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.
The Value and Comfort of History
“… American life is, in a subtle way, so one-sided and so déraciné, uprooted, that you must have something to compensate the earth.”
“History is more or less bunk!”
Henry Ford (1916)
“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.”
“… if we are to see things in the right perspective, we need to understand the past of man as well as his present.”
In his interview with the Chicago Tribune reporter, Henry Ford expressed our typical American attitude toward history, an attitude that Carl Jung found disturbing. Why? Jung felt our lack of interest in history made us déraciné, rootless, which shows up in the pronounced level of mobility in our society. How many people, for example, live in one place their whole lives? While such “rootedness” is common in places like Switzerland, this is rare in the United States.
In this essay, we examine Jung’s attitude toward history, on both its collective and personal levels, and then consider its value and the comfort it can provide us.
Jung on History
As the above quotes indicate, Jung was convinced that awareness and appreciation of history are essential if we are to understand the reality we are living in, and to avoid being taken in by the lure of the “new, new thing.” Realist that he was, Jung knew this appreciation was not common:
“We like to behave as if we were just recently made, fresh from the hand of God, with no historical prejudice at all, our mind a tabula rasa at birth. This is a peculiar projection of our minds, this wanting to be free, not held down by any background: it is a sort of illusion of our consciousness in order to have the feeling of complete freedom, as if the historical past was fettering and would not allow free movement – a prejudice which … has psychological reasons.”
A tabula rasa–a blank slate–that’s how John Locke saw human beings, and Locke’s ideas had a major influence on the founders of the United States. But note that Jung regarded this attitude as a “prejudice,” something limiting our thinking and our mental health.
Rather than coming into life as “blank slates,” we come in with minds that are “the result of the work of thousands or perhaps one million years.” Jung felt that “every word we speak has a tremendous history,… Our words carry the totality of that history which was once so alive and still exists in every human being.” Far from novel, “The main features of human life have remained the same for five or six thousand years or more, for an interminably long period…” and this is “why we can make historical parallels.” It is also why Jung’s concept of the archetypes work: They are “primordial images” with origins that are millennia old.
Jung would caution us to remember that we “are never alone because the eyes of the centuries watch” us. We have what Jung felt was a “historical responsibility to the centuries” that have gone before us, and we are always “in the presence of the Old Man/Woman” who lives within us.This “presence” manifests as
“The tendency of the mind… to function as it always has functioned, and it is far more probable that it will continue to function as it did five or ten thousand years ago, rather than in a way it never has functioned. Those ideas that have been alive through the centuries are most likely to return and to be operative. They are archetypes, the historical way of functioning,…When the mind of man has functioned in the same way for centuries it is most probable that it will continue to function in the same way.”
So we would do well to study the disciplines that can foster an understanding and appreciation of history–anthropology, etymology, paleontology, and geology, as well as history itself. To what benefit? What value does a sense of history give us? We’ll address this question on two levels: the value for us collectively, as a culture, and the value for the individual.
The Value of History on the Collective Level
Jung recognized that culture, any culture, implies continuity. The societal institutions, norms, values and structures that are the components of any culture did not arise overnight: They evolved over a long period of time, mostly unconsciously, and so, to Jung, it seemed
“…especially important for any broad-based culture to have a regard for history in the widest sense of the word. 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.'”
and how much Americans love progress! Henry Ford’s comment reflected this infatuation with the future, forward motion, making things better, with more labor-saving, space-shrinking, time-saving inventions. Jung was not impressed.
Jung also felt that history is important on the collective level for guiding us in “laying hold of the future.” If we don’t know where we have been, the challenges we have faced and reckoned with, the failures we have had, and the experiences “which the past has bequeathed to us,” how can we make prudent plans, craft wise policies, and avoid becoming “defenseless dupes of whatever novelties the future may bring”?
Jung knew that any collective problem comes along “with the history of that particular society,” because “no collective problems have arisen just today:” Any problem in society has had a long history of formation and development. Jung reminds us that
“…if a problem is collective, it is historical, and we can’t explain it without explaining history; unavoidably we get into historical discussions.”
We can’t explain our collective problems without historical perspective, nor can we solve them without understanding the history behind our challenges.
Finally, Jung gives a warning that is particularly pertinent to Americans, given our love of new technologies:
“Anything new should always be questioned and tested with caution, for it may very easily turn out to be only a new disease. That is why true progress is impossible without mature judgment. But a well-balanced judgment requires a firm stand point, and this in turn can only rest on a sound knowledge of what has been. The man who is unconscious of the historical context and lets slip his link with the past is in constant danger of succumbing to the crazes and delusions engendered by all novelties.”
Given the prevalence of “autonomous technology”–how we tend to jump on the newest new thing with nary a thought of potential implications, much less of possible problems, we really need to pay attention to Jung’s words here. The “crazes” of the Internet’s disintermediation, social media spawning “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the breakdown of civil discourse–such phenomena we never anticipated, but these easily turned out to be a host of new diseases in our collective reality.
The Value of History on the Personal Level
In a Jungian context, history on the personal level means the anamnesis, which the dictionary defines as “the recalling of things past; reminiscence.” As he used it in his psychotherapeutic work, Jung described this key component in any psychological treatment as:
” a thorough examination of all those contents which are the cause of the problematical situation, or at any rate its expression. This examination, as we know, includes the irrational contents that originate in the unconscious and express themselves in fantasies and dreams.”
This examination is “customary in medicine in general and psychiatry in particular,” and it endeavors to “piece together the historical facts of the case as flawlessly as possible,” drawing on “the statements made by the patient’s family, and on his own conscious self-knowledge in reply to direct questions.”
The anamnesis is “a method both of investigation and of therapy.” As investigation, it “provides useful clues which make the psychic origin of his symptoms clear to the patient.” As a form of therapy, it often is
“by itself…of great therapeutic value, as it enables the patient to understand the chief factors of his neurosis and may eventually bring him to a decisive change of attitude.”
and this new way of thinking can, in itself, produce a healing.
Jung gives several examples of the therapeutic value of taking a personal history from his required work in the Swiss army. Several times recruits were sent to Jung with physical maladies, and in each case Jung took their histories, discovered unconscious identification with a sick relative, or some form of tension or worry, and just by bringing the concern or situation into consciousness, the recruit recovered. Uncovering the “hidden connection had curative results.”
So the “realization of suppressed emotions” is one way recalling the past has value. Anamnesis also enables “the conscious mind to preserve its link with the unconscious,” and this helps the consciousness to not lose “touch with its instinctive roots.” Remembering the past can also give the individual a “psychological context of which he was unaware before,” and this can serve to widen the horizon of our conscious standpoint.
Awareness of our history helps to maintain “the connections with the foundations of
existence…” and thus to avoid falling into regression. By recalling our past, we can get wise to how past experiences have left “lasting psychic wounds behind them,” wounds which can “produce unconscious complexes of a personal nature.” Jung knew that “a great many autonomous complexes arise in this way…”
In taking a patient’s history, the psychotherapist “will put questions which help the patient to fill in some of the gaps,” and he/she listens for clues and signposts as to what might be going on in the psyche. The Jungian analyst will quickly spot archetypes, the “primordial images” that live within us as our psychological heritage, and these can be very helpful, both in determining the “lay of the [inner] land,” and in seeing the bigger picture, the “wider horizon.” I recall vividly how comforting it was for me, in the early months of my analysis, to know that my analyst had a sense of what was going on, and the larger patterns at work, from her familiarity with the archetypes. I didn’t really know just what an “archetype” was, but she did, and that seemed to help her get oriented, at a time when I was feeling profoundly disoriented.
Comfort is another value to be had in knowing our personal history. When we are “rooted” in our past, we can avoid the discomfort of the “crazes and delusions” that seem to surround us (especially now, in these times full of “fake news” and “alternate realities”). Knowing our history helps us in working with our dreams, for “we can’t possibly understand the dream, and derive comfort from its message, if we don’t understand the atmosphere,[ i.e.] the history of the underlying images” in the dream. Jung felt that taking stock of our personal history can also help to restore “the original state of oneness with the God-image,” by fostering “an integration, a bridging of the split in the personality caused by the instincts striving apart in different and mutually contradictory directions.”
Having a sense of history can also help to quell the “panic fear” that can overcome us, especially in the early stages of an analysis. Jung wrote of this in his Alchemical Studies, in a passage that brought to mind vividly an experience I had in my analysis:
“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 patients 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.”
About six months into my analysis, I began to feel acute overwhelment, much like the “panic fear” that Jung noted. It was as if I was about to drown, or fall off a cliff and never stop falling. When I mentioned this, my analyst didn’t dig out “an old alchemist,” but she did speak of the age-old archetypal patterns, how other people had felt as I did, and that what I was experiencing was not an aberration but something she had seen often in her practice. This gave me great solace. As a professional historian, I valued history, but my analysis gave me a whole new slant on it: For the first time I realized how helpful, even healing, history could be, on both the collective and the personal levels.
Our American penchant for progress, for the newest new thing, for moving forward into the future, with scant concern for the past, our heritage, or our roots, does not serve us well. Neither collectively nor personally are we wise to ignore or denigrate our history. In this, as in so many other ways, Jung was prescient and wise in pointing out the value and comfort history can provide, and how we endanger ourselves and our society with our ahistoricity.
Contemporary Civilization Staff (1960), Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, I, 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. 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), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. 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.
________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, Michael (2000), The New New Thing. New York: W.W. Norton.
Mipham, Sakyong (2003). New York: Riverhead Books.
Winner, Langdon (1977), Autonomous
Technology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
 Evans (1976), 146-147.
 “Interview with Charles Wheeler,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916.
 Collected Works 17 ¶250. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 18 ¶559.
 This is the title of Michael Lewis’ 2000 best seller.
 Jung (1984), 69.
 Locke, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Book II, ch. 1,2 (1690).
 Contemporary Civilization Staff (1960), I, 1010.
 Jung (1984), 69.
 Ibid, 70.
 Jung defines this term in CW 6 ¶s 746-754.
 Jung (1984), 77.
 Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 64.
 CW 17 ¶250.
 The Buddhist monk Sakyong Mipham has described American culture as characterized by a penchant for “need, greed and speed;” Mipham (2003), 21.
 CW 17 ¶250.
 Jung (1984), 64.
 CW 17 ¶251.
 This is the title of Winner (1977). By “autonomous” Winner refers to how technology, especially in American society, operates independently of any conscious societal assessment of its potential impact on the well-being of people or the environment; the cell phone is a classic example.
 “Disintermediation” refers to how cyberspace is not curated by experts like librarians or university professors, but rather provides a platform for any and all to post all manner of material. Caveat lector!!
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 72. The noun anamnesis comes from the Greek verb anamimnosko, “to remind one of; to recall to memory; to remember. Liddell & Scott (1978), 58.
 CW 14 ¶306.
 CW 16 ¶194.
 CW 4 ¶525.
 CW 17 ¶177.
 CW 4 ¶528.
 CW 17 ¶177.
 Ibid. All able-bodied Swiss men are required to perform a month of army duty each year. Jung served as a physician.
 Ibid. ¶178.
 Ibid. ¶177.
 CW 16 ¶251.
 CW 4 ¶528.
 CW 14 ¶306.
 CW 9ii ¶279.
 CW 7 ¶159.
 CW 8 ¶594.
 CW 17 ¶177.
 CW 14 ¶306.
 Jung (1984), 70.
 CW 9ii ¶73.
 CW 13 ¶325.
 My B.A. was in history and I taught in three history departments in my years as a college professor.