Jung and Heraclitus

by Mark L. Dotson

Spring 1996


The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, tells us that "the way up and the way down are one and the same" (qtd. in Wheelwright 78). The idea that opposites complement each other and are actually the same is still alive today in the psychology of Carl Jung. As we will see, Jung relied heavily on the interrelatedness of opposites to explain his entire psychological theory. This paper will attempt to show the Heraclitan influence in Jungian thought.

The philosophy of Heraclitus is one of the most fascinating examples of thinking in the ancient world. He may have been influenced by Eastern philosophies seeping into the Mediterranean region. He was certainly inspired by the Pythagorean and Milesian thinkers. He was rumored to be a pupil of Xenophanes.

Heraclitus understood the world to be a place where nothing remains fixed; everything is in flux and is constantly being transformed.

One of the main aspects of his teaching is that "opposition brings concord," and "out of discord comes the fairest harmony" (qtd. in Wheelwright 77). What he means by this apparent contradiction is that both positive and negative realities are required in order for harmony to exist. Justice is exhibited by the striving of one thing against another, for in this striving there is agreement or harmonia. He points to the bow and the lyre to illustrate his point. The strings of a bow and lyre require tension in order to operate harmoniously. If the bowstring were not tightened, an arrow could not be shot. Similarly, if the lyre strings were not tightened there would be no beautiful music. There is harmony in the shooting of an arrow with a bow, and in the music of a lyre, just as there is a certain harmony in the world. The discord which we experience is merely the process whereby unanimity arises. Heraclitus teaches that the consensus is not obvious, but concealed, for "hidden harmony is better than the obvious" (qtd. in Wheelwright 79).

Heraclitus believed that fire, which he seems to identify with God, or the world process, is the source of all becoming. "It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and retires. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed" (qtd. in Wheelwright 70-71). To him, fire was the perfect symbol to describe reality.

Regarding the human soul, Heraclitus believed it is impossible to ascertain its limits, in the sense of our understanding the depths of the soul. He said, "You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning" (qtd. in Wheelwright 72). Here, we have an indication of a similarity arising with what we in the modern world call depth psychology, of which Jung's Analytical Psychology is an example. Depth psychology is based on the theory of the unconscious mind, i.e., that there are things in the mind which we are not consciously aware of. Sometimes our conscious minds will thrust something which is too painful to bear into the unconscious. These things can then fester in the unconscious, affecting our conscious attitude. For example, certain emotions can be repressed and can influence behavior, many times causing mental distress. The main point here is that Heraclitus recognized the boundless depth of the human psyche some twenty-five hundred years before Freud and Jung.

As in the Heraclitan doctrine, Jungian psychology stresses the existence of a conflict of opposites, or enantiodromia. This is a term which Heraclitus used to describe the endless to and fro process of the eternal flux. The opposites are at war with each other, but in this conflict there is harmony, for both positive and negative need one another. Jung based his theory of compensation on this principle, claiming that the conscious attitude, at times, must be balanced by gaining awareness of certain unconscious processes. According to Jung, "Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago" (Jung 346). A good example of what Jung means lies in an explanation of his doctrine of the anima and animus.

For Jung, all human beings have both male and female characteristics. For instance, all men have a female element abiding in their unconscious minds. Similarly, all women have an unconscious male element. One's conscious attitude is usually dominated by those characteristics belonging to whatever sex one happens to be. The opposing characteristics, if not recognized by the conscious mind, can bring about many problems in the conscious attitude. For instance, a man who is not aware of his anima may experience irrational moods, peevishness, and bad temper. (Bennet 122). A woman who represses her male characteristics may, for example, not respect the feelings of others because she is overly rational (Bennet 130). For men, Jung called the female image anima. For women, the male image is the animus. These are Latin words which both mean "soul." Anima is feminine; animus is masculine. If one set of characteristics is dominant, the opposite will manifest itself in dreams, hinting at how the conscious attitude should be adjusted so that balance can be restored to the psyche.

Another area where Jung was influenced by Heraclitus is in his personality typology. Again, he utilizes the Heraclitan principle of enantiodromia to explain why people have different personalities. He begins with the distinction between what he terms introverts and extroverts. Basically, the introvert is characterized by a flow of energy inward; the concentration is on the subject. The extrovert's energy flows outward, into the world; the concentration is on objects and other people. Every person has both characteristics within them, just as in the anima/animus doctrine. One of the two, however, will dominate the conscious attitude.

Each of these basic attitude types consists of four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. As in the introvert/extrovert distinction, one of the opposites will be dominant. For instance, someone may be an extrovert who is thinking-oriented instead of feeling-oriented. This person might also be guided more by his intuition than his senses. Another may be an introvert who is feeling oriented, and who relates more to sensation. Using this procedure, Jung was able to study human beings in a more precise manner. The Myers-Briggs Personality Test, used by psychologists today, is based on Jung's typology.

Concerning the doctrine of enantiodromia which both these thinkers adhered to, one problem which comes to mind is that it violates the law of noncontradiction. Take, for example, the pair of opposites "up and down." The law of noncontradiction tells us that the two statements, "up is down," and "up is not down," cannot both be true. But isn't that exactly what Heraclitus and Jung are telling us? Heraclitus says, "Into the same river we step and do not step" (Wheelwright 78). According to Jungian theory, I am a male and I am not a male. I am an introvert and I am not an introvert. These kinds of statements do not fit comfortably into the framework of Aristotelian logic.

In my opinion, the fact that this sort of thinking does not conform to the standards of Aristotelian logic does not bother me very much. I feel that logic is a limited tool. The human condition (and the world) cannot always be explained logically. There seems to be something more to life than simple obedience to the rules of logic.

The findings of quantum physics seem to point to a kind of thinking which transcends what we refer to as rational thought. The discovery that a wave is a particle and a particle is a wave definitely violates the standards of Aristotelian logic. The fact remains, however, that physicists have empirically observed this phenomenon. What are we to make of such riddles, other than to admit that such a transcendence of opposites really does occur?

In my view, we can learn many things from both Jung and Heraclitus, even though they sometimes speak in riddles. The kinds of problems these men dealt with are the classic riddles of human existence. We should not ignore them simply because their statements do not fit into a logical box. We may, at some future date, come to a more thorough understanding of life, which may vindicate the teachings of Jung and Heraclitus. Until then, we should keep an open mind.

Bibliography

Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966.


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(c) copyright 1996 Mark L. Dotson. All rights reserved.