In this essay, Jung explores the moral implications of self-understanding in an age dominated by rationalism. He cites modern theories of self based on science or collective (sociopolitical) norms as the main factors contributing to the alienation of the individual from his psychological roots. These theories are harmful because they make claims of universal validity and in the process reduce the individual to an abstract ideal. The result is that the modern individual no longer knows himself – or what he thinks he knows is simply the contents of his own ego. What is lacking is an authentic experience of the unconscious, that aspect of the individual that makes him uniquely who he is.
Psychologically, the individual of today is an anonymous social unit, a virtual slave of the state. As part of a mass-minded society, his goals and meaning no longer lie in his own psychological and moral development, but rather are determined by the external policy of the state. This engenders a sense of impotence that renders him even more dependent on external definitions of self. In this milieu, the individual is of diminished importance; moral responsibility becomes increasingly collectivized and less a part of personal reflection and insight.
Traditionally, it has been the function of religion to counterbalance the mass-mindedness cultivated by the state by connecting the individual to a higher authority capable of relativizing the state’s influence. Jung makes a distinction between religion as a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical factors and religion as a collective belief or creed associated with the public institution of the church. In the latter case, religion makes the same kinds of demands on the modern individual as does the state, e.g., for faith and submission. It has an external quality that brings with it the potential to alienate him from the world as the state has to alienate him from himself. In the former case, religion is an inner, transcendent experience that serves an important psychological function: to regulate and maintain psychic balance. Religious experience of this sort provides an authentic relational element that anchors the individual in the knowledge of God and provides the real justification for his existence and his own spiritual and moral autonomy. Jung thought this personal connection to God to be more fundamental to religious experience than faith based on belief.
Jung warns the modern individual of the perils of religious practice based on literal belief rather than inner experience. First, the content of belief can never stand up to or compete with the scrutiny of scientific rationalism. If our faith depends on the literal truth of Christ’s resurrection, for example, then we risk rejecting the whole Christian myth once we start really thinking about it. Secondly, the church’s demand to believe literally impinges upon the individual’s freedom to think for himself. Once he gives up this freedom, he becomes vulnerable to the influence of any errant belief system.
Whereas science and the church both regard the will to individuality as egotistic obstinancy (science dismisses it as subjectivism; the church, as spiritual pride), psychology is attentive to the incomprehensible wonder that is the mind (or psyche).
It is important for psychology to disengage from the biases of science and religion and carve out a new experiential space that is free of the notion that the mind is a mere epiphenomenon of the brain.
Psychological development necessitates a willingness to examine oneself honestly. This practice teaches the individual that he is worthy of serious attention and sympathetic interest (overagainst the teachings of the state and the church) and it cultivates in him a more philosophical attitude toward life. But it is a difficult achievement for the modern individual because his basic beliefs are increasingly rationalistic. His attitudes reflect those of the culture at large and modern cculture suffers from a split consciousness, a rupture between faith and knowledge. The ever widening gulf between what we know on the basis of our inner experience or instinct (faith) and what we know on the basis of rationality (knowledge) can no longer be contained within the individual; thinking and feeling, therefore, have lost their inner polarity. The modern individual increasingly relies on his thinking and looks to the outside for the source of his disturbance. As he learns to disregard his inner experience, he replaces his real self with his own conception of himself and slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world.
Jung concludes that modern man has become estranged from himself. His lack of insight deprives him of the capacity to deal with the evil that resides in his own heart and it serves to maintain his denial that evil is part of human nature. Because it has become a tabooed subject, evil is acknowledged only insofar as it is projected onto certain human scapegoats (criminals, racial groups) or the devil. This allows the modern individual to regard himself as innocent, the victim of uncontrollable forces – and it absolves him of his moral responsibility. At the dawn of the new millennium, man stands at the precipice of his own self-destruction (through unprecedented advances in science, technology, and social progress) and does not recognize that so much depends on the psychological constitution of the individual. The mass state which strives for the isolation of the individual can only be countered by a bond of an affective nature. Humanity’s strength – and its survival – lies in its relationships.