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.

From Tribal Europe to Western Civilization

Europeans were once simple illiterate tribal people with pagan religions and often matriarchal societies. Take for example the theory that philosophy was introduced into Europe from Egypt in North Africa:

“Henry Olela expands Diop’s claim of the significant African contribution to human evolution with his assertion that the birthplace of philosophy is older than the Greeks, to whom the Western tradition pays homage. “The ancient Greeks themselves often credited Africa with being the source of foundations of philosophical knowledge.” Olela asserts that regions of northern Africa and the island of Crete were inhabited by Africans who migrated north during the expansion of the Sahara Desert around 2,500 years B.C.E . The awesome magnificence of ancient Egyptian kingdoms Olela claims for the descendants of the Gallas, the Somalians, and the Maasai. According to Olela, civilization began in the interior of Africa and shifted northward, through descent and diffusion, to engulf the north of the continent and regions around the Mediterranean Sea. Ancient Egypt in all its magnificence is, for Olela, ancient Africa— the kingdom of Sais in Olela’s terms— and that places “Black Africa” at “the intellectual center of the world,” inventing the mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, science, and medicine that would be passed, through the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus (around 640 to 546 B.C.E.), to the secondary “cradle” of civilization and philosophy, ancient Greece.”
Savage Constructions: The Myth of African Savagery, Wendy C. Hamblet, Kindle Locations 1931-1940

Also, consider other things introduced from Africa and the Middle East.

Western politics wouldn’t have become what it is without the foreign introduction of imperialism along with large-scale monarchism and highly stratified, rigid class-based hierarchies. Monotheism was introduced from the Middle East. The North African Moors for a long time period forced Islam onto a significant part of Europe. Plus, the Moors also jumpstarted the Rennaisance. The Near and Middle East reintroduced much of Greek thought back into Western Europe.

Why do Europeans, specifically Western Europeans, get blamed for all of this? If everyone had left the European tribal people alone, the world would be a different place. Even Enlightenment thought didn’t emerge simply out of Europe, but was immensely influenced by non-Europeans, including such things as the printing press. I’m for Westerners taking responsibility, but why blame them for everything?

Also, consider that one of the major origins of Enlightenment thought was European contact with various native peoples:

“Many intellectuals and political elites argued that liberty inevitably leads to anarchy. The localized and oftentimes rather democratic-like self-governance of many Native American tribes put the lie to this claim. Radical thinkers like Thomas Morton, Roger Williams and William Penn sometimes went so far as to declare the Native Americans as more civilized than their fellow colonists. Also, these radical thinkers all had popular writings read in Britain where they themselves traveled back to, and when in England they all had close ties to and discourse with many of the influential Englishmen of their day.

“The New World became a screen onto which new social visions could be collectively imagined and a place where new social experiments could be tried. The contact with Native Americans and their societies, in challenging Western assumptions, helped shape English religious dissent and the English Revolution. The same radicals questioning religious establishment and slavery were also criticizing the cruel, unfair and dishonest treatment of Native Americans. They were able to see the commonality between the oppression of one group of people and the oppression of all people.

“This international and cross-continental web of influence continued for the entire history of the colonies and into the revolutionary era.”

 Western Civilization, as we know it, emerged out of a web of global influences. Western Europe had to be colonized by such people as the Romans and Moors before Western Europe could develop into colonizers themselves. Even racial slavery had to be introduced. The very word “slave” refers to the pale-skinned Slavs who were highly-prized slaves in Africa.

Europe was a cultural, political, and economic backwater for most of the history of civilization. The rise of the West is fairly recent event, in the big scheme of things. The West did not invent civilization. It merely took it to a new level. Even then, that new level was just an exaggeration and reformulation of what the West had inherited. The West did innovate some new ideas, systems, and technologies; but the West ultimately inherited more than it invented.

Western Society and Collective Trauma

I see Western society as possibly the most traumatized society on the planet.

Europe was once a place of tribal people with polytheistic and animistic religions. Almost everything we think of as Western was introduced to the West from elsewhere, mostly from North Africa and the Middle East, but also from Asia: imperialism, colonialism, high art, philosophy, mathematics, astrology, science, etc. None of that originated in Europe.

Instead, Europe’s native society was destroyed through genocide. What was left was a wounded people. Europe is a war-ravaged land and the scars of violence have never healed. Even war-ravaged Africa has survived more intact with its original cultures than Europe has. The East as well has maintained more of its native culture. Few populations on the planet were as utterly decimated by cultural genocide as happened with Europeans.

The dysfunction seen in Western society is that it is a traumatized society. Trauma at that scale doesn’t heal easily, if ever. There is no way to turn back. The cultural genocide was so complete that almost all of the native traditions have been lost forever. When cultural genocide is committed, the soul of a people is murdered. Europeans are the walking wounded, the descendents of the victims of one of the world’s largest genocides.

I’m very serious about that. The past millennia of war and occupation really fucked up Europe. America then inherited that fucked up society. We Westerners are a maimed and scarred people.