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How Well Does Jung's Perspective On Violence Hold Up?

Not too well, says Charles Bellinger

The following is from The Genealogy of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger

Judging from their popularity, the writings of Carl Jung and his followers strike many people as having a deep ring of truth. I concur with this intuition, particularly with regard to the concept of the projection of the shadow. This idea strikes a chord as a very fruitful approach to understanding violent behavior. That many cases of violence arise out of a condition of immaturity and a lack of psychological integration seems to be obviously true.

But when a fruitful approach is taken in regard to such a crucially important question, it becomes very important to make sure that the insight is developed fully and accurately, within the broadest possible philosophical horizon. I am not entirely convinced that this is true of Jung.

. . . In speaking of the "archetypes" that inhabit the "collective unconscious," has Jung invested entities that relieve human beings of moral responsibility for the conduct of their lives?

His essay on "Wotan," published in 1936 (before World War II) is very striking in this regard. There he argues that the behavior of the Germans can be understood as the reawakening of the god "Wotan" after his long slumber during the cultural dominance of Christianity.

As Jung stated:
"As an autonomous psychic factor, Wotan produces effects in the collective life of a people and thereby reveals his own nature" (187). And even more clearly, "We who stand outside judge the Germans far too much as if they were responsible agents, but perhaps it would be nearer the truth to regard them also as victims" (192).

If external forces (even if those "external forces" are "inside" the psyche) are causing human beings to do evil, then we are not genuinely responsible for our actions. We can say, "The devil made me do it" and be speaking the truth. But is this the way to respond to Nazism, by "understanding" it as the eruption of an "archetype"?

Following World War II, Jung wrote another essay on Germany, entitled "After the Catastrophe." There he speaks very harshly of the Germans as a nation of hysterical murderers, where he states that Germans during World War II were essentially inmates in a nationwide asylum, during an "outbreak of epidemic insanity, an irruption of the unconscious into what seemed to be a tolerably well-ordered world . . . No one knew what was happening to him, least of all the Germans, who allowed themselves to be driven to the slaughterhouse by their leading psychopaths like hypnotized sheep." (Civilization in Transition, 212)

Yet I am not certain that Jung has fully reckoned with the problem of moral accountability, since he bases his comments on the idea that Germany as a nation is like an inmate in an insane asylum. In response to Jung, we can ask whether it is possible to put forward an understanding of the psychological roots of violence that holds the subjects responsible for their actions. Or will any "understanding" exonerate the "patients" in some fundamental way?

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