In the lead-up to World War 1, Carl Jung had around 12 violent visions including a boot stepping on a European city and a sea of blood sweeping across Europe stopping at the Alps. He also heard a voice assuring him that the visions were “completely real” and that they “will come to pass” (Jung, 2012, p.123). At the time of the visions, Jung was concerned that he was succumbing to the same schizophrenia that his mother suffered from. However, with the outbreak of war, Jung decided that these visions “had depicted not what would happen to him, but to Europe. In other words, that it was a precognition of a collective event, what he would later call a big dream” (Jung, 2012, p.28). In this article, we will analyze what these visions could be if they are not paranormal events and then look at how the visions might be explained if they were genuine psychic phenomena.
Jung’s unconscious may have been preparing him for the possibility of war to soften the emotional impact that such a huge event could have on him. In the introduction to Jung’s Red Book, there is a reference to Alphonse Maeder’s view that dreams were “attempts to solve the individual’s moral conflicts. As such, they did not merely point to the past but also prepared the way for the future” (Jung, 2012, p.14). Perhaps in Jung’s prophetic visions of war, he was feeling overwhelming moral conflicts about what was happening in Europe. It is not uncommon for a person to ruminate on worst-case scenario possibilities. This type of thinking provides a sense of agency over uncontrollable future events. If one thinks about the possibility of war, then one can plan strategies to survive it. In California, we do not know that there will be an earthquake in the future, but we do suspect that there will be one, hence we discuss and practice what we would do in such an event.
I have had an intense vision during an ayahuasca ceremony of a catastrophic earthquake hitting San Francisco. It is yet to be seen if this vision will come into reality. However, I suspect that this vision occurred due to my own fears and to the media images that I have seen. My vision was very similar to that of the 2015 Movie ‘San Andreas’ starring The Rock. I have not seen the movie, but I have seen clips of it. I suspect that my fear and the realistic images in the movie trailer combined to create a terrifying vision in my ceremony. It is quite possible that something like newspaper images of war and Jung’s fear of war created a similar vision. If we could find a genuine link between personal psychologies and collective events then we could have a real advantage in life. If my vision was really prophetic then I could prepare by storing emergency supplies or moving to another city. It is worth noting that a significant difference between mine and Jung’s visions is that there was no voice trying to convince me that my visions were real.
Jung had a significant incentive to believe his visions were prophetic that may have biased his opinion. Upon reading that war had broken out, Jung stated that “finally I understood” and that “nobody was happier than I. I was now sure that no schizophrenia was threatening me.” This admission could be evidence of Jung’s conflict of interest in deciding if he was schizophrenic or not. By linking his ‘big dreams’ to collective events he was able to reassure himself that he was not going mad. Of course, it is not fair to blame him for being biased towards attaching meaning to these two occurrences, as most people would do the same. But conflicts of interest are always helpful to be highlighted. Jung goes on to say that:
“I understood that my dreams and my visions came to me from the subsoil of the collective unconscious. What remained for me to do now was to deepen and validate this discovery. And this is what I have been trying to do for forty years. (Jung, 2012, p.28)”
One could argue that Jung believed that failure to validate his discovery would lead to him being declared mad. He was effectively fighting for forty years to preserve his sanity. This type of personal bias shows why it is important to discuss the links between personal psychology and collective events.
Perhaps Jung’s visions of war were just logical and sensible predictions of the future based on the events at the time. The First World War did not emerge solely due to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was a long build-up that according to Richard S. Fogarty, Professor of History at the University of Alabama began with the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1894. The next stage was the British-French Entente Cordiale of 1904 and then the Anglo-Rusian agreement, which according to Fogarty was “critical to shaping the war, and even in helping bring it on: it created a set of expectations about international rivalry and competition, determining what kind of war Europeans imagined and prepared for.” As per Fogarty’s statement, war was being imagined by most Europeans in the years leading up to 1914. Is it prophetic that Jung was having violent visions or was he just one of many people who were logically concluding that the growing tensions and alliances in Europe would inevitably lead to war? (Kiger, 2021)
Perhaps Jung was struggling with the threat of war so much that he had to resort to a type of magical thinking to cope. Research shows that people are more likely to turn to types of mystical thinking like prophetic dreams and astrology during times of uncertainty and stress (Tyson, 1982). They also found that schizotypal personality types were much more likely to turn to mystical thinking in times of stress (Cheetham, 2019). Jung was both under stress and had schizotypal personality traits. While the word schizotypal sounds quite negative, this is not necessarily the case. A schizotypal personality is someone prone to unusual beliefs such as telepathy, mind-control, spirit channeling, and looking for hidden personal meanings in events (Evans, 2021). As with most personality types, schizotypy exists on a spectrum and it is only people on the extreme end of this spectrum that would be considered pathological. Jung does not seem to be in this extreme category. While knowing that schizotypal personalities look for hidden meaning in times of stress is useful, it does not have to rule out the possibility that Jung was seeing the future of collective events. He could be both schizotypal and able to see the future and hence this could be considered a straw man argument.
We will now consider how, If Jung’s visions were truly prophetic, this might be possible. If, like Elon Musk, you believe in Nicholas Bostrom’s theory that there is a billion to one chance that we are not living in a computer simulation, then the number of possible explanations opens up. One possibility would be that the computer simulation may have been running on a scripted program just like a game of Super Mario Brothers. Jung may have been tapping into information held on the next level of the game.
It may also be possible that the human psyche works like our modern-day laptop computers. We have local memory on the computer’s hard drive and we also have non-local, cloud-based memory. The cloud-based memory is accessible by all other laptops that are connected to the internet and have the right access permissions. A more mystical term for cloud-based storage could be the Akashic Records, Buddhism’s Big Mind, or the Collective Unconscious. It may be that Jung was accessing information about future events that are stored in the cloud.
Jung tells us that the ancients are able to inform us of future events:
“Think diligently about the images that the ancients have left behind. They show the way of what is to come. Look back at the collapse of empires, of growth and death, of the desert and monasteries, they are the images of what is to come. Everything has been foretold. But who knows how to interpret it?” (Jung, 2012, p. 143)
If these beings are real, is it possible that these ancients have this knowledge because they have so much experience and hence know what patterns to look for? Are they able to see that when you add up causal factors such as tensions between global powers, economic hardships, and astrological events it usually leads to war? Is it the experience of being around since ancient times that enables them to predict the future? Or are they able to foretell because they have some sort of god-like omniscient powers unavailable to humans?
If Jung was seeing the future then why doesn’t everyone have these abilities? In 1955 Jung said that the reason why the process of Active Imagination “looks very much like a psychosis is that the patient is integrating the same fantasy-material to which the insane person falls victim because he cannot integrate it but is swallowed up by it” (2012, p. 29). This sentiment has echoes of the quote attributed to Joseph Campbell that “The psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” If Jung’s visions really were predictions of collective events then the reason that the visions came to him and not to others maybe because most people do not swim in these types of waters. When a person dismisses things like prophecies as impossible it is likely that they do not believe in it because they have never experienced it. If more people explored the realms of fantasy material then more people might come back with prophetic visions. And unfortunately, more people might fall into psychosis.
Jung may have had an uncommon ability to enter trance without any initiatory process like a psychedelic or breathwork ceremony. According to archaeologist Graham Hancock, “We know from surveys that around 2 percent of modern adults (and this is a cautious estimate) do in fact seem to be born with the ability to fall spontaneously into very deep states of hallucination” (Hancock, 2006, p.416). It may be that Jung could not apply his visions to personal psychology because they do not happen to 98% of people. Perhaps he was chosen and imbued with a unique gift that only other prophets like Moses or Mohammed have ever had. If this was the case, it would have been very difficult for Jung to have said such a thing. He would probably have been attacked as a heretic, arrogant or having a Messiah complex, or even condemned as schizophrenic. In this context, it is understandable why it took so many years after his death for the Red Book to be published.
It may simply be impossible for one human mind to comprehend the complexities of the human psyche and the collective. We understand humans as complex systems. A complex system can be explained as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. When we try to reduce human behavior to simple causes and effects we make errors. This is why the idea that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance did not reduce the number of people suffering from depression. In fact, the opposite has occurred since the introduction of antidepressants. Rates of depression continue to rise in all demographics (Weinberger, et. al. 2018). While at the same time antidepressant use has increased by nearly 400% (Lee, et. al. 2016).
Jung existed in a time where psychology was fighting to be recognized as legitimate science. The scientific method works by reducing and isolating component parts. However, the psyche may be so complex that it can never be understood without including all components. Holding all these variables together may be beyond the capacity of one human mind.
To fully understand the human psyche a greater degree of cooperation between fields may be necessary. The cell-biologist, the endocrinologists, the neuroscientist, the psychologist, the shamans, the priests, the economists, the meteorologists, the astronomers all need to start sharing their information rather than fighting for their silo to be the one victor. Thich Nhat Hanh (1993) said that the next Buddha may be a sangha. Perhaps this sangha will be made up of these diverse perspectives. And there are signs that these types of collaborative efforts are becoming more possible in areas of science. An example of this is how Nobel Prizes for science are increasingly being awarded to huge teams of people rather than individuals. If only we could find a way to help people in spiritual communities work together with people with different ways of understanding the world.
Perhaps this is why Jung could not find a way to articulate how the collective unconscious affects personal psychologies; because he was not able to collaborate with others. One is left to wonder how much more progress Jung could have made if he was able to repair his relationship with Freud.
As is common in the types of questions, I am going to position myself on the fence and conclude that is possible that Jung had both traits of schizophrenia and an uncommon prophetic genius. If you are feeling frustrated at my lack of an answer, consider your and society's abilities to tolerate uncertainty. Isaac Newton would likely be diagnosed with autism and Van Gough bipolar disorder. If we decide to box in these types of people into diagnosis we may be robbing society of great things.
Cheetham, J. (2019). Paranormal beliefs, uncertainty, belief in science, reality testing, schizotypy, and rationality-experientiality. Manchester Metropolitan University’s Research Repository, http://e-space.mmu.ac.uk/623916/
Evans, J. (2021). ‘Conspirituality’ — the overlap between the new age and conspiracy beliefs. Medium. https://julesevans.medium.com/conspirituality-the-overlap-between-the-new-age-and-conspiracy-beliefs-c0305eb92185
Hancock, G. (2006). Supernatural: Meetings with the ancient teachers of mankindtural (Kindle Edition ed.). Random House.
Hanh, T. N. (1993). The next Buddha may be a sangha
Jung, C. G. (2012). The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (Philemon) (Kindle Edition ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Kiger, P. J. (2021). 8 events that led to world war I. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/world-war-i-causes
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Weinberger, A., Gbedemah, M., Martinez, A., Nash, D., Galea, S., & Goodwin, R. (2018). Trends in depression prevalence in the USA from 2005 to 2015: Widening disparities