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Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz on Alchemy


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Marie Louise Von Franz Alchemy

From Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz (Alchemy, excerpts from p. 94-97):

“A study of primitive civilizations shows their religious attitude towards life as being something completely self-evident.

Religion was not separated from the profane, everyday life, but the self-evident basis of everything done, believed, and said. In his primitive condition, man is naturally religious and his religion pervades his whole nature and all his activities.

Greek civilization had evolved from that state through the pre-Socratic and the Sophistic philosophy and the various evolutions of Greek philosophy.

The upper layer of learned people in Greece, perhaps for the first time, had cut away from the primitive religious attitude which was then projected first onto the Indians and Ethiopians and later, according to late Greek literature, onto the Egyptians and such people, who were then considered to be the highest and closest to God, and in their realm, our text says the alchemical mystery was to be found.

A return to the primitive self-evident attitude towards life is a requisite for the experience of the Self, which cannot be found through the conscious mind and with the developed part of the personality but by first returning to that primitive human attitude….

Question: Would the primitive religious attitude have to do with participation mystique?

Dr. von Franz: Yes, it has all the symptoms of primitive religion, namely participation mystique – observation of synchronistic events, observations of signs, not acting without first observing inner and outer symptoms and signs, or as it has been defined, the constant, careful attention towards unknown factors.

According to that definition, religion means never acting only in accordance with conscious reasoning, but with constant attention and consideration of the unknown participating factors.

For instance, if someone says: “Let us have coffee together after the lecture,” if I think only that I have time since I don’t have lunch until 12:30, that would be conscious reasoning, which of course is also correct, but if I am a religious person, I will stop for a minute and try to get a feeling as to whether it is right to do that, and if I have an instinctive feeling against it, or at that moment a window bangs shut, or I stumble, then I might not go.

One can laugh at that as superstition, and naturally on that level it is not different from superstition, but it is not just a mechanical thing such as the idea that if a black cat crosses your path you should turn back, but rather that all the time one should concentrate and try to get some sign from the Self, or from inside oneself. In Chinese philosophy, it is tantamount to paying constant attention to Tao, whether what I am now doing is right, in Tao. Naturally there are also personal arguments, and pros and cons, but to live in a religious way would mean being constantly on the alert for those unknown powers which also guide one’s life. If I get no contrary indication, I can decide to have the coffee, since I have time, or because I like it. A bell does not always ring warning us, but if it does and one ignores it, then something goes wrong. The religious and primitive attitude involves constant consideration of these powers.

When Dr. Jung was in Africa, his Safari guide was an Islamic, I believe a Shi-ite. At breakfast every morning all the black carriers discussed their dreams, after which the leader of the group would go to Dr. Jung and say that they would proceed, or not, one that day. Dr. Jung found that when they said they were not going, the general aspect of the dreams had not been favourable, so they felt probably they should stay another day before proceeding. Dr. Jung accepted such decisions and even managed to be drawn into the discussion on dreams, and take part in it, and they were very much impressed to find that he knew something about and was interested in dreams and could even interpret them better, and like that he could observe what was happening. But an Englishman who went to the same place some weeks later naturally did as most white men do – he accused the men of being lazy and insisted that they had to arrive at their destination in five days times and used force, and he was killed.

Religion in our definition, in its most basic form, would simply be constant alert attention directed towards these facts, instead of ruling and deciding one’s life by conscious rational decision and reasoning of the pros and cons. Therefore, in primitive societies, religion pervades everyday life. Before primitives go hunting there is a hunting ritual and if during it there is an accident, they don’t go. There is nothing either mystical or transcendent or special about it; the basic religious attitude is linked with the idea of survival, and therefore to be religious is an immediate advantage for it ensures survival.

When we are confronted with the phenomenon of neurosis, when people get stuck in their difficulties, we try to discover what the unconscious has to say and analysands are first guided to attend more to their instincts, behind which is the whole phenomenon of religious insight and experience. Jung, of course, began as all doctors did, on the basis also of his contact with Freud, with the idea of helping people to become more instinctive, in order that they might be healthy, but then he discovered that behind instinct was also religion, or that the latter was something instinctive and completely natural, for the natural man is the religious man. One therefore has to return to the natural, immediate man within and to a religious attitude, for we cannot have one without the other.”