“The earth has a soul: Carl Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life”: a book review

[Note de l’auteur : j’ai publié ce texte en anglais dans le cadre d’un club de livres que j’ai joint récemment (sous la suggestion de l’amie Debbie Rouleau). Il s’agit d’une critique personnelle du livre « The earth has a soul: C. G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life ». Cet ouvrage, publié en 2002 chez North Atlantic Books, présente des extraits des ouvrages, lettres et séminaires du Carl Jung (1875-1961), tous liés à ses diverses réflexions sur la nature et la technologie.]

“The earth has a soul: C. G. Jung on Nature, Technology & Modern Life” presents excerpts from Carl Jung’s (1875-1961) books, letters, and seminars, all related to his various thoughts on nature and technology.

Let me preface the reflections that follow by saying that, a) I’m a big fan of Freudian psychoanalysis (especially the core tenet that “unconscious material can be found in dreams”) and b) the impact of technology on society has been one of my favorite topics over the last three years. I also have very limited exposure to Jung’s writings. Because of that, I was looking forward to reading this book. Maybe because my expectations were high, I ended up being disappointed with it. Let me first share what bothered me and we’ll get into insights in the second part of the review.

The lows:

I think one of the main problems with the book is that these excerpts don’t tell a completely cohesive story. There’s a lot of repetition, it sometimes feels disjointed and because of that, now and then, you get the impression Jung is ranting. For that, I don’t blame Jung, I fault the editor. I would much have preferred a book that analyzed Jung’s thoughts, provided context to the reader, instead of extracts from his work. For example, Scientism (“the promotion of science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values”) was a very prevalent school of thought in the late 1800s, early 1900s, in the zeitgeist when Jung was coming of age. After the invention of the atomic bomb and its use in Japan in 1945, no wonder he feels disillusioned about science. The introduction (p. 11) quotes him as saying “The more successful we become in science and technology, the more diabolical are the uses to which we put our inventions and discoveries”.

Jung’s interpretation of Nature sometimes veers into a religious fervor. In the introduction (p. 3), the editor writes “At times, Jung capitalized the word nature, as if to convey his respect for it as a divinity”. As an atheist, this reasoning turned me off. But then, he also equated Nature with instinct and won me back (see insights section below). This to-and-fro movement reminded me of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza viewed God and Nature as two names for the same reality. By the way, I had the same reaction reading Spinoza’s writings.

His cynicism about politics (p. 167): “I am uninterested in politics because I am convinced that 99 percent of politics are mere symptoms and anything but a cure for social evils. About 50 percent of politics is definitely obnoxious inasmuch as it poisons the utterly incompetent mind of the masses”. As a believer in democracy and politics, I was reminded of Winston Churchill’s quote from 1947: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

His call for individualism (p. 167): “There is only one remedy for the leveling effect of all collective measures, and that is to emphasize and increase the value of the individual.”. As a believer in social democracy and making sure no one gets left behind, I don’t think focusing society even more on the individual would lead to a more humane world.

Finally, the two sections portraying Jung’s travels in New Mexico and Africa (pages 42-62) were sometimes new-agey and made me cringe. I don’t think they added much to the book and felt dated.

The highs:

The book is not without its share of powerful insights. In my personal opinion, here are those that are key and memorable.

On instinct:

This is one of my main takeaways from the book. The editor summarizes it well (p.195) “our evolutionary task is not to return to Nature regressively, but to retain the level of consciousness we have attained and then enrich it with experience of this primordial foundation upon which it rests. »

As a technology entrepreneur, you’re often told that every decision needs to be data-driven, but I believe it leaves out the instinctual, the intuitive and the human side of the business. Professor Henry Mintzberg from McGill University in Montreal, Canada “believes that business schools, management programs, and business leaders are too obsessed with numbers, data, and making the process of management a science (vs. an art). As a proponent of action learning and making decisions based on insights acquired from one’s own challenges and experience, Mintzberg believes there is value business leaders also making intuitive-inspired decisions”

Jung writes (p. 15) that “civilized man … is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct”. We need to understand our instinctual base. He adds (p. 14) that “no man lives within his own psychic sphere like a snail in its shell, separated from everybody else, but is connected with his fellow-men by his unconscious humanity” and that “instinct is nature and seeks to perpetuate nature, whereas consciousness can only seek culture or its denial.”(p. 73)

But, at times, I felt frustrated by the lack of description of what those core instincts are. He writes (p.73) “age-old convictions and customs are always deeply rooted in the instincts”, but provides no further instructions. On page 174, he adds: “we need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. (…) We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all coming evil”. He also talks about archetypes (p. 198) as being “the hidden foundations of the conscious mind”, but he doesn’t share what those archetypes are! I wanted to yell: “you’re Carl Jung, you’ve probably treated thousands of patients in your lifetime. Please share with us the common elements of instinct and psyche, and archetypes you’ve seen in your career.” I would have loved to read about that.

On technology’s impacts:

Jung makes a case to better understand the impacts of technology. As someone who has been working in machine learning and artificial intelligence, I’m well aware of this and it is an important message. On page 153, he writes “Considered on its own merits, as a legitimate human activity, technology is neither good nor bad, neither harmful nor harmless. Whether it be used for good or ill depends entirely on man’s own attitude, which in turn depends on technology.”

He also recommends that we use philosophy as a tool to help us (p. 153): “In my practice I have observed how engineers, in particular, very often developed philosophical interests, and this is an uncommonly sound reaction and mode of compensation. For this reason I have always recommended the institution of Humanistic Faculties at the Federal Polytechnic, to remind students that at least such things exist, so that they can come back to them if ever they should feel a need for them in later life.” British philosopher Keith Frankish agrees and recently tweeted that “we’re on the verge of a golden age of philosophy (…) philosophy is what you do to a problem until it’s clear enough to solve it by doing science. More generally, we might say that it’s thinking about things we’re not sure how to think about — trying to establish a theoretical framework within which we can work. Now, there is a very important subject which we’re not yet sure how to think about but which we shall have to think about urgently in the coming decades. It’s artificial intelligence.”

Jung is quite critical of noise and explains why (p. 159): “The dark side of the picture is that we wouldn’t have noise if we didn’t secretly want it. (…) If there were silence, their fear would make people reflect, and there’s no knowing what might then come to consciousness”. He adds (p.160) that “modern noise is an integral component of modern civilization which is predominantly extroverted and abhors all inwardness”. Given that we’re now generating an extreme amount of data and content using our technological tools, what I would call modern noise, we’re at the point where we can’t make sense of the signal anymore. Even though we’re now feeling overwhelmed, I liked this analysis that, in fact, maybe we’re happy that we’re surrounded by all this noise.

Finally, and rightly so, Jung further criticizes time-saving technology and writes (p. 139) that they “do not, paradoxically enough, save us time but merely cram our time so full that we don’t have time for anything”. If you want to explore this concept of “lack of time” in modern society, I strongly recommend reading Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration.

On reconnecting to the environment, to nature. 

Jung might help to explain why many people don’t understand the negative impacts of the climate and natural crisis facing the earth, maybe the biggest challenge of our generation. The book first tells us (p. 79) that “Jung believed the loss of emotional participation in Nature has resulted in a sense of cosmic and social isolation.” Then, Jung warns us about feeling superior to nature (p. 126): “Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to nature around him and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature will destroy him.” He adds (p. 12) that “the idea that man alone possesses the primacy of reason is antiquated twaddle. I have even found that men are far more irrational than animals”. On a side note, I think we can blame famous philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) for this as he “denied that animals had reason or intelligence.”

He finally tells us (p. 207) that “trees cannot be without animals, nor animals without plants, and perhaps animals cannot be without man, and man cannot be without animals and plants—and so on. The whole thing is one tissue and so no wonder that all the parts function together, as the cells in our bodies function together, because they are of the same living continuum”

While reading the book, Jung’s thoughts about nature and animals reminded me of the beautiful Hayao Miyazaki movie “Princess Mononoke” where « supernatural forces of destruction are unleashed by humans greedily consuming natural resources ». It also made me wonder if Japanese culture is closer to nature than the North American one.

On the importance of dreams:

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned I was an advocate of using dreams to better understand ourselves. “The dream is a hidden door to the innermost recesses of the soul” writes Jung (p. 18) but he cautions us about following them literally (p. 19). Jung posits (p. 80) that the enormous loss of connection with nature is compensated by the symbols of our dreams. On page 76, he says “we always forget that our consciousness is only a surface, our consciousness is the avant-garde of our psychological existence. Our head is only one end, but behind our consciousness is a long historical ‘tail’ of hesitations and weaknesses and complexes and prejudices and inheritances”.  Finally, he suggests (p. 188) that using dreams might help to better understand ourselves: “your dreams are an expression of your inner life”.

On the importance of history:

I like to return to history to try to make sense of our present time, but it’s not a tool that I see used very often. Jung seems to agree and writes (p. 71) that “consciousness today has grown enormously in breadth and extent, but unfortunately only in the spatial dimension and not in the temporal, otherwise we should have a much more living sense of history”.

On the popularity of fantasy fiction:

Talking about one of the consequences of our disconnection with nature, Carl Jung writes (p. 80) about fantastic creatures: “Nowadays, talking of ghosts and other numinous figures is no longer the same as conjuring them up. We have ceased to believe in magical formulas; … ; and our world seems to be disinfected of all such superstitious numina as witches, warlocks, and worricows, to say nothing of werewolves, vampires, bush-souls, and all the other bizarre beings that populated the primeval forest.” If you follow the book publishing industry, you’re probably aware that “sales in the genres of science fiction and fantasy have doubled since 2010”. Maybe Jung’s theory explains our current collective appetite for this genre.