Mysterium Coniunctionis, Alchemical Psychology, and Self-Development
“The alchemical operation consisted essentially in separating the prima materia, the so-called chaos, into the active principle, the soul, and the passive principle, the body, which were then reunited in personified form in the coniunctio or ‘chymical marriage’… the ritual cohabitation of Sol and Luna.” -Carl Jung, ‘Mysterum Coniunctionis’
The history of science in the West is inextricably linked with the development of alchemy. This is also true for the Islamic world, for even the word ‘alchemy’ itself comes from Arabic. Modern chemistry emerged from alchemy as did certain elements of psychology. Alchemy reigned supreme in a world before the separation of the value spheres brought about by the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This separation (heavily accentuated by both scientific developments and scholarship in the nineteenth century) has obscured these foundations for quite some time. That Isaac Newton was an alchemist has been known to scholars for some time. Economist John Maynard Keynes had this to say about Newton in the 1940s:
“ He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.”
With the separation of the value spheres and the rise of empiricism, alchemy went into decline. Chemistry separated from it over the course of the eighteenth century. Interest in alchemy did reemerge, however, but only in the twentieth century. Psychologist Carl Jung was drawn to the imagery present in alchemical texts (which he also collected) and saw similarities between these and reports of what patients claim to have encountered in their dreams. Jung’s interest in exploring the symbolism present in alchemy led to a reassessment. Alchemy was not merely a primitive attempt at chemistry, nor a hocus pocus quest for immortality and riches. The quest of the modern reader of alchemical texts is to do so from a holistic perspective — a reintegration of the value spheres and a deep analysis of what is actually being sought after. One can assume, though one does not necessarily have to, that the alchmeists of old were searching for something, something they understood at a deep level but were not exactly able to articulate fully. Yes, this quest was not exactly parsed out from what we today would recognize as scientific inquiry because this was the world before popularizing the scientific method allowed for a clear, though limited, understanding of particular elements and phenomena in the world.
“Jung said that science is nested in a dream. The dream is that if we investigated the structures of material reality with sufficient attention and truth, that we could then learn enough about material reality to then alleviate suffering: To produce the philosopher’s stone — to make everybody wealthy, to make everybody healthy, to make everyone live as long as they wanted to live or perhaps forever. That’s the goal — to alleviate the catastrophe of existence. The idea that the solutions to the mysteries of life that enable us to develop such a substance, or multitude of substances, provided the motive force for the development of science. Jung traced that development of the motive force to over the period of 1,000 years. Jung went back into alchemical texts and interpreted them as if they were the dream upon which science was founded. Newton was an alchemist, by the way. Science did emerge of out alchemy. The question is, what were the alchemists up to? They were trying to produce the philosopher’s stone, which was the universal medicament for mankind’s pathology.” -Jordan Peterson
This analysis will focus on the works of Carl Jung, Jean Piaget, and Jordan Peterson. Additionally, it will be practically-oriented. The point of studying alchemical psychology is not to be able to articulate obscure theories or satisfy academics — modern theologians, in many respects. No, the point will be to focus where the rubber meets the road, so to speak — to focus on abstract ideas as they relate to human behavior and motivations. Alchemy gave birth to modern science and it has much to offer with regard to a psychological understanding of the human condition. Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning (1999) unites Jungian psychology with Piagetian developmental psychology in a daring attempt to explain the human condition and the heroic path, mediating between the forces of order and chaos.
In Mysterium Coniunctionis, Carl Jung uses the symbolism of unions between male and female to highlight the dynamic transformations which occur in several conjunctions (understood as the transformation of the individual from a lesser to a higher state). This focus on the union of opposites goes back centuries in alchemy.
“That which is below is like that which is above and that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”
-from the Emerald Tablet (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, though likely from a 6th-8th century Arabic writer)
The above comes from a cryptic piece of Hermetica (wisdom texts associated with the teachings of the primordial teacher Hermes Trismegistus) which was translated into English in the seventeenth century by Isaac Newton. The text goes on to employ the imagery of sun and moon as father and mother. In alchemy, the sun symbolizes sulfur and the moon mercury.
MAGNUM OPUS, PRIMA MATERIA, AND TRANSMUTATION
Ask anyone with a smattering of knowledge about alchemy what the purpose is and they will likely tell you about the quest to turn base metals into gold or seek immortality. With the rise in popularity of Harry Potter, they may mention the ‘sorcerer’s stone’ or Nicholas Flamel (a fifteenth-century Parisian who became relatively wealthy and was believed to have prolonged his life substantially). There is some truth to this (though, Flamel died in his 70s in 1418 and legends of his survival do not appear until the seventeenth century). His biographer (in 1994) Laurinda Dixon wrote “ Flamel was a real person, and he may have dabbled in alchemy, but his reputation as an author and immortal adept must be accepted as an invention of the seventeenth century.”
Magnum opus, or great work, has special significance when it comes to alchemy. The ‘great work’ of alchemy refers to the process of making the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone refers to a legendary substance capable of turning base metals into gold as well as being able to prolong life and allow people to become immortal. The prima materia, first matter, is essential that which is necessary to create the philosopher’s stone. Identifying what the prima materia is is not quite clear, as it has been associated with many concepts. Perhaps the clearest way to explain it is to associate it with ether or chaos. For the sake of an alchemical psychological analysis, let’s us proceed with an understanding of prima materia as a kind of chaos but with an understanding that it has been linked to the following in the seventeenth century: microcosms, poison, moon, serpent, dragon, and Mercury.
MERCURY, MERCURIUS, HERMES, HERMES TRISMEGISTUS
Hermes Trismegistus was proportedly a primodrial teacher, an ancient sage and contemporary of Moses. He was believed to have been the author of a series of texts known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Trismegistus means ‘thrice-greatest.’ Hermes Trismegistus is associated with a wisdom tradition which has been dated to the first centuries CE (and, thus, not in the time of Moses) and with Greek-based syncretism in Egypt in Late Antiquity. Hermes Trismegistus is associated with both the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. In alchemy, Hermes or Merucry (Mercurius) is associated with the moon and with that which draws one’s attention.
PIAGET, PSYCHOLOGY, and SELF-DEVELOPMENT
“Knowing reality means constructing systems of transformations that correspond, more or less adequately, to reality. They are more or less isomorphic to transformations of reality. The transformational structures of which knowledge consists are not copies of the transformations in reality; they are simply possible isomorphic models among which experience can enable us to choose. Knowledge, then, is a system of transformations that become progressively adequate.” -Jean Piaget, ‘Genetic Epistemology (1968)
Jean Piaget was a development psychologist who established a model with stages of development. One of his goals was the reconciliation of science and religion. His theory of cognitive development centered on childhood, the mistakes children of different ages make while trying to solve problems, and how they played games.
“Knowledge does not begin in the I, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions….then there is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand and the object on the other.” -Jean Piaget, as quoted by Jordan Peterson in ‘Maps of Meaning’ (p.409)
Piaget analyzed the development of morality from prosocial behavior to the understanding of more abstract ideas. Jordan Peterson outlines a development of morality, based on the ideas of Piaget and Jung (among others) in his Maps of Meaning and lecture material online. From a bottom-up analysis this begins with prosocial behavior. From this, we get symbolic representations of what prosocial behavior might look like. Then we get articulated systems of religious propositions and, finally, philosophy. One of the points of this analysis is that understanding comes before articulation. Peterson uses the example of children playing a game of tag. The children understand how to play the game but each child will give a slightly different explanation of the rules of the game when asked what they are. The understanding of prosocial behavior is, thus far more ingrained and important than the approximate abstract articulation.
A NOTE ON THOMAS KUHN AND PARADIGM SHIFT
Jordan Peterson traces moral developments before the advent of complex articulated mythological or scientific systems. He notes the impact of Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift in the history of science. Kuhn’s idea is that old scientific ideas become subsets of new scientific conceptions, generally speaking, rather than simply being pushed aside as outmoded and primitive (historiographically speaking, the old way of thinking of scientific advance has been referred to as a triumphalist history of scientific ideas). Newtonian physics, for example, has become a subset of Einsteinian physics. Moreover, old scientific theories often yield important information derived from bottom-up (experience-centric) processes and the reasons why they are wrong or problematic should not be cast aside as mere ignorance.
“To my complete surprise, that exposure to out-of-date scientific theory and practice radically undermined some of my basic conceptions about the nature of science and the reasons for its special success.
Those conceptions were ones I had previously drawn partly from scientific training itself and partly from a long-standing avocational interest in the philosophy of science. Somehow, whatever their pedagogic utility and their abstract plausibility, those notions did not at all fit the enterprise that historical study displayed. Yet they were and are fundamental to many discussions of science, and their failures of verisimilitude therefore seemed thoroughly worth pursuing. The result was a drastic shift in my career plans, a shift from physics to history of science and then, gradually, from relatively straightforward historical problems back to the more philosophical concerns that had initially led me to history.”
-Thomas Kuhn ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962)
Thomas Kuhn influenced countless numbers of people with his ideas. Those influenced by him include Jean Piaget and Jordan Peterson. Quoting Carl Jung, Peterson states:
“What happens to the (paradigmatic) representational structure in someone’s mind (in the human psyche, in human society) when anomalous information, of revolutionary import, is finally accepted as valid?” — and then answered it (my summary): “What happens has a pattern; the pattern has a biological, even genetic, basis, which finds its representation in fantasy; such fantasy provides subject material for myth and religion. The propositions of myth and religion, in turn, help guide and stabilize revolutionary human adaptations.” -from ‘Maps of Meaning’ (p.405)
MYSTERIUM CONIUNCTIONIS AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SELF — THE ULTIMATE ‘CLEAN YOUR ROOM’
In Mysterium Coniunctionis, Carl Jung brought together his various streams of interest. This was his last major work and extended the work of Jean Piaget in terms of analyzing moral development in the individual. He did this by delineating a symbolic series of unions between male and female elements. This was an extension of his interests in both psychology and alchemy. The male is representative of the ‘known’ and the female the ‘unknown.’ In a relatively recent video, Jordan Peterson outlines the three conjunctions.
First Conjunction: mind (male) and emotion (female) — the purpose here is to integrate one’s rationality and passions.
Second Conjunction: united rational and emotional identity (male) and the way one acts (female) — emphasis on stopping performative contradictions and acting out what one says one will do, full embodiment in the world
Third Conjunction: The united self (male) and the world itself (female) — essentially a pantheistic and holistic perspective, viewing one’s self as inseparable from the world.
Jordan Peterson focuses in Maps of Meaning on the relation between order and chaos and between the explored (masculine) and unexplored (feminine). His work is an extension, in many respects, of that of Carl Jung. The transformation of the individual in this process is associated with the alchemical attempts at transformations of the metals into gold. In his analysis of alchemy, Jordan Peterson spends a great deal of time delineating alchemical outlooks, comparing and contrasting them with modern scientific ones. One of the points he hits on is that the alchemical procedural was historically evaluative.
“Phenomena that emerge in the course of goal-directed behavior are classified as most fundamentally with regard to their relevance, or irrelevance, to that end…Since our behavior is motivated — since it serves to regulate our emotions — it is very difficult to construct a classification system whose elements are devoid of evaluative significance. It is only since the emergence of strict empirical methodology that such construction has been made possible. This means that pre-experimental systems of classification such as those employed in the alchemical procedure include evaluative appraisal, even when they consist of terms such as “matter” or “gold” that appear familiar to us.” -Jordan Peterson ‘Maps of Meaning’ (p.408)
For Jordan Peterson, the force which moves between order and chaos is the hero, mythologically speaking. The archetypical hero is that person with one foot in order and one in chaos. Order provides context/tradition and stability (represented by the ‘Wise King’) but could become corrupt and is blind (represented by the ‘Tyrannical King’). In chaos can be found useful tools to help the hero extend explored territory (the descent into the underworld and heroic journey).
“Alchemical matter was the “Stuff” of which experience was made — and more: the stuff of which the experiencing creature was made. This “primal element” was something much more akin to “information” in the modern sense.” -Jordan Peterson ‘Maps of Meaning’ (p.408)
Jordan Peterson is famous, in part, for telling people to ‘clean their rooms.’ What he is emphasizing here is getting people to orient themselves properly in the world by expanding their domain of competence at a modest level. Everyone likely has a room or some space that they can make a little bit better than it is at present. This is the beginning of a kind of character development, based in the Jungian conjunctions, which lead the individual to a fulfilling existence through getting as close to the archetypes as possible.