Writing in 1957, Jung is very concerned with the Cold War, Communism and the threat of nuclear disaster. However, his points seem very salient in 2008 as well.
He is alarmed about ‘mass-mindedness’ — the reduction of individuals to anonymous, like-thinking units of humanity, to be manipulated by propaganda and advertising into fulfilling whatever function is required of them by those in power. In his time this was mainly evident in the USSR, but he sees it in Western societies too, and I certainly see strong elements of it today.
He shows that although science tries to impose order on the world, ‘the distinctive thing about real facts, however, is their individuality.’ He gives the example that you could say that each stone in a bed of pebbles weighs an average of 145 grams, but you could go through the whole lot and not find a single one that weighs exactly 145 grams. ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rule, and that, in consequence, absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity.’
So large theories and schemes are not the right way to make people happy. They devalue and minimise the individual, making him feel worthless even as ‘humanity’ as a whole makes progress: ‘…man is the slave and victim of the machines that have conquered space and time for him; he is intimidated and endangered by the might of the war technique which is supposed to safeguard his physical existence …. All his achievements and possessions do not make him bigger; on the contrary, they diminish him….’
The key, then, is to understand not humanity as a whole but the individual self. And yet our psyche ‘remains an insoluble puzzle.’ In fact, Jung’s experience as a psychiatrist was that the biggest obstacle to knowledge of the undiscovered self was ‘fear of the discoveries that might be made in the realm of the unconscious.’ He claims that even Freud himself told him that ‘it was necessary to make a dogma of his sexual theory because this was the sole bulwark of reason against a possible “outburst of the black flood of occultism.”‘
Easier, then, is to subordinate the self and go along with everyone else. ‘Where the many are, there is security; what the many believe must of course be true …. sweetest of all, however, is that gentle and painless slipping back into the kingdom of childhood, into the paradise of parental care, into happy-go-luckiness and irresponsibility. All the thinking and looking after are done from the top; to all questions there is an answer; and for all needs the necessary provision is made. The infantile dream state of the mass man is so unrealistic that he never thinks to ask who is paying for this paradise. The balancing of accounts is left to a higher political or social authority, which welcomes the task, for its power is thereby increased; and the more power it has, the weaker and more helpless the individual becomes.’
Again, very familiar!! Jung says that resisting this mass mentality can only be done effectively by the person who understands his own individuality. He advocates a return to the ‘helpful medieval view that man is a microcosm, a reflection of the great cosmos in miniature.’ We have to get ourselves in order before we can get the rest of the world in order. Modern man is estranged from his instincts and taught to distrust them, imposing an alien reason on them and creating a split consciousness. Yet instincts cannot be suppressed — an example is the continued appeal of religion even in the face of knowledge that conflicts with it. Even where we have no religion, we create alternative gods out of money, work, the state, etc.
And by refusing to recognise the evil that is part of every human, we point to others instead as evil. He invokes the example of the atrocities committed by Europeans against their colonial subjects, which ‘quickly and conveniently sink into a sea of forgetfulness, and that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns which we describe as “normality.” In shocking contrast to this is the fact that nothing has finally disappeared and nothing has been made good. The evil, the guilt, the profound unease of conscience, the obscure misgiving are there before our eyes, if only we would see. Man has done these things; I am a man, who has his share of human nature; therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear unaltered and indelibly within me the capacity and the inclination to do them again at any time …. None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow. Whether the crime lies many generations back or happens today, it remains the symptom of a disposition that is always and everywhere present — and one would therefore do well to possess some “imagination in evil,” for only the fool can permanently neglect the conditions of his own nature. In fact, this negligence is the best means of making him an instrument of evil. Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognised evil into the “other.” This strengthens the opponent’s position in the most effective way, because the projection carries the fear which we involuntarily and secretly feel for our own evil over to the other side and considerably increases the formidableness of his threat.’
A very long quote, I know, but I just loved this whole passage. I think it has very obvious parallels today with, for example, the ‘war on terror’ and its unequivocal dualism. They are evil and we are absolutely innocent, and so we can do anything, including torture and killing civilians, to make sure that our good prevails over their evil. The ‘harmlessness and naivete’ reminded me a lot of white British people, who like to believe that they are as pure as the driven snow because they have never personally oppressed anyone. They don’t accept any responsibility for what they are part of, and are happy for anything to be done to the evil “other” as long as there is no blood on their own hands.
Of course there are no easy answers in the book about how to discover the undiscovered self: Jung’s whole point is that we should get away from great generalisations and theories, and view the individual as, well, an individual. But there are some wonderful lessons, and the book is well written.
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Thanks for this piece. Very relevant and helpful.
Gwiz, yes indeed, also one of my favourite passages from the essay
Thank you, great help in understanding the book
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