The self is the ordering and unifying centre of the total psyche … the ego is the seat of subjective identity while the self is the seat of objective identity. The self is thus the supreme psychic authority and subordinates the ego to it. The true self, in contrast, holds knowledge gained and passed on over the generations from earliest human beginnings. The development of our true deeper nature is much like creating a sculpture from a living tree.
In 1945, in Upper Egypt, a collection of 13 ancient codices was discovered. These contained over 50 Gnostic texts which constituted the Nag Hammadi Library, the discovery and translation of which was completed in the 1970s. It gave a vast amount of information about early Gnostic thinking and theology. This was largely unknown to Jung; most of his work was done before this discovery. In his forward to the second edition of his commentary on, ‘the Secret of the Golden Flower’, he pointed out he had depended upon Christian opponents of Gnosticism for information (CW 13, p. iii). There is no doubt he considered alchemy more important than Gnosticism as a prefiguration of his psychology; the entire Collected Works contain only one small essay on Gnosticism where he discussed its parallels with alchemy:
the Gnostics were too remote for me to establish any link with them in regard to the questions that were confronting me. As far as I could see, the tradition which might have connected Gnosis with the present seemed to have been severed and for a long time it proved impossible to find any bridge that led from Gnosticism . . . to the contemporary world. But when I began to understand alchemy I realised that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, Alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past — to Gnosticism and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the uncon-scious (Jung, 1977, pp. 226-227).
Projection of the self Alchemists believed in a process by which gold could be produced from base metals; Gnostics believed immaterial sparks of spirit could be released from the body to enable them to reunite with the g-dhead. Psychologically, that which is sought after is not in the outer world but in the inner world of the psyche; an inner human process was simply projected onto the outside world, the process Jung called `the individuation process’, which is why alchemy became the core of his work. In Jung’s model of the psyche the highest value is the self.
We are entirely unconscious at birth and consciousness emerges slowly as we grow older. The unconscious is the natural state which Jung called ‘Reality in potentia’ (CW 9i, para. 498), all that we could be and have ever been. Consciousness is the aware-ness of oneself as a subject, an ‘I’, separate from the world and the unconscious. Jung called that first centre of consciousness the ego. Also, just as there is an ‘I’, which is the centre of consciousness, there is also a greater ‘I’, namely the ‘I which is unconscious’. This is the central archetype, which Jung called the self. Edward Edinger (founding member of the C. G. Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology in New York) followed on in the line of his predecessor Eric Neumann (who studied with Jung at Zurich in the 1930s and wrote extensively developing Jung’s ideas). Edinger described it:
The self is the ordering and unifying centre of the total psyche … the ego is the seat of subjective identity while the self is the seat of objective identity. The self is thus the supreme psychic authority and subordinates the ego to it. .. . It is identical with the imago Dei [the image of G-d.] … it is expressed by certain typical symbolic images called Mandalas. (Edinger, 1992, p. 3)
The Mandala is an important symbol of the self; a wonderful expression of the self as the highest value, the philosopher’s stone of the alchemists. It is often called numinous which means it is charged with an enormous amount of psychic energy and can occur as an overpowering religious experience.
we have a similar modulation of themes in alchemy — in the synonyms for the lapis. As the materia prima, it is the lapis exilis et vilis (stone poor and vile. Jung takes this from an alchemical work called The Rosarium Philosophorum, a famous series of 20 woodcuts first printed in 1550). As a substance in process of transformation it is servers rubeus or fugitivus (lit. Red man/slave. Red being the rubedo); and finally, in its true apotheosis it attains the dignity of afilius sapientiae (lit. Child of wisdom. Sometimes this is equated with the philosopher’s stone, for Jung the essence of the Individuation Process) or clews terrenus (The image of the sun in the earth, the image of G-d appearing in gold), a “light above all lights,” a power which contains in itself all the power of the upper and nether regions. It becomes a corpus glorificatum (The incorruptible body of resurrection in the Christian tradition) which enjoys everlasting incorruptibility and is therefore a panacea (bringer of healing). (Jung and Kerenyi, 1969, p. 90)
This brings to mind the primordial light described by the Hebrew mystics, mentioned earlier. It was a light with the power of both sun and moon in the sky, from which everything was created, hidden by G-d shortly after its creation only to reappear for the tiniest fragment of time at the birth of Moses. The ego is called upon to surrender to the self but fights and struggles against relinquishing any of its power and autonomy. It does not want to let go; its function is to control. We resist letting go and finding the panacea, the light for which we search. The motif of the archetype of the Divine Child expresses this particularly well. It can be seen in the many stories where a king has an intuition or dream of the imminent birth of a new king or redeemer. He sends out all his armies to destroy this threat to his authority. The Divine Child is a symbol of the awakening of the self in all its tremendous potential. It is the paradox of the trauma of dying and living where it is the dying that makes the living. Auroleus Phillipus Theostratus Bombastus von Hohenheim, immortalised as Paracelsus, was born in 1493, the son of a well-known physician described as a Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, from whom he took his first instruction in medicine. At 16 he entered the University of Basle where he studied alchemy, surgery and medicine. In alchemy he is often referred to as Paracelsus the Great and is quoted extensively by Jung. Paracelsus expressed this very simply: Decay is the beginning of all birth (Jacobi, 1995, p. 143).
For as putrefaction in the bowel reduces all foods into dung, so also without the belly, putrefaction in glass transmutes all things from one form to another … since then, putrefaction is the first step and com-mencement of generation, it is of the highest degree necessary that we should understand this process (Anon, 1992, p. 120).
Jung found what for many might be a great religious, philosophical and psychological understanding of the nature of being, namely the paradox of the self. His life’s journey led him to see that there is no such thing as uniformity of meaning; all meaning rests upon paradox. For many this is a great gift, an answer to the question of the meaning of our lives; the opposites we endure and enjoy, the nature of the Divine and the question of suffering.
The alchemists regarded alchemy as the greatest unknown and the greater the unknown the more it will attract projections. Alchemists projected the deepest layers of their unconscious into their experiments and processes. For this reason Jung understood its symbols to be closer to the unconscious than any other expression, dream or myth. We owe a debt to him for many discoveries and insights, but it seems to me we owe him most for his discovery of alchemy as the metaphor for life in all its mysteries and struggles, its beauty and its ugliness, its pleasures and its pains — in other words its paradox. Of course we all know that no one could make gold from base metal, but at the same time it is equally true and certain that in our ability to form and use symbols we can make gold — and we do.
Alchemy reveals what is shrouded in mystery. It mirrors deep life processes, providing a symbolic language of perception for some and a vehicle through which to engage with mystery for others. For Carl Gustav Jung it reflected a profound journey to establish a relationship with the archetypal psyche through encounter, discrimination and incorporation.
The true self, in contrast, holds knowledge gained and passed on over the generations from earliest human beginnings. The development of our true deeper nature is much like creating a sculpture from a living tree. The sculpted form gradually emerges as wood is chipped away to reveal the true individual essence. We can see this impulse towards manifesting a true inner essence in young people’s instinctive urge to live life for its own sake and in so doing, become rooted in reality, their limits and their abilities.
Our collective world is out of balance. Continuing advances in technology and encroaching materialistic influences disrupt authentic patterns of human life. Some people perceive the era of scientific rationalism as wakening humanity from an age-old dream state, as if the power to distinguish ‘real’ from ‘unreal’ is itself subject to biological evolution (Burckhardt, 1974, pp. 7-8). Far from taking us into an increased capacity to differentiate ‘real’ from ‘unreal’, scientific rationalism leads us into a parallel world.
Against this bleak backdrop, a cry is rising from the human soul, the cri de Merlin — a cry for water in the desert of dehumanisation. Jung pioneered the way beyond the biological and medical when he separated from Freud. What followed was a profound encounter with the unconscious recorded and published as the Red Book. This pivotal work is the foundation of his unique psychological orientation and all his later writings. He began by asking himself, ‘Why is myself a desert?’ and answering, ‘I have avoided the place of my soul’ (Jung, 2009, p. 237).
He endured the death of the heroic ego and emerged into a new reality — a psychic reality mirrored by the ancient art of alchemy. Jung’s methodology can be criticised for being nearly non-existent when perceived only through the lens of rationality with its blindness to the ways of mystery. However, Jung and his methods belong to a new post ‘scientific materialism’, `Weltanschauung’, and can best be accessed and understood within this new world view, as the subtle mysteries of new physics cannot be perceived from within a Newtonian paradigm. To cultivate an empathic grasp of how medieval alchemy resonates with the psyche, it is necessary to set aside post-Enlightenment rationality and pre-conceived notions about the nature of things. Imagine being a medieval alchemist. You see all things in the universe as inter-related following the Hermetic law of correspondences described in the Emerald Tablet (Hauck, 1999, p. 51):