The Heart of History
By William Van Dusen Wishard
Perhaps there is no one "right" way to assess the past. Because we each view events through the unique lens of our psyche--and no two psyches are the same--we differ in our interpretation of events. That is why historians, given the same data, will arrive at different interpretations of both cause and implication.
But the fact remains that it is given to some to understand events with a greater clarity than their contemporaries. Through the ages, unique individuals have seen into the history with a particular wisdom. In 1776, Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) perceived the events between 100-1500 with a depth and breadth of insight unmatched until our time. In 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) wrote an assessment of American institutions and characteristics that still stands unequaled. In the 1930s, Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History) wrote a magisterial survey of the factors that contribute to the development and the demise of not just nations, but civilizations. Each of these individuals brought an unrivaled depth and perspective to their analysis of the time they surveyed.
It was given to C.G. Jung (1875-1961) to articulate an interpretation of history that has moved our understanding onto a different plane. Like Gibbon, Tocqueville and Toynbee, Jung was a unique observer of events. In the twenty-three volumes which include his collected works, letters, interviews and autobiography, Jung offered the first comprehensive psychological interpretation of history. Included in his research are probes into the turning points of the twentieth century; the meaning of events that gave rise to Hitler, the psychological causes of the welfare state, and the genesis of the Cold War.
Never before had such a perspective been articulated, and through it we have gained an understanding of the continuing forces that were set in motion at the birth of human history. Throughout the century, Jung's insights have influenced such diverse disciplines as atomic physics, anthropology, philosophy, art, theology, philosophy and psychotherapy. Assessing Jung's impact on our times, London's Sunday Telegraph said, "Jung was on a giant scale...one of Western Civilization's great liberators."
Trained as a psychiatrist, Jung was more than that. Psychiatry was an instrument of his work, but not the work itself. Of Swiss-German origin, Jung developed what some believe to be the broadest and most comprehensive view of the psyche ever offered. He articulated a fully-developed theory of the structure and dynamics of the psyche in both its conscious and unconscious aspects, a detailed theory of personality types and, perhaps most of all, a full description of the universal, primordial images deriving from the deepest layers of the unconscious psyche. He called these primordial images archetypes of the collective unconscious. The latter discovery enabled Jung to describe striking parallels produced by individual dreams and visions, and by the mythologies of all ages.
The concept of the collective unconscious gives depth psychology an added dimension. It takes the theory and practice of psychotherapy and relates it to the whole history of the evolution of the human psyche in its various manifestations of art, myth, culture and religion. Jung thus offered a practice of psychology that was not only a therapy for neurosis but also a technique for psychological development applicable to every individual. For the individual, Jung declared, is the carrier of civilization.
Most historians have offered us a chronicle of the economic, political, technical and cultural aspects of the life of nations. On the whole, they have assumed that the inner subjective realm of the life of past ages was either much the same as today's subjective life, or not really relevant to the course of events. Understanding the individual mind of someone of a previous epoch does not seem to have been important. They did not seem to appreciate, as Robert Romanyshyn wrote, "[H]istory is a psychological matter." Indeed, Gibbon displayed a strong bias against Christianity, while the great nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote from a secularist point of view. In dismissing Christianity, it suggests that neither man appears to have appreciated the role of the subjective, or the unconscious, in the evolution of human affairs.
Jung took a different view. He saw the individual as the being at the very heart of history. He saw the so-called "great" events of the world more as consequences than as causes. "In the last analysis," he wrote in 1933, "the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately springs as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals." In Jung's view, in our most private and subjective lives, "we are not only the passive witness of our age . . . but also its makers. We make our own epoch." [Emphasis added]
To more completely grasp how individual subjectivity has shaped events, Jung undertook a massive study of the history of the development of the mind. He wanted to understand and feel the inner life of earlier ages, for his research had led him to believe that each of us carries within us all the psychic residue of the past. He pushed his research back not only to Greek, Egyptian or Sumerian eras, but back into the mists of the prehistory of Neolithic culture, to the man who represented the original pattern of creation. His conclusion was startling: that beneath our conscious intelligence, each of us carries with us the evolved intelligence of humankind--the "collective unconscious." Each carries the remnants of that time when nature, not man's ego-consciousness, was in charge. This, Jung said, is "the two million-year-old man that is in us all," a concept he expressed in a New York Times interview in 1936.
As Jung studied the history of the mind, he saw patterns that appeared to be common to every culture ever known. As Anthony Stevens points out in The Two Million-Year-Old Self, all human communities, however "primitive," have always had laws about property, rules governing courtship and marriage, rules of etiquette prescribing forms of greetings and modes of address, cooperative labor, gift-giving, the performance of funeral rites, the recital of myths and legends, procedures for settling disputes, taboos relating to food and incest, dream interpretation, etc.
Jung defined all such patterns of behavior as evidence of what he termed "archetypes," or universal motifs stemming from the collective unconscious. These archetypes speak to us through our dreams, religions and myths. An archetype is neither passive nor inert, but a dynamic, autonomous agent that directs our actions in ways of which we are not aware. In Jung's view, what you and I experience in life is not determined solely by our personal history or conscious inclination. It is also shaped by the collective history of the human species as a whole, a history that is biologically encoded in the collective unconscious. This is the area where, as Laurens van der Post has written, "all men are one, where the brotherhood of man already exists." While we've learned volumes about the workings of the brain since Jung's time, he still stands as the twentieth century's foremost researcher into the reality of the collective unconscious.
To more fully appreciate how this collective history has expressed itself in different cultures at different times, Jung traveled widely. In 1909, on his first visit to America, he analyzed the dreams of African-American patients in St. Elizabeth's Hospital (for mental patients) in Washington, D.C. There he Jung uncovered motifs that were identical with patterns found in Greek mythology. This experience corroborated his view of the existence of a "universally human characteristic," an archetype.
In 1912, Jung lectured at Fordham University in New York. While he marveled at the energy of Americans, and the power and scale of the civilization which that energy was building, he also saw a danger. In an interview with The New York Times, Jung suggested that whatever a man builds has the ability to destroy him; and that America was facing "a moment in which it must make a choice to master its machines or be devoured by them." As we consider the end of the twentieth century, more than one person is asking whether we do, in fact, control our machines or whether our machines control us.
In North Africa in 1920, Jung studied Europe from the perspective of a so-called "less-developed" people. He was struck by the slow tempo of North African life, so different from the "god of time" that governs the European (America is implied). This deliberate tempo, Jung reasoned, allows the North African to live a more instinctive emotional life, a life of greater intensity. He wondered whether the rationality of the European, only achieved in recent centuries, had been gained at the expense of his vitality.
1924 saw Jung once again in America, this time in New Mexico visiting the Pueblo Indian chief, Ochwiay Biano (Mountain Lake). His dialogues with the chief, which Jung recorded in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, gave Jung his first picture of how non-white people view the white man. The whites, Ochwiay Biano said, "are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad."
"Why is that?" asked Jung.
"They say they think with their heads."
Jung showed his surprise at this answer and asked Ochwiay Biano what he thinks with.
"We think here," the chief replied, indicating his heart.
Jung was deeply struck, and later recorded, "What we from our point of view call colonialization, missions to the heathen, spread of civilization, etc., has another face--the face of a bird of prey seeking with cruel intentness for distant quarry--a face worthy of a race of pirates and highwaymen."
But Jung was to learn another lesson from Ochwiay Biano. While he had not expected the chief to talk about religion, a subject which Pueblo Indians are reluctant to discuss with anyone, least of all a white man, the chief himself opened the door.
"The Americans want to stamp out our religion," he said. "Why can they not let us alone? What we do, we do not only for ourselves but for the Americans also. Yes, we do it for the whole world . . . If we did not do it, what would become of the world?"
Jung sensed that Ochwiay Biano was beginning to touch on the sacred mysteries of his people. "After all," the chief continued, "we are a people who live on the roof of the world; we are the sons of Father Sun, and with our religion we daily help our father to go across the sky. We do this not only for ourselves, but for the whole world. If we were to cease practicing our religion, in ten years the sun would no longer rise. Then it would be night forever."
Suddenly Jung understood the source of the dignity and composure of the individual Pueblo Indian. He is a son of the sun; his life is cosmologically meaningful, for he helps the father and preserver of all life in his daily rise and descent.
Jung later recorded, "The idea, absurd to us, that a ritual act can magically affect the sun is, upon closer examination, no less irrational but far more familiar to us than might at first be assumed." Our Christian belief, Jung noted, is "permeated by the idea that special acts such as certain rites or prayer or a particular morality can influence God." That man feels capable of formulating a relationship to the overpowering influence of the Creator, and that he can render something which is essential even to God, Jung wrote, "raises the human individual to the dignity of a metaphysical factor. Such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place."
Jung's visit to Kenya and Uganda in 1925 was to give him a new understanding of the consequences of Western colonialism. He asked a medicine man about his dreams and the role they play in the life of his tribe. "In the old days," the medicine man replied, "the medicine man had dreams, and knew whether there is war or sickness or whether rain comes and where the herds should be driven." But since the whites were in Africa, he said, no one had dreams any more. "Dreams are no longer necessary because now the English know everything." Jung realized that the medicine man had lost his raison d'etre. The divine voice which had counseled the tribe was no longer needed because "the English know better." In effect, the primal expression of the natural human spirit--which the African manifests--had been crushed by the imposition of Western rationalized modes of thinking and administrative structures.
But East Africa was to offer Jung one of his deepest insights into the meaning of human existence. Visiting the Athi Plains, one of Kenya's great game reserves, he was overpowered by the silent sight of the broad savannah unfolding across the horizon; the gazelle, antelope, zebra and warthog grazing, moving forward like slow rivers. This was the "stillness of eternal being," the world as it had been before humans achieved a conscious state.
As he experienced this stillness, Jung envisioned the cosmic role of man. "Man is indispensable for the completion of creation, for it is man alone who gives the world its objective existence." Without that existence, he wrote, life would progress through hundreds of millions of years in the night of non-being. It is human consciousness that creates objective existence and meaning. "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." The human being, said Jung, is the conscious awareness of the Earth, and perhaps of the Universe.
In 1918, as Jung studied the meaning of the dreams of his European patients, he recorded his observations of the "beast" that was ready to break out "with devastating consequences" as "the Christian view of the world loses its authority." He noted that especially in his German patients, he found "peculiar disturbances," images of violence, cruelty and depression which could not be ascribed to their personal psychology, but appeared to represent something in the collective German psyche. Accordingly, Jung, who as a Swiss-German was part of the German culture, turned his attention to the state of mind then prevailing in the German nation. His conclusion was that the "dechristianization of man's view of the world" was resulting in an uprush of unconscious forces representing "all the powers of darkness."
From the standpoint of psychology, Jung saw Christianity and all religions as "psychotherapeutic systems in the truest sense of the word, and on the grandest scale. They express the whole range of the psychic problem in mighty images; they are the avowal and recognition of the soul." All religions, in one way or another, he said, contain images that symbolize the conscious realization and fulfillment of an integrated personality. Loss of the spiritual connection to the soul, to a transpersonal realm, creates a "psychic split" or neurosis. Further work with patients from many European countries as well as America showed Jung that this state of mind was by no means limited to Germany, but was increasingly representative of Western man.
Thus Jung began to correlate the diminishing hold of Christianity on the Western mind and culture with the rise of psychology. There appeared to be a specific relation between the two phenomena. Why was it, he wondered in 1928, that "the discovery of psychology falls entirely within the last decades." It could only be, he concluded, that "a spiritual need has produced in our time the 'discovery' of psychology." Formerly, people felt no need of psychology as does modern man. "All through the Middle Ages," he told a New York meeting in 1935, "people's psychology was entirely different from what it is now." Psychologically, Christianity was a projection of the God-image in the unconscious, an image that is the ordering symbol of the psyche. But as Western man has become more and more rational, believing himself to be free from "superstition," the archetypal contents expressed by Christianity have come loose from their moorings. The result is widespread alienation; more precisely, modern man has put himself at the mercy of the psychic "underworld." As rationalism and scientific understanding have increased, so has manís world become more dehumanized. Technology, which has diminished our contact with nature, has also decreased the emotional energy that the nature connection supplied. Contemporary man, Jung wrote for the Europaische Revue in Berlin, "has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare and humanitarianism." In Jung's view, Western man had replaced his spiritual faith in the kingdom of God with a secular belief in the welfare state. In psychological terms, modern man has replaced an integrated personality with an over-reliance on ego-consciousness.
Jung offered what stands as one of the most fundamental evaluations of Germany in the 1930s and the rise of Hitler. He noted that in our twentieth-century sophistication, we believe the modern world to be reasonable, basing this view /on rational economic, political and cultural factors. But beneath the thin veneer of so-called Christian civilization exists another world of unconscious psychic forces, one of which, in the German psyche, is represented by Wotan, the ancient god of storm, rage and frenzy (which embodies the instinctual and emotional aspect of the unconscious). While there were many Christians in pre-war Germany, Jung noted that "the god of the Germans is Wotan and not the Christian God." Today's rationalized mind may dismiss gods as primitive imagination or fancy, yet gods, in point of fact, have always personified psychic forces. Dismissing them as "unreal" hardly lessens their power as psychic factors in shaping reality. They just continue to act without our awareness.
So it was in 1936 that Jung wrote about the god of storm and frenzy which had seized the German people. "A hurricane has broken loose in Germany while we still believe it is fine weather," he wrote in Zurich's Neue Schweizer Rundschau. What struck him about the German phenomenon was that ". . . one man, who is obviously 'possessed,' has infected a whole nation to such an extent that everything is set in motion and has started rolling on its course towards perdition." What Jung saw happening in Germany was the collectivization of the spirit, a regression to the pre-Christian Germany of Europe's "tribal" past. The individualized man who was the product of Christianity was being taken over by a collective demonic spirit embodied in Hitler. (Jung was not alone in this view. Christopher Dawson has written how "German National Socialism" deliberately used "charismatic leadership" . . . "to mobilize the unconscious forces that lie dormant in civilized man and transform them into instruments of power.")
Notwithstanding Jung's comments, in 1936 Hitler's doctor invited him to come to Germany to analyze the Fuhrer, an invitation Jung speedily declined. Although he never met Hitler, Jung had seen him in person and had formed a clear diagnosis of his psychological state. In Jung's view, Hitler suffered from "hysterical dissociation of the personality," a condition exemplified by "auto-erotic self-admiration and self-extenuation, denigration and terrorization of one's fellow men, projection of the shadow, lying, falsification of reality, determination to impress by fair means or foul . . ."
In a 1938 interview with Hearst's Cosmopolitan, Jung expressed the view that Hitler was able to maintain control of the German people for over a decade because he was "the mirror of every German's unconscious . . . the loudspeaker which magnifies the inaudible whispers of the German soul . . ." One would have thought, Jung suggested, that the bloodbath of the first World War would have been enough. But that was not the case, as reality had been completely blotted out. Jung concluded that interview by saying, "America must keep big armed forces to help keep the world at peace, or to decide the war if it comes. You are the last resort of Western democracy."
After the war, Jung pondered the deeper meaning of the catastrophe that had taken place. Not simply the more obvious factors of the effects of the Versailles Treaty, or the isolationism of America, or the Great Depression, or Chamberlin's folly at Munich. Jung was probing the deeper psychological level which, in the end, determines human activity.
And thus, in one of the most profound analyses of World War II, he wrote in 1945 in the Neue Schweizer Rundschau (Zurich) that "the German catastrophe was only one crisis in the general European sickness." Well before Hitler, and even before World War I, Jung wrote, there were symptoms of the mental changes taking place on the continent. "What is wrong with our art," he asked, that most delicate instrument for reflecting the national psyche? "How are we to explain the blatantly pathological elements in modern painting? Atonal music?" That is a question that merits some reflection, for it comes from one of the most skilled psychiatrists of the century.
In part, Jung wrote, this condition was the result of the fact that the "medieval picture of the world was breaking up and the metaphysical authority that ruled it was fast disappearing . . ." When a psychological projection, such as the God-image, ceases to be a living reality for a people, he explained, that projection goes back into the unconscious; the psychic God-image is a dynamic part of the psyche's structure. But the deflation of the God-image as a vital factor had left the Western world in a metaphysical vacuum. "This, then, is the great problem that faces the whole of Christianity: where now is the sanction for goodness and justice, which was once anchored in metaphysics? Is it really only brute force that decides everything? Is the ultimate authority only the will of whatever man happens to be in power?"
As the questions Jung was asking in 1945 are as urgent today as when he raised them, it is fitting to close this chapter with his own words:
Everything possible has been done for the outside world: science has been refined to an unimaginable extent, technical achievement has reached an almost uncanny degree of perfection. But what of man, who is expected to administer all these blessings in a reasonable way? He has simply been taken for granted. No one has stopped to consider that neither morally nor psychologically is he in any way adapted to such changes. As blithely as any child of nature he sets about enjoying these dangerous playthings, completely oblivious of the shadow lurking behind him, ready to seize them in its greedy grasp and turn them against a still infantile and unconscious humanity. . .
The question remains: How am I to live with this shadow? What attitude is required if I am to be able to live in spite of evil? In order to find valid answers to these questions a complete spiritual renewal is needed. And this cannot be given gratis, each man must strive to achieve it for himself. Neither can old formulas which once had a value be brought into force again. The eternal truths cannot be transmitted mechanically; in every epoch they must be born anew from the human psyche.
Europe ignored Jung's insights, and has consequently floundered in a spiritual bog for half a century. The question facing America as the century closes and a new one opens is, will we perceive the challenge Jung was laying before us, and thus renew the American Experiment?
© 1999 William Van Dusen Wishard.