Did Jung like Plato?

Sonu Shamdasani is a historian of psychology, writing primarily about Jung. There is one of Shamdasani’s claims that we must disagree with, and that is that Shamdasani appears to think that Jung didn’t care for Plato.

In his 2006 book, C.G. Jung – A Biography in Books, Shamdasani writes that:

“Henri Bergson once noted that to grasp the intuition that lay at the heart of any philosophy, one had to look first at what the philosopher said no to. … [Jung] had little connection to the Greek dramas … and even Plato didn’t speak to him.” – Sonu Shamdasani, C.G. Jung – A Biography in Books, W.W. Norton & Co 2012 ed., p. 19

Shamdasani’s reference supporting this claim is a reference to Memories, Dreams, Reflections. This in itself is very strange, as Memories, Dreams, Reflections is a work which Shamdasani has spent a good deal of time attacking in his other books. In fact, Shamdasani has been hammering away at the reliability of that book ever since 1995, and possibly even earlier than that as well. Shamdasani’s C.G. Jung – A Biography in Books was published in 2006 – so which is it? Is Memories, Dreams, Reflections a reliable work or not? The serious scholar can’t just use a source when it fits his thesis and then declare it unreliable and fault other scholars for using it when it doesn’t.

But that nevertheless appears to be exactly what Shamdasani is doing: In other works, written prior to 2006, Shamdasani has repeatedly faulted other scholars for treating the book as a reliable source when it isn’t. So why would Shamdasani suddenly rely on the same source that he chided others for using?

Ironically, some of the best research on why Memories, Dreams, Reflections is an unreliable source comes from Shamdasani’s own hand. Most notably, he wrote an entire piece dedicated to that question called Memories, Dreams, Omissions (first published 1995 and reproduced in the Jung anthology Jung in Contexts pp. 33-51). Here, Shamdasani more or less catches Aniela Jaffé in a lie when she said in a 1977 interview that she had not suppressed anything significant in her editing of Memories, Dreams, Omissions:

“I … located an editorial typescript [of the book] … and found not only whole chapters that were not published … but also significant editing on almost every page.” – Shamdasani, in Jung in Contexts, Routledge 1999 ed., p. 39

Indeed, Shamdasani contacted Jaffé, and she more or less owned up to the lie:

“She noted that [in dictating the book to her] Jung spoke in something like a Freudian free association, and that his mode of speaking was not suitable for print. She noted that she had to do a great deal of work untangling these associations into a coherent narrative. … This statement reveals that … [the book’s] narrative structure … was largely her construction.” – Shamdasani, in Jung in Contexts, Routledge 1999 ed., p. 39

This is valuable original research on Shamdasani’s part, which enhances our understanding of Jung. All the more strange, then, that Shamdasani would suddenly start relying on the book after he had uncovered its lack of reliability.

Jung on Plato

But nevertheless, let us play along for now: Checking his references, Shamdasani’s reference for his claim that Jung ‘said no’ to Plato is the following passage from Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

“Above all I was attracted to the thought of Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Plato, despite the long-windedness of Socratic argumentation. Their ideas were beautiful and academic, like pictures in a gallery, but somewhat remote. Only in Meister Eckhart did I feel the breath of life–not that I understood him.” – Jaffé & Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections Vintage 1989 ed., p. 68

If this is indeed the reference, being “above all” attracted to Plato does not exactly constitute “saying no” to him. So while Jung is not exactly saying that he loved Plato, he is nevertheless in the positive, and quite far from ‘saying no’ to Plato, as Shamdasani claims in his book.

But at any rate, as we have already established, Memories, Dreams, Reflections is not a reliable work. So let us look at some other occasions where Jung voiced his opinion on Plato. Here is an interview that Jung gave in 1958:

“Nobody has read Plato – you haven’t either. Yet he is one of those who have come closest to the truth.” – C.G. Jung: C.G. Jung Speaking, Princeton University Press 1977 ed., p. 412

And here is Jung’s opinion on Plato, as given in a seminar:

“… the origin of consciousness means the origin of values and significance, and you find these concepts so well coined in this early philosophy, because Plato was close to the origin of philosophical consciousness.” – C.G. Jung: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, Princeton University Press, 1988 ed. p. 678

And, likewise, one could consult Jung’s personal letters, in which he calls Plato’s ideas ‘beautiful’. So on the basis of our research, as well on the basis of Shamdasani’s own reference to Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the picture that emerges is actually one of Jung embracing Plato, and not “saying no” to him.