Jung pointed out that just as the human body has an anatomical prehistory of millions of years, so does the psyche; and both body and psyche still display “numerous vestiges of earlier evolutionary stages going back even to the reptilian age.” For most of our life as a species we live in an unconscious state, from which a conscious ego slowly rises. With his concept of participation mystique, Lévy-Brühl has helped clarify that prior to the formation of the ego humanity lives in an original, purely animal state of non-differentiation (or total oneness with nature and the group). People don’t yet think of themselves as subjects nor as distinguishable from other persons or objects around them.
The impact of consciousness
But with the awakening of consciousness, when moving on to assume an ego and identify a personality with it, humanity encounters for the first time the possibility of a self-orienting consciousness. As the conscious human mind--symbolized by the ‘ego’--pushes its way out of the unconscious and up to a place in the limelight, a new and potentially most powerful actor has entered the world theatre. One that‘s ready at last to take on an equal partnership with the other lead player in the human drama, the unconscious human instinct--symbolized by the ‘id,’ the Freudian term for the source of psychic energy that’s derived from instinctual needs and drives.
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould calls consciousness the greatest invention in the history of life, because it allows life to become aware of itself. By enabling us to see things objectively and in pairs of opposites, it adds an entirely new dimension to human existence. From a non-conceptual and essentially childlike way of perceiving the world, we now turn to an adult and highly discerning view--one that includes the ominous realization that we possess personal power.
Being the culmination of eons of mental development (though it may have emerged suddenly), consciousness marks our coming of age as a species. If up to this moment things have just happened to us and we’ve been more or less powerless pawns on the chessboard of an inscrutable destiny, we now rise in rank and become co-creators with evolution. Because how we evolve as a species no longer depends merely on the mutation of genes or natural selection but also on culture, i.e., on our own inventions. We have, in a sense, acquired the power of gods.
This is the point of no return.
Mumford puts it this way in his book The Transformation of Man, ”By means of his culture (man) wrought changes in himself within a few thousand years that nature would have needed millions of years to accomplish by the tedious process of organic evolution.”
The arrival of consciousness doesn’t mean that we couldn’t think during earlier non-conscious stages. We both felt, thought, made decisions, solved problems, even made art. But rather than products of individual minds, these skills emanated from a deeper psychic level that existed in us long before the formation of the ego. What’s new at this stage is only being able to say, “I’m conscious of doing all this. I know I’m a feeling, thinking, willing individual who chooses how to behave.”
Jung calls that lower pre-conscious level the ‘collective unconscious.’ By it he means a substratum that’s inborn and identical in all people and consists of archetypes (or images and patterns derived from common human experiences) that come up in the mind automatically and determine behavior independently of the individual’s own experience.
According to Neumann the development of culture depends on the capacity of the conscious mind to absorb more and more of the unconscious. Early man, who lacks a self-conscious ego capable of reflecting, only perceives an unconscious content in the form of symbols. Being spontaneous expressions of the unconscious, symbols are elusive and have manifold meanings. But because myth is the language of symbol, Jung sees in it the original language of mankind and the unconscious, the natural way for the collective unconscious to communicate with consciousness.
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