Jung on Paradox

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.



Jung on Paradox


“… the paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions,…”

                                                                                                Jung (1944)[1]

“… paradox is the natural medium for expressing transconscious facts.”

                                                                                                Jung (1955)[2]

“… The paradox… reflects a higher level of intellect and, by not forcibly representing the unknowable as known, gives a more faithful picture of the real state of affairs….”

                                                                                                Jung (1954)[3]

“Things have gone rapidly downhill since the Age of Enlightenment, for, once this petty reasoning mind, which cannot endure any paradoxes, is awakened, no sermon on earth can keep it down. A new task then arises: to lift this still undeveloped mind step by step to a higher level and to increase the number of persons who have at least some inkling of the scope of paradoxical truth…. We simply do not understand any more what is meant by the paradoxes contained in dogma;… “

                                                                                                Jung (1944)[4]

“And what you do not know is the only think you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.”

                                                                                                T.S. Eliot[5]



            A student was recently quite put out when I read a portion of Eliot’s “East Coker,” which contained the three lines quoted above. She said, in an aggrieved tone of voice, “But that doesn’t make any sense!” She was experiencing a “mind cramp,” an affront to the logic and rationality that are so prized in our culture. Our “petty reasoning minds” really don’t like paradoxes, as Jung recognized.[6] But he also recognized the value of paradox. This essay considers Jung’s attitudes toward this core feature of spirituality and why paradox is so important. We’ll begin with some definitions, offer examples and then consider the nature of paradox and its importance.


“Paradox” Defined


            Years ago, when I asked students what “paradox” meant, one witty student (a devotée of the television series of the time) said “That’s when Casey meets Kildare.”[7] Nice try, but no: “paradox” has nothing to do with doctors. It comes from two Greek words para and dokein, meaning “to seem contrary to.”[8] A paradox is “a statement that may be true but seems to say two opposite things… a person or thing that seems to be full of contradictions…any inconsistent or contradictory fact, action or condition.”[9]

            Jung recognized paradox is a “characteristic of the Gnostic writings”[10] that “did more justice to the unknowable than clarity can do,…”[11] because paradox refuses to rob spiritual “mystery of its darkness,”[12] and it serves to retain the unknowableness that is an inherent part of mystery. As I noted in an earlier blog essay,[13] modern Americans do not like mysteries, but the Gnostics did, in their understanding that the nature of Divinity is the mysterium tremendum, a tremendous mystery.

            Jung also felt paradox could be a “better witness to truth than a one-sided, so-called ‘positive’ statement.”[14] As such, in its ability to embrace contradiction and both sides of an issue, paradox “… is the natural medium for expressing transconscious facts,”[15] and thus is “… one of our most valued spiritual possessions.”[16]

            Besides its value in spiritual and religious contexts, Jung saw its utility in his researches in alchemy: “paradox and ambivalence are the keynotes of the whole work…”[17] of alchemy, and one whole section of Jung’s magnum opus, Mysterium coniunctionis, is on the “paradoxa.”[18]


Some Examples of Paradoxes


            Volume 14 of Jung’s Collected Works is full of examples of paradoxes, e.g.: the physical and intellectual (mind and matter); virtues and vices; corporeal and incorporeal; corruptible and incorruptible; visible and invisible; spirit and body; life and death; good and evil; truth and falsehood; unity and multiplicity; poverty and riches; war and peace; conqueror and conquered; toil and repose; sleep and waking; childhood and old age; male and female; strong and weak; hell and paradise; those things that are and those that are not; those things that may be spoken of and those which may not be spoken of;[19] black and white; cold and hot; dry and moist; a “running without running, moving without motion…”;[20] a “good poison…”.[21] All of these are what Jung called “the conjunction of opposites…”.[22]

            Some paradoxes Jung drew from religion (an area of life that Jung felt to be full of paradoxes given its focus on the unknowable). For example, the Virgin Mary’s virginity is a paradox (how could a woman who became a mother still be a virgin?).[23] The Self (Jung’s term for the divinity within every person), “…is a union of opposites par excellence… absolutely paradoxical in that it represents in every respect thesis and antithesis, and at the same time synthesis.”[24] In cabala (mystical Judaism), the relation of Malchuth to Kether is paradoxical—the lowest (Earth) to the highest (the Divine).[25] The Gnostics’ statement “learn to suffer, and you shall understand how not to suffer…”[26] is another example of paradox.

            Jung’s alchemical studies, in volumes 12, 13, 14 and 16 of his Collected Works, also contain examples of paradox. The Philosopher’s stone,[27] the massa confusa of the collective unconscious,[28] the arcane substance,[29] the “Spirit Mercurius”[30]—all these are paradoxical in nature, containing contradictions or embodying opposites.

            More modern examples come from cutting-edge science. Quantum physics, for example, is full of paradoxes: What is the nature of light? Is it a wave or a particle? Both.[31] In the same way, we live in a reality that is both determined and indeterminate.


The Nature of Paradox


            As I noted above, my student found paradox hard to handle. She wanted to hear what made sense, and paradoxes generally don’t. They affront our bias toward rationality. By their very nature, paradoxes are challenging to the logical mind. They induce the “mental cramp”[32] that Jung recognized as a feature of our confronting the unconscious. He also recognized that paradoxes are “indescribable,”[33] and “difficult,”[34] requiring “extraordinary intellectual and moral effort”[35] if we are to take them seriously and not dismiss them as nonsense. “… Jung warned that “the difficult operation of thinking in paradoxes… [is] a feat possible only to the superior intellect–…”[36]

            Jung also understood that paradox can be dangerous.[37] For “spiritual weaklings” paradoxes can be more than they can handle. It takes spiritual strength to “sustain paradoxes,”[38] and for those with such strength, paradox can provide “the highest degree of religious certainty.”[39] Jung regarded the early Church Father Tertullian as one example of a spiritually strong person, in his statement “I believe because it is absurd.”[40] Jung felt that, when confronted with paradox, “spiritual weaklings” are likely to “break out into iconoclastic and scornful laughter,…” treating the great mysteries of faith as “… obsolete, curious relics of the past…”[41]

            While dangerous to those with “petty reasoning minds”[42] and spiritual weakness, paradoxes are immensely valuable in their ability to express psychological truth and to hold the tension of opposites.[43] Jung understood that life is polarity: the constant ebb-and-flow of the enantiodromia—a concept Jung borrowed from Heraclitus[44]—is how life manifests. Paradoxes are a way, perhaps the only way, to express “the polarity of all life.”[45]


Our Attitude toward Paradox


            Jung had great appreciation for paradox, but he recognized that, in this (as in so much else), he was very much “odd man out” in modern Western culture. Ours is a culture that has lost itself “… in a one-sided over-development and over-valuation of a single psychic function….”,[46] i.e. thinking. We prize rationality and our ability to figure things out, via logic and reason. In this we fail “… to acknowledge the paradoxicality and polarity of all life…”.[47] The result is a “one-sidedness” that Jung felt was a “mark of barbarism.”[48]

            Jung dated our one-sided bias toward rationality to the Age of Enlightenment. From that time (the 18th century) “Things have gone rapidly downhill…”[49] as more and more people became focused on thinking, logic and reason, to the exclusion or denigration of feeling, intuition and sensation. Over time, this has resulted in most modern Westerners no longer understanding “… any more what is meant by the paradoxes contained in dogma; and the more external our understanding of them becomes the more we are affronted by their irrational form, until finally they become completely obsolete, curious relics of the past…”[50] By “dogma” Jung was referring to religious creeds and belief systems. When these systems become obsolete, people fall away from organized religions, and we see this today, especially in Western Europe and certain areas of the United States, particularly in New England.[51]

            The decline of organized religions is only one manifestation of our current inability to appreciate paradox. Another is our intellectual hybris[52]—our belief that we can figure out all the problems of life. In an earlier blog essay[53] I noted Jung’s belief that the major problems of life can never be solved with the logical, rational mind, because such problems transcend the limits of human reason.[54] We cannot grasp with the intellect the transcendent mystery that we live within. Many of my students don’t like hearing this: they keep trying to “figure it out.” Like most contemporary Americans, they need to appreciate paradox and they ask me “Why bother with this? Why is this important?”


Why Paradox is Important


            In multiple works Jung gave reasons why paradox is important. In our general dealings with life, our ability to appreciate paradox will give us “… a more faithful picture of the real state of affairs.”[55] than we would get just from our use of logic or reason. In interpreting reality, paradox can be “… a better witness to truth than a one-sided ‘positive’ statement” can be.”[56] Having an appreciation of paradox is also an excellent antidote to our human tendency to hybris, intellectual arrogance: when we come upon a paradox and experience a mind cramp, we are reminded of the limits of human reason. In this way, Jung felt, paradox can help us “heal the irreconcilable conflict …”[57] in our modern attitude.

            Jung recognized how valuable paradox is in psychology. In holding the tension of opposites, paradox is a valid, effective way to foster growth. It supports the “widening of consciousness beyond the narrow confines of a tyrannical intellect,…”[58] and it enriches life, because only paradox “… comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life.”[59] Jung understood that we are more than disembodied minds, more than just thinkers, more than just the “Rational Economic Man” so beloved in economic theory.[60] We feel; we sense; we intuit; we live in the interstices of opposites, and by recognizing this and appreciating it, we can experience the wholeness that Jung saw as one goal of the individuation process.

            Paradox is also central to spirituality and religion—two realms that were very important in Jung’s philosophy. Jung believed that every human being has an innate spiritual or religious impulse,[61] a deep desire to know or sense a connection to the Whole, to contact the Divine, to awake to the Self, the inner divine core in one’s being. Given this innate impulse, we quest for meaning in life. But the nature of the Divine is transcendent, i.e. more than we can comprehend with the intellect alone. We must approach the Divine and the quest for personal meaning with more than logic. For this quest we need paradox—the irrational non-logic that allows for the expression of transcendental truth. We must admit paradox into our lives, for only it allows us to approach the “sacred figures”[62] that live within, and only paradox does justice to the unknowable.[63] By its very nature the unknowable cannot be expressed with logic and clarity; only ambiguity, contradiction and ambivalence can “give adequate expression to the indescribable nature”[64] of transcendental situations.




            We don’t like mind cramps. We recoil from confronting contradictions. We avoid situations that affront our reason. In this our cultural bias serves us poorly, because much of the richness of life is found in the transcendental realms of life. Paradox helps us navigate through these realms, and Jung would urge us to develop our spiritual muscles and hone our psychological insight so as to appreciate the value of paradox.




Hollis, Martin & Edward Nell (1975), Rational Economic Man. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Liddell & Scott (1978), Greek-English Lexicon. New York: Oxford University Press.



[1] Collected Works 12, ¶18. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 14, ¶90.

[3] CW 11, ¶417.

[4] CW 12, ¶19.

[5] “East Coker,” Four Quartets, ll. 145-147.

[6] CW 12, ¶19.

[7] Between 1961 and 1966 two TV shows depicted the lives of Drs. Ben Casey and James Kildare in hospital settings. A popular song of the time spoke of “when Casey meets Kildare, it’s a paradox.”

[8] Liddell & Scott (1978), pp. 593 & 207, respectively.

[9] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 1406.

[10] CW 11, ¶417.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See “Loving the Mystery,” archived on this blog site.

[14] CW 16, ¶65.

[15] CW 14, ¶90.

[16] CW 12, ¶18.

[17] CW 14, ¶37.

[18] Ibid., ¶s 36-103.

[19] Ibid., ¶36, note 1.

[20] Ibid., ¶37.

[21] Ibid., ¶58.

[22] CW 11, ¶417.

[23] CW 12, ¶22.

[24] Ibid.

[25] CW 16, ¶498, note 16.

[26] CW 11, ¶415.

[27] CW 14, ¶36, note 1.

[28] Ibid., ¶88.

[29] Ibid., ¶38.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., ¶715.

[32] CW 13, ¶20.

[33] CW 9ii, ¶124.

[34] CW 12, ¶188.

[35] Ibid., ¶190.

[36] Ibid., ¶188.

[37] Ibid., ¶19.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] De carne Christi, 5.

[41] CW 12, ¶19.

[42] Ibid.

[43] CW 16, ¶65; CW 12, ¶11, note 6.

[44] For more on the enantiodromia, see the 3-part blog essay “Jung on the Enantiodromia, archived on this blog site.

[45] CW 13, ¶7.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] CW 12, ¶19.

[50] Ibid.

[51] In a recent survey, Vermont turned out to be the most “unchurched” of the 50 states, with the other New England states close behind. In this the New England region is very similar to the religious situation in many European countries.

[52] CW 11, ¶417.

[53] See “Outgrowing the Important Problems of Life, archived on this blog site.

[54] Ibid.

[55] CW 11, ¶417.

[56] CW 16, ¶65.

[57] CW 14, ¶66.

[58] CW 13, ¶7.

[59] CW 12, ¶18.

[60] For centuries one of the central figures in economic theory has been Rational Economic Man: the belief that individuals behave and make decisions based on logic and rationality; this tenet has come under increasing scrutiny in the emerging field of behavioral economics, which recognizes that people often behave irrationally and make decisions based on fear, spite, intuitions, and many other motivators. See Hollis & Tell (1975), pp. 47-64.

[61] See the essay “The Religious Impulse in the Human Being,” archived on this blog site, for more on this idea.

[62] CW 12, ¶23.

[63] CW 11, ¶417.

[64] CW 9ii, ¶124.

Leave a Reply