The Earth has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life
Restoring Nature’s Divinity:
“Matter in the wrong place is dirt. People get dirty through too much civilization. Whenever we touch nature, we get clean.”
You may not associate such bold, earthy sentiments with Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, but he was, in fact, deeply concerned over the loss of connection with nature. He considered natural life to be the “nourishing soil of the soul.” Who has time for a natural life these days? What would it look like if we did? Those of us destined to live through this turbulent period of history, the declining phase of Western civilization, could perhaps use a wise elder who stands slightly outside the modern world yet knows it well enough to offer guidance.
Jung shows the knowledge of an historian who understands how the dissociation from nature came about; he reaches out with the empathy of a healer who shares our plight; and he advises with the common sense of a country doctor how to live “in modest harmony with nature.”
Jung addresses not only the individual but also our culture as a whole, as an entity that itself is suffering and in need of help.
The title of the book, The Earth Has A Soul, is taken from a 1958 letter in which Jung refers to “the old idea that every country or people has its own angel, just as the earth has a soul.” (Letters II, p432)
We find that Jung uses the words soul, spirit and psyche somewhat interchangeably. “Psyche” is Greek for soul, life, and breath; so psyche is Nature itself. In the Visions Seminars that he gave in the early 1930s, Jung remarked that “the earth has a spirit of her own, a beauty of her own.” (Interpretation of Visions, pp133-4) Spirit is the inside of things and matter is their visible outer aspect. Jung’s main contribution is restoring to Nature its original wholeness by reminding us that “nature is not matter only, she is also spirit.” (Collected Works,13, par 229) A brief anecdote illustrates Jung’s apperception of the living spirit within Nature:
“I once experienced a violent earthquake, and my first, immediate feeling was that I no longer stood on solid familiar earth, but on the skin of a gigantic animal that was heaving under my feet. It was this image that impressed itself on me, not the physical fact.” (Collected Works,8, par 331)
Historical eras oscillate between an orientation toward matter or spirit. We are living in a period when the material aspect of Nature is emphasized; it is often said that we are materialistic. But this is not quite the case, since matter actually receives very little respect due to its having been robbed, as Jung notes, of its spirit –
“The word ‘matter’ remains a dry, inhuman, and purely intellectual concept… How different was the former image of matter—the Great Mother—that could encompass and express the profound emotional meaning of the Great Mother.”(Man & His Symbols, Pages 94-5)
In a 1923 seminar, Jung identified four elements that have undergone the most severe repression in the Judeo-Christian world: nature, animals, creative fantasy, and the “inferior” or primitive side of humans, which tends to be mistakenly conflated with instinct or sexuality.
“It is a general truth that the earth is depreciated and misunderstood…For quite long enough we have been taught that this life is not the real thing…and that we live only for heaven.” (Interpretation of Visions, Page 193)
Our loss of connection with Nature is thus neither a practical nor a psychological problem but a religious one, as this statement by Joseph Henderson emphasizes:
“Nature has lost her divinity, yet the spirit is unsure and unsatisfied. Hence any true cure for the neurosis…would have to awaken both spirit and nature to a new life. The relevance of this theme for us today may be that it is a problem we are still trying to solve on too personal, psychological a level, or on a purely cultural level without fully realizing it is at bottom a religious problem and not psychological or social at all.” (Henderson, Shadow and Self, Page 279)
Jung grew up (b.1875) in conditions largely unchanged since the Middle Ages and lived to see the emergence of the techno-industrial age (d.1961)… Although there are others today who offer clarity about how our ruptured relationship with Nature could be repaired, I believe that only Jung speaks in both the discursive voice of a modern doctor who is able to explain, and the mythic or poetic voice of a tribal healer, who is able to enchant. By incorporating wisdom from the depths of the psyche, Jung reaches not only our modern mind but also the aspect of our being that he termed archaic, natural, primordial, or original.
This unusual capacity to span both the archaic and the modern arose from his actual background with its deep roots in his ancestral lineage and certain significant experiences such as his seminal dream at age 34 about our species’ phylogenetic history. It concerned a multi-storied house in which the furnishings and construction style of each level represented different historical periods. The top floor was the present, the level below the 16th century, the first floor below ground the Roman era, and in the deepest level was a dusty cave containing bones, shards and tools from a neolithic culture. He came to view the dream as an objective picture not only of European history but of the historic composition of the human psyche, the stories signifying successive layers of consciousness. This interior opening… provided Jung with access to the various stages of consciousness, including what he came to call “the primitive within myself”.
Consciousness: the blessing and curse of humankind:
“We are beset by an all-too-human fear that consciousness – our Promethean conquest – may in the end not be able to serve us as well as nature.” (Collected Works,8, Paragraph 750)
Jung contended that Nature herself deigned to produce consciousness because without it things go less well. Though we tend to prize it as a fine achievement, Jung impolitely reminds us that consciousness is also our own worst devil because it helps us invent “every thinkable reason and way to disobey the divine will.” (Letters I, Page 486)
Jung sets the loss of connection with Nature in the overall context of the development of consciousness over the millenia. To describe how it evolved, he drew on the analogy of the multi-storied house from his 1909 dream. The floors above ground represent recent historical periods; its foundations, the phylogeny of our species. To the latter he applied the awkward term the collective unconscious. He observed that people today often leave the whole of their lives to the direction of consciousness, thereby forgetting that it is merely the visible surface over the immense living foundation below. The analogy of a multi-storied house is very useful in understanding how it is that we can go against Nature if we forget that we are also part of Natures Answer
In 1952, Jung was interviewed by Ira Progoff, who asked if individuation didn’t always involve consciousness. Jung replied, “Oh, that is an overvaluation of consciousness” and explained that individuation is the natural process by which a tree becomes a tree and a human a human; he said that consciousness can just as well interfere with the natural growth process as aid it. Jung felt that Western consciousness was seriously one-sided in that it has expanded in the spatial dimension but not in the temporal, for we do not have a sense of living history. Consciousness is a very recent acquisition, still quite fragile and easily disrupted. Jung pointed out that, in the West, consciousness has been developed mainly through science and technology—not through art, social interaction, cultural development, or spirituality. The unconscious has been left behind, and is thus in a defensive position.(Letters II, Page 81)
“We in the West have come to be highly disciplined, organized, and rational. On the other hand, having allowed our unconscious personality to be suppressed, we are excluded from understanding primitive man’s civilization… The more successful we become in science and technology, the more diabolical are the uses to which we put our inventions and discoveries.” (C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews & Encounters, Page 397)
The cloning of life forms, the development of nuclear and laser weaponry, the surgical alteration of genders, and the genetic modification of food are some of the most recent “diabolical” discoveries we have come up with—without adequate consideration of their moral or psycho social repercussions. By focusing almost singularly on developments in the outer physical world, what we have neglected is ourselves, our own inner nature. As Jung poignantly put it, “Nobody would give credit to the idea that the psychic processes of the ordinary man have any importance whatsoever.” (C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews & Encounters, Page 304)
We now witness increasingly unfortunate accidents that illustrate all too well the points Jung made about the dire consequences neglecting our own unconscious foundation can have: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Valdez spill were caused by individuals suffering from sleep deprivation—i.e., going against Nature. When Jung warns that the unconscious may rebel suicidally if it is put in an inhuman position, we need only think of these instances and the devastating consequences they have had.
Consciousness is a gift and could be used to go along with Nature, were we to align it in that direction. Jung’s concern was that, as a very young species, we have an inflated idea of our own importance… His conclusion was that we have reached the limit of our evolution and can go no further until we attend not to the development of more consciousness, but to an unbiased understanding of all that we are:
“Discovery of the unconscious means an enormous spiritual task, which must be accomplished if we wish to preserve our civilization.” (Letters, I, Page 537)