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Opposites (2)

By George Elder, 4/25/24

Jung was familiar with all of the material in my first essay on this topic. (Please, re-read.) In fact, Edward Edinger tells us that, “Heraclitus was Jung’s favorite ancient philosopher” (Psyche in Antiquity, 1:32)  In his early work, Psychological Types (1921), Jung cites Hegel and calls him elsewhere, “a psychologist in disguise.” He includes a long section entitled, “The Brahmanic Conception of the Problem of Opposites,” and goes on to discuss the Tao.

Yet, as Jung confides in his “Seminar of 1925,” he thought at first—like the Buddhists—that the “opposites” were a “pathological phenomenon” to be overcome. After all, his patients kept arriving in conflict: “Should I marry or not?” “Should I leave my profession and become the artist I’ve always wanted to be?” “I’m stuck in a meaningless existence and can’t move ahead or back.”

Eventually, Jung came to see that:

the pairs of opposites are not to be understood as mistakes but as the origin of life. For the same thing holds in nature. If there is no difference in high and low, no water can come down. . . If you have all your wishes fulfilled, you have what could be called psychological entropy. I found, then, that what I had thought to be a pathological phenomenon is in fact a rule of nature. We are part of the general energic process . . . .(78)    

This sounds like the mysterious energy of ch’i. For Jung, it is psychological energy—for which he used the Latin word libido (“desire, inclination”), that Freud had already used in the more limited sense of sexual energy.

Edinger writes that understanding the “flow of opposites” within the psyche is the “key” to self-knowledge since the opposites “constitute the most elemental structure of the psyche”:

The flow of libido is generated by the polarization of opposites in the same way that electricity flows between the positive and negative poles of an electrical circuit . . . these are the dynamo of the psyche. (Mysterium Lectures, 321)

In practical terms, this means we can expect that the mood with which the day begins will change, that the marriage relationship will have its ups and downs as a “rule of nature” and not as something wrong—like the ebb and flow of yin and yang. It means when we have fully experienced “one side” of a pair of opposites—happiness or sadness, inferiority or superiority, functioning in a masculine or a feminine way, success or failure, etc.—its “other side” will make an appearance. Jung called this ebb and flow the psychological principle of enantiodromia, following Heraclitus.

Furthermore, the difficult situation at the office cannot be the whole story since the psychological “Tao”—i.e., the “way things are”—contains within itself opposing principles at the same time, a “yes” and a “no.” And so it really is wise to look for the “silver lining” inside every “dark cloud” (. . . and, if possible, wait). It is also wise to notice the “small cloud on the horizon” when all is well.

In this way, we are like that Hindu “charioteer” who looks down on both “wheels”—and experiences release from the “problem of opposites” by seeing the opposites together. We know they are real but not absolutely real and, instead, relative to each other—creating our life energy!

 So why weren’t Jung’s patients happy to be caught up in this “play of opposites”? Because the ego hates having to deal with two opposing facts, two ideas or emotions simultaneously. It wants “one” thing, and almost always a pleasant thing, and wants it to last indefinitely. Indeed, a young ego should cultivate this wrong attitude since it is “correct” at the beginning of psychological development in order to strengthen the ego’s desires while pushing aside its shadow opposite.

When an adult ego does this, however, it is “infantile”—“I want what I want, and I want it now” (this includes the impatient red light runner)—a failure to face the “way things are.” Jung’s patients already felt defeated enough to enter therapy, but now they would have to face the additional defeat of discovering their immaturity—a good reason not to seek out a therapist!

But one of Jungian psychology’s “mottos” comes from Collective Works 14, paragraph 778: “the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego.” It appears in italics in order to emphasize the point that—just as Hegel surmised about history—growth in the individual proceeds from thesis to its opposite or antithesis, in order to arrive at a higher synthesis of the two. The instigating “Self” in this statement is the “God within” that in some people is very active, for reasons we do not know.

Considering our earlier imagined persons caught in a “problem of opposites,” the man undecided about marriage might discover—after many sessions—the great psychological opposites of “consciousness and the unconscious.” He might learn that consciously he really does want to marry, but the unconscious keeps intruding with its opposite wish that won’t go away. Perhaps the unconscious wants to make the point that the “real marriage” is a hieros gamos of “ego and Self”—that should not be confused with a personal relationship that can never carry that much weight. The woman thinking of giving up her remunerative profession in order to paint may learn that she has really missed inserting an “artistic” dimension into her work, something unconventional that colleagues might not understand. She would have to be courageous. As for life coming to a meaningless standstill, it is almost always the case that “meaning” lies hidden in the “Other side” of ourselves.  

We are witnessing in these solutions what Jung calls a tertium quid, an unexpected “third thing” that brings relief in an unexpected way. He often refers to it as a “union of opposites” or uses the alchemical term “Coniunctio” (conjunction) to give it nuance. I have made the mistake, however, of thinking he meant some kind of blending of the opposites that transcends them, akin to that Hindu sage’s experience: “Verily, everything has become the Self.” Or akin to Buddhist nir-dvandva, a cultivated indifference to “pleasure and pain.”

But Jung stated clearly in a letter to an Indian man:

Take, for instance, the concept of nirdvandva. Nobody has ever been entirely liberated from the opposites, because no living being could possibly attain to such a state, as nobody escapes pain and pleasure [and any of the other pairs of opposites] as long as he functions physiologically . . . . and you cannot even be conscious of something if you don’t discriminate between opposites, and thus participate in them. (Letters, 2:303)

“Participating” in the opposites means engaging them, seeing their inescapable presence, and enduring their assault on our personal preference to be “one-sided,” to be only correct rather than also wrong at the same time, beautiful but also ugly in some way, smart and dumb, etc.

Does any of this pertain to the “polarization” of American culture and politics? Of course, it does. But, first, let us note that democracy has the psychological advantage of attempting, at least, to include the “whole” population in government. The two-party system has the advantage of expressing the “duality” that is naturally embedded in this whole. Indeed, the Republican party is usually symbolically “white” (like yang) with an emphasis on ego self-sufficiency, law and order, fiscal responsibility—masculine qualities associated, also, symbolically with the “right.” By contrast, the Democratic party is usually symbolically “black” (like yin) with a greater willingness to help those who cannot help themselves, a more flexible or critical attitude toward the law, and less fear of incurring national debt for a good cause—feminine qualities associated symbolically with the “left.”

We need both! And, when democracy is “flowing” as it should, we should expect change in government, even an enantiodromia from one Party’s control to the other. A “third party” would express a tertium quid—a Hegelian advance or “synthesis” of the opposites—but not if it is contrived as an Aristotelian “mean” between extremes. It would have to be inspired, unexpected, in order to attract the “energy” of voters.

The “split” of opposites in our current situation, however, is not creative. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats know that their convictions are not absolutely correct but relative to their opposites. They have no idea that a conscious “conservative” is unconsciously “liberal” and vice versa—indeed, the possibility (dimly felt) is a threat and spawns rigidity and fanaticism. That exposes our immaturity as a young nation but, also, our infantilism—we should know better but don’t. America is technologically very “smart” and psychologically “dumb” at the same time.  


But, then, we are in the midst of an “Apocalypse.” (See my Post, “Apocalypse Now.”) This means, first of all, that our current circumstances will not last and are, in fact, being transformed by powerful Forces deep within the collective American psyche. It means, also, the full exposure of the shadow side of America—and a period of conflict, probably a very long period, that we can understand as a “conflict of opposites.” Lecturing in 1995, Edinger spoke of “bitter factional disputes breaking out all over the world”:

among warring clans in Somalia; between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda; Serbs and Bosnians in Yugoslavia; Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East [again]; not to mention our own fanatical political-action groups at war with each other on the American political scene [that was only getting started]. The list could go on and the names might change from year to year. But this troubling short list of  “conflicts,” which is so easy to compile, reminds us of Heraclitus’s remark, “War is the father of all.” These many factions are what Jung refers to as the wretched “isms”—and yet all are part of the phenomenology of the Apocalypse. (Archetype of the Apocalypse, 175)

As we can sense, there is really not much an individual can do in the midst of a major cultural shift. It cannot be stopped.

It is easier to endure, however, if one knows what is happening—why people hate each other so much. Knowing why puts one in the position of that Indian “charioteer” who felt “release” when observing two wheels at the same time—sparing him (sparing us) from identifying with one side or the other and running the risk of fanaticism. I still have to vote for one party, not two—my values leaning one way more than the other. But I don’t have to identify with that vote and can admit that the other side has a point. Anyone who cannot do this is, by definition, a fanatic.

A more enlightened attitude will actually “release” my libido to explore the “opposites” within myself. I can work privately to soften the “conflicts” I find there, to discover what the “unconscious” wants of me “consciously” in order to bring them closer—so that the white and the black, the sun and the moon, the dry and the moist, the active and passive, the masculine and the feminine, all have some say in my personal life.

For all I know, that effort may mitigate—infinitesimally, to be sure—the worst of the Apocalyptic public ordeal, soften the “polarization.” Confucius had that in mind when he said: “The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken”—or if the thoughts are the right ones—“he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles.” (I Ching, Hexagram 61, “Inner Truth”)   



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