The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

The Delphic Oracle and Individuation

Over 2,000 years ago, the Oracle told its supplicants to ‘Know Thyself’.

The site of the ancient Greek sanctuary of the Oracle of Delphi was established on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. ­– (although some records suggest it was founded earlier in the sixth century B.C.). It was a venerated place served by a priestess-oracle who, when in a trance-like state, was said to communicate the advice of a deity…. in response to questions from supplicants who sought such prophetic counsel when crucial decisions in their lives had to be made. And the advice, as inscribed on site, comes in the form of two words: ‘Know Thyself’.

However, it was that great first century B.C. Roman statesman and orator Cicero, who pointed out that the injunction to ‘Know Thyself’ did not stand aloneas a statement…. but was followed by the command, ‘Know Thy Soul’. In other words, to ‘know oneself’ completely…. it is necessary (1), to be aware of oneself as ‘I’: as the one living an externally directed and worldly life, responding to the ‘facts’ as presented by the Five Senses…. and to consider such an existential existence to be the basic determinant of what one would think of as ‘reality’. And (2), to realize that this same ‘I’…. also lives an inner and more abstract mental life…. speculating, wondering, about the significance of the worldly course on which one is embarked…. leading one to try and determine just who one actually is…. and to what end.

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Simply put, the Greek word psyche originally signified the vital role played by such inner directives in bringing one to a state of ‘awareness’ – aware of the complexity of one’s individuality; of the uniqueness of oneself as a whole person. For the psyche comprised forces of a spiritual nature which emanate from the Soul, and challenge the notion of ‘reality as presented by the external, worldly life of ego. Hence: ‘Know Thyself’: ‘Know Thy Soul’.

In our own time, when the science and art of ‘psychology’ came into its own, and the treatment of mental illness became part of general medical practice around the mid- 19th century, it took its cue from the Greeks and was described as the ‘science of treating the psyche’ – now using the term ‘psyche’ to signify the wholeness of a human being. And, in my opinion, it was Carl Gustav Jung – the eminent Swiss psychologist, who died in 1961, and who led the way into the 20th century…. notwithstanding the reputation of Sigmund Freud.

It was Jung who made ‘individuation’ the fundamental issue in the practice of mental healing. He became an extraordinarily successful and famous ‘healing psychologist’ in bringing even severely psychotic and neurotic patients to recognize the individual nature and quality of themselves – a healing and psychical phenomenon that occurred once the conscious union of outer-directed, and inner-dwelling Selves, was accomplished. It could often take several months before Jung’s sympathetic, insightful, and ‘conversational’ probing…. would lead a patient into the depths of his or her conscious/unconscious mental life; free them to talk about their deepest desires, fears and hopes…. realize that they can be moved by an inner directive force commonly called the ‘human spirit’. At which point, the ‘I….’ would be recognized…. and life’s challenges could be met ‘head-on’, so to speak.

Nowadays, it is believed that a pill will do the same job.

But is it not both significant and interesting that – well over 2,000 years before Carl Jung recognized that the absence of the process we now call ‘Individuation’, is responsible for much mental illness – the most famed Oracle in the Western World would tell its supplicants to ‘Know Thyself’.

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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