A World Without Archetypes

It has been stated many times before by much wiser men than I that the modernist ideology – and an ideology it certainly is – rests on one foundational purpose before all others. That purpose is simply to abolish all that was. All traditions, all beliefs, all scraps of the world that once was, are as offensive to the modernist, as modernism is to the sensibilities of those whose beliefs and values are founded in that same past. It was Pope Pius X wrote famously wrote in 1907 that modernism is the synthesis of all heresies, and it would certainly appear that he was correct.

It is for this reason if no other that is it of such critical importance to ever be mining the ideas of those who came before, to read the old books and by so doing, to enter into conversation and fellowship with men and women whose minds were not burdened by the complexities that haunt us today. Such fellowship entered into provides us with the tools to see our own time afresh.

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, is one such figure. His most important theory, particularly for our own transient times, is also his most well known. I write, of course, about his theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Borrowing from the late, great Czech statesman Vaclav Havel, archetypes are the wealth of visions and stories – ancient myths, legends, fairy tales, and symbols – found in all cultures and all religions across all of human history. Havel writes,

“Cultures formed many thousands of years ago, cultures that developed their myths and ritual practices quite independently of one another, operate with the same basic archetypes, the pre-figurations of which modern science is now discovering in the depths of the human unconscious…It shows that there exist deep and fundamental experiences shared by the entire human race, and that traces of such experiences can be found in all cultures, regardless of how distant or how different they are from one another.

… There are principles, experiences, and what we might call pre-scientific knowledge that are more essential and mysterious than our present experiences. At the same time – somewhat paradoxically – it often happens that the leading discoveries of contemporary science themselves provide confirmation of this and so, by a circuitous route, bring human understanding back to something that all cultures have known intuitively since the dawn of time, something that until recently modern science has treated as no more than a set of illusions or mere metaphors.”

It is amusing to find discoveries heralded by our modern sciences which, as it happens, corroborate the theories, ideas, and fundamental beliefs that predate said discoveries by hundreds of years if not more and which, it must be noted, originate from the quill tip of medieval or even ancient theologians. Just as the child must rebel against his parents’ instruction only to wander back upon seeing their wisdom, so too does modern science seem to be working its way, however slowly, back to the pre-Enlightenment wisdom of the Church. Let us pray for its continuation.

The matter at hand, however – this idea of archetypes that are fundamentally seated somewhere within each of us – is an important one, particularly because we live in a society that is resolute in its efforts to sever all connection with the past. If successful, it would find itself in immediate freefall. Our past is a lasting part of us. Neither man nor woman nor beast nor plant can exist apart from its progenitor. One may not agree with their parents politics, but only the most foolish of fools would separate themselves from the man and woman who gave him life over such a trifling matter as political disagreement. Yet it is precisely this sort of imprudence that is occurring with ever-greater frequency, and all the more when such imprudence infects popular movements.

So it is that we find ourselves redefining good and evil, right and wrong along fairly simple lines, namely, along the lines of personal preference. It was Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote in his decision on Casey vs. Planned Parenthood, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Is that all?

The past has been written; the present is still a in draft form. Once we believe that the meaning of existence, the universe, and the mystery of human life can be individually determined, we have announced that the past no longer has influence and is thus meaningless. How silly an idea, as it is the past that should inform our present. It is the lessons from the past that inform our present, lessons without which we may know nothing.

Imagine that a teacher or a professor were to walk into his classroom, tell his pupils the title of the class, and then leave them for the rest of the semester to figure it out on their own. They might make some sense of the topic, but lacking proper instruction from who has read through the books, written the dissertations, and taught countless students before, our wayward class may only hope to possess the most basic and shallow understanding of the topic at hand.

What hope have we, then, of any different a result?

Thus we have this golden thread that runs through and ties together all civilizations and all human minds and souls across all time. We have inborn a natural sense of right and wrong not because we all happened to be taught the same thing, or because we all, miraculously, came to the same moral conclusions. Rather, we all have these same senses because we all share scraps of the same universal Origin from which such understandings come. If this sounds mystical or obscure or simply crazy, then so be it.

Consider that prior to global exploration began in earnest, world civilizations were largely isolated from one another, yet in each there developed similar ideas of good and evil, morality and vice. If nothing else, one may look to the fact that among these isolated civilizations there developed religions, which though the specific details and beliefs varied radically, all formed around the idea of creation. Some will say that this was an evolutionary step, that buried deep in the human brain there is a need to make meaning, but even still, why? And more to the point, why a God or gods? C.S. Lewis touches on this point in The Abolition of Man when he speaks about the Tao in reference to those ideas and beliefs that are universally shared across cultures and time. He even goes to such pains as to include appendices wherein he illustrates through various historical and religious texts where and how, exactly, such ideas are expressed in these various cultures.

Sadly, as the world has become so intricately connected, it seems highly unlikely that individual cultures will continue to develop individually. Indeed, the push seems to be to eliminate cultures plurally understood, and replace them with a single culture of many different facets; that is to say, a single global culture that shares aspects, rituals, traditions, and beliefs of all those subcultures that it has absorbed. This, though, kills those cultures, just as mixing blue and red and orange and black does respect the individual colors, but instead creates an ugly brownish-grey.

Society thus becomes a museum of societies past. One may walk through the Egyptian Wing of the British Museum and catch a glimpse of what ancient Egyptians believed and how they lived, but one cannot walk away believing he has experienced Egyptian culture, or that he understands any better what it meant to be an ancient Egyptian. Such a globalization of cultures is naught but a cataloguing process, culture under glass.

We need our past. It cannot be stated any more plainly. We are quickly becoming a generation without archetypes; virtue has become vice, and vice virtue. What once made a man heroic and deserving of song now makes him a villain deserving of obscurity. Yet to ignore such universal undercurrents – these stories, beliefs, traditions, and myths of our past – is to in essence deny a most important part of our own being. These may be ignored, but they cannot be removed. It is in these stories that we find goodness, beauty, and truth – three transcendental qualities sorely lacking in our day.

And that is what ties all societies and civilizations across all time and place together – that numinous experience of transcendence. Regardless of how fully it is accepted, all have touched it because all are connected to the luminous vein through which it runs. Let we who know it, know it and remember, celebrate. And let us share our celebration with those whose dark view is in such dire need of illumination.

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