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Opinion psychology

Doubt the Triumph of the Civilized Individual (Week 18 of Wisdom)

What Jung does when he compares primitive man with civilized man, is he gives a historical perspective of the situation of all of mankind in the current moment. This is opposed to taking a snapshot in time and comparing different groups of people together, such as different races or sexes.

Jung describes to us a much more general struggle that we can all relate to – it is both illuminating and familiar, but impersonal. Yet it is necessary if we want to understand our psyche – it allows us to observe how different economic and technological conditions re-configure our apprehensions, desires, and habits.

The presumption of the civilized individual is that in the world that he has occupied – the social and modern world – he has been freed from primitive superstitions that only disrupt one’s quality of life. The main criticism of religion is this – that it is a hindrance to progress, growth, and happiness.

But Jung challenges this creed on the basis that modernity has, instead of ridding mankind of its irrational fears and superstitious beliefs, has replaced them with new, more powerful ones. If progress has been made, it is an artificial and superficial kind of progress, that only gives us the illusion that we are moving forward, when in truth, the most important requisite for life satisfaction, our mental well-being and self-understanding, have been completely forsaken.  

The Limitations of Civilized Man

Civilized man can use his willpower to do whatever he pleases, he does not need to chant or drum to hypnotize himself into a state of doing, like primitive man. Civilized man can even dispose with divine aid, and he can carry out his actions uninterrupted, whereas primitive man cannot act without encountering fears, superstitions, and other unseen obstacles.

The superstition of modern man is, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” But modern man, to sustain this creed, pays the price by an incredible lack of introspection,

He is blind to the fact that despite his rationality and efficiency he is possessed by powers that are outside his control. His gods and demons have not disappeared, they have merely taken new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food, and an array of endless neuroses.

The Kernel of Truth

The boons of modern civilization are too numerous to list, so it is important to be careful about what is being advocated – it is not a return to primitive man, or a rejection of modernity. Rather, it is an understanding of the limitations of modernity, and the dangers of being too much engulfed in our immediate social concerns and banal pleasures, without conducting deeper investigations into ourselves.

This is not a permanent retreat from the real world, but a temporary one. Jung, remember, was a psychoanalyst – his job was to get people back to leading regular lives, but in a way that is less self-contradictory and damaging. His solution was to integrate the unconscious, to see one’s dreams as representations of his Self, and to make a skilful attempt at deciphering their hidden messages. If this sounds like pseudoscience, it is only because it his theories are vague. But contemporary science does not really contradict Jung, it builds on what he said.

For example, sleep researcher, Rosalind Cartwright, has expanded on and revised the theories of Freud and Jung for decades. She showed that REM sleep or generic dreaming were necessary for dealing with trauma or our emotional past. But she also showed that they were not sufficient. Her patients required REM sleep plus dreaming, but a specific kind of dreaming about the emotional themes of the waking trauma. It was only this content-specific form of dreaming that could accomplish clinical remission and give patients emotional closure. This is damning evidence to those who propose that dreams are simply useless by-products of the brain.

Through rationality, we have learned about the limitations of rationality, and the benefits of irrationality (dreaming is basically a state of being temporarily delusional). To doubt the triumph of modern man, means to doubt the presumed superiority of technological progress, to question the benefits of rapid social change – not from the perspective of a state, or a company, but from the perspective of an individual, with a biological brain, that is the product of very slow changes, and contains an unconscious with very old symbols and archetypes, that affect what we are fearful of, and what we most desire.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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