One of the essential differences between East and West is the issue of principle or foundation.

The West argues in terms of law. Right (as in good and evil, right and wrong) is the fundamental principle, and its scriptural religions have been established on this paradigm. The proliferation of laws, whether they be called commandments or precepts or admonitions. are juxtaposed to sin, evil, immorality, and by extension into the secular realm where they become crimes. The definitions and descriptions are necessarily specific and inexorable, with mitigating circumstances or other logical argument the only recourse.

The expression of law in the West is an expression of societal character. If the psychology of a given culture reaches a pitch of determinism in terms of war, acquisitions, belligerence, and expansion, then its laws will be evolve to accommodate these characteristics. Laws are a product of society, and by their nature reveal the values and strengths and weaknesses of the given society. Laws merely cap what already exists.

The necessity for law emerges with the evolution of institutions. No state, king, army, or government can do without written codes that provide parameters to subjects or, politely, “citizens.” Laws are not intended to curb power except in those who would challenge conquerors, rulers, or power-holders. In antiquity, laws would provide cohesion to the tribal and social ambitions of given peoples, and evolve to channel the excess energies of society. Successful enforcement of laws always requires tolerating, even fostering, a range of space for innocuous self-expression on the part of society. Too rigid, and laws provoke resentment; too loose and laws provoke excessive curiosity into the legitimacy of power.

The historical East proceeded differently. In Chinese culture, for example, from Confucius to Taoism and beyond, the foundation of social order is jen, variously (and imperfectly) translated as moral virtue, sentiment, dignity, or even compassion. Society becomes an expression of values that promote a mutual social ordering based on harmony and compassion, insofar as rulers and the governing permit. The occasional despotic decrees of emperors was clearly distinguishable from the social and psychological character of the society. The initial premise was the necessity to promote the well-being of the family, the village, the community, not artificially but organically, through work with nature and the natural patterns of life to which society conformed.

Social evolution in Chinese thought was, thus, based on an ideal state and the notion that society devolved over time. What was natural and unspoken came to be named and described, and when these values were named they became artificial, arbitrary, and subject to abuse. Thus, Lao-tzu:

When the great Tao was lost,
there followed ideas of humanity and justice.
When knowledge and cleverness followed,
there came great deceptions.
When family relations fell out of harmony,
there followed ideas of good parents and loyal children.
When the nation fell into disorder and misrule,
there followed ideas of loyalty and patriotism.

Western society does not, nor ever did historically, attempt to conform to natural patterns of life and expression from its abstract or real origins. It did not perceive the hardening and artificiality of its evolved institutions as impoverishment and decline but as growth and order. It did not see the social results of its top-heavy governance, the results a necessary expedient for the triumph of law and necessity.

Further, nature was, to the Western mind, disorder, chaos, and obstacle, a view that underlies the Old Testament and its juridical conception of God. The aftermath of the New Testament reasserted this Judaic principle as well, wherein “right” was extended from membership in a tribe to membership in an institution — the latter an artificial construct rather than a natural evolution, being based on the predecessor religion’s structure. Law circumscribed to a tribe was extrapolated to become law governing the sectarian members of an institution. Law from Old to New and beyond became not so much moral law as societal psychology. The breakthrough of some Christians as saints, hermits, mystics, or critics of the inexorable law always perceived the problem: the foundation in right rather than the foundation in nature or compassion.

(The project of Jesus was absorbed by the system that imitated the Judaic structure of priesthood and tribalism, and while a different ethic appears here and there in the New Testament, this alternative is effectively displaced by a new system of institutionalism based on law.)

Understanding the dichotomy of East and West (at least the East prior to Western encounter) reveals a new foundational principle for society. The ancient Huainan-tzi, a grand Taoist tract on government and sage-rulers, notes that in an ideal society there are no hermits. But there were certainly hermits in ancient China and throughout the East — because society was not perfect. There were even more varieties of hermits in the West over the centuries, and for the same reasons: that society and the world were chaotic and failing to find foundations, first principles. Going to the heart of eremitism reveals the heart of virtue capable in anyone who recognizes the failings of society and the need for recreating the self in the modern world.

Jung’s inklings

Jung’s psychological writings always touch upon solitude because solitude is the ontological situation of each human being. Consciousness separates us from each other and from all extent beings, which is physically always the case but takes on a new poignancy with consciousness.

Jung’s contribution in identifying the reservoir of motives and limitations in the unconscious, and the historical pool of motives and archetypes in the universal unconscious, opened an entirely fresh look at epistemology.

While science represents the spirit of the times (zeitgeist), Jung argued that the humanities represent the spirit of the depths within all of us, collectively and individually, and that the investigation of these depths represented a rebirth for the individually. This understanding underlies Jung’s entire work, his very mission a reversal of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra — not for Jung to deny the death of God but to announce the birth of a method of understanding the depths.

The psychology of the individual is the psychology of the culture, and while Nietzsche influenced Jung in identifying this cultural foundation of thinking, Jung saw that the exhaustion of the age was a signal that a new direction outside of the purely philosophical or rational discourse must be pursued.

Only the transformation of the attitude of the individual can bring about cultural renewal, said Jung. A deep subliminal connection exists between events and individual psychology. The content of the collective unconscious is the repository of the connection and its objects: myths, images, powers, dominants. Where Schiller had posited a reconciliation of the rational and irrational in higher art, and Nietzsche had rejected reconciliation (of Apollonian and Dionysian) for the will, Jung foresaw reconciliation in the depths, in symbol, and in comprehending the content of the unconscious, and applying it to life and thought.

Jung is persuasive when he argues that the content of the unconscious can not only alert us to but inform of the nature of cultural events. This, at least, was his own experience, when dreams of violence and chaos preceded World War I. He thought he was going mad, but realized with the outbreak of war in 1914 that the troublesome dreams originated in “the subsoil of the collective unconscious.” This is a simple non-rational hunch, a premonition lacking data, but it is a moral inkling that can be the beginning of a more comprehensive linkage of self and world.

All non-rational images, Jung argued further, arise from the soul or self, and express themselves as cultural phenomenon. If a society ignores, suppresses, or destroys this content, the content will re-emerge, malevolently and in distorted fashion, as violence, aggression, and war. The suppression of non-rational images such as art, philosophy, religion, or even licentiousness (leaving unmasked and unexplored those primordial instincts) can lead to mutilated forms later, in the individual and in the society.

Jung introduced an alternative to what society had done or does in addressing subconscious images: he introduced a new psychology, in short, and afforded the individual the opportunity to construct a personal mythology, a psychology that would restore the images, symbols, rituals, and processes to proper function and experience. This allows the individual to reconnect to the primordial sustenance while being able to distinguish the self from the culture and society that is around one. All religious traditions had made this distinction between large and small self, between Self and I. In Psychological Types (1921), Jung wrote:

In as much as the I is only the center of my field of consciousness, it is not identical with the totality of my psyche, being merely complex among other complexes. Hence I discriminate between the I and the self, since the I is only the subject of my consciousness, while the self is the subject of my totality: hence it also includes the unconscious psyche. In this sense the self would be an [ideal] greatness which embraces and includes the I. In unconscious fantasy the self often appears as the super-ordinated or ideal personality, as Faust in relation to Goethe and Zarathustra to Nietzsche.

The realization of the complexity of the individual leads idealized personas or, more logically and humbly, to solitude. Solitude is not here a condition of study or research but necessarily separates the seer from the world. When Jung constructed a primitive tower on the Swiss shores of Lake Zurich in 1920, he reflected that the tower was a solitary symbol of self. “I must catch up with a piece of the Middle Ages — within myself,” he wrote, for the Middle Ages seemed to express the subconscious more openly in society than in the modern age. Here, essentially, was an obvious symbol of solitude.

And to the theologian Richard Wilhelm, Jung wrote candidly:

Why are there no worldly cloisters for men, who should live outside the times!