Today's Magnum Opus of the Soul

In an essay originally published in The Round Table Review, Dolores Brien explores Wolfgang Giegerich's challenging reexamination of the individuation process and the true "great work" of the contemporary soul.



Today’s Magnum Opus of the Soul
On Wolfgang Giegerich’s  “Opposition of ‘Individual’ and ‘Collective’—Psychology’s Basic Fault:  Reflections on Today’s Magnum Opus of the Soul.”

Dolores E. Brien

This essay, discussed below, was the subject of  an on-line Jung-Seminar sponsored in October,1998 by the C. G. Jung Page and The Round Table Review. The author, Wolfgang Giegerich is a Jungian training analyst with a private practice near Münich, Germany. He is author of The Soul’s Logical Life:Towards a Rigorous Notion of Psychology as well as many other books and articles in German and English. “Dialectics and Analytical Psychology” (Spring Publications) is the subject of his most recent work in English.


The end of individuation

Those who were present at the Hillman festival some years ago will remember how well Wolfgang Giegerich succeeded in agitating that audience with his provocative talk on bloody sacrifice. In his article “Opposition of ‘Individual’ and ‘Collective’ — Psychology’s Basic Fault: Reflections on Today’s  of the Soul,” Giegerich now strikes a blow at the very heart of Jungian psychology. What he has to say will be painful, he warns us, and so it proves to be. Despite that warning, however, this essay deserves to be read and pondered by anyone interested in the present situation and the future of Jungian psychology.

Giegerich’s theme is that the individuation process “is psychologically obsolete, truly a thing of the past.” It belongs to “historical psychology” rather than to the psychology of the present. Even if we still engage in this process —  and he does not deny its residual value or effectiveness for individuals — “it is disconnected and disengaged from what psychologically is really going on in our age and is suspended within that self-contained bubble that we call our personal psychology.” The life of the psyche is somewhere else; it is in the world. We have forgotten or, more likely, avoided the fact that the psyche is not in us, but that we are in psyche. The magnum opus, therefore, is taking place not in the analytic session or in some alchemical vessel, but “in the world out there, in what belongs to the public domain.” Let me attempt to outline, to the best of my understanding, how Giegerich develops his thesis.

Psychology is about understanding, not curing

First, Giegerich asserts, and this is of central importance to his thesis, that psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are not meant to cure, to heal, to improve, or to make better. If such should happen, it is as a fortunate spin-off, but it is not the essential purpose of psychology. That purpose is primarily analysis, gaining cognition, “doing justice to the psychological phenomena by penetrating to their innermost core and by comprehending them.” To achieve this purpose we have to leave behind our personal feelings and needs and pay attention instead to the “‘objective’ intentionality” of psychology itself. If we persist in holding on to the “fantasy” of psychology as “the rescue of the soul” then we can only do so by acknowledging that the “rescue of one’s own soul consists in the rescue of the world.” There is a dialectic at work here between the “‘subjective’ intentionality” of the individual and the “‘objective’ intentionality” of psychology rather than a simple opposition between individual and collective.

Anima mundi is obsolete

Jung himself, Giegerich points out, never put the individuation process in opposition to the world. He quotes Jung: “This self, however, is the world” (CW 9i: 46). Jungians have not fully understood this or paid much attention to it, and consequently a one-sided approach to the individuation process has developed. For this reason, Hillman and others introduced the idea of the anima mundi, the soul of the world, and stressed the need of “working towards the development of a new cosmology.” But Giegerich claims that this too is as anachronistic as the idea of individuation. Although it makes us “feel good,” and evokes a kind of nostalgia and even “precious promise,” the notion of the anima mundi takes away from the “real psychological necessities of today and lures us away from the soul’s real situation.”

Christianity as the causal factor

Ever since Christianity took hold, it is impossible to locate “soul” in nature. The aim of Christianity has been to “overcome” the world and to replace it with a “new” soul or world. Giegerich cites a passage from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in which the disappearance of elves, fairies, goblins — all the little people —  is mourned. As far back as the 14th century and probably before, it was evident that nature was no longer “a place invested with autonomous meaning . . .” It no longer was “ensouled” and so had lost its sacredness. The idea of the world as anima mundi has mainly historical meaning, as belonging to ancient cultures, but for our own time and place it is merely “an expression of nostalgia.” What has taken the place of the anima mundi is physics. (He defines  physics as “a term that here includes all natural sciences, just as our real psychotherapy of nature or the world is called technology.”) To try to resuscitate the notion of an anima mundi would not only be futile, but wrong. To do so “just because physics and technology do not fulfill our old ideas of what is soulful” only exacerbates an already existing division  between the individual and the world.

The changed meaning of what is soulful

Today “all the passion of the soul” goes into physics and technology. “This is where the real action is.” And precisely because this passion is so compelling, it is wrong to deny it as  being psychological or ‘soulful’. But, Giegerich explains, what soul and soulfulness mean are no longer what they once meant. What is required, therefore, is a new definition of what is ‘soulful’ and the only way we can achieve this is by “allowing ourselves to be taught by the real movement of the soul itself.” To begin with we have to make room for physics and technology as belonging to “our soul work.” We have to develop a consciousness that is able to recognize “the soul where we least expect it and so far have loathed to see it.” (Italics mine.)

If we do not make this attempt and cling to an outmoded view of the world and an outmoded view of individuation, we “disown an essential part of today’s magnum opus.” Both individuation and anima mundi are a part of “historical” psychology and no longer relevant to what is actually taking place today in the world. He cites the poignant story Jung told about the African medicine man who bemoaned the fact that his power as interpreter of dreams and signs had been taken away from him. His authority had been replaced by the District Commissioner. This old man represented “the subterraneously spreading collapse of an obsolete and forever irrevocable world.”

The world we live in today

Giegerich then turns to the present day economy, which he says is such that it “makes the industrial revolution look harmless.” He points to the by now familiar phenomena of our economy: the rationalizaton of industry through continuous downsizing and restructuring — and he could have added as well, merging and the creation of all-devouring monopolies. A devastating consequence is that workers have become “transit material.” Although different from the slaves and serfs of the past, today’s worker who has become accustomed to think of himself or herself as having “rights” and an inherent “dignity” requiring respect, is now becoming redundant. Indeed, the whole purpose of our economy today is to render human beings superfluous. They are necessary only if they satisfy the needs of the economy. The economy, on the other hand, exists not for the sake of human beings, but for the “maximization of profits.”

Here Giegerich makes a huge leap in his thinking, demanding much from his readers, who will feel ill-prepared for what is coming, despite what he has been saying up till now. He asserts it is the maximizing of profits that has become the magnum opus, the soul work, of our time. He sees the “bottom line” as:

. . .the highest good, the summum bonum. It is the only exclusive value prevailing today: it has no other values, no other suns, before or beside it. It is an end, nay the end in itself. It is our real God, our real Self. This Copernican Revolution is not bloody, but what is happening because of it is terrifying. Its violence is logical or psychological, we could also say metaphysical.


Globalization, not individuation

In this world in which the pursuit of profit is the highest good, there is no place for individuation, nor, Giegerich says, should a place be made for it. It would be beside the point because this process is “totally disconnected from what is going on. Not individualization but globalization is the soul’s magnum opus of today.” What does he mean by globalization? It is “the elimination of personal identity in its own right” and “the subjugation of everything individual under the one great abstract goal of profit maximization: profit must increase, but I must decrease.” Being, in other words, has been surrendered to “the logic of money.”

We are, according to Giegerich, at a new level. We are defining a new standard about what the soul is or is not. It is indisputable to him that soul is out there, in the world, that ensouling is taking place in public — in the economy, in technology, and in the natural sciences. This event is no less a mystery even though it is taking place for all to see. This is the magnum opus, which is no longer taking place in the individual experience. Not that our individuation is not a work; it is, but small scale, more like an opus parvum, a little work.  This  is not personal, not individual or even collective — if we take collective to mean a “collection of individuals.” It has a dynamism of its own which has nothing to do with human beings. Our “historical” psychology up till now has been about human beings, but not about the soul itself. He states:

As the human being is dethroned from the central place around which psychological life allegedly has to revolve, the psyche can finally in truth be recognized as  Jung tried to see it: as objective or autonomous psyche, or as I would prefer to say, as the logical life of the soul, a life that is its own end (even though it lives through us and needs us to give expression to it). Jung said that we are in the psyche, the psyche is not in us.


Anticipating objections

In fairness to Giegerich, it should be clear that he is not proposing these ideas because he thinks they are right or desirable. This is not a program he is advocating. What he is trying to do is articulate what he sees as his “answer to life, to our situation, to our reality,” Just as Jung tried to give “his answer to life and reality as they were conditioned in our 20th century.” By “answer” here, Giegerich is not saying he has the answer or answers, in the sense of solution, but rather offers his understanding of the situation. Individuation, as Giegerich sees it, can still be meaningful for individuals. He does not doubt that there are dreams and personal experiences (such as an awareness of the divine in nature) which carry “an undeniable sense of reality and conviction that is not invalidated by any rational argument.” What he does question is how

. . . all psychological importance is assumed to rest with our archetypal inner experience, our dreams, the imaginal, while what is going on in the world at large is regarded as part of the collective consciousness, which implies that it is of a psychologically more superficial nature and thus of less weight and meaning. 

That this should be the case — the opposing of the inner life to the collective consciousness — is the result of another opposition, that between two realms of experience. One of these is the personal process which consists of our dreams, feelings, and visions (which may be archetypal but which are private even if we may decide to share them). The other experience is public, that which is visible to us, is based on common knowledge, and is about everyday concerns. These two kinds of experience, says Giegerich, are distinguished “according to the source of knowledge” or “locus of experience.” The  personal process is said to deal with the real mysteries of the soul, while the  public experience has to do with the ego’s needs and function and is profane, secular, commonplace. From this perspective whatever is public, politics or economics, for instance, has little meaning for the soul, while what may be hidden can be archetypal and numinous.

Unfortunately, asserts Giegerich,  Jungians have assigned the magnum opus to personal, private experience and denied it to the world outside the personal. But he concludes that there is “no a priori reason” why the magnum opus should be confined to “the consulting room or in some other alchemical vessel” and  “why it could not take place in the world out there, in the public domain.” He cites Goethe, who speaks of the “blatant mystery,” that is, one which is both public and mysterious. This is analogous to Jung’s comment about the ego. It is known and yet is also “an unfathomably dark body.”

To claim, as Jungians have, that what is inner is deep and what is outer is superficial is a psychological trap. Even if that is what we actually experience, that experience is, nevertheless, obsolete; it belongs to “historical psychology.” Antiques, he says acerbically, have a “lot of soul value,” but they belong to the past. Chaucer and the old African medicine man were at least honest in acknowledging this, but we are not as honest. “All we want to see is our feelings, is that the images produced by the individuation process arouse in us deeply fulfilling personal feelings of meaning and conviction. Because we feel this, we insist that they still must be true.”

Paying attention

Some will find what Giegerich has to say outrageous or offensive because he attacks what seems to be the very heart of Jungian psychology. That is bad enough, they will say; but worse, he replaces what he has demolished with his own “answer” or assumptions for which he does not provide much evidence. This complaint is understandable, but it would be a pity if the reader left it there and did not give Giegerich’s ideas the attention they merit. At the outset of his argument, he defined psychology and psychotherapy as giving attention to, listening to, and going to the depths of what is being analyzed. Curing or healing may occur as a result, but it is not the primary intention of either psychology or psychotherapy. Many will dispute this, but I am reminded here of what Jungian analyst and author James Hollis frequently includes in any talk he gives or book he writes because he regards it as so essential: in its original meaning, the word ‘therapy’ (Gr. therapeuin) meant paying attention to. Hollis interprets it further as “attending the silence,” “waiting upon the darkness.” What will cure or heal, if it happens at all, comes out of the waiting upon and the attending to, which is the essential work.

Although there is certainly a sense of “waiting upon the darkness” in much of what Giegerich has written, I detect a glimmering light as well. In truth my instinctive reaction is that he is on to something momentous which, while it may be painful, as he said it would be, holds the promise of a fresh burst of life and a new direction for depth psychology, providing we are willing to give it the attention it requires. This does not mean that I do not have difficulties with some of his assertions.

The autonomous psyche and the magnum opus

Jung said: “The collective unconscious stands for the objective psyche, the personal unconscious for the subjective psyche.” Giegerich builds his argument for the magnum opus of the world upon Jung’s idea of the objective or autonomous psyche, which he refers to “as the logical life of the soul, a life that is its own end.”

Jung states that the “objective psyche is something alien even to the conscious mind through which it expresses itself.” (CW, 12, para. 44) He further states that the objective psyche is compensatory to the conscious mind, but that it is also “independent in the highest degree.” It is “an autonomous psychic entity; any efforts to drill it are only apparently successful and moreover, are harmful to consciousness. It is and remains beyond the reach of subjective, arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can be neither improved upon nor perverted, where we can listen but not meddle.”  (CW, 12, para. 51) It is “alien even to the conscious mind through which it expresses itself.” The objective psyche has, according to Jung, its own goal which it will pursue independently without need of any prompting from outside itself. This goal which “promises to heal, to make whole, is at first strange beyond all measure to the conscious mind, so that it can find entry only with the greatest difficulty.”(CW 12, para 3328).

Having drawn on the analogy of alchemy, Jung, as Giegerich sees it, was mistaken in assigning the magnum opus of the alchemists to the individual. In fact, it occurs not in the individual but in the world. Even for the alchemists the work was not personal but cultural although Giegerich admits “the person through whom the Work expressed itself figures in the particular ‘colouring’ of the result.” The magnum opus belongs to the objective psyche. That this should be strange to us or alien is not surprising, for that is, indeed, the character of the objective psyche. This is why he rightly warns us, as Jung had, that this shift of the focus from the private to the public psyche will be so difficult, and why we will resist having to do it.

Giegerich claims baldly that the magnum opus  of our time is “maximum profitization,” or “the bottom line.” This idea  shocks because we assume that the goal the collective unconscious (objective psyche) seeks is, as Jung said, “to make whole.” Do we attribute a goodness and benignity to the goal of the magnum opus that perhaps it does not have? Perhaps it is true, as some have suspected, that there is something in the psyche that wishes us harm and not good. Maybe it is arbitrary and ultimately soul-less, or as Giegrich proposes, it is a new level of soul-fulness which as yet we cannot recognize. Or is it that there is an unknown good that the collective unconscious drives us towards, and this unknown good is merely symbolized by the maximizing of profit?

I presume Giegerich would say to all of this, we just don’t know. All we can do is pay attention to what is happening and try to understand it without judging it. The problem with psychology, as he sees it, is that even if it would acknowledge that the magnum opus  of today is the bottom line, “it has to disparage it as a wrong development, has to deny its origin in the soul, deny that it is the present form of the soul’s symbolic life.”

The  magnum opus is all around us

In reality this process (the magnum opus of the maximization of profits) is “all around us, as our absolute; it is the medium or element of our existence, much like the air is the element of the human organism’s existence, and it is the God to which we sacrifice what we hold most dear.” It seems, moreover, that its goal is to render human beings redundant. For Giegerich, this represents a new Copernican revolution in that the human being is “dethroned from the central place around which the psychological life allegedly has to revolve.” The psyche “can finally in truth be recognized, as Jung tried to see it: as objective or autonomous psyche, or as I would prefer to say, as the logical life of the soul, a life that is its own end (even though it lives through us and needs us to give expression to it). Jung said that we are in the psyche, the psyche is not in us.” Not to recognize the autonomous psyche for what it is, is to attempt to force the psyche into “a mold,” into “a sort of appendix” and to “subordinate” it so that “the notion of the soul and of psychological life, cannot be released into its own so as to be given the chance of becoming truly psychological.”

We find this telos of the psyche “brutal,” and because it “destroys what we considered to be part of soulful human existence, because it violates our values and expectations, because it brings about the subjugation of life under the principle of money, it sweeps away much, if not all, of what gives meaning to life.” For this reason, we want to fight against it, to “compensate” for it. Giegerich, however, will have none of what he calls “the moralistic fallacy.” Instead of building a defense against it, we should be “establishing a conscious, knowing relationship to the phenomenon.” At this stage, he says in effect, we do not know what we are up against. Therefore, it behooves us to withhold our moral judgment, which would stand in the way of our being able to understand what is going on, to understand “the order of its magnitude and its psychological significance. A premature moral judgment is unfortunately made in defense of the ego which seeks to retain its place at the center, unaware or unwilling to admit that it has already been dislodged. This, it seems to me, is at the heart of his argument and one which deserves the closest attention and openness.

Some reflections

When Giegerich tells us to leave judgment aside until we have time to attend to this phenomenon, to comprehend it on its own terms, I can agree with him. But I wonder about his conclusion, in reference to the maximization of profits in the corporate world, that no one is to blame or that: “It is a development that engulfs us with compelling necessity, and has to be likened more to an elementary force of nature than to a deliberate human act.” I also wonder when he says that the maximization of profit has occurred “by no means because of the personal greed of those who profit from this profit.” These claims must also be examined before we concede that the human being is obsolete and therefore, no longer responsible for what has happened or is happening now.

In this connection, a passage from Jung on the objective psyche, which I quote in part, is particularly illuminating:

The story of the Temptation clearly reveals the nature of the psychic power with which Jesus came into collision: it was the power-intoxicated devil of the prevailing Caesarian psychology that led him into dire temptation in the wilderness. This devil was the objective psyche that held all the peoples of the Roman Empire under its sway, and that is why it promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth, as if it were trying to make a Caesar of him. Obeying the inner call of his vocation, Jesus voluntarily exposed himself to the assaults of the imperialistic madness that filled everyone, conqueror and conquered alike. In this way he recognized the nature of the objective psyche which had plunged the whole world into misery and had begotten a yearning for salvation that found expression even in the pagan poets. Far from suppressing or allowing himself to be supressed by this psychic onslaught, he let it act on him consciously, and assimilated it. Thus was the world-conquering Caesarism transformed into spiritual kingship, and the Roman Empire into the universal kingdom of God that was not of this world. (CW 17, Development of Personality, para. 309.)

Jung identifies the objective psyche with the “power-intoxicated devil of the prevailing Caesarian psychology.” We could try substituting here “the power-intoxicating devil” of the prevailing bottom line psychology. What did Jesus do to avoid falling into the temptations? First of all, he remained faithful to what was deepest and most essential to his being. Jung calls it “the inner call of his vocation.” We might call it his personal, subjective psyche. Having done this, what does he do but leave himself vulnerable and “exposed” to the attacks of the “imperialistic madness that filled everyone, conqueror and conquered alike.” Substitute the profit maximization madness that fills everyone, conqueror (the corporations) or conquered (the consumers). Jung says, Jesus did not suppress it, but let this “psychic onslaught” “act on him consciously and assimilated it.” This is an amazing claim, and it seems to me this is exactly what Giegerich urges us to do in the face of the apparent “madness”of the objective psyche today. What does Jung mean here, or Giegerich for that matter? One would guess that we at least, if not Jesus, have already been assimilated by the conquerors. Clearly, this is an idea which cannot be just asserted but has to be challenged and explained more clearly.
Jesus’ transformation of Caesarism meant the establishment of the “universal kingdom of God that was not of this world.” This returns us to Giegerich’s contention early on in his essay that it is Christianity and its purpose to overcome this world and to seek instead a new world, that brought an end to the possibility of an anima mundi, such as the ancients knew. The  irony is that this drive to “overcome the world” and to find a “new world,” is being realized today not by Christianity but by technology. For this reason, I ask if it is not technology, rather than profit maximization, which is the true magnum opus of our time? As Giegerich himself points out, that is where the passion is. Since the drive for profits on such a global scale today is inconceivable without technology, is it not possible that the drive for profit is itself a psychological excrescence of technology? But I also ask whether Giegerich, or anyone else for that matter, can really define for us what the magnum opus of the collective unconscious is at this time or whether, in fact, it remains to be discovered. If I read Jung and Giegerich correctly, this  is independent of and precedes our discovery of what its goal or telos might be.

This process needs us

If Giegerich, at times, seems to say there is nothing we can do about it except to try to understand it, this is not really what he intends. At the end of his article, he states with the force of absolute conviction :

We must not dissociate ourselves from what is happening, whatever it may be. On the contrary, much as Jung said about God that he needs us for His becoming conscious, this process needs us, needs our heart, our feeling, our imaginative attention and rigorous thinking effort so as to have a chance to become instilled with mind, with feeling, with soul.

We should not leave it as something that we allow to happen apart from us. We have to bring our consciousness to bear upon it. “It must, as it were, be reborn through the soul and in the soul” and through that will come our “real comprehension.” This means letting ourselves suffer it, to be open towards it, however painful it may be for us to do so, without being either sentimental or merely subjective. He concludes by saying that this understanding will come about through “a slow process of painful experiences.” It cannot remain just an idea in our mind, but it must have “inscribed itself into us.” As Jung said about Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which Giegerich’s plea echoes, we have to let it act on us consciously in order to assimilate it, even if we cannot know, and even dread, the outcome.

“Opposition of ‘Individual’ and ‘Collective’—Psychology’s Basic Fault: Reflections on Today’s Magnum Opus of the Soul” by Wolfgang Giegerich was published in  Harvest, Journal for Jungian Studies, 1996, V. 42, No. 2, pp. 7-27.

“Today’s Magnum Opus of the Soul” by Dolores Brien was published in
The Round Table Review, January/February 1999, pp. 13-17,

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