This is the tenth Chapter from the online book: Living Ethics: The Way of Wholeness. See: 1) How Should We Live? 2) Ethics and Civilization 3) Worldview and Ethics 4) Self View and Ethics 5) World as System 6) The Material Cosmos 7) Biological Systems 8) Human Systems 9) Psyche as System
The Eternal-Feminine lures to perfection. –Goethe (1)
The Collective Unconscious
Donivan Bessinger, MD
Can there be any coherence to the collective experience of humankind? Surely the violence and turbulence of its history, the historic isolation of peoples, and the widely varying languages and cultural practices would all argue that it is not so. Indeed, to suggest that there is, in the history of mankind and in its present, any sort of system operating as a collective psyche is to court banishment to those precincts in which individual psyches are meant to be mended.
It was, in fact, in just such a precinct that the idea was developed. A paranoid schizophrenic, a man in his thirties, was standing at the window squinting curiously at the sun. He took Dr. Jung by the arm, and indicated. If you look carefully, he told the doctor, you can see the sun’s penis; it moves from side to side and that is the origin of the wind.
It is to Dr. Jung’s credit that he wondered where such an idea could have come from. After all, why should a crazy idea from a crazy man be given a second thought? Yet it is a cardinal principle in medicine — the basis for all scientific medicine — that disease arises in the ordinary workings of natural processes. The physiology of disease follows the same laws as the physiology of health. Indeed, the “natural experiments” manifest as disease have opened up the world of normal functioning to better understanding. Research directed at explaining diseases has yielded many of the most valuable advances in understanding normal physiology.
About four years later during a period of research into mythology, Dr. Jung discovered a newly published text of an ancient manuscript of pagan liturgies. The patient just mentioned had been hospitalized since before its publication, and it could be established, at least to the satisfaction of all reasonable doubts, that the patient could have had no access to it. It was not material generally available in the culture of the time (1906). The text recounted this vision:
… and likewise the so-called tube, the origin of the ministering wind. For you will see hanging
down from the disc of the sun something that looks like a tube. (2)
That such bizarre imagery should occur completely spontaneously, so far removed in culture and time, stretched credibility. Yet as Jung pursued the question, he found other occurrences of such imagery in history. In Greek, “tube” means “wind-instrument,” and in the word pneuma there is a cluster of meanings, including breath, spirit, and thus life. There are medieval paintings which represent the conception of Christ by showing a tube descending from the sky, passing under Mary’s gown. The Holy Spirit appeared at Pentecost as a “rushing wind.” There is a Latin text which says that “the spirit descends through the disc of the sun.”
As he researched these associations of sky-imagery and life-spirit, Jung felt that there must be some definite mechanism by which such imagery is transmitted to the unconscious. Usually, as in the case of the patient cited, there is no apparent conscious mechanism. After continued study, he found further correspondence of meanings and recurring patterns of symbols present in mythology, primal religion, and in the analysis of dreams of children and other normal people as well as of patients. He concluded that the mechanism of inheritance of instincts (that is, of “human nature”) also carries a mechanism for processing psychic imagery. As we discussed in Chapter Nine, the unit of that process is the archetype.
It does not, of course, suffice simply to connect a dream about a snake with the mythological occurrence of snakes, for who is to guarantee that the functional meaning of the snake in the dream is the same as in the mythological setting? In order to draw a valid parallel, it is necessary to know the functional meaning of the individual symbol, and then to find out whether the apparently parallel mythological symbol has a similar context and therefore the same functional meaning. Establishing such facts not only requires lengthy and wearisome researches, but is also an ungrateful subject for demonstration. As the symbols must not be torn out of their context, one has to launch forth into exhaustive descriptions, personal as well as symbological, and this is practically impossible in the framework of a lecture. I have repeatedly tried it at the risk of sending one half of my audience to sleep. (3)
Obviously, the work is not susceptible to such “hard” research methods as dissection or laboratory analysis. As we suggested in discussing the theory of evolution (Chapter Seven) and the theory of knowledge (Chapter Three), a complex theory that is not susceptible to a single test must be confirmed through many observations in experience over a long period of time. It must prove consistent when applied as a “working theory” to real problems. Like evolution, the theory of the collective unconscious has been upheld by Jung and succeeding generations of analytical psychologists. (4) Of course, the collective unconscious is a relatively young concept, first published in a 1919 paper. (5)
The implications of such a theory are very powerful indeed, for it brings to psychology the basis for understanding that the highest human aspirations and impulses for religious expression stem not from neurosis, but are integral and normal expressions of human nature. It follows that inconsistencies between the natural inner urge for religious expression and understanding on the one hand, and scientific observations about the workings of the natural external world on the other, are imposed by conscious function. If all truth is indeed consistent, it is the inconsistencies imposed by the ego that must be read as error, not the expressions of the collective unconscious.
… the unconscious, as the totality of all archetypes, is the deposit of all human experience right back to its remotest beginnings. Not, indeed, a dead deposit, a sort of abandoned rubbish-heap, but a living system of reactions and aptitudes that determine the individual’s life in invisible ways — all the more effective because invisible.
The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual. … All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. This is particularly true of religious ideas, but the central concepts of science, philosophy, and ethics are no exception to this rule. In their present form they are variants of archetypal ideas, created by consciously applying and adapting these ideas to reality. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us. (6)
The concept provides one of the most powerful arguments available that the essential biological unity of mankind extends beyond the obvious species identification as a reproductive community. By means of the collective unconscious, each person is literally endowed with the “same nature.” Jung writes:
If it were permissible to personify the unconscious, we might think of it as a collective human being combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, and, from having at its command a human experience of one or two million years, practically immortal. If such a being existed, it would be exalted above all temporal change; the present would mean neither more nor less to it than any year in the hundredth millenium before Christ; it would be a dreamer of age-old dreams and, owing to its immeasurable experience, an incomparable prognosticator. It would have lived countless times over again the life of the individual, the family, the tribe, and the nation, and it would possess a living sense of the rhythm of growth, flowering, and decay. (7)
In the ordinary sense, ethics is concerned exclusively with operations at the level of the conscious, for even though an impulse for action may arise from the unconscious, the action itself must be mediated through consciousness. We may suppose that the instinctual reactions of unconscious life forms would by definition be “ethical,” since they would be “natural” and supportive of the balance of life in either its individual or collective aspect. In the search for a natural systems ethic, the study of the unconscious and its interface with the conscious is not only pertinent but crucial.
Jung calls operations at the consciousness-unconsciousness interface the “transcendent” function. He is careful to explain that he uses the term in a mathematical, rather than in a mysterious or metaphysical sense. In mathematics, a transcendent function is one that is not expressed as an operation of ordinary arithmetic. Here, the transcendent function is that which is not expressed by ordinary consciousness; rather, it involves a union of conscious and unconscious contents. It is an essential operation for homeostasis in the total psyche.
Since the psyche is a self-regulating system, just as the body is, the regulating counteraction will always develop in the unconscious. Were it not for the directedness of the conscious function, the counteracting influences of the unconscious could set in unhindered. It is just this directedness that excludes them. This of course does not inhibit the counteraction, which goes on in spite of everything. (8)
The development of the ego’s directedness, that is, its ability to focus on some input and exclude other (even unconscious) input, occurs gradually. Fritz K¸nkel, a psychiatrist who was contemporary with Jung and Adler, and who was influenced by both of them, made a special study of our naturally occurring egocentricity.
Initially, the infant (under the major influence of the unconscious) remains bonded to the mother in a We relationship that is gradually breached as the I of the ego develops. Primal man retains to a much greater extent than modern man the We focus of the collective unconscious. That is a major determinant of the life of the tribe and its survival as a community. The influence of the collective unconscious is seen in the mythic expressions of primal religion, which are typically suffused with awareness of oneness with the environment and with the Great Spirit, and which usually have little cognitive development of theology. (9)
However, modern man is characterized by an intensive ego-development that rapidly suppresses the We response. K¸nkel sees a retained We capacity in the intense comraderie that can develop on an athletic team, and can even be seen to a certain extent in the unity of the fans during a game, moving and yelling in concert with actions on the field. The differentiation of consciousness, building on the cognitive logos functions of the ego, has been a necessary condition for progress in science and technology.
Formal religious expression has moved away from a mystical awareness of the collective unconscious, and toward conscious interpretations of experience. Thus, modern religions have developed elaborate ego-based belief sets, which are cognitive structures of systematic theology. After all, the father of all the “-ologies” is the ego’s logos function.
Modern religion still values traditional liturgies, but the interpretations of their significance are usually expressed in cognitive ego-language rather than in terms of the transcendent imperatives of the collective unconscious. In the light of Jung’s theories, it is not surprising that as inconsistencies have developed between ego-level religion and ego-level science, many religionists have been drawn toward an intensified reliance on systematic fundamentals:
Now it is a pecularity of psychic functioning that when the unconscious counteraction is suppressed it looses its regulating influence. It then begins to have an accelerating and intensifying effect on the conscious process. (10)
Competing religious ego-systems have become a major threat to the survival of the world. Sectarian violence has persisted for decades in Northern Ireland. It is the principle element in the recurring wars of the Middle East, which reach around the world by means of state-sponsored international terrorism, but the effects are even more terrorizing than that. We usually construe the strategic nuclear threat as political. However, the competition of the ego-based world-systems of capitalism and communism is essentially a competition (conflict) of spiritual systems. (11) To slightly rephrase Jung:
[The question of] the remarkable differences of attitude towards the unconscious in our culture … is one of the greatest problems confronting humanity. (12)
Bringing society into a greater degree of harmony in matters of religious understanding will require no small degree of effort. Even within the religious system of Protestant Christianity in the United States, the ecumenical idea has encountered considerable difficulty. Indeed, it seems impossible to dissolve the boundaries of the many ego-subsystems involved. In view of the great diversity of peoples and views, it may even be unwise to try, for diversity of expression is a valuable adaptive mechanism for society as a whole. It may well be a wiser strategy to educate society toward the transcendent function, in order to nurture an ecumenical awareness and understanding of the commonality of the collective unconscious.
At the ego level of systematic theology, in which shades of interpretation are grounds for schism, attempts to explain religion in psychological terms are often taken as attempts to “explain it away” and to remove its influence. It should be obvious however, that the concept of the collective unconscious is instead a power affirming the validity of mankind’s spiritual nature. When Copernicus explained celestial mechanics, in no sense did he diminish the power of the sunrise to renew the spirit. Just as a workable model for the solar system has opened space to exploration and shown us a new view of our globe, so can a workable model for the psyche give us a new view of ourselves, and a new adaptation for survival. As Jung affirmed:
I have found that a rational understanding of these things in no way detracts from their value; on the contrary, it helps us not only to feel but to gain insight into their immense significance. (13)
Despite the promises of his sciences, Dr. Faustus, in his tinkerings with alchemy and magic remained frustrated by his failures with metaphysical transformations. When he blusters into his study to speak in Goethe’s words, Faust seems to speak the collective frustration of late twentieth century society, which faces the need for transformations even more critical than Faust’s:
I have, alas, studied philosophy,
Jurisprudence and medicine, too,
And, worst of all, theology
With keen endeavor, through and through —
And here I am, for all my lore,
The wretched fool I was before. (14)
In his attempt to set aside traditional formulations and to find, as Jung said, a “suitable new form of relationship to the unconscious,” Faust seeks new meanings in the logos passage in John’s gospel. His poodle barks noisily. He tries a number of different meanings:
It says: “In the beginning was the Word.”
Already I am stopped. It seems absurd.
The Word does not deserve the highest prize,
I must translate it otherwise
If I am well inspired and not blind.
It says: In the beginning was the Mind.
Ponder that first line, wait and see,
Lest you should write too hastily.
Is mind the all-creating source?
It ought to say: In the beginning there was Force.
Yet something warns me as I grasp the pen,
That my translation must be changed again.
The spirit helps me. Now it is exact.
I write: In the beginning was the Act. (15)
At that, behind the fire of the stove, the poodle is transformed into a hellish apparition that cannot be quelled, even by a “four-fold spell.” Faust is confronted with the devil, Mephisto, and bargains away his psyche. German uses the same word (Seele) for psyche and soul.
We too have tried to particularize the logos Meanings and deal from ego strength alone with Word as religion, with Mind as science, with Force as technology, seeking salvation through all sorts of socio-economic and political Acts. In the sum of those dealings we too have been confronted with hellish apparition.
It is in bringing all of these meanings back into unity that we can hope for salvation. Translating religious labels into psychological ones does no violence to religion if it affirms religion’s claims. Such a translation gives us the formulation that it is the ego that we must deny if we are to come to the enlightenment of the “kingdom of God within.” (16) Through the transcendent function, the ego must respond to the Self’s homeostatic pull toward wholeness. We must respond to the image of God which has been created as the collective unconscious within us.
That meaning or enlightenment has been given many different labels by many different peoples — it may be tao, logos, or buddhi. In that awareness, each person can find greater meaning and fulfillment within a particular chosen tradition. The truth lies not in the label or in the symbol, but in the Meaning behind it. We may draw an analogy with our discussion of quantum theory and Bell’s Theorem in The Material Cosmos. The local ego-reality does not contain the full meaning. We deal with a non-local collective reality in the theory of the psyche just as we do in quantum theory.
It is the message of the collective unconscious that, in each of us, the masculine cognitively-perfecting logos meaning is coupled with the feminine creatively-completing eros meaning. It is in awareness of the collective unconscious that, as did Faust, we find redemption. That is the ethical direction toward which the Eternal-Feminine lures us.
Copyright 2000 by Donivan Bessinger. All rights reserved.
Next Chapter: The Collective Conscious
More by Donivan Bessinger, MD
(1) “THE ETERNAL-FEMININE LURES” — “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.” The final line of Goethe’s Faust. Translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1963. Line 12110, p. 502. Selections here and below used by permission of the publisher.
(2) “AND LIKEWISE THE SO-CALLED TUBE” — CGJ. “Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche” (1927). CW 8. PJ 37. — The mythology of the Tukano Indians of Brazilian and Colombian Amazonia (not mentioned by Jung) also refers to the “seed of the sun” stored in the “penis of the sun”. Fritz Trupp. The Last Indians: South America’s Cultural Heritage. Woergl (Austria): Perlinger, 1981. p 93-94. — [The standard skeptical position is that such imagery derives from cryptamnesia, that is, it emerges from “hidden memories,” long since forgotten. See my Cult and Controversy, in which I respond to the work of Richard Noll.]
(11) CAPITALISM vs COMMUNISM — [Note that despite the collapse of the Soviet Union after this was written, the problem continues (2000), especially between China and Tibet. At the end of 1999 the fourteen-year old lama handpicked by Chinese authorities as a puppet “Dalai Lama” escaped, like the Dalai Lama XIV before him, across the Himalaya into India.]