Synthesizing instinct and spirit
by Ken Myers
“Of all the fathers of modern psychology, C. G. Jung is most widely known for his recognition and approval of what he loosely termed a ‘religious instinct’ in man: a persistent longing for meaning and purpose that gave rise not only to theology, but to much of art, literature, and mythology as well. In contrast to Sigmund Freud, his one-time mentor, Jung was convinced not only that human psychology was dominated by this ‘instinct’ — Freud himself acknowledged this much, but he lamented the fact as evidence of mankind’s regrettable clinging to infantilism — but that the longing for meaning was unique and native to man, not neurotic, and not reducible. He never accepted Freud’s insistence that this longing could be psychoanalyzed out of existence, and ultimately the two pioneers of depth psychology (Jung had been selected by Freud as his ‘prince and heir’) parted company over this point. Indeed, Jung saw the conundrum implicit in, and fiercely fought, the larger proposition tacitly behind the entire psychoanalytic venture, namely, that in the mode of all scientific analysis, the entirety of human motivation could be reduced, ultimately, to prior, finally material, causes.
“But being as well very much a child of the emerging, post-Christian, enlightened European world — and therefore driven to define himself as a ‘scientist’ — Jung set about to synthesize, within his vision of human nature, science and religion: that is, instinct and spirit.
“Given the twenty remarkably erudite volumes of his collected works, it may seem surprising that Jung’s synthesis can nonetheless be described rather simply: the essential elements that compose human nature — the instincts in particular — themselves each have a spiritual dimension.
“‘The archetypes,’ states Jung, 'are the images of the instincts.’ Archetypes are the mythological figures that serve as the universal ‘cores’ around which personal complexes constellate. Their universality gives human psychology its relatively invariant character across time and culture. Jung notes that the archetypes have a personality-like structure (one-dimensional and stereotyped though they may be, like the allegorical characters in a Dickens novel, or the ‘alters’ in Multiple Personality Disorder, or the gods and goddesses of Greek and other mythologies) including each its own consciousness, set of values, and goals. He identifies them with, for example, the ‘spirits’ that spoke to his cousin, a medium, while in trance.
“This conception could be seen as but an alternative form of Freud-style reductionism: that is, if ‘spirits’ are merely subjectively apperceived parts of the self projected onto some nonexistent metaphysical ‘screen’ where they are mistaken as ‘other,’ then religion, or at least a spiritism that claims access to some ‘other realm,’ becomes, once again, merely an illusion.
“However, Jung also attributes to the archetypes a transcendent dimension, a capacity to evade the constraints of material causality (as in extrasensory phenomena, astrological correspondences, or so-called ‘synchronicity’ — seemingly meaningful coincidences). Once this dimension is added, the archetypes become indistinguishable from spirits or demons as traditionally conceived, regardless of the scientific sound of words like ‘complexes,’ ‘synchronicity,’ or, indeed, ‘archetypes.’ Archetypes are immaterial, yet beings; each has an individual consciousness and intentionality, yet possesses a commonly shared and universal consciousness of some sort; they can transmit to people information not obtainable by natural means, and yet in some crucial way are linked to (and hence rousable by) the basic animal drives of human nature.
“The classical, reductionistic psychoanalytic worldview, because it undermines belief in spirit, inadvertently nudges men in the direction of worshipping the instincts — e.g., if not God, then we shall worship pleasure, each his favorite — all the while deluding itself that it has helped men to outgrow worship altogether. Jung saw this. He was convinced that, simply put, Freud’s god was Eros (just as it is for so many others). But though recognizing it for what it was, Jung did not reject this inevitable outcome of depth psychology. On the contrary, he embraced it even more fully (and in a certain sense, more honestly), carrying the psychoanalytic venture to its natural conclusion. If psychoanalysis has forced us to worship the instincts unwittingly, says Jung, why then, worship them we shall, only deliberately, with the added illumination that these are not merely instincts we are worshipping, they are gods as well. In the spirit of Renaissance Neoplatonism and magic, says Jung, every spirit above has its reflection below in the world of matter, with man’s imagination (soul) the carrier in which above and below intersect. (This union of spirit and matter, above and below, dovetails neatly with the mystic union of macrocosm and microcosm also proposed by Neoplatonists and occultists and reincarnated in the union of science and religion.) To discover the god to whom one belongs, to embrace him — or her! — fully, to discover and not resist the fate he has laid out for you, is to know meaning and purpose in life. In Joseph Campbell’s modern updating of the world’s very first self-help admonition (Genesis 3:4–5), ‘Follow your bliss.’
“In the materialistic psychologies that derive from or are cognate to Freud’s, the worship of instinct is only implicit — they are what we have left after all higher meaning has been shown to be illusion; in the spiritualistic psychologies that derive from or are cognate to Jung’s, the worship of instinct is explicit. Yet both derive from the same Renaissance matrix of science and magic. Their similarities, at heart, are far greater than their surface differences. Both are modern manifestations of a resurgent ancient way of life. For more significantly than a mere rebirth of classicism (that being only its artistic dimension), the Renaissance was a rebirth of paganism.”
— from Jeffrey Satinover, “Jungians and Gnostics” (First Things, October 1994). The text for the entire article is online here.