Is depth psychology, as it is being practiced today, a modern extension of Gnosticism? Was Carl Jung himself a Gnostic? Analytical psychology, which is based on Jung’s understanding of the human psyche, is being used worldwide today as a form of self-inquiry and mental healing. The theoretical foundations of analytical psychology closely mirror some of the core principles of Gnosticism. They share an idea that one can have a direct Gnosis or understanding of the nature of the self and spirit outside of belief. If it hadn’t been for Carl Jung’s recognition of the fundamentals of Gnosticism, we might not care today what they thought. So who were the Gnostics and how do they relate to Jung’s exploration of the human mind and modern psychology?
Though no one knows for sure where the early Gnostics originated, they show up in history around the time of Christ. They were writing and teaching in Samaria, Syria, and Alexandria, where some say they were the expression of an older lineage. There are similarities between the Gnostics and the earlier Platonic and Pythagorean schools of thought. Some lived in communes and hermitages at the edge of civilization. Others lived “in” the world yet not fully “of” the world. The Gnostics were a learned people who drew from many sources for their spiritual teachings, including the Jesus story. They, and their followers through the years, were called Gnostics because the core of their teachings was in gnosis—a direct experience of the divine or a direct knowledge of the heart. Two thousand years before Carl Jung and depth psychology, the Gnostics were practicing techniques for consciously connecting to the divine through inner symbolic experiences.
The early Gnostics set themselves apart from other followers of Christ by claiming not simply a belief in Jesus’ message but also a belief that Jesus’ revelatory experience of the divine could be part of every human’s experience. They held a conviction that a direct, personal knowledge of spiritual truths is accessible to all human beings and that the attainment of such awareness is the supreme achievement of human life. Jesus’ story was seen as one such mytho-poetic story, valuable as a guide but not necessarily factual truth.
In dialogues between Gnostics and early Christians, the Gnostics scoffed at the Christians for believing Christ came from a virgin birth, for believing that he was physically resurrected, and for believing that God did not have feminine qualities. For the Gnostics, the resurrection was an inner journey and rediscovery of union. God couldn’t be merely male but would also have developed feminine qualities. The early Christians felt that “those who know,” the Gnostics, were subverting religious authority by saying that God spoke to everyone and by valuing inner experience over outer authority. More conservative faiths still hold this view of the Gnostic views.
The Gnostics also rejected many of the structures of religion and society. They felt that the ethical and moral strictures set down by family, church, society and by political and patriotic allegiances were not conducive to the spiritual health of the human soul. The primary goal of the Gnostics was the transformation of the mind, guided by inner direct Gnosis arising from the soul in the form of archetypal images. The early Christians perceived the Gnostic’s core beliefs as world denying and dangerous.
For holding these views and encouraging their followers to question outer authority, the orthodox, or straight-thinking, Christians labeled the Gnostics heretics. Though the word “heretic” came from a Greek word simply meaning “to choose,” seeing the Gnostics as heretics led to the long contentious legacy of excommunication from the Christian faith. When Constantine became the emperor of Rome early in the fourth century, the Gnostics and the Gnostic teachings were aggressively attacked and driven underground. The heretics, when captured, were murdered and their gospels burned. The few teachings we have today from the Gnostics have been recovered from jars discovered in the deserts of the Middle East, buried at the time of those early persecutions in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Though the early Gnostics were driven underground, they continued; and there have been other esoteric schools through the centuries embodying elements of Gnostic thinking—the Manicheans, Cathars, Alchemists, Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, and Theosophists. Many of these have also been attacked as heretical by the Christians, perhaps none more actively and viciously than the Cathars, who were active in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Southern France and who were persecuted and burned en masse during the Inquisition. Our modern understanding of the Gnostics had been largely written by the dominant religions, the winning side in this ongoing struggle. The Gnostics are still often vilified and discredited as siding with the Devil and being anarchistic.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century, the new field of psychology was making inroads into the inner mental and emotional realms using scientific discipline. These scientific inquiries into the human mind and spirit directly challenged the authority of the religions in these areas. Carl Jung was beginning to drift away from Sigmund Freud’s perspective of the unconscious mind and was beginning to explore ideas about a collective unconscious with spiritual qualities. He had, over time, come to see the psyche as a fertile ground for healing and even spiritual awareness. Jung started to view the human experience as more than a mind and body experience but a larger happening that included a soul requiring special care and development. In a way this larger idea made Jung a kind of mystical priest as well as an empirical scientist. Early on in his explorations, Jung was searching for other traditions that would support his growing understanding. He was aware of the limited research that was available on the early Gnostics and could see the similarities to his own understanding of the mind and spirit.
Starting in 1913 at the age of thirty-eight, Jung began experiencing a very troubling “confrontation with the unconscious.” He started seeing visions and hearing voices in his home. He described his experience as being “menaced by a psychosis” and even wondered if he was having a schizophrenic break. At the same time, with his interest in the unconscious, he knew these psychic experiences were important. So he determined to record his experiences. He conducted an ongoing experiment on his own mind that would last for years. He practiced inducing hallucinations, or, in his words, “active imaginations,” which were a voluntary confrontation with his unconscious.
He wrote and extensively illustrated his experiences in a journal that would later be called the Red Book. Later in his life, Jung had this to say about his Red Book:
“The years… when I pursued the inner images were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.”
His journey into his subconscious had striking parallels to the experiences of direct encounters with the divine that were in the Gnostic literature. Jung had an ongoing interest in Gnosticism from at least 1912, when he wrote enthusiastically about the topic in a letter to Freud. During and after his encounter with the unconscious, he found further support in Gnosticism and also in alchemy, which he saw as a continuation of Gnostic thought, and, of which, more source material was available. In his study of the Gnostics, Jung collaborated with GRS Mead, an influential member of the Theosophical Society and made use of Mead’s writings on Gnosticism.
Jung began to see Gnosticism not as a melting pot of mixed theological doctrines, but as a genuine, ancient visionary tradition that set a precedent for the modern science of analytical psychology, a psychology that wasn’t personal, but transpersonal and perennial. He saw parallels in the Gnostic ideas to his own encounters with the unconscious. Jung began to see his psychology as a counterpart to that of the ancient Gnostics. He understood the importance of Gnostic ideas, not as mere historical background but as complex archetypal ideas mirroring his own psychological understanding.
One of Jung’s associates, Barbara Hannah, quoted Jung as saying, “I felt as if I had at last found a circle of friends who understood me.” It has also been suggested that Jung developed an interest in Schopenhauer because Schopenhauer reminded Jung of the Gnostics with their emphasis on the suffering aspect of the world and the importance of the shadow part of the human journey. At this time in the early twentieth century, there was little information available on the Gnostics, so Jung became engrossed in the study of alchemy. He considered alchemy to be a more recent perennial expression of Gnosticism and a counterpart to dogmatic Christianity. Jung felt that the alchemists practiced an early model of experimental research into matter, which anticipated Jung’s own psychological research using scientific methodology.
One of the most direct signs of the impact of Gnosticism on Jung’s developing understanding is a puzzling piece that he authored called Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, or The Seven Sermons to the Dead. This short piece was composed around 1916 or 1917, at the end of his most intense period of wrestling with his unconscious. The text is written in a cryptic style using the language of early Gnosticism. As author, Jung names himself as Basilides of Alexandria, a major figure in early Gnosticism from the second century.
In the text, Jung references ideas that will later become part of his psychology. He speaks of the soul as “pleroma,” referring to “nothing and everything” which is the foundation of being. Jung identifies “Abraxas” as “God” representing the driving force of individuation, and the “Dead” seems to represent his unconscious. The text seems to show that Jung was thinking like a Gnostic and identifying with Basilides, who was a champion of the difficult questions of the early Gnostics. It is interesting to note that in later years, Jung seemed a little embarrassed about this work; and even after his death, his followers are divided about this piece, wondering whether it was a distraction or a pivotal work. However, with the publication of Jung’s Red Book in 2009, scholars are beginning to see a much larger, meaningful context for The Seven Sermons to the Dead.
It has become easier to see the value of Jung’s inner, creative work with his deep psyche; we appreciate the impact Gnosticism had on his later work. Jung recognized that Gnostic images arise today in the inner experiences of persons in connection with the individuation of their psyche, as they did during his own personal experience. He saw evidence of the fact that the Gnostics were expressing true archetypal images that persist irrespective of time or historical circumstances. He recognized Gnosticism as a primal and original expression of the human mind, directed toward the deepest task of the soul, which is to attain wholeness.
In 1945, a collection of 13 Gnostic texts from the third and fourth centuries were discovered in a jar near the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt. After their discovery, the scrolls were sold on the black market, and one was even burned. A friend and collaborator of Jung, Gilles Quispel, helped to secure one scroll. That scroll was purchased by the Jung Institute and given to Jung in 1953 because of his great interest in the ancient Gnostics. With the help of the institute, the first scroll of the Nag Hammadi collection to be published, now called the Jung Codex, was translated from the Coptic language. This translation brought the attention of the world to this important discovery and provided incentive to recover the remaining collection of texts and get them translated. They have since all been reunited and returned to Egypt. These texts have helped shed more light on the early Gnostics, and many now share Jung’s view in the value of their work.
Stephen Hoeller in his book, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons of the Dead, describes some of the similarities of Gnosticism and Jungian thought. First, there is a spiritual or pneumatic part of the human psyche, which Jungians would call the self. That part of the psyche carries on an active dialogue with the personal element that Jungians call the ego. An ongoing dialogue occurs between these two parts through the use of symbols.
The Gnostics, like today’s analytical psychologists, conduct rituals to facilitate access to these symbols and the instruction and insight that they contain.
These symbols, which are individually meaningful and also have archetypal qualities, have a deeper, collective meaning relevant to everyone. The individual myths of people, such as Jesus, were valuable to the Gnostics as providing symbols or keys to mankind’s collective journey and the structure of the human psyche. Yet the symbols in the story were never revered as literal truth. The truths embodied in these myths are of a different order from the dogmas of theology or the statements of philosophy. The symbols and the whole myths reveal a path of spiritual development toward Gnosis that can be perceived and traced both backwards and forwards, from causes in the past to fulfillment in the future. Gnosis equates to the psychological concept of individuation.
Prior to reaching gnosis, the human soul is dominated by powers and distractions that make up the ego in modern psychology and are called the demiurge to the Gnostics. In this process, the alienation of consciousness, with its dark, shadow side of dread and depression, must be experienced and integrated before it can be transcended. This reflects the importance of a descent and the unification of shadow parts in depth psychology and was also embraced in Gnostic rituals.
The state of unification or wholeness is referred to as pleroma or wholeness to the Gnostics and the self to the psychologists. The self, or wholeness, is made up of the ego and the unconscious and manifests the qualities that religious systems attribute to God, such as power, value, and holiness. This integrated wholeness is the goal of the soul rather than a state of moral perfection. Thus, goodness and the following of moral guidelines is no substitute for wholeness of the self found through direct inner guidance, especially if the morality is a system of rules which are thought to serve the demiurge, or the ego. On the other hand, a different order of morality can arise from the illumination of the spark of wholeness and serve as a guide. Gnosis is an experience based not in concepts of the mind or ego but in the sensibility of the heart. Gnosticism is a world-view based on that understanding.
Since Jung’s death, and even more now with the publication of his Red Book, there has been debate about whether Jung himself was a true Gnostic. Giles Quispel stated that, “Jung was not a Gnostic in the usual sense of the term.” He did not follow a structured faith, even though in a video interview Jung clearly indicated he had faith. Stephan Hoeller points out that there likely was never one single Gnostic in the usual sense, since it has always been highly individualized groups of thinkers. Jung clearly relied on his own inner confrontation with his unconscious to provide fertile insight into his psychological theory and faith. Also, when asked in an interview near his death, “Do you believe in God?” he replied, “That’s difficult to answer… I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.” Which seems to make him a Gnostic.
Patrick Marsolek is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.