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Symbolic Life

The author of this essay has asked me to start off his book with a few introductory words.

Although I am not a philologist, I gladly accede to this request because Dr. Quispel has devoted particular attention to a field of work which is familiar also to me from the psychological standpoint.

Gnosticism is still an obscure affair and in need of explanation, despite the fact that sundry personages have already approached it from the most diverse angles and tried their hands at explanations with doubtful success.

One even has the impression that the ban on heresy still hangs over this wide domain, or at least the disparagement which specialists are accustomed to feel for annoying incomprehensibilities.

We have an equivalent of this situation in psychiatry, which has ostentatiously neglected the psychology of the psychoses and shows pronounced resistances to all attempts in this direction.

This fact, though astonishing in itself, is, however, comprehensible when one considers the difficulties to be overcome once one tries to fathom the psychology of delusional ideas.

We can understand mental illness only if we have some understanding of the mind in general.

Delusional ideas cannot be explained in terms of themselves, but only in terms of our knowledge of the normal mind.

Here the only phenomenological method that promises success, as opposed to philosophical and religious prejudice, has made next to no headway, indeed it has still not even been understood.

The fundamental reason for this is that the doctor, to whom alone psychopathological experiences are accessible, seldom or never has the necessary epistemological premises at his command.

Instead of which, if he reflects at all and does not merely observe and register, he has usually succumbed to a philosophical or religious conviction and fills out the gaps in his knowledge with professions of faith.

What is true of psychopathology can -mutatis mutandis—be applied directly to the treatment which Gnosticism has undergone.

Its peculiar mental products demand the same psychological understanding as do psychotic delusional formations.

But the philologist or theologian who concerns himself with Gnosticism generally possesses not a shred of psychiatric knowledge, which must always be called upon in explaining extraordinary mental phenomena.

The explanation of Gnostic ideas “in terms of themselves,” i.e., in terms of their historical foundations, is futile, for in that way they are reduced only to their less developed forestages but not understood in their actual significance.

We find a similar state of affairs in the psychopathology of the neuroses, where, for instance, Freud’s psychoanalysis reduces the neurotic symptomatology only to its infantile forestages and completely overlooks its functional, that is, its symbolic value.

So long as we know only the causality or the historical development of a normal biological or psychic phenomenon, but not its functional development, i.e., its purposive significance, it is not really understood.

The same is true of Gnostic ideas: they are not mere symptoms of a certain historical development, but creative new configurations which were of the utmost significance for the further development of Western consciousness.

One has only to think of the Jewish-Gnostic presuppositions in Paul’s writings and of the immense influence of the “gnostic” gospel of John.

Apart also from these important witnesses, and in spite of being persecuted, branded as heresy, and pronounced dead within the realm of the Church, Gnosticism did not die out at once by any means.

Its philosophical and psychological aspects went on developing in alchemy up to the time of Goethe, and the Jewish syncretism of the age of Philo found its continuation within orthodox Judaism in the Kabbala.

Both these trends, if not exactly forestages of the modern psychology of the unconscious, are at all events well-nigh inexhaustible sources of knowledge for the psychologist.

This is no accident inasmuch as parallel phenomena to the empirically established contents of the collective unconscious underlie the earliest Gnostic systems.

The archetypal motifs of the unconscious are the psychic source of Gnostic ideas, of delusional ideas (especially of the paranoid schizophrenic forms), of symbol-formation in dreams, and of active imagination in the course of an analytical treatment of neurosis.

In the light of these reflections, I regret Dr. Quispel’s quotations from the Gnostics, that the “Autopator contained in himself all things, in [a state of] unconsciousness (iv ayvtoaria)” and that “The Father was devoid of consciousness (avevvorjros)” as a fundamental discovery for the psychology of Gnosticism.

It means nothing less than that the Gnostics in question derived the knowable v7TepKoorfxa from the unconscious, i.e., that these represented unconscious contents.

This discovery results not only in the possibility but also in the necessity of supplementing the historical method of explanation by one that is based on a scientific psychology.

Psychology is indebted to the author for his endeavours to facilitate the understanding of Gnosticism, not merely because we psychologists have made it our task to explain Gnosticism, but because we see in it a tertium comparationis which affords us the most valuable help in the practical understanding of modern individual symbol-formation. ~Carl Jung, CW 18, Pages 651-653