The Bi-Polarity of Human Nature

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.

The Bipolarity of Human Nature

“With my patients, … the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recognition of the bipolarity of human nature and the necessity of conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc….”

Jung (1932)[1]


In this passage Jung is describing processes that occur in the course of analysis, and the discovery that ensues. The katabasis is the process of descent [kata + baino = a “stepping down,” a “coming to land”][2] into the realm of the unconscious through dream work, active imagination and the interaction with the analyst in the course of analysis. The katalysis is the process of ending [kata + luo = a dissolution, resting][3] that marks the conclusion of the work. Wrestle with the energies in your inner city long enough, and the wrestling takes you to your depths. Stick with it, and, as Jung notes here, you come to recognize how we all are good and evil, male and female, laudable and criminal.[4] This essay examines our bipolar nature and offers some of Jung’s recommendations on how to handle it.


The Meaning of Bipolarity


The dictionary defines “bipolarity” as “a bipolar quality or state,” and “bipolar” as “having two poles, of or at both poles; exactly opposite; antithetical.”[5] When Jung describes human nature as “bipolar,” he is noting the fact that we contain “conflicting pairs of opposites.”[6] Note well that Jung here is not using the term as it is used in 21st-century psychopathology, i.e. to refer to persons who suffer from recurring bouts of mania and depression.[7] When Jung wrote that one quality of human nature is bipolarity, he was not referring to a form of mental illness.

If we are honest in our dealings in outer life, we have a liar in our shadow. If we pride ourselves on our organizational abilities, you can bet there’s chaos somewhere in our own inner or outer life (you should see my bedroom!). A racist has a black person in his/her inner world, just as an anti-Semite has a Jew.[8]

This works in all realms of life, as Jung reminded the students in his dream analysis seminar:

“Where there is a church, the devil is not far away. A person cherishing the qualities of a saint has a peculiarly close relation to the devil…. One must be a saint to have infernal relations. It is the pair of opposites, the law of enantiodromia….”[9]

“Enantiodromia” was one of Jung’s favorite concepts, one he borrowed from Heraclitus.[10] The Greek means “a running to the opposite,” and we have a three-part essay devoted to it archived on this blog site.[11] Jung employed the term often, to remind his students and readers of the fullness of human nature.


How Jung Describes Human Nature


First, as was noted in an earlier essay,[12] Jung did not subscribe to the Lockean idea that human beings at birth are “blank slates:”

“Man… is not born as a tabula rasa, he is merely born unconscious. But he brings with him … at birth the ground-plan of his nature, and not only of his individual nature but of his collective nature. …”[13]

Jung understood that we come into life with innate preferences, e.g. for Extraversion or Introversion, and with a particular temperament. By “collective nature,” Jung is referring to our inheritance of all the archetypal contents that lie in the collective unconscious of humanity. Jung also regarded every person as having a destiny, a “ground-plan” that was present at birth and meant to be lived out over the course of the individual’s life.

Anticipating the discovery of our “reptilian brain” years before neuroscience found it,[14] Jung noted that “The saurian is still functioning in us, and one only needs to take away enough brain to bring it to the daylight.”[15] All humans have an animal side, although our “Christian prejudice” makes us loathe to admit this. Not only did he not share this prejudice, Jung urged us to value our animal side:

“We have the Christian prejudice against the animal in man, but an animal is not evil, just as it is not good. We are evil, man is necessarily evil because he is so good. … for us to kill the [animal] would be blasphemous, a sin, it would mean killing the natural thing in us, the thing that naturally serves God. That is our only hope—to get back to a condition where we are right with nature. We must fulfill our destiny, according to nature’s laws or we cannot become true servants of God….”[16]

Animals live “right with nature,” i.e. they do not try to live in opposition to Nature’s laws, as most humans (especially the “civilized” humans) do. For example, we ignore the daily rhythm of Nature thanks to electricity. Where our ancestors went to sleep when it got dark, and rose with return of the sun, we live more artificially, attuned not to the diurnal cycle but to clocks and work demands. More problematic is our ignorance of our bodies’ cycles and natural needs, which we douse with caffeine, alcohol and other substances. The whole of Western civilization since the Renaissance has been a tale, born of our vaunting egotism, of flaunting Nature’s laws, in the belief that we can control and dominate the natural world.[17] The result? Our current global climate crisis.[18] On both the individual and societal levels we are being asked to reconnect and appreciate Nature and our deep physiological and psychological connections to it.

Jung repeatedly stressed the shadow side of human nature: “the dark, body-bound nature of man…”[19] man’s “shadow side,”[20] “the devilishness of human nature”[21]—Jung’s writings are replete with reminders that “… human nature is not compounded wholly of light but also abounds in shadows,…”[22] and his school of psychology, in its insistence “on the seamy side,… is unwelcome, not to say frightening, because it forces us to gaze into the bottomless abyss…”[23] Jung was not one to mince words.

Irrational,[24] demonic,[25] beastly,[26] vicious[27]—all these are terms Jung uses to describe our nature, all of these paired with their opposites: If we are irrational, we also are rational; we can plunge into risky endeavors, and also hang back, wanting things to be safe. As much as we have “a positively demonic dynamism”[28] in our humanness, we also have goodness and the potential for saintliness. We can be beasts, as well as beauties, virtuous as well as vicious. And this must be so for, “if all were virtuous Nature would lose its balance….”[29]

In essence human nature is paradoxical and contrary. We hold all sorts of opposites within and “… there is nothing very bad without a bit of good, and nothing very good without a bit of bad….”[30] and “… having been high you will be low, having been low you will be high.”[31] This can explain St. Paul’s lament that “the good I would do, I do not, and the evil I do not want is what I do.”[32] That shadow side can come out and bite us any number of ways. Or, in Jung’s words, “… the psyche is at cross purposes with itself….”[33] What to do?


Some Recommendations for Handling Our Bipolarity


Jung offers some suggestions for how to live in light of the reality of the opposites. First, he urges us to give up persona behavior,[34] e.g. trying to look good in the eyes of others, preening our ego, or coming up with good motives for our behavior. Rather, he would have us just admit “I have been a pig.”[35] or other such admission of social faux pas (which social gaffes Jung himself often committed).[36] The persona part of us strives to seem “respectable in the eyes of the community,”[37] but Jung knew that this leads to inauthentic behavior and self-betrayal.

Getting wise to our persona and its temptations will bring up awareness of our shadow side, that part of us that is “the weak, inferior” person that tends to show up when we are tired, or when our “conscious gets a bit soft.”[38] We can spot our shadow often when we project and see failings, faults or problems in others. When we find ourselves criticizing others, we should stop and ask ourselves, “What insight is this giving me about my shadow side? How is this behavior/problem/moral failing also in me?” “Look for the hook in yourself,”[39] Jung advises us, so as to lessen the likelihood that “the devil will creep in.”[40] Since this implies facing all sorts of things about ourselves we don’t usually want to recognize, this task is a major “moral challenge:”[41] Few indeed are eager to “gaze into the bottomless abyss” that lies within.

Even more unappealing is another of Jung’s suggestions: To learn “virtue through sinning.” This is a shocking statement, given our culture’s traditional attitude toward sin. True to his love of enantiodromia Jung explains it:

It is a bewildering thing in human life that the thing that causes the greatest fear is the source of the greatest wisdom. One’s greatest foolishness is one’s biggest stepping-stone. No one can become a wise man without being a terrible fool. Through Eros one learns the truth, through sin we learn virtue. Meister Eckhart says one shouldn’t repent too much, that the value of sin is very great.[42]

We would not know virtue—what is right and proper to do in life—if we did not also know sin—what divides, destroys or hinders life. Jung goes so far as to state that “One can say of nothing that it is right or wrong. How can one judge? Human life and human fate are so paradoxical that one hardly can make a binding law….”[43]

Rather than follow the moral strictures of conventional morality, Jung would have us recognize and honor the dictates of our own souls. He says:

“I have no use for a man who believes in conventional morality. … It is a sin against the Holy Ghost to have such a morality. There is no development under the law of conventional morality. It leads to compartment psychology, and how can a man develop when he forgets what his compartments contain? … a man who is identified with conventional morality is not himself, he is the police, he is the brothel, he is the penal code, he is everything else…. Every man must be concerned with his own morality,…”[44]

Jung here was not advocating a society in which anything goes, without laws, codes or standards. He recognized that police, laws and courts were essential, since some people are criminals and most people are deeply unconscious.[45] Jung is addressing his students and those who undertake to live true to their own destiny. The choice to do this—to follow the dictates of one’s soul, rather than mainstream society—means that we recognize the amorality of the Self.[46] Our inner divine core exists above and outside of societal conventions, mores and legal systems. In my own life I have found this both shocking and demanding, for repeatedly following the guidance of my dreams has led me to undertake challenges that most of my friends and family found either crazy or incomprehensible. As Jung says, live this way and “you might well be a holy terror to that society.”[47] Indeed.

We need to remember the enantiodromic truth that “good comes out of evil,”[48] and therefore we must refuse to judge others. We must learn “tolerance for the manifold ways of fate,”[49] and understand that we may not know the path of another person, what his/her soul is requiring of him/her. As Pope Francis said recently when asked his opinion of homosexuals by reporters, “Who am I to judge?”[50] What a wonderful model of humility!

Clearly Pope Francis is not stuck on persona stuff, and we might take a page from his example by accepting our own “low-down condition”[51] as a useful step toward our individuation. Jung would have us recognize that we are “an experiment that nature is trying to make,”[52] and part of our living authentically means striving to fulfill this experiment. Any experiment, by its very nature, implies the possibility of failure, so another key recommendation Jung makes is that we be willing to risk:[53] Try things with the awareness that we might be in error, and that’s OK. In this adventure we call life we live in the interstices of doubt,[54] never certain that things will work out as we plan. This is especially so since we are generally unconscious of the psychic forces that operate below our ego’s awareness, and so in a very real sense we are “not the only master in our house.”

Since everything has its opposite, as human beings we manifest the “contrariety of human nature,”[55] and in this reality we experience the tension of opposites. If we can acquire enough consciousness to “keep up with the furious pace of our inner devil”[56] we should strive not for perfection, but for completeness. Jung defined completeness as getting back “to a condition where we are right with nature,”[57] a condition that fulfills our individual destiny.”

That is my idea of the complete individual, not perfect, but individual. Complete in their virtues and in their vices. Fulfilling the meaning of the species, utterly collective, and at the same time individual. I say that you cannot be a really collective being without being completely individual, because only when you are humbly the thing that nature intended you to be, fulfilling decently the experiment nature is trying to make, only then are you a decent member of society.[58]

Collective and individual, complete in virtues and vices, manifesting good and evil—this was Jung’s bipolar sense of human nature.




Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

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

Comer, Ronald (1995), Abnormal Psychology, 2nd ed. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co.

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

Donadio, Rachel (2013), “On Gay Priests Pope Francies Asks, ‘Who Am I to Judge?’,” The New York Times, July 29, 2013.

Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (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.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University ________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature,” CW 15. 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.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Klein, Naomi (2014), This Changes Every Thing: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Merchant, Carolyn (1980), The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Restak, Richard (1984), The Brain. New York: Bantam Books.





[1] Collected Works 15, ¶213. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Liddell & Scott 1978), 403. The descent here is specifically a descent into the cave of initiation.

[3] Ibid., 410. The dissolution here refers to the washing away or cleansing of sin.

[4] Jung (1984), 521; cf. CW 7, ¶225.

[5] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 194.

[6] CW 15, ¶213.

[7] Comer (1995), 297-307.

[8] Jung (1984), 517.

[9] Ibid., 324.

[10] CW 6, ¶708.

[11] “Jung on the Enantiodromia: A Three-Part Essay.”

[12] CW 8, ¶589, and CW 17, ¶94.

[13] CW 4, ¶728.

[14] Paul MacLean worked out the triune nature of the brain; see Restak (1984), 136-7.

[15] Jung (1984), 644.

[16] Ibid., 37.

[17] Merchant (1980), 164-190.

[18] For a definitive examination of this crisis and its implications, see Klein (2014).

[19] CW 13, ¶198.

[20] CW 7, ¶35.

[21] CW 5, ¶106.

[22] CW 7, ¶225.

[23] Ibid., ¶35.

[24] Jung (1984), 250.

[25] CW 7, ¶35.

[26] Jung (1984), 338 & 674.

[27] Ibid., 268.

[28] CW 7, ¶35.

[29] Jung (1984), 268.

[30] Ibid., 471.

[31] Ibid., 482.

[32] Romans 7:15-16.

[33] CW 16, ¶523.

[34] Jung (1984), 74.

[35] Ibid., 306.

[36] Cf. Brome (1978), 40; and Bair (2003), 319.

[37] Jung (1984), 483.

[38] Ibid., 664.

[39] Ibid., 165.

[40] Ibid.

[41] CW 9i, ¶11.

[42] Jung (1984), 329.

[43] Ibid., 450.

[44] Ibid., 213-4.

[45] Ibid. & 521.

[46] CW 10, ¶s779 & 875; the Self transcends the limitations of the ego mind and the physical world.

[47] Jung (1984), 470.

[48] Ibid., 239.

[49] Ibid., 450.

[50] Donadio (2013).

[51] Jung (1984), 291.

[52] Ibid., 470.

[53] Ibid., 250.

[54] Davis (1973), 7 & 15.

[55] CW 16, ¶523.

[56] CW 13, ¶293.

[57] Jung (1984), 37.

[58] Ibid., 470.

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