Modern Man And The Great Spiritual War
Carl Jung, the modern plague and the search for soul.
I do not think it is an exaggeration when I write the world is in a bad way. It seems we are in a period of flux where what we once believed to be right no longer holds any truth. The world is redefining itself, as it has done in the past, leaving its people confused and alone, without an identity or purpose.
Meanwhile, since the world is turning at such a pace, there is still the sense that we are moving forward. But, people are beginning to ask, what exactly is it that we are moving towards?
There are consequences that stray behind this great march of progress. Feelings of irrelevance, inadequacy and hopelessness are endemic, depression and anxiety are the modern plague and many people are a small crisis away from falling into a meaningless existence. Few people — even amongst all the great skyscrapers, factories and machines, all the great achievements of civilisation — believe they are living with purpose and most feel themselves to be sleepwalking through their days.
This is what Carl Jung, in the middle of the Twentieth century, called the “spiritual problem”. And the problem of the spirit, Jung believed, coincided with the ruin of the individual.
It is an issue that persists today, perhaps with more ferocity than in the past. Because with each new decade, the unresolved problems of the past only steepen. We have still to answer the question of how the needs of the individual fit with the needs of the modern industrial machine.
“While the development of a mass society generated benefits through the intensification of the division of labor, it also brought perilous problems. This new form of existence…produced an individual who was unstable, insecure, and suggestible.”
(Carl Jung, The Fight With the Shadow)
For all the millions that continue to pour into California, New York City, London, still, we have not become more connected and open, but more withdrawn and reclusive. The larger the crowd, the less individual people are, the less people celebrate each other as unique — for beauty is suffocated by the breath of the thousands. The comic in small town Wyoming may be a genius, yet if he moves to Los Angeles he is but a nuisance. After all, it is only those with the patience to hear us who are able to appreciate what we might say.
But, these huge cities need rigorous structures of organisation if they are to avoid chaos and confusion. Science has been so well-suited to this demand — the great answer to all our worries. It has succeeded in churning people into statistical averages, forcing wiggly lines straight and labelling personalities as diseases. The individual has become a “mere abstract number in the bureau of statistics.” It is no wonder, then, that the majority feel themselves to be impotent and insignificant.
Such changes might not have been so destructive had modern society not raged against God. Carl Jung argued that the decline of religion has forced the masses to stare into the existential questions of the world without the heavenly confidence of the scriptures. In the past, each person believed themselves to be the making of God; they knew there was a divinity, a magic within them that no one could ruin or take away.
There is a great confidence that comes from knowing you are born from a higher power. But, the modern man understands himself to be an accidental spasm of the natural word, and that his life is nothing more than a long struggle where he must spend his days stumbling through the wilderness.
“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the centre of the universe…Men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. Such a life no longer seems real to us, even in our dreams.”
(Carl Jung, The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man)
Carl Jung warned that societies that suffer from this “spiritual problem” are extremely vulnerable to tyranny. This is because the people of these unwell and crooked societies live without moral responsibility or independence; they no longer need to ask themselves how they should live their lives but can instead look elsewhere for guidance, becoming prey for those who know better. This is what happens when the people value power and status above all other virtues. If they do not have both themselves, then they will cling to those who do.
“If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need — because outside authority no longer means anything to me — a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.”
(Carl Jung, The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man)
God died centuries ago and people can no longer look to the stars for answers. This has prompted an increasing interest, Carl Jung noticed, in the psyche. Indeed, the field of psychology itself was born from this mass panic — an attempt to heal the void that God used to fill. For life has lost all the certainty of religion and has become malleable and soft.
And so, man has begun to search into the forces within for an understanding of the spiritual problems that plague them. There exists, at present, a belief that one can become at peace with themselves, a foreign idea to the common man of the past. People are scrambling for ways to trust themselves, rather than whispering their prayers towards the sky.
This is a rather remarkable change. People of all backgrounds are now exploring ideas that may expand their psychological welfare. This promises, as Carl Jung wrote, a profound spiritual revolution in the Western world.
However, the spiritual war, Carl Jung believed, is a private conflict, and the answers do not rest with those of authority. Each person must find a balance between the ideals of civilisation and their natural energy, freedom, vitality and sexuality. Each must gain a consciousness of the forces that work within them, all the lights, sounds and shadows and realise the unconscious for its truth.
“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 programmes, with the so-called problems of reality?”
This is an unsatisfying realisation for many as it means that we alone must dig up the dirt that rests within ourselves. This is the responsibility of our age. It is such a laborious and frustrating challenge that Carl Jung feared few would ever undertake such an adventure. But, he did, nevertheless, see hopeful signs that still hold true today.
However, as the tempo of the world moves faster, so we must also walk with more haste and, the quicker the world becomes, the more that is expected of us and the less time we have to sit quietly on our own. But, beyond this chaos, beyond the seeking and searching, the frustration and pain, perhaps we will achieve a victory of “waking consciousness” and become brighter and lighter than before. And, if we help ourselves first, we ease the tension of the spirit that troubles the whole society.
“Along the great highroads of the world everything seems desolate and outworn. Instinctively the modern man leaves the trodden ways to explore the by-paths and lanes, just as the man of the Græco-Roman world cast off his defunct Olympian gods and turned to the mystery-cults of Asia.The force within us that impels us to the search, turning outward, annexes Eastern Theosophy and magic; but it also turns inward and leads us to give our thoughtful attention to the unconscious psyche.”
Modern Man in Search of Soul, Carl Jung
Thank you. Harry J. Stead.