Book Excerpts

Jung and the Meaning of Self-Knowledge

In his essay ‘The Undiscovered Self’, written later in his career and after the atrocities of the Second World War, Jung emphasized the importance of self-awareness in individuals in order to counter the frivolous effects of mass culture. In this extract, he explains his vision of how one person’s inward realization can affect their environment in an osmotic fashion, widening both the individual and collective consciousnesses in an unconscious process unimpeded by intention.


From: The Meaning of Self-Knowledge

What our age thinks of as the “shadow” and inferior part of the psyche contains more than something merely negative. The very fact that through self-knowledge, that is, by exploring our own souls, we come upon the instincts and their world of imagery should throw some light on the powers slumbering in the psyche, of which we are seldom aware so long as all goes well. They are potentialities of the greatest dynamism, and it depends entirely on the preparedness and attitude of the conscious mind whether the irruption of these forces, and the images and ideas associated with them, will tend towards construction or catastrophe. The psychologist seems to be the only person who knows from experience how precarious the psychic preparedness of modern man is, for he is the only one who sees himself compelled to seek out in man’s own nature those helpful powers and ideas which over and over have enabled him to find the right way through darkness and danger. For this exacting work the psychologist requires all his patience; he may not rely on any traditional oughts and musts, leaving the other person to make all the effort and contenting himself with the easy role of adviser and admonisher. Everyone knows the futility of preaching about things that are desirable, yet the general helplessness in this situation is so great, and the need so dire, that one prefers to repeat the old mistake instead of racking one’s brains over a subjective problem. Besides, it is always a question of treating one single individual only and not ten thousand’ when the trouble one takes would ostensibly have more impressive results, though one knows well enough that nothing has happened at all unless the individual changes. 

The effect on all individuals, which one would like to see realized, may not set in for hundreds of years, for the spiritual transformation of mankind follows the slow tread of the centuries and cannot be hurried or held up by any rational process of reflection, let alone brought to fruition in one generation. What does lie within our reach, however, is the change in individuals who have, or create for themselves, an opportunity to influence others of like mind. I do not mean by persuading or preaching—I am thinking, rather, of the well-known fact that anyone who has insight into his own actions, and has thus found access to the unconscious, involuntarily exercises an influence on his environment. The deepening and broadening of his consciousness produce the kind of effect which the primitives call “mana.” It is an unintentional influence on the unconscious of others, a sort of unconscious prestige, and its effect lasts only so long as it is not disturbed by conscious intention. 


Carl Jung (1875-1961)
From: The Undiscovered Self