Carl Jung and the Collective Unconscious — Archetypes as Divine Ideas

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This article is part of a series, the purpose of which is to explore Carl Jung’s understanding of the concept of archetypes. For the full context, please see this introduction. In a nutshell, I’ve set myself the challenge of defending my interpretation of Jung’s understanding of archetypes and the collective unconscious, which is very different from that of three other writers on Medium. Following the introduction I wrote a further article, but on reflection wished that I had not jumped straight in, and made my starting position clearer. That is therefore my intention here.

The word archetypes literally means ‘original types’, therefore something like ‘blueprints’. They can therefore be understood as something along the lines of divine ideas, organising causal factors operating from a metaphysical dimension of the collective unconscious.

I am going to start from the working hypothesis that a transcendent ‘God’ in some sense ‘created’ the material universe, or that the material universe is a manifestation of an ultimate ground of being, a pure consciousness — however one chooses to express that idea within one’s personal belief system. Unless one believes that all this was an instantaneous creation ex nihilo, then it is logical to assume that at some point in the process there must have been ideas, plans, blueprints in the divine mind or imagination. We can make analogies with inventors, architects, artists, all of whom must have had such ideas and plans in their minds before the actual creative work begins. (One term that Freemasonry has for God is actually ‘The Great Architect’.)

That is how the term ‘archetypes’ is usually understood. As evidence for that I’ll quote a passage in Kenneth Oldmeadow’s book Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy¹. He begins his chapter on ‘Symbolism and Sacred Art’ in this way. He says: “In former times the doctrine of archetypes was espoused the world over. No integral tradition has been able to do without it though the language in which it is clothed may speak not of archetypes but of ‘essences’, ‘universals’, ‘Divine Ideas’ and so on”. He goes on to quote:

  • Jacob Boehme: “A form is made in the resigned will, according to the platform or model of eternity, as it was known in God’s eternal wisdom before the times of this world”.
  • Suhrawardi: “All forms of being in this corporeal world are images of pure Lights, which exist in the spiritual world”.
  • Michael Sendivogius: “The Sages have been taught of God that this natural world is only an image and a copy of a heavenly and spiritual pattern, that the very existence of this world is based upon the reality of its celestial archetypes”.
  • Black Elk: “Crazy Horse dreamed and went out into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world”.
  • Kung-sun Lung: “Things in every instance involve universals… If there were no universals we could not speak of things as things”.

Oldmeadow goes on to say that “formulations of this kind could be multiplied almost indefinitely”. He is content, however to let Meister Eckhart sum up: “Form is revelation of essence”. He then continues: “Everything that exists, whatever its modality, necessarily participates in universal principles which are uncreated and immutable essences contained, in (René) Guénon’s words, in ‘the permanent actuality of the Divine Intellect’. Consequently, all phenomena, no matter how ephemeral or contingent, ‘translate’ or ‘represent’ these principles in their own fashion at their own level of existence. Without participation in the immutable, they would ‘purely and simply be nothing’. The doctrine of archetypes thus also implies the multiple states of being and a hierarchic structure of the cosmos”. Thus Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din writes: ‘If a world did not cast down shadows from above, the worlds below it would vanish altogether, since each world in creation is no more than a tissue of shadow entirely dependent on the archetypes in the world above’². The analogies between the archetypes or ‘Divine Ideas’ and the transitory material forms of this world… give to phenomena certain qualitative significances which render them symbolic expressions of higher realities”.

His apparently brief René Guénon quote is taken from Autorité Spirituelle et Pouvoir Temporel (Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power). Oldmeadow has actually paraphrased some of Guénon’s words without including them as part of his quote. Here is the passage in full³:

“All that exists, whatever its modality, necessarily participates in universal principles, nor does anything exist except by participation in these principles, which are the eternal and immutable essences contained in the permanent actuality of the Divine Intellect. Consequently one can say that all things, however contingent they are in themselves, translate or represent these principles in their manner and according to their order of existence, for otherwise they would purely and simply be nothing. Thus, from one order to another, all things are linked together in correspondence contributing to the total and universal harmony, harmony itself… being nothing other than the reflection of principal unity in the multiplicity of the manifested world”.

I trust that Oldmeadow’s passage, and the quotes it contains, makes it clear that archetypes have been understood by mystics, spiritually oriented people, and Perennial Philosophists for hundreds of years to be transcendent divine ideas, to have this metaphysical origin. Because he used the word so frequently, I have always believed (or perhaps merely wrongly assumed), that this was also what Jung intended, at least to some extent. (We know that his thinking on this issue changed over the years.) I have now been assured on Medium by Sender Spike that this was not the case; Jung never had this intention. This is also implied in the two articles by James Cussen and Zachary Burres; Jung’s understanding of archetypes and the collective unconscious can be understood purely in the language of biology, instincts, and human evolution, they say.

This debate will therefore be the theme of this series of articles. I am going to try to get to the bottom of Jung’s thinking on archetypes, and see whether there is any evidence that he did indeed conceive of them partly as transcendent ‘divine’ ideas. My previous article began to address this question. As I said, I should perhaps have written this one before doing that. For better or worse, I’ll continue with my exploration in subsequent articles.

Carl Jung

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnotes:

1. Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000

2. The Book of Certainty, Samuel Weiser, 1974.

3. As found in A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, by Whitall N. Perry, Perennial Books Limited, 2nd edition 1981, p302