Was C.G. Jung into Ecology? Jung and the World-Soul or Anima Mundi

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.




Was C.G. Jung into Ecology?

Jung and the World-Soul or Anima Mundi


Nature is an incomparable guide if you know how to follow her. She is like the needle of the compass pointing to the North, which is most useful when you have a good man-made ship and when you know how to navigate.

                                                                                                Jung (1940)[1]


Every man should have his own plot of land so that the instincts can come to life again. To own land is important psychologically, and there is no substitute for it…. The industrial worker is a pathetic, rootless being, and his remuneration in money is not tangible but abstract…. Because the psychological reward is inadequate, the worker rebels against his employer and against “capitalism” as a whole. We all need nourishment for our psyche. It is impossible to find such nourishment in urban tenements without a patch of green or a blossoming tree. We need a relationship with nature. I am just a culture-coolie myself, but I derive a great deal of pleasure from growing my own potatoes…. A captive animal cannot return to freedom. But our workers can return. We see them doing it in the allotment gardens in and around our cities; these gardens are an expression of love for nature and for one’s own plot of land…. I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.

                                                                                                Jung (1950)[2]


We must find out how to get everything back into connection with everything else. We must resist the vice of intellectualism, and get it understood that we cannot only understand.

                                                                                                Jung (1959)[3]


… my second love then belonged to nature, particularly zoology, and when I began my studies I inscribed in the so-called Philosophical Faculty Two—that means natural sciences….

                                                                                                Jung (1959)[4]


            … if one touches the earth one cannot avoid the spirit.

                                                                                                Jung (1976)[5]


            The title of this essay comes from a student who, upon learning that I attended a conference recently on spiritual ecology,[6] asked me if Jung was into ecology. As so often happens, the question begged more of an in-depth reply. This essay is an attempt to provide a more complete answer than I could provide her on the spot.

            First, let’s admit the anachronism: Jung died in 1961, before the science of ecology or the activist movement of environmentalism gained the prominence they have today. While we can trace the rise of ecology to the turn of the 20th century, with the work on holism by Jan Smuts and others,[7] the emergence of ecology as an science with the degree of sophistication it has now had to wait until the development of technologies like computers that allow scientists to study the complex interdependencies that make up the “web of life.”[8] Likewise, the environmental movement was aborning just about the time Jung died.[9] So we can’t say that Jung was “into ecology” per se, but his writings, interviews, letters and his way of life certainly allow us to say he had what we would call today “ecological awareness.” In this essay I will examine Jung’s lifestyle, his comments and his scholarly work, with particular attention to the notions of the “world-soul” and the anima mundi.[10]


Jung’s Lifestyle


            Though he lived most of his adult life in the city of Zurich, Jung was at heart a country boy. He grew up in the Swiss countryside, spending much of his time playing alone out in nature.[11] Late in life Jung would speak of the “rough kind of life”[12] he experienced as a youth, living in Nature.

            Jung’s love of the outdoors lasted throughout his life[13] and he shared this love with his children, when he took them camping.[14] His favorite activities were all outdoors—biking, sailing, mountaineering[15]—and his favorite type of clothing was the casual gear of the peasant.[16] It was not uncommon for visitors to Jung’s home to mistake him for the gardener![17]

            He loved animals, and his second choice of career was zoology, the study of animals.[18] He especially loved dogs and always had a pet dog, with which he would carry on conversations.[19] When his dogs died, Jung was deeply saddened.[20]

            Jung had a peasant’s respect for wood and stone,[21] for the magic of fire and the power of ritual when performing daily tasks like lighting a fire in a fireplace.[22] When he had the opportunity to build his own retreat, his tower at Bollingen, Jung created a medieval structure: made of stone, simple, plain, without any of the modern amenities (no electricity, plumbing, or heat source beyond a fireplace).[23] In this simple, low-tech structure Jung was happiest.

            When he was at home in Kusnacht, Jung lived very frugally, shutting off lights when others left them on,[24] turning down the heat (so that visitors often had to sit in coats and hats to ward off the cold!).[25] For entertainment Jung read crime novels,[26] painted murals[27] and mandalas,[28] and carved inscriptions and images in stone.[29] He also worked in the earth of his garden, potatoes being one of his favorite harvests.[30] He had no use for modern art, music, movies, television or airplanes.[31]


Jung’s Remarks about Nature


            To my knowledge Jung never wrote anything specifically about ecology or the environment, but he certainly appreciated the natural world and, as the quotes opening this essay indicate, he decried the psychological desolation that results when people are forced to live in cities, cut off from Nature.[32] He also recognized that everything is connected to everything else, which contemporary ecologists regard as one of the cardinal principles of ecology.[33]

            Jung understood that humans need contact with the natural world, that plants, animals and people exist in a symbiotic relationship—a relationship that nurtures humans both emotionally and spiritually. When asked in a letter by a Mrs. N (anonymous correspondent) about the wisdom of following the unconscious, Jung replied by noting that the unconscious is nature, and as such, it “… needs the human mind to function usefully for man’s purposes. Nature is an incomparable guide if you know how to follow her….”[34] Jung recognized that, being gifted with reason, intellect and powers of analysis, humans were not to throw over consciousness, to drift along whither the river of life might carry them. Rather, we are to engage Nature with consciousness, so as to work out our individual destinies.[35]

            In 1950 the Swiss geographer Hans Carol interviewed Jung about his thoughts on the environment. This interview is as close as we get to a statement from Jung on the subject of ecology, and Jung repeated some themes that run through other works, e.g. the need to counter the cult of bigness and work for “small social units;”[36] the need to look within, to one’s own soul, to find the Divine; the perils of civilization, with its materialistic preoccupations. But he also noted the value of having a connection to the land, in the face of the industrial system that fosters “rootlessness”[37] in its workers. Jung recognized that “nourishment for the psyche”[38] came not from the factory floor or the assembly line, but from contact with Nature.

            Nine years after Carol and Jung had their conversation, the French-Swiss writer Georges Duplain interviewed Jung on the subject of the “frontiers of knowledge.”[39] By this time Jung had attained a measure of notoriety for the publication of his essay on Ufos (about which he was almost uniformly misunderstood),[40] so most of his discussion with Duplain was about “the bizarre and doubtful apparitions of objects which seem to move through our atmosphere.”[41] At one point Jung pointed out the limitations of the human intellect, that it is “… making darkness, because we’ve let it take too big a place….”[42] Jung recognized that intellectualism—putting a premium on rationality and analyzing—can become a vice when it is overdone. Jung urged equal stress on synthesis, figuring out ways “… to get everything back into connection with everything else….”[43] Without using our modern terms, Jung was describing the web of life.

            The most famous interview Jung ever gave occurred the same year as his talk with Georges Duplain. This is the “Face to Face” interview with John Freeman, aired by the BBC in October of 1959.[44] In this wide-ranging discussion, Freeman asked Jung how it was that he became a doctor. Medicine was not his first choice of career, or even his second. He originally hoped to be an archaeologist, but it was too expensive. Then he turned to zoology, because of his love of Nature and animals. But Jung quickly came to realize that this study would likely lead to a career in teaching, and Jung “… didn’t want to become a schoolmaster. Teaching was not just what I was looking for….”[45] So he fell back on the profession his grandfather had practiced, a line of work that allowed him to do “… something useful with human beings…”[46]


Jung’s Philosophy of Nature


            So Jung became a doctor, but over the course of his long life, he developed a range of intellectual interests that far exceed those of a typical physician. No subject was off limits for Jung’s curiosity: He got into astrology, cabala, Gnosticism, the I Ching and other mantic arts, the Ufo controversy and a variety of other outré subjects.[47] None of these held greater interest for him than alchemy, and alchemy provided a rich foundation for Jung’s philosophy of Nature.

            The medieval alchemists drew on the wisdom of the ancients—Plato, the neoPythagoreans, Plotinus, and the Hermetic corpus—in creating their systems, and one of the key concepts they took over from Plato and others was the notion of the “world-soul,” or anima mundi. Jung’s alchemical works are replete with references to these two terms, which the alchemists defined as:

the spirit of God[48]

the Holy Ghost[49]

the sensus naturae, or sense of Nature[50]

“a natural force which is responsible for all the phenomena of life and the psyche…”[51]

“… the innermost point and at the same time the encompasser of the world, like the atman in the Upanishads….[52]

Mercurius, the god of alchemical transformations[53]

“… really the motor of the heavens…”[54]

“… a projection of the unconscious… an analogy of the animating principle in man which inspires his thoughts and acts of cognition….”[55]

“… a transconscious center which… must be regarded as a symbol of wholeness…”[56]

a “… counterpart of the Anthropos [the archetype of the fully realized human being], and at the same time the universe in its smallest and most material form…”[57]

“… a virtus Dei (virtue of God), an organ or a sphere that surrounds God…”[58]

“… the demiurge or divine spirit that incubated the chaotic waters of the beginning, remained in matter in a potential state…”[59] and that now “lies imprisoned in matter.”[60]

“the source of the opposites” and the “symbol of generation.”[61]

the representation of “the governing principle of the whole physical world… a revelation or unfolding of the God-image.”[62]

“the guide of mankind,” being herself guided by God (the anima being depicted as a woman)[63]

the quintessence, the “oneness and essence of the physical world…”[64]

a “little bit of the divinity” that entered into material things and got caught there.[65]

            To our modern sensibilities, most of the above seems obscure, if not incomprehensible, so far are we removed from the medieval alchemical mind-set. But Jung found these ideas fascinating, and they informed his philosophy, as well as his daily actions. At the root of all the above definitions is the belief that matter is alive, that physis, the physical world, is ensouled, full of the same Divine energy that incarnated in Christ.[66] In this Jung recognized echoes of both Gnostic and cabalistic ideas about the creation of the world: How the scintilla, or divine sparks, were “… dispersed or scattered at God’s command in and through the fabric of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere…”,[67] leaving all the parts of Creation with a touch of divinity. Plants, animals, rocks and soil, as well as human beings all contain soul, some small part of divinity. What this means, in practical terms, is that if we blow up a hillside to extract its coal, or clear-cut a forest to make paper, we are desecrating something holy.[68]

            Jung lived his belief in an ensouled reality: Every morning (to the surprise of his housekeeper, Ruth Bailey) Jung would go into the kitchen and greet all the pots and pans, knives and forks, and thank them for their good work in supporting his life. More to her consternation, Bailey discovered that Jung expected her to do likewise.[69] Why? As a reminder that all of life is holy, all matter is infused with a part of the Divine. Given the pervasive materialism of our culture, which regards matter as dead and the physical world as little more than a “gigantic toolshed”[70] which we can plunder as we please, such a daily ritual can act as a leaven, reminding us of the sacredness of the world.

            Jung never wrote about spiritual ecology, but he recognized the anima mundi, the world-soul, as the presence of Spirit within matter. The world-soul grows plants and animates animals, giving us vitality, creativity and the capacity to fulfill our destinies.[71] For Jung, as for so many people, contact with Nature was a powerful way to nurture the soul, and “earthkeeping”[72]—the conscious tending of the ecological balances that make up the web of life—is a practice every bit as “spiritual” as meditation, prayer or attendance at religious services.

            To reply to my student’s question—Was Jung into ecology?—I would say that Jung was an eloquent forerunner of the “deep ecology”[73] and “spiritual ecology”[74] movements, and his awareness of the reality of the world-soul can inform both our thinking about ecology and our daily lives.




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

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

Carol, Hans (1977), “Man and His Environment,” C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Duplain, Georges (1977), “On the Frontiers of Knowledge,” C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ehrenfeld, David (1981), The Arrogance of Humanism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Freeman, John (1977), “The ‘Face-to-Face’ Interview,” C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

Jung. C.G. (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.

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

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

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

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

________ (1976), The Vision Seminars. New York: Spring Publications.

Juzek, Charles & Susan Mehrtens (1974), Earthkeeping: Readings in Human Ecology. Pacific Grove CA: The Boxwood Press.

Kumar, Satish (2013), “Three Dimensions of Ecology,” Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, ed. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Point Reyes CA: The Golden Sufi Center.

Sands, Frederick (1977), “Men, Women and God,” C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Storer, John (1956), The Web of Life. New York: New American Library.

Van der Post, Laurens (1975), Jung and the Story of Our Time. New York: Vintage Books.

Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn (2013), Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Point Reyes CA: The Golden Sufi Center.




[1] “Letter to Mrs. N,” 20 May 1940; Letters, I, 283.

[2] Quoted in Carol (1977), 202-204.

[3] Quoted in Duplain (1977), 420.

[4] Quoted in Freeman (1977), 428.

[5] Jung (1976), 165.

[6] The conference was titled “A Spiritual Narrative for the 21st Century: Becoming a Sacred Earth Community,” hosted by the Contemplative Alliance and the Global Peace Initiative of Women, June 21-22, 2013, in New York. For a summary of the contents of this conference, and how it relates to Jung and his thought, see the blog essay “Resacralizing Reality: A Jungian Perspective on a Sacred Earth Community,” archived on this blog site.

[7] For a history of ecology, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_ecology. For examples of courses on ecological history, cf. medhist.wisc.edu/faculty/mitman/courses; environment.as.nyu.edu/docs; and eeb.yale.edu/ugrad/courses.

[8] The “web of life” is the title of one of the early ecology classics; Storer (1956).

[9] Although often treated as synonyms, “ecology” and “environmentalism” are not identical. “Ecology” is the formal science that studies the oikos, the “home,” i.e. our ecosystem of Earth. It is a recognized discipline in the life sciences and is taught in many universities. “Environmentalism” is a term for the activist movement that includes both scientists and concerned citizens that works for environmental protection and reclamation.

[10] Lit. Latin for “soul of the world.” The two terms, world-soul and anima mundi, are used interchangeably by the alchemists that Jung quotes.

[11] Bair (2003), 19,22,24.

[12] Quoted in Freeman (1977), 429.

[13] Hannah (1976), 50.

[14] Brome (1978), 183.

[15] Bair (2003), 251. Van der Post (1975), 250-251; Brome (1978), 19.

[16] Van der Post (1975), 39.

[17] Brome (1978), 185.

[18] Freeman (1977), 428.

[19] Brome (1978), 169.

[20] Ibid., 226.

[21] Hannah (1976), 35.

[22] Van der Post (1975), 47.

[23] Bair (2003), 323.

[24]Bair (2003), 566.

[25] Hannah (1976), 328.

[26] Bair (2003), 398.

[27] E.g. on the walls of Bollingen; Hannah (1976), 331.

[28] For examples of some of Jung’s mandalas, see his Red Book.

[29] All of these are low-tech activities that have minimal impact on the environment.

[30] Carol (1977), 202-204.

[31] Sands (1977), 249.

[32] Carol (1977), 202-204.

[33] Commoner (1971), 33.

[34] “Letter to Mrs. N,” 20 May 1940; Letters, I, 283.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Carol (1977), 202.

[37] Ibid.


[39] Duplain (1977).

[40] For a description of how and why Jung was misunderstood, see the blog essay “Jung and Ufos,” archived on this blog site.

[41] Quoted in Duplain (1977), 410.

[42] Ibid., 420.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Freeman (1977), 424-439.

[45]Quoted in Freeman (1977), 428.

[46] Ibid.

[47] In a letter to Esther Harding of 30 May 1957, Jung lamented how he seemed drawn to such subjects; Letters, II, 362.

[48] Collected Works 8, ¶388. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[49] Ibid., ¶393.

[50] Ibid.

[51] CW 8, ¶393.

[52] CW 9i, ¶554

[53] “Mercurius” is the alchemical term for multiple phenomena in alchemy, the god Mercury being a very partial equivalent.

[54] CW 9ii, ¶212

[55] Ibid., ¶219

[56] Ibid., ¶308

[57] Ibid., ¶380

[58] CW 11, ¶152; Jung is quoting the medieval alchemist Mylius here.

[59] Ibid., ¶160

[60] Ibid., ¶263

[61] CW 11, ¶s 190 & 420.

[62] Ibid., ¶187.

[63] CW 12, figure 8.

[64] CW 14, ¶719

[65] Ibid., ¶764.

[66] CW 12, ¶413, and CW 14, ¶699.

[67] CW 14, ¶50.

[68] Very similar ideas can be found all over the world in the oral traditions of indigenous peoples;for multiple examples, see La Duke (2013), 85-100.

[69] Bair (2003), 568.

[70] This phrase is Clarence Glacken’s, quote in Ehrenfeld (1981), 177.

[71] CW 8, ¶393; CW 18, ¶1361; CW 11, ¶152; CW 14, ¶s 322 & 374; cf. “Letter to Mrs. N,” 20 May 1940; Letters, I, 283.

[72] This is the title of an anthology I co-edited with Charles Juzek in 1974

[73] “Deep ecology” is a “new way of appreciating and valuing all of life,” first expounded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess and later taken up by Bill Duvall and George Sessions; Kuman (2013), 131.

[74] “Spiritual ecology” is the title of a new anthology edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, containing 20 essays exploring the connection between caring for the Earth and spirituality; Vaughan-Lee (2013).

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