The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society

[Carl Jung on Self-Knowledge]

To this question there is a positive answer only when the individual is willing to fulfill the demands of rigorous self-examination and self-knowledge. If he follows through his intention, he will not only discover some important truths about himself, but will also have gained a psychological advantage: he will have succeeded in deeming himself worthy of serious attention and sympathetic interest.

He will have set his hand, as it were, to a declaration of his own human dignity and taken the first step towards the foundations of his
consciousness – that is, towards the unconscious, the only accessible source of religious experience.

This is certainly not to say that what we call the unconscious is identical with God or is set up in his place. It is the medium from which the
religious experience seems to flow. As to what the further cause of such an experience may be, the answer to this lies beyond the range of human knowledge. Knowledge of God is a transcendental problem.

The religious person enjoys a great advantage when it comes to answering the crucial question that hangs over our time like a threat: he has a clear idea of the way his subjective existence is grounded in his relation to “God.”

I put the word “God” in quotes in order to indicate that we are dealing with an anthropomorphic idea whose dynamism and symbolism
are filtered through the medium of the unconscious psyche.

Anyone who wants to can at least draw near to the source of such experiences, no matter whether he believes in God or not. Without this approach it is only in rare cases that we witness those miraculous conversions of which Paul’s Damascus experience is the prototype.

That religious experiences exist no longer needs proof. But it will always remain doubtful whether what metaphysics and theology call God and the gods is the real ground of these experiences.

The question is idle, actually, and answers itself by reason of the subjectively overwhelming numinosity of the experience. Anyone who has had it is seized by it and therefore not in a position to indulge in fruitless metaphysical or epistemological speculations.

Absolute certainty brings its own evidence and has no need of anthropomorphic proofs.

In view of the general ignorance of and bias against psychology it must be accounted a misfortune that the one experience which makes sense of individual existence should seem to have its origin in a medium that is certain to catch everybody’s prejudices.

Once more the doubt is heard: “What good can come out of Nazareth?” The unconscious, if not regarded outright as a sort of refuse bin underneath the conscious mind, is at any rate supposed to be of “merely animal nature.”

In reality, however, and by definition it is of uncertain extent and constitution, so that overvaluation or undervaluation of it is groundless and can be dismissed as mere prejudice.

At all events, such judgments sound very queer in the mouths of Christians, whose Lord was himself born on the straw of a stable, among the domestic animals.

It would have been more to the taste of the multitude if he had got himself born in a temple. In the same way, the worldly-minded mass man looks for the numinous experience in the mass meeting, which provides an infinitely more imposing background than the individual soul. Even Church Christians share this pernicious delusion.

Psychology’s insistence on the importance of unconscious processes for religious experience is extremely unpopular, no less with the political Right than with the Left.

For the former the deciding factor is the historical revelation that came to man from outside; to the latter this is sheer nonsense, and man has no religious function at all, except belief in the party doctrine, when suddenly the most intense faith is called for.

On top of this, the various creeds assert quite different things, and each of them claims to possess the absolute truth.

Yet today we live in a unitary world where distances are reckoned by hours and no longer by weeks and months.

Exotic races have ceased to be peepshows in ethnological museums. They have become our neighbors, and what was yesterday the prerogative of the ethnologist is today a political, social and psychological problem.

Already the ideological spheres begin to touch, to interpenetrate, and the time may not be so far off when the question of mutual understanding in this field will become acute.

To make oneself understood is certainly impossible without far-reaching comprehension of the other’s standpoint.

The insight needed for this will have repercussions on both sides. History will undoubtedly pass over those who feel it is their vocation to resist this inevitable development, however desirable and psychologically necessary it may be to cling to what is essential and good in our own tradition.

Despite all the differences, the unity of mankind will assert itself irresistibly. On this card Marxist doctrine has staked its life, while the West hopes to get by with technology and economic aid.

Communism has not overlooked the enormous importance of the ideological element and the universality of basic principles.

The nations of the Far East share our ideological weakness and are just as vulnerable as we are.

The underestimation of the psychological factor is likely to take a bitter revenge. It is therefore high time we caught up with ourselves in this matter.

For the present this must remain a pious wish, because self-knowledge, as well as being highly unpopular, seems to be an unpleasantly idealistic goal, reeks of morality, and is preoccupied with the psychological shadow, which is normally denied whenever possible or at least not spoken of.

The task that faces our age is indeed almost insuperably difficult. It makes the highest demands on our responsibility if we are not to be guilty of another trahison des clercs.

It addresses itself to those guiding and influential personalities who have the necessary intelligence to understand the situation our world is in.

One might expect them to consult their consciences. But since it is a matter not only of intellectual understanding but of moral conclusions, there is unfortunately no cause for optimism.

Nature, as we know, is not so lavish with her boons that she joins to a high intelligence the gifts of the heart also.

As a rule, where one is present the other is lacking, and where one capacity is present in perfection it is generally at the cost of all the others.

The discrepancy between intellect and feeling, which get in each other’s way at the best of times, is a particularly painful chapter in the history of the human psyche.

There is no sense in formulating the task that our age has forced upon us as a moral demand.

We can, at best, merely make the psychological world situation so clear that it can be seen even by the myopic, and give utterance to words and ideas which even the hard of hearing can hear.

We may hope for men of understanding and men of good will, and must therefore not grow weary of reiterating those thoughts and insights which are needed.

Finally, even the truth can spread and not only the popular lie.

With these words I should like to draw the reader’s attention to the main difficulty he has to face.

The horror which the dictator States have of late brought upon mankind is nothing less than the culmination of all those atrocities of which our ancestors made themselves guilty in the not so distant past.

Quite apart from the barbarities and blood baths perpetrated by the Christian nations among themselves throughout European history, the European has also to answer for all the crimes he has committed against the dark-skinned peoples during the process of colonization.

In this respect the white man carries a very heavy burden indeed.

It shows us a picture of the common human shadow that could hardly be painted in blacker colors.

The evil that comes to light in man and that undoubtedly dwells within him is of gigantic proportions, so that for the Church to talk of original sin and to trace it back to Adam’s relatively innocent slip-up with Eve is almost a euphemism.

The case is far graver and is grossly underestimated.

Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always “the others” who do them.

And when such deeds belong to the recent or remote past, they quickly and conveniently sink into the 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.

Even if, juristically speaking, we were not accessories to the crime, we are always, thanks to our human nature, potential criminals.

In reality we merely lacked a suitable opportunity to be drawn into the infernal melee. 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 naïveté 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 unrecognized 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.

What is even worse, our lack of insight deprives us of the capacity to deal with evil.

Here, of course, we come up against one of the main prejudices of the Christian tradition, and one that is a great stumbling block to our policies.

We should, so we are told, eschew evil and, if possible, neither touch nor mention it. For evil is also the thing of ill omen, that which is tabooed and feared.

This attitude towards evil, and the apparent circumventing of it, flatter the primitive tendency in us to shut our eyes to evil and drive it over some frontier or other, like the Old Testament scapegoat, which was supposed to carry the evil into the wilderness.

But if one can no longer avoid the realization that evil, without man’s ever having chosen it, is lodged in human nature itself, then it bestrides the psychological stage as the equal and opposite partner of good.

This realization leads straight to a psychological dualism, already unconsciously prefigured in the political world schism and in the even more unconscious dissociation in modern man himself.

The dualism does not come from this realization; rather, we are in a split condition to begin with.

It would be an insufferable thought that we had to take personal responsibility for so uch guiltiness.

We therefore prefer to localize the evil with individual criminals or groups of criminals, while washing our hands in innocence and ignoring the general proclivity to evil.

This sanctimoniousness cannot be kept up, in the long run, because the evil, as experience shows, lies in man – unless, in accordance with the Christian view, one is willing to postulate a metaphysical principle of evil.

The great advantage of this view is that it exonerates man’s conscience of too heavy a responsibility and fobs it off on the devil, in correct psychological appreciation of the fact that man is much more the victim of his psychic constitution than its inventor.

Considering that the evil of our day puts everything that has ever agonized mankind in the deepest shade, one must ask oneself how it is that, for all our progress in the administration of justice, in medicine and in technology, for all our concern for life and health, monstrous engines of destruction have been invented which could easily exterminate the human race.

No one will maintain that the atomic physicists are a pack of criminals because it is to their efforts that we owe that peculiar flower of human ingenuity, the hydrogen bomb.

The vast amount of intellectual work that went into the development of nuclear physics was put forth by men who devoted themselves to their task with the greatest exertions and self-sacrifice and whose moral achievement could just as easily have earned them the merit of inventing something useful and beneficial to humanity.

But even though the first step along the road to a momentous invention may be the outcome of a conscious decision, here, as everywhere, the spontaneous idea – the hunch or intuition – plays an important part.

In other words, the unconscious collaborates too and often makes decisive contributions.

So it is not the conscious effort alone that is responsible for the result; somewhere or other the unconscious, with its barely discernible goals and intentions, has its finger in the pie.

If it puts a weapon in your hand, it is aiming at some kind of violence.

Knowledge of the truth is the foremost goal of science, and if in pursuit of the longing for light we stumble upon an immense danger, then one has the impression more of fatality than of premeditation.

It is not that present-day man is capable of greater evil than the man of antiquity or the primitive.

He merely has incomparably more effective means with which to realize his proclivity to evil.

As his consciousness has broadened and differentiated, so his moral nature has lagged behind.

That is the great problem before us today. Reason alone does not suffice.

In theory, it lies within the power of reason to desist from experiments of such hellish scope as nuclear fission if only because of their dangerousness.

But fear of the evil which one does not see in one’s own bosom but always in somebody else’s checks reason every time, although one knows that the use of this weapon means the certain end of our present human world.

The fear of universal destruction may spare us the worst, yet the possibility of it will nevertheless hang over us like a dark cloud so long as no bridge is found across the world-wide psychic and political split – a bridge as certain as the existence of the hydrogen bomb.

If a world-wide consciousness could arise that all division and all antagonism are due to the splitting of opposites in the psyche, then one would really know where to attack.

But if even the smallest and most personal stirrings of the individual soul – so insignificant in themselves – remain as unconscious and unrecognized as they have hitherto, they will go on accumulating and produce mass groupings and mass movements which cannot be subjected to reasonable control or manipulated to a good end.

All direct efforts to do so are no more than shadow boxing, the most infatuated by illusion being the gladiators themselves.

The deciding factor lies with the individual man, who knows no answer to his dualism.

This abyss has suddenly yawned open before him with the latest events in world history, after mankind had lived for many centuries in the comfortable belief that a unitary God had created man in his own image, as a little unity.

Even today people are largely unconscious of the fact that every individual is a cell in the structure of various international organisms and is therefore causally implicated in their conflicts.

The individual man knows that as an individual being he is more or less meaningless and feels himself the victim of uncontrollable forces, but, on the other hand, he harbors within himself a dangerous shadow and opponent who is involved as an invisible helper in the dark machinations of the political monster.

It is in the nature of political bodies always to see the evil in the opposite group, just as the individual has an ineradicable tendency to get rid of everything he does not know and does not want to know about himself by foisting it off on somebody else.

Nothing has a more divisive and alienating effect upon society than this moral complacency and lack of responsibility, and nothing promotes understanding and rapprochement more than the mutual withdrawal of projections.

This necessary corrective requires self-criticism, for one cannot just tell the other person to withdraw them.

He does not recognize them for what they are, any more than one does oneself.

We can recognize our prejudices and illusions only when, from a broader psychological knowledge of ourselves and others, we are prepared to doubt the absolute rightness of our assumptions and compare them carefully and conscientiously with the objective facts.

Funnily enough, “self-criticism” is an idea much in vogue in Marxist countries, but there it is subordinated to ideological considerations and must serve the State, and not truth and justice in men’s dealings with one another.

The mass State has no intention of promoting mutual understanding and the relationship of man to man; it strives, rather, for atomization, for the psychic isolation of the individual.

The more unrelated individuals are, the more consolidated the State becomes, and vice versa.

There can be no doubt that in the democracies too the distance between man and man is much greater than is conducive to public welfare or beneficial to our psychic needs.

True, all sorts of attempts are being made to level out glaring social contrasts by appealing to people’s idealism, enthusiasm and ethical conscience; but, characteristically, one forgets to apply the necessary self-criticism, to answer the question:

Who is making the idealistic demand? Is it, perchance, someone who jumps over his own shadow in order to hurl himself avidly on an idealistic program that promises him a welcome alibi?

How much respectability and apparent morality is there, cloaking with deceptive colors a very different inner world of darkness?

One would first like to be assured that the man who talks of ideals is himself ideal, so that his words and deeds are more than they seem.

To be ideal is impossible, and remains therefore an unfulfilled postulate.

Since we usually have keen noses in this respect, most of the idealisms that are preached and paraded before us sound rather hollow and become acceptable only when their opposite is openly admitted to.

Without this counterweight the ideal goes beyond our human capacity, becomes incredible because of its humorlessness and degenerates into bluff, albeit a well-meant one.

Bluff is an illegitimate way of overpowering and suppressing people and leads to no good.

Recognition of the shadow, on the other hand, leads to the modesty we need in order to acknowledge imperfection. And it is just this conscious recognition and consideration that are needed wherever a human relationship is to be established.

A human relationship is not based on differentiation and perfection, for these only emphasize the differences or call forth the exact opposite; it is based, rather, on imperfection, on what is weak, helpless and in need of support – the very ground and motive of dependence.

The perfect has no need of the other, but weakness has, for it seeks support and does not confront its partner with anything that might force him into an inferior position and even humiliate him. This humiliation may happen only too easily where idealism plays too prominent a role.

Reflections of this kind should not be taken as superfluous sentimentalities.

The question of human relationship and of the inner cohesion of our society is an urgent one in view of the atomization of the pent-up mass man, whose personal relationships are undermined by general mistrust.

Wherever justice is uncertain and police spying and terror are at work, human beings fall into isolation, which, of course, is the aim and purpose of the dictator State, since it is based on the greatest possible accumulation of depotentiated social units.

To counter this danger, the free society needs a bond of an affective nature, a principle of a kind like caritas, the Christian love of your neighbor. But it is just this love for one’s fellow man that suffers most of all from the lack of understanding wrought by projection.

It would therefore be very much in the interest of the free society to give some thought to the question of human relationship from the psychological point of view, for in this resides its real cohesion and consequently its strength.

Where love stops, power begins, and violence, and terror.

These reflections are not intended as an appeal to idealism, but only to heighten the consciousness of the psychological situation.

I do not know which is weaker: idealism or the insight of the public.

I only know that it needs time to bring about psychic changes that have any prospect of enduring.

Insight that dawns slowly seems to me to have more lasting effects than a fitful idealism, which is unlikely to hold out for long. ~Carl Jung, Undiscovered Self, Pages 63 – 74.

Image: Gnothi seauton (Know thyself.) Artist’s impression of original text inscribed in Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Photo of the Stone of 12 Angles, Cusco, Peru.