“Man and His Symbols” in 2017: A Current Overview

“Man and His Symbols” in 2017: A Current Overview

Synopsis written by Shane Eynon Ph.D

Publisher: Dell

Original publication date:1964


The key features that one requires in orientating themselves to this particular book is the unique ways that it came to be written. It is a book that stands apart in many respects from the rest of the published works of Carl Gustav Jung. The principle aims of “Man and His Symbols” was to aid the general public in understanding Jung’s work and ideas. It is also the last book worked on during Jung’s lifetime and in collaboration with his closest associates in the world of Analytical Psychology.

In some respects, this book is Jung’s parting words to the world he was soon to leave behind. He clearly desired for the wider world to understand his unique vision of the human psyche after decades of labor to uncover what he saw as the greatest mystery left to our understanding of ourselves: the depths of the unconscious. Being richly illustrated with examples of human symbolism across time and cultures, this text is a unique treasure for readers as it instructs with both word and image.

We are introduced to this text by Jonathan Freeman who had interviewed Jung for the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1959. Freeman was clearly deeply affected by his time with Jung in Zurich. He was so impacted in fact that he worked very hard to convince Jung to write a book for a general audience. Jung was reluctant and even declined to take on the task when initially asked.

However, Freeman and many others were convinced that Jung’s vision of psychology was both obscured by the dominance of Freud’s model and at the same time they felt Analytical Psychology stood as an equally brilliant model of psychology with very different implications. In the end, Jung and his collaborators state that, as was typical for Jung, he only took on the project because he had a dream that confirmed he should write this book.

It should be noted as well that the first chapter of “Man and His Symbols” was written in English by Jung himself. This is one of the very few times that Jung wrote in the English language. The effort Jung took to write in English must have been a challenge at his age of 84. During his last years, he edited each of his collaborator’s work and approved of the content. Therefore, the book is more easily read as a collection of five essays in Analytical Psychology. Before the book was put to press, Marie Louis Von Franz would finish with the last tasks of polishing and editing as Jung had died in 1961, a few years final publication.

Part 1: by C.G. Jung

Jung starts his particular essay with the distinction between signs and symbols. The symbol for Jung is the primary method of communication for the unconscious, and indeed for the entire psyche (e.g., verbal and written language, images, art, etc.…). While signs are directly tied to a specific idea or object, the symbol may have multiple levels of meaning. For example, the logo for a company is sign. It is directly related to the company and a product. A symbol always implies something broader that the obvious and direct meaning.

Due to the limitations of the human intellect in deciphering the vast amounts of complex data encountered in daily life, human understanding must create a method of capturing and simplifying conceptual information to stand-in as a short-hand way of grasping complicated concepts. The symbol is the primary method the mind uses to accomplish this task of understanding anything that she or he can never hope to fully perceive or completely comprehend.

For Jung, the primary obstacle for the psyche is self-understanding of itself. What occurs in outer reality must be translated into an inner experience through our perceptual channels. Once within the mind, an innumerable multitude of factors cannot be grasped by the mind about the outer world it navigates. Much of what a person encounters in daily life remains below the threshold of consciousness due to the limitations of consciousness itself. These factors become subliminal and develop part of the unconscious psyche.

The implication of the actual reality of an unconscious is now taken on by Jung in his essay. The unconscious for Jung is self-evident and has implications for psychology, that as a field, many have rejected (i.e., behaviorism). In essence, humans contain within themselves two personalities. Dreams (specifically the ability to report dreams) are the primary way to access the unconscious of human beings. Modern Euro-centric civilization has caused a divide or dissociation between the conscious and unconscious that simply does not exist in other cultures outside of “western” civilization and societies because of its overreliance on the rational one-sidedness of ego-consciousness. Jung directly links the unconscious with the concept of the soul (i.e., psyche) which has existed across millennia and vastly disparate cultures.

Jung then describes in great detail how he developed methods of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (he called his school of psychology Analytical Psychology) that would build on Freud’s original procedures, but differed in significant ways from Freudian psychoanalysis. His first departure is in the use of free-association as used by Freud. Jung found that free-association as used by Freud tended lead away from dream material. Jung found greater success in amplifying the associations to the dream material itself. While free association would lead a patient into a direct exposure of the underlying complexes of the unconscious, Jung came to believe the symbolic contents of the dream itself to be of greater value and that complexes can be more easily uncovered through other methods such as word-association tests. This process led Jung to conclude that the specific images in dreams have a much greater salience to the entire personality of the individual within the context of a given problem the patient encounters. Using this method of pushing the analyzed person to relate and associate to the symbolic images of the dream, Jung found that the unconscious was conveying critical information through symbolism to help the entire psyche reach a balance or equilibrium which the conscious attitude (in its one-sidedness) clearly has repressed or rejected. Therefore, the dream symbol has the capacity to reveal certain truths about the psyche of a person and offers a bridge toward a form of psychic homeostatic wholeness.

Over time the specificity of dream images and motifs became of greater importance to Jung. Why does the unconscious utilize a specific image over another equally plausible image that could convey a similar allegorical meaning to the conscious mind? The specific image and symbol had a particular resonance within an individual’s psyche and also to a collective level of meaning. When combining the individual’s psychological context and type within a culture and then comparing a symbol’s meaning over time and across cultures, the unconscious symbolic language of any particular dreamer was highly specific to him or her, while continuing to rest on a bed of highly shared psychic material across all humans. This Jung would term the collective unconscious. The bedrock layer of humanity’s shared psychic inheritance all expressed by the unconscious through symbolic images.

The actual treatment techniques employed by Jung held in the background a general schema of psychodynamics and a general hypothesis of the structure of the psyche while simultaneously Jung treated each patient and a unique person who required a unique approach to psychotherapy. In Jung, there was no therapeutic dogma in the employment of procedure save one; the dream and specifically the dream symbol. This is the central logic for Jung’s insistence on understanding and being well acquainted with the breadth of the world’s symbols and myths from across time and culture.

The conclusion that Jung reached was that the unconscious, whatever it actually is in terms of the totality of the psyche, is not simply the repository of all dissociated, discarded, and repressed material that the ego found repugnant or traumatic, but it was also an inherited accumulation of all of our shared experiences across the eons of evolution that as a part of the total psyche, acted to aid in the balancing of the total person. While the unconscious is by definition non-conscious, it appeared to Jung through the analysis of thousands of dreams to have an awareness of an individual’s life and also a meaning and purpose for that individual toward which it was helping the ego grow. The unconscious had a ‘vote’ so to speak in the direction of a person’s life that often came into conflict with the will of the ego. Jung would find that as a person began to unlock the symbolic language of his or her unconscious, a confrontation would naturally unfold. Out of this confrontation, the individual’s ego and the unconscious could relate in a novel way and the process he termed individuation would unfold. The result of this process was a lessening of psychological conflict and therefore psychological symptoms. In doing this, the dream itself acts to compensate for each individual ego’s conscious attitude.

Jung ends his essay by clearly making the point that modern civilization hangs by a precarious thread. He has found over the course of his long career that what we call the psyche, including especially the unconscious, is what has always been called the soul in past epochs; before the assent and supremacy of the rational ego and the disintegration or repression of the instincts and the spiritual. He goes so far to say that individual psychological suffering is merely a reflection of the collective dissociation and neurosis of modern life itself. Jung’s cure for this split laying deep within a state of deep meaninglessness and alienation for those in the modern world is to find a personal symbol, myth, and meaning for the individual life that brings the total psyche a sense of purpose and coherence to the cosmos.

Part 2: Ancient Myth and Modern Man by Joseph L. Henderson

Jung’s life-work, according to Joseph Henderson, had the ability to shatter the illusion that modern man and the myths and symbols of past cultures are somehow separated. That symbols and myths are somehow irrelevant to our current society and epoch. While the conscious ego as educated by the modern world has definitely lost the meaning of ancient symbols and myths, the unconscious acts as a repository of symbolic meaning that has not required learning. This unconscious symbol making capacity and knowledge is in fact an inherited legacy of the human mind. Many of the greatest collective activities of life and celebration, such as Easter, Christmas, or Halloween (i.e., or Americans) are ripe with unconscious symbolic content that we rarely recognize intellectually within the ego. For eons of human existence our collective ancestors have symbolically represented the many great turnings of life. This symbolic heritage can be found even still in the Christmas Tree, the Easter Egg, and the Halloween Jack O’Lantern to list just a few.

These themes, symbols, and motifs are all a psychic mechanism of a collective repository of our shared evolution as a species and have grown around shared and repeated exposure to dilemmas and challenges to human experience. This repeating pattern of experience is expressed in the psyche as an archetype. The term archetype is used to denote a specific and repeating motif of human life that is expressed (or triggered) within the psyche either symbolically through images, patterns of behavior, mythical stories, or even stereotypical affective patterns often triggered by developmental challenges or specific stimuli in the environment. The “archetype” in the Jungian sense is not the resulting specific motif or representation, but rather the ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ or psychic “organs” that typify patterns of mental representations to capture an inherited experience of human life. In other words, we are endowed at birth with an innate sense of what experiences are likely to occur during a life time on Earth as a human and are ‘preprogrammed’ through the psyche to respond in a typical human fashion. This is a controversial topic for some thinkers in psychology, but the reality of this phenomenon exists across many species on the planet.

Henderson goes on to list for us representations of the most common archetypal motifs and patterns we experience in life:

  1. The Hero
  2. The Trickster
  3. The Shadow
  4. The initiation
  5. Transcendence

He gives us an example of how myths and the symbolic motifs of fairytales such as Beauty and the Beast help actual people in analysis to better integrate the archetypal patterns that emerge in dreams. The integration, compromise, and bridging the conscious attitude, or will, with the archetypal insistence of the unconscious helps those in analysis to overcome psychological difficulties and achieve fuller and richer lives with more wholeness.

Part 3: Individuation by M.L. von Franz

Dreams are the central key in understanding the overall pattern of psychic growth over the lifetime of an individual. The life of a dream when studied over time and across a great many people point toward a discernible pattern. Jung called this developmental process of the dreamer’s inner world “individuation”. This process is not under the control of the ego’s will. Rather, a core of the unconscious that acts as a unifying center, which Jung called the Self, was the guiding force behind psychic development and individuation. This core of the psyche has gone by many names across times and cultures, but almost all cultures had a term for this core of the psyche. In some modern dreamers, the tree may be the symbolic representation. In other cultures, it can be certain spiritual animal. But, all cultures intuitively recognize an inner center that dreams play a central role in the communication with this inner core. This inner core, the Self, is not the ego. The ego seems to have a function of bringing light and fulfilment of the capacities of the inner Self and to act as a bridge with the outer world. The ego has the capacity to make real what the psyche imagines.

Moreover, the study of vast amounts of dream material has convinced Jungians that the Self has a purpose or destiny for each human life. Human maturation and fulfilment is predicated on the ego’s ability to ascertain and integrate this purpose and meaning for our individual life, as directed by the Self (not society, ego, or family, etc.…).

M.L. von Franz clearly makes the case that individuation is not a process that occurs in early life, but rather in mid-life or whenever an adult ego becomes challenged in such a way that the personality is wounded and the ego is unable to meet the challenge presented. The ego has developed through early life and meets with an obstacle and thus requires a turn inward to continue the maturation process. Else, the individual continues in an almost endless projection of the cause of trouble on the outer world (God, a boss, society, etc..). Most of the advice given by helpful friends and family fail to the crisis. This is due to the fact that the problem lies in the within the person and conscious attitude one has taken toward life.

In order to reach a relationship and integration of the Self for the individuation process, typically a person must face, reconcile, and assimilate two central components of the personal unconscious. The first is the Shadow. This is the part of the unconscious that holds all of the split-off parts of the personality, shameful behaviors of the past, attitudes, and instincts the ego rejects and attempts to dissociate. The second is the personal Anima or Animus (the contra-sexual aspect of the individual’s personality). These are parts of the personality that do not fit with the ego’s conformity with gender roles in a given culture, society, or family. Typically, the Animus or Anima, being unconscious are constituted by differing forms and attitudes. As one comes into contact and uncovers the layers of the figures in the unconscious, the figures tend to go through differing levels of transformation and development. Each figure has exaggerated traits of opposites to contend with during analysis. For example, early exposure to Anima figures are typically exaggerated in terms of virtuousness and great sexual attractiveness with opposing sides of the dangerous seductress. As the person develops in longer work on with inner figures as symbols transformations in how they appear in dreams often occur as a person in analysis begins to understand the dual nature of the dark and light side of the Anima or Animus.

Active Imagination, as used by Jungians, can become important at this stage as it helps the conscious ego to interact and integrate these symbolic figures in a way that aids the patient in developing a transcendent function in term of how these figures relate to one’s own conscious attitude and whole personality. The transcendent function is the ability of an individual to hold the tension of opposites between the unconscious and conscious life. In practice, the transcendent function is the newly acquired ability to both work with the unconscious content within the ego while also holding a position of irrational interest and rational intellectual reflection. Thus, one may paint a picture of a dream image and use fantasy to engage the image or motif further and then take an objective ‘step-back’ and examine the information intellectually and rationally. In most cases, the Analyst will work to model this ability for the patient over the course of many sessions.

The work with the Shadow and the Anima/Animus allows for the eventual deepening of the unconscious content and the Self becomes a more particular motif or symbol within the life of a dreamer. Engaging the Self is not the end point of individuation, as it is a continual process of circumambulation around the themes and motifs as they arise in daily waking reality. The difference is that the individual is more conscious of the activity of the unconscious in daily relationships with others and the world itself. Instead of the ego becoming inflated through this process of individuation (becoming authentically yourself), it becomes deflated and one is much better able to relate with greater integrity, sincerity, and authenticity to humanity and even to all life. In this way, individuation is almost the complete opposite attitude to narcissism.

Part 4: Symbolism in the Visual Arts by Aniela Jaffé.

In Jaffé’s essay she takes through the history of art from the perspective of the symbolic from the perspective of Analytical Psychology. She shows us that early humans used almost every aspect of the natural environment to represent the symbolic. The symbol-making capacity of humanity has been limitless over time. In some very critical ways, the human capacity to make symbols is the true mark that sets us apart from the rest of life on this planet. Jaffé makes the point that three central symbolic motifs are represented continuously throughout human history. These are the stone, the animal, and the circle. Millennia ago humans started to arrange stones and carve them to indicate divinity and spirit found in the rock or stone itself. Carving and arraignment would be used to enhance the power and symbolic value of rocks.

Animals played a vital role in early human development of the symbolic capacity. Much has been documented through cave paintings to current anthropological and archeological research into the use of animals as either adornment and or objects of veneration. Early humans often identified key characteristic of animal behavior that had analogous representations in human behavior. The identification with these animal traits would be seen mirrored in certain qualities of people within a group. Entire families had certain traits and qualities that were found to be mirrored in the behavior and qualities of specific animals. Human projection and identification with animals became pronounced over time in a form of ‘participation mystique’. The animal motif is usually symbolic of human’s animal or instinctual nature. Many time eruptions of extreme emotions from the unconscious were attributed to the animal demon who possessed and controlled the actions of a person. As a symbol, the animal demon is highly expressive for such an eruption of impulse. The fear of such possession and eruption of emotion in turn logically led our forbearers to adopt elaborate systems of dance, art, and rituals in an attempt to exert some control over these forces. All the world over many of the mythological and religious traditions used the animal as a symbol of divinity for much of human history, to include Christianity with its representation of the Apostles with animal attributes (e.g., John with the Eagle, etc.…) in order to capture an essential quality of their personality and character.

This boundless use of the motif of the animal is a reminder of how vital it is for humans to recognize and integrate a person’s instinctual nature into the psyche. For the very foundation of human nature is the instinct. Suppression and dissociation of the instincts in humans is almost always destructive over time. Wounding of the instincts is of even greater threat to human life and many people will expend great amounts of energy to destroy an instinctual drive. The acceptance of our animal nature is essential if wholeness to be achieved. Modern humans have the task to tame and heal the animal nature within. Even to make that animal nature a friend.

The circle is the last motif explored by Jaffé in terms of art and symbol. Humans across time and cultures have always used the circle as a symbol of wholeness and completeness. Jung equated this symbolically with a representation of the Self archetype. Often the square will appear with circle in multiple motifs of ancient art. This coupling of the square and the circle represent a dual nature of wholeness in matter (the square) and the psyche (the circle).

In turning to modern art, Jaffé makes the carefully constructed argument that it reflects the dissociated and psychotic nature of the modern age. In essence, modern art is a reaction to the ascendency of the framework of the extremely rational technological and scientific age the reigns in this current epoch. The more society has come to worship the hyper-rational ego, the more modern art reflects the counterbalance of the unconscious. Art reflects the predominate themes of the psyche in a given age. In our age, art has retreated from reality.

Part 5: Symbols in an Individual Analysis by Jolande Jacobi

Jacobi in this essay takes through the symbolic material presented during the course of a Jungian Analysis. This is a rather unique case study of a 25-year-old man. Unique in the sense that many believe wrongly that Jungian therapy is rather exclusively meant for the treatment of people in middle age. Jacobi at the very beginning dispels this incorrect assumption about Jungian Psychoanalysis.

Jacobi starts with a general background of the patient, called Henry, which details the history of a young man from a somewhat conflicted home. Henry’s reasons for seeking analysis were rather unique as well. Instead of seeking analysis for a neurosis or psychological symptoms per se, he stated that he wanted to understand his psyche as he began to embark on his first real job in a factory. He is described as highly introverted and shy. His main concerns revolved around anxieties of reaching full manhood and self-sufficient independence. Jacobi found that this young man was trapped from moving forward in life due to an extreme dependence on his mother, a “mother-prison”.

Jacobi presents the “initial dream” which Jungian analysts consider of paramount importance because it tends to foreshadow the work that will unfold over the course of the analysis. Jacobi goes on to explain the presentation of the dream and the dreamer’s associations to the symbols and motifs presented in the dream. Recall, that in Jungian Analysis, the dreamer’s associations are what are paramount, not the analyst’s associations. The dreamer’s inner associations are unique to him or herself within the context of the life situation.

Jacobi goes on to illustrate Henry’s dream symbols and motifs and demonstrates how they clearly reflect the inner unconscious dynamics that keep him stuck and from moving forward in life. Many of the motifs and symbols presented by Henry on their face are highly intellectualized, but simple amplification and association show a continual theme of tension with instinct and the hold of the negative side of the feminine on his psyche. Symbols of extreme introversion (a fear of the outside world) are symbolized by dream images of stone walls and railings. He shows a motif of a fear of looking into water (fear of the feminine and the unconscious).  In future dreams Henry presents a motif that expresses his fear of mixing attachment feelings with sexuality and sensuality. In this dream series, Henry presents the motif of monks and in another dream of visiting a brothel as a military man.

Over the course of the essay, Jacobi shows us the development and maturation of Henry’s dream material as it is shared and explored with an analyst. This exploration and maturation seen in the unconscious is mirrored in the outer reality of Henry’s life as he successfully overcomes his anxiety and is able to marry and move out of his family home.

Conclusion: Science and the Unconscious by M.L. von Franz

M.L. von Franz explores the implications between the growing understanding of the unconscious psyche and modern science. She makes a convincing case that the unconscious is very much a reality both as a phenomenon and psychologically. She draws several parallels between the discoveries of physics, symbolic capacities of the human mind, and the very real possibility of an archetypal structure (dynamic nuclei) to the psyche that is inherited through the process of evolution in the same way all species inherit a blueprint plan for the phylogenetic unfolding of the individual within the species. That is same principle could hold true at the level of the human mind is entirely logical and plausible.  Moreover, the argument is put forward that the scientific approach to the psyche will require a method of science that is quite different than the statistical or neurophysiological approaches employed in our current time.

Share this post

Comments (4)

  • Terri Reply

    Thanks for this excellent discussion of this great Jungian book. I read it a long time ago and now after reading this review, I am motivated to read it again

    January 15, 2018 at 2:40 pm
  • david Reply

    thanks for your article. After reading this, a question came into my mind; in what famous movies, novels, plays, and poems, the symbols can be seen and interpreted? or in other words, may you mention the name of major symbolic plays, novels, poems, and movies? I think Faust is one of them, right??!

    February 15, 2018 at 5:17 pm
  • Roberta Shoemaker-Beal Reply

    “Man and His Symbols” was given to me by a long time, trusted friend, Dr. James C.O Harris, who was then in 1973, engaging with Dr. Edward Edinger, as part of Jim’s training to become a Jungian-oriented Child psychiatrist. Reading just the first 100 pages changed my life, for I had finally found “someome who perceived reality as I did.” At that time, I was halping shapre the first two courses in Graduate Level Art Therapy training, and have required, in the state of maryland. Whenever possible, I strongly recommended that ALL my students, in graduate art therapy training programs, and others in courses taught at Jung Societies, now for almost 50 years, all read this book as a foundation for “beginning to enrich their lives, their growth, their journey of individuation, and their healing, if necessary.” As an art therapist, I find that Jung went well beyond his mentor and pioneer in mapping the human psyche, Dr. Sigmund Freud, for several reasons. While the Austrian Jew, Freud evolved his piuoneering work focussing on early childhood development, by pathologizing creativity and religious practices, Jung built upon the better aspects of Freud’s discoveries. Researching as many Freudian scholars, as I can find, there seems to be no instance where Freud asked a patient to “draw their dream, or create whatever.” Yet, by defining and exploring a “transcendent function,” Jung encouraged engaging in one’s creative process and exploring the spiritual dimensions of the psyche, as a potential source of healing, by exploring “the farthst reaches of the imagination,” as Jung’s chronicler, Joseph Campbell documented.

    Thanks so much for your Educational Services and Jungian resources. Shall continue to “spread the word” about your good works. Namaste

    February 1, 2021 at 7:36 pm
  • Símbolo versus signo - Julia Almagro Reply

    […] si deseamos trabajar con lenguajes simbólicos es necesario que tengamos muy claro qué les caracteriza y cómo debemos abordar el símbolo para […]

    August 15, 2023 at 10:20 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *