The great quest of thinkers for over two thousand years has been to fulfill the maxim made popular by Plato through the words of Socrates, “Gnothi seauton,” or “Know Thyself.” It was inscribed in the portico at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It has inspired many philosophers, seers, mystics, and various other thinkers ever since. But what does it really mean? Better yet, what does it mean for us in the twenty-first century? With his method of “active imagination,” I believe Carl Jung gave us an excellent and very practical way to follow the admonition of Socrates. If you are not familiar with active imagination, you may read my article entitled, Active Imagination: the Bridge to the Unconscious, for background information.
After his break with Freud, Jung began to experience a relentless deluge of psychic content, fantasies which led him to encounter real personages, figures of the unconscious that would lead him into the depths of his soul. In his autobiography, Jung describes the experience:
I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. I was living in a constant state of tension; often I felt as if gigantic blocks of stone were tumbling down upon me. One thunderstorm followed another (Jung 177).
One of the keys to Jung’s surviving this volcanic eruption of unconscious contents was to translate his emotions into images:
Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them (ibid.).
This process of translation resulted in Jung treating the images as persons. Through interacting with them, he realized they were not something he produced in his own psyche, but that they were very real, not literally, but imaginally. The beings, known to the ancient Greeks as daimones, are inhabitants of the middle realm of existence, which Henry Corbin would call the mundus imaginalis, the world of the imaginal.
It is during this time that Jung encountered and conversed with Philemon, of whom he wrote much about in The Red Book. He describes Philemon in this passage:
Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenistic atmosphere with a Gnostic coloration (Jung 182).
If Jung’s imaginal personages would have been strictly Biblical figures, I don’t think he would have been able to have made the revolutionary discoveries he did. The Biblical worldview considers the figures evil and demonic. Jung had to think like a pagan, and like a Gnostic to bring forth a theory of archetypes, and the idea of the collective unconscious. These ideas rely on the very polytheistic notion of the daimones, the inner personages we now call the Gods, or the archetypes. Of course, the Egypto-Hellenistic world was familiar with the daimones a long time before Jung. Through his encounter with these daimones, Jung would contribute to the practice of Know Thyself like no other twentieth century thinker.
James Hillman wrote,
Know Thyself in Jung’s manner means to become familiar with, to open oneself to and listen to, to know and discern, daimons. Entering one’s interior story takes a courage similar to starting a novel. We have to engage with persons whose autonomy may radically alter, even dominate, our thoughts and feelings, neither ordering these persons about nor yielding to them full sway. Fictional and factual, they and we, are drawn together like threads into a mythos, a plot, until death do us part. It is a rare courage that submits to this middle region of psychic reality where the supposed surety of fact and illusion of fiction exchange their clothes (Hillman 55).
Jung was a rebel, indeed, to his religious, and later scientific, upbringing. His move to the imaginal point of view had to be made if he was to remain true to his inner vision. In this, he was a revolutionary. His fate compelled him to proceed as he did in order to further our knowledge of the soul. I believe he was chosen to follow the course he followed. It was his calling to revive the knowledge of these things for the benefit of mankind.
Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage, 1961.
Hillman, James. Healing Fiction. Dallas: Spring, 1983.