Vis Imaginativa: The Power of Imagination in the Theory of Magic and its Relationship to The Jungian Collective Unconscious
“Alchemy provides the psychology of the unconscious with a meaningful historical basis.”1 Jung, C.G., Mysterium Coniunctionis (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1970), xiii.
Academic discussions of magic are controversial. Occultism is often viewed as deviant.2Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), 3-4. What is forgotten is the huge influence of magic on modern chemistry, medicine, and psychology. Our rational and skeptical modern world has dismissed magic as superstition; it is difficult (if not impossible) to prove the existence of God, ghosts, and demons scientifically.
Carl Jung once noted that “rationalism and superstition are complementary. It is a psychological rule that the brighter the light, the blacker the shadow; in other words, the more rationalistic we are in our conscious minds, the more alive becomes the spectral world of the unconscious.”3Jung, C. G., “Foreword to Moser : “Spuk : Irrglaube Oder Wahrglaube?,”” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 144.In popular culture, there is still a thriving interest in ghosts, demons, and other sorts of undead creatures like zombies and vampires, as well as aliens. Scientific method has been established as the way to “truth,” yet these irrational constructs of the imagination have not disappeared. Indeed, throughout history, the more rationalism is established as the basis for society, backlash occurs in the revival of religious and spiritual movements.4Goodrick-Clarke, 173-174.
I would like to take a step back from “superstitious” assumptions and focus on imagination and magic, particularly on the relationship of these concepts to Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. Thinking about D. P. Walker’s concept of vis imaginativa, I hope to demonstrate the relationship between the philosophy of magic and some basic Jungian psychoanalytic ideas.
“Power of the imagination,” which refers to the method used in magic for interacting with the collective unconscious and its symbols. Walker uses the term to describe an element that runs through all magical theory.
Refers to a method for enacting change, either in the operator or something external, through techniques incorporating natural influences and imagination. The results of such operations are usually psychological in nature.
A broad term describing a very varied field; I am focusing on psychology as a “science of the soul,” and particularly on Jung’s case studies and writings on psychoanalysis.
These terms have many meanings, and are sometimes used interchangeably. Jung believed they were different, and suggested that one’s “soul” was more akin to a person’s ego, whereas “spirit” referred to “unconscious autonomous complexes which appear as projections because they have no direct association with the ego.”5Jung, C.G., “The Psychological Foundations of Belief in Spirits,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 116. Marsilio Ficino also connected the idea of “soul” and “mind.” In his treatise on the mind, he believes that all life has a “motion” towards a particular end. He refers to the motion of the human mind as “the continuous motion of the soul,” and surmises that “in the opinion of some Platonists, the soul is always set in motion and always lives.” While Ficino does not agree with this position, he does connect the soul with the motions of the mind.6 Ficino, Marsilio, “Five Questions Concerning the Mind,” in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1948), 198. For our purposes, it is safe to say that “soul” refers to the individual, and “spirit” refers to something larger than the individual.
The Way of Magic According to D.P. Walker
D. P. Walker’s book, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, provides a general theory of natural magic that I think is useful when discussing its relationship to psychology. Ancient philosophers believed in the influence of the planets on human life. The idea of a spirit world was taken a priori, and often planets and stars were associated with either angelic or demonic spirits. The magician could command or use these influences through a variety of means: talismans (vis imaginum), incantations (vis verborum), sympathetic magic and music (vis musices), and through elemental qualities of things (vis rerum).7Walker, D.P., Spiritual and Demonic Magic (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 1975), 76. However, all of these have as a central force the vis imaginativa through which the magician uses the powers of his mind and imagination along with planetary influences to achieve a result. Walker suggests two kinds of magical operations—subjective and transitive. Subjective operations are meant to promote spiritual growth and enhance the virtues of the operator. Transitive operations are meant to influence someone or something else; they are an attempt to control nature or an individual.8Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), 173-174. In both cases, the effects of the operation are either psychological or psychosomatic in nature. The imagination of either the operator or their subject (if it’s a person) is affected.
Walker notes that Ficino makes a distinction between natural magic and demonic magic.9Walker, 75. Natural magic is more subjective, about gaining knowledge, spiritual and psychological enhancement. Demonic magic is more transitive, aimed at manipulating natural forces to create a material result (money, power, downfall of enemies, winning a desired partner). More modern practitioners of natural magic see one as cooperating with nature, the other as going against nature, but that was not originally the case in the strictest sense. One type of magic dealt with angelic beings, the other with demonic beings. In a society dominated by the Catholic Church and its cosmology, philosophers created a wide gulf between the two classes of “spirits.”
It was important for occult philosophers to demonstrate the piety in their work when it was published. Often within such writings you will find apologetics, and vehement rebuttals against those who accuse the writers of impiety and dealings with the devil. Ficino gives a rather strong invective in his book on alchemy:
Tell me by the immortal God, what is more unjust than for men to hate what they are ignorant of? What more abject? Or what greater madness and potage is there, than to condemn that science in which you have concerned yourself just nothing at? Who hast never learned Nature or the majesty of Nature…Let these crabbed fellows and their followers remain perpetually in their opinion, who know nothing. Which is honest, which is pleasant, which is delightful, which lastly is anything elevated above a vulgar doctrine: and who have attained nothing glorious and famous, but perhaps some plebian business from the black sons of Cadamus.10Ficino, Marsilio, “Liber De Arte Chemica,” in Marsilio Ficino on the Alchemical Art(Amazon Digital Services, 1702).
It is clear, however, that this strict separation between good and evil was not so strict, and attempts to create such boundaries are more like dubious disclaimers than convincing arguments. Walker very aptly states:
We must remember, first, as with astrology, my magic is always good and pious—only other people’s is every bad and diabolic; secondly, that there is nothing necessarily unorthodox in addressing prayers to angels, planetary or otherwise—for this the authority of Thomas Aquinas could be invoked, nor in hoping that they might do something to help you; it is merely perilous, because, as we shall see, it is difficult to distinguish good angels from deceiving demons.11Walker, 89.
The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had an uneasy relationship with magic. Ritual acts such as transubstantiation and the veneration of relics were considered “magical” in intent, and this was a point of criticism from Protestant writers like Johann Weir.12Ibid., 153-154. Pope Urban VIII believed in astrology, had his horoscope cast, and was alleged to have carried out magical operations with Tommaso Campanella.13Ibid., 209-210. The question over what type of magic was considered “acceptable” on some level was clearly not settled in the 1500s. Current catechism is unambiguous in denouncing magical practices on the grounds that they violate the First Commandment.14“Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 2, Chapter 1, Subsection Ii, 2116 and 2117,” (2003). It is clear that the Church assumes that magic deals with external spirits, and assumes that any spirit involved in an operation is not “of God.” This creates an interesting psychological situation for the faithful, as I will demonstrate later on. But suffice to say, the current catechism removes the ambiguity by forbidding any and all magical operations.
Psychology and Magic
The study of psychology originated as a means of scientifically studying the mind and its often irrational behavior. The empirical study of mental phenomena has a set of rules different from other sciences. Psychological “truth” is something that can’t reliably be measured statistically, unless it follows a consistent pattern. Psychological theory only goes so far when evaluating individuals. As Erik Erikson noted, “psychoanalysis for historical reasons often occupies a position on the borderline of what is demonstrably true and of what demonstrably feels true.”15Erikson, Erik H., Young Man Luther (W.W. Norton: New York, 1958), 21. Jung points out repeatedly in his writings that the psychiatrist has little interest in whether or not a psychological perception has any basis in “reality”; they are only interested in the authenticity of the psychological experience. If someone sees a ghost, psychology is not there to determine if ghosts are real, only if the person authentically believes in what they saw.
Psychology comes from the word psykhe, which is the Greek word roughly translated to mean “soul.” Jung notes, “…no one knows what psyche is, and one knows just as little how far into nature psyche extends.”16Jung, C.G., “The Soul and Death,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 131. It is a convenient framework for thinking about human consciousness. It is important to remember that it is only a framework; the psyche is not something located in a part of the brain.
Analytical psychology has generally accepted three “levels” of consciousness in humans: the conscious mind, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious. The first deals with our everyday thoughts, feelings, and awareness. The personal unconscious consists of our personal memories and complexes—things we have forgotten about or repressed. The collective unconscious is much bigger—it is a collection of memories, myths, and images that we inherit from all of humanity.
Jung defines the collective as having contents that “are not personal, but collective; that is, they do not belong to one individual alone but to a whole group of individuals, and generally to a whole nation, or even to the whole of mankind. These contents are not acquired during the individual’s lifetime but are products of innate forms and instincts.”17Jung, “Psychological Foundation”, 117. In his treatise on death, he notes another quality of the collective—getting outside of the constraints of space-time (synchronicity).18Jung, “Soul and Death”, 134-135.
Jung was deeply influenced by esoteric writings and their symbolism in developing his own theory of the unconscious. He describes mythology and its symbols as “referring to something psychic.”19Jung, C.G., “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Pantheon Books: New York, 1959), 6. It is known that Jung studied occult literature extensively, and was interested in Gnosticism, alchemy, astrology, and the I Ching.20Goodrick-Clarke, 246. He was also the first to delve into “parapsychology,” which he defined as “the science of dealing with those biological or psychological events which show that the categories of matter, space and time (and thus of causality) are not axiomatic.”21Jung, C.G., “The Future of Parapsychology,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 156-57.
The collective unconscious represents the best theoretical framework we have for why magic and divination work, or seem to work. Jung states with regard to primitive magic:
This was the purpose of rite and dogma; they were dams and walls to keep back the dangers of the unconscious, the ‘perils of the soul.’ Primitive rites consist accordingly in the exorcizing of spirits, the lifting of spells, the averting of the evil omen, propitiation, purification, and the production by sympathetic magic of helpful occurrences.22Jung, “Archetypes”, 22.
Dealing With the Shadow
It is interesting to note the parallels with magic in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In dealing with spirits, there was some ambiguity about whether one was dealing with angelic or demonic beings—one would seek the help of the angelic, and banish the demonic. In Jung’s terms, this is a means of juggling the collective unconscious. “Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself.”23Ibid., 20. This confrontation is with the archetype of the Shadow, which was often confused with the unconscious itself, and was a justification for avoiding it. Jung says that the unconscious was “commonly regarded” as “source of all evil thoughts.”24Ibid., 6. “In the chambers of the heart dwell the wicked blood-spirits, swift anger and sensual weakness.” It is a mistake, however, to avoid this confrontation: “The shadow is a living part of the personality and therefore wants to live with it in some form. It cannot be argued out of existence or rationalized into harmlessness.”25Ibid., 6.
It is not a far jump from the notion of the Shadow to the notion of the “demonic being”. Religion serves the function of shielding us from our own “demonic beings.” The above quote suggests that we need to integrate our inner demons, not banish them. However, Jung considered magical operations to be dangerous because they are “insidious.”26Jung, C.G., “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomena,” in Alchemical Studies (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1967), 118. He uses Paracelsus as an example. Paracelsus was a successor to Ficino philosophically, and pioneering physician, who did not shy away from any type of magical practice, but made many enemies through his arrogance. “Paracelsus was a little too sure that he had his enemy in front of him, and did not notice that it was lodged in his own bosom.”27Ibid., 120. The magician seeks to conquer the unconscious, and this is fraught with dangers. In Jung’s discussion of Paracelsus and alchemy, he quotes Paracelsus regarding the “difficult Adech” who “hinders our intentions.”28Ibid., 170. “The difficulties of the art play no small role in alchemy. Generally they are explained as technical difficulties, but often enough . . . there are remarks about the psychic nature of the dangers and obstacles that complicate the work. Partly they are demonic influences, partly psychic disturbances such as melancholia.”29 Ibid., 6.
Returning to the vis imaginativa—the “power of imagination” is another way of talking about the power of interacting with the collective unconscious. All of the methods used by magicians are designed to bring about a psychological result, which may occur strictly within the mind, or may have an external (psychosomatic) result. There is a temptation to be reductive, to say that rites and rituals, either religious or magical, are “merely psychological.” However, there is nothing “mere” about psychology. The unconscious is the storehouse of human mytho-archaeology, and with it all of our collective potential and terror. Thus, the psychological results of magic and ritual are very real and powerful. Their power is in the complexity and depth of their symbols.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Jung, C.G., Mysterium Coniunctionis (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1970), xiii.|
|2.||↑||Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), 3-4.|
|3.||↑||Jung, C. G., “Foreword to Moser : “Spuk : Irrglaube Oder Wahrglaube?,”” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 144.|
|5.||↑||Jung, C.G., “The Psychological Foundations of Belief in Spirits,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 116.|
|6.||↑||Ficino, Marsilio, “Five Questions Concerning the Mind,” in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1948), 198.|
|7.||↑||Walker, D.P., Spiritual and Demonic Magic (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 1975), 76.|
|8.||↑||Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008), 173-174.|
|10.||↑||Ficino, Marsilio, “Liber De Arte Chemica,” in Marsilio Ficino on the Alchemical Art(Amazon Digital Services, 1702).|
|14.||↑||“Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 2, Chapter 1, Subsection Ii, 2116 and 2117,” (2003).|
|15.||↑||Erikson, Erik H., Young Man Luther (W.W. Norton: New York, 1958), 21.|
|16.||↑||Jung, C.G., “The Soul and Death,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 131.|
|17.||↑||Jung, “Psychological Foundation”, 117.|
|18.||↑||Jung, “Soul and Death”, 134-135.|
|19.||↑||Jung, C.G., “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious,” in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Pantheon Books: New York, 1959), 6.|
|21.||↑||Jung, C.G., “The Future of Parapsychology,” in Psychology and the Occult (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1977), 156-57.|
|22.||↑||Jung, “Archetypes”, 22.|
|24, 25.||↑||Ibid., 6.|
|26.||↑||Jung, C.G., “Paracelsus as a Spiritual Phenomena,” in Alchemical Studies (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1967), 118.|