Jung on The Human Condition
On the pursuit of happiness and the drama of life.
Sunday Letters pursues answers to the question of human happiness and all the drama of that. But this state of happiness it seeks to identify is not hedonistic1, in which arguably most people seek happiness...or is it an escape from unhappiness? That might be more accurate. Sunday Letters attempts to go deeper than this, to explore the full scope of the human condition. And so it attempts to uncover the paradox of the pursuit–happiness is this or that, and yet it’s not. If happiness was something concrete, if it lay in front of our eyes or occupied the contents of our conscious thinking mind, then we would surely choose it. There would be no problem with life. But there is. In fact, there is an entire never-ending universe of problems. When we find a solution to one, we invariably pick up another problem. Unless that is, we realise that there are no problems really, that we create them all. As my father so accurately puts it, “the world is all right son; it’s the people in it that are the problem.”
In psychology, and in some respects common language, we use the psychoanalytic term ‘Ego’ to denote this happiness seeking aspect of the self, its level of awareness of itself and the world surrounding it. But the term has become a little overused, abused and misunderstood, so I tend to steer away from it. In fact, Freud never coined the terms’ Ego’, ‘Superego’ and ‘Id’. This was Abraham Brill’s choice, the original translater of Freud’s writings. Freud’s ‘das Ich’ translates as ‘the I’, a subjective sense of personal reality. It is argued that Freud’s ‘das Ich’ lost its subjectivity through the Latin word ‘Ego’ which already had affixed to it the concept of being overly self-centred. It might be more accurate to use the term ‘persona’ here, Carl Jung’s “outward or social personality.” It is derived from the Latin’ persona’ “human being, person, personage; a part in a drama or an assumed character,” originally “a mask, a false face,” such as those of wood or clay, covering the actors head in Roman theatre. So we see that what we refer to as “I,“ our reflection in the mirror, our clothes, our job, our social role etc., is merely a temporary mask overlaying something mysterious and perhaps unknowable.
The surface-level personality is that aspect of the unidentifiable subject that sees its reflection, thinks itself so important (or not), and believes itself to exist in all the drama and manifestations of its life. And despite the findings of those who have looked deep into the cavern of the human condition, people like Freud, Jung, Lacan, Klien, and many others, the general population, it seems, have failed to grasp the essence of what was discovered. That is the illusory nature of the surface level self and all its desires and demands for happiness. So it powers on at the sharp end of apparent human progress, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake and handing down its neurosis to subsequent generations. And so, in the pursuit of happiness, we create its exact opposite.
“’Happiness,’ … is such a remarkable reality that there is nobody who does not long for it, and yet there is not a single objective criterion which would prove beyond all doubt that this condition necessarily exists. As so often with the most important thing, we have to make do with a subjective judgment.”
The Plight of The Individual Is The Plight of The Collective
So now imagine all these little ego-centric animals, of which you and I are one, running around dressing up as this or that, playing their game unbeknownst to themselves, attempting to fill the void that has always been and trying to establish their own existence as real. And I wonder if we were always this way. When I read old texts from Jung, Freud and Fromm, for example, they identify the dysfunction of the human-animal and its society. It seems the same today, only more acute and destructive than before. I look at our climate and how our consumption of material things, things that ultimately do not satisfy but merely serve to appease our insatiable appetite for pleasure, is destroying us. I see how the global south suffers at the hands of this pandemic because pharmaceuticals do not licence the production of Covid vaccines in their countries. I see how toxic waste is exported to Africa and Asia and dumped in their rivers. And I see how the neediest in our first-world society are still neglected because it’s simply not a political priority.
All of this and more is the product of the human condition—one that fails to understand itself beyond the surface level personality.
In his 1958 essay The Plight of The Individual In Modern Society2, Carl Jung suggested that most people confuse self-knowledge with knowledge of the conscious ego-personality. But the ego, Jung says, knows only the contents of its own formulated reality and not that which lies beyond its awareness (excuse the reliance on male pronouns here).
“People measure their self-knowledge by what the average person in their social environment knows of himself, but not by the real psychic facts which are for the most part hidden from them. In this respect, the psyche behaves like the body with its physiological and anatomical structure of which the average person knows very little too. Although he lives in it and with it, most of it is toitally uinknown to the layman and special scientific knowledge is needed to aquaint consciousness with what is known of the body, not to speak of all that is not known, which also exists. What is commonly called self-knowledge is, therefore, a very limited knbowledge, most of it dependent on social factors, of what goes on in the hiuman psyche.”
Jung says the bigger the crowd, the more negligible the individual becomes. This lost individual Jung speaks of is the ego-based individual—the one that sees itself as either an oversized old stuffed shirt full of its own importance or as poor little me overwhelmed by its insignificance. We perhaps can see how a consumerist society such as ours can offer a solution to the problem, albeit not much of a solution. In this way, Jung says that the individual becomes more and more a function of society as an abstract idea where everybody is the subject of autocratic rule.
And In The End
Not to end this piece negatively, I feel there is some ground for optimism. We cannot expect to rid our existence of negative experiences, nor expect to have mostly positive ones. Life exists as a dichotomy—the coin has two sides, so to speak, and so balance is the only realistic expectation. To assume that we will change the world or even the life of one other human being towards positive ends by merely our best intentions is naive in the extreme. However, our actions might do just that. These things come about as a consequence rather than a cause. The only job we have, in that regard, therefore, is to introspect. It is to seek Carl Jung’s ‘self-knowledge,’ the knowledge of self that lies deeper than that by which we label ourselves. We won’t find it in stuff, intellectual knowledge, technology, partners, worldly success and so on, and to seek it there only perpetuates the drama… or is it trauma? Maybe it is that we keep coming back until we figure that out.
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Moore, A. (2019) "Hedonism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Jung, C. G. (2013). The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society. In The Undiscovered Self (pp. 21-32). Routledge.