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Jung’s Seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

[Carl Jung on the Spirituality of Plant Life, Animals and Divine Law]

Prof. Jung:

The source of energy for plant life is the sun, but that is true of animals also, since they are parasites on plants. But the plant depends immediately upon the sunlight, which is also one of the elements of life, while the animal depends on it only indirectly.

Of course we need sunlight, most animals would perish without sunlight, though there are a few that are adapted to living without it.

Dr. Wheelwright: In plant life, anabolism exceeds katabolism. That is to say, as long as the tree is living, it is growing, whereas human beings stop growing at a certain point and their bodies begin to retrogress.

Prof Jung: Yes, another characteristic of vegetative life is that it continues to grow till the end, while at a certain time an animal ceases to grow.

Mrs. Sigg: The tree receives its nourishment from above and below, which is like man in a way.

Prof Jung: Yes, in contradistinction to the animal that expresses its life in horizontal movement. One can make the statement that vegetative life is vertical; it functions in living from below to above or from above to below. Therefore vegetative life is another aspect of the psyche within ourselves as well. So the plant is forever the symbol of what?

Answer: Of the soul.
Mrs. Crowley: Of the psychical experience.
Miss Hannah: Of impersonal life.

Prof Jung:

I would call it more definitely spirituality.

The plant represents spiritual development, and that follows laws which are different from the laws of biological, animal life; therefore spiritual development is always characterized by the plant.

For instance, the lotus is very typical as the symbol of spiritual life in India: it grows out of absolute darkness, from the depth of the earth, and comes up through the medium of the dark water-the unconscious-and blossoms above the water, where it is the seat of the Buddha. Or several gods may appear
in the lotus.

Mrs. Crowley: Is there not also that idea of a serpentine movement?


Oh yes, that is another detail which of course points to the serpent, and the serpent is an animal.

The roots of the tree have that obvious serpentine character, and water-plants look like snakes.

Also plants under water seem to have snakelike movements due to the flowing water; the water flowing upon a flexible body naturally gives that undulating effect.

There the two things come together: namely, that part of the psyche which approaches plant life is the snake-that is, the cerebro-spinal system, which leads down and eventually transcends into the vegetative system, the sympathetic nervous system.

And there we approach the lowest form of life, a sedentary life that is rooted to the spot, like the sea-anemone and those colonies of the siphonophora
that are exactly like plants; and they all have the undulating movement which is characteristic of the sympathetic nervous system.

So even in animals we can see the transition into plants, and that is indicated at least in the oldest nervous system in the world, the sympathetic nervous
system; there we are bordering upon plant life.

If we have any idea of plant life it is through that analogy.

Now, the plant or the tree is clearly beyond human experience, but the snake is within human experience.

That is, you can experience the life of the cerebro-spinal system within your own body, but you cannot experience the life of the tree in your own body: you have no connection, your whole being is totally different from that of a plant.

Therefore the tree represents, one could say, a transcendental experience, something that transcends man and is beyond him; it is before his birth
and after his death, a life which man has not within himself.

So he has no experience of it, yet peculiarly enough he finds the symbol of it in the tree.

You see, a sacred tree means to a primitive his life. Or sometimes people plant a tree when a child is born, with the idea of their identity.

If the tree keeps well and sane, the child’s health will be good; if the child dies, the tree will die, or if the tree dies, the child will die.

This old idea is a representation of that feeling in man that his life is linked up with another life.

It is as if man had always known that he was, like any other animal, a parasite on plants, that he would perish if there were no plants.

Of course that is a biological truth, and it is also a spiritual truth, inasmuch as our psyche can only live through a parasitical life on the spirit.

Therefore no wonder, when you come to the end of your conscious life, stepping out onto that promontory as Nietzsche did, that you begin to realize the condition upon which your life ultimately rests.

And then the tree appears, the tree that is the origin of your life as it is your future abode, the sarcophagus into which your corpse will disappear; it is the place of death or rebirth.

Mr. Bash: How would you explain as spiritual symbols all the totemic symbols, for instance, which are almost always animals?

Prof Jung:

There are of course many symbols for psychic facts.

If the symbol is a totem animal, it is clearly a matter of what an animal means: namely, it is a matter of the reconciliation or the reunion of man with his cerebro-spinal system, or, more probably, with his sympathetic system. But not with the tree.

The tree symbolizes something much higher and much deeper. It has a specifically transcendental character. For instance, it is far more wonderful when a tree speaks to you than when an animal speaks to you.

The distance between man and animal is not very great; but between the tree and the animal is an infinite distance, so it is a more primitive and yet a more advanced symbol.

Therefore we find the tree as a symbol of the Yoga, or for the divine grace in Christianity.

It is very advanced symbolism and at the same time exceedingly primitive.

Mr. Allemann: One important difference is that the tree is in Tao, following nature absolutely and accepting everything-there is no separate impulse; whereas in every animal there is that impulse.

Prof Jung:

Yes, and therefore deviation from the divine law.

The animal is in a way already a deviation from the divine law because it doesn’t surrender absolutely and indifferently to all the conditions provided by the creator, but is able to dodge them.

And man with his consciousness has a far more wonderful opportunity for deviation.

While the tree symbolizes the kind of life that cannot deviate for one single inch from the divine law, from the absolute law of conditions; it is rooted to the spot, exposed to every enemy that attacks it.

There is a very nice story in one of the Buddhistic treatises, the Samyutta Nikaya, about the devdta of a tree; that is a sort of tree-soul, a semidivine being living in a tree.

The story describes the despair of the devdta upon seeing that the termites are approaching the tree, because it cannot get away.

The Samyutta Nikaya is an original collection of stories told by the disciples of Buddha, and containing many authentic sayings of Buddha himself, so it would go back to the 6th century B.C. ~Carl Jung, Zarathustra Seminar, Pages 1434-1436.