Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jung on Death

Death and the “dead” are prominent themes in the Red Book, where Jung takes a rather existential approach to the problem of human finitude. His comments on “living towards death” clearly anticipate the philosophy of “Being-towards-death” that Martin Heidegger would advance in his Being and Time in 1927. Jung writes:

“The knowledge of death came to me that night, from the dying that engulfs the world. I saw how we live towards death, how the swaying golden wheat sinks together under the scythe of the reaper like a smooth wave on a sea beach. He who abides in common life becomes aware of death with fear. Thus the fear of death drives him toward singleness. He does not live there, but he becomes aware of life and is happy since in singleness he is one who becomes, and has overcome death” (267).

Thus for Jung, as for Heidegger, the awareness of death and, moreover, incorporation of death into one’s lived experience, provides an opportunity for “individuation” or, to use Heidegger’s term, “authenticity.” Jung goes so far as to hold that by living one’s “singleness” one is able to transcend one’s death.

Both Jung and Heidegger were students of and heirs to Nietzsche who had seen a close relationship between life and death, writing, “Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.”

According to Jung, “Joy at the smallest things comes to you only when you have accepted death” (275). Death clarifies our vision of things (274) and “teaches us how to live” (275), and provides life with its meaning (275). “How much our life needs death!” (274).

In Symbols of Transformation Jung considered the idea of a “death instinct,” (Symbols, par. 355) which he said had been developed by his “pupil,” “Dr. (Sabina) Spielrein and then taken up by Freud (Symbols, par. 504, n.38). In the Red Book he accepts this idea without question: “Life wants to live and to die, to begin and to end. You are forced to live eternally, but you can also die, since there is a will in you for both” (274).

Jung takes an interesting perspective on death later in the Red Book, when he suggests that in response to death, a man must give up his “personal striving…For everything that previously lurked hungrily in him no longer lives with him in his day. His life is beautiful and rich, since he is himself” (324). This notion, that the consciousness of death leads one to surrender personal striving and desire is quite Buddhist in character.


  1. Interesting post. What do you think encouraged Jung to write "Living toward death"? Did he have knowledge of Heideggers work? Or did Heidegger know of Jung's thought. Perhaps it is a question of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

  2. I don't know of any evidence that would laed me to suspect a direct historical connection between Heidegger and Jung. I think its probably more of a case of convergent thinking. Both Jung and Heidegger are heirs to Nietzsche, and in the wake of the "death of God," the meaning of human death had to take on new significance.

  3. I think the link between Jung and Heidegger is the great philosopher Meister Eckhart.


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