The Heroic Consciousness, Part I Context and Overview of Archetypes and Jungian Thought
A few months back I read Erich Neumann's The Origins and History of Consciousness. It is an incredible book, and in my mind fundamental to understanding the psycho-social and emergent nature of human consciousness and hence, human experience. To that end I will be writing a series of articles exploring my understanding of his ideas, my thoughts on them, and how they inter-relate to other relevant streams of thought. Particular works that come to mind are Peterson's Maps of Meaning, Ong's Fighting for Life, Booker's Seven Basic Plots, and Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. I also wonder how much of a parallel can be drawn to theories of generational archetypes (see The Fourth Turning), as societies do seem to oscillate between polarities of archetypes (I use the word here more generally, not specifically referring to Jungian archetypes, though my suspicion is that they are in some way related) and gradually move towards a resolution of those polarities with an expansion of consciousness. That's the plan, at least, to go through all that. We will see how much I accomplish at the end.
For today, I will content myself with setting the stage for the Neumann's book with a general orientation and framework for navigating the world of archetypes, images, mythopoetic substructures, and depth psychology. Neumann was a Jungian depth psychologist who, in his body of work, systematized and expounded upon the often fragmentary and unorganized ideas of Jung. As brilliant as Jung was, if he was hacking a path through the forest, it was up to his students to actually make a real road out of his rough path through the brush.
An emergent system that has found an equilibrium between two polarities or opposing tensions naturally operates cyclically. Action and reflection. Day and night. Summer and winter. Youth and old age. Work and rest. Creation and consumption. The ebb and flow of an ecosystem. We only see these cycles interrupted in systems that have lost their equilibrium. Ruined or disrupted by an excess of either concentration or dispersion, they must undergo a period of sterility or chaos, respectively, to find a new equilibrium, oftentimes less complex and less rich than the one before. New levels of complexity emerge from that sterility, of course, but slowly. The extinction of the dinosaurs allowed mammal life to predominate. The collapse of the Roman Empire laid the seeds for modern western civilization. Yet it is not entirely accurate to say that an equilibrium, even as it oscillates, is oscillating about a fixed point.
Language is the beginning and the end of the human experience. It is perhaps the beginning of our awareness and consciousness. Our language corresponds to the ways we experience and how we express ourselves. Language is expression and is reflective of our experience. Because language is to communicate something to someone else, it implies community and social bonds. Because our language is reflective of our community and our experience, language is a mirror for our identity, for our sense of belonging. To be able to communicate something is to have consciousness and awareness of that thing, and therefore to have power in one’s community. Our shared language and the conversations we have through it is our sense of culture.
In gaining awareness of ever more profound patterns of relating and resolving tensions, we are able to increasingly manipulate them for our ends. Because this ability to affect our will upon the world is tied to inner transformation, the process leading to mastery in engagement with the world is the same process leading to self-knowledge and self-reliance.
Human consciousness is essentially a feedback loop, in a two-way relationship with its immediate environment. Any living organism is at its core a feedback loop attempting to avoid danger and move towards goodness. Our feedback loop became so complex, it is capable of looking back in upon itself and seeing its separateness. This act of witnessing is perhaps the key to all human experience, for the act of witnessing something creates our relationship to it, which in turn creates us.
Another way to put it: no one cares if I kill an ant. Killing another human being, however, is in most contexts an unforgivable crime in modern society. This seems to be a function of our existence as conscious, aware beings. When someone dies, we mourn the lost opportunities, the life they could have lived, the moments they could have experienced and shared- with us, and with others. These are products of our consciousness, our awareness of our fundamental separation. Consciousness implies the ability to experience beauty and goodness, yes, but also the suffering of separation, loss, anxiety, death. Suffering is one of the few things we can be sure of in life. Why people commit suicide is not the question, but rather why more people don't.
Objectively, we can say that if one consciousness is not respected, then none can be respected. If I destroy the integrity of a consciousness, then I forfeit my right to be safe from having my consciousness violated. This is an argument Sartre makes, that the values implicit in any action are by definition universal value judgments. What is good for me must be good for all.
Another staple of existentialist thought, particularly De Beauvoir, is that we need others to affirm who we are. I can only be as free, for example, as the people around me are. To be aware, or conscious, we need others to be aware and conscious. This also explains the inherent value of consciousness and the revulsion we feel when its integrity is violated. After all, recall that a staple of conflict is a concerted and universal dehumanization of the enemy in the minds of a society or community. They are not just the enemy, they are devils, Huns, monkeys, alien, subhuman.
We pulled ourselves out of the mud by our bootstraps, together as a species. We are our relationships, and our relationships are our vehicle for expanding awareness. Briefly, the capacity for language is a prime example. No other, no language, no corresponding expansion of awareness. Jeremy Rifken wrote the book The Empathic Civilization describing the intricate relationship between expanding human consciousness and ever-more complex forms of relating. When we criticize our society, we would do well to criticize it with this in mind. The world we have built is not only responsible for who we are, it is quite literally all our consciousnesses mutually externalized and shared. Without other awarenesses, we would be nothing. We would be as the beasts, which we both revile and revere. We are stuck in this mess because of the other, and we stay in this mess because of the other. We, and our fates, are quite literally bound together.
The more we can recognize and act complicitly with other consciousnesses, the more our own can grow. We will always be of the mud, and to it we shall return, but together, we can find the beauty in that.
Simplistically but accurately, all we are, and indeed all any living thing is, is a complex feedback loop driven by contextually-applied instinct. Our loop may be more complex than that of other organisms we know of, certainly complex enough to have gained a degree of self-consciousness, but it is a simple system at its core. Our sensory functions, both external and internal, create feedback that our organism uses to course-correct as it seeks to pursue its goals. These goals can be broadly divided in two, corresponding to the two types of instincts we have: the instinct to move away from things valued as bad, and to move towards things valued as good.
We can say that our conscious awareness is best directed towards understanding and controlling our own state, which is analogous to the automatic routine our other-than-conscious (embodied) self runs. We can say this because our conscious awareness is a finite resource whose utility is limited as we begin to apply it to ever finer phenomenon. Combined with an understanding of systems as bottom-up phenomenon, we can also understand why managing our state is so effective. We are tending to the relationship we have to ourselves and to the world.