The supreme danger which threatens individuals as well as whole nations is a psychic danger (Jung 590 ).
We usually think of the unconscious mind as being the source of creativity and blessing for our lives. We have been taught that if we could only become more conscious of what lies in the depths below, we would become more balanced and whole. This is true to a certain extent, but there is a ferociousness in the dark abyss of the unconscious that can rip us to shreds. And this is not the case for individuals only. Human societies are also subject to the volcanic, eruptive fury of the unconscious. We have seen this time and time again throughout history. There is no better example than Hitler and the Holocaust in the 20th century. The once glorious hope of The Enlightenment that Reason would triumph over the irrationality of mankind and bring us to a new age of peace and prosperity has been trampled under by the awful implements of war and atrocity. And for the individual seeking individuation, the notion of a life filled only with goodness and well-being has been shown to be unattainable and naive.
According to Carl Jung,
Reason has proved itself completely powerless, precisely because its arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious. The greatest danger of all comes from the masses, in whom the effects of the unconscious pile up cumulatively and the reasonableness of the conscious mind is stifled. Every mass organization is a latent danger just as much as a heap of dynamite is. It lets loose effects which no man wants and no man can stop. It is therefore in the highest degree desirable that a knowledge of psychology should spread so that men can understand the source of the supreme dangers that threaten them. Not by arming to the teeth, each for itself, can the nations defend themselves in the long run from the frightful catastrophes of modern war. The heaping up of arms is itself a call to war. Rather must they recognize those psychic conditions under which the unconscious bursts the dykes of consciousness and overwhelms it (ibid.).
For precisely this reason, humanity has attempted to create certain “alleviating intermediaries” (Safranski) to filter the irruptions of the unconscious into the conscious mind. Yes, these irruptions on a mass scale can come in the form of wars, pandemics, and societal atrocities, and, on an individual level, psychoses and infirmities. The ancients seemed to know more than modern man about creating protections against the ravages of the unconscious. They accomplished this through myth, music, and art. With the advent of The Enlightenment, western man in particular began to view these as mere entertainment. The word, “myth,” even came to mean, in modern parlance, “delusion.” Myth, music, and art are innate, natural filters that mitigate the awesome terrors of the abyss we call the unconscious mind. Humans are hard-wired, so to speak, to utilize these to shield the conscious mind from the unconscious.
Under the category of myth, I would place religion. Religious ritual is one of the most powerful ways ever devised by man to shield the mind from the unconscious. For millennia, humans have engaged in religious ritual, probably unaware of its protective powers. The Catholic Mass was one of the most effective means of warding off the evils that lie in wait to snatch one’s mind away, dragging it down into the Underworld, just as Persephone was dragged down by Hades into the realm of shades. There is something about ritual that most do not understand because of our age of “rationality” and demythologization. Those who still practice the old religions have great understanding of the protective powers of ritual. Typically, Christians, especially Protestants, do not believe or understand this. Most reject imaginal and mythological thinking. Some Catholics and Orthodox still realize it, but this knowledge is waning. Our culture, largely based on science and technology, rejects such thinking. The masses have been conditioned to think this way, but the danger still lurks in the unconscious. The more we ignore it, the more perilous it becomes.
Jung taught us that symbols can be worn out, become obsolete and ineffective. For this reason, much of Christianity has become an ineffective filter for our experiences. We need fresh, new myths that will screen our minds from the damaging effects of the dark unconscious. We need new artistic and musical geniuses that will bestow upon us gifts for the good of the species. We need imagination and creativity!
Art cannot be precisely defined. But, as an attempt to do so, art is unconsciousness made conscious. It is myth made visual, just as music is myth made aural. Art and music come about as close to a universal language as one can get. Great works of art and music are examples of “alleviating intermediaries” placed between the conscious mind and the dark fury of the unconscious to filter unconsciousness to the point where we can, first of all, bear it psychologically, and then benefit from it.
Jung, C. G. The Symbolic Life. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. (Vol. 18) (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton, 1976.
Safranksi, Rüdiger. Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography. Tr. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.