Jung – The reluctant modernist

My purpose in this essay is to discuss the idea of modernity in the work of Carl Gustav Jung. As the starting point I have taken his essay titled ‘The Spiritual Problem Of Modern Man’, in which he makes his concept of the modern clear, showing it as a state of illness, which needs to be cured. I will distinguish between what may, in Jung’s language, be called modern and what may not, and lastly I will argue, following Robert Ellwood that Jung’s diagnosis called for ‘a return of modern man to his ancient roots’ (Ellwood, 1999). Ultimately, it will become clear that Jung himself is a modern man, at conflict with his modernity.

Jung sees modernity, and modern man, as ‘an entirely new phenomenon’ (Jung, 1976), with problems which are ‘so much a part of the age we live in that we cannot see them in the proper perspective’ (Jung, 1976). The modern man is therefore detached from the past, or, as others such as Habermas have called him, the ancient man (Habermas, 1981). The issues of the past are foreign to him, and the current issues are without solution.

This causes the modern man to be isolated. He stands, as Jung put it, ‘at the very edge of the world, the abyss of the future before him’ (Jung, 1976). Importantly, this view of the future necessitates that this man also not look back at his history. He ceases to be interested in the values and problems of the past, becoming ‘unhistorical’ (Jung, 1976). The result of this is that the modern man must create his own world. By this I mean that Jung suggests that the modern man must re-interpret the world on new terms, separated from the traditional frameworks, which operated before him. In doing so, he must be fully conscious of the present. Indeed, Jung argues that the only man, who is truly modern, is he who is entirely conscious of the ‘immediate present’ (Jung, 1976). That is, not merely living today, but fully aware and present in today’s world.

The awareness of the present, poses a problem for the moderns. As Jung aptly points out, ‘today has meaning only if it stands between yesterday and tomorrow’ (Jung, 1976). This means two things for the modern man. Firstly, he must be aware of himself, as being opposed to the ancient man. Secondly, he must be aware that he will himself be surpassed by another, more modern man. These two problems ultimately add up to cause what Jung called the Spiritual Problem of Modern Man.

The first of these two problems results in modern man separating himself from the axioms of his society, such as tradition, religion and myth. Jung writes that ‘modern man abhors faith and the religions based upon it’ (Jung, 1976). This rejection of traditional values leads to a over-valuing of rational thinking and science, which Jung sees as having destroyed the traditional way in which people have perceived the world, and a break from the collective unconscious. He draws a comparison between the modern and medieval perceptions of the world. In medieval times ‘men were all children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for eternal blessedness; and all knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves’ (Jung, 1976). Man was guided in his life by traditions, which gave his life meaning and value. In modern times though ‘science has (…) torn this lovely veil to shreds’ (Jung, 1976). Jung sees the advent of science as undermining the values, which guided society thus far, creating a new form of living. One, which must guide itself, yet cannot as it does not have the framework of tradition and faith to help it comprehend the world. This is a result of over-rationality and overt favouring of science as a method of comprehending the world. Jung is suggesting, as will become clear in a later part of this essay, that taking away the focus from traditional methods of understanding the world, gives modern man a poorer view of his environment.

The second problem that the modern must face is the inevitability of becoming ancient. Jung sees the modern man as both the culmination of centuries of human development, but also a great disappointment because of this (Jung, 1976). He writes that ‘modern man is a culmination, but tomorrow he will be surpassed’ (Jung, 1976). He must be surpassed, as due to his separation from the traditions contained within the collective unconscious he must create new traditions. But by adhering to them, he must necessarily cease being modern, giving way for newer modernities. Jung called this awareness, and inevitability, of becoming surpassed ‘enantiodromia’ (Jung, 1976). This concept, borrowed from Heraclitus, refers to a running towards the opposite. In the case of the modern man, it means a striving for tradition. Jung then claims that this feeling chills the modern man with fear and paralyses his faith in the effectiveness of social and political measures (Jung, 1976).

This ultimately leads modern man to the need to create his own traditions, which is a contradiction for him. Jung argues that the modern man must atone for his break with tradition by using creativity. Otherwise, he be merely ‘disloyal to the past’ (Jung, 1976). At the same time, for Jung, true innovations ‘never comes from above; they invariably come from below’ (Jung, 1976). That is, the innovations that the modern man must create, can only come from within the framework of tradition, and not from the frontier on which the he stands. This leads him to live within a contradiction, which is caused by the requirement of creativity posed by Jung, and the inability to create due to his unhistorical nature.

Jung contradicts himself though, by forcing these two requirements onto the modern man. He accuses the modern to be questionable, by saying that ‘the “modern” man has is questionable and suspect, and has been so at all times, beginning with Socrates and Jesus’ (Jung, 1976). If the two men mentioned were, at their time, modern, the influence that their heritage has had on the world negates Jung’s accusation of the modern inability to create. Rather, the creations contribute to what is to become traditional, thus redefining it. Jung though, suggests that creativity can only come from a view of the past. He is suggesting thus that the modern man is too enmeshed in the present to be able to be creative. However, as similar problem exists for the ancient man, who being locked within a tradition cannot surpass it.

This reveals within Jung a strong appreciation of tradition (Homans, 1979). The appreciation of tradition is likely what had led him to his diagnosis of modern man as ill. According to Homans, ‘the archetypes of the collective unconscious consist of the oldest and most fundamental psychic contents of mankind’ (Homans, 1979). The traditions contained within the collective unconscious are what Jung sees as missing within modern man. These traditions encompass spirituality, myth and religion, and thus the spiritual problem of modern man is his rejection of the universal unconscious and focus on rationality. Jung saw this as causing society to become ‘traditionless, authoritarian, and excessively rational, (…) creating a depersonalized consciousness in the typical modern man’ (Homans, 1979). Ultimately, such a society is pluralistic, and no longer coherent.

At this stage it is possible to move on to a discussion of Jung’s response to the ascent of modernity. As is clear from his diagnosis, he argues that the solution is a union of the collective unconscious with the individualistic persona of the modern.

In the 1960s, Jungs work on archetypes stimulated a movement against modernity. Ellwood writes, quoting a Time magazine article from 1967 that the ‘New Left’ activists sought to repeal parts of modernity (Ellwood, 1999). He writes that at this time the ‘extremes of consciousness met, and found common ground in opposing what passed for modernity. Talk of archetypes and return to the archaic world seemed to fit when people dressed like figments of myth or dream, and wanted to establish communes where they could live close to the earth’ (Ellwood, 1999). This shows that Jung’s work was identified as calling for a return of modern man to his ancient roots. He sought to understand the modern world through the lens of tradition. Ellwood also argued that ‘for Jung (…), mythology was nothing less than a grand, ultimate source for the “timeless truth” undertow against the modern tide’ (Ellwood, 1999). The meanings of myth, as exposed by him were shown to underlie the axioms of modern thought and culture. Jung thought that myths could be understood in modern terms, and at the same time would enable an understanding of the Modern. In this sense, Jung called for a return of modern man to his ancient roots.

The diagnosis that Jung offers, that modern man has some problem with spirituality, is problematic. By his own admission, Jung’s views are ‘coloured by a professional bias’ (Jung, 1976). He also admits that he passes over ‘the spirit of the times’ (Jung, 1976), which he sees as propagating the ideas of modernity that I have described earlier in this essay. The diagnosis also is inconsistent with his view of the nature of the modern. Earlier in the essay I quoted him as writing that Socrates and Jesus were modern men. Neither of whom could be said to have had a problem with spirituality. Socrates, famously accused of impiety in his trial denied that accusation arguing that there is a spirit (daimon) in him, which speaks to him (Plato, 1973). Therefore, it is not modern man as such, but rather the modern man of Jung’s time that has this problem. Spirituality, in the traditional sense, has been outgrown. Religion ‘can no longer embrace [the modern man's] life in all its fullness’ (Jung, 1976) and therefore the modern man of Jung’s time has abandoned it. Yet, it appears that this abandonment was inevitable, from the very moment spirituality or religion has originated.

Religion too is a tradition, and like all traditions must have originated at the hands of modern men of past times. It followed others, which needed to be replaced as they no longer embraced the life of men modern to them in their fullness. Jung too, has rejected traditions, and has set to creating new ones, thus revealing himself as a modern man. The two problems that the modern man must encounter, certainly were encountered by Jung. He has largely separated himself from the traditions ruling his society, and as a scientist, which he certainly saw himself as, he must have known that there would be a time during which his theories would also become outdated.

Ultimately, Jung’s analysis of modernity reveals a conflict in himself. As is clear from what I have written above, he wanted modern man to return to the archetypes and traditions contained within the universal unconscious. In doing so, he was re-defining the traditions, thus stepping away from them. And this, reveals him as a modern man, in conflict with his own modernity.


Ellwood, R., 1999. The Politics of Myth. New York: SUNY Press.
Habermas, J., 1981. Modernity versus Postmodernity. New German Critique, Issue 22, pp. 3-14.
Homans, P., 1979. Jung In Context: Modernity and the Making of a Psychology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Jung, C., 1976. The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man. In: J. Campbell, ed. The Portable Jung. London: Penguin, pp. 456-479.
Plato, 1973. The Republic and Other Works. In: The Apology. New York: Anchor Books, pp. 445-471.