The Modern Poverty of Symbols



Jung notes that the concept of the collective unconscious was never necessary in previous centuries. Dogma, creed, and ritual provided a "container" for the expressions of the archetypes. He singles out the Catholic church in the Dark and Middle Ages as an example of this, while noting that the ancient mysteries provided the same service.

*****Mankind has never lacked powerful images to lend magical aid against all the uncanny things that live in the depths of the psyche. Always the figures of the unconscious were expressed in protecting and healing images, and in this way were expelled from the psyche into cosmic space.
The iconoclasm of the Reformation, however, quite literally made a breach in the protective wall of sacred images, and since then one image after another has crumbled away. They became dubious, because they conflicted with awakening reason.
That the gods die from time to time isdue to man's sudden discovery that they do not mean anything, that they are made with human hands, useless idols of wood and stone. In reality, however, he has merely discovered that up till then he has never thought about his images at all. And when he starts thinking about them, he does so with the help of what he calls "reason"-- which is nothing more than the sum total of all his prejudices and myopic views.
The history of Protestantism has been one of chronic iconoclasm. One wall after another fell. We all know how, in large things as in small, in general as well as in particular, piece after piece collapsed, and how the alarming poverty of symbols that is now the condition of our life came about. The disintegration of Protestantism into nearly four hundred denominations is yet a sure sign that the restlessness continues. The Protestant is cast out into a state of defenseless that might well make the natural man shudder. His enlightened consciousness, of course, refuses to take cognizance of this fact, and is quietly looking elsewhere for what has been lost.*****

(Ed.) The passage refers to the sound reasons why all mystery schools put the aspirant through an apprenticeship before investing him with the central mysteries. The unprepared consciousness withstands raw experience with archetypal material at its peril. For example, let's take the expression of one archetype which is found in the Quaker phrase, "There is that of God in everyone." The unprepared person, when experiencing not just the intellectual idea but the rush of archetypal power which lies behind this phrase, is as likely as not to undergo ego inflation, and perhaps to think of himself as the actual historical Jesus. I've seen 'em in nut wards everywhere. I also like his take on reason, although I think he is unnecessarily pessimistic. "Myopic" it is, indeed, and by design. The nature of concentration is that you eliminate most of what could be in your awareness for the sake of focussing on something in particular. CGJ's take on this is a necessary tonic for the over-valuation of reason which has occurred in the West since the Renaissance, and especially since the Enlightenment. Shakespeare said something like, "There is more in heaven and earth than can be found in your philosophy." (I think it was Hamlet to Polonius.)

*****I am convinced that the growing impoverishment of symbols has a meaning. It is a development that has an inner consistency. Everything we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost. Anyone who has lost the historical symbols and cannot be satisfied with substitutes is certainly in a very difficult position today. He sees himself forced to be serious for once with his alleged trust in God, though it usually turns out that his fear of things going wrong if he did so is even more persuasive. This fear is far from unjustified, for where God is closest, the danger seems greatest.*****

(Ed.) A lot of why I turned to hermetic studies is for just this reason: the poverty of the images I grew up with. In Tarot, Qabala and alchemy I find images which are still productive, which "thicken the plot" so to speak.


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