Of Absolute Good and Evil – Carl Jung’s poignant lecture to the clergy

One of the most platitudinous phrases that comes up when the issue of time travel is discussed is ensuring that hitler was never born.

If I could go back in time, I’d ensure that hitler was never born – Anon

The biggest problem with this line of thought is that it ascribes the greatest evil to just one man, and somehow assumes that he was an alien of some sort. Hitler was just as human as the rest of the people in the twentieth century, and the fact that he attained such levels of evil should be more of a worrying sign as to the limit of evil a normal human can attain.

Just how much more evil can man get? Could a worse Furher have existed if our time travel heist did work? Why does good never seem to triumph against evil in this world?

All these question on the nature of good and evil in man recieved extensive attention from the great Carl Jung. But, one of his lectures, to a clergy in Switzerland, delivers a more resounding message.

He begins as follows:

People forget that even doctors have moral scruples and that certain patient’s confessions are hard even for a doctor to swallow yet the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst in him is accepted too. No one can bring this about by mere words. It comes only through reflection and through the doctor’s attitude towards himself and his own dark side.

If the doctor wants to guide another, or even accompany him a step of the way, he must feel with that person’s psyche. He never feels it when he passes judgment. Whether he puts his judgments into words or keeps them to himself makes not the slightest difference. To take the opposite position and to agree with the patient offhand is also of no use. Feeling comes only through unprejudiced objectivity.

This sounds almost like a scientific precept and it could be confused with a purely intellectual, abstract attitude of mind, but what I mean is something quite different. It is a human quality, a kind of deep respect for the facts, for the man who suffers from them, and for the riddle of such a man’s life.

Jung starts from the angle of a psychiatric doctor, which he is. But much later on,he extends the admonition to all persons. But the most important thing to take away from this introduction, is the fact that empathy must never become yet another theatre of emotional display. It is possible to revel in empathy and yet not have any unprejudiced objectivity. Empathy must come naturally, as it might sometimes be needed for people who have committed some “evil”.

He continues:

The truly religious person has this attitude; he knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass and seeks in the most curious ways to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by unprejudiced objectivity. It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor who ought not to let himself be repelled by sickness and corruption.

We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer. I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve. But, if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is and he can do this, in reality, only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.

This paragraph is the embodiment of “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones”. If you do accept yourself, and th fact that you are capable of great evil, then it becomes easier to not create a boogeyman out of your enemies. Jung stresses the fact that this acceptance is not a blank cheque to condone evil! He makes it clear that calling out evil doesn’t make you any less evil. Back to the uncomfortable example of Hitler. The NSDAP (Nazi) party had it in mind that they were doing good work and repudiating the evils of the treaty of Versailles. They created their own boogeymen (in Jews, marxists and communist), and ended up becoming the biggest boogeyman of europe.

Jung continues even more deeply:

Perhaps this sounds very simple but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life, it requires the greatest art to be simple. And so, acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yay the very fiend himself, that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy whom must be loved, what then?

Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed. There is then no more talk of love and long suffering. We say to the brother within us, Raka, and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide him from the world. We deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves and had it been God himself who drew near to us in this despicable form we should have denied him a thousand times before a single cock had crowed.

Wow! The metaphors here are rather powerful. Again Jung stresses on the importance of accepting the evil enemy within. In other words, our rage against evil things which occur in this world, must not overstep itself. You cannot understand the meaning of good unless you understood the meaning of evil. Even St. Thomas Aquainas saw this

Just as it is the silent pause which gives sweetness to the chant, so it suffering, so it is evil, which makes possible the recognition of virtue

St. Thomas Aquainas

Jung continues further extraordinarily:

Healing may be called a religious problem. In the sphere of social or national relations, the state of suffering may be civil war and this state is to be cured by the Christian virtue of forgiveness and love of one’s enemies. That, which we recommend with the conviction of good Christians as applicable to external situations we must also apply inwardly in the treatment of neurosis. This is why modern man has heard enough about guilt and sin. He is sorely beset by his own bad conscience and wants rather to know how he is to reconcile himself with his own nature, how he is to love the enemy in his own heart and call the wolf his brother.

The modern man does not want to know in what way he can imitate Christ but in what way he can live his own individual life, however meagre and uninteresting it may be. It is because every form of imitation seems to him deadening and sterile that he rebels against the force of tradition that would hold him to well-trodden ways. All such roads for him lead in the wrong direction.

He may not know it, but he behaves as if his own individual life were God’s special will which must be fulfilled at all costs. This is the source of his egoism, which is one of the most tangible evils of the neurotic state. But the person who tells him he is too egoistic has already lost his confidence, and rightly so, for that person has driven him still further into his neurosis.

If I wish to affect a cure for my patients, I am forced to acknowledge the deep significance of their egoism. I should be blind indeed if I did not recognise it as a true will of God. I must even help the patient to prevail in his egoism. If he succeeds in this, he estranges himself from other people, he drives them away and they come to themselves, as they should, for they were seeking to rob him of his sacred egoism! This must be left to him, for it is his strongest and healthiest power.

It is a true will of God that sometimes drives him into complete isolation. However wretched this state may be, it also stands him in good stead, for in this way alone can he get to know himself and learn what an invaluable treasure is the love of his fellow beings. It is, moreover, only in the state of complete abandonment and loneliness that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.

when one has serveral times seen this development at work, one can no longer deny that what was evil has turned to good and that what seemed good kept alive the forces of evil. the archdemon of egoism leads us along the royal road to that ingathering which religious experience demands. what we observe here is a fundamental law of life: enantiodromia or ‘conversion into the opposite’. and it is this that makes possible the reunion of the waring halves of the personality, and thereby brings the civil war to an end.

Jung finally gives the antidote to the seeming madness of fighting the evil in one’s self. The idea is to follow the ego to it’s last depth because a fool who persists in his folly, may become wise.

Alan watts gives the appropriate closing remark:

…the development of egoism in man is not something to be overcome or better integrated by opposition to it, but by following it. it’s almost, isn’t it, the principle of judo: not overcoming what appears to be a hostile force by opposing it, but by swinging with the punch or rolling with the punch. and so by following the ego the ego trancends itself, and in this moment of insight, the great westerner who comes who comes out of a whole tradition of human personality which centers it upon the ego, upon individual seperateness, by going along consistently with this principle comes to same position as the easterner. that is to say, to the point of view where one sees conflict which at first sight had seemed absolute, as resting a primordial unity and thereby attaining a profound, unshakable peace of the heart, which can nevertheless contain conflict. not a peace that is simply static and lifeless but a peace that passes understanding.

Alan watts

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