Carl Jung’s Myth of the West

We’ve been reading Catfalque. This is Peter Kingsley’s most recent take on the Presocratics but this time explored through the life and work of Carl Jung. It is a satisfying read and gives one a sense of the depth that goes missing in many other Jungian views.

However, there was one thing that bothered me. Kingsley kept on insisting on the uniqueness of the West, that Westerners must focus on their own culture instead of looking to the East or elsewhere. For a scholar of the ancient world, this seems simplistic and naive. East and West, as we now know it, is not a distinction ancient people would have made. The Greeks were more concerned with differentiating themselves from Barbarians, including the tribal people of Europe that were to the west and north of their own lands.

Those Presocratics never thought of themselves as Westerners, except in a relative sense in talking about those to the east of them, but certainly not as a monolithic identity. In fact, they were part of a syncretistic tradition that was heavily influenced by the far and near East, often by way of Egypt. Some early Greek thinkers gave credit to African-ruled Egypt as the original source of great art and philosophy. This would be more fully embraced later on in Hellenism. Greek medicine, for example, may have been shaped by Eastern teachings.

We know that many Greeks had traveled East, as had many Easterners traveled to the Greek and Greco-Roman world. This included Buddhists and Hindus. This was true into the period of the Roman Empire when supposedly there was a Buddhist temple on the Sea of Galilee. The North African church father Augustine was originally a Manichaean before he converted to Christianity, and his early faith was an amalgamation of Judaic baptismal cult, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism. Besides, the Greeks themselves were a wandering people who originated from somewhere else, and throughout their history they kept wandering about.

In following Jung’s own cultural defensiveness, Kingsley argues that we Westerners have to look to our own sacred origins and that there is a danger of doing otherwise. But Kingsley is an American, a culture of a thousand influences. And Jung was a northern European. Like most other supposed ‘Westerners’, neither probably had any ancestral roots in the ancient people of Greece nor the Greco-Roman Gnostics that Jung and Kingsley see as the heirs of the Presocratics.

The Gnostics were essentially the original Christians which formed out of Judaism which in turn was from the Near East. Judeo-Christianity, Gnostic or otherwise, was a foreign introduction to the Greco-Roman world and even more foreign to the far west and north of Europe. If Jung was looking for sacred origins of his own ancestral inheritance, he would’ve been more wise to look to the tribal paganism that was wiped out by the onslaught of Greco-Roman thought and imperialism. Christianization of Europe was a genocidal tragedy. Paganism held on in large parts of Europe into the Middle Ages and some Pagan traditions survived into modernity.

Our criticism isn’t with the respect given to these non-Western influences that took over the West. We are likewise fascinated by the Presocratics and Gnostics. But we feel no need to rationalize that they belong to us nor us to them. They are foreigners, both in space and time. The ancient Greeks were never a single people. As with the Celts and Jews, to be Greek in the ancient world was a very loose and, at times, extensive identity (Ancient Complexity). Many of the famous Greek thinkers technically weren’t ethnically Greek. It’s similar to how the Irish adopted the trade culture of the Celts, even though they are of Basque origins.

So, what is this fear* of the East seen in Jung’s reluctance while in India? And why has Kingsley adopted it? We are typical American mutts with some possible non-European ancestry mixed in, from African to Native American. And we were raised in a hodge-podge of New Age religion with much Eastern thought and practice thrown in. We have no sacred origins, no particular ancestral homeland. Even our European ancestry originated in different parts of Europe, although none from Italy or Greece, much less the Levant. The Presocratics and Gnostics aren’t our people.

So, it doesn’t bother us to seek wisdom wherever we can find it. It doesn’t cause us fear, in the way it did for Jung. He worried about losing himself and, as he had experienced psychotic breaks earlier in his life, it was a genuine concern. He needed a sense of being rooted in a tradition to hold himself together, even if that rootedness was an invented myth. And that doesn’t really bother us. We are still admirers of Jung’s work, as we appreciate Kingsley’s work.

We understand why Jung, having lived through the world war catastrophe that tore apart the Western world, sought a vision of a renewed Western tradition. It may have seemed like a useful and necessary story, but it poses its own dangers. Even if it really was useful then, we question that it is useful now.

* Why didn’t Carl Jung visit Ramana Maharshi after being told by both Zimmer and Brunton?, from Beezone. It has been argued that Carl Jung borrowed his notion of ‘the Self’ from Hinduism, and this notion was key to his own teachings. Maybe this was the fear, that the meeting point between the two cultures would simply overwhelm his own view and overwhelm his own psyche.

6 thoughts on “Carl Jung’s Myth of the West

  1. This is fascinating and very useful to me, as I continue to try to ‘make sense’ of the world (a tragic characteristic of the Jungian type INTJ). I enjoy your writing style, as well–clear and flowing. Three of my grandparents were born in Greece, but after decades of looking into what is now Modern Greece (not the older “Frogs around a pond” Greece) I realize it means little with respect to the Ancient Greek culture(s) and ways. It may be here, earlier, where I opined that Jung was a shaman trapped in Switzerland, which was apparently frustrating for him. His memoir “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” is, in my view, one of the great books of “the West.” Now entering my last phase at age 83, I am beginning to perceive that all these cultural boundaries are illusions, but I can’t describe the reality that lies beyond, except to refer to what an intelligent 3-year old child, anywhere, may perceive.

    • I agree. it is fascinating. And I like to think it’s a useful perspective. It’s been on my mind for a while.

      There is the fact that modern identities (races, ethno-nationalities, cultural civilizations, etc) simply don’t map onto the ancient world and particularly not the archaic world. That is why I find early history so fascinating. It truly is a foreign land.

      There was a series of posts I wrote, one of which is linked above, the one titled Ancient Complexity (two others were linked in that post). I find it amusing that, in the ancient world, no one was quite certain who was a Jew. Identities were so amorphous and constantly shifting. The idea of entirely distinct people is a modern concept.

      The Jews were originally probably just a mix of refugees from numerous civilizations that collapsed in the late Bronze Age. They slowly coalesced and eventually formed tribes.

      A similar pattern happened with the death and destruction that wiped out so many Native Americans in the eastern United States. Many of the survivors fled and reformed entirely new tribes further West and these new tribes were violent and apocalyptic, not unlike the earliest ‘Semites’.

      As for the message Jung conveyed, I also enjoyed “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”. But it was long ago when I read it. Kingsley does discuss that and much else, with particular focus on the Red Book, a truly beautiful book. The point Kingsley makes is that few understood Jung and much of his views were edited out by his secretary (and others), even from his memoir.

      If you can find copy of Catafalque, I bet you’d enjoy it. Kingsley explores Jung’s life through the lens of the ancient shamans and prophets. His views is compelling and it reminds me of so much that is important. The book fits my mood at the moment, a sense of questioning everything, including views I’ve held over my own life.

      • I’ve ordered the KIngsley book. It’s in two volumes.
        I’ve got the Red Book and have written about it:
        As for any notion of purity in one’s genetic makeup, it is a potentially dangerous conceit. I have done most of the available tests (which cannot ID, with specificity, any ancestors not directly in one’s maternal or paternal–i.e., straight– line) and I have distant cousins from all over Europe and Anatolia. Some are Ashkenazy and some are Sephardim which indicates we had some non-Jewish common ancestors. Phenotypically, I look like some Greeks and Italians look.

      • I have just begun reading it. He uses language clearly and without frills. I like it already. I told my wife that I will be hunkered down with the book for a while. I’ve read some critics, one of whom labels him ‘pre-Kantian.’ I ask, ‘so what?’ Is Kant God?

        • He doesn’t throw out a lot of big names, use arcane jargon, or constantly cite sources. He speaks plainly and directly, but his style is also kind of roundabout in slowly building up his argument. Also, sometimes he refers to people without naming names, such as when criticizing some particular person, although at times it seems clear who he is speaking of. He keeps the focus without allowing himself to get distracted with side issues.

          • Check.
            I have found, on the Internet, a copy of the portrait of Pythagoras Kingsley mentions. I have put it in a Word document, under which I have inserted these words:

            Pythagoras Emerging from the Underworld, Salvator Rosa, 1662

            The philosopher Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.) convinced his followers that he had descended to Hades and seen the tortured souls of poets (among them Homer and Hesiod) tormented for betraying the secrets of the gods. (Wikipedia)

            “… on the bottom right-hand corner… is Pythagoras, stepping out of the blackness, bent over with a twisted grin on his face: the infinitely ambiguous grin of someone who has come back to be of service to humanity but has seen through and past the crap of human illusions.”
            –Peter Kingsley: “Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity,” page 63.

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