'The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man' by Carl Jung (1931)
A selection from a lecture given by Carl Jung in Cologne in 1933 titled The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man.
...the collective unconscious [is] the sea upon which the ego rides like a ship. [...] Just as the sea stretches its broad tongues between the continents and laps them round like islands, so our original unconscious presses round our individual consciousness. In the catastrophe of mental disease the storm-tide of the sea surges over the island and swallows it back into the depths. In neurotic disturbances there is at least a bursting of dikes, and the fruitful lowlands are laid waste by flood. Neurotics are all shore-dwellers-- they are the most exposed to the dangers of the sea. So-called normal people live inland, on higher, drier ground, near placid lakes and streams. No flood however high reaches them, and the circumambient sea is so far away that they even deny its existence. Indeed, a person can be so identified with his ego that he loses the common bond of humanity and cuts himself off from all others.
But even the inland dwellers, the inhabitants of the normal world who forgot the sea, do not live on firm ground. The soil is so friable that at any moment the sea can rush in through continental fissures and maroon them.
We can hardly deny that ours is a time of dissociation and sickness. [...] The word "crisis," so often heard, is a medical expression which always tells us that the sickness has reached a dangerous climax.
[...] It is difficult to estimate the sickness of the age in which we live. But if we glance back at the clinical history of mankind, we shall find earlier bouts of sickness which are easier to survey. One of the worst attacks was the malaise that spread through the Roman world in the first centuries after Christ. [...] If we reduced humanity as it then was to a single individual, we would see before us a highly differentiated personality who, after mastering his environment with sublime self-assurance, split himself up in the pursuit of his separate occupations and interests, forgetting his own origins and traditions, and even losing all memory of his former self, so that he seemed to be now one thing and now another, and thus fell into a hopeless conflict with himself. In the end the conflict led to such a state of enfeeblement that the world he had conquered broke in like a devastating flood and completed the process of destruction.
...the sickness of dissociation in our world is at the same time a process of recovery, or rather, the climax of a period of pregnancy which heralds the throes of birth. A time of dissociation such as prevailed during the Roman Empire is simultaneously an age of rebirth. Not without reason do we date our era from the age of Augustus, for that epoch saw the birth of the symbolical figure of Christ, who was invoked by the early Christians as the Fish, that Ruler of the Aeon of Pisces which had just begun. He became the ruling spirit of the next two thousand years. Like the teacher of wisdom in Babylonian legend, Oannes, he rose up from the sea, from the primeval darkness, and brought a world-period to an end. [...]
Our distance in time puts us in the favourable position of being able to see these historical events quite clearly. Had we lived in those days we would probably have been among the many who overlooked them. The Gospel, the joyful tidings, were known only to the humble few; on the surface everything was politics, economic questions, and sport. Religion and philosophy tried to assimilate the spiritual riches that poured into the Roman world from the newly conquered East. Few noticed the grain of mustard-seed that was destined to grow into a great tree.
In classical Chinese philosophy there are two contrary principles, the bright yang and the dark yin. Of these it is said that always when one principle reaches the height of its power, the counter-principle is stirring within it like a germ. This is another, particularly graphic formulation of the psychological law of compensation by an inner opposite. Whenever a civilization reaches its highest point, sooner or later a period of decay sets in. But the apparently meaningless and hopeless collapse into a disorder without aim or purpose, which fills the onlooker with disgust and despair, nevertheless contains within its darkness the germ of a new light.
But let us go back for a moment to our earlier attempt to construct a single individual from the period of classical decay. [...] Let us suppose that this man came to me for a consultation. I would make the following diagnosis: “You are suffering from overstrain as a result of your numerous activities and boundless extraversion. In the profusion and complexity of your business, personal, and human obligations you have lost your head. You are a kind of Ivar Kreuger, who is a typical representative of the modern European spirit. You must realize, my dear Sir, that you are rapidly going to the dogs.”
Our patient is an intelligence man. He has tried all the patent medicines, both good and bad, every kind of diet, and all the bits of advice given him by all the clever people.
We must direct our patient's attention to the place where the germ of unity is growing within him, the place of creative birth, which is the deepest cause of all the rifts and schisms on the surface. A civilization does not decay, it regenerates. In the early centuries of our era a man of discernment could have cried out with unshakable certainty amid the political intrigue and wild speculation of the Caesar-worshipping, circus-besotted Roman world: "The germ of the coming era has even now been born in the darkness, behind all this aimless confusion; the seed of the Tree that will overshadow the nations of the North to Sicily, and unite them in one belief, one culture, and one language."
That is the psychological law. My patient, in all probability, will not believe a word of it. At the very least he will want to have experienced these things for himself. And here our difficulties begin, for the compensation always makes its appearance just where one would least expect it, and where, objectively considered, it seems least plausible. Let us now suppose that our patient is not the pale abstraction of a long-dead civilization, but a flesh-and-blood man of our own day, who has the misfortune to be a typical representative of our modern European culture. We shall then find that our compensation theory means nothing to him. He suffers most of all from the disease of knowing everything better; there is nothing that he cannot classify and put in the correct pigeonhole. As to his psyche, it is essentially his own invention, his own will, and it obeys his reason exclusively; and if it should happen that it does not do so , if he should nevertheless have psychic symptoms, such as anxiety-states, obsessional ideas, and so on, then it is a clinically identifiable disease with a thoroughly plausible, scientific name. Of the psyche as an original experience which cannot be reduced to anything else he has no knowledge at all and does not know what I am talking about, but he thinks he has understood it perfectly and even writes articles and books in which he bemoans the evils of "psychologism."
This kind of mentality, barricading itself behind a thick wall of books, newspapers, opinions, social institutions, and professional prejudices, cannot be argued with. Nothing can break through its defences, least of all that little germ of the new which would make him at one with the world and himself. [...] Where, then, must we lead our patient in order to give him at least a glimmer of an inkling of something different, something that would counterbalance the everyday world he knows only too well? We must guide him, by devious ways at first, to a dark, ridiculously insignificant, quite unimportant corner of his psyche.... . That corner of the psyche is the dream, which is 'nothing but' a fleeting, grotesque phantom of the night, and the path is the understanding of dreams.
With Faustian indignation my patient will cry out...
This witch’s quackery disgusts my soul!
Is this your promise then, that I be healed
By crooked counsel in this crazy hole,
In truth by some decrepit dame revealed?
. . . .
Cannot you brew an ichor of your own?
To which I shall reply: “Haven’t you tried one remedy after another? Haven’t you seen for your self that all your efforts have only led you round in a circle, back to the confusion of your present life? So where will you get that other point of view from, if it cannot be found anywhere in your world? ”
Here Mephistopheles murmurs approvingly, "That's where the witch comes in," thus giving his own devilish twist to Nature's secret and perverting the truth that the dream is an inner vision, "mysterious still in open light of day." The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego-consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness extends. For all ego-consciousness is isolated; because it separates and discriminates, it knows only particulars, and it sees only those that can be related to the ego. Its essence is limitation, even though it reaches to the fartherest nebulae among the stars. All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There he is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood.
It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises, be it never so childish, grotesque, and immoral. So flowerlike is it in its candor and veracity that it makes us blush for the deceitfulness of our lives. No wonder that in all the ancient civilizations an impressive dream was accounted a message from the gods! It remained for the rationalism of our age to explain the dream as the remnants left over from the day, as the crumbs that fell into the twilit world from the richly laden table of our consciousness. These dark depths are then nothing but an empty sack, containing no more than what falls into it from above. [...] It would be far truer to say that our consciousness is that sack, which has nothing in it except what chances to fall into it. We never appreciate how dependent we are on lucky-ideas-- until we find to our distress that they will not come. A dream is... a lucky idea that comes to us from the dark, all-unifying world of the psyche. What would be more natural, when we have lost ourselves amid the endless particulars and isolated details oft he world's surface, than to knock at the door of dreams and inquire of them the bearings which would bring us closer to the basic facts of human existence.
Here we encounter the obstinate prejudice that dreams are so much froth, they are not real, they lie, they are mere wish-fulfillments. All this is but an excuse not to take dreams seriously, for that would be uncomfortable. Our intellectual hybris of consciousness loves isolation despite all its inconveniences, and for this reason people will do anything rather than admit that dreams are real and speak the truth. There are some saints who had very rude dreams. Where would their saintliness be, the very thing that exalts them above the vulgar rabble, if the obscenity of a dream were a real truth? But it is just the most squalid dreams that emphasize our blood-kinship with the rest of mankind, and most effectively damp down the arrogance born of an atrophy of the instincts. Even if the whole world were to fall to pieces, the unity of the psyche would never be shattered. And the wider and more numerous the fissures on the surface, the more this unity is strengthened in the depths.
I admit that I fully understand the disappointment of my patient and of my public when I point to dreams as a source of information in the spiritual confusion of our modern world. Nothing is more natural than that such a paradoxical gesture should strike one as completely absurd. What can a dream do, this utterly subjective and nugatory thing, in a world brimful of overpowering realities? Realities must be countered with other, equally palpable realities, and not with dreams, which merely disturb our sleep or put us in a bad mood the next day. You cannot build a house with dreams, or pay taxes, or win battles, or overcome the world crisis. Therefore my patient, like all other sensible people, will want me to tell him what can be done in this insufferable situation, and with appropriate, common-sense methods. The only snag is that all the methods that seems appropriate have already been tried out with no success whatever... .
My patient, and perhaps our whole age, is in this situation. Anxiously he asks me, "What can I do?" And I must answer, "I don't know either."
So when I counsel my patient to pay attention to his dreams, I mean: "Turn back to the most subjective part of yourself, to the source of your being.... . Your dreams are an expression of your inner life, and they can show you through what false attitude you have landed yourself in this blind alley."
Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.
To concern ourselves with dreams is a way of reflecting on ourselves-- a way of self-reflection. It is not our ego-consciousness reflecting on itself; rather, it turns its attention to the objective actuality of the dreams as a communication or message from the unconscious, unitary soul of humanity. It reflects not on the ego but on the self; it recollects that strange self, alien to the ego, which was ours from the beginning, the trunk from which the ego grew. It is alien to us because we have estranged ourselves from it through the... conscious mind.
Dream-interpretation... was... among the black arts persecuted by the Church. even though we of the twentieth century are rather more broad minded in this respect, so much historical prejudice still attaches to the whole idea of dream-interpretation that we do not take kindly to it. Is there, one may ask, any reliable method of dream-interpretation? [...] I admit that I share these misgivings to the full, and I am convinced that there is in fact no absolutely reliable method of interpretation.
One would do well, therefore, to treat every dream as though it were a totally unknown object. Look at it from all sides, take it in your hand, carry it about with you, let your imagination play round it, and talk about it with other people. [...] Treated in this way, the dream suggests all manner of ideas and associations... .
If... we bear in mind that the unconscious contains everything that is lacking to consciousness, that the unconscious therefore has a compensatory tendency, then we can begin to draw conclusions... .
As individuals we are not completely unique, but are like other men. Hence a dream with a collective meaning is valid in the first place for the dreamer, but it expresses at the same time the fact that his momentary problem is also the problem of other people. This is often of great practical importance, for there are countless people who are inwardly cut off from humanity and oppressed by the thought that nobody else has their problems. Or else they are those all-too-modest souls who, feeling themselves nonentities, have kept their claim to social recognition on too low a level. Moreover, every individual problem is somehow connected with the problem of the age, so that practically every subjective difficulty has to be viewed from the standpoint of the human situation as a whole. But this is permissible only when the dream really is a mythological one and makes use of collective symbols.
No one who does not know himself can know others. And in each of us there is another whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves. When, therefore, we find ourselves in a difficult situation to which there is no solution, he can sometimes kindle a light that radically alters our attitude-- the very attitude that led us into the difficult situation.
Small and hidden is the door that leads inward, and the entrance is barred by countless prejudices, mistaken assumptions, and fears. Always one wishes to hear of grand political and economic schemes, the very things that have landed every nation in a morass. Therefore it sounds grotesque when anyone speaks of hidden doors, dreams, and a world within. What has this vapid idealism got to do with gigantic economic programs, with the so called problems of reality?
The layman can hardly conceive how much his inclinations, moods, and decisions are influenced by the dark forces of his psyche, and how dangerous or helpful they may be in shaping his destiny. Our cerebral consciousness is like an actor who has forgotten that he is playing a role. But when the play comes to an end, he must remember his own subjective reality, for he can no longer continue to live as Julius Caesar or as Othello, but only as himself, from whom he has become estranged by a momentary sleight of consciousness. He must know once again that he was merely a figure on the stage who was playing a piece by Shakespeare, and that there was a producer as well as a director in the background who, as always, will have something very important to say about his acting.