As a child, Carl Jung believed he had two personalities, which he later identified as the ego and the self. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
If you have ever thought of yourself as an introvert or extrovert; if you've ever deployed the notions of the archetypal or collective unconscious; if you've ever loved or loathed the new age; if you have ever done a Myers-Briggs personality or spirituality test; if you've ever been in counselling and sat opposite your therapist rather than lain on the couch – in all these cases, there's one man you can thank: Carl Gustav Jung.
The Swiss psychologist was born in 1875 and died on 6 June 1961, 50 years ago next week. His father was a village pastor. His grandfather – also Carl Gustav – was a physician and rector of Basel University. He was also rumoured to be an illegitimate son of Goethe, a myth Carl Gustav junior enjoyed, not least when he grew disappointed with his father's doubt-ridden Protestantism. Jung felt "a most vehement pity" for his father, and "saw how hopelessly he was entrapped by the church and its theological teaching", as he wrote in his autobiographical book,Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Jung's mother was a more powerful figure, though she seems to have had a split personality. On the surface she came across as a conventional pastor's wife, but she was "unreliable", as Jung put it. She suffered from breakdowns. And, differently again, she would occasionally speak with a voice of authority that seemed not to be her own. When Jung's father died, she spoke to her son like an oracle, declaring: "He died in time for you."
In short, his childhood was disturbed, and he developed a schizoid personality, becoming withdrawn and aloof. In fact, he came to think that he had two personalities, which he named No 1 and No 2.
No 1 was the child of his parents and times. No 2, though, was a timeless individual, "having no definable character at all – born, living, dead, everything in one, a total vision of life". (At school, his peers seem to have picked this up, as his nickname was "Father Abraham".)
Jung was perhaps not so unusual, as many children indulge similar internal fantasies. Where Jung differed was in taking his inner life seriously. "I have always tried to make room for anything that wanted to come from within," he noted. Later he renamed and generalised No 1 and No 2, calling them the ego and the self. Achieving the right balance between the two aspects of the psyche is central to his theory of personality development, called individuation.
Jung finally came into his own at university. He proved himself a brilliant student, developing "a tremendous appetite on all fronts", graduating in medicine and natural science in double-quick time. His first public paper was entitled On the Limits of the Exact Sciences, in which he questioned an inflexible philosophy of materialism. His doctorate was On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, and laid the foundations for two key ideas in his thought. First, that the unconscious contains part-personalities, called complexes. One way in which they can reveal themselves is in occult phenomena. Second, most of the work of personality development is done at the unconscious level.
He first made a name for himself in the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zürich, working with Eugen Bleuler, the doctor who coined the word "schizophrenia". Jung developed the word association test of Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin.
A patient was read a list of words and asked to respond to each one with the first word that comes into their mind. The response, and the time taken to produce it, is recorded.
Previous research had already demonstrated that prolonged response times indicate that the stimulus word unconsciously troubles the patient. Sometimes, it is possible to identify a group of such words. Jung's contribution was to link these groups with the unconscious part-personalities and show how the test provides a window into the distressed world of the mentally ill. People are not simply mad, he concluded. Rather, there is a method in their madness. In one case, Jung showed that a patient who for 50 years had been fixated on the apparently meaningless task of making illusory shoes, had been abandoned by a lover who was a cobbler.
Jung was becoming quite well known, with his fame in Zürich prompting the first of several questions that subsequently came to dog his reputation. It concerns his alleged womanising.
At university, he discovered that he could sway an audience with the force of his character and ingenuity of his ideas. In Zürich, he gave public talks. "Clusters of women formed a phalanx around him before and after each of his lectures," writes Deidre Bair in her seminalbiography. Then, a woman called Sabina Spielrein became his patient and, it was rumoured, his lover – perhaps just one of many. Later, he certainly formed a ménage à trois with Toni Wolff, to which his wife Emma only slowly became reconciled. Sleeping with patients is now the unforgivable sin among psychotherapists. Had Jung committed it?
After examining the evidence over several chapters, Bair concludes that it is impossible to discover the truth of what happened, though the rumours and speculation appear wildly exaggerated. After all, this was an age in which husbands and wives would greet each other with a chaste shake of the hand, even in private.
Jung had an electric personality. It is hardly surprising that such charisma was interpreted as erotically unsettlingly.
Further, the phenomenon of patients developing powerful feelings for their therapists – part of what is called transference – was then new. Freud's earliest collaborator, Josef Breuer, dropped the "talking cure" when one of his patients didn't just fall in love with him but developed a phantom pregnancy, naming him as the father. Freud first thought that transference was unhelpful and should be circumvented. Then, he came to believe that it was the cornerstone of psychodynamic therapy because it brings back to life otherwise buried feelings and affections.
But that brings us to Jung's encounter with the founder of psychoanalysis. We will explore that transformative experience next week.
In 1931, one of Jung's patients proved stubbornly resistant to therapy. Roland H was an American alcoholic whom he saw for many weeks, possibly a year. But Roland's desire for drink refused to diminish. A year later Roland returned to Zürich still drinking, and Jung concluded that he probably wouldn't be cured through therapy.
But ever the experimenter, Jung had an idea.
Roland should join the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement that stressed the necessity of total surrender to God. Jung hoped that his patient might undergo a conversion experience, which, as his friend William James had realised, is a transformative change at depth, brought about by the location of an entirely new source of energy within the unconscious. That might tame the craving.
It worked. Roland told another apparently hopeless alcoholic, Bill W, about the experience. Bill too was converted, and had a vision of groups of alcoholics inspiring each other to quit. The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. Today it has more than 2 million members in 150 countries.
I spoke to a friend of mine who attends meetings of Narcotics Anonymous to understand more about the element of conversion. "It's hugely important," he said.
His addictions had been fuelled by a surface obsession with career and money, and a deeper anxiety that nothing was right. "It's the first time I'd been prompted seriously to consider something bigger than myself."
Calling the experience "spiritual" seems accurate too, because a meeting is about more than gaining a circle of supportive friends. "I have friends," my friend remarks, before continuing that the focused intention of a meeting is about something else: their connection to a very powerful force. "I can't picture it, I can't name it," he says, before adding, "I've never given much thought to church." Narcotics Anonymous literature expresses it more formally: "For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience."
The result is an overwhelming sense that things will be OK because they are as they are meant to be. Though clean, my friend is not cured, and life can still be difficult. But he has the strength to accept what is, to reach out to others, and to trust life. It is moving to see.
Jung believed that we are psychosomatic creatures who must attend to matters of the spirit as well as the body. Further, our psyche is not just our own. It is connected to others, both those with whom we visibly interact, and those who have come before us, via the dynamic he called the collective unconscious. Life goes well when these links are open. Flow brings a sense of purpose. Conversely, blockages can lead to ill-health with possibly physical and psychological manifestations. "A psychoneurosis must be understood, ultimately, as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning," Jung wrote, in an essay wittily entitled "Psychotherapists or the Clergy".
Other observers of the human condition make similar remarks. Bertrand Russell, who could hardly be different from Jung in terms of his spiritual outlook, nonetheless averred that the happy individual feels himself "part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collision". Such a person knows themselves as a "citizen of the universe".
Jung preferred overtly religious language – instead of the universe talking of the "soul of the world" or anima mundi – and this was more than a question of taste. He believed spiritual connectedness was fundamental to being human and that, wary of religiosity, modern consciousness was struggling to take it seriously. The default image of secular individuality was, indeed, the billiard ball. Notions such as the stream of life, let alone the soul or the collective unconscious, tend to be treated as poetic fictions, at best, with damaging implications for human wellbeing.
But from his earliest days as a psychiatrist, Jung had noticed that "a suitable explanation or a comforting word to the patient can have something like a healing effect". He explained the efficacy as arising from what the doctor conveys, not only what the doctor does. "The doctor's words, to be sure, are 'only' vibrations in the air, yet their special quality is due to a particular psychic state in the doctor." It connects with the other. The patient finds that which "will take possession of him and give meaning and form to … his soul". It's not supernatural but conscious exposure to "a deeper dimension of the real".
Religious traditions have been the custodians of this source, though Jung thought the crucial aspect was to have a religious attitude to life, rather than a particular faith. Like my friend and the AA movement, he argued that the goal is best thought of not as a cure, but as acceptance. "They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, and thus were reconciled to adverse circumstances and events," he wrote of his patients in his Terry Lectures of 1937. "This is almost like what used to be expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God." It sounds passive, though in reality, such acceptance releases a new zest for life because the individual is no longer struggling alone, and is instead tapping "the meaning that quickens".
Just what therapy should provide – cure or acceptance – is still hotly contested. The psychiatrist Anthony Storr agreed with Jung: "I prefer this interpretation of healing to those advanced by other schools of psychotherapy because I believe that it corresponds more closely to what actually takes place in long-term analytic psychotherapy." The success of the philosophy embodied in the family of organisations that has sprung from the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous must weigh in its favour too.