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Nietzsche and Jung: Myth and the Age of the Hero

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“Here we have our present age … bent on the extermination of myth. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his pasts and must dig frantically for roots…” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy)

We live at a time where science and technology have diminished our physical suffering to a remarkable degree. But can the same be said about our psychological suffering? For while our life spans have been prolonged, and many diseases eradicated, this has not changed our existential predicament. Just like every other man or woman to have walked this earth, we are born, we will die, everything and everyone we know will turn to dust, and unless we are one of the exceptional few, our legacy will live on for at most a generation. Dwelling on these facts does not bring us joy. But if we dwell on these facts and at the same time feel that our life lacks meaning then we will suffer from acute psychological pain.

But while science and technology have much to offer, there is no app, device, equation, or pharmaceutical drug that can imbue our life with meaning. Rather this role has traditionally been played by myth. The West, however, finds itself in a difficult position in this regard. For according to Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung, the decline of Christianity ushered the West into a period of mythlessness in which it remains to this day. And this lack of myth, irrespective of all the advances in science and technology, has made it harder for us to face up to our existential predicament and increased our propensity for psychological suffering.

“Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic—that is, divided against themselves. If they had lived in a period . . . in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors. . .they would have been spared this division within themselves.” (Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

How does myth help us shoulder our existential burdens and alleviate our psychological suffering? Are myths not merely primitive attempts to explain the workings of the natural world or fictional stories which glorify the origins of a culture? Have we not moved beyond our need for myth with the rise of science? According to Nietzsche and Jung we have not. For science and myth address different questions. The scientific method deals with cause and effect and helps us understand the workings of the natural world. Myths, on the other hand, are narratives which transmit modes of behaviour, patterns of action, and ways of experiencing the world, that promote a healthy psychological development and a meaningful life. The myth, in other words, embodies wisdom of generations past, offering solutions to our shared existential dilemma and helping unite a culture under a shared vision.

When a society loses its myth, the members of that society do not lose their need to author stories about their life. Rather this need is so integral to our well-being that it’s something we do with, or without, the help of a myth. We emphasize certain past events, deny others, and even fabricate certain elements of our life story and we do this to make sense of who we are and where we are going. But when a society’s “horizons are ringed about with myth” (Nietzsche) the process of constructing a meaningful life story, and one that promotes our psychological development, is greatly facilitated. To understand how the myth achieves this feat we need to examine the role of the mythological symbol. For it is the symbols of the myth that act in the words of Nietzsche as “the unnoticed omnipresent…guardians under whose protection the young soul grows up…”

Unlike a sign which points to, or represents, a known entity, a symbol in the words of the Jungian scholar Edward Edinger “is an image or representation which points to something essentially unknown, a mystery.” (Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype) Religions are the richest source of symbols. Whether it be the cross of Christianity, the mandala of Hinduism, or the dharma wheel of Buddhism, the symbol acts in a teleologic manner, beckoning us forward toward goals we only partially understand.

“It is the role of religious symbols to give a meaning to the life of man. The Pueblo Indians believe that they are the sons of Father Sun, and this belief endows their life with a perspective (and a goal) that goes far beyond their limited existence. It gives them ample space for the unfolding of personality and permits them a full life as complete persons. Their plight is infinitely more satisfactory than that of a man in our own civilization who knows that he is (and will remain) nothing more than an underdog with no inner meaning to his life.” (Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols)

The abandonment of myth has in part been a reaction against the symbol. Why should we believe in something, that considered objectively, through the lens of our more enlightened scientific mind, has no basis in reality? But the role of the symbol is not to help us manipulate or understand the external world, rather its primary purpose is to help us develop psychologically and it achieves this task irrespective of its external truth value.

“Considered from the standpoint of realism, the symbol is not of course an external truth, but it is psychologically true, for it was and is the bridge to all that is best in humanity.” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation)

Not all myths, however, are of equal value, or appropriate to all stages of human history. Some myths better reflect the struggles of men and women at different epochs and provide a better set of symbols to help us deal with our existential dilemma. Nietzsche was not fond of the Christian myth – he viewed Christianity as a life-denying myth in contrast to his more favoured tragic myths of ancient Greece. Jung was less critical of Christianity. Christianity was one of a multitude of religious myths which he saw as having great value for the individual:

“The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe.” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation)

While Nietzsche and Jung differed in their views on Christianity neither of them believed that a return to the Christian myth was possible for the West. In his autobiography Jung recalled a pivotal point in his life when this became evident to him:

“…in what myth does a man live nowadays? In the Christian myth, the answer might be. “Do you live in it?” I asked myself. To be honest, the answer was no. For me it is not what I live by. “Then do we no longer have any myth?” “No, evidently we no longer have any myth.” “But then what is your myth – the myth in which you do live?” At this point the dialogue with myself became uncomfortable, and I stopped thinking. I had reached a dead end.” (Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections)

But with this loss of myth what has not been lost is our need for meaning and therefore the West finds itself in a precarious position. For without a myth to help us author a meaningful life story and unite the culture in which we live, many people, according to Nietzsche and Jung, will latch on to collectivist political ideologies. These ideologies, encompassing their own sets of symbols and rituals, allow those who follow them to feel they are contributing to something bigger than their solitary self. But the worship of the state, in whatever form it takes, is the worship of a false idol. For while collectivist political ideologies can relieve its followers of the burdens of their individual existence, it is an inadequate replacement for myth. For statism does not promote the healthy development of the personality. Rather the moral education it offers is one that diminishes the value of the individual in favour of the collective. But to make matters worse, as history has amply shown, the worship of the state does not produce cultural unity, but instead breeds division, conflict, and death:

“The state is merely the modern pretence, a shield, a make-belief, a concept. In reality, the ancient war-god holds the sacrificial knife, for it is in war that the sheep are sacrificed…So instead of human representatives or a personal divine being, we now have the dark gods of the state…The old gods are coming to life again in a time when they should have been superseded long ago, and nobody can see it.” (Carl Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra)

If we agree with Nietzsche and Jung that collectivist political ideologies are an inadequate and destructive alternative to our lack of myth, is the only remaining option to descend into a passive state of nihilism? Nietzsche and Jung were adamant that such a response was inappropriate and would only lead to a wasted life. For while we may be forced to accept the mythless condition into which we were born, it does not follow that we must endure a meaningless existence as a result.

“It is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things, to what extent one can endure to live in a meaningless world because one organizes a small portion of it oneself.” (Nietzsche, The Will to Power)

The need to organize our own small portion of meaning in an otherwise meaningless world is why our age, in addition to being a mythless one, can also be viewed as the age of the hero. The hero is the one who displays the strength of will to which Nietzsche alludes. Rather than being overcome by the inner chaos that plagues those disconnected from an effective myth, the hero faces up to this chaos and discovers his or her own solutions to the existential burdens of our time. The bold few who take on this challenge return themselves to the world of myth. For in striving to impose order on their own small corner of the world, they have chosen the mythological path that is represented as the fight with the dragon.

“…only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain”. He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself. This experience gives some faith and trust…in the ability of the self to sustain him, for everything that menaced him from inside he has made his own. He has acquired the right to believe that he will be able to overcome all future threats by the same means. He has arrived at an inner certainty which makes him capable of self-reliance.” (Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life)

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

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René-Antoine Houasse - Story of Minerva - Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens, 1696
Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole, 1847, oil on canvas - De Young Museum - DSC01271
Walter Crane - Race of Hero Spirits Pass
Leighton, Frederic - Idyll - c. 1880-81
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Carl Gustav Carus - Italienische Fischer im Hafen von Neapel
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Jens Juel - Boy Reading at Artificial Light - KMS7458 - Statens Museum for Kunst
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Caspar David Friedrich - Kreuz an der Ostsee - Schloss Carlottenburg, Neuer Pavillon
A Thangka depicting a Vajra Nairatmya Mandala. Tibet, 18th-Century
Julian Onderdonk - Landscape with Indian Scouts
Jan Gossaert - Christ between the Virgin and St John the Baptist - WGA9766
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The Crucifixion MET DT10248
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