The late Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is much vaunted today. At least on self-improvement Twitter. In academia and in the psychological sciences however, he is still out-of-bounds, his reputation having been revived, but not reprieved, by Jordan Peterson’s writing and online lectures. But does Carl Jung’s philosophy hold any value for us today? I would say yes. For me, the most pertinent part of his philosophy today, is his theory of archetypes. And the reason I say this, is because Jung outlined the concept of The Shadow – an idea that we could do with re-familiarising ourselves with – now more than ever.

Psychodynamic Psychology

To understand archetypes properly we need to first understand the psychodynamic theory of mind that Jung pioneered along with Sigmund Freud. The phrase psycho-dynamic refers to the idea that there are disparate parts of the mind that don’t always work in harmony with each other, but which on the contrary, are often at loggerheads. While we all feel that we have one distinct personality, according to Freud and Jung the psyche is actually composed of multiple, hidden and often antagonistic sub-personalities. A pantheon of ‘warring gods’ if you will. This idea is not entirely incongruent with modern evolutionary psychology, and its idea of ‘brain modules’ which evolved over millennia – each one designed to perform a specific task – and most of them, pretty much oriented towards self-preservation (e.g. selfishness). And so we can readily see that much of the time it is our primal drives which are truly motivating us, and which are rumbling away constantly beneath our socially learned niceties. Our human ‘reasonableness’ is a somewhat recent addition, and rather weakly wired in, stemming as it does from those neural structures which evolved considerably later than those traits we share with the rest of the entire animal kingdom, including reptiles.

The idea that we have conflicting parts of the mind seems unquestionable. For example, how many of us have asked ourselves the following or similar questions?

‘Am I the person who just did something crazy for the woman I love or am I the sensible, rational man I thought I was?’

Or perhaps…

‘Am I the man who loves his kids, or am I the selfish addict who left them in a car outside a drug dealer’s house?’

This incongruence, between who we think we are and who we actually are presents us with a very obvious philosophical problem. It suggests that there are multiple versions of ourselves; that there is not one ‘I’. It illustrates precisely the psycho-dynamic nature of the human mind. One part of our psyche wants to go one way (such as desiring to have sex with multiple partners) while another part of it wants to go the other way (be a good husband or wife and accord to the cultural norm of monogamy). Who can honestly say they have never even thought about such things? And if the thought is unwelcome and sits uncomfortably with the rest of you, then of course it will fight for survival in much the same way that any life form would when it is threatened with extinction. This is why Freud’s description of desires and instincts as ‘personalities’ works so well. If these instincts are repressed, they will grow stronger and then re-surface unbidden at a later time. The infamous Freudian slip is a good example of how this works:

HUSBAND: Shall we invite Jane to the party?

WIFE: Do you mean June…my sister’s name is June!

HUSBAND: Oh yeah, I meant June…

WIFE: So who is Jane?”

And the answer of course is that Jane is the person who works in his office who he habitually fantasizes about having sex with, a fact he finds disagreeable on a number of levels, because he’s a terribly nice chap who just shouldn’t be thinking things like that. Therefore, he conveniently relegates this aberrant thought to a lower level of awareness. Unfortunately for him, his wife (like many people) has an intuitive understanding of the unconscious and senses that all is not well.

But while Freud saw the unconscious as a warehouse for all the smutty stuff, Jung had a more explicitly spiritual view. For him, the unconscious was the seat of the soul (or The Self as he preferred to call it). The Self represented the totality of all of those disparate parts of mind (including the bad bits). When they begin to work in unison, according to Jung, the person would move towards a state called individuation (roughly synonymous with the eastern concept of enlightenment). And so it is here in Jung’s work, that we get the first taste of the idea that the ‘bad bits’ of our psyche might have a helpful role to play in our self-development – if only we could acknowledge them.

What is an Archetype?

For Jung, the component parts of ‘The Self’ manifested as archetypes. Archetypes, are ‘primordial images’ that have become deeply imprinted in our mental make-up over the course of evolutionary history. We might think of them as the archaeological remains of our ancestral experiences. They are ‘psychic relics’ which are, nevertheless, dynamic and alive. Archetypes reflect the condensed essence of our evolutionary environment, played out in psychological and behavioural memes. They spring forth in the form of symbols which arise quite involuntarily in our dreams, mythology, literature, art and religious iconography. Archetypes can never be comprehensively vocalized because they can never be comprehensively understood. And they can never be fully understood because they never come fully into the light of consciousness. They can only be acted out or described. When somebody manages to effectively enact, embody or describe an archetype – then they are truly channelling something. It is the difference between a true poet, actor or artist, and a mere contriver. But don’t ask them how they do it, because they won’t know.

Here are some examples of archetypes that have spontaneously and repeatedly manifested themselves into our folklore, myth and legend, in different times and places, and in cultures that were completely independent from each other;

  • The hero
  • The wise old man
  • The siren
  • The trickster
  • The dragon
  • The villain
  • The golden child
  • The evil stepmother

Archetypes (according to Jung) have a divine feeling to them – a sacred aura. They are ‘numinous’ to use one of his favourite words. For example, anyone who has been powerfully possessed by obsessive romantic love will understand the power of archetypes. On close inspection, and if you are really honest with yourself, you will see that it was not the person you were in love with who entangled you, but rather, a power within yourself. Anyone who has lived life fully can agree, that the all-consuming passion and obsessive power of romantic love has a life all of its own. In its raw form, being consumed in this way is an archetypal experience. When the years have passed you may laugh at the fact you were ever in love with that person, and you may thank your lucky stars it didn’t work out, but in reality it was not they who held you in a spell, but rather, the archetype. Over millennia, artists and storytellers have encapsulated this particular archetype with names and symbols such as Venus The Goddess of Love. Venus though, is only a symbol of something ineffable inside all of us. She is the personification of that force – an anthropomorphized expression of something next to impossible to describe in its entirety, and to which we can only allude with symbols.

The Hero

Perhaps the most persistent and powerful of all archetypes is The Hero. Let’s imagine how it might have begun.

Imagine that you are a hominin ancestor running marathons across the savannah. You and your friends have just speared an exhausted impala and are preparing to dine when a cackle of hyenas descend and you get several of your fingers ripped off in the melee. As one of them goes for your throat, perhaps in cringing desperation, you ram a pointed stick into its eye. From that moment on, despite being minus a few digits, you display a somewhat blunted fear of hyenas, a fact which is not lost on your fellow tribesmen. Perhaps they scratch a picture of you, the hyena killer, on a rock. In this way, and across eons of time, the hero has become a symbol of transformation. A symbol of the precocity of the human spirit in the face of death. A symbol of our innate desire to expand.

As an archetype, The Hero is an idea, a symbol, and a direct lived experience. It condenses every aspect of aspiration, expansion and transformation that could possibly be imagined. It is an idea that cannot be further reduced in its profundity. It is a universal human myth and it is our immortal meme. This meme appears to have been bloody good at replicating itself. Over time, it has proved to be a highly successful unit of imitation within the human environment – even at the risk of the total destruction of its human host.

The idea that human beings, and in particular the youth, expand, improve and succeed, only by passing through significant trials and hardship (and at significant risk to themselves) is demonstrably true. It is something that we all intuitively comprehend even if we can’t put it into words. That is why we summarize it with symbols, recreate it in our games, and represent it in every notable story we will ever tell. It has inspired and reminded our youth since prehistory, that without risk and the facing of fear – stagnation and death are certain anyway.

But now this most useful of all memes is mutating. The cult of celebrity and the deification of pleasure and personal happiness are just two examples of the re-packaged hero. The meme is assuming a disfigured form. Perhaps these forms are not mutations of the hero myth as much as they are compensations for its loss. Either way, these quests for meaning overvalue the easily attainable and the immediately gratifying. They are poor replacements for the trials and tribulations that have moulded the personalities of our ancestors for millennia. They are existential escape routes rather than existential solutions – fake copies of the original. Once we were warriors … and now we are Biebers.

Imagine then, a hero story or a movie that would more accurately reflect modern life. In this movie, our hero amasses a series of treasures such as sexual partners, money and social status, and what’s more he does so with consummate ease. In this movie there is absolutely no plot, our protagonist just drives around aimlessly pleasuring himself. Such a movie would, of course, be utterly lacking in meaning for us because we have no interest in watching anyone acquire anything of worth easily, much less a hero – it’s just not in our cultural DNA. Even in the last two minutes of our evolutionary history we will find that our ancestral elders sailed across tempestuous oceans on boats no bigger than logs. Consequently, we would find our lazy protagonist and his easy attainment of mere material ‘things’ to be pointless and boring. Our cultural mind set is a survival mind set and we still understand, deep down, that there are things which have a higher value than mere pleasure. At our core, we still value things such as courage and fortitude, as well as the suffering that demands them – because these are the things that made us who we are.

In a true hero myth, our hero must suffer in some way before he triumphs. If this doesn’t happen, then we will feel uneasy calling him a hero. Without significant risk or hardship, he cannot be a hero. Further, we demand that this courage should be an act of service performed at great risk to himself, in order to protect the tribe. Courage which is merely an act of fearless daring in and of itself, but which has no aim, is not as resonant as selfless courage. Don’t get me wrong. Morally neutral displays of bravery are still impressive (e.g. Boxing). But while we are impressed by anyone who is brave, we don’t immortalize them unless they utilize their bravery in defence of others – or in the defence of an ideal.

According to the current orthodoxy this would seem to make no sense. Individuals should have no evolutionarily valid reason for altruistically furthering the interests of the group or the tribe at their own expense (this is what is called group selection and is currently considered to be scientifically untenable). According to current scientific consensus, individuals act to further the interests of their own genes (known as gene selection) or at best, those of their immediate kin (kin selection). But if the hero kept the gold for himself, or ran from any situation that did not immediately benefit himself and his family, then we are forced to admit that we would leave the cinema in disgust. The hero resonates with us precisely because he is not so selfishly motivated. If there is no hardship or risk … AND … a bringing of light and power back into the community – then it can hold no value for us. Without some kind of growth or learning, without movement from a hopeless, dark and degenerate situation, toward some higher state of being, there would be no story. Even if the hero is ‘bad’, we want to see him do something ‘good’ in the end.

The Shadow

Jung’s take on the Hero has a twist then. Archetypal heroism is ALWAYS accompanied by darkness. But here’s the real twist. A truly Jungian one. Darkness comes not only from outside the self – from all those trials and tribulations the present themselves through the course of our lives – but also from within The Self. What’s more, this is the most potent test of all. It is our own degenerate nature which above all else, must be exposed, acknowledged, and if not defeated, then certainly fought against. And this, is a deeply unfashionable idea in today’s world of victimhood and cancel culture.

This idea can be found in different guises, within the great literary works which influenced Jung, most notably Johann Goethe’s Faust (1808), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist (1888), and other popular works of the day such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). All of these texts contain the basic outline of an archetype which invariably accompanies The Hero – namely – The Shadow.

The Shadow is not so much the hero’s nemesis, as his evil twin. It is that irrational, unpleasant and unpalatable side of our nature that we all possess. It is our own internal and unincorporated darkness which must be encountered and assimilated. According to Jung, it is precisely because the shadow is an integral part of our whole self, that it becomes imperative for us to know that it exists. In fact, it is impossible for it not to exists. And this knowledge seems to be entirely lacking in most of us. Because the fact is, that this sneaky, hidden and malevolent sub-personality is something we all have, and it is not, contrary to popular belief, the sole preserve of the silver-tongued politician. We like to think that civic leaders, CEOs and lawyers have a monopoly on sneakiness and sophistry, but this is wishful thinking. If truth be told, we are all equally snide. We are as likely to find ordinary people hiding their shadow in the shopping mall, as we are to find power-mad politicians concealing their real agendas in the houses of parliament or the senate. This philosophy of ‘total responsibility’ could also be extended to the whole populace as far as Jung was concerned. Seen in this light, genocidal leaders and dictators are nothing more than manifestation of a ‘collective shadow’ – the shadow of the people. Now that’s a dangerous and challenging idea for modern people to reflect on – but one we should reflect on. Imagine thinking that the German people manifested Hitler; The Russians – Stalin; The Chinese – Mao and Xi; and The Americans, Trump. Regardless of your political persuasion understand that we are all COLLECTIVELY RESPONSIBLE.   

So when was the last time you heard anyone philosophising about how much darkness they contained in their own soul? “Oh no,” I hear you cry, “some people are just bad, whereas others are good.” Nonsense. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, or they don’t have the means, the opportunities, or the balls to express it. Anyone who has attained even a modicum of self-mastery will attest to the fact that they did so, only by becoming deeply aware of their own reptilian possibilities. Thus, we should always be on the look-out for the dark in those who are light, as well as the light in those who are dark, because the size of someone’s shadow seems to be directly proportional to their outward claims of goodness and wholesomeness. That is why it is referred to as ‘The Shadow’. The shadow is at epic proportions in today’s world. Everybody seems convinced that they have it right. If only the other side would see how wholesome their goals are.

This phenomenon is better understood by people who have been abused by authority figures (particularly moral custodians); those who have plumbed their own depths (addicts and criminals); and those who have lived through periods of societal collapse and moral breakdown when their homely, agreeable, inoffensive neighbours turned out to be rapacious, blood-sucking, turncoats. This realization is articulated perfectly in the following famous quote from Gulag survivor and Nobel prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even with hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

And in most of us ordinary folk, this evil is a damn sight more than one small ‘un-uprooted corner’. You probably think you’re the exception. Well you’re not.

True Progressives Incorporate Their Own Shadow

In order to become whole, to become a hero, we must first come face to face with our own shoddiness. The only defence against the shadow it seems, is to walk into it. Other peoples’ shadows are beyond our reach and are their affair and theirs alone. To point out another’s shadow while we have not breached our own is the ultimate hubris. The first step lies in acknowledging its existence within us, and that is exactly what most of us will never do, but precisely what we must do. Once again, our collective and much misunderstood religious traditions have meditated on this fact long before we even came into existence, and they have some wise words for our consideration – words which we choose, most of the time, to ignore.

“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

Jung’s idea of the shadow was nothing new then. And its basic premise was this: that as long as we continue to perpetuate a victim mentality by saying “it is him – it is not me – it cannot be me – I am too good!” then the world will never know peace, because each individual exerts an effect on existence, and therefore has a responsibility to it. If we have no understanding of our own true nature, then we are part of the problem and not part of the solution. Many people, recovering addicts, ex-offenders and so on, cannot afford to do this. In this sense they are lucky. If they persist in pretending that the problem lies not within them but externally in others, then they are doomed. And this is the gift that their addiction, or their criminal past gives them. It is the liberating gift of the shadow. It is their cross – their inner beast – their salvation.

So, for those of you who, like me, are possessed of a particularly virulent inner reptile – I say this – are we really the cursed ones? Are we not the lucky ones; or dare I say it – the chosen ones? Because accompanying every shadow is the inevitable counterpoint of an expanding fire – the potential for a conflagration of illumination. One simply cannot exist without the other. It is our trials which truly mould us into the best that we can be, not a sunny horoscope and endless blessings. Likewise, it is only in recognizing and coming to terms with our most shady motivations that we can ever become whole. It is not by meditating on sweetness and light that we free ourselves from our own base nature, but by coming to terms with that baseness itself. True progressives incorporate their own shadow.