Going With the Flow of History

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 Going with the Flow of History


“Nothing endures but change. … It is is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

Heraclitus [1]

“… regression is not necessarily a retrograde step in the sense of a backwards development or degeneration, but rather represents a necessary phase of development.”

Jung  (1928)[2]

“When a patient begins to feel the inescapable nature of his inner development, he may easily be overcome by a panic fear that he is slipping helplessly into some kind of madness he can no longer understand. More than once I have had to reach for a book on my shelves, bring down an old alchemist, and show my patient his terrifying fantasy in the form in which it appeared 400 years ago. This has a calming effect, because the patient then sees that he is not alone in a strange world which nobody understands, but is part of the great stream of human history, which has experienced countless times the very things that he regards as a pathological proof of his craziness.”

Jung (1945)[3]

“Psychic energy is a very fastidious thing which insists on fulfillment of its own conditions. However much energy may be present, we cannot make it serviceable until we have succeeded in finding the right gradient.”

Jung (1943)[4]

“If… the activation is the result of psychological processes in the unconscious of the people, the individual may feel threatened or at any rate disoriented, but the resultant state is not pathological, … Nevertheless, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to a psychosis. If the translation of the unconscious into a communicable language proves successful, it has a redeeming effect. The driving forces locked up in the unconscious are canalized into consciousness and form a new source of power, which may, however, unleash a dangerous enthusiasm.”

Jung (1920)[5]

“Wherever the cultural process is moving forward, whether in single individuals or in groups, we find a shaking off of collective beliefs. Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, … an advance always begins with … the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory.. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness.. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”

Jung (1928)[6]


Change, rivers, streams, driving forces canalized–Jung repeatedly wrote of history using fluid terms. In this Jung was not unique: Common parlance often speaks of the “river of time” and when we feel tired we say we’re “running out of juice.” Is our country becoming a tired backwater? Is it running out of juice? Whither is humanity going? In the midst of a global pandemic, demagogues spewing venom in multiple countries,[7] populations falling into tribalism, nationalism and xenophobia,[8] students have asked me these questions. As always, I turn to Jung for insights, addressing these questions and concluding with a few nuggets of wisdom from my years of experience as a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain.

Is our country becoming a tired backwater?

Jung died in 1961, so he did not live to witness our “long step backwards into the past”[9] that has become so obvious over these last four years. While many of us lament the multiple acts undoing progress,[10] Jung did not regard backward movement as necessarily bad: regressions can “represent a necessary phase of development.”[11] Just as an individual’s libido, or psychic energy, can flow “forwards and backwards at one and the same time,”[12] so on the collective level we need to remember that

“The forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human.”[13]

We should not expect to see constant progress either in our personal lives or in our society. There will be times when

“Our convictions become platitudes ground out on a barrel-organ, our ideals become starchy habits, enthusiasm stiffens into automatic gestures. The source of the water of life seeps away.”[14]

And while many Americans may not notice our vital energies seeping into our current “swamp”[15] of corruption (or they may not care), Jung knew that such reorientations can spark “reactivations”[16] in our collective unconscious that can prepare us to make more effective advances in the future, just as fencers at times fall back to reposition themselves for  more effective attacks.[17]

Times of regression can foster adaptations,[18] changes of attitude[19] (e.g. our no longer taking certain things for granted), revaluations[20] (e.g. our recognizing the worth and crucial role played by civil servants in protecting our health and environment),[21] and get us off the couch and into active advocacy for the precious things that we once took for granted and now realize might be lost.

Jung would have us get off that couch because he knew that, while regressions are normal features of life, “there is always the danger” that they might “degenerate into spiritual inertia” which, if left to go on too long, could “threaten stagnation”[22] and put us “at a great disadvantage because the world around [us will have] changed considerably in the meantime.”[23] As the pandemic has made clear, the other developed countries have not regressed, and many citizens of other nations have been shocked to see how our leaders have politicized a public health crisis (resulting in thousands of needless deaths) and denigrated scientists[24] whose expertise (if it had been followed) might have prevented our becoming a pariah, shut out from the rest of the world.

Has the United States become a tired backwater? Maybe not tired, but certainly challenged now as never before. Jung knew what happens “when a whole nation finds the moral task too stupid to keep up. The beast breaks loose,…” and the result is a “frenzy of demoralization”[25] and “the primitive condition of identity with the mass,”[26] a condition that Jung felt was very lamentable. This condition is not inevitable if we recognize the “juice” in our current situation.

Is our country running out of juice?

By “juice” I mean energy, or, in Jung’s parlance, “libido,” psychic energy.[27] All too often now I hear people decrying the current state of our nation–red states versus blue states, progressives opposing conservatives, pro-Trump against anti-Trump–myriad forms of opposition. While so many Americans regard this negatively, Jung would remind us of the great potential that lies in the tension created by all these oppositions:

“The greater the tension between the pairs of opposites, the greater will be the energy that comes from them; and the greater the energy, the stronger will be its constellating, attracting power. … an attitude that has been formed out of a far-reaching process of equalization is an especially lasting one.”[28]

Remember the hydraulic analogy Jung used: libido is like water. Psychic energy flows: “… in nature energy always moves in one direction, that is, from a higher to a lower level,”[29] which of course is why Niagara Falls produces electricity, and why we could turn what seems like a lamentable societal situation into something serviceable.

In an earlier essay[30] I noted how we should not wish for complete fulfillment, because it would be the psychological equivalent of entropy, stasis, a condition in which no change, growth, creativity or progress is possible. Our current reality in the United States is the very opposite of entropy! Far from running out of juice, we are awash in potential energy.

Potential energy. Just as the Niagara River produced no energy until engineers set up the turbines and other mechanisms to harness the energy produced by the water flowing down the steep gradient, so we are not tapping the potential energy produced by all the oppositions in our reality. We need mechanisms to harness our psychic energy.

Jung offers us guidance for this, on both the personal and the collective levels. As individuals, we must first recognize our situation for the positive thing it could be: refrain from wasting time and breath bewailing our fate. Instead, we need to hold the opposites in consciousness, become aware of the tension in the opposition, and also conscious of our own ambivalence and inner conflicts:[31] Do we really want change? Does our “inner man want something different from our outer man”?[32] Are we “at war with ourselves?”[33]  Are we willing to face the “conflagration” that the process entails? Jung knew just how “hot” this work can be, much as those turbines at Niagara generate steam, and it is in this heat that the energy lies. If we have the stamina and tenacity to stick with the wrestling here, the “tension… provides the stimulation which [our] culture needs for its further progress.”[34]

When we turn to the mechanism on the collective level, we see the Law of Correspondence at work: As within, so without.[35] Just as the tension of our many oppositions could generate a “conflagration”[36] so we saw Nature producing numerous fires in various parts of the country.[37] Is it trying to remind us to do our inner work, to take up our personal responsibility, so as to spare our part of the planet from widespread destruction by fire? Jung was clear that conscious personal inner work has manifest positive benefits in outer reality.[38] If enough people take up this task of holding the tensions and refrain from a victim mentality,[39] we might lessen the frequency and severity of wildfires, while also defusing “hot” confrontations among various groups in our cities.

Whither is humanity going?

This question widens the purview of “collective,” to include not just the United States but all of humanity. We must remember that the U.S. is “exceptional”[40] not in the way Trump et al. would have us think (i.e. in the positive) but because of our 400+ years of enslaving, segregating, abusing and destroying Native peoples and people of color.[41] More than is true for any other nation, our history comes with karma, and, as I have discussed in earlier essays,[42] the U.S. is facing a karmic payback time. As a result the coming years will be very difficult for Americans, since so few of us are willing to take up the non-violent reparative, restorative justice work that addressing karma requires.[43] Instead, we are likely to see our country work through its karma with violence, death and widespread destruction. Jung would remind us that it does not have to be this way.

Karma aside, the United States will likely have a hard time in the future for it was the recognized global leader for more than 50 years. As such, it is retarded. The science of ethology gives us the Law of the Retarded Lead,[44] which says that the dominant species in an ecosystem is retarded in its willingness to change and adapt as the conditions of the environment change. This is understandable: being dominant, it has adapted well to prior conditions; it enjoys its comfortable niche, and so regards change as unwelcome and denies it, avoids it, and eventually falls behind as more marginal species seize the chance to advance. Since humans are animals, this law applies to us and our systems, e.g. in economics (e.g. General Motors being supplanted by Toyota and Honda), in technology (e.g. IBM being supplanted by Apple laptops and cell phones), in society (e.g. white males now struggling to withstand the demands of the women, minorities, disabled and weak groups who have been marginalized for centuries).

Widening our answer beyond the United States, to consider where the flow of history might take humanity in general, Jung reminds us that we are in the early years of the eon of Aquarius.[45] What does this mean? “On a gigantic scale”[46] we are witnessing a slow “historical change of attitude,”[47] a “collective attitude”[48] which Jung felt was “equivalent to a religion”[49] and he reminded his readers that

“… changes of religion constitute one of the most painful chapters in the world’s history, in this respect our age is afflicted with a blindness that has no parallel. We think we have only to declare an accepted article of faith incorrect and invalid, and we shall be psychologically rid of all the traditional effects of Christianity or Judaism. We believe in enlightenment, as if an intellectual change of front somehow had a profounder influence on the emotional processes or even on the unconscious. We entirely forget that the religion of the last 2000 years is a psychological attitude, a definite form and manner of adaptation to the world without and within, that lays down a definite cultural pattern and creates an atmosphere which remains wholly uninfluenced by any intellectual denials. The change of front is, of course, symptomatically important as an indication of possibilities to come, but on the deeper levels the psyche continues to work for a long time in the old attitude, in accordance with the laws of psychic inertia.”[50]

Jung is reminding us that we must not expect rapid changes in global cultural patterns, nor in human nature, since inertia is as much a feature of psychic life as it is in physical reality.

That the change in humanity’s collective attitude will be slow is one feature of our future. That it is Aquarian in nature gives us clues as to some other features. For example, we can expect to see “the cultural process …moving forward, … shaking off …collective beliefs”[51] that support racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and exploitation of Nature, because Aquarius is a progressive and humanitarian sign. The cosmic vanity, lust for certitude, pride in history and anger of morality that have been “temptations of religion”[52] won’t accord with the Aquarian temperament: it is pluralistic, questioning, non-traditional, and tolerant of many different mores and value systems.[53]

This Aquarian openness to different cultures will be important, as the coming decades will witness massive migrations of climate refugees. With Africa, southeast Asia, most of Latin America and Australian becoming uninhabitable due to heat and drought,[54] the rest of the world will have to find room for several billion people, all of whom will come to a new place with their customs, food palette, values and norms.

Clearly the future holds some major challenges–challenges that could be more taxing than we could endure, but Jung reminds us that in such situations of overwhelment, we might see that

“the unconscious overtakes or “takes over” the conscious mind. The latter has somehow got stuck, with the result that the unconscious takes over the forward-striving function, the process of transformation in time, and breaks the deadlock. The contents then pouring into consciousness are archetypal representations of what the conscious mind should have experienced if deadlock was to be avoided.”[55]

Like the alchemists and Paracelsus, Jung knew that we can trust our inner vis medicatrix naturae–our inner healing force.[56] But trust is not built in a day: We need repeated experiences which show us how trustworthy our inner wisdom is. In short, we need a track record, a personal history, and as well, a “wider” sense of history.

As we anticipate the future, we must do so with a “regard for history in the widest sense of the word.”[57] Jung goes on:

“Important as it is to pay attention to what is practical and useful, and to consider the future, that backward glance at the past is just as important. Culture means continuity, not a tearing up of roots through “progress.”… Our roots lie in the world and every child grows from those roots. Maturity bears him away from his roots and immaturity binds him to them. Knowledge of the universal origins builds the bridge between the lost and abandoned world of the past and the still largely inconceivable world of the future. How should we lay hold of the future, how should we assimilate it, unless we are in possession of the human experience which the past has bequeathed to us? Dispossessed of this, we are without root and without perspective, defenseless dupes of whatever novelties the future may bring. A purely technical and practical education is no safeguard against illusion and has nothing to oppose to the counterfeit. It lacks the culture whose innermost law is the continuity of history, the long procession of man’s more than individual consciousness.”[58]

Like Jung, I appreciate history. I was a History major in college, and taught in the History department in three colleges. I agree with Jung that history is an essential subject to know about if we hope to move successfully into the future.

Students of history recognize how we all, as humans, are part of “the great stream of human history”[59] which is carrying us, like a river, toward a future that is “forward-striving,”[60] as Jung put it. Many historians agree that, taking our 5000 years of history in the aggregate, things have gotten better,[61] and, if the “better angels of our nature”[62] inform the future, this improvement will continue.

Some tips from an experienced navigator

Note the “if” in the preceding sentence. Improvement is not assured. We have free will and we can choose to let our shadow side, our inner demons,[63] take over. We can choose to live in accordance with the laws of ecology[64]–recycling, reusing, repairing, reconditioning, recognizing our interdependence with other beings and the web of life, relishing diets that minimize energy transfers (more plants, less meat), and recognizing that Nature knows best–or we can continue our profligate ways that trash the planet. We can choose to move consciously into the 21st century in our politics, economics and social policies, or we can continue with voter suppression, pushing fossil fuel use, sending women to backroom butchers, discriminating against gay and transgender people,[65] and working to restore a 19th century mindset in the United States.[66]

This latter choice is dangerous because it is like turning on a garden hose and then stepping on the end, so the flow of water builds and builds until there is an explosion of water. In political terms, the explosion would be a massive upwelling of public discontent, and there have been public figures speaking of “revolution.”[67]

Take a tip from an experienced navigator: It is much easier to row a boat with the current than against the current. All the policies we have seen over the last four years in the United States are rowing our ship of state against the current of history. The citizens of other nations recognize this and they pity us because of our foolishness.[68] Jung likedAmerica.[69] I can only imagine he would be distraught at the choices we are making.


Barlett, John (1968), Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 14th ed. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Brome, Vincent (1978), Jung. New York: Atheneum.

Commoner, Barry (1971), The Closing Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Confessore, Nicholas et al. (2020), “Swarming For Favors In a Swamp Trump Built,” The New York Times (October 11, 2020), 1, 24-29.

Davis, Charles (1973), Temptations of Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Egan, Timothy (2020), “The World Is Taking Pity on Us,” The New York Times (May 8, 2020).

Jung, C.G.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________(2012), Introduction to Jungian Psychology: Notes of the Seminar on Analytical Psychology Given in 1925, ed. Sonu Shamdasani. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lepore, Jill (2018), These Truths: A History of the United States. New York: W.W. Norton.

Nelson, Anne (2019), Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Nisbet, Robert (1980), History of the Idea of Progress. New York: Basic Books.

Pinker, Steven (2011), The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking Press.

Posner, Eric (2020), The Demagogue’s Playbook. New York: All Points Books.

Sakoian, Frances & Louis Acker (1973), The Astrologer’s Handbook. New York: Harper & Row.

Sanders, Bernie (2016), Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Sanders, Bernie (2017), Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Political Revolution. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Three Initiates (1912), The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy. Chicago: Yogi Publication Society.

Tollefson, Jeff (2020), “How Trump damaged science,” Nature (5 October 2020).

Wallace-Wells, David (2019), The Uninhabitable Earth. New York: Crown Publishers.




[1] Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 77.

[2] Collected Works 8 ¶69. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[3] CW 13 ¶325.

[4] CW 7 ¶76.

[5] CW 8 ¶595.

[6] Ibid. ¶110.

[7]E.g. in Hungary and Poland, as well as the United States. For an explicit discussion of Trump as a demagogue, see Posner (2020), 226-259.

[8] E.g. in Hungary, Poland, and Italy, as well as the United States; ibid., 85,89,95 & 242.

[9] CW 5 ¶341.

[10] E.g. withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Accord, gutting the EPA and the CDC, and weakening the Affordable Care Act, to name only a few regressions.

[11] CW 8 ¶69.

[12] CW 5 ¶680.

[13] Pinker (2011), 694.

[14] CW 5 ¶553.

[15] Confessore (2020), 1,24-29. In his 2016  campaign Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but this article explains in detail how Trump created his own swamp and expanded it for his own monetary benefit.

[16] CW 6 ¶314.

[17] CW 16 ¶19.

[18] CW 8 ¶s66-67.

[19] CW 13 ¶473.

[20] CW 11 ¶528.

[21] E.g. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx.

[22] CW 5 ¶345.

[23] Ibid. ¶341.

[24] Tollefson (2020).

[25] CW 5 ¶341.

[26] CW 9i ¶293.

[27] CW 6 ¶778.

[28] CW 8 ¶49.

[29] Jung (2012), 93.

[30] “Psychological Entropy or Why We Don’t Want to Have All Our Wishes Fulfilled,” archived on this web site.

[31] Jung (2012), 92.

[32] CW 10 ¶160.

[33] Ibid.

[34] CW 8 ¶50.

[35] CW 8 ¶110.

[36] This is one of the universal laws defined and explained in Three Initiates (1912).

[37] E.g. in California and Oregon.

[38] CW 10 ¶583.

[39] CW 8 ¶426.

[40] For an in-depth discussion of American exceptionalism, see the essay “American Exceptionalism from a Jungian Perspective,” archived on this web site.

[41] See Lepore (2018) for a very readable account of our lamentable past in this regard.

[42] “What’s Coming Down and When?” and “Karma, Guilt and Reparations,” archived on this web site.

[43] CW 18 ¶1097.

[44] I learned of this law from Hazel Henderson in a conference in 1989 in Gainesville, Florida.

[45] CW 10 ¶589.

[46] CW 6 ¶313.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] CW 8 ¶110.

[52] This is the title of Charles Davis’ study of the four features of religion listed in this sentence; Davis (1973).

[53] Sakoian (1973), 49-50.

[54] Wallace-Wells (2019), 39-48, 86-93.

[55] CW 5 ¶617.

[56] CW 8 ¶388.

[57] CW 17 ¶250.

[58] Ibid.

[59] CW 13 ¶325.

[60] CW 5 ¶617

[61] Cf Pinker (2011) and Nisbet (1980).

[62] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861. Steven Pinker took this phrase for the title of his 2011 study on the decline of violence.

[63] CW 5 ¶553.

[64] For a detailed explanation of these laws, see Commoner (1971), 33-46.

[65] These are all aims of the radical right; see Nelson (2019), 248-263.

[66] Ibid.; “19th century” in its quest to “restore” Christianity to a place of primacy.

[67] E.g. Bernie Sanders (2016) and (2017).

[68] Egan (2020).

[69] Brome (1978), 119.

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