Alchemy: The Soul of Metals

…perhaps the metals take pleasure in their alterations and enjoy the discipline imposed upon them by extracting their ore-bodies and the smelting (Hillman 491).

The soul spelunker is always searching for treasure beneath the surfaces of things. In the alchemical inquiry, one is richly rewarded in this endeavor. The metals of alchemy, because they are animaterial substances, correspond to the gods, just as their associated planets do. In fact, all things can be imagined back to a specific god. In the previous article, I touched upon the planetary associations of the seven noble metals:

Moon    Mercury   Venus    Sun    Mars    Jupiter    Saturn

silver      mercury    copper  gold   iron      tin           lead
 
As far as we know, these correspondences have been in use since circa 2000 B.C.E. Needless to say, they are deeply rooted in the human soul. Ancient mankind formed these associations because they keenly intuited the interconnectedness of all things. So, for example, it was perfectly natural to link the Moon with the shiny metal, silver. It reminded the ancient mind of the silvery moon. Gold, as well, glistens like the Sun. It would be very surprising if the ancients had not constructed these correspondences.

Others are not so obvious. For instance, why did the ancients associate lead with Saturn? Saturn is known as the Greater Malefic, meaning that it can cause a great deal of damage to the soul. But, yet, as Ficino believed, “within Saturn’s heaviness lay the treasures of deep religious contemplation and artistic genius” (Moore 165). To the ancients, it was the farthest planet away from the earth, thus it took the longest time to make its journey through the zodiac, about 30 years. Part of Saturn’s malevolence lies in its association with melancholy. Lead is a very poisonous metal. It it heavy and dense. It has been used in the making of bullets and caskets. These are a few reasons why it has been associated with Saturn. The souls of Saturn and lead are connected at a very deep level. As with all things of the soul, however, even malefic gods have their positive aspects. If one can successfully bear the saturnine weight of melancholy, gloom, and dread through to the other side, there are great rewards to be had.

Metals have souls, thus they possess an entelechy. Soul is the entelechy of all animaterial things. It is the telos, an innate urge in animatter to become what it truly is meant to become. The telos of an entelechy is not to be understood as a static endpoint. The notion here is that the entelechy is a “continuous being-at-work.” An animaterial entity does not suddenly arrive at full completion and then remains static. The process is endless. This applies to the alchemical metals, as well as all things. Hillman writes,

The inherent perfectibility of the substances urges all things away from the literal, undifferentiated, and only natural as given or found. The “only natural” may be necessary, but it is insufficient, since the metals themselves ask to be sophisticated. The given soul asks to be worked. In its natural found state the soul is innocent, ignorant, and therefore dangerous. That the material itself asks to be refined, the raw wanting to be cooked, suggests an archetypal basis for the ideas of perfectibility, progress, and as well, evolution (Hillman 503).

The alchemist knows there is inherent value in the lead or the iron. Her opus is to uncover the essential nature of the metal that has been concealed by its mundane material state.  Whether it be slag or seemingly worthless ore, the soul of the metal is sought by the adept who sees the treasure beneath the surface.

The practitioner seeks not only to free the metal from its dross but to free the meanings of the metal, their linkages with the intelligibility of the cosmos (ibid.).

Assisting the metals, or any other animaterial substance, in becoming what they are meant to be by nature means the alchemist is furthering the making of the Anima Mundi. This is soul-making on a cosmic scale. As each thing is revealed for what it truly is, the world, little by little, becomes more intelligible and understandable. The vision of the alchemist is not to produce gold and silver for personal gain, but to bring the world into a sort of golden age. Nature has always worked toward an epoch of soul. The labor is commonly referred to as the opus contra naturam, a work against nature, but it is actually “a following of nature, guided by nature” (Hillman 516). The gods in all things are ever laboring to bring it about.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Moore, Thomas. The Planets Within. Hudson: Lindisfarne, 1990.

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Alchemy: Spirits in the Earth

 
 

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Things on earth, especially the metals in the earth, are in touch with the gods; they bear mythical messages. There is a spirit in the iron, in the lead, a spiritus rector, a guiding principle that teaches the artisan (Hillman 477).

It is not the artist alone who creates the masterpiece. Materials, brought forth from the earth, also contribute to the work. As with alchemy, art is never an objective work of artist upon the materials. The materials are close to the gods and have a voice in how they are transmuted. I am reminded of Michaelangelo and the manner in which he chose a block of marble. He saw the finished sculpture in the marble and then sought to free it from the confines of the stone. The marble, in touch with the gods, called to Michaelangelo, bidding him to enter into a participation mystique so that a great masterpiece might be revealed to the world. It was a cooperative undertaking, as is all art. Paint and canvas, also in tune with the gods, communicate their potentialities to the artist in the painter’s magnum opus. Musical artists experience this too. I have written several articles about Jimi Hendrix, how he and his guitar cooperated together in the creation of that revolutionary, alchemical sound. As Thales said, “all things are full of gods.”

The knowledgeable alchemist knew these things and endeavored to participate with the various metals and solutions in the bringing forth of the Philosopher’s Stone. In each type of material, there is a god and a message for the alchemist. Notice that Hillman says, “they bear mythical messages.” These assertions are not to be taken literally. We are in the realm of the imaginal here, the mythopoeic.

Hillman says the “subtle body” of the metal, not the literal mineral, is what the alchemist focused his attention on. The subtle body possessed qualities that the alchemist attempted to release so they could be contributed to the creation of the Stone. For instance, Hillman says that iron is “strong, penetrating, purposeful” (Hillman 477). These are characteristics that are desirable and needed for the Great Work. On the other hand, one must not become possessed by the spirit of the iron, for that would bring out its shadow qualities: rigidity, mental strain, hostility, and a tendency to rust.

The alchemical process can be compared to that of the refiner “releasing essence from dross” (ibid.), transmuting the metals into a more improved state. This is desired by the metals, for they have a “slumbering wish to transmute to a nobler state” (ibid.). The refining process aims for a purer constitution of the metal, such as “sterling” silver, or 24-carat gold. The metals have aspirations of returning “to the higher condition from which they have fallen” (ibid.). Indeed, the metals’ origin is with the gods.

In keeping with that sacred principle of Hermeticism, as above, so below, the earth’s major metals, lead, tin, iron, gold, copper, mercury, and silver each correspond to one of the seven primary planets:

Moon > Silver

Mercury > Mercury

Venus > Copper

Sun > Gold

Mars > Iron

Jupiter > Tin

Saturn > Lead

Belief in a linkage of these seven metals with the ‘seven planets’ reaches back into prehistory: there was no age in which silver was not associated with the Moon, nor gold with the Sun. These links defined the identities of the metals. Iron, used always for instruments of war, was associated with Mars, the soft, pliable metal copper was linked with Venus, and the chameleon metal mercury had the same name as its planet (Kollerstrom).

How did the various metals come to be identified with particular planets? Why does Jupiter correspond with tin, or Saturn with lead? In the next installment, I will explore these questions.
   

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Kollerstrom, Nick. The Metal-Planet Affinities – The Sevenfold Pattern. The Alchemy Web Site .

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Alchemy: In the Service of Nature

 
 

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The Promethean archetype, the desire to steal that which was meant to serve Nature and use it exclusively for human purposes, should not be the blueprint for the practitioner of alchemy. Even individual soul-making, if focused solely on the human, does not assist the Anima Mundi in her transmutation. The primary task of the alchemist, his passion, is to further the improvement of the World Soul. The alchemical practice is not to carry out the Promethean aim of what is best for humanity. Rather, it is more akin to a religious devotion to Nature.

Certainly, this is a dichotomizing of humanity and Nature. In reality, they are one and the same. Humanity is certainly a natural phenomenon. It is just as natural as any natural thing can be. The problem arises when the Promethean attitude is venerated to the exclusion of the cherishing and nourishing of Nature. A good example would be a large oil company assuming they are improving the world for mankind by drilling oil anywhere they can find it. What they’re doing has more to do with profit than it does with a supposedly altruistic aim. Of course, this is not serving Nature, but only selfish human ends. This is the Promethean archetype in a nutshell. It has nothing to do with the true practice of alchemy. If you want to understand Prometheus, read Ayn Rand. Her lead characters are almost always Promethean in nature.

Jung recognized what is, in essence, the Promethean spirit in Christianity, and how it differs from the Magnum Opus:

Here we come to a parting of the ways. The Christian receives the fruits of the Mass for himself personally and for the circumstances of his own life in the widest sense. The alchemist, on the other hand, receives the fructis arboris immortalis [the fruit of the tree of immortality] not merely for himself but first and foremost for the King or the King’s Son, for the perfecting of the coveted substance. He may play a part in the perfectio, which brings him health, riches, illumination, and salvation; but since he is the redeemer of God and not the one to be redeemed, he is more concerned to perfect the substance than himself (Jung 352, brackets mine).

So, alchemy has to do with the redemption of God rather than with the redemption of humanity. Humanity certainly benefits from the transformation and transmutation of Nature simply for being part of Nature. (No, this is not an avowal of pantheism on my part, although I do believe in a form of panentheism). The alchemical vocation can certainly bring one “health, riches, illumination, and salvation”, but these are not the primary goals. Where Christianity misses it is in placing man at the center of the universe, and thinking that if man is redeemed, then Nature would be also. This, however, is backwards. The Work is for the sake of the Work, not for the sake of personal enrichment. The Work is to transmute the Anima Mundi.

So, how can alchemy assist in the transmutation and transformation of the World Soul? James Hillman offers these suggestions:

By treating the materials as ensouled, by invoking the spirits of the metals and speaking of their emotional qualities, alchemy found gods in nature, and soul, or animation, in the physical world (Hillman 409).

J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of my favorite stories. I discovered Tolkien as a teenager, after I heard Robert Plant say once he was reading Tolkien’s books. Straightaway, I went out and bought them. My favorite thing about the story is that it is an animistic tale, for all things are ensouled and all of Nature is reverenced. There are many, many examples of this throughout the story. For instance, the manner in which the hobbits smoke their pipes is fascinating. It’s as if the tobacco has soul, having the ability to take various shapes. And, remember how the swords and daggers had names, and sort of possessed their own personalities? This is ensoulment of natural materials. Nature is not a cold, lifeless place. It is filled with soul, with life.

James Hillman claims that “alchemy is animism” (Hillman 408). This is because the materials of alchemy are reverenced as possessing spirits, motives, emotions, even the ability to cooperate with the alchemist in his various endeavors; not literally, but mythologically. Our modern world has lost this precious attitude in this day of reductionist materialism. There is a dire need to recover this worldview before it is too late.

Works Cited

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 12. Princeton: Princeton, 1953.

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The Fire of Alchemy

Photo by Malene Thyssen

Most of us who delve into the work of Carl Jung have encountered at least something he said about alchemy, that ancient art which Jung single-handedly restored to serious study in our modern age. Many of us know that, in it, he saw parallels with his theory of individuation, lead being transformed into gold, the integration of the Self. Yet, how much do we realize the immense importance of the truths he uncovered with this discovery? Of a surety, the alchemical process is probably the single best description, in metaphorical form, of not only what occurs in the human psyche, but what occurs in Nature in general as the process of soul-making unfolds. The images of alchemy are amazingly robust and accurate in their descriptions of the various stages and psychological modes and processes of the Magnum Opus.

Herein, I will begin several articles in which I will attempt to explore alchemy, as a spelunker would navigate a maze of caverns. The Great Work is an art form that has survived for thousands of years, undoubtedly due to its accurate representation of the processes of the psyche. Its importance in matters of soul must not be underestimated. I plan on beginning with the basics and then delve deeper into alchemy as never before. I will initiate this article with a discussion of one of mankind’s closest companions throughout its history. I refer to fire.

Over two millennia ago, Heraclitus concluded that fire is the element that best describes the operations of Nature. He believed that fire, which he seems to identify with God, or the world process, is the source of all becoming. “It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and retires. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (qtd. in Wheelwright 70-71). To Heraclitus, fire is the perfect symbol to describe reality.

Following Heraclitus, James Hillman writes that “fire is the first principle, the root metaphor” (Hillman 769). Fire is constantly being transformed, but mysteriously remains the same. Fire descends to us from the heavens in the form of lightning and sunlight, and ascends to us from the core of the earth in volcanic eruptions. Its heat can be of many varying degrees, as well as its intensity. All living things possess heat, thus possessing the fire within. We speak of a “spark” of divinity, of reason, of light within ourselves. But this spark is in all things. From cow dung to an atomic weapon, fire permeates reality. Imaginally, it is a perfect symbol for the ultimate truth of the universe. Gaston Bachelard writes,

Fire and heat provide modes of explanation in the most varied domains, because they have been for us the occasion for unforgettable memories, for simple and decisive personal experiences. Fire is thus a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything. If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. Among all phenomena, it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell (Bachelard 7).

Fire is the root of alchemy. Without fire, there can be no alchemy, and hence no lapis philosophorum. Fire is to alchemy as blood is to life. Indeed, without the fire within, there can be no life. The alchemist is a Master of Fire, wielding it as the agent of transmutation. Like soul, fire is a mediator between forms. It is found at the level of animal passion, as well as in the heights of spiritual power. It dwells in the heart of Sol, as well as in that of Terra. The alchemist uses her accumulated knowledge of fire in all its modes to transform the strictly human soul into a temple of the gods. During this journey, we will require the light of fire to brighten our path as we explore the dark ways of alchemy.

Hephaestus is the god of alchemy and alchemists are his children. He is the blacksmith of the gods, forging all their weapons and all their finely-wrought works of metal. He forged the winged helmet of Hermes, the magical girdle of Aphrodite, and the chariot of Heilos. Like the alchemists, Hephaestus is a Master of Fire. It was from his forge that Prometheus stole fire and gave it to mankind. The alchemist, however, must avoid Prometheus’ transgression. As Hillman says,

Prometheus does not belong in the alchemical devotio, and the work must always be on guard against the “promethean sin,” stealing the fire for human use (Hillman 379).

The alchemist labors for the love of the Great Work alone. The Promethean spirit labors for ideology, as in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and in ideological capitalism, in general. The Masters of Fire did not seek gold for their coffers. Rather, they were performing the work of Nature, for the alchemical process is not carried out to bring about personal transformation, but the transformation and transmutation of Nature. Christianity bought into the Promethean ideology, as well, believing that personal redemption was paramount. Hillman offers this warning:

Any student of alchemy, any borrower of its tropes for one’s own art or practice, doing the work for one’s own nature, remains Promethean, a secular humanist, a gold digger (Hillman 402).

Alchemists dreamed of the perfecting and redeeming of Nature (matter). Fire was their method of implementation. It is up to us to continue the Great Work and become Masters of Fire. In this way, we can further the creation of the Anima Mundi.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Trans. Alan C.M. Ross. London: Routledge, 1964.

Hillman, James. Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman
Volume 5: Alchemical Psychology, Kindle edition. Dallas: Spring, 2013.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966. 

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Neykia: Descent to the Underworld

Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Canto 22, by Stradanus, 1587

 

In many accounts of the lives of individuals of genius, there are mental and/or physical breakdowns, where the person is hurled into a torturous abyss for a time. Their souls become a whirling vortex of suffering, confusion, and disintegration. Usually, this experience precludes normal activities and is many times accompanied by some physical malady. The person becomes withdrawn as if buried alive under the weight of suffering. Usually, their souls split into fragments and war against each other. Jung used the Greek word, nekyia to describe the “perilous adventure of the night sea journey” (Jung Alchemy 329), which he describes as a “descent into the dark world of the unconscious” (ibid.).

In my last article, we learned about Gustav Fechner and his breakdown, which eventually culminated in deep melancholia and total blindness. Fechner penned the following words after returning to the land of the living, after his journey through Hades:

My inner self split up as it were into two parts, my self and my thoughts. Both fought with each other; my thoughts sought to conquer my self and go an independent way, destroying my self ’s freedom and well being, and my self used all the power at its will trying to command my thoughts, and as soon as a thought attempted to settle and develop, my self tried to exile it and drag in another remote thought. Thus I was mentally occupied, not with thinking, but with banishing and bridling thoughts. I sometimes felt like a rider on a wild horse that has taken off with him, trying to tame it, or like a prince who has lost the support of his people and who tries slowly to gather strength and aid in order to regain his kingdom (qtd. in Heidelberger 48).

Since Western man has lost all sense of initiation that ancient man once knew, the soul, at times, necessitates this experience, “whose end and aim  is the restoration of life, resurrection, and the triumph over death” (Jung Alchemy 329). Know this of a surety, there is much danger in the Underworld. Joseph Campbell wrote,

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind-whether in dreams, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves (Campbell 8).

Jung said once, “the gods have become diseases” (Jung Secret 37), hence the state of psychopathology that eventually brings about a healthy state of peace and normality. We have lost the practice of initiation that once existed in, for instance, the Eleusinian mysteries, where the powers of the unconscious were given recognition. Now, we push all shadow material down into ourselves where it festers and erupts suddenly at times in violence or sickness. The unconscious is not a garbage dump where we are to dispose those things we feel are contrary to our egoistic natures. If we treat it as such, it will eventually destroy us. If we explore the “Aladdin caves” of the soul, and pass through the dangers therein, it will absolutely transform us.

Carl Jung, writing about the descent into the Underworld, writes that

The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful kata­basis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge. The journey through the psychic history of man­kind has as its object the restoration of the whole man, by awak­ening the memories in the blood. The descent to the Mothers enabled Faust to raise up the sinfully whole human being-Paris united with Helen-that homo totus who was forgotten when contemporary man lost himself in one-sidedness. It is he who at all times of upheaval has caused the tremor of the upper world, and always will. This man stands opposed to the man of the present, because he is the one who ever is as he was, whereas the other is what he is only for the moment. With my patients, ac­cordingly, the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recogni­tion of the bipolarity of human nature and of the necessity of conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc. (Jung 139-140).

Jung himself experienced this, and now we have the account of his journey in The Red Book. Similarly, Fechner confronted his monsters, those that attempted to imprison him in a strictly materialistic prison of scientism. The nekyia experience totally transformed his life.

Most of us who seek self-knowledge have undergone a dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross called it. I, myself, had a particularly harrowing journey through the dark lands, of which I will not speak of here. I can say, however, I emerged from the black of night a changed man.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton, 1949.

Heidelberger, Michael. Nature From Within. Trans. Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2004.

Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 12. Princeton: Princeton, 1953.

Jung, C.G.(1929). Commentary On The Secret Of The Golden Flower. In Alchemical Studies. In The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 13. Princeton: Princeton.  

Jung, C.G. The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 15. Princeton: Princeton, 1966.

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The Doctors of Soul: Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner

I thought I had ended my Doctors of Soul series, but I keep coming across remarkable individuals like Gustav Fechner who have contributed so much to modern depth psychology. Therefore, from time to time, I’ll post another installment in the series. I have other subjects in mind for future articles. For instance, one must say something about Henry Corbin. As James Hillman said there are “even more branches which have yet to be traced” (Hillman xvii) in the ancestry of psychology.

Gustav Theodor Fechner was born in 1801 in Groß Särchen, a village in western Poland, Fechner rose to prominence in the nineteenth century as a brilliant philosopher, physicist, and experimental psychologist. He was the founder of psychophysics, the quantitative investigation of “the relationship between physical stimuli and the sensations and perceptions they affect” (Wikipedia). He was not born to wealth, but his father was a respected pastor who raised him to be religious. He was educated at Sorau in western Poland, Medizinisch-Chirurgische Akademie in Dresden, where he studied medicine, and at the University of Leipzig. In 1834, he was made professor of physics at the University of Leipzig. He remained in the city of Leipzig until his death in 1887.

Becoming disillusioned with his medical studies, in 1820 Fechner discovered the thinking of Lorenz Oken, and then later, Friedrich Schelling. These thinkers were focusing their energies on Naturphilosophie, the philosophy of nature. Prior to this, Fechner’s studies in medicine had convinced him the world was merely “a set of mechanical workings” (qtd. in Heidelberger 22), thus bringing him to an atheistic worldview. The revelation of the philosophy of nature revolutionized his thinking at that time. Michael Heidelberger, in his book on Fechner, comments,

It is important to keep in mind that…Fechner interpreted his conversion to philosophy of nature indirectly as alienation from inanimate mechanism and materialism and returning to religious notions, perhaps even as recapturing the religion of his youth on a higher level (Heidelberger 22).

The kind of maverick thinking that brought about a religious-like conversion in Fechner is voiced by Schelling in these famous words:

Nature is to be visible mind (Geist), mind invisible nature. Here, therefore, in the absolute identity of the mind in us and the nature outside us, the problem of how a nature outside ourselves is possible must dissolve (qtd. in Bowie 39).

Also, there are these thoughts from Oken, which were in tune with Fechner’s fecund mind:

The philosophy of nature is the science of God’s own eternal transformation within the world. It must show the stages of development of the world from its beginning in primeval nothingness; it must show how the heavenly bodies and elements originated, how these rose to a higher level and eventually became organic and developed into reason in mankind (qtd. in  Heidelberger 23).

In 1823, Fechner earned his master’s degree, which was much like today’s doctoral degree. He was granted the right to teach. He planned to give lectures on Oken’s and Schelling’s ideas. Fechner was convinced that Naturphilosophie was the correct intellectual path to trod, but it was short-lived. Before too long, Fechner grew weary of the philosophy of nature. In his zeal to find answers, the quest metamorphosed into

a struggle I had always contained within myself that denied me satisfaction in my endeavors. I believed myself to be headed in the right direction, but never reached a sure goal. I racked my brain from dawn to dusk and sometimes on into the night searching for solid ground, but I was never happy with what I accomplished (qtd. in Heidelberger 26).

Eventually, Fechner abandoned working in Naturphilosophie. Partly out of financial necessity, he turned to writing and translating to secure a decent income. He wrote on logic and physiology, and translated French science books. Because of his excellent work in translating French scientific texts into German, Fechner brought new scientific methodologies to the German-speaking world, thereby reforming physics. He was granted the chair of physics at the University of Leipzig in 1834.

In the role of professor of physics, Fechner carried out important work on electricity, electrical chemistry, and electrical magnetism. He also conducted work on subjective optical phenomena. By this time, Fechner had returned fully to the fold of materialism and scientism.

In 1835, Fechner published a curious book entitled, The Little Book on Life After Death, under a pseudonym he used often, Dr. Mises. Apparently, during the days of late German Idealism, the immortality of the soul was a hot topic of debate, so this little book was Fechner’s contribution. Even though he was a scientist with strong leanings toward materialism, he attempted to fuse his interests in philosophy, religion, art, and literature, as well as science into a coherent whole. In the book, Fechner lays out his theory of three stages of human life: a prenatal stage, a stage of life on earth, and then life after death.

Man lives upon the earth not once, but three times. His first stage of life is a continuous sleep; the second is an alternation between sleeping and waking; the third is an eternal wakening.

In the first stage man lives alone in darkness; in the second he lives with companions, near and among others, but detached and in a light which pictures for him the exterior; in the third his life is merged with that of other souls into the higher life of the Supreme Spirit, and he discerns the reality of ultimate things. […] The passing from the first to the second stage is called birth; the transition from the second to the third is called death. (Fechner 1-2).

So, here we have Fechner, an avowed materialist and scientist, writing about birth and death as if he were authoring a mystical treatise! This man is more complicated than just your run-of-the-mill materialist. His dabbling in Schelling’s and Oken’s Naturphilosophie has left an indelible mark upon his inner life. Apparently, as Jung did, Fechner possessed two personalities, one of which follows the “light” of reason, the other the “darkness” of mysticism. In the first stage of life humans, in the prenatal state, are engulfed in unconsciousness; in the second stage, our lives upon this earth, we alternate between consciousness and unconsciousness; and in the third stage, death, we become engulfed in pure consciousness, “an eternal wakening.”

Now, Fechner’s ideas, here, are totally in conformity with his idea of a materialistic worldview. He is not referring to a purely conscious state after death that takes places in some far off, transcendental realm of spirit. This state of consciousness in the “hereafter,” which includes more than simply just the particular individual’s consciousness, still has its locality as that of this earth.

This reflects the immense justice of creation, namely, that each person himself creates the conditions for his future being. One’s actions are not requited by reward or punishment; there is neither heaven nor hell in the normal Christian, Jewish, and Heathen sense of the word, where a soul goes after death; the soul neither ascends nor descends, nor does it remain idle; it neither bursts nor does it flow into the universal; instead, after surviving the transitional illness called death, it continues to grow calmly according to the permanent logical consistency of nature on earth that erects each phase on the foundation of an earlier phase, and leads to a higher form of being (qtd. in Heidelberger 46).

I don’t know about you, but I find this prospect extremely exciting!

Fechner also had some very intriguing ideas about the dream state that influenced Freud to believe the unconscious has a distinct psychic locality. Fechner wrote,

If the scene of action of psychophysical activity were the same in sleeping and waking, dreams could, in my view, only be a prolongation at a lower degree of intensity of waking ideational life, and, moreover, would necessarily be of the same material and form. But the facts are quite otherwise (qtd. in Hillman Dream 16).

Of this passage, Freud said, “What is presented to us in these words is the idea of psychical locality” (Freud 969). This is a very important turn of events in the history of psychology, a watershed event. Fechner is basically saying that there is a topography of dream life and a topography of waking life. Henry Corbin would later call this topography of the dream state the mundus imaginalis.

As with many other Doctors of the Soul, Fechner experienced a breakdown in his health, which brought about his own nekyia, or descent into the Underworld. When he was thirty-nine years of age, Fechner suffered a state of blindess that was said to be because of his intense experimentation with color perception. James Hillman writes about this event:

He fell into a melancholic isolation, lost control over his thoughts, hallucinated tortures, and his alimentary tract broke down. Fechner remained in this tormented nighworld state for three years. Twice he was miraculously healed: once when a woman friend dreamed of preparing him a meal of Bauernschinken, heavily spiced raw ham cured in lemon juice and Rhine wine. This she did, took it to him, and he, against his better judgment, ate it, which restored his appetite and digestion. The second and final time came suddenly one morning at dawn when he found he was able to bear the light and even hungered for it, and then he began recuperating. He lived another forty-four years, until age eighty-six.

With his recovery Fechner was a converted man. He exchanged his university chair in physics for one in philosophy. Dayworld and nightworld took on a meaning different from his romantic forbears. Dayworld was the realm of light, spirit, God, and beauty; nightworld, of matter, pessimism, godless secularism. The idea of the unconscious he put into the nightworld. Despite shifting the valences, the archetypal fantasy of the two regimes remained fundamental to him, as it still remains fundamental in all depth psychologies (Hillman Dream 15).

So, Fechner, after navigating through the Underworld and returning, earned a place in the annals of depth psychology. Because of his great contributions to the furtherance of psychology, I consider him a true Doctor of the Soul.

Works Cited

Bowie, Andrew. Schelling and Modern European Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Fechner, Gustav. The Little Book of Life After Death. Boston: Weiser, 2005

Freud, Sigmund. Complete Works. Ed. Ivan Smith. 2000. ,http://archive.org/stream/TheCompleteWorksOfSigmundFreud/ebooksclub.org__Freud___Complete_works_djvu.txt>

Heidelberger, Michael. Nature From Within. Trans. Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2004. 

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper, 1979.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper Collins, 1975.

Schelling, Friedrich. Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature. Trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1988.

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Going Deeper Into Hades

Elisium, by Leon Bakst

Everything would become deeper, moving from the visible connections to the invisible ones, dying out of life (Hillman 30).

The realm of Hades is the source of the soul’s limitless depth. There is no time there, thus there is no movement, no change at all. Needless to say, Hades is not a literal place, but a psychological domain. It is a land within the mundus imaginalis. Hillman writes that “all psychic events have a Hades aspect” (ibid.). All experiences of the psyche are like leaves floating on the surface of the Acheron, drifting ever gently toward the abode of the dead. One deepens one’s experience by following it into Hades, by paying the ferryman his due, by allowing the experience to speak in the context of one’s own death. If one attends to the soul, psychic experience deepens as it moves toward the telos of one’s life. As Hillman says, we move from the visible to the invisible.

A person who engages in soul-making, instead of dwelling on the literalisms of life, will eventually die to them. The literal perspective will die out and a symbolic, metaphorical perspective will take its place. But, more importantly, one’s fate, one’s purpose will become more apparent as the literal perspective dies. The idea of purpose, fate, is inherent in the idea of soul. It reveals itself more and more as we continually move towards Hades. What is our soul saying to us in our dreams, our physical and emotional symptoms, or our many difficulties? How do these help us understand the purpose of our lives, as we journey toward the Underworld? These questions, if asked continually, can only deepen the soul.

We who were raised in Christianity have problems thinking this way. From childhood, we are told that Hell is a literal place that is to be avoided at all cost. Since most Christians equate Hell with Hades, the latter must be the realm of Satan where sinners are punished eternally in fire and brimstone. But the Christian Hell is more akin to the Greek Tartaros, a deep abyss in the bowels of Hades where the wicked are tormented. This dungeon of suffering is where the Titans are imprisoned. This is where Tantalus and Sisyphus are tortured in constant misery and anguish. Hades has much more to offer than just torment and suffering.

Nightly, we board Charon’s ferry and make the journey across the Acheron and into the Underworld. Guarding the gates, we encounter Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hecate. He guards the portal to Hades so that, upon entering, none may return. But, somehow we do every morning. We move through the land of the dead as shadows.

The Underworld is the realm of the Dead because Death is the ultimate unconsciousness. Those who die do not cease to be; we in the Dayworld simply become unconscious of them. They will always exist. We may not be aware of them, but this doesn’t preclude their existence. What is most crucial is that the underworld is the realm of the soul. The more we become familiar with it, the more soul we accumulate. Soul and Death are intertwined like the serpents on the caduceus. Nightly, we travel downward, where we play out stories that are as old as the human species. Instead of trying to grab the shadowy figures we meet and drag them back up into the light of the Dayworld (by trying to interpret our dreams so they make some kind of sense), it is in our best interest to remain there with them for a time and learn what they have to say. As we learn to recognize the archetypal motifs in our dreams, we come to know that life and death, Dayworld and Underworld, are two sides of the same coin. This is Underworld epistemology. The source of this knowledge is deep. Soul will take us deeper.

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