My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).
In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.
Jung’s work in alchemy is key to the development of his psychology and his writings on alchemy filled more than three volume of The Collected Works.
Alchemical texts are notoriously difficult and often filled with lush imagery (Sun and Moon headed human figures, Kings, Queens, copulation, hermaphrodites, Mercuries, wolves, lions, birds and dragons in recurrent shades of green, black, white, and red) which is less than illuminating to newcomers or, perhaps, even downright purposefully misleading.
Likewise, it is less than clear that all alchemical texts even attempt to interpret this imagery in the same way and for the same reasons. Finally, although spiritual alchemy was the focus of some alchemists, this was not always the case and indeed, there is much evidence that Jung, himself, was not so interested in the spiritual elements of the practice.
In many ways, Jung considered Paracelsus, the founder of depth psychology. But his own work was built on that of several earlier 19th and 20th century psychoanalysts, most notably Herbert Silberer, with whom Jung regularly corresponded. Silberer had worked extensively on ideas relating the symbols and processes of alchemy to the processes of psychoanalysis, and the building of a new ego through alchemical symbolism by freeing it from its old ties.
In Memories Dreams and Reflections, Jung comments that he found ‘the experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences and their world was my world’. He added that ‘only after I had familiarised myself with alchemy did I realise that the unconscious is a process’. This led him to the central concept of his psychology, the ‘process of individuation’, which in keeping with the thinking of Paracelsus, was a process during which a person gains a sense of his or her wholeness in opposition to the diversity of his or her instincts.
Also, like Paracelsus, Jung concluded there were four elements in man’s functional design: (2) feeling, (2), thought, (3), intuition, and (4) sensation. These were joined together by sexual drive, or the libido.
Jung argued that alchemy was a kind of collective conscious dream and that the Philosopher Stone was a symbol for the Self (and in its own way, perhaps also a symbol for Jesus Christ, Crucified). Indeed, Jung argued that Christianity (focused on the dichotomy of good vs. evil) was so fundamentally incapable of dealing with psychological processes, that alchemy (the collective dream) had developed to compensate that. It’s important to remember that for Jung, the Self is not the ego (i.e., the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions of which a person is aware), but instead, always lays just outside consciousness. This means the only way to get in touch with Self is tangentially, through dreams that are full of symbolism, which, not surprisingly, can be interpreted with help from alchemy.
Further, not unlike Paracelsus, Jung concluded that the way to health was through increased inclusiveness, perhaps through ‘true knowledge’, a reflection of unity (to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ and all of creation). Indeed, Jung did emphasise that some aspects of alchemical practice such as imaginal workings or even praying to God could further the process of individuation.
Finally, like Paracelsus and Western occultists before him, in helping men to work toward individuation – achieving wholeness in a world fraught with dichotomy, Jung believed that psychology offered man a tool to perfect that which Nature (and by implication, God) had left imperfect, but in this sense for Jung, ‘perfection’ was meant to mean ‘wholeness’. As Paracelsus and prior esoteric occultists like the Renaissance man, Marsilio Ficino, had concluded, Jung also believed that in essence, health comes as the result of being as celestial as possible (so above, so below). Let us not forget that Jung, himself, was like Ficino, an accomplished astrologer, who used astrology extensively to better know himself.
(to be continued)
 For this blog post, many thanks to John Marshall and his paper Jung, Alchemy and History: A Critical Exposition of Jung’s Theory of Alchemy (2002).