These words mark the beginning of practical philosophy—practical reason—which is more often recognized by its more common name: the study of morality. They also probably don the front pages of every self-help book ever written, as they mark what most assume to be the beginning of self-knowledge.
What exactly is self knowledge, though? Is it a perfect understanding of one’s own actions? Of the causes of those actions? The thoughts? Is it exact harmony between one’s thoughts, intentions, motivations, and behavior? If it is any or all of these things, how can it be attained?
Today, when vague New Ages spiritualisms have replaced prayerful contemplation, and secularized, de-sanctified church services have replaced genuine religious worship and Eucharistic adoration, people are more confused and depressed than ever before in recent history. Our secular world pushes upon us a skewed belief in individualism, which springs forth into the form of neoliberal and post-capitalist values. False spiritualities, group therapy, and medicine all come together to attempt to patch the hole in the soul left by the Church’s abdication from the public sphere.
The logic is pretty simple: if you can know yourself, then you won’t be chronically depressed. And if you’re not chronically depressed, then you should be a functioning member of society able to work, spend money, pay taxes, and indulge in any number of the various distractions made available to us by our entertainment industry. But the difficulty is the means of going about knowing yourself. Modernity’s denial of God and hatred of Church teaching makes the theological method inaccessible, since so much of the modern system is shaped around the unfounded belief in the subjective nature of all organized religions.
So reason alone, whatever that means, must be used instead. And this is where we get to psychology.
The practice of mental therapy has changed a lot in the last two hundred years, having gone from a field of study mostly left to already antiquated theologians and edgy philosophers to a field of so-called science seemingly run by sexual degenerates and mental cases. We see today the discipline of psychiatry, which belongs to medicine, experimenting with mind-alternating drugs in an attempt to treat chemical deviations from the mean according, somewhat, to neuroscience. Some of these treatments seem to work, while others, such as the over-prescription of ADHD medications a decade ago, seem to have been driven by a combination of pharmaceutical business interests and the inflexibility of the public school apparatus.
On the other side of things we have the psychologists, who insist adamantly that psychology is in fact a science, rather than an industry, and a respectable field of study. The therapists operating in the field tend to be either psychology graduates or, just as often, mere social workers with a degree in talking to people. There are a number of different methods of applied psychology out there, but the one most often thrust into public consciousness—regardless of its effectiveness or even the prevalence of its actual use within clinical psychology—remains the Analytical Psychology of Jungian fame. One of this blogger’s favorite whipping posts, known Gnostic and sophist Jordan B. Peterson, happens to favor the method himself.
I’d like to make it clear, before we get into this, that I don’t mean to imply that all forms of psychological therapy are a waste of time. I’m sure the discipline has helped some people. I know for a fact it has hurt a number of them, as well. My personal thoughts on the matter are irrelevant to the discussion, however, as this investigation is specifically into Jungian depth psychology and the problems Carl Jung’s model have in describing appropriate moral behavior with relation to the self’s agency.
Jung’s basic model involved breaking down the self into two pieces: the consciousness and the unconsciousness. For him, consciousness included our will and our intellect, but was only a very small part of the self. All of our reasoning, understanding, and actions are predicated upon the unseen movements of the unconsciousness.
Part of the unconscious mind included—or more accurately, was built upon—something called the collective unconsciousness, which was a foundational element of understanding that was supposed to have been shared by all of mankind. The archetypes of psychological activity, which Jung famously began attempting to catalogue both through his therapy practice and his research into world myths and primitive cultures, belong to this aspect of the unconsciousness. You can think of it almost as a mental version of the same basic DNA patterns that make up the human genome.
Those familiar with Freud’s school of psychoanalysis will recognize the unconsciousness and subconsciousness similarities, but where Freud considered this a mere a dumping ground of repressed memories that gave rise to complexes and strange dreams, Jung believed instead that all consciousness arises out of the unconscious. Freud considered the subconscious an arbitrary byproduct of consciousness, but for Jung, it’s the foundation of the whole model; unconsciousness preceded consciousness causally and, to some degree, temporally as well. He believed that the presence of such intense, obvious archetypal imagery in ancient mythologies, as well as a lived experience of mythological narratives in primitive cultures and ceremonies, indicated the growth and development of consciousness and reason out of the often bizarre-seeming quagmire of unconsciousness that Man so often finds himself terrorized by.
Jung believed that through the examination of dreams, the archetypes of a man’s unconsciousness can be observed. The behavior of these figures in dreams are more direct indicators of the state of a man’s unconsciousness than attempting to infer it from conscious rational thought and waking behavior, Jung believed, which is why so much of Jungian thought relies on the interpretation of dreams as informed by ancient and international mythology. If you know the basic pattern of an archetype, then you should be able to deduce what’s wrong with a person when that archetype is manifesting erratically in a person’s behavior—or so the theory goes.
This was all an attempt to construct a model by which knowing oneself is made possible, and it seems credible enough. Jung got a lot right in his analysis; there is a lot about ourselves that we cannot directly observe and that we do not have direct knowledge of—at least the most of us who aren’t saints. We may have nervous ticks, we have unconscious external tells, certain habitual behaviors we don’t usually notice, and modes of thinking that we take completely for granted. Jung’s mistake however is threefold: first, that reason alone is enough to illuminate the dark recesses of self-knowledge; second, because of this, his model ended up misinterpreting the nature of the soul; and third, this negatively affected his means of going about treatment.
Jung’s belief was that by scrutinizing the movements of the unconscious mind, we bring these elements into focus for us to rationally consider. This process, in theory, is the treatment. Pure reason alone should be enough to resolve a person’s mental instabilities, be it something as relatively simple as social anxiety or as drastic as, say, a disordered sexual orientation—which is amusing to consider given Jung’s propensity for fornication among his own patients (something that just about everyone involved with the early years of the psychology field did, and which still plagues the field today).
There are a number of problems with Jung’s theory and his method of treatment, and several of them are apparent right on its face. If the unconscious mind is something that cannot be directly observed except, perhaps, with intense scrutiny of dreams and the practice of meditation, then it isn’t possible for anyone to live with full reconciliation of their unconscious and consciousness. The light of reason that Jung talked about is only ever flashed upon the dark recesses of the mind like the beam of a flashlight, illuminating only so much at a time. No matter how much you struggle, this is how it’s always going to be.
Jung often compared reason to “a light kindled in the darkness of mere being,” (Memories, Dreams, and Reflections) Gnosticising the famous quote from St. John’s Gospel by reducing the divine light of Our Lord to the mere illumination of our personal intellects. This seemingly innocuous confusion of metaphors is more egregious than it initially lets on. We know, partly from St. John, that the world and all things in it are created things which are only comprehensible because of Our Lord’s existence. In terms of the metaphor, we can see things because there’s a light source; in much the same way, we know things because there is the divine Word. We do not create that knowledge so much as partake in it wherever it is, just as our eyes do not create light whenever we see an object being illuminated. What God asks of us is to reflect his divine light as perfectly as we can, and He offers us all the graces that make such a feat possible so long as we’re capable of receiving them. In other words, we’re already mirrors designed to reflect the divine light; but our ignorance—and worse, our sins—have clouded them so deeply that we cannot even recognize that this is the case.
So the quote from Jung reveals not only a flawed understanding of where reason originates, but what reason even is in the first place, and it does violence to God by attributing to mere men what is actually His. Think about this for a second. If the understanding of the very tool you’re using is this flawed, how can the treatment possibly be effective?
A View From Above
For atheists and modernists, the alternative is hard to stomach, chiefly because they’ve already turned their backs on the one thing that can help them. We have to remember that for the modernist, God is merely an option, actions have no significant consequences, and we can never really know anything for certain. Everything is in a state of flux, with an ever-evolving and ever-changing body of ideas. The self, too, is included in this vortex without end. The modernist position stated as such comes down to this: why bother knowing yourself if you’ll be different no matter what you do? You can’t step into the same river twice.
This is of course wrong. We can know things for certain. We can know for certain that the addition of one to another makes a total of two. We can know that something can’t be both what it is and what it isn’t at the same time.
When it comes to our psychology, however, there is some truth to what Jung says about the unconsciousness. There are aspects of ourselves that we cannot directly observe, at least at first. The reasons for this aren’t quite what Jung believes, but Jung’s understanding of the general idea was hardly novel even at the time.
Let’s go back to our mirror metaphor. We know that our awareness is like a mirror reflecting the light of God’s infinite goodness, truth, and beauty upon the world and upon ourselves. The more we orient the mirror toward God, the more of His light we can capture. The more we prepare ourselves in virtue and behavior, the less clouded and corroded the mirror becomes and thus the greater it can reflect God’s light.
Take this and put it into the context of knowing yourself and controlling your mental processes. It’s certainly true that there are aspects of ourselves that are difficult to directly observe. Whether these aspects form the majority of our selves or not is a matter of a person’s standing in virtue more than it is a hardwired certainty of being. It’s reasonable to assume that Jung was, of course, right in certain aspects: the existence of mental building blocks, or archetypes, that allow for complex thought processes to function is a perfectly reasonable assumption. How closely we can follow these things in our dreams is a matter for debate for some other time, but ultimately it seems like an irrelevant and pointless endeavor to even try.
We are reminded by the Catechism that nothing good can be done without God, as God is infinitely good and thus, it follows, all good actions are included in His goodness. Anything done without God lack goodness by definition. Jungian therapy, like all forms of psychology, aims to conquer the problems of the self with only the help of a trained therapist. Since there’s little to no room for God in the therapy room, you’re left wondering what the purpose of the exercise is in the first place. But put this another way: what are problems of the self? What is the self that psychology aims to help in the first place?
Given Jung’s description of the self, we can safely assume that it’s the secularist term for the soul. Problems with the self? Another secularist translation for sin. And like all attempts to de-sanctify the Holy, something gets lost in translation. Catholicism teaches that the soul is comprised of the will, the intellect, and the memory, and that all three of these things are founded upon a person’s essence. Jung’s model of the self involved the will, the consciousness, and the unconsciousness, with memories being part of the latter category, and what Catholics call the ‘essence’ being nebulously comprised of all three. It’s with this in mind that Jungian therapists seek to treat those suffering from psychological—and often in many cases, spiritual—anguish.
In her landmark book, The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila puts forward a model of the soul more complete than any secular psychologist or philosopher has ever managed since. Using the metaphor of a building (not unlike Jung, in some of his writings), St. Teresa elucidates what it means when Our Lord explained to his disciples that the “kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The soul, she says, is comprised of a castle that belongs to God, and within this castle are seven successive mansions each with many rooms. At the center of this castle is the throne room, where God himself dwells and out of which God’s light shines for us to find Him. She likens this image to a crystal, where his light reflects and refracts around the castle such that it illuminates the whole, but only insofar as the crystal is unclouded or unblemished by sin. With this, we are reminded of the mirror metaphor I mentioned above.
St. Teresa’s volume is one of the best places to start when beginning to develop your own interior life, which is another way of saying a life of prayer, self-knowledge, mastery, and submission to God. As Catholics, we know the meaning to life and we know why we were put here: to live a life pleasing to God and to devote ourselves to His will freely and without reservation. The development of our interior lives is crucial to this—more important than any social or political endeavors one could undertake except, perhaps, the abolition of abortion.
A pattern becomes clear as St. Teresa outlines the different mansions of interior life: most of the journey toward God isn’t really up to you. Contrary to what seems intuitive in today’s secular world, we have very little control over our relationship to God. That’s part of what a relationship to an infinitely loving, infinitely merciful, and infinitely just being entails: your will, inasmuch as it is contrary to what He wants of and for you, has no room to maneuver without severe consequences. What is up to us, however, is to experience ourselves turning toward Him so that we may better complete His plan for us.
Additionally, God’s knowledge being total, He knows us better than we know ourselves. We either know ourselves in part, due to our sin inhibiting our capacity for self-knowledge, or we know ourselves as God knows us, recognizing our totality and bringing that into friendship with Our Lord. The latter is the goal, of course, but by no means is the path towards that goal an easy one. By beginning our foray into our own interior castles, we begin the process of coming to know ourselves the way God already knows us, and it’s usually rough going at the start.
What all this means is that self-knowledge can only be sought out through the grace of God, and not through the sterile application of pure reason. Self-knowledge becomes more a matter of practicing appropriate self-control, adhering to good habits, and the general practices involved in cultivating virtue, in addition to daily contemplative prayer. In the cases where sin comes into the equation (most of us), the sacrament of penance is necessary to instill graces that a psychologist’s couch won’t. But that’s okay; that’s what penance is there for.
Self-help charlatans aren’t the answer. We know this. The answer’s been with us for a couple of millennia now. All He asks of us is to reach out and look for Him.