more differentiated understanding adds anything to it.

With the advance towards the psychological a great change sets in, for self-knowledge has certain ethical consequences which are not just impassively recognized but demand to be carried out in practice.

This depends of course on one’s moral endowment, on which as we know one should not place too much reliance.

The self, in its efforts at self-realization, reaches out beyond the ego-personality on all sides; because of its all-encompassing nature it is brighter and darker than the ego, and accordingly confronts it with problems which it would like to avoid.

Either one’s moral courage fails, or one’s insight, or both, until in the end fate decides.

The ego never lacks moral and rational counterarguments, which one cannot and should not set aside so long as it is possible to hold on to them.

For you only feel yourself on the right road when the conflicts of duty seem to have resolved themselves, and you have become the victim of a decision made over your head or in defiance of the heart.

From this we can see the numinous power of the self, which can hardly be experienced in any other way.

For this reason the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.

The extraordinary difficulty in this experience is that the self can be distinguished only conceptually from what has always been referred to as “God,” but not practically.

Both concepts apparently rest on an identical numinous factor which is a condition of reality.

The ego enters into the picture only so far as it can offer resistance, defend itself, and in the event of defeat still affirm its existence.

The prototype of this situation is Job’s encounter with Yahweh.

This hint is intended only to give some indication of the nature of the problems involved.

From this general statement one should not draw the overhasty conclusion that in every case there is a hybris of ego-consciousness which fully deserves to be overpowered
by the unconscious.

That is not so at all, because it very often happens that ego-consciousness and the ego’s sense of responsibility are too weak and need, if anything, strengthening.

But these are questions of practical psychotherapy, and I mention them here only because I have been accused of underestimating the importance of the ego and giving undue prominence to the unconscious.

This strange insinuation emanates from a theological quarter. Obviously my critic has failed to realize that the mystical experiences of the saints are no different from other
effects of the unconscious.

In contrast to the ideal of alchemy, which consisted in the production of a mysterious substance, a man, an anima mundi or a deus terrenus who was expected to be a saviour from all human ills, the psychological interpretation (foreshadowed by the alchemists) points to the concept of human wholeness.

This concept has primarily a therapeutic significance in that it attempts to portray the psychic state which results from bridging over a dissociation between conscious and unconscious.

The alchemical compensation corresponds to the integration of the unconscious with consciousness, whereby both are altered.

Above all, consciousness experiences a widening of its horizon.

This certainly brings about a considerable improvement of the whole psychic situation, since the disturbance of consciousness by the counteraction of the unconscious is eliminated.

But, because all good things must be paid for dearly, the previously unconscious conflict is brought to the surface instead and imposes on consciousness a heavy responsibility, as it is now expected to solve the conflict.

But it seems as badly equipped and prepared for this as was the consciousness of the medieval alchemist.

Like him, the modern man needs a special method for investigating and giving shape to the unconscious contents in order to get consciousness out of its fix.

As I have shown elsewhere, an experience of the self may be expected as a result of these psychotherapeutic endeavours, and quite often these experiences are numinous.

It is not worth the effort to try to describe their totality character.

Anyone who has experienced anything of the sort will know what I mean, and anyone who has not had the experience will not be satisfied by any amount of descriptions.

Moreover there are countless descriptions of it in world literature.

But I know of no case in which the bare description conveyed the experience.

It is not in the least astonishing that numinous experiences should occur in the course of psychological treatment and that they may even be expected with some regularity, for they also occur very frequently in exceptional psychic states that are not treated and may even cause them.

They do not belong exclusively to the domain of psychopathology but can be observed in normal people as well.

Naturally, modern ignorance of and prejudice against intimate psychic experiences dismiss them as psychic anomalies and put them in psychiatric pigeon-holes without making the least attempt to understand them.

But that neither gets rid of the fact of their occurrence nor explains it.

Nor is it astonishing that in every attempt to gain an adequate understanding of the numinous experience use must be made of certain parallel religious or Metaphysical ideas which have not only been associated with it from ancient times but are constantly used to formulate and elucidate it.

The consequence, however, is that any attempt at scientific explanation gets into the grotesque situation of being accused in its turn of offering a metaphysical explanation.

It is true that this objection will be raised only by one who imagines himself to be in possession of metaphysical truths, and assumes that they posit or give valid expression to metaphysical facts corresponding to them.

It seems to me at least highly improbable that when a man says “God” there must in consequence exist a God such as he imagines, or that he necessarily speaks of a real being.

At any rate he can never prove that there is something to correspond with his statement on the metaphysical side, just as it can never be proved to him that he is wrong.

Thus it is at best a question of non liquet, and it seems to me advisable under these circumstances and in view of the limitations of human knowledge to assume from the
start that our metaphysical concepts are simply anthropomorphic images and opinions which express transcendental facts either not at all or only in a very hypothetical manner. Indeed we know already from the physical world around us that in itself it does not necessarily agree in the least with the world as we
perceive it.

The physical world and the perceptual world are two very different things.

Knowing this we have no encouragement whatever to think that our metaphysical picture of the world corresponds to the transcendental reality.

Moreover, the statements made about the latter are so boundlessly varied that with the best of intentions we cannot know who is right.

The denominational religions recognized this long ago and in consequence each of them claims that it is the only true one and, on top of this, that it is not merely a human truth but the truth directly inspired and revealed by God.

Every theologian speaks simply of “God,” by which he intends it to be understood that his ”god” is the God.

But one speaks of the paradoxical God of the Old Testament, another of the incarnate God of Love, a third of the God who has a heavenly bride, and so on, and each criticizes the other but never himself.

Nothing provides a better demonstration of the extreme uncertainty of metaphysical assertions than their diversity.

But it would be completely wrong to assume that they are altogether worthless.

For in the end it has to be explained why such assertions are made at all. There must be some reason for this.

Somehow men feel impelled to make transcendental statements.

Why this should be so is a matter for dispute.

We only know that in genuine cases it is not a question of arbitrary inventions but of involuntary numinous experiences which happen to a man and provide the basis for religious assertions and convictions.

Therefore, at the source of the great confessional religions as well as of many smaller mystical movements we find individual historical personalities whose lives were distinguished by numinous experiences.

Numerous investigations of such experiences have convinced me that previously unconscious contents then break through into consciousness and overwhelm it in the same way as do the invasions of the unconscious in pathological cases accessible to psychiatric observation.

Even Jesus, according to Mark appeared to his followers in that light.

The significant difference, however, between merely pathological cases and “inspired” personalities is that sooner or later the latter find an extensive following and can therefore transmit their effect down the centuries.

The fact that the long-lasting effect exerted by the founders of the great religions is due quite as much to their overwhelming spiritual personality, their exemplary life, and their
ethical self-commitment does not affect the present discussion.

Personality is only one root of success, and there were and always will be genuine religious personalities to whom success is denied.

One has only to think of Meister Eckhart.

But, if they do meet with success, this only proves that the “truth” they utter hits on a consensus of opinion, that they are talking of something that is “in the air” and is “spoken from the heart” for their followers too.

This, as we know to our cost, applies to good and evil alike, to the true as well as the untrue.

The wise man who is not heeded is counted a fool, and the fool who proclaims the general folly first and loudest passes for a prophet and Fuhrer, and sometimes it is luckily the other way round as well, or else mankind would long since have perished of stupidity.

The insane person, whose distinguishing mark is his mental sterility, expresses no “truth” not only because he is not a personality but because he meets with no consensus of opinion.

But anyone who does, has to that extent expressed the “truth.”

In metaphysical matters what is “authoritative” is “true,” hence metaphysical assertions are invariably bound up with an unusually strong claim to recognition and authority, because authority is for them the only possible proof of their truth, and by this proof they stand or fall.

All metaphysical claims in this respect inevitably beg the question, as is obvious to any reasonable person in the case of the proofs of God.

The claim to authority is naturally not in itself sufficient to establish a metaphysical truth.

Its authority must also be backed by the equally vehement need of the multitude.

As this need always arises from a condition of distress, any attempt at explanation will have to examine the psychic situation of those who allow themselves to be convinced by a metaphysical assertion.

It will then turn out that the statements of the inspired personality have made conscious just those images and ideas which compensate the general psychic distress.

These images and ideas were not thought up or invented by the inspired personality but “happened” to him as experiences, and he became, as it were, their willing or unwilling victim.

A will transcending his consciousness seized hold of him, which he was quite unable to resist.

Naturally enough he feels this overwhelming power as “divine.” I have nothing against this word, but with the best will in the world I cannot see that it proves the existence of a
transcendent God.

Suppose a benevolent Deity did in fact inspire a salutary truth, what about all those cases where a half-truth or unholy nonsense was inspired and accepted by an eager

Here the devil would be a better bet or—on the principle “omne malum ab homine”—man himself.

This metaphysical either-or explanation is rather difficult to apply in practice because most inspirations fall between the two extremes, being neither wholly true nor wholly false.

In theory, therefore, they owe their existence to the co-operation of a good and a bad power.

We would also have to suppose a common plan of work aiming at an only tolerably good goal, so to speak, or make the assumption that one power bungles the handiwork of the other or—a third possibility—that man is capable of thwarting God’s intention to inspire a perfect truth (the inspiration of a half-truth is naturally out of the question) with an almost daemonic energy.

What, in any of these cases, would have happened to God’s omnipotence?

t therefore seems to me, on the most conservative estimate, to be wiser not to drag the supreme metaphysical factor into our calculations, at all events not at once, but, more modestly, to make an unknown psychic or perhaps psychoid factor in the human realm responsible for inspirations and suchlike happenings.

This would make better allowance not only for the abysmal mixture of truth and error in the great majority of inspirations but also for the numerous contradictions in Holy Writ.

The psychoid aura that surrounds consciousness furnishes us with better and less controversial possibilities of explanation and moreover can be investigated empirically.

It presents a world of relatively autonomous “images,” including the manifold God images, which whenever they appear are called “God” by naïve people and, because of their numinosity (the equivalent of autonomy!), are taken to be such.

The various religious denominations support this traditional viewpoint, and their respective theologians believe themselves, inspired by God’s word, to be in a position to make valid statements about him.

Such statements always claim to be final and indisputable.

The slightest deviation from the dominant assumption provokes an unbridgeable schism.

One cannot and may not think about an object held to be indisputable.

One can only assert it, and for this reason there can be no reconciliation between the divergent assertions.

Thus Christianity, the religion of brotherly love, offers the lamentable spectacle of one great and many small schisms, each faction helplessly caught in the toils of its own unique rightness.

We believe that we can make assertions about God, define him, form an opinion about him, differentiate him as the only true one amongst other gods.

The realization might by this time be dawning that when we talk of God or gods we are speaking of debatable images from the psychoid realm.

The existence of a transcendental reality is indeed evident in itself, but it is uncommonly difficult for our consciousness to construct intellectual models which would give a graphic description of the reality we have perceived.

Our hypotheses are uncertain and groping, and nothing offers us the assurance that they may ultimately prove correct.

That the world inside and outside ourselves rests on a transcendental background is as certain as our own existence, but it is equally certain that the direct perception of the archetypal world inside us is just as doubtfully correct as that of the physical world outside us.

If we are convinced that we know the ultimate truth concerning metaphysical things, this means nothing more than that archetypal images have taken possession of our powers of thought and feeling, so that these lose their quality as functions at our disposal.

The loss shows itself in the fact that the object of perception then becomes absolute and indisputable and surrounds itself with such an emotional taboo that anyone who presumes to reflect on it is automatically branded a heretic and blasphemer.

In all other matters everyone would think it reasonable to submit to objective criticism the subjective image he has devised for himself of some object.

But in the face of possession or violent emotion reason is abrogated; the numinous archetype proves on occasion to be the stronger because it can appeal to a vital necessity.

This is regularly the case when it compensates a situation of distress which no amount of reasoning can abolish.

We know that an archetype can break with shattering force into an individual human life and into the life of a nation.

It is therefore not surprising that it is called “God.” But as men do not always find themselves in immediate situations of distress, or do not always feel them to be such, there
are also calmer moments in which reflection is possible.

If one then examines a state of possession or an emotional seizure without prejudice, one will have to admit that the possession in itself yields nothing that would clearly and reliably characterize the nature of the “possessing” factor, although it is an essential part of the phenomenon that the “possessed” always feels compelled to make definite assertions.

Truth and error lie so close together and often look so confusingly alike that nobody in his right senses could afford not to doubt the things that happen to him in the possessed state. I John 4:1 admonishes us: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they “are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

This warning was uttered at a time when there was plenty of opportunity to observe exceptional psychic states.

Although, as then, we think we possess sure criteria of distinction, the Tightness of this conviction must nevertheless be called in question, for no human judgment can claim to be infallible.

In view of this extremely uncertain situation it seems to me very much more cautious and reasonable to take cognizance of the fact that there is not only a psychic but also a psychoid unconscious, before presuming to pronounce metaphysical judgments which are incommensurable with human reason.

There is no need to fear that the inner experience will thereby be deprived of its reality and vitality.

No experience is prevented from happening by a somewhat more cautious and modest attitude—on the contrary.

That a psychological approach to these matters draws man more into the centre of the picture as the measure of all things cannot be denied.

But this gives him a significance which is not without justification.

The two great world-religions, Buddhism and Christianity, have, each in its own way, accorded man a central place, and Christianity has stressed this tendency still further
by the dogma that God became very man.

No psychology in the world could vie with the dignity that God himself has accorded to him. ~Carl Jung, Mysterium Mysterium Coniunctionis, Pages 544-553

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Carl Jung on The Self and The Bounds of Knowledge


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