The Concept of the Unconscious Revisited

Tidings of the Eagle, by Nicholas Roerich (1927)

There is a deceptive idea that many followers of depth psychology seem to adhere to. It is the perception that what depth psychologists call “the unconscious” is some sort of objective reality, or compartment of the mind that stores the thoughts, ideas, images we repress, things we forget, etc. Basically, anything we are not consciously aware of is supposedly “stored” in the unconscious. This is inaccurate. The word simply means, “not aware.” We treat “the unconscious,” as a place or thing when, in reality, there is much we are simply unaware of. Not very hard to understand, but lots of people who are interested in the human mind, and especially Freudian, Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, make this mistake. In fact, some seem to speak of the unconscious as a divine entity, even capitalizing the word and attributing all sorts of powers to it. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this, myself.

Again, unconsciousness is simply a lack of awareness. For example, I am trying to remember the name of someone I went to school with when I was a child. I can see her face clearly in the imagination, but I am unconscious of what her name is. I don’t remember her name. But, if I think of her face for awhile, the name usually comes to me. Does this mean that lost memories are stored in a compartment of the mind called the unconscious? No, it simply means I was momentarily unaware of the name.

Jung proposed a model, a revision of Freud’s picture of the mind, that divided the unconscious into two layers, “personal unconscious,” and “collective unconscious,” the latter being the “storehouse” of what Freud had previously called “archaic remnants.” In retrospect, we see this dichotomizing as being a product of the extreme adherence to Cartesian dualism. Both men were still in the grip of, what Jean Gebser calls, the decaying mental-rational mode of consciousness. It is true that Jung’s view evolved over the years to an understanding closer to Gebser’s, but many of his followers still hold to this bifurcated idea. Yes, there is a collective and a personal aspect to the mind, but they are not compartmentalized. They work in unison.

Furthermore, consciousness and unconsciousness are not oppositional areas of the mind. In everyday experience, they walk hand-in-hand. In reality, they are one. In his classic work, The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser declares

There is no so-called unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness: a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole (Gebser 204).

Gebser does make allowance for using the term to describe lesser intensifications of consciousness. In our day, we would speak of the archaic, the magical, and the mythical modes of consciousness as less intense, since we are currently dominated by the mental-rational modality. Unconsciousness would also relate to the respective dimensionality of the less intense modes (archaic, magical, and mythical) than what we currently experience. The archaic has zero dimensionality, the magical is one-dimensional, the mythical is two-dimensional, and of course, the mental-rational has access to three dimensions. According to Gebser, there will be a four-dimensional consciousness. This is known as the integral mode. It will amalgamate all previous modes.

James Hillman makes some very pertinent and interesting observations concerning “the unconscious” in his work, The Myth of Analysis:

How does this term help us now? Already in Jung’s usage the term was becoming inadequate. He had to speak of a consciousness in the unconscious, and he ascribed to the unconscious a superior, guiding intentionality–which is more fitting to divinities than to subliminal mental processes.

By questioning the term, we do not doubt the existence of unwilled and unreasonable psychic states, of dreaming and of subliminal creative activities, or of any of the disturbances that are called the psychopathology of everyday life, nor do we question their “inferiority” as “sub” forms of consciousness, as we now conceive consciousness… (Hillman 174).

And also,

The term, “unconscious” is suitable for describing states where consciousness is not present–coma, for instance; but to use the word for the imaginal region, for morally inferior or culturally ignorant behavior, for instinctual release reactions, and for a causal agent who “sends” dreams and to which one can turn to ask an opinion, is an erosion of categories. To personify it and regard it as one’s inhibitory daimonic voice, or totem animal, or familiaris is not merely superstitious. Such habits are sacrilegious, because they deprive the Gods of their due. The unconscious is a concept, not a metaphor, even if what it represents is indeed the metaphorical and the source of metaphors. Thus we seem unable to avoid speaking in this peculiar, superstitious manner. But it is not good psychology to make a theology of the psyche or to psychologize the divine (Hillman 175).

Language in our current mode of consciousness does not sufficiently deal with the difficult realities of the human mind. I think, however, that both Gebser and Hillman are are on the right track.

Hillman, in another place in The Myth of Analysis, likens the term, unconscious, to what the ancients called memoria. I find this quite fascinating. The human ability to memorize vast amounts of information is a fascinating topic. Hillman thinks it is closely connected to the soul and what Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis, the imaginal world.

Regarding Gebser, I think he might say that memoria is the modality of consciousness holding all four modes of consciousness, preserving all of mankind’s experiences with consciousness throughout the history of the human race. The soul is timeless. Because of that, the four modes are presently accessible to us. Our origin, as living creatures, is “ever-originating,” an eternal presence. We have forgotten this. Our true selves have been disconnected from eternity. We have wandered far from our origin. Our task here is to re-member, to re-collect that which has disintegrated. It’s not a remembering in the sense of memory, but a re-integration of what has been torn asunder. It is difficult to say what the origin is, but it seems similar to what Hermetists calls The All. It is certainly non-spatial and non-temporal. All the various modes of consciousness emerge from the origin. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all things in the universe share in this ever-present reality. It is not an external reality. The very roots of our being lie within us, connected rhizomally to the origin, and, in turn, to each other.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Trans. by Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Hillman, James. The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972.


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Petrarch’s Epiphany

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Petrarch and Laura, by Nicaise De Keyzer (1842)

The man who most likely was responsible for initiating the European Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca (20 July 1304 – 19 July 1374), better known as Petrarch, fell in love with Soul on April 6, 1327, when his eyes fell upon a beautiful young girl named Laura:

It was on that day when the sun’s ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady (The Canzoniere)

Petrarch never had a relationship with this young woman, but he carried her in his heart the remainder of his days. In her, he realized the beauty and truth of Soul. This is, of course, what Jung called the anima archetype, that unconscious feminine Person that men possess within them.

Just prior to the period we know as the Renaissance, it is reasonable to assume there was a tremendous perturbation of unconscious forces stirring. The Church had focused for so long on Aristotelian philosophy and theology, and had increased their control on culture to the point where Soul had been quiesced. Effectively, culture had been de-souled and de-imaginalized.

In 1333, Petrarch found and copied a manuscript of Cicero’s Pro Archia that gave impetus to the coming Renaissance re-souling of culture. The manuscript contained a passage that was a defense of poetry and letters:

Haec studia adolescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur. (Translation: “These studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity; they delight us when we are at home without hindering us in the wider world, and are with us at night, when we travel and when we visit the countryside” (Pro Archia, para. 16).

Cicero is referring to the study of books: literature, poetry, philosophy, the humanities. Petrarch adopted Cicero’s idea of studia humanitatis as one worthy for his day and age. Humanitas is nowadays associated with the term, humanism, but this was not the meaning it held during the Renaissance. What Petrarch and those who followed him meant by it was simply the study of classical Greek and Roman literature. These studies moved their souls to deep wells of creativity. James Hillman claims that “from the very beginning in Petrarch the inner content of the materials was the mythical persons and ideas from pre-Christian polytheistic world (Hillman 194).  Furthermore, he says,

This humanitas was in fact an exercise of imagination, an exploration and discipline of the imaginal, whether through science, magic, study, love, art, or voyages.  It sought the development of the imaginative mind and its power of imaginative understanding, in contradistinction to both the theological mind of Church philosophy and the feeling heart of mendicant and monastic Church orders (Hillman 195).

The Renaissance, in essence a tremendous effluence of imagination from the wellspring of the unconscious, was brought to the surface by the rediscovery of classical literature. In large part, this consisted of the study of pagan myths; the stories of the Gods and Goddesses of classical Greece and Rome. These beings arose, once again, in the conscious minds of many, and much beauty was brought forth.

Hillman believes the Renaissance study of the ancient scholars was believed to be “care of the soul,” or, effectively, psychotherapy (ibid.).  Apparently, Petrarch made the classical era an imaginal space to which, in his studies, he was transported. There, he experienced the many figures of classical literature, and thus enriched his soul and the soul of his time.

Petrarch is said to be the first modern man. Hillman says this means he was the first psychological man. His famous ascent up Mount Ventoux in April, 1336 is considered by many to be the beginning of the Renaissance, but his descent was actually the starting point. By descending back down into the valley, he symbolically descends into his own soul, for he admits, “Nothing is admirable but the Soul.”

Addendum: In our day, the study of the humanities is ridiculed as a waste of time. Many colleges and universities are closing their humanities departments so there will be more resources to teach mathematics, science, and engineering. This is a horrible mistake, for this always results in the degradation of culture. We choose this path at our own peril.


Works Cited

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

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The Messengers

Jacob’s Ladder, by William Blake

We, at least we who have a background in Judeo-Christian religion, have been taught all our lives about angels. Other religions, of course, have a similar idea. The word, angel, carries so much baggage that I hesitate using it. Immediately, one thinks of winged creatures, usually fat babies, who bring some sort of blessing to humanity. Usually, we think of these beings as originating in some sort of heavenly paradise, but I have an idea as to what they actually are. They are part of the natural order of the universe. Read what the Spanish poet, Juan Eduardo Cirlot, has to say about the angel:

 A symbol of invisible forces, of the powers ascending and descending between the Source-of-Life and the world of phenomena (Cirlot 9).

These messengers may not be empirical beings, but they are, nevertheless, powerful, and very natural forces.  The ascending and descending calls to mind the story of Jacob’s Ladder, where Jacob dreamed of these beings traveling up and down a ladder that reached into heaven (Genesis 28:10-17).

There are not two worlds, one earthly and one heavenly. This is just the way mankind has literalized the manner in which the natural world operates. In our world, there are complementarities, of which the pair, consciousness and unconsciousness, are but one very important example. Also, there are different modes of Being, of which the powers we know as archetypes are one.

These non-empirical forces that, for millennia we have called angels, are the so-called “principalities and powers” of the World Soul. They do her work in Nature, ascending and descending between consciousness and unconsciousness. It is said we all have a “guardian angel,” or what Socrates called his daimon. These beings are a great mystery, since they are non-empirical, but many of us have experienced the whisper in the ear, or the slight nudge in a certain direction when making an important decision. It is part of being human. They bring ideas to us, descending to the depths of the Underworld, procuring what we need at the moment, and ascending back up into consciousness to provide the answer. Those epiphanies and eureka moments that we sometimes experience are brought by these beings. They are our lifeline to the vast ocean lying beneath us.

These beings of the unconscious are real and are at work in our psyches and in our world. They sometimes appear in our dreams. The archetypal power in charge of these forces is none other than Hermes, messenger of the gods, and World Daimon to the Anima Mundi. It is he who marshals these forces to come to our aid, to bring needed knowledge to us from the Underworld. Hermes is the god of secret knowledge and the guide of all souls. Tom Cheetham writes,

These Others come to us as persons: mothers, fathers, lovers, strangers; as angels and demons, as complexes and as  gods. They  all  embody  and  exemplify styles of consciousness, modes of living, ways of being. And  it  is  only  by being able to perceive the work of the real Hermes, that we can feel their presences at all. Without this, our worlds are filled with stereotypes, with typologies, with categories, with prejudices, and we never see a real person, never meet any Others at all. Until they break through in madness and misery, violence and destruction (Cheetham, 28).

We must greet the bearers of those strange voices, we must be the host at the Feast, and welcome the strangers. This is a delicate business. Respect and attention, care and  courtesy  are  required. Again  we  require  the  aid  of Hermes, for  the  ego wants  to  wall  itself off from the  Others. We  need  Hermes  in  order to violate those  boundaries. The  only  way  we  can  establish  the  Communion  that  is required is by moving freely in the spaces between the stars. We can only know who we are  if we know who we  are  not, if we  experience  our boundaries by experiencing where they touch those  of the  Others (Cheetham, 29).

When we encounter these beings, the usual answer from our medical community is to medicate us with various chemicals, to try and silence the messengers. I am skeptical concerning antidepressant medications because they attempt to quell the soul; they try to control what is naturally occurring. How can we be transmuted if we don’t endure the pressure and sometimes pain of their voices? The waking ego, indeed, wants to run away from the messengers, to be walled off from them, as Cheetham says. But we should learn to interact with them, as William Blake and  Emmanuel Swedenborg did. Then, we will be in a position to receive what they have to offer.

Works Cited

Cheetham, Tom. Green Man, Earth Angel. New York: SUNY Press, 2004.

 Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. London: Routledge, 1971.

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Metaphysical Solace

Oedipe et Antigone, by Charles Jalabert

In writing about Attic tragedy, Nietzsche states,

The metaphysical solace which, I wish to suggest, we derive from every true tragedy, the solace that in the ground of things, and despite all changing appearances, life is indestructibly mighty and pleasurable, this solace appears with palpable clarity in the chorus of satyrs, a chorus of natural beings whose life goes on ineradicably behind and beyond all civilization, as it were, and who remain eternally the same despite all the changes of generations and in the history of nations (Nietzsche 39).


The “metaphysical solace” Nietzsche speaks of, is the human experience that is at the very ground of life, an experience that nullifies those things we usually consider as bringing well-being to a person, such as wealth and success. The phrase is misnamed because it really has nothing at all to do with the “metaphysical,” taken to mean, “the supernatural or incorporeal.” The solace Nietzsche is referring to here is perfectly natural and requires no external world or transcendent deity to produce it. 

Early in his career, Nietzsche sought after metaphysical solace in the “revitalization of myth and activation of the myth-building potential of consciousness” (Safranski 86), as opposed to the attempts to find metaphysical solace in religion, philosophical idealism, or the quest for knowledge, as in science. To these latter solace-seekers, Nature needs to be corrected or compensated for in some way. Somehow, it is not sufficiently equipped to bring about the state of solaciousness we are discussing. But in Nietzsche’s mind, solace is to be derived solely from Nature in the form of the tragic tension that emerges from the conflict between Apollinian and Dionysian forces.

The satyr, half-man, half-goat stands in stark opposition to the Apollonian man. The satyr is a carefree being, totally devoid of the mundane worries of life. He knows how to have a good time. He doesn’t concern himself with bills, mortgages, a job, etc. The natural life is all he knows. We would do well to allow some of this attitude into our own lives. The movement of Bohemianism, as well as the Beat movement, was in tune with the satyr.

Even though we value life and the world for its good things, Nature is notorious for being, at times, unjust, unfair, and filled with misery. Life itself is tragic and we are all tragic characters. We all suffer. As the Buddha said, the essence of life is suffering. Most attempt to transcend the world through religion, philosophy, drugs, sex, even suicide, but life is what it is.

Since the time of Socrates, our world has been dominated by, and an overemphasis placed upon, the forces of Apollo. The Dionysian forces of our world have been suppressed, usually by social viewpoints that consider these as sinful, evil, or just uncivilized. Apollo, of course, is the god of order, rationality, and the visual arts. Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, the fertility of nature, and music. These two powers are in perpetual conflict, not only within our world, but within ourselves. Nietzsche believed that Attic tragedy was the synthesis of these forces.

We have emphasized Apollo for so long that it is very difficult for us to embrace Dionysus, especially if we have been brought up in Christianity, truly an Apollonian religion if there ever was one. Christ is light, just as Apollo is the god of the Sun. In I John 1:5, the Apostle states, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (KJV). This is a one-sided understanding of reality, and is the typical Western viewpoint. It is Apollonian to the core.

The metaphysical solace Nietzsche refers to is the primordial experience of unity. It is a unity of the contrary forces of Nature that makes our lives worth living. It is naive to ignore one side of reality, as many times we do in our orderly, capitalist, consumer-driven world. Under the streets of our very civilized and ordered societies, the earth is rumbling. The cthonic forces of Nature, having been repressed for so long, seek an outlet. If Apollo and Dionysus cannot be reconciled in some way, as Sophocles and Aeschylus did when they wrote their tragedies, the unfettered powers of the Underworld will be unleashed on the world, and in the lives of individuals.

The way to solace is not the avoidance of suffering, but the phenomenological embracing of Nature. It is not the embracing of pie-in-the-sky idealism or social Utopianism. It is not waiting until we get to heaven. A wonderful life awaits us here in this world now. The understanding that there are contrary forces within all of Nature, and that they require equal recognition, will foster new imagination and birth new creations.

Works Cited

Nietzsche, F.W. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Safranksi, Rüdiger. Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography. Tr. Shelley Frisch. New York: Norton, 2002.

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Danger Lurks Below


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.

Works Cited

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.

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