Keely's Reviews > Modern Man in Search of a Soul

Modern Man in Search of a Soul by C.G. Jung
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Jun 01, 12

bookshelves: non-fiction, philosophy, reviewed
Read from May 17 to 22, 2012

There are certain people who delight in mythologizing their lives--looking for deep meanings and explanations for who they imagine themselves to be. It is not mere soul-searching, because they dislike even reasonable criticism, and cannot stand to be made aware of the ways their actions conflict with the vision they have of themselves. They want to be special and important, and are less interested in understanding themselves than in creating an image.

There are some rare people for whom the act of personal recreation is a serious matter--people who explore their own depths, trying on new personae, always shifting and moving--they are the artists of identity, and they are few. Like any art, it takes a level of skill and determination that most people lack. Self-creation is like writing a novel: the average person trying to do it is going to end up with something cliche, hackneyed, conflicted, and ultimately self-serving.

Which is why these people often say the same sorts of things: 'I'm a little bit psychic, it runs in the family', 'I'm very in-touch with my spiritual side', 'I have Cherokee blood', 'I've always been very creative'. Now, I don't want to just pick on New Age spiritualists, because there are plenty of people who do the same thing on the other end: 'I've always been a very rational thinker', 'I find it so hard to be around naive people', 'I have this passion for world politics', 'I watch a lot of documentaries'.

No matter the form this delusion takes, it can be very frustrating to deal with someone who is so self-centered. They want to talk about themselves, indulge in their fantasy, and be confirmed by those around them. Some cynical individuals develop a game for interacting with this type: engage them, pretend to buy into their self-delusion, and then try to suggest something even more outlandish to see if they'll accept it. Extra points if the new idea clearly contradicts their previous claims. Unfortunately, the entertainment value of this game is limited, since it isn't hard to get them to accept even nonsensical notions. As Forer's astrological experiment demonstrated, people are quick to accept flattering explanations without questioning them; as Harlan Ellison said:

“If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you.”

In his opening essay, Jung's examples of the efficacy of dream analysis seemed similarly convenient. It reminded me of the solutions from some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, where things happen to fit all the data, but in an unlikely and convoluted way. Sure, it's possible to sit down with some tarot cards and tell someone else a story about their life that matches the draw, but just because something is capable of inspiring the human mind does not mean that it is ultimately meaningful.

Da Vinci was once studying the whorls and eddies in a streambed for a painting, and was suddenly struck with the idea that the human heart could use similar currents to maintain constant bloodflow throughout the body. It turned out that he was correct--though we wouldn't know it until a few years ago. However, just because a certain swirl in a stream inspired his thought does not make that swirl intelligent or magical or an agent of fate.

Yet unlike his presentation of ideas in Synchronicity, Jung is much more cautious here, telling us that he does not place importance on dreams because of any system or understanding, but because he often can't think of anything else to analyze! In his own words:

"I had tried to explain too much in too simple a way, as often happens in the first joy of discovery."

Disappointingly, I found the majority of Jung's theories arise from the same misplaced enthusiasm. Again and again, whether he is speaking of dream interpretation, synchronicity, or the collective unconscious, I see grand, far-flung notions with little basis in reality.

He speaks about Einstein's Theory of Relativity making his theories of psychic interconnectivity possible, and so demonstrates that he develops theories using the reverse of the scientific process. Normally, you take something you understand and then create a theory based on that. Jung instead takes an idea he shows no ability to comprehend (relativity) and states that it makes his ideas possible.

Sadly, one can see this same poor technique at work today, such as in the case of the 'documentary' What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which invited out a group of Quantum Physicists, interviewed them for a few hours, then edited them down to a few comments which seemed to imply that Quantum Physics made ESP possible. It is true that there are interconnections and unpredictable events on the quantum level, but trying to scale them to the human mind is pointless. Just because an ant can lift a hundred times his body weight, doesn't mean a human can. The scientists interviewed in the film later spoke out against it.

These sorts of pseudoscientific ideas play into the personal narratives of those self-obsessed folk I was speaking about earlier. Jung himself gives us a striking indictment of this sort of person:

". . . a great horde of worthless people people give themselves the air of being modern by overleaping the various stages of development and tasks of life they represent. They appear suddenly by the side of modern man as uprooted human beings, bloodsucking ghosts whose emptiness is taken for the enviable loneliness of modern man and casts discredit upon him."

Today we might call them 'hipsters'--people who take on the mannerisms and appearance of eccentricity, but lack any capacity for real iconoclastic thought. Artists and scientists often dress shabbily because they spend all their time and thought on subjects other than their appearance. Their horn-rimmed glasses and v-neck sweaters are not magic totems that confer intelligence.

As Jung indicates, when an individual falsifies an outward appearance without first developing inner depth, they become like 'bloodsucking ghosts', empty and entirely reliant on external confirmation. It is unfortunate that the attempt by the previous generation of parents to 'give' self-esteem to their children has been just as destructive, producing a generation of people with a great deal of confidence but no foundation to base it upon, so they collapse or lash out any time they are challenged.

But, looking at Jung's own theories, I came away with the impression that he was just as guilty of "overleaping the various stages of development" in his enthusiasm: he developed grand theories without a foundation, skipping past proofs and evidence in favor of loose anecdotes and flawed studies.

In reading earlier thinkers--Hume, Nietzsche, Plato--I found myself constantly confronted with startling insights into human thought, motives, society, and relationships. Freud's psychoanalysis was hardly the beginning of the study of the human mind. Yet here, reading Jung, writing with the benefit of the scientific method and with numerous studies to draw upon, I get none of these insights. It seems strange that the 'modern blossoming' of psychoanalytic thought about which Jung is so enthusiastic seems less productive than the centuries of thinkers that preceded it.

It became increasingly clear to me that I am simply not a Modern Man in Search of a Soul, for the same reason that I am not a man in search of gold bars. Souls and bullion might be nice things to have, but it seems rather pointless to wander my yard with a shovel looking for either one. There are a thousand thoughts and activities which seem to me more promising.

Jung himself promotes the importance of spirituality with a sort of Pascal's Wager--according to Pascal, an atheist who is wrong still goes to hell, while a believer who is wrong merely ceases to exist, so in terms of consequences it's better to believe (for the record, Pascal did not mean this to be taken as a serious argument).

Jung's Wager has a more psychological premise: in our youth, we are driven by our urge to reproduce, but once we are old, we no longer have this urge, so it's important to be spiritual so you have something to do with yourself after midlife. He suggests it's only natural, since humans can live to eighty, there must be some purpose to those extra years. After all, elders in tribes are revered for their great wisdom in when crops should be planted or how disputes should be resolved.

Unfortunately, Jung's arguments are once again in conflict with his conclusions. If we apply the adage of the Zen teacher 'listen to what I do, not what I say', then we will recognize that the importance of these elders is based upon their practical knowledge, not their spirituality--maybe those extra forty years should be devoted to the sciences or engineering, then?

In both wagers, we are asked to believe because we have nothing better to do, which is a sad state of affairs. The only people it could convince would be those utterly frivolous 'empty bloodsuckers' Jung spoke of earlier. It appeals to them because the search for 'the soul' can so easily become a fantasy, an escapist odyssey of self-importance. The exploration of the self must be tempered by an exploration of the world, and whenever they come into conflict, the world is correct. To recede into the self and ignore the world is the way of madness--of 'hearing voices', tinfoil hats, Napoleonic delusions, and other schizophrenic ephemera.

Sometimes they come up to me and ask me if I'm happy. I say no. They ask if something is missing. Something is missing, I say. It's god, they say. No.

People are starving, dying, warring. A wealthy elite exert control in the most destructive ways, leveraging and speculating and devastating whole swathes of the global economy, raking a profit off the top before the bottom drops out. I haven't had a regular job for years. Students leave high school hardly able to read or write, ignorant of the most basic facts of history and science. Whole cultures and gender groups are made to feel worthless and incomplete by predatory consumerist culture, which they then destructively feed back into.

My believing in god won't help any of those people. It won't help me. It won't change anything. If believing caused me to suddenly feel happy and whole, it would only be because I had turned inwards so far that I no longer recognized the cries of pain of my fellow man. Sometimes it's good to be angry, to be depressed, to be frustrated. There are many situations for which they are a completely normal, rational response.

Like cancer--I would think, if someone got cancer, they would be entitled to feel upset, angry, hopeless, and depressed sometimes, but as Barbara Ehrenreich found when she got breast cancer, there's a whole 'forced positivity' culture set up to completely overwhelm and alienate anyone who displays a perfectly reasonable emotional reaction.

To be happy, fulfilled, and untroubled in the face of that is not healthy, it's not a sign of sanity. If a person can tells me that they feel happy and whole in this world, the way things are, then it seems clear to me that they have already checked out. Sure, the world is full of joys, wonders, splendors, epiphanies, and new understandings, but that's only one half of the picture, and to discount the rest is to live half a life.
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message 1: by Carlo (new)

Carlo Stunningly great review! Thanks Keely.

Keely Thanks guys, glad you liked it. Often, when I write a longer, in-depth review like this, with ideas and links crammed in everywhere, I half expect no one will bother to read it. Nice to be wrong, sometimes.

message 3: by Cat (new) - added it

Cat Amazing and _spot on_. Thank you.

Keely Wow, thanks. I'm glad you liked it.

message 5: by Sasha (new) - added it

Sasha Keely wrote: "Thanks guys, glad you liked it. Often, when I write a longer, in-depth review like this, with ideas and links crammed in everywhere, I half expect no one will bother to read it. Nice to be wrong, s..."

Your review hits home. Thank you.

Keely Cool, glad it works for you.

message 7: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Cottle I have not read this and Now feel like I do not need to from the previous comments your review was " spot on." being completely honest though... If this is considered philosophy I would not enjoy it, I think it would irritate me as in my opinion philosophers asks many questions but offers no solutions. I'm not sure if this made sense or even served any purpose but thank you for your review. Now my curiosity is sated.

Keely "in my opinion philosophers asks many questions but offers no solutions"

Well, I guess I'd say there are no easy solutions in life. A good philosopher, like any good teacher, is someone who inspires you to ask difficult questions and to look at the world in a different way. It wouldn't be much help if they just told you what to think, because you have to find the truth for yourself, they can only be a guide.

The philosophers I most mistrust are the ones who do try to give solutions and answers, because they are usually oversimplifying things. People trying to give out answers to life's big questions tend to be cult leaders and politicians, not thinkers.

message 9: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Cottle Your point is well taken, every time I think of philosophy I am taken back to college when I had a political philosophy class... I cringe just thinking about it, my professor did not see eye to eye on anything. Which is interesting since when you are in college your professors should encourage you to think for yourself and not to follow a formula that he has set for his students... Hmm I have much to think about now :)

message 10: by Jamie (new)

Jamie Cottle I wrote that while my 2 year old was crawling on me sorry

Keely No worries, glad I gave you something to think about. Thanks for the comments.

message 12: by Jacob J. (last edited Jun 08, 2012 06:48AM) (new)

Jacob J. I may have enjoyed this review even more than your critiques of C.S. Lewis. The last six paragraphs speak uncomfortable (for many) truths and brings to mind an intermittently ongoing debate I've been having with my brother. Cancer is the go to example-- so to suggest that willpower and positive thinking are factors in their hopeful recovery, to me, seems to imply an indictment on those who succumb to their illness; to phrase it realistically, those who die as a result of their illness. Implicating people in the outcome of their own maladies based on their ways of thinking, to any degree, is dead wrong.

I just wanted to stress my like-mindedness on that one point, but the entire review was terrific.

Keely Thanks, glad you liked it.

It's true that outlook is important for people coping with diseases or other life problems--a person does better when they fight. However, telling people to be happy and accept it does not encourage them to fight. When we fight, we feel anger, we feel depression--those are signs of conflict. Placid acceptance is not a sign of willpower or determination.

Though depression sometimes seems inactive, it does have an evolutionary purpose, and it is a part of the human system for working through difficult problems. If anger is the outward sign of external conflicts, then depression is the reaction we have to internal conflicts: we take time to think things through and reconsider.

I agree that implicating people in the outcome of their own illness is amoral and harmful. My girlfriend's grandmother became unhinged late in life because she came to believe that her son had died because she had not prayed hard enough for him. Telling people their own attitudes are the reason they are sick is no better.

Being happy that you're sick is about as sane as being happy that someone ransacked your house. There are a lot of instances when it is both sane and natural to be upset--and ignoring those natural feelings can be as problematic to your outcome as giving up.

Ismael Galvan You just need a hug. It'll come in due time.

Keely Comforting gestures are certainly pleasant, and they have their place in life, but that place is not the conclusion of a piece of philosophical discourse. Anyone going to philosophy looking for simple comfort is either going to be disappointed, or is going to end up an adherent to a philosophy of selfishness.

message 16: by Jacob J. (new)

Jacob J. Keely wrote: "Comforting gestures are certainly pleasant, and they have their place in life, but that place is not the conclusion of a piece of philosophical discourse. Anyone going to philosophy looking for sim..."

And thus susceptible to solipsism, pseudoscience, and power-positive mystic white noise ( barge in again unannounced).

Keely Mmhmm--when a person seeks out only notions that justify them, not those that challenge.

message 18: by Wadada (new)

Wadada Bravo. What I've seen of people who have obtained "spiritual enlightenment" (That is to say realized that god's words, e.i. themselves, cannot be questioned.) Are the most selfish, elitist and oblivious to suffering and how they could possibly prevent it. They're like Ayn Rand's students.
I'm curious on what you think of typology? Just more pseudo-science or is there a place for it? Tried it once and found trying to typecast myself extremely depressing.

Keely "I'm curious on what you think of typology?"

Well, in the first place, I don't think one can separate the mind into 'rational' and 'irrational' sides. Thinking is not necessarily rational, nor is feeling necessarily irrational. Indeed, people with damage to the emotional centers of the brain, despite having cognitive function, show a great imparedness when trying to make rational deductions, suggesting that emotion is not only rational, but necessary for rational thought.

It's also a very Westernized notion, but then, as Jung would have pointed out, those grand, sweeping cultural notions can have an effect on the people living in that culture. I mean, if a person believes that their emotions are irrational and their thoughts are rational, that's going to affect their behavior. For instance, they might be more trusting of their thoughts, assuming that they are not prejudiced, when of course it takes a great deal of time and energy to prevent prejudice from ruling our thoughts.

Likewise, they might be more likely to 'act out', seeing emotions as uncontrollable things which 'cannot be reasoned with', despite the fact that they are almost certainly acting out as a direct response to an event in their life, and with the hopes of securing some desired outcome by their behaviors (which is the definition of a rational action).

So sure, I think people can be infected by memetic information--for example, if they read about the Freudian model, they are more likely to judge their own actions as Freudian, and to behave in Freudian ways, whether or not those theories have any basis in the cognitive structure of the brain. Indeed, one could look at the work of Freud and Jung not as ferreting out the natural inclinations of men, but training men to act in such a way as will match the theory.

As the great philosophical thinker Rick Roderick pointed out: psychology is the act of trying to find our hidden thoughts and prejudices and bring them to the surface, while the purpose of socialization is to bury deep in our minds preconceptions and thoughts of which we are not consciously aware, but which affect our everyday actions. That is to say, psychoanalysis is the opposite of socialization: one leads us towards individuality, the other towards the thoughtless internalization of trends.

So in that sense, Roderick would say that psychological typing should be depressing to an individual, because it is an attack upon your mind, upon your personality--it is an attempt to regularize you and make you into a unit which can be judged and organized accordingly. Certainly, there is nothing more natural than for us to resist a force that is trying to invade and change our minds--though it's unfortunate that this often applies equally to both good and bad change.

message 20: by Wadada (new)

Wadada Interesting, I have heard a case where a man without emotion was unable to choose between even using a black or blue pen. I think I'll want to remember that when I get around to reading Sherlock. I wonder if his job's emotionally draining that way.

I should have been more specific especially since I'm commenting on a Jung page. I was actually following a modern form typology that strives to take the way people process (Judging/Perceiving) take out the prejudice and humanize them. As in what your general preferences are and how you can apply J and even strengthen your P. What I found most depressing was that I was unable to grasp it. So I eventually dropped the whole thing. Since I'm unable to grasp typology I'm not sure how helpful I'm being right now.
One good think that came out of it is forcing me to realize my misogyny and self esteem issues.

Keely Ah, I'm less familiar with Jungian typology, but since I found his methodology to be flawed in all of these essays, I'm not going to be extending him much benefit of doubt. I'd assume that, if it made no sense to you, it was because it wasn't particularly sensible to begin with.

But hey, if it taught you something about yourself, that's always awesome.

message 22: by Wilcott (new)

Wilcott "The exploration of the self must be tempered by an exploration of the world, and whenever they come into conflict, the world is correct."

Wow, I don't know why this sentence is so hard to swallow. It's like sour medicine for a cancerous ego. Haha, I like it.

Keely Well, I suppose I could clarify that 'the world' doesn't mean the time and place in which a person lives--the world also includes thoughts and events of several thousand years ago, and for an American, looking at the world means looking at China and the Middle East, not just their own particular culture.

But yes, we definitely need more stringent treatments for ego.

message 24: by A (new) - rated it 4 stars

A You know, it's weird...I like Jung, but I can't really argue with the criticisms you raised in this review. You pretty much hit on all the general weaknesses in his theories.

Also, I assume that Wadada is referring to the Myer-Briggs sorter, which is built on Jung's idea of types but was not developed by Jung.

Ismael Galvan You cannot philosophize or prove the existence of the soul. I can feel it, you can too. Let's rehumanize ourselves, yeah?

message 26: by Jacob J. (new)

Jacob J. You admit (perhaps inadvertently) that feelings do not prove the existence of a soul, yet you assert that because we can feel it (a soul?), we should conclude that it exists? Rehumanizing ourselves, as you seem to define it, requires falling back on supernatural assumptions of the immaterial. We cannot always trust what we cognitively see, let alone feel; therefore, a subjective experience of one's own soul (whatever that may entail), does nothing, insofar as verifiable evidence is concerned, to advance a case for the non-corporeal notion of the soul, or anything that may be ascribed to the spiritual realm, in its various forms.

You could tell meThe Force is strong with me, and as an Original Trilogy geek, I'd love to hear it, but I'd need something more to convince me of its metaphysical truth than I can feel it, you can too. Do you feel me?

Keely "You cannot philosophize or prove the existence of the soul."

Agreed, which is why this book was a pointless waste.

"I can feel it, you can too"

You sure that isn't just indigestion?

message 28: by Jocelyn (last edited Jun 01, 2013 11:34PM) (new)

Jocelyn Stunning review, as usual. I always feel like I'm learning something new from your reviews, whether it's just generally or about my own behavior. The first opening paragraphs about people's tendency to "mythologize themselves" are uncomfortable but true--we have a bad habit of creating false delusions that serve no purpose but to make ourselves feel superficially better. A lot of people don't actually understand much at all, so they go for the image, thinking it will fool the people around them when the only ones they're fooling is themselves.

Keely wrote: "Often, when I write a longer, in-depth review like this, with ideas and links crammed in everywhere, I half expect no one will bother to read it."

On the contrary, at least for me, lengthy, in-depth writings packed with interesting ideas are the most appealing.

Keely Well, I'm always glad to find other people who enjoy a good long, in-depth review--it's what I prefer to read, myself. Anyways, I'm glad you enjoyed this one, and that you felt you got something out of it. While I wasn't impressed with the book, I think I still learned a fair amount from reading it, even if only by way of cautionary tale.

message 30: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 28, 2013 07:46AM) (new)

Keely, this and your review of Man Against Nature caused me to deeply re-evaluate my life. I love blazing through online reviews, but I never thought I'd find one that would do this to me.

It has been slightly painful, too because of the truth to it. The thing is, I read them both a while ago and it's been on my mind. But I think today I finally realise where I've been going wrong.

Your first paragraph sums up what I've been doing with my life for the past year or so because I was desperate for answers and to put an end to some internal conflict.

Oh, and this is wonderful:

"The exploration of the self must be tempered by an exploration of the world, and whenever they come into conflict, the world is correct."

I still don't understand what you mean by "the world is correct", though.

Keely Augustin said: "this and your review of Man Against Nature caused me to deeply re-evaluate my life . . . I never thought I'd find one that would do this to me."

Wow, to think that one of my little reviews would have such a drastic effect is humbling indeed. But then, we are all human, all trying to get through these things together, so it shouldn't be surprising when, sometimes, we come across another person who is thinking about the same things, and might have some insights that prove useful. I certainly hope mine are useful to you in some way.

"I still don't understand what you mean by "the world is correct", though."

Oh, I meant that when you go out and look at the world, learning new things and taking in data, when what the world is saying contradicts your views, the world is correct, not you. Like, a lot of people go through the world looking only for things that confirm what they think, and ignoring what contradicts them, when they should be paying close attention to what contradicts them, as it is probably right.

It's like when you go through the history of science, and see that, over and over again, whatever we thought we knew about the world was eventually disproven by new information. Yet, the scientific community sometimes has trouble accepting that new information, because it challenges everything we used to think--like how Einstein was skeptical of Quantum Physics. Yet, in the end, it's always the data that overturns our ideas, not the other way round.

message 32: by Andy (new)

Andy Interesting review but I know Jung has helped millions of people "find God". Namely those that are members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and these people are hardly self centered.

message 33: by Jason (new)

Jason Hmm, interesting you knock down mythologizing, in this case Jung in his memoir had this to say.

"Unfortunately, the mythic side of man is given short shrift nowadays.
He can no longer create fables. As a result, a great deal escapes
him; for it is important and salutary to speak also of
incomprehensible things. Such talk is like the telling of a good ghost
story, as we sit by the fireside and smoke a pipe.

What the myths or stories about a life after death really mean, or
what kind of reality lies behind them, we certainly do not know. We
cannot tell whether they possess any validity beyond their
indubitable value as anthropomorphic projections. Rather, we must
hold clearly in mind that there is no possible way for us to attain
certainty concerning things which pass our understanding.

We cannot visualize another world ruled by quite other laws, the
reason being that we live in a specific world which has helped to
shape our minds and establish our basic psychic conditions. We
are strictly limited by our innate structure and therefore bound by our
whole being and thinking to this world of ours. Mythic man, to be
sure, demands a "going beyond all that" but scientific man cannot
permit this. To the intellect, all my mythologizing is futile speculation.
To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives
existence a glamour which we would not like to do without. Nor is
there any good reason why we should."

Anthony Nicholas one of the coolest reviews i have read onling

Andrew I have a lot of respect for this review.

However, as someone who drew some edification from the book, I would say that many of your criticisms of Jung's methodology don't apply to the value of his worldview. A lot of grandiose theories with dubious application to actual reality, yes. But some of the accusations you level against him are a little bemusing - as in, I don't see where you got them from. I don't think Jung was advocating at all for complacent one-sided happiness, or spirituality as a Pascal's Wager, or self-centered solipsism. I did not sense any of those things while reading this book.

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