Carl Jung’s reflections on psychic epidemics.
26 JUN 2023
By JOHN LEAKE
The Vienna Narrenturm is the oldest insane asylum in Europe.
For several years I’ve been turning over in my mind an idea that initially struck me as far-fetched, but now strikes me as a distinct possibility. Could it be that people suffering from some degree of mental illness are now heavily influencing or even directing cultural, political, and economic affairs? To put it more bluntly, are we now being governed by lunatics?
I’d already been pondering this for some time when I stumbled across an essay that Carl Jung wrote in 1957 titled The Plight of the Individual in Modern Society. His opening reflections strike me as an apt description of the irrational and destabilizing phenomena we’ve witnessed in recent times.
Everywhere in the West there are subversive minorities, who—sheltered by our humanitarianism and our sense of justice—hold the incendiary torches ready, with nothing to stop the spread of their ideas except the critical reason of a single, fairly intelligent, mentally stable stratum of the population. One should not, however, overestimate the thickness of this stratum. It varies from country to country in accordance with national temperament. Also, it is regionally dependent on public education and is subject to the influence of acutely disturbing factors of a political and economic nature.
Taking plebiscites as a criterion, one could, at an optimistic estimate, put its upper limit at about 40% of the electorate. A rather more pessimistic view would not be unjustified either, since the gift of reason and critical reflection is not one of man’s outstanding peculiarities. And even where it exists, it proves to be wavering and inconstant, the more so, as a rule, the bigger the political groups are. The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional state should succumb to a fit of weakness.
Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason having any effect ceases, and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish fantasies. That is to say, a sort of collective possession results, which rapidly develops into a psychic epidemic.
In this state, all those elements whose existence is merely tolerated as asocial under the rule of reason, come to the top. Such individuals are by no means rare curiosities to be met only in prisons and lunatic asylums. For every manifest case of insanity, there are, in my estimation, at least 10 latent cases who seldom get to the point of breaking out openly, but whose views and behavior, for all their appearance of normality, are influenced by unconsciously morbid and perverse factors.
There are, of course, no medical statistics on the frequency of latent psychosis, for understandable reasons. But even if their number should amount to less than 10 times that of manifest psychoses and of manifest criminality, the relatively small percentage of the population they represent is more than compensated for by the peculiar dangerousness of these people.
Their mental state is that of a collectively excited group ruled by affective judgments and wish fantasies. In a state of collective possession, they are the adapted ones and consequently they feel quite at home in it. They know from their own experience the language of these conditions, and they know how to handle them. Their chimerical ideas, spawned by fanatical resentment, appeal to the collective irrationality and find fruitful soil there, for they express all those motives and resentments which lurk in more normal people under the cloak of reason and insight. They are, therefore, despite their small number in comparison with the population as a whole, dangerous sources of infection, precisely because the so-called normal person possesses only a limited degree of self knowledge.
With each passing month, I go back and review these reflections, and it now seems to me that they present an almost perfect description of what we are witnessing today. Take just about every major public policy issue—the pandemic response, the vaccine cult, the war in Ukraine, and now the transgender cult—and note the profound irrationality of it. Common sense, reason, restraint, prudence, and circumspection—all seem to be constantly subverted by aggressive and disordered people.
At dinner a few nights ago, an old friend suggested that the world is NOT run by crazy people, but by greedy, philistine opportunists who are not constrained by ethical considerations. They are adept at spotting social trends and ruthlessly exploiting them as a means of amassing wealth and power.
My friend’s suggestion reminded me of the novel Catch-22, which Joseph Heller wrote around the same time that Jung composed his reflections. As the novel’s protagonist, Captain John Yossarian, remarks:
It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.