Department of Physics and Astronomy
Hamilton, NY 13346
Published in Spring: A Journal of Archetypes and Culture
Fall and Winter, 1999, pp. 83-100
An archetypal content expresses itself, first and foremost, in metaphors.
C. G. Jung
Many years ago a classmate of mine began his teaching career with night classes at a large city university. He told me that some of his introductory astronomy students actually got dramatic nightmares after learning how the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun. Some of the hippest city kids in the late twentieth-century were having their world turned upside down by the three-hundred-year-old Copernican Revolution. These nightmares show that even for modern urban dwellers, who rarely even see the night sky, our cosmological view does matter to us. It does help define us and our relationship to nature. Even more important, I’ll show how modern cosmology, the standard big-bang theory, can function as a true metaphor-one that can go far beyond provoking our dream life.
One of the chief results issuing from the analysis of the cosmological metaphor is the essential double nature of soul as both divisible and indivisible, or functioning through a multiplicity of images in the world and simultaneously fully unified in its self-gathered nature. To deepen this idea I appeal to Plotinus, the greatest Neoplatonist. As I’ll show, modern cosmology provides a metaphor that helps us hold these seemingly contradictory aspects of soul together. We can thereby more fully appreciate the essence of soul and see how it must express itself simultaneously in polytheism and monotheism and in the inner and outer worlds. Perhaps through this metaphorical use of modern science we can see that it is not just a dehumanizing activity for the manipulation of nature, but one with a rich symbolic structure that affords insights into our deepest psychological and spiritual realities.
Invisible Mass and Unconscious Compensation
In the last half century astronomers have developed the big bang model for the birth, evolution, and death of the universe. Modern cosmology solidly rests on the interplay between Einstein’s elegant theory of general relativity and observations from a variety of dazzling modern telescopes. Nevertheless, I’ll show that like all earlier cosmologies, it has archetypal and mythological dimensions. In standard big bang cosmology the universe began about fifteen billion years ago in an unimaginably hot and dense sea of elementary particles and then expanded, cooling, and forming galaxies that still recede from each other today.
Early in this century, it was learned that the average mass density of the universe (the mass per volume) was the critical parameter determining the ultimate fate of the universe. If the average density is smaller than a defined critical value, found by a combination of theory and experiment, then the universe expands forever; all galaxies endlessly recede from each other, eventually cooling into the dead cinders left from stellar evolution. On the other hand, if the density is greater than the critical value, the recession stops and reverses. The galaxies then fall back together at ever-increasing velocities into a cosmic inferno-the “big crunch.” Thus the average mass density of the universe determines whether it ends with a whimper or a bang, or more properly a diffuse, deathly cold universe or a fiery, cataclysmic big crunch.
In the last couple of decades it has become firmly established that the visible universe-everything seen by employing the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio wavelengths to gamma rays-represents less than one-tenth of the total mass of the universe. For example, the spiral galaxy, shown in the photograph, is overwhelmingly composed of unseen or nonradiating matter. The visible universe, of consuming interest to us since our Neanderthal ancestors gazed heavenward, is truly like the tip of an iceberg. There are typically one hundred billion stars in a galaxy and about ten billion galaxies in the visible universe, yet all these galaxies, stars, and gas clouds seen in any part of the electromagnetic spectrum make up only from one-hundredth to one-tenth of the total mass of the universe.
Since the great invisible bulk of the universe largely determines the average density, the invisible matter largely decides both the evolution and ultimate fate of the universe. Modern studies also suggest that our universe has an average density equal to the critical density. If the density is critical, then even if the luminous part of the universe is one-hundredth of the total, its presence is still crucial. This is because a little more or less of the visible matter would change the total to above or below the critical value.
Given that the great bulk of the universe is invisible, how do we know it is present? The gravitational effects on the visible matter imply the presence of the invisible matter. For example, gravitational effects on the motions of galaxies and clusters of galaxies imply the presence of enormous amounts of invisible matter.
This modern cosmology provides a strikingly apt metaphor for the relationship between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. The realm of the visible, of images, known contents, feelings, thoughts, and desires-consciousness-is only a fraction of the whole. Like the luminous galaxies in the universe, it is enveloped and permeated by a much larger invisible component-the unconscious.
Just as invisible matter dominates the physical evolution of the universe, so does the invisible unconscious dominate psychological evolution. Yet consciousness plays a critical role because the unconscious is often reacting to it. Although our interest in visible or reflective consciousness has consumed us, depth psychology has clearly shown that the dark, invisible aspect of the psyche-the unconscious-is the wisdom and power directing our evolution.
Just as the cosmologists infer the presence of the invisible matter by studying the detailed behavior of the visible matter, we infer the presence of the unconscious by carefully observing its effects upon consciousness. In cosmology, the gravitational interaction governs the interplay between visible and invisible matter, while in Jungian psychology the interaction between consciousness and the unconscious is largely governed by unconscious compensation-the “self regulation of the psyche,” which Jung tells us is the central guiding force for individuation.
As a rule, the unconscious content contrasts strikingly with the conscious material, particularly when the conscious attitude tends too exclusively in a direction that would threaten the vital needs of the individual. The more one-sided his conscious attitude is, and the further it deviates from the optimum, the greater becomes the possibility that vivid dreams with a strongly contrasting but purposive content will appear as an expression of the self-regulation of the psyche.
Jung often used a biological metaphor in describing unconscious compensation, saying that it was the psychological equivalent of the body’s self-correcting tendency, like a fever or the swelling of an infected wound. However, this compensatory principle is much more than a striving for psychological equilibrium, which would be a recipe for boredom and stagnation, not evolution. Instead, Jung found by examining long series of dreams that he could clearly discern an overall pattern, a purposive guidance, playing itself out in the life of the dreamer. The unconscious, through a series of specific compensations, like carefully directed rocket bursts, guides the person along a particular trajectory, unique to that person. Through symbolic understanding of our dreams, fantasies, and emotional responses to the inner and outer world, we discover this dynamic process and attempt to cooperate with it. In this way, that immense, not directly knowable unconscious guides our evolution as the invisible matter in the universe determines its overall evolution. But unlike the universe, which according to general relativity only has two possible end points, the unconscious guides each person to a unique expression of wholeness, what they are meant to be, an expression of the divine ray within-the self. Jung says:
This phenomenon is a kind of developmental process in the personality itself. At first it seems that each compensation is a momentary adjustment of one-sidedness or an equalization of a disturbed balance. But with deeper insight and experience, these apparently separate acts of compensation arrange themselves into a kind of plan. They seem to hang together and in the deepest sense to be subordinated to a common goal, so that a long dream-series no longer appears as a senseless string of incoherent and isolated happenings, but resembles the successive steps in a planned and orderly process of development. I have called this unconscious process spontaneously expressing itself in the symbolism of a long dream-series the individuation process.
The archetype of the self is the intelligence expressing itself in the individuation process. For Jung, the self is primarily the archetype of meaning and its meaning is usually infused with numinous feelings. Consciously actualizing and expressing the self’s intent in life is the process of individuation.
In Anima James Hillman has carefully discussed the many subtleties and ways of using the terms, self, soul, anima, and psyche. Here I use self and soul interchangeably as both the totality of the psyche and as a union of opposites, as when Jung says, “I have defined the self as the totality of the conscious and unconscious psyche, . . .” and as “a perfect coincidentia oppositorum expressing the divine nature of the self.” Later, when discussing the Plotinian notion of soul, we must consider it a principle extending beyond the psyche.
Although the personal realization of such an impersonal intelligence superior to our ego, to our personal will, that guides our evolution through unconscious compensation, is one of the greatest joys of the inner life, it is much more than the psychological equivalent of the Copernican Revolution. Merely replacing the Earth by the visible, localized Sun as the center of our universe does not adequately symbolize the invisible, nonlocalized unconscious guiding consciousness toward individuation. The metaphor of the invisible mass that pervades the entire universe and guides its evolution is a better image for the soul’s dynamic compensations guiding our evolution. Despite its improvement over the Copernican shift from the Earth to the Sun, it too has a significant shortcoming. The difficulty springs from the image of a pervasive invisible matter, which misleadingly implies that this intelligence, the self or soul, is spread out uniformly in space. Despite our materialistic tendencies, the soul is not in space or time. As we will see in the next section, big-bang cosmology provides a much more apt metaphor than the Copernican view. In modern cosmology the pervasive invisible matter generates a curvature to the spacetime geometry of the universe that provides a powerful metaphor for soul. Perhaps using it we can better understand the relation between the invisible, nonlocalized soul and our finite centers of consciousness that go through the individuation process.
Cosmological Expansion and the Double Nature of Soul
Shortly after Einstein’s development of general relativity in 1916, astronomers discovered that the stars first seen through Galileo’s telescope were only in our galaxy, which is merely one undistinguished member among billions in the universe. Edwin Hubble then discovered that distant galaxies recede from us with velocities that are proportional to their distance from us as shown in Figure 1. He found that in all directions, the farther away the galaxy, the faster it flees from us. This special motion is known as Hubble’s expansion.
A little reflection on Hubble’s discovery might prompt us to ask, “Does this imply that we are at the center of the big bang expansion?” Have we overthrown geocentrism, only to find that we are at the center of cosmic expansion? Einstein’s general relativity elegantly answers these questions by showing that the spacetime geometry of the universe is curved by its total mass distribution.
We can study this curved geometry of the universe via an elementary discussion that no doubt helped give nightmares to the inner-city youths. This discussion has three critical results. First, every cosmic observer sees the same Hubble expansion regardless of where she is in the universe. Second, the overall cosmic expansion has no geometric center. Third, the universe has no edge or limiting boundary.
Since we are unable to visualize the actual curved four-dimensional spacetime of modern cosmology, let’s work with a two-dimensional analog. Consider a balloon with pennies (representing observers) glued to its surface as shown in Figure 2. Now blow up the balloon and consider yourself a two-dimensional creature confined strictly to the spherical surface of the balloon. Staying on the expanding spherical surface and resisting all temptations to jump above or below the balloon’s surface gives a good two-dimensional analogy for the curved four-dimensional spacetime of modern cosmology.
To make this analogy more useful we need to add two refinements. First, the universe is not as homogeneous as the balloon leads us to believe. The cosmic neighborhood of each observer is unique to that region of spacetime. The detailed distribution of galaxies, stars, and gas varies markedly from one point to the next. For example, in our analogy there are little wrinkles, imperfections, and varying colors and density of pennies across the surface of the balloon. It is not perfectly spherical, each part inflates at a slightly different rate, and so forth. Second, despite these local variations, the universe has well-defined average properties. In our analogy, over a distance that covers a significant fraction of the balloon’s surface, it has a well-defined curvature, rate of inflation, density of pennies (observers), and so on. Our analogy must reflect the well-established observational fact that locally each observer sees a slightly different picture, but that on a large enough scale the universe is exceedingly homogeneous or smooth. In short, we need to account for local differences and global homogeneity.
Those with a taste for algebra can easily show that, while the balloon is blowing up, each two-dimensional observer stationed on a penny sees all other pennies expanding away from it with the same Hubble expansion. That is, each penny sees the others receding from it with a velocity that increases with the two-dimensional distance between the pennies, just like in Figure 1. (Remember, we measure distances on the curved surface of the balloon.) In cosmology, once observers reach out beyond their neighborhood with its local peculiarities, all observers see the same Hubble expansion. Since this is true for any and all pennies, it shows that no observer is the true center of cosmic expansion. Despite local variations, modern cosmology removes all privilege, all uniqueness, from our position in the universe. It has truly completed the Copernican Revolution. Now we are no more central nor privileged than any other cosmic observer. Equivalently, each observer can rightly claim to be at the center of the universe.
Perhaps this equality of all observers, seen so dramatically in cosmology, is reflected in our growing appreciation of diversity at all levels. No particular gender, race, culture, or political orientation is inherently privileged. Yes, by historical accident vast inequalities have arisen, but these do not spring from any intrinsic privilege built into the gender or race or culture. Of course, it’s a great challenge to honor diversity without degenerating into lack of judgment and moral relativity. This is especially so because of our complete fascination with one observer-our ego-and our innate belief that it does have privilege.
We cannot deny the psychological truth that each of us experiences ourselves as the center of our psychological drama. We relate all our experience to our ego, our center of empirical consciousness. Yet coming to wholeness, or the process of individuation, implies that the ego is not the true subject, is not the true director of psychological life. Unconscious compensation, for example, could not occur if the ego were the true intelligence guiding our evolution. In fact, the ego requires the unconscious compensation and is subject to the corrections, guidance, and inspiration of a nonlocalized intelligence-the self or soul. The psychological experience of the ego’s centrality finds a reflection in every cosmic observer (each penny) seeing herself as the center of a Hubble expansion. In truth she is only one of an infinite number of equivalent focal points generated by an unimaginably larger motion. Analogously, we believe that our ego is the center of psychological movement when in fact it is only a limited reflection of the soul’s indefinitely larger motion.
The balloon analogy also shows that the universe (the two-dimensional surface) is not exploding from a geometric center like the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Each point in the two-dimensional space (not just the locations of the pennies) is the center of its own expansion. Now you may object that the balloon’s expansion does have a center-the center of the balloon. But we are supposed to be two-dimensional creatures and not jump off the spherical surface! Notice that if we stay in the two-dimensional curved surface of the balloon it has no edges, no places where this space ends. Future astronauts need not fear an edge to space like the crew of Christopher Columbus. The curved four-dimensional spacetime of our universe contains all there is in both space and time. We have a cosmic uroboros with neither edges nor a center of expansion.
From our modern perspective, we can see that the awareness of being the center of our own experience, of relating all thoughts, feelings, and outer and inner adventures to our ego, was merely being projected into geocentric cosmology. We unconsciously transformed egocentric psychology into geocentric cosmology. In contrast, the heliocentric view implied that the perceived motions of the Sun, stars, and planets across the sky were actually due to our Earth’s movement, to our rotation and revolution about the Sun. The Earth’s motion, rather than the heavenly body’s, causes the illusion of a setting Sun or a rising Moon. This was the first major scientific revelation of the unreliability of appearances.
When we appreciate this Copernican Revolution psychologically and realize how our inner psychological motions condition and distort our experience, how our projections shape the world, then we begin to break out of the egocentric position. When we learn the power of our complexes to project their own contents unconsciously then we make the first tentative steps toward the psychological equivalent of the Copernican Revolution. When we finally realize that the ego is not the true center of psychological life, that a superior wisdom is ordering our inner life of dreams and fantasies and guiding our individuation through unconscious compensation, then we make the transition from an egocentric to a self-centric attitude, the psychological equivalent of the transition from geocentrism to heliocentrism.
As mentioned above, the Copernican Revolution presents difficulties as a psychological metaphor. For example, although far more glorious and the center of the solar system, the Sun is still another spherical body like the Earth localized in spacetime. The use of the invisible matter that dynamically guides the evolution of the universe as an image for unconscious compensation is a useful step. However, it suffers from being too concrete, from wrongly implying that the soul pervades space. But the self or soul, the guiding intelligence manifesting in our movement toward wholeness, is neither localized nor in spacetime. The overall expansion described in modern cosmology provides a much better image. It simultaneously accounts for the Hubble Law seen by local observers and the uniqueness of each observer (analogous to our egocentrism) and yet has neither a center for the expansion nor an edge to the spacetime. Although the ego falsely believes itself to be the center of experience, we are actually a small aspect of a greater motion, one without a center or whose center is not in our spacetime.
In psychological terms, the true and inclusive subject, the intelligence guiding our life, is the self or soul that includes the ego and all else within it. Perhaps we can get some additional help understanding this by using an analogy that Anthony Damiani often used. For this analogy, don’t consider dreams as symbolic windows into the psyche, but rather as epistemological lessons in how we know and what we know. Just as the larger dreaming mind animates and contains the characters and objects in a dream, the larger expansion generates and contains the particular observer’s Hubble expansion. In this analogy the dreaming mind, like the balloon surface, has no edge in either space or time. If we try-while in the dream-to imagine a time before the dream or a space outside it, we automatically bring them within the dream as another dream content. In this way, the dreaming mind has no edge in either space or time, just like the cosmological metaphor implies that the soul has no edge, that no place and no time exist where soul is not. Yet, we allow the ego its place without taking it as the true center of life.
A fuller comprehension of soul demands that we appreciate its double nature-both the ego’s centrality and the uniqueness of its perspective alongside the larger motion of the soul from which it springs. Simultaneously holding on to these complementary and apparently conflicting views is admittedly difficult and I hope the cosmological metaphor helps.
To amplify this double nature of soul, let me turn to MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus, which James Hillman tells us “has been for near to forty years the most instructive and inspiring single volume in my library. It is a source of the deepest ideas the mind can think; it is also a bible of beauty.” After summarizing some aspects of the Plotinian view of soul, I will discuss how this connects to the Jungian notion of self.
Plotinus on the Essence of Soul
Although much of the greatest Neoplatonist’s writings concern soul, none is more central to his vision then Ennead 4, tractates 1 and 2, entitled “On the Essence of the Soul (I and II)”. In both parts I and II he draws inspiration from the famous section in Plato’s Timaeus that discusses the double nature of soul. For Plotinus, the soul’s undivided or unified nature derives from having its origin in the Supreme, in the Intellectual-Principle or realm of Authentic Essence. There all principles are fully united and eternally unvaried. Yet soul even at its summit has a nature lending itself to divided existence, to multiplicity and change. For Plotinus the essence of soul consists in always having both of these contrary natures at every level. In IV.1.1 Plotinus says:
The Intellectual-Principle is forever repugnant to distinction and to partition. Soul there without distinction and partition, has yet a nature lending itself to divisional existence: its secession, entry into body.
. . . .
‘Formed from the undivided essence and the essence divided among bodies’: this description of Soul must therefore mean that it has phases above and below, that it is attached to the Supreme and yet reaches down to this sphere, like a radius from a centre.
Thus it is that, entering this realm, it possesses still the vision inherent to that superior phase in virtue of which it unchangingly maintains its integral nature. Even here it is not exclusively the partible soul: it is still the impartible as well: what in it knows partition is parted without partibility; undivided as giving itself to the entire body, a whole to a whole, it is divided as being effective in every part.
In the Plotinian view, the soul at its highest in the Intellectual-Principle “has a nature lending itself to divisional existence” and is “attached to the Supreme and yet reaches down to this sphere.” It partakes of the nature of both the infinite and finite-the unified and eternal and the multiple and ephemeral. But it “is parted without partibility” because no matter how fully it seems to divide itself among the transient multiplicities, its eternal unity is never sundered. I’ll say more below about how the soul can appear to fragment and yet never lose “the vision inherent to that superior phase.”
Plotinus often uses geometric analogies to help us grasp these complementary aspects of soul. For example, “. . . attached to the Supreme and yet reaches down to this sphere, like a radius from a centre.” A little later he uses the same geometrical analogy when he characterizes the indivisible nature of soul by telling us:
. . . it is an essence eternally unvaried: it is common to all that follows upon it: it is like the circle’s centre to which all the radii are attached while leaving it unbrokenly in possession of itself, the starting-point of their course and of their essential being, the ground in which they all participate: thus the indivisible is the principle of these divided existences and in their very outgoing they remain enduringly in contact with that stationary essence. (IV.2.1)
The circle analogy of Plotinus can be amplified by considering a turning chariot wheel, like those that rolled through the streets of second-century Alexandria. Then the nonrotating center of the circle is analogous to the undivided essence or unity of soul that remains intact, motionless, while it’s radii reach down to the rotating circumference of the wheel, to our moving sphere of sense and division. The difficulty with both his original geometric analogy and my amplification is that, although the center has a different nature than a radius, they are both visible objects sharing the same natures inherent in all such objects in Euclidean geometry. Although my amplification has the virtue of bringing rotation into the picture and thereby distinguishing more fully the still center from its moving radii and circumference, in fact both center and radii move as the wheel rolls by a stationary observer.
Perhaps appeal to the modern cosmology just sketched will provide a little more help. Let’s stay with our curved two-dimensional analog to the actual curved four-dimensional spacetime. In the cosmological expansion each individual observer-each unique center of observation-is a limited or divided expression of an indivisible motion of the whole, of the expansion of the entire sphere. Inherent in each individual observer and her Hubble expansion is the generating motion of the sphere’s expansion, the intrinsic expansion of each point in spacetime, which the limited observer is always expressing and with which she is always in contact. As Plotinus says above, “the indivisible is the principle of these divided existences and in their very outgoing they remain enduringly in contact with that stationary essence.”
Yet, from the point of view of a particular observer the larger generating motion of the expanding sphere is not visible, not part of its observations. In a similar way, although the indivisible aspect of soul is always present and makes the divisible possible, by its very nature the indivisible is not apprehended by the divisible. Although the sphere’s expansion inheres within each particular center of expansion and gives it its particular Hubble expansion, the limited perspective of a single observer cannot directly comprehend the larger generating motion.
The divisible nature of soul can never be separated from the indivisible. As Plotinus says above, “Even here it is not exclusively the partible soul: it is still the impartible as well: what in it knows partition is parted without partibility; undivided as giving itself to the entire body, a whole to a whole, it is divided as being effective in every part.” So whether we participate in mystic union with the ineffable Supreme or the most banal everyday task, the unity and plurality of the soul is in every experience.
In the cosmological metaphor the balloon’s expansion is made divisible by a particular observer’s identification with its unique viewpoint. The larger generating motion is in no way broken up or made partible, despite its being observed as a particular Hubble expansion. The larger motion becomes divided by “being effective in every part.” Recall that each point in the two-dimensional spacetime is the center of its own expansion, and yet the larger generating motion’s center is not in that curved two-dimension space.
I have nearly exhausted the utility of the cosmological metaphor, but let me squeeze a little more out of it, before turning to another way of attempting to grasp symbolically this dual nature of soul. In IV.2.1 Plotinus says:
The nature, at once divisible and indivisible, which we affirm to be soul, has not the unity of an extended thing; it does not consist of separate sections; its divisibility lies in its presence at every point of the recipient, but it is indivisible as dwelling entire in the total and entire in any part.
To have penetrated this idea is to know the greatness of the Soul and its power, the divinity and wonder of its being, as a nature transcending the sphere of Things.
At every point of the balloon’s surface (the recipient) the overall expansion creates a Hubble expansion. Herein lies its divisibility. Its uniqueness is guaranteed by local peculiarities. Yet the overall expansion of the curved surface is in no way surrendered or splintered into many separate motions. It does not become divisible or change its fundamental nature, since “it is indivisible as dwelling entire in the total and entire in any part.”
With ideas this profound, no analogy is adequate. Nevertheless, let me try another. This analogy is neither geometric like that of Plotinus nor cosmological like mine, but relies upon Anthony Damiani’s epistemological use of dreams. From this perspective, each element of the dream-the sky, trees, animals, feelings, actions, and so on-are productions of the dreamer’s mind. In this analogy, prior to the dreamer’s mind unfolding as a panoply of spaced and timed images, it is unified and indivisible. Yet it has a “nature lending itself to divisional existence” expressed in the dream. However, each element of the dream, whether a tree stump or a fluttering heart, has the entire dream mind present and invested in it. Whether a mountain or a microbe, the dream mind is fully present in each of its varied productions. In this way the dream mind is divisible and, simultaneously, the dream mind’s unity and integrity are in no way compromised by its production of images, its divisible outflow. No matter how many dream images are produced, no matter how fully present the mind is in each image, its native unity is not sundered. This follows because the image occurs as an expression of mind, rather than mind occurring within image.
Let me end this brief discussion of Plotinus by quoting IV.2.2:
There is, therefore, no escape: soul is, in the degree indicated, one and many, parted and impartible. We cannot question the possibility of a thing being at once a unity and multi-present, since to deny this would be to abolish the principle which sustains and administers the universe . . .
How do we connect this notion of soul to the concerns of depth psychology? When the indivisible and eternal aspect of soul reaches into the psyche and works through its forms and life processes this generates the Jungian self or soul as I used it earlier. The only aspect of soul we can know empirically in images or actions in the psyche is then the divisible soul, that being which reveals itself through the rich phenomena of the psyche. We may infer the indivisible or unitary aspect of soul, but Plotinus tells us that it cannot be grasped in a divisible form, in an image. Although the indivisible summit of soul must be approached though the via negativa, its immanence in every expression of the divisible soul guarantees its presence in the least expression of the psyche.
The divisible aspect of soul is relatively easy to appreciate. In neurosis our soul is so painfully divided that many of us seek relief in some movement toward wholeness. On the other hand, the indivisible aspect of soul, by its very nature, is more difficult to appreciate, since we can only “know” it by becoming it, by uniting with it. In this kind of knowing we can no longer proceed by image, but by becoming it in the silence. But whether we embrace the fecundity of images springing from the imagination’s boundless creativity or tread the via negativa we are always within the cosmos of soul.
Soul’s Double Nature and Polytheism/Monotheism
In 1971, in this journal, James Hillman ignited an animated discussion with his article “Psychology: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?” Since then he and many others have carried the fruitful discussion forward to the point that it is now the subject of a very recent Ph.D dissertation that comprehensively reviews the issue. I’ll not survey this extensive work here. Instead, I suggest that the vision of soul at the roots of our culture-the Platonic and Neoplatonic view-encourages us to embrace fully both monotheism and polytheism. Since at every level the Plotinian soul is inherently and simultaneously an indivisible unity and a divisible plurality, our tendency toward both monotheism and polytheism is built into the foundation of our being.
The wholeness or unity in the Plotinian vision, although inherent in every fragment of the soul’s expression as divisible, has its proper station in the Supreme. This suggests that the proper emphasis in psychology-the realm of division, plurality, and change-is on the divisible aspects of soul. Then psychology is inherently polytheistic and we should focus on the many loves of the soul, on its worship of sundry gods. In other words, let psychology be polytheistic and leave monotheism for spiritual concerns. An example of this view occurs in Kathleen Raine’s response to Hillman’s original article. There she appeals to Blake’s polytheism and says, “Possibly, the Jungian system is somewhat confused through an insufficient distinction between the psychological and the spiritual levels. . . . Blake’s system therefore finds a proper place for a psychological polytheism, coexistent with a spiritual monotheism; each is proper to its own level.”
However, this division of the activities of soul into polytheistic psychology and monotheistic spirituality is incompatible with the essence of Plotinian soul, whose very nature is to be always and at every level both divisible and indivisible, unified and divided. At certain stages or under special conditions one aspect of soul expresses itself more readily, but the other is always there, always ready to throw us into confusion or despair if we do not enfold both aspects of soul in our interior practice and our outer lives. Or as Jung says, “But the striving for unity is opposed by a possibly even stronger tendency to create multiplicity, so that even in strictly monotheistic religions like Christianity the polytheistic tendency cannot be suppressed.” Of course, this is symmetry here, for hidden within the heart of every polytheism is a demand for unity, for the movement through the many images to the one source from which they spring.
It might be suggested that the double nature of soul and the consequent propensity toward both monotheism and polytheism is a likely story, but not one that finds any modern expression. However, there is at least one outstanding example of a very sophisticated society and religious system that fully embraces both monotheism and polytheism: modern Hinduism. Since it is unlikely to have been strongly influenced by Platonism, the example is all the more convincing.
Although Western intellectuals often focus on the monotheism inherent in the Atman/Brahman philosophy, the everyday religious reality is an extraordinary pantheon of gods, from those symbolized by divine personages such as Shiva, Krishna, and Kali to those symbolized by animals such as the elephant (Ganesh) or the monkey (Hannuman). Their embrace of both monotheism and polytheism goes deeper than temple ornamentation and icons. Devout Hindus often focus their worship on one god, while still acknowledging the supremacy of Atman.
When confronted by what seemed to me a blatant contradiction between the monotheism of the Upanishads and the blatant polytheism in daily religious life, I sought refuge in the idea that monotheism and polytheism were the views of the elite and the common people respectively, that they only existed side by side, but were not actually integrated. However, questioning of both intellectuals and the humblest of worshipper lead to the same look of surprise when I expressed concern about the seeming contradiction. They found no contradiction between monotheism and polythesism and could barely relate to my concern. Without going into a detailed philosophic or religious analysis of how this could be, I merely end this section by quoting Hinduism’s most revered systematizer and philosopher of non-dualism, Adi Sankaracharya. The sixth stanza in his hymn to Bhavani, the Divine Mother reads:
I know neither Brahma nor Vishnu nor Shiva,
Nor Indra, sun, moon, or similar being-
Not one of the numberless gods, O Redeemer!
In Thee, is my help and my strength, O Bhavani!
Besides polytheism and monotheism being built into the foundation of our being, many other consequences follow from this double nature of soul. I’ll conclude by just mentioning one that particularly troubles me.
The inner realm of thought, image, and meditation is essential for any significant realization of soul. Unless we can see the archetypal dimensions of our inner life, that Aphrodite and Mercurius dance through our dreams, that Mother Kali and Krishna are as alive in us as in the poor Indian villager, then our inner life is barren and without soul. The soul radiates through each inner image, as more than aesthetic, but as the very outpouring of the divine.
But what about the smog and crime-choked inner city, home to the students just now being moved by the Copernican Revolution. Is soul there, too? Am I to experience soul in the fear of inner city violence, the barbarity of late twentieth-century terrorism and ethnic warfare? If soul is truly indivisible then it is as present in the outer world as in the inner. The realization of the indivisibility of soul then demands that I deify the outer world, too, that I see Aphrodite and Mercurius, Kali and Krishna in the ugliness of the mall parking lot and in the “mountain’s purple majesty.” But this is actually the easy part. The more difficult is that just as my soul journey requires me to tend to my interior expressions of the shadow, anima, and the entire bestiary of archetypal forces, then it demands that I also tend to these in the outer world. It is not enough to administer to the shadow in me, but the realization of the indivisible nature of soul demands I minister to the evil in the outer world, work with it, attempt to heal it, integrate it into the whole. Indivisible soul must not only be realized in our body, but in the body of the world. Here is where I am most acutely aware that my theoretical knowledge races way ahead of my personal realization. On that chastening note, let me turn briefly to science as metaphor.
Since the Copernican Revolution some three hundred years ago, science has increasingly alienated us from the cosmos. But we can reverse this trend by appreciating modern cosmology as a metaphor for some of our most intimate psychological and spiritual realities. Yes, the modern cosmological metaphor with its invisible matter curving spacetime with its universal Hubble expansion is more abstract then the simpler transition from geocentric to heliocentric astronomy. Even that transition required our ancestors (and some modern urban dwellers) to think in new and disturbing ways that violated their unreflective sense perceptions. Modern cosmology, because of its more abstract nature, requires an even greater effort at re-visioning. However, this effort may restore a little of the wonder and devotion that Dante expressed seven hundred years ago in The Divine Comedy, his magisterial cosmological vision that combined Christianity with the geocentric cosmology of his day. In Paradiso XXIV, 130-147, Dante sings of his overwhelming spiritual-cosmological vision and echoes the theme of the double nature of soul:
I believe in one God-sole,
eternal-He who, motionless, moves all
the heavens with His love and his desire;
. . . .
This is the origin, this is the spark
that then extends into a vivid flame
and, like a star in heaven, glows in me.
I thank Thomas McFarlane of Palo Alto, CA for his thoughtful and encouraging comments on an earlier draft of this paper. His own attempts to connect science with the spiritual life are an inspiration to me. I also wish to thank my friends at Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies. Over the years they have helped me understand everything from the profundities of depth psychology to the sublime mysterious of Plotinian thought. I am particularly indebted to Jonathan Bach and Richard Goldman for commenting upon an earlier draft of this paper. I especially thank my friend, the Jungian analyst Dr. Marvin Spiegelman, for his encouragement and help in understanding the subtleties of soul. My spouse, Elaine, intellectual companion, lover, and best friend deserves special thanks for her reading and re-reading of this manuscript and her helpful comments and encouragement throughout. My deepest debt is to Anthony Damiani, the late founder of Wisdom’s Goldenrod. He lit a fire in our souls and fed it with a wide range of inspired teachings from the East and West and, most of all, taught by example the necessity of obtaining some personal realization of the truths of these great traditions and concretely expressing them in the outer world.
- G. Jung, CW 9,1 § 267.
- G. Jung, CW 8, § 488.
- G. Jung, CW 8, § 550.
- James Hillman, Anima: An Anatomy of a Personified Notion (Dallas, TX, Spring Publications, 1985).
- G. Jung, CW 14, § 133.
- Ibid. § 176.
- Anthony Damiani, founder of Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies, Valois, NY often used this analogy in creative ways.
- James Hillman, a dust jacket comment for Plotinus: The Enneads, translated by Steven MacKenna (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1992).
- All Plotinus quotations are from Plotinus: The Enneads, translated by Steven MacKenna (Burdett, NY: Larson Publications, 1992).
- James Hillman, “Psychology: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?,” Spring, 1971, pp. 193-232.
- Mark V. Fonda, “Examining the New Polytheism: A Critical Assessment of the Concepts of Self and Gender in Archetypal Psychology.” Although successfully defended in April of 1995 and submitted for publication to university presses, the only publicly available copy of this work is on the internet at http:// http://www.strangelove.com/~marc/dispg.html.
- Katheleen Raine, Response to “Psychology: Monotheistic or Polytheistic?,” Spring, 1971, p. 218.
- G. Jung, CW 5, § 149.
- Sankaracharya, Self-Knowledge (Atmabohda), translated by Swami Nikhilanda (New York: Ramakrhishna-Vivekanda Center, 1970) p. 183.
- Dante Alighieri, Divine Comedy, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).