Edinger – the ego prophet

Abstract: The article is a critique of Edward F. Edinger’s analysis of religious and alchemical symbols. It is argued that the symbolic value is depleted when symbols are subjected to onesided intellectualization. E. sees intellectual understanding and the reinforcement of ego consciousness as universal remedies and as the essential meaning of human life. Accordingly, symbols are reductively understood as signifying ego-formative processes, when they really point at a deeper mystery. Edinger’s view of the self as an autonomous centre of consciousness, on a par with the ego, is criticized.

Keywords: archetype, alchemy, Christ, Self, crucifixion, consciousness, ego, post-Jungian, C. G. Jung.

The American post-Jungian psychoanalyst Edward F. Edinger (1922-1998) is the inventor of an exceptional worldview: the Christ must “incarnate” in the self (the archetype of psychic totality) whereupon the self “incarnates” in the ego. When it becomes transformed into an “archetype” the personal ego receives godlike status. This means that the personal ego attains eternal life as it takes its abode in the Platonic sphere beyond time and space (see below).

Characteristic for Edinger’s authorship is that he does not hesitate to intellectualize any precious symbol from religious history. It is necessary to maintain a critical attitude when reading quaint literature such as this. I am not convinced that Edinger’s intellectualization of religious symbols will serve any good purpose. Sometimes the intellect ought to keep its fingers away from numinous symbols. Although an increased spiritual awareness is desirable in our materialistic era, a reductionistic view will not be helpful. It’s evident that Edinger’s notions are irreconcilable with Christian beliefs as well as orthodox Jungian psychology. The conscious ego cannot possibly harbour the totality of the self, and it’s controversial to interpret the Jungian archetypes as Platonic forms. E. says that he builds his ideas not only on Jung, but also on the medieval alchemists. However, as I will exemplify, these are being subjected to a very shallow symbolic understanding. It’s not evident to the uninitiated that Edinger’s ideas have no basis in Jungian psychology, nor in Christian theology, but derive from a private Gnostic religion in which Jungian and Christian terms are thoroughly reinterpreted.

In Ego and Archetype Edinger’s subjectivism has not yet blossomed out, although he is contesting Jung by postulating “two autonomous centers of psychic being”, perpetually involved in a cyclic process of separation and union (cf. Edinger, 1992, p. 4; ch. 1). Edinger maintains this idea throughout his writings: “Empirically, the psyche has two centers: the ego, the subjective center, and the Self, the objective center” (Edinger, 1996, p. 34). Jung repudiates this idea:

You will naturally ask whether the unconscious possesses a centre too. I would hardly venture to assume that there is in the unconscious a ruling principle analogous to the ego. As a matter of fact, everything points to the contrary. If there were such a centre, we could expect almost regular signs of its existence. Cases of dual personality would then be frequent occurrences instead of rare curiosities. As a rule, unconscious phenomena manifest themselves in fairly chaotic and unsystematic form. (Jung, 1981, para. 492)

The problem is that Edinger over-interprets and exaggerates certain aspects of Jungian psychology. The self is not discernible as an autonomous and distinct personality who, as it were, is on “speaking terms” with the ego personality. In fact, the self is a tendency, a directionality of personality, only vaguely sensed by the ego (cf. Jung, 1972, para. 405). The self is being circumambulated by the ego; but there is really only one centre of consciousness (the ego) and one centre of personality (the self). Nevertheless, E. regards the self as a concurrent centre of consciousness. It is a highly questionable standpoint since it lacks empirical support. Personally, I have never experienced the merger and dissociation of ego and self, which Edinger keeps returning to in his books. A more appropriate image is of the earth steadily circulating around the sun, which is also how Jung portrays the relation (ibid.). Thus, E. views the self as an unconscious and autonomous ego-personality, of sorts. It is like another person living inside us:

The reciprocal relations between the ego and the Self in which the Self’s knowing the ego promotes ego-consciousness and the ego’s knowing the Self promotes Self-consciousness have interesting implications. (Edinger, 1984, p. 55)

[The] Self sends both help and problems to the ego for the sake of the Self […] Like everything alive, everything in the biological world, the Self is concerned with survival and Self-realization. It is concerned with itself, and interested in the ego pretty much only for how the ego can serve it. The Self is just as Self-centered as the ego is ego-centered. In fact the ego is a kind of replica of the Self. And that’s why we’re so self-centered, self with a small letter, because we’re a chip off the old block, you see. (Edinger, 2000, p. 98)

This cannot be right. In his books Anatomy of the Psyche and The Christian Archetype matters become worse. E. abandons Jung’s notion of the self as the precursor to, and incentive to, the progression towards psychic totality. Although E. has earlier endorsed this view, he now alleges that it is in fact the ego that generates the self and also unites the opposites of the psyche (cf. Edinger, 1985, p. 218). To E., the process of individuation is identical with the development of the ego, which implies an increase of the power and consciousness of the ego. This contradicts Jung who argued that the ego must eventually give up its struggle and confer the victory on the self (cf. Jung, 1972, pars. 374ff). Jung’s view entails a constrainment of the ego’s power.

Edinger asserts that the ego and its consciousness can be strengthened until it finally attains a divine stature. This is a form of ego-transcendentalism that should not burden Jungian psychology; nor has it anything to do with Christianity. Contrary to this, C. G. Jung maintained that the ego-attitude must be abandoned when it has served its purpose, i.e., when personality has been freed from infantile bonds and social adaptation has been accomplished. Jung relates how he, in a dream, ambushed and killed the hero Siegfried, thereby killing his own heroic ego-attitude (excerpt here). Furthermore, Jung repudiates the view of the archetypes as “Platonic images” existing in eternal splendour in an otherworldly sphere (regardless if this was what Plato really meant). The innate archetype is formative of a complex in the unconscious that can only be pictorialized when it has taken shape in constellated form:

Again and again I encounter the mistaken notion that an archetype is determined in regard to its content, in other words that it is a kind of unconscious idea (if such an expression be admissible). It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree. A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it has become conscious… (Jung, 1981, para. 155)

These images are “primordial” images in so far as they are peculiar to the whole species, and if they ever “originated” their origin must have coincided at least with the beginning of the species. They are the “human quality” of the human being, the specifically human form his activities take. This specific form is hereditary and is already present in the germ-plasm. (ibid. para. 152)

In former times, despite some dissenting opinion and the influence of Aristotle, it was not too difficult to understand Plato’s conception of the Idea as supraordinate and pre-existent to all phenomena. “Archetype,” far from being a modern term, was already in use before the time of St Augustine, and was synonymous with “Idea” in the Platonic usage. When the Corpus Hermeticum, which probably dates from the third century, describes God as [the] ‘archetypal light,’ it expresses the idea that he is the prototype of all light; that is to say, pre-existent and supraordinate to the phenomenon “light.” Were I a philosopher, I should continue this Platonic strain and say: Somewhere, in “a place beyond the skies,” there exists a prototype or primordial image of the mother that is pre-existent and supraordinate to all phenomena in which the “maternal,” in the broadest sense of the term, is manifest. But I am an empiricist, not a philosopher; I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid. Apparently this is an assumption in which only the philosopher may indulge, who always takes it for granted that his own disposition and attitude are universal, and will not recognize the fact, if he can avoid it, that his “personal equation” conditions his philosophy. As an empiricist, I must point out that there is a temperament which regards ideas as real entities and not merely as nomina […] Anyone who continues to think as Plato did must pay for his anachronism by seeing the “supracelestial,” i.e., metaphysical, essence of the Idea relegated to the unverifiable realm of faith and superstition, or charitably left to the poet. Once again, in the age-old controversy over universals, the nominalistic standpoint has triumphed over the realistic, and the Idea has evaporated into a mere flatus vocis. This change was accompanied — and, indeed, to a considerable degree caused — by the marked rice of empiricism, the advantages of which were only too obvious to the intellect. Since that time the Idea is no longer something a priori, but is secondary and derived […] Greek natural philosophy with its interest in matter, together with Aristotelian reasoning, has achieved a belated but overwhelming victory over Plato…(ibid. para. 149)

It is evident from the above excerpts that Jung repudiates unequivocal forms of transcendentalist thinking. He even scorns the “philosophers” who indulge in such crafts. Edinger certainly belongs to this ilk. His writings tend toward ego-transcendentalism. He is guilty of exactly those mistakes which Jung warns against, i.e., translating one’s own temperament and subjective notions to universal truths. It is problematic that his subjectivistic philosophy is classified as psychology, since it has nothing to do with science. The doctrine that the ego-personality is transformed into an archetype does not comply with the Jungian theory of archetypal morphology. There is no place for Edinger’s conceptions within Jungian psychology. For instance, Edinger says:

Jung’s “Resurrection body” corresponds to Paul’s “celestial body” (1 Cor. 15:40). What they refer to is beyond our conscious grasp. My own hypothesis is that they refer to the ultimate goal of individuation — the transformation of ego into archetype. (Edinger, 1987, p. 118)

Heaven is the abode of eternal Platonic forms, the universals, the archetypal images. (Edinger, 1985, p. 118)

It seems to imply that consciousness achieved by individuals becomes a permanent addition to the archetypal psyche. (ibid. p. 140)

In psychological terms, it is a revelation of the archetypal psyche which releases one from a personal ego-attitude, enabling one to experience oneself as an immortal — that is, as living with archetypal realities and making a contribution to the archetypal psyche. [citing Frey] “Death is for me the gate to a new birth, and the breaking-through of the transcendental realm into our empirical existence. I am convinced that we experience a complete transformation of our being in the last moments of our life.” (ibid. pp. 128-29)

Partial aspects of the same process occur, I think, whenever an item in one’s personal psychology is decisively objectified. It then becomes an eternal fact, untouchable by joy or grief or change. (ibid. p. 142)

The ego is focal in Edinger’s mode of thinking. According to E., the entirety of the contents within the unconscious must be moved into the light of the ego:

The usual formulation is that the Self unites and reconciles the opposites. However […] the operator — that is, the ego — brings about the union of opposites and thereby creates the Self, or at least brings it into manifestation. (ibid. p. 218)

It’s apparent what E. means by the notion of the self “incarnating” in the ego. It simply means that consciousness is struck by the insight that it is really the ego which is the self and therefore must hold the psychic opposites together by making them conscious. To Edinger, individuation is the same thing as ego-development:

In summary, this dream pictures ego development as a process in which the latent, preexistent totality, the Self, is first incarnated and then assimilated through the living efforts of the individual […] In conclusion, the alchemical operation of coagulatio, together with the imagery that clusters around this idea, constitutes an elaborate symbol system that expresses the archetypal process of ego formation. When the ego is approaching the coagulatio of the psyche in its totality — then the symbolism of ego development becomes identical with that of individuation. (ibid. p. 115)

However, this one-sided conscious expansion, which E. advocates, only leads to spiritual death. A relative unconsciousness is necessary to maintain the dynamics between conscious and unconscious. This makes room for wisdom and life, allowing it to spontaneously emerge out of the unconscious. A balance is necessary. In fact, conscious understanding hampers the constellation of wisdom within the unconscious. One must not lift every living entity into the blazing light of consciousness and attempt to “understand” it. The consequence is that it becomes a dead thing; a mere function of consciousness. In fact, libido freed by the effort of unconscious integration is absorbed by the self, so there is not much reward for the ego, either (cf. Jung, 1972, para. 382). This is what Jung is hinting at in the following excerpt reported by Aniela Jaffé.

When Jung, in his eighties, was discussing at his house the process of becoming conscious with a group of young psychiatrists… he ended with the surprising words: And then you have to learn to become decently unconscious. (Jaffé, 1984, p. 149)

Furthermore, Jung says:

However, accentuation of the ego personality and the world of consciousness may easily assume such proportions that the figures of the unconscious are psychologized and the self consequently becomes assimilated to the ego. Although this is the exact opposite of the process we have just described it is followed by the same result: inflation. The world of consciousness must now be levelled down in favour of the unconscious. (Jung, 1979, para. 47)

Edinger psychologizes the self and makes it a dead function in the realm of consciousness. Since E. can hardly find any support for his views in Jung’s writings he tends to distort and exaggerate (consciously or unconsciously) the contents of diverse interviews and letters. A telling example is the obvious misstatement in The Christian Archetype:

The individual ego is the stable in which the Christ-child is born. (Edinger, 1987, ch. 2)

From a Christian or a Jungian perspective, this utterance is hardly acceptable. E. ascribes this comment to Jung in order to lend credence to his ideas. The truth is that the comment reads: “[We] are no more than the manger in which the Lord is born” (Jung, 1975, para. 267). The latter assertion is quite logical and complies with Paul’s letter to the Galatians 2:20: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”. This well-known notion that the ego must be overcome, or even expire, is common to Jung, Christianity, and especially Eastern wisdom, such as Taoism. In many a sense, the “ego religion” of E. goes against the collected wisdom of the world.

In The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man, E. steps up his ego religion and attempts to show that it builds on Jung:

The goal of psychotherapy, indeed of all modes of psychological development, is the maximum degree of consciousness. Consciousness and all it signifies is the ultimate value. (Edinger, 1984, p. 35)

The purpose of human life is the creation of consciousness. (p. 57)

Motivated by the autonomous urge to individuation (the Holy Ghost), the ego must strive to know the Self and to realize it consciously. (p. 109)

Thus, the individual’s striving for consciousness becomes the modern formulation of the venerable idea of labouring in the vineyard of the Lord, and the new answer to the age-old question of the meaning of life. (p. 58)

It is true that Jung, in accordance with his ‘quaternary’ ideal of self, tends to envelop all standpoints. Thus, it is always possible to cherrypick from his writings and blow ideas out of proportion. It is certainly correct that Jung emphasizes conscious expansion by way of the integration (assimilation) of unconscious content. I have in my articles criticized Jung’s lopsidedness in this sense. However, one must remember that Jung also endorsed the opposite standpoint of humility before the miracle of the unconscious. Thus, to confront the unconscious is not always the right solution. Spontaneous unconscious life and instinctuality must also be granted a place in human life. The self, and wholeness of life, must be allowed to come to expression unconsciously and not only via formulations of consciousness. Arguably, our wholeness is partly expressed through concrete activities of life.

E. views “The Suffering Servant” in Isaiah (52:13-53:12) as “an image of redeeming consciousness” (cf. Edinger, 2000, p. 43 & 1986, p. 155). As the suffering servant is a prefiguration of the Redeemer, the Christ is understood in this reductive way, too, namely as the formation of a strong conscious ego. However, it is certainly more plausible to understand the sufferings of Job and Jesus as the demise of the once proud and elevated king. As the suffering servant carries the sin of others, he has become stained with sin. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, [he] was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;” (Isaiah, 53:4-5). To be “disfigured” and “marred” means to be a loser, a misfit, and a failure. A strong and lucent ego, on the other hand, is better symbolized by the victor, such as a hero in shining armour. Thus, the suffering servant is better understood as an aspect of the self, aptly represented by the wounded King Amfortas in the Grail legend. What is played out is the divine drama of satisfaction atonement, which implies the demise, or diminution, of the god who wanders the earth (a stature to which the ego tends to aspire). But E. can’t see the ego losing.

Accordingly, when ‘the King’ in alchemy is penetrated by a lance (‘transfixio’), Edinger understands this as a ‘coagulatio’ image. He says that the ego is coagulated and becomes “a concretely realized ego”. Edinger equates the ego with the King (a contestable idea) and says that it needs to be nailed fast to the tree in order to stay in reality. Accordingly, he also understands the fire baptism and the crucifixion of Christ in this way. Allegedly, they are ego-forming processes and ordeals from which the ego emerges strengthened (cf. Edinger, 1985, p. 38; p. 115). Indeed, if the crucifixion is seen as an ordeal suffered by an earthly ego, it certainly has the effect of increased awareness of the opposites of the psyche. However, it is kind of self-evident that the ego should learn something from whatever it endures. It is stating the obvious and it doesn’t bring us nearer to the mystery of the crucifixion. It is not merely about the ego. The penchant for exaggerating certain Jungian tenets and removing them from the whole picture of the symbolic mystery, has reductionistic consequences.

According to Jung and M-L von Franz, the crucifixion means defeat, the disruption of the wholeness of the self as mirrored in the ego. It is being torn between the opposites of the self and is overpowered. Against this, Edinger holds that it is the embodiment on earth of the hitherto volatile spirit. Thus, according to E., the killing of the King, and the Christ, signifies the incarnation as a concrete living being on earth. However, judging from the Gospels, what transpires is the very opposite.

TransfixioCrucified serpent

It is a far-fetched notion that the transfixion and the crucifixion means the birth and arrival on earth of a new ego (ibid. p. 105). In a more traditional Jungian understanding, it represents the defeat of the old, passé self-ideal, as role model of the ego. It includes, among other things, the antiquated collective consciousness and our societal mores, etc. (see, especially, M-L von Franz’s fairytale interpretations). Edinger never explains why he contradicts the traditional understanding. It seems as if he cannot allow the ego to be defeated, since the ego, in his philosophy, is viewed as the real center of personality. Evidently, the death of the king means the crowning of a new king. Thus, in reductive terms, it could be understood as the rise of a new ego, which is probably why E. holds to the view that “killing” means the creation of new life on earth. However, it is a curiously roundabout way of reasoning.

Edinger makes shaky and superficial interpretations of alchemical symbols. By example, he contends that the skeleton is a ‘mortificatio’ symbol (precedes ‘putrefactio’). In fact, it is a well-known symbol of albedo (whiteness) since putrefactio (rotting) is concluded and the whiteness of the skeleton is exposed. Looking at fig. 6-1 (ibid.), there is a skeleton risen from the grave (see below). One can tell that it is early morning and the boats are leaving the shore, setting white sails. These are unmistakable albedo symbols. There is also a wax candle to the left, shining its white light. Even the church weathercock, of sheet metal, is out merrily flying in the upper right corner. This signifies a form of illusory life, which is the correct denomination of albedo, since true and complete life arrives only at rubedo (redness). Although one could argue that this image combines the processes of nigredo (blackness) and albedo, one is mistaken if one denotes it a mortificatio image. In fact, it is the very opposite, since the image is a resurrection scene, representing the return of the light from the darkness of nigredo. In alchemy, mortificatio precedes putrefactio (rotting), which has obviously been completed here.

The skeleton as albedo symbolThe skeleton as albedo symbol. It is morning and the tin weathercock is out flying. Notice the candle. The alchemist artist wants to convey that albedo is ghostly life. Only at rubedo true life arrives. From The Hermetic Museum.

Furthermore, E. comments on the picture of a woman in a grave entwined by a serpent (below), from Atalanta Fugiens by Maier (ibid., fig. 8-1). Edinger says:

Another text, quoted earlier, speaks of the woman who slays her husband while he is in her embrace:

[citing Maier] “Nevertheless the Philosophers have put to death the woman who slays her husband, for the body of that woman is full of weapons and poison. Let a grave be dug for that dragon, and let the woman be buried with him, he being chained fast to that woman; and the more he winds and coils himself about her, the more will he be cut to pieces by the female weapons which are fashioned in the body of the woman. And when he sees that he is mingled with the limbs of the woman, he will be certain of death, and will be changed wholly into blood. But when the Philosophers see him changed into blood, they leave him a few days in the sun, until his softness is consumed, and the blood dries, and they find that poison. What then appears is the hidden wind.”

This text needs elucidation. As with dreams, the images are fluid and flow into each other. Who is the dragon that is to be chained fast to the woman? He is apparently the husband that is slain by the woman. The sequence of the text suggests that as the husband begins to lie with the woman he turns into a dragon; or alternatively, as they lie together, the dragon aspect of the instinctual relationship (lust) is constellated. (ibid. p. 212)

Here he says that the killed husband becomes the dragon and that lust is constellated, which turns into “wind”. Allegedly, it means that instinctual desirousness is extracted from its original form and transformed into spirit — that is, conscious understanding (cf. p. 214). Edinger’s interpretations are tendentious. Everything boils down to conscious expansion. Thus, he forces the images into the Procrustean bed of his intellectual preconceptions. In point of fact, the alchemist here makes a symbolic portrayal of simple chemical operations. A factual interpretation gives that the feminine element (mercury) is combined with the masculine element (sulphur). The result is mercuric sulphide — red cinnabar — which has the colour of blood. This is allowed to dry. When cinnabar is heated, mercury vapour is generated.

Atalanta fugiensThe masculine fiery element and the feminine moist element in embrace. From Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier.

Should cinnabar really be understood as “lust” and the vapours produced from heating it as “ego consciousness”? Cinnabar has in historical alchemy been understood as a wonderworking substance, imparting longevity. It is associated with the ‘red lapis’ or the Philosopher’s Stone, appearing at the stage of redness (rubedo). It has divine properties and cannot possibly be reductively understood as a condensate of lustfulness. By heating it, its constituent substances, mercury and sulphur, will again become separated. By a repetition of this process (‘circular distillation’) it was believed to become yet more refined, until it turned into a panacea that imparted its wonderworking properties to anything that it came into contact with. Thus, these symbols attempt to portray a spiritual mystery, whereas E. merely translates them to simplistic and rather mundane psychological notions of ego formation and conscious understanding.

Paradoxically, although E. elevates conscious understanding as the highest good — the panacea that leads to everlasting life — he fails at understanding the Christian mystery as well as the alchemical. He merely translates the images to simplistic thoughts. The reason why symbols are employed in the first place is because they attempt to convey a mystery that cannot properly be understood by intellectual formulations. As long as intellectual ideas bring us nearer to the mystery, they are of the good. But E. achieves the opposite. His misinterpretations only serve to impair conscious understanding. Regardless of whether you want to study alchemy or improve your understanding of Jungian psychology, you should choose another author than Edward F. Edinger. The alchemical and Christian symbols are shallowly interpreted. I am critical of the way E. uses his intellect to dissect every precious symbol. At some stage the intellect should humble itself before the sacrosanct.


© Mats Winther, 1999 (revised 2014).


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