The Psychological Value of Guilt

Consciousness as a spiritual principle has created a counter-pole to natural, instinctive animal function. Duality, dissociation, and repression have been born in the human psyche simultaneously with the birth of consciousness. This means… that consciousness in order to exist in its own right must, initially at least, be antagonistic to the unconscious… The innate and necessary stages of psychic development require a polarization of the opposites, conscious vs. unconscious, spirit vs. nature.” — Edward Edinger

Webster’s defines guilt as: “Remorseful awareness of having done something wrong or having failed to do something required or expected.” More than just a social mechanism, Jung saw it as a function of relationship which works in two directions.

Even as Webster’s relates it to awareness, so guilt has also the dual function of connecting to an inner reality. Such unconscious conflicts are catalysts for growth from birth; though at mid-life, an increasing psychic horizon reveals them (in the reflective mind, at least) to be religious problems.

Even if you were profoundly devoted to the collective spiritual assumptions you inherited, they were as much wishful fantasies as unconscious intuitions. Goethe said of conventional religion: “So much of hidden poison lies therein, you scarce can tell it from its medicine.”

Though, maybe you were irreligious — either way you’ll be confronted with the relative nature of personal/collective guilt. The modern transition to science and rational thought only brings into relief the grandiose philosophical ideas we’ve manufactured of this business of religion and ego; and guilt remains the spiritual compensation for the Original Sin of self-idolatry and our presumed dominion over nature.

Joseph Campbell illustrated the link between guilt and unconscious demands: instinct concentrated primitive energies for a hunt, for instance, through rituals. Their dual purpose also required their performance afterward. The instinct to kill was necessary for survival, but a natural regulating function was needed to balance it; guilt was the psychic check on blind aggression.

The ritual neutralized it. Nature takes only what it needs: the innate balancing function of life itself. The story of the Garden symbolized the unconscious guilt inherent in the conflict of opposites on the more conscious plane of a religious problem:

In, Ego and Archetype, Edinger wrote: “The myth of the fall expresses a pattern and a process… that one must go through in one form or another with every new increment of consciousness… being bitten by a snake… has the same meaning that the succumbing to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden had for Adam and Eve; namely, that an old state of affairs is being lost and a new conscious insight is being born.

Edinger confirmed Campbell’s insight through the blood of Christ in the ritual of communion: it’s “… the covenant-sealing quality which binds man to God… it cleanses from sin… releases one from unconscious guilt. Also it is said to sanctify which… would suggest… the sacred or archetypal dimension into personal consciousness.

But, what does that mean in the modern shift from irrational to rational? To the “new conscious insight being born” today? Erich Neumann wrote in his, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic:

This split between the world of ethical values in the conscious mind and a value-negating, anti-ethical world in the unconscious which has to be suppressed or repressed generates guilt feelings… and accumulations of blocked energies in the unconscious.  Naturally, these are now hostile to the conscious attitude, and when they finally burst their dams they are capable of transforming human history into an unprecedented orgy of destruction.

The image of guilt reveals why there should be such a world lurking beneath conscious ideals. When the “polarization of opposites” reaches a tension that must be released (think war), its unchecked nature means the instinctual counter-pole has turned reason to its own demands. Much of our energy is spent trying to resolve the ideological projections which, without reflection, can no longer match the unconscious consequences of technology. Neumann:

The guilt-feeling based on… the shadow is discharged… in the same way in both the individual and the collective… by the phenomenon of… projection. The shadow, which is in conflict with the acknowledged values, cannot be accepted as a negative part of one’s own psyche and is… transferred to the outside world and experienced as an outside object. It is combated, punished, and exterminated as the “alien out there” instead of being dealt with as “one’s own inner problem”.”

The old ethic (and the new scientific one, too; for the purposes of the old one have not been reflected), the shadow, the guilt, the repressed longing (the natural facts of instinct) are symbolized as a “pact with the Devil” — an image Goethe seized upon in Faust — foreshadowing our modern predicament. He described a consciousness on the threshold of a new insight:

He asks of heaven every fairest star,                                                                                    And of the earth each highest zest,                                                                                         But all things near and all things far                                                                     Cannot appease his deeply troubled breast.”                                                                  

For an interesting look at guilt and the modern religious problem, read more here, or visit Amazon.


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8 Responses to The Psychological Value of Guilt

  1. Dear Evan,
    Guilt is a special type of relationship either of the individual with himself, between the individual and society, or between different social systems. An interaction full of ambushes in all cases! Guilt is an important initiator of individuation. Both bipolarity and bidirectionality are charateristic elements related to guilt. There is the danger of domination exerted by society on the guilty or the problem of projection of guilt onto others – individuals or nations. At the present stage of things, neither individuals nor social systems seem able to handle the delicate balance which guilt requires. Therefore, at both levels, individuation is appealed for, because it procures consciousness and consciousness is the prerequisite for the discrimination particularly necessary in relation with guilt.

    From my side, we have reached a very satisfactory conclusion of this discussion on the problem of guilt. What is your opinion? I am looking forward with interest to discussing others of your posts with you.

    • Hi Peter,
      From my side, we have reached a very satisfactory conclusion of this discussion on the problem of guilt. What is your opinion? I am looking forward with interest to discussing others of your posts with you.
      Yes, from my side as well, and thank you. Guilt requires a delicate balance, indeed, as a prerequisite for consciousness — one of the reasons symbols play such an important role in discriminating unconscious images and connecting to deeper levels of understanding our natures. The idea of guilt and the psychological reasons for it remain unappreciated and misunderstood as an important link between fantasy and reality.

  2. Dear Evan,
    Let me return once more to your reply dated May 3, 2017. Two of your statements captured my attention and induce me, with some delay, to make a further comment.
    First, you cite Jung: “Guilt is the connector between the individual and the collective”. I would say: In general, our daily life is strongly influenced by the interaction with others, in particular our psychic reactions. My friend Helga coined the notion “psychological diplomacy”. We adjust cautiously what we are saying to the supposed psychical background of our interlocutor in order to avoid to upset him. In this context, guilt is an ambiguous example, because it is used very often by social groups as instrument of domination against the culprit.

    Second, you say: “…it [guilt] remains solely an individual problem in that no group has the capacity to reflect.” It is true, that groups do not adopt guilt consciously as a collective. Whether it is justified or not, they adopt or refuse it unconsciously following the principle of “participation mystique”. As far as I know, Germany is the only nation which has adopted a guilt, that of the Holocaust, a crime unique because of its perversity, not because of the number of victims. There are other nations from which the adoption of their guilt is still outstanding.

    To summarize: up to now social systems keep together by “participation mystique”, i.e. the alignment of the minds of many resulting from the exclusion of reflection. For the moment, this seems to be the only possibility to maintain the stabilty of societies. In ”From Rationality to Consciousness” (see my website), I have presented the utopic model of a society consisting of individuals with independent Self-determined minds, but submitting to the umbrella of a meta-level of wisdom. Following the inventor of this model, Dante in his Divine Comedy, I have called it Candida Rosa. I don’t know whether it is realistic.

    Let me raise still another aspect of the problem of guilt. So far we have talked about guilt related to something an individual has done. But there may also be guilt related to what an individual has not done. This case is even much more frequent. Shirking an unconfortable duty is a widespread attitude. To deal with unconfortable duties requires assuming responsibility. Doing so disturbs comfort and interferes with priorities of the Ego. Assuming responsibility can also imply grave consequences for the individual, e.g. in the case of a whistleblower. The shirked duty can be the guilt itself (see above).

    • Hi Peter,
      Thanks for your reply. You bring up some very interesting points. The quote from Jung might have been somewhat misleading, and you were very astute to pick up on what I poorly paraphrased; it sent our discussion in a different direction than I intended — my fault, not yours. Jung actually said that guilt was the connector between “individuation” and society, and my paraphrase was not well-considered.

      Your statement about participation mystique and allusions to the persona, even considering my mistake, put the discussion back on track. Thank you for that (you’re very observant!).

      Let me raise still another aspect of the problem of guilt. So far we have talked about guilt related to something an individual has done. But there may also be guilt related to what an individual has not done. This case is even much more frequent. Shirking an uncomfortable duty is a widespread attitude. To deal with uncomfortable duties requires assuming responsibility.

      This aspect, I think, is the natural compliment of the one I raised, and every bit as important — if not more so. Without the general acceptance of the guilt the Nazis incurred for those who were complicit through their participation mystique, Germany could never have become directly conscious of its power complex. The same could be said of the relation to slavery and the white culture in the United States — two sides of the same coin. It’s one reason I think the ‘utopian ideal’ is important as a dark guide, but just as the history of religion shows: the danger of the ideal is the ego’s illusion of it as having been already accomplished simply by believing it to be so, while the shadow-side has very different things to say about it.

      Thank you for setting me straight!

  3. Dear Evan,

    Our dialogue on the problem of guilt becomes more and more complex. From my perspective, the handling of this problem by the Christian religion (and perhaps the others, too) is incomplete. Jungian psychology provides the basis to dig much deeper.

    Guilt is related to the effects of the shadow archetype on our thoughts and actions. It is therefore the scene of all kinds of projections. It is also a welcome instrument of domination. Power establishments may use the projection of guilt in order to divert attention from their own guilty actions. Thus, individuals may be pushed to assume guilt which they don’t even have (Max Frisch in his play “Andorra”, where a young man is persued by a crowd for being a Jew which he is not). In Europe, the cases of adolescents augment who are mobbed by classmates and pushed to suicide. Punishable acts are committed in a social environment which is at least partially co-responsible. Modern societies recognize this fact and therefore have proscribed acts of personal revenge and abandonned the death penalty, because it has always the character of a projection. Live causes guilt in every individual or social system.

    Therefore, I am not very keen about the notion of guilt. Max Frisch, again, in his book “Homo Faber”, has described a pragmatic attitude with respect to human error in form of a silent assumption of the error recognizable for others but denying them the right to project any judgement on the guilty individual. The projection of guilt onto another person is always an attack on his identity.

    I guess that we don’t have exhausted all aspects of this subject. I look forward to what you will add to this dialogue. Thanks, Evan.

    • Hi Peter,
      I think you put your finger on the problem. Shadow-projections turn guilt outward into anger, hostility and self-defense (and self-rejection) because they’re misplaced. In my mind, guilt is a function of reflection and has more than just a personal aspect (as you note). Christianity (especially) raised it to the level of a spiritual principle, but because consciousness was not developed enough to inspect its own real motives, the deeper implications were largely repressed.

      Jung described guilt as the connector between the two opposites of individual and collective. It is an unconscious (objective) reaction to the conscious standpoint; both inwardly to the “spirit” and outwardly to society. As a religious problem, it appears in mostly negative form, but its realization as a shadow-function gives some hint to its positive role. I think it serves as a guide not just for our behavior but also for our attitudes. In small things and great, it makes us humbler and more reflective than we would be without it — as difficult as that may be to accept. To me, it remains solely an individual problem in that no group has the capacity to reflect. Christianity recognized it as an important burden to bear, but a lack of understanding assured its repression. It took Jung to reveal its psychological function as a counter-weight to ego-inflation and the hubris which still describes our history.

      Measured against the immense stretch of time required for nature to produce even a glimmer of self-perception, it reveals how far we’ve yet to go in understanding ego’s infatuation with itself. I’m wondering where we’d be without it. Even if it’s been barely effective enough to keep us from destroying ourselves up to this point, it may yet give us the opportunity to understand its purposes before we do.

      Thank you, Peter

  4. Dear Evan, This is a post of high actuality. You start well by citing Edinger’s description of the opposites. Systems theory has coined the notion of edge-of-chaos, the fragile balance between order (represented in Jungian psychology by the ordering function of the Self) and chaos (represented by the unconscious). Before christianism, the punishment of wrong-doing was only known as hybris, the self-balancing function of natural law (again edge-of-chaos). Christian religion has tried to transfer the reponsibility for overcoming this fundamental problem of life into human reason. Note that I don‘t say „into the human psyche“. The concept of psyche had not yet reached human awareness. During two thousand years, this omission has sharpened the conflict of opposites, instead of overcoming it. Jung identified the Christian era with the sign of the pisces (fishes) which swim in opposite direction. It is interesting that one of the Christian fathers, John, anticipated the turn the Christian enterprise would take: the Apocalypse. At present, we have arrived near to a point where the „discharge“ predicted by Erich Neumann, and cited by you above, threatens to become reality – exactly in the manner he described. Since the center of the problem is situated in our psyche the basic structure of which, according to Jung, is common to all human beings, it had to await the globalized world to be solved, because the whole of mankind is concerned. Let‘s pray that it will survive.

    • Hi Peter,
      Thank you for your comment. You’ve anticipated my next post concerning Neumann’s, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, in which he discusses the repression of the unconscious once needed for conscious development but which now confronts us with new responsibilities as a result of, I guess you might say, “over-differentiation”. The conflict of opposites continues to sharpen as is evident in today’s extreme partisanship and the fear of examining our shadow-sides. The “discharges” predicted by Neumann have slowly been reforming and gathering force since WWII and, I think, will continue until we’re able to apply the psychological concepts Jung and Neumann discovered through their empirical work. As has been the contention of many, the dissolution of projections needed to confront our own subjectivity vs. natural law begins in the individual, as it’s apparent that the ‘elite’ are far too possessed by the hybris of their status and position. I think they’ll be the last ones to see the need for it (until something catastrophic occurs) owing to the contradictions inherent in dictating to others and examining deeper personal motives. As Neumann suggested, we’re in a different situation today in that nature (and our own behavior) now pushes us to take responsibility for the unconscious effects of the old ideal of ego-infatuation — an historical perspective which highlights the partiality of our development and the psychic imbalances created when the religious function is repressed and artificially deprived of further differentiation.
      Thanks again, Peter. Good to hear from you!

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