Sunday, June 19, 2011

Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

'Then think strange things are come to light, 
Whereof but few have had a foresight.'

Earlier this month (June 6th) it was the 50th anniversary of the death of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). The occasion sparked debate as to whether Jung's psychology is relevant nowadays in a world which is increasingly literal-minded and skeptical towards symbolism, mythology and the interpretation of dreams. For myself the occasion reminded me once again of the many curious connections which Jung shares with the English physician and philosopher  Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82).

Both Jung and Browne were doctors who held a deep interest in humanity, both engaged in intense self-analysis, including analysis of their own dreams, both studied comparative religion and read alchemical literature closely, sharing an interest in the writings of Gerard Dorn (c.1530 –1584) and finally, both were interested in unusual psychic phenomena such as coincidence or synchronicity, as Jung termed it.

It's not known whether Carl Jung was familiar with Browne's Religio Medici, which was translated into German in 1746; however Jung used the phrase Religio Medici several times, unwittingly connecting Browne's spiritual testament  to the art of alchemy when stating -

'For the educated person of those days, who studied the philosophy of alchemy as part of his general equipment, - it was a real Religio Medici'.[1]

Jung also linked Browne's  Religio Medici  albeit unconsciously to the Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus (1493 -1541) when he  stated-

but that other pivot of Paracelsus's teaching, his belief in 'the light of nature' allow us to surmise other conjectures of his Religio Medica. [2]

And in fact the central chapter of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus is a fine literary example of a Paracelsian physician busily engaged in, 'seeking truth in the light of Nature' in the field of botany. 

Jung may even have been familiar with the contents of Religio Medici from hearsay for he accurately lists the themes of Browne’s psychological self-portrait but mistakenly places an old head upon young shoulders when writing of a colleagues work- 

it was a real Religio Medici, a complete survey of all the religious conclusions an old doctor might draw from his innumerable experiences of suffering and death and from the inexorable  realities of life's reverses.[3]

C.G. Jung helpfully lists much of the subject-matter of Browne's Religio Medici  when defining the original Latin meaning of the word religio as-

a careful consideration and observation of certain dynamic factors, understood to be 'powers', spirits, demons, gods, laws, ideas, ideals or whatever name man has given to such factors as he has found in his world powerful, dangerous, or helpful enough to be taken into careful consideration, or grand, beautiful and meaningful enough to be devoutly adored and loved. [4]

Browne's Religio Medici (1642) is very much a  product of Renaissance thinking. Along with the self-reflective Essais of Montaigne (1533-92) and Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) it exhibits a Renaissance spirit of enquiry into the psyche and is a celebration of individuality and the mystery of personality.

From the early 19th century the mystery and cult of personality found an outlet in the Romantic movement. The  poet Coleridge, an enthusiast reader of Browne, wrote a short note-book verse in admiration of the Norwich physician. By the most curious of coincidences the self-same verse was selected by Jung's secretary, Anelia Jaffe to preface the Swiss physician's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963).

He looked at his own Soul,
With a Telescope. 
What seemed all irregular, he saw
and shewed to be beautiful constellations.
And he added to the Consciousness,
Hidden Worlds within Worlds.

Coleridge's early usage of the word, 'consciousness'  was in all probability introduced to him from his association with the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). The Oxford Dictionary credits the first usage of the word 'consciousness' to  Wordsworth in 1804.

The workings of the unconscious psyche were often revealed to romantic poets and alchemist-physicians alike in their  experience of dreaming. Both Jung and  Browne were fascinated with dreams, especially their own. Jung describes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a series of life-changing dreams, including one in which he became trapped in the  golden age of alchemy, the seventeenth century, his life-changing dream  inaugurated a life-long study of alchemy.

Browne in turn, was in fact a lucid dreamer. This ability, in conjunction with his wide-ranging reading matter and fertile imagination provided him with rich fuel for his artistic creativity. Browne's ability to lucid dream is the source of much of his so-called 'dream-imagery' and 'mystical symbolism'. He confessed of his ability in Religio Medici thus-

Yet in one dream I can compose a whole comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh myself awake at the conceits thereof. Were my memory as faithful as my reason is fruitful I would chose never to study but in my dreams. [5]

Browne never elaborated upon the psyche in as much volume or detail as Jung, however, he did pen a short tract upon dreams, even theorizing upon the possibility of their interpretation thus-

Many dreams are made out by sagacious exposition and from the signature of their subjects; carrying their interpretation in their fundamental sense and mystery of similitude, whereby he that understands upon what natural fundamental every notional dependeth, may by symbolical adaption hold a ready way to read the characters of Morpheus.  [6]

Browne's proposal of a 'symbolical adaptation read the characters of Morpheus' that is, a belief in the ability to interpret the psyche's symbols in order to interpret dreams,  along with his deep interest in the mystery of individuality, his utilizing of concepts and symbols from the alchemical tradition, especially in his diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, earns him a place in the embryological beginnings of modern psychology. Indeed, included among Browne's many neologisms are those of a medical nature such as 'pathology' and 'hallucination', concrete evidence of his contribution to the development of psychology. 

At the heart of much of Jung's own interest in dreams and alchemy there's a deep study of the varied and ever-changing symbols which the psyche produces in art, dreams and alchemical literature.  Jung's great discovery was that the mystical language of the alchemist-physicians and their bizarre symbolism attempted to describe the psyche's contents.

It's perhaps worthwhile reminding ourselves of the distinction between words and symbols. Unlike  a  sign or word, a symbol can never be fully explained, its  protean-like nature revitalizing itself whenever of value to the psyche to describe a spiritual or religious content. Browne's near exact contemporary Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) (a favourite read of the Norwich physician, as the catalogue of his library reveals)  defines the function of symbols as -

to lead our minds by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things  that are offered to our external senses... Symbols cannot be translated by words, but only expressed by marks, characters and figures. [7]

For C.G.Jung the terms symbolic and psychological were synonymous. In his view-

the language of the alchemists is at first sight very different from our psychological terminology and way of thinking. But if we treat their symbols in the same way as we treat modern fantasies, they yield a meaning - even in the Middle Ages confessed alchemists interpreted their symbols in a moral and philosophical sense, their "philosophy" was, indeed, nothing but projected psychology. [8]

The predominant symbol and expression of the religious values of western civilization for the past two millennium, the Christian Cross, is ultimately itself an undefinable symbol, despite the attempts of mystics throughout the ages. Another modern symbol which provokes strong conscious and unconscious affects is the swastika. In direct antithesis to the Christian Cross, the swastika symbolizes the darker nature within humankind; it also cannot be fully defined. 

Throughout the history of alchemy, symbols are employed in a bewildering proliferation and variance. Writing almost as if with Browne’s most difficult work, The Garden of Cyrus in mind, Jung stated-

Intellectual responsibility seems always to have been the alchemists weak spot... The less respect they showed for the bowed shoulders of the sweating reader, the greater was their debt to the unconscious...The alchemists were so steeped in their inner experiences, that their whole concern was to devise fitting images and expressions regardless whether they were intelligible or not. They performed the inestimable service of having constructed a phenomenology of the unconscious long before the advent of psychology..The alchemists did not really know what they were writing about. Whether we know today seems to me not altogether sure.  [9]

Browne and other theologically inclined alchemists lacked a precise terminology to describe the psyche's contents. Each developed their own highly idiosyncratic symbolism to describe the psyche and its contents, succinctly described by Browne as, 'the theatre of ourselves'. In Browne and other alchemically inclined European writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there can be discerned an Ur-psychologie which Jung identified as none other than the rudimentary beginnings of modern-day psychology.

Jung provided the scholar of hermetic philosophy and alchemy with new tools. His understanding of alchemy remains rewarding. Once acknowledging Sir Thomas Browne's diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are literary works highly influenced by the tenants of  Hermetic philosophy, new light can be thrown upon their theme, imagery, symbolism and relationship to each other and illumination upon the cloudy obscurities of their text. For example, from a close reading of Jung the source of Browne's famous image in Urn-Burial-     

 Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. 

can be identified.Using Paracelsian 'astral imagery' for his own purposes it was the foremost protagonist of Paracelsian alchemy, Gerhard Dorn (1530-84) who claimed there was in man an 'invisible sun' that is, a life-giving force equivalent to the imago Dei or image of God in man. In his essay Speculativa philosophia, reprinted in the anthology, Theatrum Chemicum (vol. 1) a work which Jung valued sufficiently enough to take with him when traveling in India and which was also in the library of Sir Thomas Browne, Dorn declares-

The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.

In Carl Jung's magnum opus on alchemy Mysterium Coniunctius (1955-56) one reads-

In Dorn's view there is in man an 'invisible sun', which he identifies with the Archeus. This sun is identical with the 'sun in the earth'. The invisible sun enkindles an elemental fire which consumes man's substance and reduces his body to the prima materia.  [10]

Throughout the history of literary criticism there have been  solitary voices who have provided insights into understanding the obscurities of Browne's symbolism. As early as 1959 the literary critic Peter Green noted that Browne,

'packs his prose with as much concentrated symbolic meaning as it will stand' .......  'Mystical symbolism is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work, adding, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact'.

The primary symbols of Browne's diptych discourses, the Urn and Quincunx pattern share an intimate relationship to each other. Green also recognised the psychological import of Browne's highly original symbolism stating  -

by concentrating, almost like a hypnotist, on this pair of unfamiliar symbols, to paradoxically release the reader's mind into an infinite number of associative levels of awareness, without preconception to give shape and substance to quite literally cosmic generalizations.

Green firmly classified the two Discourses as one organic whole, united in theme, imagery and symbolism, stating-

The two works are interlinked by a dualistic pattern of opposed symbols -death and life, body and soul, substance and form, accident and design, time and space, darkness and light, earth and heaven. They can no more be separated than the voices in a fugue;taken together they form one of the deepest,most complex, most symbolically pregnant statements ever composed on the great double theme of mortality and eternity.

Densely-laden with 'dream imagery' and highly original proper-name symbolism, the diptych Discourses attempt to portray fundamental elements of the psyche, namely consciousness and  unconsciousness.  Urn-Burial  with its imagery of darkness, the unknowing nature of the human condition and the irrational, attempts to portray the unconscious psyche. In complete contradistinction The Garden of Cyrus with its imagery of Light, germination, growth and the botanist busy, 'seeking truth in the light of Nature', is Browne's  delineation of consciousness and is exemplary of the  'active imagination' of the alchemist, no less. 

The union of the opposites was as C.G.Jung recognised,  the main quest of the alchemical opus. In many ways Browne's diptych Discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are exemplary as a literary art work symbolizing the union of opposites. They are also Browne's major contribution to the embryonic science of psychology. Sadly however, readers and publishers both lazily continue to imagine they are fully informed upon Browne's artistic and scientific sensibilities having read only Urn-Burial without reading its companion, The Garden of Cyrus, a work which may well be the Obverse, and not the Reverse of Browne's alchemically minted coin. Together Browne's Garden-Grave discourses, half solemn, half playful, are an embryonic portrait of the human psyche which anticipate a key concept of  Jungian psychology, namely the archetypes.

Indeed, not only does one of the very earliest usages of the very word 'archetype' occur in The Garden of Cyrus but Browne's Ur-Psychologie also attempts to describe the archetypes. Many proper-names associated with the archetypal figure of ‘the wise ruler’ including Moses, Alexander the Great, Solomon and the Emperor Augustus,  as well as the titular Persian Shah, King Cyrus, are named in the Discourse. Browne's proper-name symbolism also alludes to the archetypal figure of the ‘Great Mother' as a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness with mention of Sarah, Isis, Juno, Cleopatra and Venus.

At the apotheosis of the Discourse Browne summons up the foremost archetype of western civilization, namely the hero, in the form of the Greek Achilles, while the elusive trickster figure of Mercurius in the form of Proteus and Hermaphrodite  is also fleetingly alluded to  in The Garden of  Cyrus. 

 The worthy physician boldly declares at the discourse's apotheosis -

A large field is yet left to sharper discerners, to enlarge upon this order, to search out the quaternio's and figured draughts of this nature.

Centuries later, Browne's exhortation to  search out the quaternio’s was earnestly heeded by C.G. Jung. The quaternity and the number four were a corner-stone of the Swiss psychologist's mapping of the psyche's structure. Jung's predilection for the quaternity structure and its importance is explained by him thus -

The quarternity is an organizing schema par excellence, something like the crossed threads in a telescope. It is a system of coordinates that is used almost instinctively for diving up the visible surface of the earth, the course of the year, or the collection of individuals into groups, the phases of the moon, the temperaments, elements, alchemical colours, and so on. [11]

Incidentally, a superb sculptural representation of the archetypes in quaternity form can be seen in the Layer Monument  which can be seen in the church of Saint John, Maddermarket at Norwich.

Jung’s writings are also of great interpretative value in understanding Browne’s preoccupation with the quincunx symbol which is alluded to throughout The Garden of Cyrus. Jung noted of Browne's distinctly home-made symbol of  individuation - 

The quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx ) does occur as a symbol of wholeness ( in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely. [12] 

Again the question must be asked, whether Jung was acquainted with Browne's writings for somewhat astoundingly Jung identified the Quincunx pattern as none other than - a symbol of the quinta essentia which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone. [13]

Finally, on the subject of coincidence or synchronicity, a subject which fascinated both Jung and Browne,  while writing this post I was kindly donated a copy of Edgar Wind's The Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (1948). Wind's single reference to C.G. Jung occurs whilst commentating on Browne's  statement -

The smattering I have of the Philosopher's Stone (which is something more than the perfect exaltation of Gold) hath taught me a great deal of Divinity. [14]

In a foot-note upon Browne's highly revealing hermetic statement, wind states-

On pastoral edification through alchemy see ........raised to a system by C.G.Jung, Psychologie und Alchemie (1944).  [15]

I hope I've provided sufficient evidence of Browne's quite extraordinary relationship to Carl Jung. Separated by centuries, yet united in many of their observations upon the psyche, the two physicians share a curious elective affinity.  

In the final analysis, whether Jung’s psychology is of any relevance today hinges upon whether one believes  oneself to be a  random, genetic force of nature and of a strictly material origin, in which case Jung's writings are of little value. Alternately, if one believes in having a soul, Jung's psychology remains highly relevant to individual development. 

Postscript September 2015

In Laurens van der Post's 1976 publication Jung and the Story of our Time Van der Post writes of his drawing Jung's attention to the following quote by Browne-

'We carry with us the wonders, we seek without us: There is all Africa, and her prodigies in us; we are that bold and adventurous piece of nature, which he that studies, wisely learns in a compendium, what others labour at in a divided piece and endless volume. (R.M. 1:12)

The Browne quote elicited the following reaction from Jung, who according to Van der Post states - "He was deeply moved, wrote it down, and exclaimed, 'That was as is just it. But it needed the Africa without to drive home the point in my own self".

It seems that evidence of Jung's familiarity with Browne has existed since 1976 !

Books consulted 

C.G. Jung Collected Works vol 9. 10. 13. 14. 16. 18.
C.G.Jung Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963)
Browne -The Major Works  ed. C.A. Patrides  Penguin (1977)
Edgar Wind - Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance Faber and Faber (1958)
Green, P.    Sir Thomas Browne Longmans, Green & Co Writers and Their Work, No.108 ( 1959)


Header quote sir T.B. Miscellaneous Tract XII

[1] C. W. 10 : 727,   [2] C.W. 13:161,   [3] Cw 18:1465,   [4] Into CW 11,   
[5] R.M. Part 2:11, 
[6] Tract 'On Dreams' ,   [7] Obeliscus Pamphilus 1650,   [8] C.W. 14:737,   [9] C.W.16:497, 
[10] CW  14:49   [11] C.W. 9ii: 381   [12] C.W. 18:1602,   [13] C.W. 10:737   [14] R.M.Part 1:39, 
[15] Wind in Chapter entitled 'Pan and Proteus'

Part of this post is developed from a paper I delivered in 2002 at a conference held by the Wellcome Institute at UEA .
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