Carl Jung is one of the most misunderstood thinkers of the twentieth century. This is partly his own fault. While Jung’s teacher, Sigmund Freud, dismissed religious ideas as the expression of an infantile “oceanic feeling,” Jung chose to make the mercurial and undefined world of religious symbolism and mystical thought the central focus of his psychological investigations, particularly in later life. This focus on the psychological role of religion has often led Jung to be classified with mystics and priests rather than with other psychologists. Due to the difficult and often paradoxical nature of religious symbols, Jung has come to be seen as a difficult and paradoxical figure – the man has mirrored his material.
Yet Jung is neither a theologian, nor a mystic. His viewpoint is consistently skeptical and scientific. Jung does not seek to convince his reader that mystical and religious claims are true. On the contrary, he describes the vast treatises written by Medieval and Renaissance religious alchemists as “projections.”
When alchemists write of gold and dwarves in flasks, argues Jung, they are employing a culturally contingent set of symbols to articulate their own unconscious intuitions. Alchemy and astrology, for Jung, are both projections of the human mind onto external matter. He also describes Christian ideas, such as the sacrificial lamb and the son of God, as mental projections. Mystical ideas do not exist in the outside world in Jungian psychology, but emerge from the human psyche. The difference between Jung and modern day psychology is that Jung did not believe that these symbols were arbitrary or random. He believed that the psyche generated these symbols because they correspond to and guide the development of the individual self out of the chaos of unconscious processes.
In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung argues that the philosopher’s stone is not an external object, but a latent reality existing within the self and that it was this dialogue within the self—a conversation between the constituent parts of the human psyche—that the alchemists were seeking to convey, using the arcane symbols and language of their time.
Jungian archetypes are often misunderstood as permanent, fixed symbols pointing to mystical realities. In fact, Jung argues that archetypes are always presented in specific historical garb, as the culturally agreed upon symbols of their time, employed to make sense of psychological phenomena emerging from the unconscious in the form of dreams and autonomous thoughts. The symbol of the lamb in Christianity, for example, does not refer to a divine lamb outside of space and time. It refers to a psychological process represented by Christian symbols, and embodied by sacrificial figures, such as Horus or Attis, in more ancient religious traditions. The Christian context is not the terminal point of the symbol: it instead leads back to the unconscious, which produced the lamb as a symbolic representation of psychological processes.
For Jung, the human being is perpetually stuck in an inner dialogue between the thoughts, intuitions and images which arise seemingly randomly beyond our control, and the conscious mind, which attempts to sort these spontaneous psychological events and make rational sense of them.
The phenomenon of inner voice or self-talk is another way to describe this dialogue in the human psyche. Jordan Peterson has recommended that his patients seek to become aware of those moments at which autonomous self-talk occurs in their minds, and to engage, argue and dialogue with it, as Socrates did with his daemon, the creature which he claimed sat on his shoulder and spoke to him, and provided the source of his wisdom.
Jung provides an objective groundwork against which to discuss such bizarre psychological phenomenon as Socrates’ daemon, and to contextualize similar reports of otherworldly beings within a modern, scientific world. Jung’s work suggests that Socrates’ daemon, the Holy Ghost, and the visions of mystics and monks are culturally mediated ways of discussing the autonomous voices and uncontrollable dream-images of the human psyche. He believed that human behavior could be more deeply understood if we could make sense of what our religious ancestors were referring to in their obscure philosophies and impenetrable manuscripts. For Jung, though we now use different words and symbols to describe the processes of the psyche, the same processes continue to occur and still defy our understanding.
We still live in the same world as our ancestors: we have simply changed our relationship to the aspects of our psyche that we do not understand. Instead of being attacked by demons, we suffer from depression. Instead of hearing the voices of spiritual beings, we engage in self-talk. Despite the best efforts of rationalism, humans are still largely at the mercy of autonomous psychological events, which we cannot control. Now, if you dream about your mother drowning at sea, on awakening you are forced to engage in a dialogue with yourself about this unwanted dream. If you walk past a schoolyard and suddenly think of a beast with seven horns, you have to reconcile yourself to the bizarre imaginative depths that produce such dissonant and random thoughts. If you see an old man and the thought his life is over is voiced in your head before you can stop it, you are at the mercy of the autonomous psyche. We modern people still possess mysterious psyches, which we cannot control, just like our ancestors, who interpreted such psychological events as the work of gods and spirits.
When we do not identify with sudden, uncontrolled thoughts in waking life or with the bizarre and grotesque images of our dreams, we enter deep, indeterminate waters. We will be forced to engage in dialogue with these psychological events and integrate them into our rational minds, as long as they continue to harass us. Jung’s great discovery was that what human beings have historically referred to as the spiritual world actually describes phenomena buried in the human psyche. For anyone who is perpetually wrestling with their own thoughts and unable to make sense of the spontaneous images which captivate and bully the mind, Carl Jung is worth reading. You will be in good company.