Journey to Hell – The Path to Self-Knowledge

Mankind has speculated about the afterlife since the dawn of civilisation. In Duat, the Egyptian underworld, the hearts of the dead were weighed against a feather. The heart was considered as the most important of the internal organs, and the source of human wisdom, which could reveal the person’s true character. If the heart weighed more than the feather, it was immediately consumed and one would remain restless forever in the underworld. If the heart was found lighter or equal in weight, it symbolised that the deceased led a life of virtue and would go on to the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian paradise. Thus, aligning one’s actions to one’s heart was considered as the key to paradise.

For the ancient Greeks, the land of the dead was known as Hades, who was also the Greek god of the underworld. While there was a belief of the existence of the soul after death, it was seen as meaningless. The inhabitants of the underworld have no sense of purpose. Similarly, in the Old Testament, there is no mention of Hell nor Heaven. The dead, whether good or bad, went to the realm of the shades known as Sheol, a place of darkness and eternal sleep. Thus, they lacked a developed conception of the afterlife. It was only later in the New Testament, that Hell was thought of as a place of punishment.

Today, most of us think of Hell as a fiery place containing the souls of the damned who have committed heinous acts in life, and must endure eternal punishment and torture by demons. The Devil reigns over Hell, as the incarnation of the Platonic idea of evil (the perfect form of evil).

Hell is understood as the archetype of ultimate suffering. We often say, “I have been to hell and back” when we experience extreme suffering (whether physical or psychological). Thus, Hell is no imaginary place, but rather a state of consciousness that we all experience at some point in our lives, in different intensities.

Hell, however, is also an unavoidable journey in life. In ancient mysteries or rituals of passages, the hero must descend into a dark place in order to give birth to a new consciousness and gain access to a new stage of life. It is the most profound psychological death and rebirth of the self. We will be exploring the journey into hell as the path to self-knowledge.

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9.2: Aion

Hell is Other People

In his play No Exit, French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre depicts a psychological hell, leading to his famous declaration, “Hell is other people.” Rather than being misanthropic, it is a psychological exploration of his idea of the Look. Sartre depicts two women and a man locked in a mysterious room. They are unable to escape the “devouring” gaze of one another. One of the women accuses the man of stealing her face, because she feels automatically judged by his stare. The Look deprives the characters of their individuality, freedom, and responsibility, and locks them into a particular kind of being, as an object in the other people’s views. The experience of always being under the eyes of others causing them to lose their selves and become a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of them. At the end, the man finally realises what hell is:

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So, this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!”

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

The Therapist and The Journey into Hell

In his book The Cry for Myth, American existential psychologist Rollo May writes a short chapter on The Therapist and The Journey into Hell.

Therapy is the prologue to life rather than life itself. The therapist seeks to help the other person to the point of where he can move forwards in life, solve his problems and overcome the obstacles independently. The task of the therapist is not to cure, but to be a guide, friend, and interpreter to people on their journey through their private hell. Each one of us has or will have private hells crying to be confronted, and we often find ourselves powerless to make progress unaided against these obstacles, which is why the presence of a guide is central and has a powerful effect upon the patient.

We are all in limbo; we are all struggling alone in the human condition. The issue is not to have problems but to fail to be aware of them and fail to confront them.

Human beings can reach heaven only through hell. The journey through hell cannot be omitted. Hell provides a vital wisdom, without suffering, one cannot get to heaven. The agony, the horror, the sadness, are a necessary prelude to self-realisation, and a purity of heart.

Paradise Lost

“No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all, but torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

This is how Hell is portrayed by the English poet John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost entirely through dictation, after having gone blind. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. He describes a rebellion in Heaven prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, and the expulsion of Lucifer and the fallen angels to Hell. Milton paints Lucifer as an ambivalent character, who declares:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Divine Comedy: Introduction

Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy was completed in 1320, a year before his death.  The main character is Dante himself, who travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. These three stages are simultaneous, and coexisting aspects of all human experience. The work is described as a comedy because it starts up bad and ends up good, as opposed to a tragedy. The book opens with one of the most iconic lines in literature:

“Midway in the journey of our life, I awoke to find myself alone and lost in a dark wood, having wandered from the straight path.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Dante the poet says that it is “journey of our life”. That is to say, it is not just about his journey, but rather about everyone’s story on the path to self-knowledge and spiritual awakening, which begins by descending into Hell. Dante wrote this when he was 35, which was considered as midlife. This book is the ultimate expression of a midlife crisis, a critical phase of existential transformation which the ancient Greeks called metanoia (mental transformation). Dante makes you think seriously about your own life, and to make the best of it when your life is dramatically thrown off course.

This is what Dante faced when he was accused of corruption and to be burned alive at the stake. He remained in perpetual exile from his home in Florence the remaining 20 years of his life. He dropped into the depths of his inner world. From this time comes The Divine Comedy, an example of the interplay between the human and the divine. This is what the Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich calls the method of correlation. The human questions of anxiety, meaninglessness, estrangement, etc., are correlated with religious answers. There is a mutual dependence between theology and existentialism, philosophy, and psychology; which is what allows us to get to the depths of reality.

Dante the pilgrim finds himself within a horrible dark forest, for the straightforward path in life had been lost. He says, “I don’t know how I got here.” Very often, we find ourselves in this situation. There are times when we don’t recognise how we got where we are. We start out with certain goals we want to achieve, but as time passes, we make small choices and without realising it, end up somewhere completely different. As the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard would say, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This is what Dante experienced, he is not who he set out to be, and he does not know why that is.

Since he does not understand himself nor the purpose of his life, he requires some high ground, some way to orient himself. He sees high above him the sun shining over a hill, but his way is blocked by three beasts, and he is unable to pass through. There’s no shortcut to self-realisation.

In his despair, a figure appears before Dante the pilgrim. It is the ancient Roman poet Virgil. He is a spiritual guide who will be Dante’s companion through the various circles of hell, that are divided according to the nature of the sins committed by those condemned there.

Dante is led to the Gate of Hell. Above it reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” He is terrified and is not so sure he wants to enter, he also sees himself unworthy of such a journey. Virgil explains to him that Beatrice is waiting for him in Paradise, the great love of Dante’s life, whom he had fallen in love with when he was nine years old, however, marriage between them was impossible. When Beatrice died at the age of 25, Dante was inconsolable. Her death inspired his early poems, and she appears as a personal myth of Dante’s, a reality in his own mind and heart, a figure that has become eternalised in his works.

Dante agrees to enter the Gate of Hell, and thus begins his extraordinary journey to self-knowledge.

Divine Comedy: Hell

Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located within the Earth. One might say that it is the journey of climbing down to the depth of the unconscious. It is not just some sadistic observation of the eternal suffering of the damned, but an invitation to recognise one’s own dysfunctions, and see the consequences through myriads of punishments in Hell.

Before descending into the first circle of Hell, Dante and his guide pass through the Vestibule of Hell, where they hear the cries of anguish from the opportunists. These are the souls who were indifferent. They are guilty of the sin of fence-sitting. Since they took no sides, they are given no place.

After this they enter the first circle of Hell known as Limbo, which contains the unbaptised and virtuous pagans who were not sinful but where ignorant of Christ. Many of the great philosophers and poets reside here. In fact, this is also the home of Virgil, before he became Dante’s guide. They are not punished, but spend eternity without being able to see God.

After leaving Limbo, the real suffering begins. The next circles contain lust, gluttony, greed and wrath, symbolising the self-indulgent. It is part of the Upper Hell. As one gets deeper into the circles of Hell, the punishments get more harsh and painful.

Dante makes all kinds of mistakes when he enters Hell. Eventually, he learns that sin is not to be pitied; however, this lesson takes him many circles of Hell to learn. When Dante faints upon witnessing the suffering, he is quickly awakened by Virgil, for it is a journey of vision.

The next circles contain the Lower Hell. Circle 6 is home to the heretics. Here we find the Epicureans who are trapped in tombs burning with fire. The Epicureans believed that the soul died with the body, and stated that pleasure was the chief good in life. The goal is to reach a state of tranquillity, without overindulgence, and minimise suffering – which makes their punishment quite ironic.

The next circles all have more concentric circles within themselves. The seventh circle is home to the violent, including violence to others (murder), violence to oneself (suicide), and violence against nature and God. Dante depicts the worst of the sins in circle 8 and 9, representing fraud and treachery, respectively.

When they finally reach the very centre of Hell, they meet Lucifer, the fallen angel, who is condemned for committing the ultimate sin (personal treachery against God). He is stuck in a frozen lake, and the icy wind that come from the beating of his wings ensures his own imprisonment. Around him, traitors are trapped in various depths according to the severity of their sin.

The devil is three-headed, which is a perversion of the Trinity. He is God’s antithesis. Each head chews eternally on a prominent traitor, on the left and right appear Marcus and Gaius, who were involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and on the centre is Judas, the apostle who betrayed Christ.

Virgil and Dante climb down Lucifer’s body. However, Virgil suddenly turns around and begins climbing back up Lucifer’s legs. This scares Dante who believes they are going back to Hell. Virgil reassures him that they are not – things appear to be upside-down because they have passed the opposite side of the world.

This begins the second part of the book: Purgatory, the only land mass in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere, formed by the impact of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven.

Faculty of Knowing and Faculty of Choosing

Before we begin with Purgatory, there are two important distinctions to be made. Humans have intellect (the faculty of knowing) and will (the faculty of choosing). The problem arises when one lacks knowledge, and thus cannot make the right choices. However, even if one knows the right thing, one doesn’t always make the right choices. Dante the pilgrim echoes this when he writes:

“To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, quoting Romans 7:18-19

The first step for Dante is to get his faculty of knowing expanded. But, why exactly do people sin? A person might choose to do something bad because he thinks it is good for him. It is often the case that what appears to be good, is in fact bad. There must be a distinction between appearance and reality. If one asks a murderer, “when you were committing your crime, did you know it was bad?” It is likely that he will respond in the affirmative. In other words, the problem isn’t the faculty of knowing, but the faculty of choosing. Dante was influenced by Aristotelian ethics in which the lack of self-mastery is less condemnable than intentional pain and malice. That is why those who abuse the faculty of reason through violence, fraud, and treachery are in the deeper levels of Hell, while the punishment of the self-indulgent is less severe.

Hell is an eternal reminder of what we have done. God doesn’t send us to Hell, we send ourselves to Hell.

“[T]he doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

When we refuse the divine love, it lights up fires of suffering within us, that is Hell.

In the Inferno, Dante develops his faculty of knowing, however when he reaches Purgatory, it is not enough. He must learn how to use the intellect as a basis for making good choices. It is a discipline of the will.

Divine Comedy: Purgatory

Purgatory is the place of catharsis and cleansing of the soul, where imperfections are burned away. Unlike Hell and Heaven, it is temporary. Every soul in Purgatory will ultimately go to Heaven.

It is depicted as a seven storey mountain  associated with the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In the first and most serious of the seven levels is pride. This is the fundamental human sin. “Eat this,” the serpent says to Eve, “and you will be like God.” It is the desire to be God that lead to the first sin in the Garden of Eden.

While those in Hell are people who tried to justify their sins and are unrepentant, people in Purgatory sinned but prayed for forgiveness before their deaths, and must labour to become free of their sins.

The work in Purgatory is what Dante calls contrapasso, where one is forced to suffer the sin, work through it, and build a virtue. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung calls it enantiodromia, the emergence of the unconscious opposite in one’s psyche. The prideful who elevated themselves are pressed down by great boulders. They carry their oppressive false persona until they can willingly let go of it, when they are able to do so, they stand tall, humbly, and free from what they mistakenly thought to be their true selves. Dante joins the prideful to carry boulders, because he realises that it is also a serious flaw of his own. After seeing all the sins in Hell, one has work of purification to do in Purgatory.

The envious who looked with hatred upon other people and wanted to deprive them of their happiness out of resentment have their eyelids sewn shut. The wrathful walk around in blinding black smoke, which symbolises the blinding effect of anger. The slothful have to run, the greedy lie face-down on the ground and pray, the gluttonous are starved in the presence of trees whose fruit is forever out of reach, and the lustful have to go through a wall of fire as a means of purification.

Purgatory is like our real world, it is a place of transition. Heaven is above us, and hell is below us. We all have inner work to do. We must rather strive to lead as virtuous a life as we can. The goal is not perfection, but wholeness.

Divine Comedy: Heaven

When Dante reaches the top of Mount Purgatory, he’s ready to fly to Heaven, and is joined by Beatrice, who is his new spiritual guide. She leads him on a flight through the various levels of Heaven. When we turn away from our self-centred ego, it is like a weight is off our shoulders, as if we could fly. G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Dante reaches the Empyrean, the highest point in Heaven. He earns the rare privilege to be in the presence of God while he is still living. He explains that he cannot describe what he saw because language is inadequate to do so. Knowing where intellect cannot take us is important, as well as what our human limitations are. God knows only Himself because God is the entire universe, and everything in the universe is His reflection. Dante understands that he must be able to see himself in God. As soon as he realises this, his vision becomes flooded with a light so bright that he can’t see anything. As Dante wrote, “this is the result of perfect vision.” For the brief period that he is in God’s presence, he is at one with the universe. He has achieved union with God.

Salvation as Individuation

“To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Throughout The Divine Comedy, we see the constant interplay between the positive and the negative, the hopeful and the horrific. Salvation as described by Dante, holds a striking parallel with the process of individuation defined by Carl Jung. The problem of individuation is that the psyche consists of two incongruous halves which should together form a whole. To become individuated is to reconcile the dualities of the inner world and outer world, consciousness and the unconscious, and according to Jung, this is the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence. To reconcile these dualities, the knowledge of symbols (the language of the unconscious) is indispensable, for it is in them that the union of conscious and unconscious is realised, creating our personal myth in life. In the beginning of the poem, Dante the pilgrim has recognised this split in his personality, and that he must embark on a journey to become whole.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The English poet and visionary artist William Blake wrote a book titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Milton and Dante, Blake describes Hell not as a place of punishment, but as a place of energy.  He writes:

“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human experience. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason. Evil is the active springing from energy. Good is heaven. Evil is hell.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Blake accepts the terminology of standard Christian morality, but he reverses its values. Conventional Evil belongs to the devils, wrongdoers who suffer in Hell. It is associated with the body, desires, and consists essentially of energy, abundance, actions, and freedom. Conventional Good, which is manifested by angels, who are in Heaven, is associated with the soul (regarded as entirely separate from the body), and consists of reason, restraint, passivity and prohibition. Blake rejects the dualism of body and soul, and both Good and Evil, Heaven and Hell are necessary to life.

He anticipated Freud’s psychoanalysis with the conclusion that Energy or libido (called “evil”) arises from the unconscious (“hell”) and is restricted by Reason (called “good”), the product of the superego (“heaven”).  

Blake imagines himself walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius (the devils being the original thinkers and revolutionists), which to the angels (who are conventional and complacent) looks like torment and insanity. Blake states that Hell is full of Energy, and “Energy is Eternal Delight.” Fire is identified with the forces of the unconscious, the flames of inspiration, and possibly as the means of salvation. Blake’s technique of revelation by “the infernal method” of “melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid”, reveals the Proverbs of Hell – which show a wisdom different from the Biblical Book of Proverbs, some of these include:

“The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

“He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.”

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

“Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps.”

Though Blake was a devout Christian, this work can be seen as a satire, parody, and criticism of orthodox values, as well as the so-called books of wisdom that were often published in condensed forms and consisting of collections of biblical verses to be taught in a rigid manner.

Blake’s proverbs are designed to put the individual’s heart first, rather than laws. They are designed to energise imagination and human emotional response.

“Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.”

“The soul of sweet delight can never be defiled.”

Blake firmly believed that individuals must be able to freely exercise their imagination in order to construct a reality for themselves, this is what he calls the Poetic Genius, if there is one true religion for Blake, it is the divine spark of the imagination.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Like dreaming or visioning, mythologising is a process that takes our whole being to the borderlands of existence, a place beyond which our eyes can barely make out the vastness of a terra incognita. Yet those who decide to venture that far, receive a gift to take back with them to the inhabited lands we are familiar with. What appears to be a journey of exile into the unknown is, in fact, a journey of returning home to the depth of the soul.

The Red Book: Descent into Hell

“There is only one way and that is your way; there is only one salvation and that is your salvation. Why are you looking around for help? Do you believe that help will come from outside? What is to come will be created in you and from you. Hence look into yourself. Do not compare, do not measure. No other way is like yours. All other ways deceive and tempt you. You must fulfil the way that is in you.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Just like Dante had Virgil as a guide, Jung’s personal guide was Philemon, a magician and wise old man that represented superior insight, whose words of wisdom was “full of the sounds of life.” On the other hand, Nietzsche’s guide was the prophet Zarathustra, who grows weary of his wisdom after spending ten years in solitude in the mountains, and speaks thus to the sun:

“I must descend into the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you overrich star. Like you I must go under – go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

In one of his lectures, Jung stated that:

“A point exists at about the thirty-fifth year when things begin to change, it is the first moment of the shadow side of life, of the going down to death. It is clear that Dante found this point and those who have read Zarathustra will know that Nietzsche also discovered it. When this turning point comes people meet it in several ways: some turn away from it; others plunge into it; and something important happens to yet others from the outside. If we do not see a thing, Fate does it to us”

Carl Jung, ETH lectures (June 14, 1935)

In his late 30s, Jung experienced this midlife existential catastrophe, and was overwhelmed with visions. In his hypnagogic state, he plunged into unknown depths, which he later called his “confrontation with the unconscious”, lasting from 1913 to 1916.  Fearing psychosis, Jung kept a loaded revolver in the drawer of his night table, in case the visions became unbearable. In The Red Book, Jung speaks of his descent into Hell, which should not be understood as an afterlife abode of condemnation, but rather as a present living condition of utter bewilderment, encompassing a momentous existential change.

“What do you think of the essence of Hell? Hell is when the depths come to you with all that you no longer are or are not yet capable of. Hell is when you can no longer attain what you could attain. Hell is when you think and feel and do everything that you know you do not want. Hell is when you know that your having to is also a wanting to, and that you yourself are responsible for it. Hell is when you know that everything serious that you have planned with yourself is also laughable, that everything fine is also brutal, that everything good is also bad, that everything high is also low, and that everything pleasant is also shameful.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

The roots of the tree of life reach into Hell and the top touches Heaven. Through uniting with the self we reach the God, which unites Heaven and Hell in itself. The self functions as a union of opposites, and thus constitutes the most immediate experience of the divine which is at all psychologically comprehensible.

Jung found himself standing on the highest tower of a castle. He sees a figure in the distance, who slowly makes his way to him. He hears footsteps in the stairway, and a strange fear comes over him. It is the devil, or as he calls him, The Red One. Jung has a conversation with him through active imagination.

The Red One: I greet you, man on the high tower. I saw you from afar, looking and waiting. Your waiting has called me.

Jung: Who are you?

The Red One: Who am I? You think I am the devil. Do not pass judgment. Perhaps you can also talk to me without knowing who I am. What sort of a superstitious fellow are you, that immediately you think of the devil?

Jung: If you have no supernatural ability, how could you feel that I stood on my tower, looking out for the unknown and the new? My life in the castle is poor, since I always sit here and no one climbs up to me.

The Red One: So what are you waiting for?

Jung: I await all kinds of things, and especially I’m waiting for some of the world’s wealth, which we don’t see here, to come to me.

The Red One: So, I have come to absolutely the right place. I have wandered a long time through the world, seeking those like you who sit upon a high tower on the lookout for things unseen.

Jung: You make me curious. You seem to be a rare breed. Your appearance is not ordinary, and then too – forgive me – it seems to me that you bring with you a strange air, something worldly, something impudent, or exuberant, or – in fact – something pagan.

Carl Jung, The Red Book

As Jung continues his conversation, The Red One is amused by his ponderous speech and seriousness. He tells Jung that life doesn’t require any seriousness. On the contrary, it’s better to dance through life. Jung tells him that he knows how to dance, and the devil is surprised, for he considers dancing to be of his own province. Thus, they reach common ground. The peculiarity of the devil is that he fails to take seriously anything that only concerns others. The devil is convinced that dancing is neither lust nor madness, but an expression of joy. In this, Jung agreed with the devil, echoing what Nietzsche wrote:

“You Higher Men, the worst thing about you is: none of you has learned to dance as a man ought to dance – to dance beyond yourselves.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Jung ends his conversation with The Red One as follows:

Jung: Perhaps too there is a joy before God that one can call dancing. But I haven’t found this joy. I look out for things that are yet to come. Things came, but joy was not among them.

The Red One: Don’t you recognise me, brother, I am joy!

Jung: Could you be joy? I see you as through a cloud. Your image fades. Let me take your hand, beloved, who are you, who are you? Joy? Was he joy?

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Jung earnestly confronted his devil and behaved with him as with a real person. He learned to take seriously every unknown wanderer who personally inhabits his inner world. He was his joy, the joy of the serious person. Whoever tastes this joy forgets himself. And there is nothing sweeter than forgetting oneself.

Jung writes:

“If you ever have the rare opportunity to speak with the devil, then do not forget to confront him in all seriousness. He is your devil after all. The devil as the adversary is your own other standpoint; he tempts you and sets a stone in your path where you least want it. Taking the devil seriously does not mean going over to his side, or else one becomes the devil. Rather it means coming to an understanding. Thereby you accept your other standpoint. With that the devil fundamentally loses ground, and so do you. And that may be well and good.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

When Jung realised that the devil is joy, he wanted to make a pact with him. But, he couldn’t make a pact with joy, because it immediately disappears. The essence of the devil is that he cannot be captured. The devil seeks to saw off the branch on which you sit. That is useful and protects one from falling asleep and from the vices that go along with it.

“The devil is an evil element. But joy? If you run after it, you see that joy also has evil in it, since then you arrive at pleasure and from pleasure go straight to Hell, your own particular Hell, which turns out differently for everyone.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Unlike Faust, who in his depression and dissatisfaction with life sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for power, knowledge, and material gain – Jung avoids this danger by reaching a mutual agreement. He achieved some joy, and the devil accepted some of Jung’s seriousness. It is always a risky thing to accept joy, it cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

What Jung initially perceived as a deeply critical period leading him to the brink of madness eventually came to represent the source of the most creative and significant period of his life, “the stuff and material for more than one life”, as he put it.

For Jung, purifying one’s vision while travelling through Hell involves, first and foremost, the acknowledgment and integration of an evil counterpart through what he calls the shadow. However, while it is within the bounds of possibility for us to recognise the relative evil of our nature, it is a rare and shattering experience to gaze into the face of absolute evil.

“Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself. And when you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Conclusion

The descent into hell is a cathartic journey which leads to self-knowledge, self-transformation, and ultimately, self-transcendence. It is easy to get into but very difficult to exit. It epitomises a process of self-transformation similar to what the alchemists intended with the nigredo phase of spiritual mortification and putrefaction, a dangerous, yet healing, descent into one’s inner underworld. Only in the region of danger can one find the treasure hard to attain.

Everything in the human mind belongs to the natural play of opposites, which regulates life. Real self-transformation shall never be complete without man’s reconciliation of heaven and hell.

“He who journeys to Hell also becomes Hell; therefore do not forget from whence you come. The depths are stronger than us; so do not be heroes, be clever and drop the heroics, since nothing is more dangerous than to play the hero.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book


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Journey to Hell – The Path to Self-Knowledge

Hell is understood as the archetype of ultimate suffering. It is no imaginary place, but rather a state of consciousness that we all experience at some point in our lives.

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