In his historic interview with BBC’s John Freeman (1959), C.G. Jung stated, “…we are not of today or of yesterday. We are of an immense age.” Jung was alluding to the dimensions of the unconscious psyche that he considered historically preconditioned and that gain expression through a symbol-making function general to humankind. The unassailable human need for symbolic formulations of meaning (the “religious function of the psyche”) had become the central tenant of Jung’s life work.
Jung had lived through two world wars. His work on the religious instinct shed much needed light upon the phenomenon of mass ideological contamination. He attributed both the destructive mass movements of his age and many modern neuroses to “loss of soul." In Jung’s view, the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment emphasis upon rationality had effectively barred the western soul from fluid access to the enlivening, symbolic functions in the depths of the psyche. He observed how modern neuroses arise out of the resulting gap between the conscious mind and the deep, unconscious ground of mental and emotional functioning. This gap, he believed, makes us vulnerable to collective ideologies as substitutes for communally formulated religious expressions of meaning. As he famously put it,
The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world (in CW Vol. 13, para. 54).
Of course, social and political crises arise out of the convergence of multiple factors at any given point in history. But Jung's formulation contributed significantly to an understanding of Western European experience in the 20th century and retains its relevance for understanding core dynamics at play in present time. We hear echoes of the social and political conditions Jung sought to explain in alarming collective movements of today.
Constrictions of the psyche’s symbolic function makes individuals and groups vulnerable to possession by unconscious archetypal contents, particularly under conditions of rapid change or economic uncertainty. Let's consider stress responses currently at play in the West: resurgent nationalism, the rise of rigid ideologies, a reversion to an “us or them” mentality and authoritarianism. Leading up to this, and as a reaction against global influences that overshadow local cultures and destroy local economies, we witnessed an escalation of fundamentalism and scriptural literalism within sectors of Christian and Muslim community--phenomena signifying the petrification of the symbolic function.
The longing for return to a golden age of unified belief and unified identity extends beyond religious circles. Indeed, the call to go back, to "make America great again,” captures a general sentiment that helped mobilize millions during the US presidential election. But in our rapidly shrinking, multi-cultural world, the drive toward recovery of a symbolically unified collective condition will perpetuate conflict and divisiveness so long as it operates outside of our awareness. Under current conditions, it is essential that we come to an understanding of the unconscious forces at play. At the same time, we might place some hope in the constructive compensations the psyche also provides. Do you sight emergent symbolic forms that might help us constructively mediate political and social fragmentation?
Melanie Starr Costello, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, historian, and Zurich-trained Jungian analyst in private practice in Washington, D.C. since 1999. She earned her doctorate in the History and Literature of Religions from Northwestern University. A former Assistant Professor of History at St. Mary's College of Maryland, Dr. Costello has taught and published on the topics of psychology and religion, medieval spirituality, aging and spirituality, and clinical practice. Her study of the link between illness and insight entitled, Imagination, Illness and Injury: Jungian Psychology and the Somatic Dimensions of Perception, is published by Routledge press.
Dr. Costello serves on the Board of the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York, is the Director of Education for the Jungian Analysts of Washington Association, and has served as Trustee for the Consortium for Psychoanalytic Research in Washington, DC.
She lives with her husband, Phil, and her dog, Jack, on the northwest branch of the Anacostia River.