C. G. Jung (1875-1961)
[Alchemy] represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and ... a continuity therefore existed between past and present. Grounded in the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, alchemy formed the bridge on the one hand into the past, to Gnosticism, and on the other into the future, to the modern psychology of the unconscious.
First I had to find evidence for the historical prefiguration of my own inner experiences. That is to say, I had to ask myself, "Where have my particular premises already occurred in history?" If I had not succeeded in finding such evidence, I would never have been able to substantiate my ideas. Therefore, my encounter with alchemy was decisive for me, as it provided me with the historical basis which I hitherto lacked.
(Excerpt from Memories, Dreams, Reflections of C. G. Jung, edited by Aniela Jaffe, translated by R. and C. Winston, first published 1963, pages 192, 193 and 200)
Carl Gustav Jung was born in the small village of Kessewil, Switzerland on 26 July 1875. From 1895-1900, he studied medicine at the University of Basel. In 1902 he obtained his M.D. degree from the University of Zurich. From 1900 to 1909 he worked as a psychiatrist at the Burghölzli mental hospital in Zurich where, with Eugen Bleuler, he introduced Freud's psychoanalysis techniques. In 1912, after six years of friendship, Jung parted with Freud due to theoretical differences and went on to craft his own Analytical Psychology. In 1935 he became a Professor at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich. In 1944 Jung became Professor of Medical Psychology at the University of Basel. He married Emma Rauschenbach in 1903; they had 5 children. He lived and practiced in Küsnacht on the lake of Zurich, where he died on 06 June 1961.
Jung's interest in esoteric systems began early in his professional career in about the year 1912. His first interest was in Gnosticism. He is reputed to have told one of his students, Barbara Hannah, that when he discovered the writings of the ancient Gnostics:
I felt as if I had at last found a circle of friends who understood me.
A wealth of Gnostic documents are available to us today from the Nag Hammadi Collection. Unfortunately, in the early 20th Century, very little reliable, first-hand information on the Gnostics was available to Jung. The existing accounts of Gnostic teachings, appearing in the works of the Christian Church fathers such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus, were fragmentary and unreliable. Of primary sources, the remarkable Pistis Sophia was one of the very few documents available to Jung in translation. Even so, Jung continued to explore Gnostic lore with great diligence.
Jung was concerned that the only available ancient Gnostic myths and traditions were some seventeen or eighteen hundred years old and no link seemed to exist that might join them to Jung's own time. As far as Jung could determine, there was no tradition that might have connected the Gnostics with the present. However, after painstaking research, he determined that the chief link connecting later ages with the Gnostics was in fact none other than alchemy.
In 1926, Jung had a remarkable dream where he was transported back into the seventeenth century, and saw himself as an alchemist, engaged in the opus, or great work of alchemy. Aided by this dream, Jung finally recognized the role of alchemy as the link connecting ancient Gnosticism with modern psychology.
Late in his life, in August 1957, Jung gave a series of filmed interviews for the University of Houston. The following is part of the transcript of the fourth interview with Dr. Richard I. Evans:
I got more and more respectful of archetypes, and now, by Jove, that thing should be taken into account. That is an enormous factor, very important for our further development and for our well-being. It was, of course, difficult to know where to begin, because it is such an enormously extended field. So the next question I asked myself was, “Now where in the world has anybody been busy with that problem?” And I found nobody had, except a peculiar spiritual movement that went together with the beginnings of Christianity, namely Gnosticism. That was the first thing, actually, that I saw, that the Gnostics were concerned with the problem of archetypes. They made a peculiar philosophy of it, as everybody makes a peculiar philosophy of it when he comes across it naïvely and doesn’t know that the archetypes are structural elements of the unconscious psyche.
The Gnostics lived in the first, second, and third centuries. And what was in between? Nothing. And now, today, we suddenly fall into that hole and are confronted with the problems of the collective unconscious which were the same then two thousand years ago - and we are not prepared to meet that problem. I was always looking for something in between, you know, something that linked that remote past with the present moment. And I found to my amazement it was alchemy, which is understood to be a history of chemistry. It is, one might almost say, anything but that. It is a peculiar spiritual or philosophical movement. The alchemists called themselves philosophers, like the Gnostics. And then I read the whole accessible literature, Latin and Greek. I studied it because it was enormously interesting. It is the mental work of seventeen hundred years, in which is stored up all they could make out about the nature of the archetypes, in a peculiar way, that’s true - it is not simple. Most of the texts haven’t been published since the Middle Ages; the last editions date from the middle or end of the seventeenth century, practically all in Latin. Some texts are in Greek, not a few very important ones. That gave me no end of work, but the result was most satisfactory, because it showed me the development of our unconscious relations to the collective unconscious and the variations our consciousness has undergone, and why the unconscious is concerned with these mythological images. ...
... Of course I cannot tell you in detail about alchemy. It is the basis of our modern way of conceiving things, and therefore it is as if it were right under the threshold of consciousness. It gives you a wonderful picture of how the development of archetypes, the movement of archetypes, looks when you see them as if from above. From today you look back into the past, and you see how the present moment has evolved out of the past. Alchemical philosophy - it sounds very curious. We should give it an entirely different name. It does have a different name, it is called Hermetic philosophy, though of course that conveys just as little as the term alchemy. It is the parallel development, as Gnosticism was, to the conscious development of Christianity, of our Christian philosophy, of the whole psychology of the Middle Ages.