An Interview With the Late Jungian Analyst Edward Edinger
Why our immigrant heritage makes us the "last, best hope of the world."
Posted January 13, 2018
Jungian analyst Edward Edinger was the first psychologist I interviewed on the American psyche. The year was 1994; I was steeped in my own personal Jungian analysis, and I had just begun my years-long journey to understand the American psyche through a psychological lens. Reading Edinger’s book, Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche , I’d become fascinated with how Jung’s idea of the individuation process deepened American ideas around individualism.
So often, it seemed to me, the individual in modern-day culture seemed untethered to anything greater than meeting the demands of day-to-day needs. This was not a moral judgment, as like everyone else I was juggling as well as I could the demands of work and family. But was this, I wondered, the fulfillment of the American individual? Or did something more come with that choicest accident of fate and history, of having been born into the “land of the free, and the home of the brave”? Did only soldiers “fight” for America, or were there other ways of serving and defending the country?
These were some of the feelings behind the questions I took to Edinger, and which he answered in the most inspiring, patriotic manner. But before we began our interview, he had a few things to say to me. Was I, he wondered, writing out of my own “individual experience”? Because, he continued, “if you know what I’m talking about from your own experience, you can write out of that. But if you haven’t learned it by your individual experience, then you’re just playing with ideas, and then I’m afraid that what you have to write won’t amount to much.” I replied hopefully that the impetus for this project had indeed arisen out of my own psychological inner work, dreams, and creative process. “Then,” Edinger said, “that’s what you must be thinking about all the time as you write. It’s difficult to make a bridge, but you have to find some way to translate and to give expression to whatever insights you’ve gained.”
Sometimes referred to as an “American Jungian,” Dr. Edinger was born in 1923 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was a medical officer in the U.S. Army in Panama. After practicing as a supervising psychiatrist in a psychiatric hospital, he began studying with Esther Harding, one of Jung’s first students. Eventually, Edinger became a Jungian analyst himself. He was also a founding member of the New York Jung Center, a frequent lecturer at the Los Angeles Jung Center, and wrote more than fourteen books expanding upon Jung’s ideas. In the following interview, Edinger’s ideas about America’s archetypal role in world history proved a revelatory experience, as did his ideas about the work of conscious individuality—the work of differentiating who we truly are from the conventions and collective norms of society—as a form of citizenship and a more genuine fulfillment of what it means to be an individual.
During our conversation, Edinger was intent on educating me about America’s place along the continuum of history; how its vision of democracy emerged out of the cultural convulsions of the sixteenth century; and how this historical “individuation” process continues to unfold in our struggles around immigration. He brings our interview to a ringing conclusion with his discussion of America’s great task of multiculturalism, and how, if the country can hold together despite the tensions of a body politic composed of citizens of various ethnicities, it might fulfill its purpose of bringing about world unification and peace to the planet. It was a perspective that inspired me anew about being an American, even as I go about my daily tasks shopping for food at the grocery store or chatting with my neighbors. I hope it will inspire others as well.
Pythia Peay: My first question concerns the Jungian principle of “individuation” and how it might deepen our American understanding of the individual. For example, in your book Ego and Archetype you say that the basis for almost all psychological problems lies in an unsatisfactory relationship to one’s urge toward individuality. So perhaps you could begin by speaking to this issue.
Edward Edinger: I’ll be glad to do that. But I think I need to preface my remarks on the individual with my more general picture of how I see America as a phenomenon in history as a whole. Jung has laid the groundwork for this in all of his work, especially in his book Aion , for what I call “archetypal psychohistory,” a whole new discipline of study. We’ve had the development of psychohistory in the last few decades, but archetypal psychohistory has more of a personal nature.
PP: Can you say more about what you mean by “archetypal psychohistory”?
EE: I mean the unfolding drama of archetypal processes as they manifest in the collective history of the human race. All viable societies have at their core a central collective religious myth that represents the “God-image” for that civilization. America, for instance, is an offshoot of Western European civilization, which was hatched out of the theological mythology of the early Christian church.
As Western civilization unfolded, critical developments occurred around the beginning of the sixteenth century that led to a change in the Western ego. This began during the Protestant Reformation when, in effect, the traditional God-image in the sky “fell out of heaven” from its centuries-old place in the metaphysical system of the medieval church, and into the human psyche. The energy that was released from this fueled individual initiative, and in turn helped to give rise to the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the beginning of the great geographical explorations. The colonization of America was a result of those great geographical explorations.
PP: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by God “falling out of the sky” and into the human psyche, and how that triggered these enormous changes and cultural movements.
EE: The core idea underlying the Protestant Reformation was that every individual should be able to have his or her own direct relationship to God without the intermediaries of the Church or priests. Thus, the Reformation inevitably led to the splitting up of the Church into more and more denominations. Carried to its ultimate conclusion, the Protestant Reformation results in an almost infinite number of denominations, each with a membership of one: that’s the very nature of the Reformation. So that’s how individualism gets into American society so prominently. This symbolism of each person’s individual relationship to the Deity is also the essence of Jung’s individuation process.
The main point I want to make, however, is that North America was largely colonized by the Puritans (who were an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation), with the underlying conviction—and here is where the archetypal image of our American origins comes in—that they were repeating the journey to the Promised Land. This is the Old Testament narrative of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt; their wandering in the wilderness as they traveled through inhospitable territory; and their arrival in Canaan, where they had to conquer the previous inhabitants in order to be given what Yahweh had promised them.
This archetype of the journey to the Promised Land lived itself out quite specifically with the early colonists, who felt that they were fleeing persecution. It gave them the incentive to fulfill what they felt was their divine mandate to leave Europe and to make the crossing over the “wilderness of the ocean.” Eventually, they arrived in the new “Promised Land” (of the New World) where very shortly they had to oust the current occupants—the Indians—and set up a theocracy.
So to follow up on your question concerning the individual, the imagery that lies behind the entire historical, collective phenomenon of the colonization, expansion, and consolidation of America is the imagery of individual development, as it initially arose out of the Protestant Reformation. That’s why it makes sense that although the colonization movement started out as a collective undertaking, the archetypal background behind it led to more and more of an emphasis on the individual. So it’s certainly true that individual development is a prominent feature of American society, and of our culture and history.
PP: And where are we today with regard to that historical evolution around the rise of the individual?
EE: We emphasize human rights a great deal; that’s a big issue with “conscious” America. But what we’re noticing in modern times is that although individuality is very consciously America’s virtue and our value, there’s been a very sizable unconscious backlash, so that we’re becoming more and more collective.
PP: I wonder if you could say more about something you wrote in Ego and Archetype , that our era could be called the “Age of Alienation.”
EE: Here’s the way I see it. As I said, American culture is a branch, bud, or outgrowth of Western civilization as a whole. But it’s going through a crisis because it’s lost its core religious mythology. That’s true for Western society, and it’s also true for America. What once held society together is a common God-image that we all shared, and that was embedded in the metaphysical myths of Christianity. But now that’s dissolved. I don’t care whether church attendance has gone up statistically, or not. So far as the general American psyche is concerned, the effective functioning of that myth is gone. Nietzsche was right a century ago when he announced the fact that “God is dead.” And that’s been a catastrophe for society.
PP: Are you saying that this loss of our core faith is similar to a natural catastrophe, like a flood or an earthquake, but on a psychological level?
EE: Yes, but on an even greater, universal level, as it affects the civilization as a whole, not just one section of it. And since America is the youngest, living edge of Western civilization, it’s going to manifest the phenomenon of the descent into chaos more quickly than the older, longer established, more historically based European aspects of civilization.
We’re seeing that now in terms of violence and general disorganization and fragmentation. Part of it is a regression to anachronistic, factional fundamentalisms of various kinds that start warring with one another. There’s an inevitability to the situation, I’m sorry to say, but I think it’s better to state it baldly.
PP: That sounds frightening.
EE: Well, it’s better to be prepared. Jung has spelled this all out in his book Answer to Job : for those that are willing and able to hear, the world is in for a vast “Job experience.” Which means having to undergo catastrophic events for the purpose of the discovery and transformation of the God-image. I have written a little book on Jung called Transformation of the God-Image . My books all have historical references— because what is history? It is no more than the sum total story of all the individuals that go into making it up. But it’s got individual psychology at its core.
PP: Much of this book [ America on the Couch ] is about ways people can recognize collective forces influencing their individual lives, and how they can find their own way to relate to these larger forces, and to live as best they can. So what does an individual who is experiencing this sense of loneliness and alienation think or do?
EE: First, realize that it’s an individual experience and that it exists in the collective only because a sum total of individuals are feeling it. So just as its origin is in the individual, so healing of this existential crisis is to be found in the individual, one person at a time.
So if a person is feeling alienated, then his or her task is to discover the inner psychic realities of his or her individual existence, and to reconnect with the lost God-image within. To the extent that individuals do that, they are contributing to the redemption of society as a whole.
PP: Is it important in this process to learn the difference between the ego and what Jung called the “Self”? In other words, can individuals learn once again how to relate to that core within them as the Divine Source?
EE: That’s the whole point of Jungian psychology, the whole thing in a nutshell! That’s what my book is all about.
PP: I don’t know if I can recommend everyone go into Jungian analysis, or if that would even be the right thing for everyone. But there is growing receptivity and even a hunger now to relate to something larger and more transpersonal.
EE: There’s no point in everyone going into Jungian analysis. But there is a desperate longing, because as Thoreau wrote a century and a half ago, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. That’s compounded many times currently. It’s very widespread, even while everybody is consciously spending all their time and thoughts on largely material matters.
PP: So if a person wanted to cultivate a relation with the “Self,” or God within, and they weren’t involved in Jungian psychology, or any other spiritual path, what steps could they take? What advice would you give?
EE: One thing I would tell people right away is to rehabilitate [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. He’s pretty much gone by the board. Aside from a few sentences in American lit class, you can go all the way through high school and never hear of him. But he’s the wisest man American soil has produced, and he was the prophet of the individual.
Now Emerson can be misunderstood, and he is often criticized for over-emphasizing individualism at the expense of the welfare of society. But that’s a misunderstanding, largely because Emerson’s great intuitive powers perceived what we now call the Self: the transpersonal center of the individual. But he didn’t have the terminology to distinguish that from the ego. Individualism—if it’s ego-centered— is selfish, greedy individualism. But individuation is of another order. It’s the development of the individual out of an awareness of the transpersonal center of the individual psyche, and that transforms selfishness to a whole new conscious level of a religious order.
PP: So you think Emerson is an important historical and even spiritual figure for America?
EE: Yes, because he was related to the inner life. He had a real living connection to the transpersonal dimension of the psyche.
PP: You’ve also spoken about the individuation process as it applies to a whole nation. Could you talk more about that in terms of America’s “individuation process”?
EE: What I see going on in world history is a process that mirrors what goes on in the process of the individual. One of the features of the individuation process is the way a fragmented psyche that is made up of unconscious complexes—that work against the conscious ego—can be progressively brought into a state of unification. And world history, I think, also has as its goal unification, and that means political unification and psychological unification. Needless to say we’re a long way from that. But through understanding the symbolism of the individuation process, one can see that if the human race survives, world unification will eventually happen.
Now America is a kind of advanced laboratory for the world in that regard. We are the one nation that on principle has turned itself into a microcosm of the world as a whole. We’ve got the most open borders of any nation in the world, and on principle we are a nation of immigrants from all over the world. We’ve got little communities all over the United States that represent every major ethnic and national entity in the whole world. So when something goes on in another country, there’s a demonstration in front of the White House for that particular community. We are a microcosm of the world, and we’re the experimental laboratory for world unification. And that’s why our motto is E Pluribus Unum. That’s an individuation motto.
PP: Can you say more about why E Pluribus Unum is an individuation motto?
EE: It means “From the many, one.” Just as the psyche starts out as a multiplicity; so the goal of the individuation process is that wholeness can be achieved by the integration of its totality into a unity.
PP: So that we’re seeing that acted out in . . .
EE: America is living that historically, in miniature, as a microcosm of the world. And that’s why we’re the hope of the world. We really are, and if we don’t make it, the world hasn’t got a chance. And if we do make it, then the world has a model that makes it likely that it can make it, too. It’s a big deal, as I see it. We’re experiencing a lot of pain and distress because of our diversity. Certain nations that have more or less ethnically uniform populations don’t have that same problem. Japan, for example, is a good example of ethnic uniformity. And while they can criticize us for all of our problems around diversity, our diversity is part of our historical purpose and the purpose of our existence as a country. It’s part of what makes us the hope of the world: because America is diverse, just as the world itself is diverse. Thus, the task is for one national entity to be able to integrate that diversity into a unity—E Pluribus Unum—without splitting.
That’s what Lincoln realized, and that is what made the Civil War so crucially important psychologically. Together with Emerson, he’s the other great historical figure in American history. Lincoln recognized that if the overriding value was the Union, then it had to be union at all costs: and this is because it’s our country’s historical purpose. I’m not sure if Lincoln perceived that at the level that I’m articulating now, but his sound instincts sensed this, and he gave everything for the Union.
As I said earlier, the U.S. has been living out the same archetype of the Sacred Land that ancient Israel lived out. But ancient Israel failed; not long after it attained its greatest success under King Solomon, it split apart into a northern and a southern kingdom, and then was later destroyed by invaders. And that was the same issue that confronted Lincoln during the Civil War: Were we going to split apart the way ancient Israel did? And in fact we broke that archetypal pattern, and we didn’t split. Lincoln was the one that saved us. He could have agreed to secession and there would not have been a civil war. But he didn’t do that, and he paid a terrible price for it.
We see minor versions of the Civil War all around us, as the various diverse competing factions that make up our totality as a country deal with one another. The problem is whether or not they will succeed in fragmenting us as a nation, or whether the historical purpose of the “unification of the many” will be able once again to predominate.
PP: It would seem important for people to find psychologically enlightened ways to renew their sense of idealism around America. You’ve given us a lot of new perspectives in that regard, but in closing, could you say more about what it means to be a more conscious citizen or patriot?
EE: The collective unconscious has a national layer in it. It’s not the deepest layer, but it is a real layer in the collective unconscious, and patriotism is an authentic religious phenomenon. It’s an authentic relation to the transpersonal psyche on the national level. And for a nation to be healthy, the populace needs to have a living connection to that level of the transpersonal psyche.
If that’s a conscious connection, then it’s not just mindless jingoism. Not at all! Rather, it’s an aspect of the religious function of the psyche that is required for healthy living for the individual. It would be wonderful if some of our political leaders had the psychological vision to be able to communicate and articulate something of that sort for the nation. It would certainly help us as we go through the ordeals that are in store for us as the ethnic and ideological and political factions fragment more and more. It would be a unifying counter position to the fragmentation.
PP: Could you go even further into the question of what it means to be an American citizen?
EE: Yes, what does it mean to be an American citizen? That is the question. It means all the things that I’ve been talking about. It means my realization that I participate in this historical process that I’ve been describing, that is America. Because we really are the last, best hope of the world. And if we as individuals and as a nation understand the historical role that we’re performing for the ongoing historical process that I just briefly outlined, that gives America, and its citizens, a sense of its transpersonal purpose. And ultimately that process has at its root the individuation of the world.
PP: And by individuation you mean a world that’s whole, and unified—like the image of the planet Earth as seen from space?
EE: Yes, that’s a good question. What does the individuation of the world mean? It’s a kind of symbolic statement in itself, and as soon as you start to define it you lessen it. It’s a sizable notion to take all that we mean by the word individuation, all that Jung has elaborated in his work as belonging to the individuation process and apply that to the historical process of the world unfolding. Just to make that connection generates reflection. I don’t know if I’m capable of defining it more precisely.
PP: Does it have to do with a different state of consciousness or awareness?
EE: Individuation is something that takes place in individuals. Collectivities do not carry consciousness. Individuals do. So the individuation of the world means a conscious wholeness predominating in the world. And that will occur only when a sufficient number of individuals have achieved consciousness of wholeness, and when that has taken place then the world itself becomes whole.
Pythia Peay is the author of America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture from which this interview is excerpted, and American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country (Lantern Books, 2015)