Gems from “Alchemical Studies” CW 13 Part I

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.



Gems from Alchemical Studies CW 13

Part I: Aphorisms and Jung on the Nature of Our Time



“An ancient adept has said: “If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.” This Chinese saying, unfortunately only too true, stands in sharp contrast to our belief in the “right” method irrespective of the man who applies it. In reality, everything depends on the man and little or nothing on the method. The method is merely the path, the direction taken by a man; the way he acts is the true expression of his nature. But if it ceases to be this, the method is nothing more than an affectation, something artificially pieced on, rootless and sapless, serving only the illegitimate goal of self-deception.”                                                                                                    Jung (1929)[1]


“Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic feature of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow in the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.”

Jung (1945)[2]



“… why our time has become so utterly godless and profane: we lack all knowledge of the unconscious psyche and pursue the cult of consciousness to the exclusion of all else. Our true religion is a monotheism of consciousness, a possession by it, coupled with a fanatical denial of the existence of fragmentary autonomous systems…. This entails a great psychic danger, because the autonomous systems then behave like any other repressed contents: they necessarily induce wrong attitudes since the repressed material reappears in consciousness in a spurious form.”

Jung (1929)[3]



A student’s request to do an Independent Study focused on Jung’s Alchemical Studies led me to re-read this series of essays.[4] Each time I do I find “gems”–profound aphorisms, cogent comments on the nature of our time, incisive critiques of modern science, and insights into Jung’s brand of psychology. This three-part essay offers up some of these “gems,” along with commentary, toward encouraging the reader of this blog to read the whole of CW13 itself. It is perhaps the most readable of Jung’s alchemical works.

Important Aphorisms


“If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”


The full paragraphs for both these two terse statements are included in the quotes opening this essay. The first reflects the emphasis Jung put on the individual and his/her personal development,[5] an emphasis that informed his analytical training program. Jung was much less concerned about teaching his students methods and techniques than he was in fostering their becoming conscious of their unconscious. He did this in full awareness that our Western culture has quite the opposite emphasis. We would like to believe that as long as our elected officials follow “due process,”[6] our educators get the right testing procedures,[7] our stockbrokers develop the best algorithms[8] etc., our society will work well. Current events and the “tailspin”[9] American society has been in for the last 50 years offer clear proof just how right Jung was, and how wrong our thinking is.

The second aphorism is Jung’s riposte to the New Agers (of all ilks, not just theosophists) who shrink from confronting the shadow, aka “the darkness.” So often I have encountered well-meaning people who truly believe that they can grow and develop by focusing only on the positive.[10] In some cases, these folks entertain “ideal conceptions,” even to the point of denying the existence of evil.[11] This denial drove Jung to distraction, given his understanding of the enantiodromia and the principle of compensation: How, he would ask, can we recognize what is good or positive if we don’t have a sense of what is bad or negative? To develop morally, to become “enlightened” requires that we look within, wrestle with our shadow side, and thus become more self-aware. Yes, this is “disagreeable” and unpopular, as Jung admits, but this work is also essential.

Jung on the Nature of Our Time


“Since at the present level of consciousness we cannot suppose that tree demons exist, we are forced to assert that the primitive suffers from hallucinations, that he hears his own unconscious which has projected itself into the tree. If this theory is correct – and I do not know how we could formulate it otherwise today – then the second level of consciousness has effected a differentiation between the object “tree” and the unconscious content projected into it, thereby achieving an act of enlightenment. The third level rises still higher and attributes “evil” to the psychic content which has been separated from the object. Finally a fourth level, the level reached by our consciousness today, carries the enlightenment a stage further by denying the objective existence of the “spirit” and declaring that the primitive has heard nothing at all, but merely had an auditory hallucination. Consequently the whole phenomenon vanishes into thin air – with the great advantage that the evil spirit becomes obviously non-existent and sinks into ridiculous insignificance. A fifth level, however, which is bound to take a quintessential view of the matter, wonders about this conjuring trick that turns what began as a miracle into a senseless self-deception – only to come full circle….”[12]

“The fifth level is of the opinion that something did happen after all: even though the psychic content was not the tree, nor a spirit in the tree, nor indeed any spirit at all, it was nevertheless a phenomenon thrusting up from the unconscious, the existence of which cannot be denied if one is minded to grant the psyche any kind of reality. If one did not do that, one would have to extend God’s creatio ex nihilo – which seems so obnoxious to the modern intellect – very much further to include steam engines, automobiles, radios, and every library on earth, all of which would presumably have arisen from unimaginably fortuitous conglomerations of atoms….”[13]


Here Jung provides us with a succinct history of our Western intellect’s development in terms of different levels of consciousness–from the participation mystique[14] of indigenous tribes (what Jung labels the “first level of consciousness”) to the second, which reached a “higher” level in recognizing the distinction between the object and what the person had been projecting on to it. At the third level, human beings took the differentiation to a higher point, by separating the object and the psychic content, to which they attached a label, e.g. “demon,” something evil. Jung then speaks of a fourth level, which he identifies as the level on which we operate now. At this stage we “deny the objective existence of the ‘spirit’…” and denigrate what indigenous people hear as “auditory hallucinations.” As a result, we are then able to regard the spirit (which we regard as evil) as non-existent and insignificant. It is important here to understand that Jung is being sarcastic when he says the fourth level “carries enlightenment a stage further:” He did not consider dismissal of the spirit as enlightened, nor did he appreciate how our culture these days denies the reality of evil. We can spot Jung’s true attitude by noting how he calls the fourth-level act a “conjuring trick” leading to “a senseless self-deception.” Jung lived on the fifth level–the level that recognizes the reality of the psyche and appreciates how phenomena can “thrust up from the unconscious” and bring about the manifold varieties of creativity that we see in our technologically-advanced society. The last clause–“all of which would presumably have arisen from unimaginably fortuitous conglomerations of atoms…”–is Jung’s dig at those in our time who deny the existence of the psyche and its creative potential, claiming that the universe and all that is in it came about through chance.[15] Jung, through his empirical observation, knew that “the unconscious exists and has a reality just like any other existent.”


“Only in the following centuries, with the growth of natural science, was the projection withdrawn from matter and entirely abolished together with the psyche. This development of consciousness has still not reached its end. Nobody, it is true, any longer endows matter with mythological properties. This form of projection has become obsolete. Projection is now confined to personal and social relationships, to political Utopias and suchlike.”[16]


Later in CW 13 Jung continued the theme of our collective development of consciousness, noting how we no longer “endow matter with mythological properties.” But it should be noted that Jung himself had a daily habit of thanking the kitchen implements every morning for their help, an action that surprised Ruth Bailey when she became his caregiver.[17] Appreciating the anima mundi–the ensouled world–as he did,[18] Jung had come full circle to the fifth level, on which he could recognize the spirit in everything while also refraining from projecting his own unconscious into things. The final sentence in this paragraph offers us a reminder and a warning: We project our unconscious contents not into trees and animals (where it won’t matter much) but on to other people, leading to all sorts of problems, both personal and collective (e.g. George W. Bush ranting about the “axis of evil”).[19]


“Only in the course of the 19th century, when spirit began to degenerate into intellect, did a reaction set in against the unbearable dominance of intellectualism, and this led to the unpardonable mistake of confusing intellect with spirit and blaming the latter for the misdeeds of the former. The intellect does indeed do harm to the soul when it dares to possess itself of the heritage of the spirit. It is in no way fitted to do this, for spirit is something higher than intellect since it embraces the latter and includes the feelings as well. It is a guiding principle of life that strives towards superhuman, shining heights. Opposed to this yang principle is the dark, feminine, earthbound yin, whose emotionality and instinctuality reach back into the depths of time and down into the labyrinths of the physiological continuum. No doubt these are purely intuitive ideas, but one can hardly dispense with them if one is trying to understand the nature of the human psyche.”[20]


In this paragraph Jung is warning us about the tendency to “confuse intellect with spirit,” a tendency that has become even more common since Jung’s death in 1961, as we have sunk even deeper into materialism.[21] Jung is right that “the intellect does … harm to the soul when it dares to possess itself of the heritage of the spirit.” But in our time who really cares about soul or harm to the soul? Jung is reminding us here that “spirit is something higher than intellect,” because it includes both thinking and feeling, yang and yin. While soul can ground us in the dark, earthbound feminine, spirit inspires us “towards superhuman, shining heights.” We need to recognize the limitations of rationality, free ourselves from the “dominance of intellectualism,” and appreciate the reality and value of both soul and spirit.


“It is characteristic of Western man that he has split apart the physical and the spiritual for epistemological purposes. But these opposites exist together in the psyche and psychology must recognize this fact. “Psychic” means physical and spiritual. The ideas in our text all deal with this “intermediate” world which seems unclear and confused because the concept of psychic reality is not yet current among us, although it expresses life as it actually is. Without soul, spirit is as dead as matter, because both are artificial abstractions; whereas man originally regarded spirit as a volatile body, and matter as not lacking in soul.”[22]


Epistemology is that part of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know.[23] Centuries ago people had a much richer epistemology than we do today: We run 21st-century society with a knowledge base of science,[24] so we go about investigating reality relying on concrete, tangible facts that we subject to logical, reductive analysis–completely physical, dismissive of intangibles like values, feelings, impressions, intuitions and other subjective phenomena. So we are playing the game of life with half the deck. Jung would have us recognize just how we limit ourselves and how we must recognize that we are both physical and spiritual beings, with body and spirit existing together, both holding wisdom than can heal and inspire us.


“They [the Chinese] never failed to acknowledge the paradoxicality and polarity of all life. The opposites always balanced one another – a sign of high culture. One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism. The reaction that is now beginning in the West against the intellect in favor of feeling, or in favor of intuition, seems to me a sign of cultural advance, a widening of consciousness beyond the narrow confines of a tyrannical intellect.”[25]


Jung understood how we in the West are “one-sided”–what I referred to above as “playing the game of life with half the deck:” We put great emphasis on being logical, left-brained, stressing reason and analysis. Jung saw signs that a “reaction” was setting in, a movement that might be restoring some appreciation for feeling and intuition. With the rise of feminism and women’s greater participation in mainstream culture, a balance of thinking and feeling, sensation and intuition might occur.[26] Whether this will translate into widespread appreciation for paradox and polarity remains to be seen.


“… our time has become so utterly godless and profane: we lack all knowledge of the unconscious psyche and pursue the cult of consciousness to the exclusion of all else. Our true religion is a monotheism of consciousness, a possession by it, coupled with a fanatical denial of the existence of fragmentary autonomous systems…. This entails a great psychic danger, because the autonomous systems then behave like any other repressed contents: they necessarily induce wrong attitudes since the repressed material reappears in consciousness in a spurious form. This is strikingly evident in every case of neurosis and also holds true for the collective psychic phenomena. Our time has committed a fatal error; we believe we can criticize the facts of religion intellectually. Like Laplace, we think God is a hypothesis that can be subjected to intellectual treatment, to be affirmed or denied…. the autonomous systems are always at work, for the fundamental structure of the unconscious is not affected by the deviations of our ephemeral consciousness.”[27]


This paragraph provides an explanation for why Jung felt our current reality is neurotic.[28] We are living possessed by “the cult of consciousness,”and in denial of the “autonomous systems” (complexes, drives, repressed memories etc.) living within us–systems which can then show up in outer life in negative, problematic (i.e. “spurious”) ways. A recent example comes to mind. After some neighbors helped me when I broke my leg (taking out the garbage, bringing in my mail) I continued to have contact with them. As I got to know them I observed that their home was always immaculate, not a thing out of place, not a speck of dusk anywhere ever. The woman had intense arachnophobia, long-term chronic insomnia, morbid obesity (her doctor urged her to lose 100 pounds), hypertension, cancer and frequent colds. She hated to cook, and had had a terrible mother (her assessment, confirmed by her husband). Do we see here a lot of “repressed material” related to a negative mother complex appearing in conscious life in problematic ways? Compulsive behaviors, multiple instances of somatizing, even spiders doing their bit all try to encourage this woman to wise up to the messages from her psyche. Were her doctors helping her? They fed her lots of pills, cut, burned and poisoned in conformity with our current allopathic protocols, but did they think of helping her become more conscious? Conforming to our current cultural madness, such practitioners commit many errors (some probably “fatal”!), and Jung had no patience with such medical malpractice.[29] Just as we cannot regard the Divine as a subject for “intellectual treatment,” so we cannot dismiss or disregard the psyche and its “autonomous systems.” If we recognize the psyche is real,[30] and, more than this, watch for its guidance in our daily dreams and outer life, we don’t have to suffer as my unfortunate neighbor suffers.


“…the historic events of our time have painted a picture of man’s psychic reality in indelible colors of blood and fire, and given him an object lesson which he will never be able to forget if – and this is the great question – he has today acquired enough consciousness to keep up with the furious pace of the devil within him. The only other hope is that he may learn to curb a creativity which is wasting itself in the exploitation of material power. Unfortunately, all attempts in that direction look like bloodless Utopias.”[31]


Jung wrote this essay in 1942, i.e. while World War II was raging just over the borders of Switzerland, so we don’t have to wonder what he was thinking in his mention of “colors of blood and fire.” That world-wide conflict provided us with what Jung felt was “an object lesson,” even as it upped the ante with the development (provoked by the war) of the atomic bomb. The “creativity” that went into the discovery and weaponization of the energetic potential of the atom is one example of human creativity “wasting itself,” driven by “the furious pace of the devil,” i.e the powerful shadow which lives in all of us. Seventy-plus years after Jung wrote this, the “great question” remains unanswered, and all the foolish, addictive, harmful technologies[32] we have created since Jung’s time suggest that we have not addressed this question at all, much less in any positive way.


“No one can claim to be immune to the spirit of his own epoch or to possess anything like a complete knowledge of it. Regardless of our conscious convictions, we are all without exception, in so far as we are particles in the mass, gnawed at and undermined by the spirit that runs through the masses. Our freedom extends only as far as our consciousness reaches. Beyond that, we succumb to the unconscious influences of our environment.”[33]


By his choice of words–“gnawed at and undermined”–Jung was revealing his lack of enthusiasm for the collective consciousness of his time. If he were alive now, I think he would be even more negative in his choice of words, for we have done little in the past 70 years to become more conscious, as a society–as the current state of American politics indicates so clearly. Those of us who aspire to live in 21st-century America while also working to create more consciousness have quite a challenge on our hands: Becoming conscious is a challenge, creating more consciousness is more of a challenge, and doing so while being “particles in the mass, gnawed at and undermined” by the low level collective spirit is an aspiration we can attain only with superhuman (i.e. psychic, divine) help. More than ever our society needs conscious people–people about to “keep up with the furious pace of the devil” which lives both within each of us, and also without, in the wider world.

In Part II of this essay we will examine Jung’s remarks in CW 13 that relate to modern science.


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

Brill, Steven (2018), Tailspin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Foroohar, Rana (2016), Makers and Takers. New York: Crown Business.

Gawain, Shakti (1978), Creative Visualization. New York: Bantam Books

________ (1986), Living in the Light. Mill Valley CA: Whatever Publishing.

Harman, Willis (1988), Global Mind Change. Indianapolis: Knowledge Systems.

Hoffmann, Banesh (1962), The Tyranny of Testing. New York: Collier Books.


________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. 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.

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

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (2007), The Jung-White Letters, ed. Ann Conrad Lammers & Adrian Cunningham. New York: Routledge Philemon Series.

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

Murphy, Joseph (1963), The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. Englewood Cliffs NY: Prentice-Hall.

Siegel, Paul (1994), Design Your Future. Long Beach CA: Learning Society Publications.

Tart, Charles (2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Press.

Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation. New York: Penguin Press.

Twenge, Jean & W. Keith Campbell (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] Collected Works 13 ¶4. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW, and unless otherwise specified, all paragraph citations will refer to CW 13.

[2] ¶335.

[3] ¶51.

[4] CW 13 consists of five essays: “Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower,” “The Visions of Zosimos,” “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomenon,” “The Spirit Mercurius,” and “the Philosophical Tree.”

[5] CW 10 ¶586.

[6] For more on due process, and how our concern for it has had a host of unintended consequences, see Brill (2018), 9, 13, 111-115 & 302-309.

[7] Warnings from educators about the deleterious effects of an emphasis on testing are nothing new; see Hoffmann (1962) for a cogent argument against testing that is still valid over 50 years later.

[8] For the negative impacts of the use of algorithms, see Foroohar (2016), 16,18-19, 57 & 115.

[9] This is the term Steven Brill uses to describe the decline of the United States in the last 50 years; Brill (2018).

[10] E.g. proponents of “New Thought” and “positive thinking;” cf. Murphy (1963), Siegel (1994), Gawain (1978) & 1986) and CW 18 ¶1461.

[11] Cf. CW 6 ¶52, CW 18 ¶s 1593 & 1639, and Jung’s lengthy correspondence with Father Victor White in Jung (2007).

[12] ¶248. At our current level of consciousness we no longer believe tree demons exist, but that does not mean that trees are inert objects, as Peter Wohllebon’s best-seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, reminds us.

[13] ¶249. The phenomenon is real; the key is how we choose to interpret it. Given the pervasiveness of the paradigm of scientism, few of us even realize we have choices about interpretation of reality: we fall into the conventions of our collective consciousness.

[14] This term refers to the unconscious identification with objects in nature that is common in primitives’ thinking, as well as in very young children (e.g. the 3-year-old who thinks the Moon is following him).

[15] E.g. Bertrand Russell, quoted in Tart (2009), 20.

[16] ¶395.

[17] Bair (2003), 568.

[18] ¶s 89 & 404; cf. CW 11 ¶263.

[19] Bush included both North Korea and Iran in his use of this term, in his January 29, 2002 State of the Union address; for the video go to:…/the-axis-of-evil-speech.html. It should be noted that projection is not a mistake: it is can be a guide, if we are able to recognize it. Projection is also understandable, because it requires a “hook,” i.e. the person/group/nation we project our unconscious on to has some quality or feature that allows them to “hook” the projection.

[20] ¶7.

[21] Twenge & Campbell (2009), 160-179.

[22] ¶76 note 2.

[23] “Epistemology” derives from the Greek epistamai, “to know, to know to do, to understand;” Liddell & Scott (1978), 301.

[24] Science as the knowledge base of Western society is a concept I learned from the late Willis Harman; see Harman (1988) for more on this idea.

[25] ¶7

[26] Especially now, with movements like #meToo encouraging women to speak up and share their perspective. Some analysts think that American society is becoming more Sensate, rather than Feeling or Intuitive in nature. In this regard, some regard Trump as representing an end point in our development.

[27] ¶51.

[28] CW 16 ¶83.

[29] Jung went so far as to call one doctor a “stupid shitbag”! “Letter to Walter Robert Corti,” 30 April 1929; Letters, I, 65.

[30] CW 11 ¶751.

[31] ¶293.

[32] E.g. cell phones; on the addictive nature of this technology, see Turkle (2015).

[33] ¶153.

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