The Church’s masterstroke in defining the human psyche as the underworld
by Douglas Lockhart
To Plato, ‘archetypal ideas’ were the fundamentals of existence; or, as he put it in his Laws: ‘Everything is full of Gods’. In his excellent intellectual history of the West, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas explores the pivotal ideas which the great minds of Western civilisation have produced, and draws our attention to the fact that for Plato the archetypes constituted ‘the tangible substrate of all that is tangible’. (1) In the context of this article, however, what is of prime interest is the question that Tarnas asks of himself, the question whether in fact Plato believed that gods or mythic beings were intrinsically related to the intangible substrate of reality, and to the archetypes as ruling principles. Or was it just a way of talking?
Tarnas states that Plato at times favoured a more abstract approach, but that he again and again returns to a ‘distinctly Homeric tone’ (2) and treats serious philosophical and historical matters in ‘the form of mythological figures and narratives’.(3) And then with a flourish he shows just how intertwined in Plato’s thinking the idea of gods and mythic beings and archetypes and substrates of reality really were: ‘Depending on a dialogue’s context,” he explains, aiming at a valuable insight, ‘Zeus, Apollo, Hera, Ares, Aphrodite, and the rest could signify actual deities, allegorical figures, character types, psychological attitudes, modes of experience, philosophic principles, transcendent essences, sources of poetic inspiration or divine communication, objects of conventional piety, unknowable entities, imperishable artefacts of the supreme creator, heavenly bodies, foundations of the universal order, or rulers and teachers of mankind.’ (4) And the point aimed at? Simply that Plato’s gods defy too precise a definition, and that he infused his most philosophically earnest moments with such figures when language threatened to destroy ‘the numinous essence of things’. (5) No fool, Mr Plato – and, as we shall see, fully aware of the nature of the problem facing all human beings in relation to their encounter with reality.
Plato knew what the psychologist Carl Jung would find out, Western intellectuals would forget or try to ignore, and orthodox Churchmen would ignore and attempt to suppress – that the non-spatial universe of our psychic nature conceals ‘an untold abundance of images which have accumulated over millions of years of living development and become fixed in the organism’.(6) Referring to what Poincare called the ‘subliminal self’, Jung uses the term ‘psychic non-ego’, and talks of this ego filling the non-spatial space of consciousness with images of such potency and power that all we can do at our best is misunderstand them. What we cannot do is deny their existence. Throughout our lives we each experience such images in dream or in reverie, and on occasions are psychically overpowered by their extraordinary presence within us. Jung tells us that it is a mistake to treat an archetype ‘as if it were a mere name, word or concept’. It is actually ‘a piece of life, an image connected with the living individual by the bridge of emotion’.(7) This raises the issue of emotion’s role in the psyche – a subject of great importance for all of us. Tarnas points out that Plato may on occasions use mythical beings as pure allegory and nothing else, but his archetypes are multidimensional and move fluidly between one level and another, Eros at one moment standing for the sexual instinct, at the next as a metaphor for the ‘philosopher’s passion for intellectual beauty and wisdom’. (8) This capacity to work on multiple levels of meaning and expression in relation to myth and archetype is then defined as a ‘unique confluence of the emerging rationalism of Hellenic philosophy with the prolific mythological imagination of the ancient Greek psyche’. (9)
The psychologist James Hillman suggests that our inability to properly relate to our ‘complexes’ is because we have robbed them of ‘image’ and ‘voice’. In our attempt to rationally understand our deepest psychic levels, we have left ourselves stranded with mute abstractions subject to the whims of intellectual interpretation. Plato was not merely emerging from a stage in Greek intellectual development, he was immersed in a creative archetypal stream which afforded him insight and ideas and a grasp of reality so profound that many present-day philosophers are still writing footnotes on other philosopher’s footnotes about him. To imagine for one minute that Plato was somehow less than he could have been because of his use of mythical beings and archetypes is a grievous mistake. Without those ‘images’ and ‘voices’ and ‘emotional stirrings’ his creative imagination would not have penetrated to the depth that it did. And into the depths he did go, hook, line and sinker. And from up out of those depths he returned with an enriched appreciation of the geometry of form and a subtle and telling sense of how consciousness worked in conjunction with reality.
One reason for so much about the world coming up out of the psyche is the fact that the psyche is dynamically linked to the world. Karl Kerenyi was of the opinion that in ‘symbols’ the world itself is speaking. Jung agreed. To him ‘psyche’ stretched all the way down into the darkness of physical matter. At these deep levels of autonomous functioning psyche was extinguished in the body’s materiality, and at base this meant that psyche was world. (10) Another level described by the Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann was that psyche projected archetypal images into the cultural canon, caused changes in the real world as a result, and was itself changed by the world in relation to reactions in the collective unconscious experienced as sociological upheavals. (11) This is an important observation, but what Jung and Kerenyi were pointing at is even more important – at least, it is in relation to this article. Their thesis was that psyche and matter were intrinsically related. The problem for psyche was that at the higher levels of conscious functioning, at the level of differentiation and abstraction, it automatically lost sight of its deep relationship explanations for just about everything. (12) Jung sums up this situation with characteristic force:
In reality we can never legitimately cut loose from our archetypal foundations unless we are prepared to pay the price of a neurosis, any more than we can rid ourselves of our body and its organs without committing suicide. (13)
The physicist Paul Davies poses a question in alignment with this kind of thinking when he asks whether mathematics resides only in the heads of mathematicians, or if it is in fact intrinsic to the physical world. This is to ask, in another way, whether reality is purposive or whether it is without intrinsic meaning. And it is also to suggest that ‘intelligence’ has somehow formed out of the stuff of the material universe and that this universe is now scrutinising itself through us. Davies puts it this way:
Through my scientific work I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation . . . Furthermore, I have come to the point of view that mind – ie, conscious awareness of the world – is not a meaningless and incidental quirk of nature but an absolute fundamental facet of reality. (14)
Jung too was of this opinion. In fact he seems to have believed that consciousness might perhaps be the prime ingredient in the formation of a general theory of everything. Wolgang Pauli agreed. Jung and Kerenyi‘s idea of psyche as world seems to resonate with Davies’ perception of things reasonably well, and it may be that we are about to rediscover Jung and Kerenyi and many other frontier thinkers.
The Lazarus Paradigm
In his study of pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean world from the second century CE to the conversion of Constantine, Robin Fox cites the question put by Alexandra, priestess of Demeter, to the god Apollo concerning the frequent appearance of the gods to girls and women, and to men and children of the city of Miletus: ‘What does such a thing mean? Is it the sign of something good?’ This question, cut in stone, reveals her seriousness. Fox adds: ‘In the old civilised Miletus, the squares and colonnaded streets were stalked by the gods, bringing close encounters into the life of every man, woman and child.” (15) He then quotes what was happening in Miletus, relates it to Homer’s epic poem where the gods mixed freely with human beings, and identifies this question and its answer with ‘religious crisis’, ‘breathtaking anxiety’ and ‘anxiety and exaltation’. (16) He asks: ‘Is it, then, the missing proof of a deep unease, the mood of a pagan city while Christians were putting down their roots?’ (17)
What should not be assumed is that this kind of intercourse with the gods was everywhere the same in the pagan world. It was not. The Greeks and their neighbours were every bit as blase about the gods As many Christians are about God. There were levels to the mysteries, and the public version, although ritualised, afforded little more than entertainment and the pleasure of being with friends. When the gods really did visit, the pagan mind quaked with fear. There was a distinct difference between going to the gods in a social context, and the gods coming to you in the context of psyche. When psyche erupted, everyone held their breath.
It its early years, Pauline Christianity helped produce such eruptions, but with the formation of Catholic orthodoxy such visitations from within diminished until all that was left were desiccated symbols ‘stiffened by dogma’, to use Jung’s description. (18) Any attempt to ‘make the journey’ to the gods was frowned upon. The underworld was anathema. Why? Because what came up out of the underworld threatened just about everything the Church stood for. The underworld was ‘unpredictable’, ‘contradictory’ and ‘ambiguous’. Everything in it was ‘upside-down’ or ‘back-to-front’; there was nothing ‘straightforward’ in it. Once allow Christians to make contact with the inner world of the psyche, and they were never quite the same again – they returned from the experience believing themselves to be acquainted with Powers not recognised by the Church Fathers as spiritually legitimate. Such Christians became unmanageable, believing themselves to have the right to assembly without a bishop, spoke gibberish about God, and considered themselves free and beyond the Church’s credal rulings. Didn’t they realise that Christ had annulled the underworld and the gods by returning from the dead? By his doing so ‘all Christians were forever exempted from the descent.’ (19)
In Death and the Underworld, James Hillman castigates the orthodox Church for having made Lazarus the paradigm for all humanity – eternal life is no longer to be found in the underworld, only in its destruction. (20) The Halls of Hades have to be demolished, the eruptions of psyche stilled like the Sea of Galilee under the Saviour’s outstretched hand. Like Hercules, Christ had overcome Hades; ‘death’ was now ‘sin’ and defined as ‘the last enemy’. (21) The underworld of the psyche was now ‘hell’, not the realm of the psyche’s creative forces. As the domain of evil and the devil, the underworld would be changed into a place of horror, a place of terror, a place to be avoided at all cost. Hillman captures the transition exactly when he says, ‘Christianism, in a two-pronged masterstroke, both did away with the underworld and horrified it as a perpetual alternative to the Christian path. Christianism or underworld: one had to choose, and who would choose horror?’ (22) The taboos against ‘psyche’ were in place, and they would be endlessly refined until eventually even the slightest indication of ‘underworld’ experience would be interpreted as evidence of ‘Satanic’ activity. Faust was crying in his crib.
Psyche and Soul
The living symbols that rise up within us reveal dogmatism to be an inadequate vehicle of expression. Religious formulas kill off living symbols. Symbols which have become overly familiar are probably dead. A life totally governed by dogma may flow along easily for years, but when it comes apart, it comes apart like no other. Profound experience is feared by orthodox Christianity because it allows what is within psyche to surface. The surfacing of what is within psyche does not automatically point to psychosis, but to a ‘journey’ undertaken – sometimes this journey is undertaken by a psyche in deep trouble. This journey is Faustian by implication, but in reverse. It is an ‘ensouling’ act and it requires a deep relationship with psyche. Psyche is soul. To ignore psyche is to deprive soul of nourishment. Faust is not someone who sells his soul to gain knowledge; he is someone whose fixation with knowledge results in a loss of soul – the deterioration of spiritual capacity in relation to psyche. His damnation is not because he has sold his soul to the devil but because he never properly developed soul in the first place. In Iranian tradition, he who betrays the pact with life witnesses himself at the end of life as an atrocious figure. Mutilated, virtually exterminated, and to all intents and purpose aborted as a human being carrying the highest potential, the ‘betrayer’ confronts his own shadow, his Ahrimanian darkness instead of his celestial mirror of light.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest exponent of the Faust legend, fully understood the nature of the archetypal level and did not at any time advocate a superstitious surrender to supernatural forces. Tracing Faust’s progress back into the past, he wends his way through the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Middle Ages and classical antiquity, penetrates back to the origins of life itself, and comes out into the arms of what he terms ‘the Mothers’, the timeless source of all forms of being – the feminine matrix. He was conscious of religion as ‘archetypal’: that is, he saw all religion as expressing the same ground of being, and was truly Gnostic in his unwillingness to destroy their individual strengths. Truth lay in the embracing of ‘opposites’, he believed. This was his creative fountain. It was also Carl Jung’s.
Although criticised for his rejection of ‘analysis’, Goethe was in fact fully in favour of analysis, but consciously balanced ‘analysis’ with ‘synthesis’. One of his favourite maxims was that analysis and synthesis ‘must alternate as naturally as breathing in and breathing out’. (23) This was no Faust; this was an elegant psyche in balance with itself, a psyche which in every expression of art undertaken sought the taming of the Dionysian by the Apollonian – but never in the sense of replacing the psyche’s unitive powers with lustreless fabrications of the intellect. He knew that a balance must exist, and in his myth of Faust reveals the soul of Western man at war with itself. In awe of the mystery of the universe as any intelligent human being must be, he was ‘as impatient of the sterilities of logic chopping as of the inflations of metaphysics’. (24) So great was Goethe’s archetypal presence that on meeting and talking with him in Erfurt Napoleon exclaimed, ‘Voila un homme!’
Darkness and light. Negative and positive. Good and evil. Faith and dogma. Faith? Isn’t ‘faith’ about believing what the Church teaches? Not at all. Having faith in what the Church teaches is merely ‘belief’ by another name. Faith proper has nothing whatsoever to do with belief – it has to do with trust in the face of cosmic ambiguity and uncertainty. Faith throws a new complexion onto the face of matter, or, if you prefer, gives what matters a new quality. Certainty and clarity and belief are not the Christian virtues; they are false securities. Radically disturb certainty or clarity and the whole edifice of religious belief shakes. There are too many things not within our capacity to grasp for certainty or clarity to ever take permanent root in psyche. This is to say that beliefs which breed and underscore literal-minded interpretations of archetypal events are acts of spiritual sabotage. Consciously manipulate others through the auspices of such beliefs, and you stand guilty of assisting in the suicide of souls in the making.
But if psyche is soul, how then can we have a rudimentary soul? Simply because it is the dynamic interaction between conscious and unconscious processes that forms soul. We lose our souls by gaining the whole world and paying no attention to the fact that in the process we have ceased intrinsically to exist as a ‘presence’ to ourselves. We are not there, or here, or in fact anywhere, most of the time – we evaporate into process of mind. When we relate to another, we mostly relate out of an empty base camp, and only occasionally are brought into self-focus by trauma. It takes death and pain and horror to momentarily recongregate our scattered pieces of psyche and reintegrate them into the semblance of a person. In Basilides’ ancient system of gnosis, (spiritual knowledge) the ‘Saviour’ was the perfected spiritual man within psyche – Jesus perceived as archetypal process and wholeness. On reaching ‘perfection; (the subtle balance of conscious and unconscious forces), the self became real; that is, it was clothed with a proper soul, one that would not revert to its previous lopsided condition. (25) This is to say that immortality is not ours for the rather cheap price of believing in the Jesus story as the Church teaches it. Jesus is not a ‘something’ to be believed in; he is an expression of something innate, something generic, something that already belongs to us as a possibility. He is the archetype of our growing up, of our maturity, of our coming of age, of our seeing through things. He is a metaphor for our coming back to our senses from out of a comatose state. What he is not is a once and for all time human sacrifice that we can rely upon to shield us from our own stupidity.
James Hillman says that Christianity and the ‘underworld’ fell into opposition on the material, functional, and logical levels. He is also of the opinion that we have been ‘left in a condition where Christian consciousness and psychological soul-making . . . have been forced into contradiction’. (26) He tells us that Jung’s problem with the ‘Christ’ figure of Christianity was that it wasn’t dark enough to be psychologically stable – opposition to the underworld in Christian teaching had inadvertently lightened the figure too much. As an archetype allied to upperworld consciousness only, Christ is made to destroy the underworld, and in doing so becomes the reverse of what he actually stood for. Soul-making is a process towards death (Thanatos/Hades) because it prepares the ego for dismantling and assembly through a process of deepening. To deny the ego the chance to enter into this transformative relationship with psyche is to deny it life, for such a relationship is the equivalent of a resurrection from the dead. Hillman battles against the Christian idea of ‘resurrection’ because it smacks of a fantasy to sidestep the process of deepening, the difficult and dangerous process of ego dismantling and reassembly. And in line with this he also frowns on the fantasy of ‘rebirth’ in psychology, and on dream interpretations which pull images up out of our psychic depths like fish and leave them to die stranded and gasping in a foreign environment.
Christianity’s long-term historical and theological defence against the idea of soul-making is a problem; it is quite literally a recurring ‘nightmare’. The psychosis of alienation, separation, loneliness and rational breakdown is all around us, and in us, but we continue to mouth either Christian or secular platitudes as a response to our deepest needs. Jung sums up the Church’s dilemma thus:
The advocates of Christianity squander their energies in the
mere preservation of what has come down to them, with no
thought of building on to the house and making it roomier.
Stagnation in these matters is threatened in the long run with
a lethal end. (27)
The ‘lethal end’ promised by Jung for those who prefer doctrinal stagnation to that of creative exploration, is a bad death. It is a psychological fact that if you dam yourself up, you end up damned. The journey that has to be made by each and every one of us is not at all easy, but it has to be made – consciously made. Jung tells us that the Gnostic Christians, that is, the radical-minded Christians who split from the Church in the early centuries, were psychologists, and quoting Hippolytus shows them to have been engaged in a very serious bit of research – to be exact, the meaning of the soul in relation to the ‘whole man’. (28) For the Gnostics the knowledge of man was conceived of as the beginning of a process of wholeness, the knowledge of God as the knowledge of perfect wholeness. Clement of Alexandria (a Father of the early Church) agreed: ‘It is the greatest of all disciplines to know oneself; for when a man knows himself, he knows God,’ (29) And how was all this arrived at? Jung spells it out: ‘Gnosis is undoubtedly a psychological knowledge whose contents derive from the unconscious. It reached its insights by concentrating on the ‘subjective factor’ (30) Subjective, introspective behaviour is not held in any great regard today – it is known to produce all kinds of aberrations. But as the Gnostics discovered, a subjective probing of the psyche can produce startling results if it is done in a disciplined context. Such a context already existed with the ancient Schools of the Prophets, the followers of the Way of the desert, the advanced Greek mysteries, and in systems of exercises and breathing and mental discipline from the East. The tools for a systematic exploration of psyche and the religious impulse were available, and the Gnostic Christians took to them with gusto.
But the threats were many. A clean-up was just around the corner. (31) In the same manner as history had been made to conform to Church needs and aspirations, the theological clean-up operation engaged in by the Church was equally thorough – the nudgings of ‘psyche’ had to be ignored. History had been revised to make the Jews into a scapegoat, to make the Nazoraean sect of the Apostles all but disappear, and theology would now be revised and tightened up to exclude those who believed, along with Socrates, that every human being had access to archetypal truth. The Delphic motto read ‘Know thyself’, and this knowing would be transmuted into believing in the self of another – the advent of the personality cult had arrived.
1) Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), p 14
2) Ibid, p 13
6) Jung, C G, Psychological Reflections (1974), p 42
7) Ibid, p 43
8) Tarnas, Richard, The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), p 14
10) Jung, C G, Psychological Reflections (1974), p 45
11) Neumann, Erich, The Origins and history of consciousness (1973), p 390
12) Jung, C G, Psychological Reflections (1974), p 45
13) Ibid, p 46
14) Davies, Paul, The Mind of God (1992), p 16
15) Fox, Robin, Pagans & Christians (1986), p 102
16) Ibid, p 103
18) Jung, C G, Psychological Reflections (1974), p 48
19) Hillman, James, The Dream and the Underworld (1979), p 85
21) 1 Cor 15: 26
22) Hillman, James, The Dream and the Underworld (1979), p 85
23) Encyclopedia Britannica, vol 10 (1965), p 528
24) Ibid, p 529
25) Mead, G R S, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (1960), p 272
26) Hillman, James, The Dream and the Underworld (1979), p 89
27) Jung, C G, Aion (1979), p 109
28) Ibid, p 222
30) Ibid, p 223
31) Schonfield, Hugh, Those Incredible Christians (1968), pp 211-217