Alchemy, in our day, is an aspect of our European heritage which many of us view as being silly. The general consensus is that alchemy was a product of a more primitive worldview. It is somewhat puzzling as to why a twentieth-century psychologist like C.G. Jung would have such a passionate interest in the subject. In this article, I will attempt to explicate Jung’s ideas concerning alchemy. Following a short critique of his views, I will add a few of my own thoughts.
Basically, alchemy is the attempt to transmute base metals, such as lead, into silver or gold. Theories have arisen in many different cultures as to how this could be done. The movement was at its peak during the Middle Ages in Europe. Alchemists were concerned with discovering a substance called the philosopher’s stone, the lapis philosophorum, which would enable them to make the transformation. They were also searching for something called the elixir of life, which supposedly was a potion that would cure all disease and make humans immortal. Besides being a primitive form of chemistry, alchemy was also replete with a system of symbols which illustrated the alchemical process. Jung saw in these symbols a depiction of human psychological development.
In the early years of Jung’s career, alchemy was just as nonsensical to him as it is to the general public today. He did not make it a serious object of study until the late 1920’s when he read an ancient Chinese alchemical text translated by sinologist, Richard Wilhelm, called The Secret of the Golden Flower. This work aroused Jung’s interest in alchemy. As a result, he began to collect alchemical writings. Some years later, Jung began to see parallels between the writings of the alchemists and his own psychological theories. “I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious” (Memories, Jung 205). The discovery which made Jung think along these lines was that the alchemists were not writing in a literal fashion, but in symbols. According to Jung, these symbols assisted him in understanding the abundance of empirical evidence he had gathered from his practice since its inception.
When I pored over these old texts everything fell into place: the fantasy images, the empirical material I had gathered . . . and the conclusions I had drawn from it. I now began to see what these psychic contents meant when seen in historical perspective. (ibid. 205).
This “empirical material” consisted of observations of his patients, such things as dream and fantasy images, and hallucinations. Jung claimed that many of these images have a close correspondence to many of the symbols used by the alchemists in their writings. For example, in her book, Alchemy, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz writes about a woman (a patient of Jung’s) who had a dream of an eagle soaring up into the sky, then turning and eating its own wings. This image baffled Jung until, one day, he was reading a certain alchemical text called the Ripley Scroll. In it, he found a series of pictures which described the alchemical process. One of them was an eagle which turns back and eats its own wings. Apparently, this represents the opposites within the psyche striving against one another. Jung claimed to have found many such motifs in the dream and fantasy images of his patients.
In a previous article (Enantiodromia), I dealt with Jung’s theory of the conflict of opposites. He saw a parallel teaching in the alchemical texts. This is probably the primary reason why Jung speaks so highly of alchemy. Basically, Jung believed that mental energy is created through the conflict of opposites. He said, “there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites” (Jung, Two Essays 63). He called this energy libido. It is to be distinguished from Freud’s definition of libido, in that Freud saw it only as pertaining to sexual desire, whereas Jung viewed libido as psychic energy in general. According to Jung, libido is the vital impulse of human life.
In Jung’s view, the alchemical attempt to transmute base metals into gold (the philosopher’s stone) was actually a psychological process which had been unconsciously projected onto the various material substances used in the process. The alchemists were usually not aware of the projection, according to Jung. They really believed they could turn base metals into gold. The symbols used by the alchemists were really representative of what he termed the process of individuation. Jung stressed that individuation must not be understood as a linear development, but as a “circumambulation of the self” (Jung, Memories 196), that is, the movement is toward the center, which Jung says is the Self. One of the symbols in alchemy which represents this process is the Ouroboros, the serpent which devours its own tail. This means that the process is circular and self-contained, according to Jung.
In Jung’s thinking, the path to individuation is characterized by the constant conflict of opposites, which of course produces psychic energy. One must bring the opposites into complete union in order to accomplish individuation. This means that the conscious and unconscious become integrated and assimilate the ego, after which the Self emerges. In alchemy, this union is known as the coniunctio. The coniunctio is symbolized in various ways in alchemy. One such symbol shows a king and queen in a hermaphroditic union. In Jung’s mind, this represents the union of opposites, and, more specifically, the union of anima and animus, the male and female aspects of the unconscious. Jung claims that these must be integrated in order to achieve individuation.
If a patient is in a state of deep depression, Jung would say that it corresponds to the alchemical stage of nigredo, or blackness. Just as the prima materia (the substance being worked on) must be washed and distilled before it is purified, so also the individual must undergo a process of cleansing and distillation before achieving wholeness. The purified state is known as albedo, or whiteness. The process, according to Jung, usually begins at the nigredo stage, which is characterized by self-reflection and a state of dissolution. In alchemical literature, the procedure moves through various stages of distillation and purification. To Jung, this means that a patient will gradually gain sufficient knowledge of the unconscious until one’s inner life becomes integrated and balanced (all projections are withdrawn). When this occurs, one enters a state of great peace and tranquility. Jung claims that this is the pure gold spoken of by the alchemists.
If there truly is development of the Self, or individuation, I can’t think of a better metaphorical dressing to place it in than alchemy. Interpreted as such, it seems to deal with reality better than Christianity, which denies that humans have anything within them that is worthy of development. I am thinking here of Calvinism, which teaches that man is wicked and corrupt, and cannot perform any good deed unless God moves him to do it. Even though it may be admitted by other Christian theologians, the doctrine of human depravity seems to be at the very foundation of the entire Christian doctrine. If not, why did St. Paul spend so much time discussing justification in the juridical sense? Does he not admit that man is a criminal which must be pardoned in order to receive the blessing of God?
In the Jungian interpretation of alchemy, the process of development does not require a one-sided emphasis on the wickedness or holiness of man. Rather, it demonstrates that we contain opposing energies, both good and evil, which must be reconciled in order for mental and spiritual health (and physical health as well) to occur. This seems to be more in line with reality.
We humans do like to think that we have something of value within us which can be developed and brought forth. I suppose that is why I study philosophy. Through it, I hope to gain meaning for my life, meaning which I failed to find in Christianity. That is also why I read Jung. Even though I sometimes have problems with his methods, his ideas at least give me a framework for understanding myself.
On the other hand, I am in disagreement with Jung over the need for all archetypes to be individuated into one central Self. This seems to deny the reality of Soul, which is truly multifaceted. I am of the opinion that Jung was still somewhat stuck in the Western monotheist mindset.
von Franz, Marie-Louise. Alchemy. Toronto: Inner City, 1980.
Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1965.
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