Reflections on Aphorisms #92

Today was a less productive day than I had hoped, but at least I got more physical activity (though not tremendously much so) and was able to get a little more writing done than I was able to do yesterday. Listened to a lot of audiobook stuff too, so that’s at least a sign that I didn’t just waste my time (though there was more of that than I’d care to admit to).

Aphorism 130

Few people know death, we only endure it, usually from determination, and even from stupidity and custom; and most men only die because they know not how to prevent dying.

François de La Rochefoucauld 

Interpretation

I can say without deceit that I have entered the happiest time of my life so far, yet I think that if I were to be faced with my mortality I would be more willing to let go of life now than I have ever been.

I think that there is something about being miserable that makes everything else less bearable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archetypal stories recently, and one thing struck me as funny.

This might be controversial, but I’ve decided to be radically honest and I’m not going to apologize for saying it.

There are a lot of stories where the characters can be either men or women without causing a change, and a lot of stories where the characters are locked into their gender. In the latter case, if you change the characters’ roles around they feel different.

And I think I’ve finally figured out what the reason for this is.

In the stories where characters can change without issue, it’s generally the story of the Hero, a completely actualized self. Look at Star Wars. A New Hope and The Force Awakens are basically the same storyline, and there is relatively little difference between Luke and Rey represent complete people, and despite the strong parallels (and differences, but generally parallels) between the two they are almost entirely undefined by their gender.

I’d compare this to the characters in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello goes through a breakdown of his psyche, and he becomes disintegrated. He becomes the pure essence of this wayward masculine element, and ultimately destroys his wife, his feminine counterpart, and thereby completes his tragic fall.

I think of the classic story of Sleeping Beauty, who is a very feminine figure in the archetypal sense. I think you could tell the story with a male character in the protagonist’s spot, but you’d wind up with some real difficulties as you go onward because it’s not the archetypal role of the masculine to do the things that Sleeping Beauty does. You couldn’t replace Maleficent with a man, either, because she represents the destructive feminine, the force that destroys that which intrudes into the unknown without being prepared, whereas the destructive masculine force is that of the tyrant and the destroyer within society who rejects change and the unknown.

But I’ve gone on a tangent. Let us return to Rochefoucauld.

Montaigne (he’s French too, so he counts as Rochefoucauld, right?) draws a contrast between the philosophers and the peasants. Philosophers spend countless hours trying to figure out how to live and how to die. Peasants have their lots assigned to them by birth. The philosophers struggle, toil, and despair. Peasants live with quiet dignity.

Of course, I think Montaigne oversimplifies and romanticizes matters.

But when Rochefoucauld says that most men die only because they don’t know how not to, I think it ties into this notion that most of us live deeply unfulfilling lives. At least when your life is set out ahead of you by an external force, you have the ability to follow a path set by someone other than yourself.

Death used to terrify me. I wouldn’t go outside because I was afraid of what I may find. I’ve got this lovely neurotic personality that hates going outside for a whole sort of reasons, I have terrible seasonal allergies (which flare up during both of the seasons that we get in Arizona), and I’m always capable of conjuring up the worst nightmare hell scenario that could possibly happen. I was never particularly prone to separation anxiety in the sense of being a whiny infant (by all accounts, my brother and I were pleasant children to be around), but I would worry and obsess over every possible woe that could befall my family members when they weren’t in my watchful care.

I still do, from time to time, especially when I’m putting things off and not using my time well.

But one of the things that has come to me as I’ve grown and particularly as I’ve dedicated myself to the study of philosophy and the mind is that it’s best to let go of most things.

If I step outside tomorrow and get hit by a falling airplane (or get hit by a falling airplane while asleep tonight), what flaw does it reflect in myself?

Nothing.

I’d much rather worry about taking one step forward than obsess over the past and the worst that could happen. When death comes for me, which I’m not planning on any time soon (by the grace of God), I don’t plan to grovel before it. Instead I’ll focus on what I’ve done, and what I can do with the time I have left.

Resolution

Don’t sweat the small stuff. (Hey, I’m even willing to punctuate emotionally raw reflections with cliches, and I’m not trying to be flippantly dismissive. Judge me as you wish!)

Become the full human, whatever that takes.

There is a lot to regret, but no reason to spend time doing so.

Reflections on Aphorisms #87

Lots of work to do, got most of it done. What hasn’t been done can get done tomorrow.

That’s a good place to be in.

More weird dreams. I wonder if there’s a sort of Jungian “Once you find out the meaning, the dreams will stop” thing going on for me right now.

Aphorism 125

To establish ourselves in the world we do everything to appear as if we were established. (Maxim 56)

François de La Rochefoucauld

Interpretation

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in myself and in many students is that there’s a tendency to posture as if one is better than one is.

I mean, heck, I just got into grad school by using a writing sample that received probably the most editing of anything I’ve ever written in my life, and which took the usually freeing writing process and turned it into something a little bit painful.

I’m proud of it, but it definitely isn’t the sort of effort I can really put out reliably, which is half the reason I’m going back to school.

So there’s an irony there: the pressure to get into a spot where I can improve myself requires that I look good.

Of course, this has a positive side-effect. I’ve improved myself and forced myself into a sort of initiation on the road to further improvement.

But it does feel kind of silly.

There is a darker side to this, namely the use of posturing rather than actual improvement.

This isn’t actually unique to this field.

One of the ways to conceive our lives is as a heroic struggle, basically Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I don’t think that this by itself is sufficient to cover everything, but it’s enough to really get one thinking about the role we play in our world.

If we look at life as a series of challenges that we must overcome on the way to something greater, we have three things that really need to happen:

  1. One must overcome their challenges.
  2. One must find the way (Way, perhaps).
  3. One must turn that into betterment.

There is room for deception at each of these steps, both self-deception (Jung’s Shadow) and deception of others for personal gain.

The problem with deception is that it’s very hard to keep your stories straight. Once one walks the way of deception they lose the way of the hero, or the Way. Let us not forget that Christ uses the terms “the way, the truth, and the life” in a strong statement of divinity, illustrating the importance of finding the right path for life as being equal not only to truth but also to life itself, and to an extent as a way of finding God. Note that this is something of a theological blunder, so don’t read too much into it. I just don’t have better words right now. The Way, understood as an archetype or otherwise, is just very important.

There’s something to be said for the idea that strength attracts strength. We desire the desirable, unless some charity works within us. For this reason we often try to posture and present our best face forward, trying to be that which we are not so that we can enjoy the privileges of that which we wish to be.

Resolution

Be the real deal.

Don’t deceive.

Find the Way and take it as far as it leads.

Reflections on Aphorisms #58

Ugh, I’m falling back into a rut.

I’m going to make myself go get some serious exercise tomorrow morning and cut back on caffeine to try and make things easier. I’m just having issues focusing on anything, which is not a good recipe for being productive.

With that said, let’s begin.

Aphorism 92

In summary, modernity replaced process with result and the relational with the transactional.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Newton sparked a shift in our understanding of the world toward a modern empirical “rational” model.

Jung’s work with archetypes has become so significant in our day and age, because the change is so fundamental that we left a lot of things behind in our haste.

Now, it’s worth noting that the modern view probably presents a better objective picture of the world. It’s blind to everything outside our senses, and as a result it tends to result in less bias.

However, the shift from the classical and ancient to the modern also deprived us of things.

Alchemy, for instance, when understood psychologically, provides a series of changes and alterations that can impact the mind. The four steps of classical alchemy (darkening, whitening, yellowing, reddening) each reflect a life process; losing innocence, finding virtue, and so on and so forth.

Now, there were alchemists who believed in literally making things into gold, but even they were enlightened to the psychological nature (or willfully blind to it) of the field because of the notion of “as above, so below” that pervades alchemical thought.

This “as above, so below” is what we lost in the transition to the modern age.

The alchemists associated everything with great mythical and religious mysteries. Nothing existed without a will guiding it, a divine spark of being that led it to act in the way it did.

The work of Newton and Einstein serves us a whole lot better when we wish to accomplish things, but it lacks the integration with a cohesive worldview that the alchemists enjoyed.

When Taleb says we have replaced the process with the result, he refers to how we have stripped the psychological valence from everyday things.

The word “profane” actually serves as an antonym to the word “holy” in its function. We have stripped the mysteries of life of their sacred meaning, and we do so at our own peril. Think of the mystery of conception and child-birth (now considered little more than a biological process) or the mystery of the sun and moon cycles. These dominated myth, and are often given value by even relatively secularized and ecumenical religions.

A diagram showing an overview of common sacred and profane elements over time. Made by me. The faded colors on the modern side indicate increased individual variance.

The concept of the sacred and profane still exists, though it is hidden in different language and the responses have changed. We have some common elements between them (namely, social elites are always associated with being sacred figures, outsiders or ignorant people are considered profane), but the actual functioning of this is different.

Some of this stems from the fact that individuals have a greater latitude for independent moral judgment in the modern age, creating a greater variance in what is classified as sacred or profane. Part of it is also simply down to the fact that reason-based worldviews, though often flawed, should not require as much dogmatic conviction as, say, a faith-based worldview would. In thepry, dogmatic conviction is supposed to be diametrically opposed to rational thought, though it is never too far off in practice.

One of the things that has also changed here is the relationship. Some of this has to do with increased size of social circles, but it also comes down to what is sacred.

Most “sacred” (here referring to both religious and secular cultural expressions) traditions place a strong value on the family, and this is what archetypal thought goes back into. The family serves as a model for future interactions outside the family, because it is the most familiar unit of relationships (see the etymological relation?) but also the earliest that most people have conscious experience of.

A strictly rational worldview, however, doesn’t necessarily view relationship as being terribly important. So long as one fulfills obligations, and obligations are fulfilled in return, the transaction is completed to mutual benefit.

Falling more in the ancient than the modern camp in this issue, I think that this was a defining reason for my stressed relationships with many of my more modern-minded family members. Coming from a position that I have always held where certain things are expected in a relationship (with some degree of flexibility to respect the individual; i.e. you wouldn’t ask the same things of every mother or every brother), the fact that many of my family members felt and experienced love in a more transactional way was lost on me as a youth.

Now, I don’t want to condemn this; the people that I find to be like this are often great role models, but the difference in communication creates perceived deficiencies.

I think it’s also fair to say that we’re not wholly modern. Or, perhaps, that the modern worldview has not wholly dominated the collective conscious expression of humanity.

Resolution

Be patient with those different from myself.

Don’t forget to speak the same language as other people.

Reflections on Aphorisms #56

I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary today and focus on a quote from something that I read that isn’t really an aphorism for one of my reflections. It’s a quote from Clyde W. Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link), and I found it very interesting for its clarity.

Typically I’ve tried to gravitate toward short aphorisms, but I’m beginning to exhaust the ones that I have at my disposal that speak to me, so I’m probably going to wind up going over a greater range.

This is both exactly what I hoped would happen when I started doing this, and something that I feel a certain amount of hesitation over. Ironically, I don’t even keep close track of who reads these, so this may just be me writing for myself anyway. Lest I sound vain, I do this as part of a self-improvement exercise, and I’m not able to work diligently without some accountability, so the publication of my thoughts is a necessity toward a different end than fame or success. Still, I won’t object to any money thrown my way.

Aphorism 90

Across time and throughout the world, the hero strides out of myths and legends as the one who has ventured beyond the security of the present into an uncertain future, there to claim some victory or boon for humanity left behind.

Clyde W. Ford

Interpretation

The Hero, in an archetypal sense, turns chaos into order. That is what they do.

I do not believe that I have ever heard the notion of the hero expressed as a traveler in time before. That is something that is an important concept, because time and space have both unique and parallel expressions in consciousness.

I like the notion of the hero moving into an uncertain future, which speaks to me in a way that I don’t often hear.

We have a tendency to think of stories as something static, something that gets set in stone and never changes.

Of course, there’s also Reader Response Theory, which argues that stories are always what people make of them, but I don’t like holistic approaches to understanding because they’re never as good as what you come to piecemeal.

The truth is somewhere in-between. Stories have the intended meaning of the author (RRT doesn’t deny this, but basically ignores it) and their more immediate purpose and meaning in our lives.

There’s a link here in the form of the archetypal, Jung would say the collective unconscious, elements that are common across all times and places. People can see the archetypes and connect to them, even if they are not aware and conscious of what the archetypes are.

A lot of these archetypes are most clearly expressed in myth–which does not mean that myths are simple and primitive–because ancient myths carry meaning for us only in the sense that we are aware of it. There are things that an American will see that would never occur to an ancient Arabian, or African, or Asian, or Greek mind. There are things that were very important in the original context that have fallen away from our knowledge (and knowing these can allow us to make even more connections which sometimes are obvious in their universal quality only once we awaken to them).

But the real thing here is that the Hero moves from the current unbearable world into the world of chaos and potential. It’s a cosmic force, in the literal sense; it is the sun rising in the east and falling in the west, being brought across the sky on a fiery chariot.

And this is why we have anything good at all. Everyone is a hero when they move the world in a better direction. It is the act of sacrifice for a noble purpose, even if the sacrifice seems insignificance (sacrifice is, loosely defined, merely giving up something in the tangible present for intangible benefit), and this is what builds society.

The Hero is the basic unit of life. We can choose to rise to the call or fall into squalor.

Resolution

Step into the uncertain future.

Sacrifice now, feast later.

Tell the stories that lead to the way of life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #43

Time for another set of reflections on aphorisms. Today was more productive than yesterday, though there were a few setbacks. My new goal is to make tomorrow more productive than today.

At this point, who knows how much I’ll have improved by Friday?

Aphorism 68

Force is not a remedy.

John Bright

Interpretation

Well, this is certainly a goldmine.

There’s three things that I think we should look at here:

The “force” of fitting things into the human mode.

The “force” of political systems.

The “force” of our own wills.

The first is probably the most dangerous. We have a way of contemplating the world that is human-centric. This is only natural, because it’s where our values lie, and I’m a proud human supporter, so I don’t think it’s immoral either.

The problem is that our world is not cultivated and improved like a bonsai garden. There’s a line in C.S. Lewis’ work about Aslan, who’s sort of a God/Christ figure that takes the form of a sapient lion.

“He’s not a tame lion.”

Barring the commentary about God, it’s also true about the universe. We’ve got our views and perspectives on the universe, but in the end we’re grasping at straws. To grasp is better than to abstain (and we may even by fluke get close to truth), but it is still mere grasping.

The force of political systems is something that’s become a big concern for me recently. I hate talking politics, but I feel like something has to be said.

The first step in making the world a better place is to remember that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and it’s not just a literal hell. We’re coming off of a century where the action of government created the closest thing one can imagine to the metaphysical state of Hell, and we’re pretty close to doing it again.

Everyone should take a step back and ask if their actions really work, abandoning all pretense of coercion or forcing others into compromises. It’s going to (perhaps literally, at least spiritually) kill us all if we don’t.

Last but not least is the force of our wills.

One of the concepts that haunted me in my youth and later came to be known by me in more practical, identifiable terms is the archetypal notion of the Dragonslayer.

The Dragonslayer is an archetype that is defined by tragic confrontation; it’s embodied by Beowulf, Captain Ahab, Coriolanus, and even Christ (in a sense, since the sacrifice of the cross came with spiritual torment as well and would have shattered Christ’s lessers).

It’s what a person looks like when they bring their full force of will to bear on a problem, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that where we see the Dragonslayer we rarely see slain dragons, or at least not ones that were slain without great sacrifice.

The will itself doesn’t do anything. It’s the sacrifice that does. Trying to use force when surrender is called for can doom the Dragonslayer to destruction.

Resolution

Don’t point at others’ things and say “Mine!”

Remember that it is sacrifice, not willful opposition, that makes the world go ’round.

Before knocking down the door, check if it’s locked.

Aphorism 69

There is nothing useless in nature; not even uselessness itself.

Montaigne

Interpretation

I’m not quite sure what the best way to approach this is, but I feel an affinity for Montaigne so I think I understand what he’s saying here.

Side-note: Apparently everyone who reads Montaigne thinks they have an affinity for Montaigne, so take this with a grain of salt.

The idea here is that there’s a purpose to everything, at least in terms of utility (though not necessarily cosmic destiny; that’s going too far).

One of the important things here is understanding that it’s a matter of perspective. You can look at things a bunch of different ways, and there are ways to view things that definitely have a negative impact (e.g. catastrophizing) or a positive ways.

It’s a call to see the silver lining in the clouds, basically.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay. You want a visual metaphor? I’ll give you a visual metaphor!

Another point is to engage in some lateral thinking. We’re in an incredibly complex system and things work together in ways that are more complicated than the individual parts (and even the individual parts may have more to them than they at first seem to carry).

One of the things that seems counter-intuitive is that working less may wind up being more productive, because overworking oneself leads to burnout and fatigue.

Case in point: uselessness (at least in the right context) is useful. It’s good to delegate tasks to others as is fit and also to embrace a little time for rest and relaxation, so long as it does not become destructive to other opportunities and endeavors.

The secret is this: there is no secret. (Welcome to cliche-town!)

Really, though. It’s not about becoming obsessed over some grand secret, some alchemist-esque magnum opus that will lead you away from the rigors of everyday existence. It’s not about some grand third-eye awakening (though there’s also a mystery to everything that the strictly rational miss out on).

You just have to realize that you don’t know as much as you think you do, and broaden your search.

Resolution

Never assume that you know what something is for.

There is a utility to be found in everything.

Adapt to what is around you, and remember that a change in context can be a change in everything.

The Meaning of the Samaritan

I recently got to thinking about the story of the Good Samaritan. An outcast who is rejected by his society, the Good Samaritan represents someone who is good for goodness’ sake.

It is not for nothing that people often consider the Good Samaritan to be a Christ figure. After all, both were rejected by their society despite having a benevolent heart.

The Samaritan threatens us because he subverts our expectations. While other people, including those whom society would favor, ignore the problems around them, the Samaritan goes out of his way and takes great personal risk to help a stranger. Even more, the stranger is one who would consider him an enemy. He helped someone, possibly saving their life, at his own expense and without hope of a reward.

I’m familiar with the work of Carol Pearson, an academic who applied Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s theories to the field of personal development. One of her books, Awakening the Heroes Within (Amazon affiliate link), became a major part of how I taught students about the Hero’s Journey.

I believe that the Good Samaritan represents an example of the hero brought to fruition, in a sense that agrees with both Campbell’s theme of the transformative Hero’s Journey but also Pearson’s idea of archetypal wholeness.

The Good Samaritan is someone who has mastered their self. By bringing their own needs into subordination, an act which requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice, they were capable of gathering together the virtue required to live a good life.

The stoics write about virtue as a product of self-examination end of mastery over circumstance. Later, Christians would adopt many of the most notable stoics as virtuous pagans; people who were inferior for lack of knowing Christ, but who nonetheless could be granted some sort of credence as guides to a moral life despite their ignorance because their virtues aligned with the Christian virtues.

This Samaritan walks a similar path. Without the benefit of being included in what we would consider the religious elite, he nonetheless achieves virtue greater than any of the people in Christ’s parable who would have been seen as members of the in-group.

We often hear the story of the Samaritan presented as an injunction to do good, or an injunction to treat others as our neighbors who we would not considered be our neighbors. I would interpret it differently. There is certainly a valid element to both of those interpretations, but I think it is a story of perfected morality. The Samaritan has achieved virtue, and from an unexpected place.

Both Christ and the Samaritan are reflections of the same archetypal hero. The Samaritan represents a need to seek the same heroic Destiny in our own lives; it is a call to become what we need to become to make the world a better place. The examples of the travelers who passed the wounded man represent people who have not come to a full self. Many of them seem to be virtuous. However, this surface virtue merely hides deeper problems.

They live in fear, condemnation, or busyness. They fail to prioritize others as the highest good. They have not fully developed themselves, and are slaves to their needs instead of individuals who can contribute to society.

It’s only by learning to overcome these things, a process which Pearson equates with progressing through certain archetypes of the personality, that we can begin to contribute all that we can to make him the world bathroom. Before this, not only do we run the risk causing harm, but we lack the understanding that what appears to us to be detrimental or sacrificial in the short-term will be a benefit for everyone in the end.

Reflections on Aphorisms #12

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 19

At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

The notion that one has to choose priorities is not new. I believe there’s a saying in the Bible that one cannot love both God and money. At very least, it is attributed to the Bible.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily Fair to make so absolute statements about human motivation. One thing that I is that there tends to be almost archetypal layers of being that drive station. This is to say that people have stages of their life in which the desire certain things, and these are not necessarily easily categorized by simply describing them as, say, wealth or family.

However one thing that I have observed, and which seems brilliantly clear, is that people are poor judges of themselves. Shakespeare’s Brutus, in the play “Julius Caesar”, says about himself that the eye sees not its own reflection. This is a metaphor that Brutus uses to explain that he does not pass judgment on himself, or rather, does not allow himself to make judgments as to his own virtue, because it is not something which is easily knowable. It would seem natural the person that we know best is our self, but in reality we tend only to see the first order effects of our actions. It is those around us see who we truly are because they have to deal with the consequences we create.

To get back to the original point, there’s something to be said for the pursuit of the Balanced Life, but it is also something which is unnatural. It is a common tragic trope that a character cannot deal with all the parts of their life that they need to deal with. Because we go through immense changes over the course of Our Lives, the inability to truly assess our own motives and to accurately prioritize many factors of our being poses a great threat to us. This is one of the reasons why the suffering of a tragic hero is so cathartic.

My Life

I often used Carol Pearson’s psychological archetypes (Amazon affiliate link) to teach the Hero’s Journey to my students. The reason for this is that represents transition through a hierarchy of needs.

In my life right now, I am focusing on pursuing knowledge, figuring out more the truths of reality while also mastering my trade of writing and teaching.

One thing that’s interesting about Pearson’s archetypes is that she presents the notion that a highly successful person achieves balance, but each archetype has a sort of order in which they come.

The ideal is to transcend the limitations that come with uncertainty. In the works of Jung and other analytical psychologists, there’s often this concept of a balance between order and chaos.

In my own life, I seek to find the balance between these things. Having too much order breeds limitation. One never learns how to truly live if one only follows rules. Too much chaos, one and can never really pursue purpose. It is lost inside the void.

Pearson presents the Sage and the Fool as the final archetypes in development. We would associate these with wisdom. The Sage pursues the right order of the universe, and the Fool its potential.

When I was a child I was referred to as old for my age. Some people even called me wise, though I believe this was perhaps more because I parroted what they wanted to hear than because of any particular merit of my own upon later reflection. In any case, I value wisdom highly, something that has been impressed upon me since I was a child reading the Bible story of King Solomon.

To get back to the point, I think that there is a distinction between setting a goal, which can be clearly focused on something like wealth or family, and finding meaning, which is more holistic in nature.

Resolution

Work towards clear goals.

Reorient frequently enough that I do not lose sight of what is important.

Go beyond what is comfortable.

On the Collective Unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is heavily misunderstood. It’s not quackery; it’s based on the assertion that there are biological or memetic imperatives that have been passed down from generation to generation, and also parts of the unconscious mind that function in a way that are common between people.

One can argue about Jung’s implementation, especially about whether or not the archetypes he identified are accurate and meaningful, but there seems to be a very concrete provable fact here: the psychology of people seems to bear commonalities, even in what would be considered extreme outliers.

Now, whether you want to argue about the more specific cases, like those of mythological figures appearing in unconnected contexts, Jung’s notion of synchronicity (mutual meanings, but diverse causes) is important as well: if dragons appear in mythology around the world, there does not need to be a real dragon or a social connection for those things to form. Instead, those can be independent functions of the way that people perceive the world and form a conception of the unknown.

Think of the collective unconscious as this: if you put three people in a white featureless room with a red circle painted on one wall, they will all see the red circle and Jung would argue that they all perceive the same thing.

The value they derive from that circle comes from the conscious mind. One person might consider it an eyesore, one might think that it has deep symbolic meaning, and one might fear the unknown entity.

However, they might have associations with the red that are common. If it were a crimson shade, it might evoke the effect of blood.

Thus, the collective unconscious may have deep and complex elements as Jung proposed, but it almost certainly exists at least in a form as a consequence of the brain’s physiology and common formative experiences with universal human concepts (like the risk of injury).

Disclaimer: I’ve read Jung, but I’m not a master of his work. This is sort of a rambling trying to make sense of his work rather than a masterful explication of it.

Being a Hero

One of the things that I often struggle with is explaining to people why literature is important.

It’s not for lack of faith in the topic, or any particular hesitancy to share, it’s just a complex matter.

However, I’ve been doing some reflecting recently and I think I’ve come up with a good explanation.

Stories teach us how to be a Hero. Not a little-h hero, but a capital-H hero; someone who engages with the universe.

Continue reading “Being a Hero”

Review and Reflection: Man and His Symbols

Recently I finished reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols (affiliate link), and it’s been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, albeit a difficult one.

I’m going to start off with a review of it, then move into my more personal thoughts to better organize them.

Review

I read Man and His Symbols on Kindle, and it was well-formatted and organized. All the illustrations appeared clear and there were no perceptible typographical issues.

Looking at a book like Man and His Symbols it is hard to give a definitive review because of its nature. It is an overview of a lifetime of work, compiled not only by Jung himself but also by Joseph L. Henderson, M.-L. von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi.

The foreword by John Freeman is also of interest, and helps quite a deal in preparing the reader for what they should know about Jung.

Man and His Symbols is the first book by or about Jung that I have ever read, so I approach it as a novice who had some knowledge of Jung’s analytical psychology, but not strictly speaking all but the briefest of understandings. My knowledge was influenced more heavily by people like Joseph Campbell and Carol Pearson who have built on Jung’s ideas but approached them in a much different direction.

So with that said, many of the concepts were at least familiar to me, though my understanding of them was far different from what Jung’s intent was, colored as I was by casual discussions and partial understandings.

Actually reading Jung’s work first-hand in a manner intended for novices like myself changed my understanding of his philosophy and understanding of the psyche dramatically.

Each of the writers featured in the book has their own approach and intent, but the core concepts remain the same. In this way, I think that Man and His Symbols may actually be an ideal introduction to the work of Jung; Aniela Jaffé’s interpretations of symbolism in art particularly helped me break down some of the concepts.

Through drawing on the various authors, Man and His Symbols becomes a conversation as much as it is a statement, and it is much better for it.

I have launched into Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul in audiobook format, and the comparison of the two perhaps best presents an opportunity to describe Man and His Symbols in a way that makes sense.

Man and His Symbols is a survey of Jung’s ideas. It’s deep nonetheless, but the traversal into this depth is assisted by the various inflections that the different contributors to the volume add. It benefits from having a vast array of inputs, including connections to mythology and legend as well as anecdotes and examples of psychoanalysis in practice. This give an opportunity to fully express the notions it contains, but not necessarily to explore them fully. It is a starting point for further reading, either of Jung or those who were inspired by him.

There were things in Man and His Symbols which I understood the concept of, but not all the nuance of. Jung’s explanation of the collective unconsciousness, for instance, didn’t really click for me: I understood what its role was, but not what its essence was.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a different sort; it is a very detailed study of one particular topic, and while it too draws from mythology, anecdotes, and psychoanalysis in practice it is much more deep: if it were the first work of Jungian analytical psychology that I had read I would be greatly distressed by trying to understand it, but as a follow-up to Man and His Symbols it is quite interesting.

So, in short, my review of Man and His Symbols is best summed up in the following: If you want to know more about Jung and you are willing to spring further into reading, Man and His Symbols is invaluable. If you want a survey of Jung followed by interpretations by his followers, Man and His Symbols is incredible. If you are already familiar with Jung and understand his work, but you want to dive into the deepest depths of Jung’s works, Man and His Symbols contains interesting overviews. It is not that it is shallow, but it is merely scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of Jung’s total work.

Reflection

Man and His Symbols is an interesting book, to say the least. As far as reading books for the purpose of self improvement, it’s definitely in the top five or so books that I’ve read, and I know for a fact that Jung influenced Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life I not only enjoyed but also benefited personally from; Jung’s work is also referenced in Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which I have been reading on-and-off for a longer amount of time than I care to admit to (admittedly, it is a rather voluminous tome).

While finishing up reading Man and His Symbols I also listened to Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, though I did not write reflections on it and I don’t currently plan to. However, there is an interesting intersection here.

One of Jung’s teachings is the collective subconscious, and while Haidt’s work seems at first to dissuade from such an assertion (after all, he finds that moral judgments are generally culturally instilled), he has also found moral foundations that seem to underlie these moral decisions.

In essence, what people value, and how they perceive the outcomes of actions, influence their tastes. The moral foundations seem to be themselves tied to some sort of universal human mode (assuming, of course, that they are not hogwash) of thought. This seems to line up well with the notion of Jung’s collective subconscious, and help to explain theories of the mind and how it interacts with archetypes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have put off writing this reflection for almost a week, and in that time I have also listened to a good portion of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which means that my reflections are therefore colored by both Haidt’s work and further readings of Jung.

Since reading Man and His Symbols, I have become very conscious of my dreams. I do not mean that I am hyperaware of them, though I think I may remember them better than I used to because I have placed an increased importance on them, but rather that I spend more time reflecting upon them.

The results of such a self-assessment can be both encouraging and discouraging. On one hand, I have been able to reduce my stress and give myself a more positive outlook on life (though the portion of my life that I have entered into is the happiest of my life, and God willing it will remain so), but on the other I ask more questions, more deeply.

In this sense, reading Man and His Symbols has created for me a small conundrum, namely that of self-analysis, which carries dangers in and of itself (Shakespeare is not errant when he writes that the eye sees not its own reflection), but it has also practically helped me to sort out some of my anxieties. As someone familiar with Pearson’s work, the concepts of the shadow and the archetype are not novel to me, but Jung’s explanation is derived from his fascination with the mind, rather than the more practical slant that Pearson takes.

A year ago, I would have disdained Jung as being quasi-mystical. I don’t deny that there is an element of the mystic in him, but my perspective on that aspect of his life has changed. Jung is clearly in awe of that great unknowable, ineffable, uniquely human element of the mind-psyche-soul that blends conscious and unconscious.

Reading Jung, one is struck by how much less we have learned than we think we have. Haidt writes about people who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and how they are paralyzed by analysis and make worse decisions than their uninjured counterparts.

Jung presents the unconscious in a way that one cannot help but draw parallels to the role that emotion plays. The subconscious is powerful and we cannot understand it (at least at present, but probably we will never understand it). As someone who is religious, this doesn’t particularly bother me, since my own personal belief is that the subconscious is potentially a connection to God and things beyond ourselves, and this seems to mesh with Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious

The anima and animus concept were known to me at a very basic level before I read Man and His Symbols, but I didn’t really understand them until after reading (or, at least, understand them as well as I now do). I think that it’s an interesting thing to consider, especially when looking at characters and how they’re portrayed/developed in fiction.

Part of what I really enjoyed about the book and is probably more personal than broadly applicable is the way that it really helps draw connections between symbols. I spent a lot of time studying literature before I ever really learned to identify symbolism, and that’s something I’ve been trying to compensate for now that I’m aware of what I was missing out on.