"All one's neighbours
are in the grip of some uncontrolled and uncontrollable
fear... In lunatic asylums it is a well-known fact that
patients are far more dangerous when suffering from fear
than when moved by rage or hatred."
Psychology and Religion
According to the psychologist
Carl Jung the greatest threat to
civilization lies not with the forces of nature, nor with any
physical disease, but with our inability to deal with the forces
of our own psyche.
We are our own worst enemies or as the Latin
proverb puts it "Man is wolf to man".
In Civilization in
Transition Jung states that this proverb "is a sad yet eternal
truism" and our wolf-like tendencies come most prominently into
play at those times of history when mental illness becomes the
norm, rather than the exception in a society, a situation which
Jung termed a psychic epidemic.
"Indeed, it is becoming ever more obvious" he writes
"that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not
cancer but man himself who is man's greatest danger to man,
for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection
against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more
devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes."
Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life
below video we are going to explore the most dangerous of all
the mass psychosis...
mass psychosis is an
epidemic of madness and it occurs when a large portion of a
society loses touch with reality and descends into delusions.
Such a phenomenon is not a thing of fiction.
Two examples of
mass psychoses are,
During the witch hunts thousands of individuals,
mostly women, were killed not for any crimes they committed but
because they became the scapegoats of societies gone mad:
"In some Swiss
villages, there were scarcely any women left alive after the
frenzy had finally burned itself out."
A Delusion of Satan
The totalitarian experiments of the 20th century are a more
recent, and a more deadly, example of a mass psychosis.
countries such as the,
...it was a collective detachment from reality
and a descent into delusions and paranoia that permitted the
rise of the all-powerful totalitarian governments that destroyed
the lives of hundreds of millions:
"...the totalitarian systems of the 20th century represent a
kind of collective psychosis.
Whether gradually or suddenly,
reason and common human decency are no longer possible in such a
there is only a pervasive atmosphere of terror, and a
projection of 'the enemy,' imagined to be 'in our midst.'
turns on itself, urged on by the ruling authorities."
The Rape of the Mind
When a mass psychosis occurs the results are devastating.
studied this phenomenon thoroughly and wrote that the
individuals who make up the infected society,
"become morally and
spiritually inferior" they "sink unconsciously to an
inferior…intellectual level" they become "more unreasonable,
irresponsible, emotional, erratic, and unreliable," and worst of
all "crimes the individual alone could never stand are freely
committed by the group [smitten by madness]."
The Symbolic Life
What makes matters worse is that those suffering from a mass
psychosis are unaware of what is occurring.
For just as an
individual gone mad cannot step out of his mind to observe the
errors in his ways, so too there is no Archimedean point from
which those living through a mass psychosis can observe their
collective madness, or as Jung writes concerning the psychic
epidemic that swept through Germany under Hitler's rule:
we have witnessed in Germany was nothing less than [an]
outbreak of epidemic insanity...
No one knew what
was happening to him, least of all of the Germans, who
allowed themselves to be driven to the slaughterhouse by
their leading psychopaths like hypnotized sheep."
After the Catastrophe
But what gives rise to a mass psychosis?
And what makes a
society susceptible to this devastating phenomenon?
answer we must begin at the basics. We must explain what is
meant by a psychosis and what leads an individual into a
With this information we can then examine how this
process plays out on a mass scale.
A psychosis can be defined as,
a detachment from reality or the
loss of an adaptive relationship to reality.
In place of
thoughts and beliefs that conform to the facts of the world the
psychotic becomes overrun by delusions which are false beliefs
considered to be true despite the existence of evidence that
proves the contrary.
Delusion, writes Joost Meerloo can be
"…the loss of an
independent, verifiable reality, with the consequent relapse
into a more primitive stage of awareness."
The Rape of the Mind
Delusions can take many forms.
Some psychotics develop delusions
of paranoia and believe they are constantly being followed,
tracked and observed.
Others, such as catatonic schizophrenics,
develop delusions about their ability to alter the state of the
universe merely with the movement of their body and so remain
constricted in statue like poses.
But while delusions are false
in the sense of not conforming to the facts of the external
world, they are considered true to the psychotic and so
influence how they interact with the world and with other
people, or as Jung writes:
"If a man
imagined that I was his arch-enemy and killed me, I should
be dead on account of mere imagination.
conditions do exist and they may be just as real and just as
harmful or dangerous as physical conditions.
I even believe
that psychic disturbances are far more dangerous than
epidemics [of physical disease] or earthquakes."
Psychology and Religion
While a descent into the delusions of a psychosis has many
triggers such as an excessive use of drugs or alcohol, brain
injuries and other illnesses, these physical causes will not
concern us here.
Our concern is with psychological, or what are
called psychogenic triggers, as these are usually what lead to
the mass psychosis.
The most prevalent psychogenic cause of a
psychosis is a flood of negative emotions, such as fear or
anxiety, that drives an individual into a state of panic.
in a state of panic one naturally seeks relief as it is too
mentally and physically draining to subsist in this
hyper-emotional state for a prolonged period of time.
the fear and anxiety of the panic state a positive or negative
reaction can take place and the positive reaction takes the
"A greater effort
is called forth.
will show more strength and will-power and will try to
overcome the obstacle or the cause of misery through
physical, intellectual, and moral effort...
If the strength
of one individual is not sufficient he will seek the help of
If such an
ultimate attempt fails, or if an individual is too weak from
the start to show fight, then a negative reaction takes
Psychology and National Problems
At the extreme, the negative reaction is a psychotic break.
psychotic break is not a descent into a state of greater
disorder as many believe, but a re-ordering of one's
experiential world which blends fact and fiction, or delusions
and reality, in a way that helps end the feelings of panic.
Silvano Arieti, one of the 20th century's foremost authorities
on schizophrenia, explains the psychogenic steps that lead to
madness: firstly there is,
"…[the] phase of
panic - when the patient starts to perceive
things in a different way - is frightened on account of it,
appears confused, and does not know how to explain "the strange
things that are happening."
Interpretation of Schizophrenia
The next step is what Arieti
calls a phase of psychotic insight, whereby an
"…succeeds in 'putting things together' [b]y devising a
pathological way of seeing reality, [which allows him] to
explain his abnormal experiences.
The phenomenon is called
'insight' because the patient finally sees meaning and
relations in his experiences..."
Interpretation of Schizophrenia
But the insight is psychotic because it is based on delusions
not on adaptive and life-promoting ways of relating to whatever
threats precipitated the panic.
The delusions, in other words,
allow the panic-stricken individual to escape from the flood of
negative emotions, but at the cost of losing touch with reality
and for this reason Arieti says that a psychotic break can be
"an abnormal way
of dealing with an extreme state of anxiety..."
The American psychologist
Alexander Lowen echoes
"Two factors are
important [in the dynamics of a psychotic break]" he writes
"one is an ego that is weak or insecure. The other factor is
a flood of feeling that cannot be integrated by the ego."
The Voice of the Body
When it is understood that a flood of negative emotions, in
conjunction with a weak and insecure sense of self, can trigger
a descent into madness it becomes clear how a mass psychosis can
A population first needs to be induced into a state of
intense fear or anxiety by threats real, imagined, or fabricated
and once in a state of panic the door is open for either the
positive or negative reaction to unfold.
If a society is
composed of self-reliant, resilient and inwardly strong
individuals a positive reaction can take place, but if it is
composed of mainly weak, insecure and helpless individuals a
descent into the delusions of a mass psychosis becomes a real
Great stress, in other words, can bring out the
best in an individual or society at large, but it can also bring
out the worst, or as the psychologist Anthony Storr writes about
the potential for a mass psychosis:
"...it is only if we accept the existence of a latent paranoid
potential lurking in the recesses of the normal mind that we can
explain the mass delusions which led to the persecution of
witches and the Nazi slaughter of Jews.
Vast numbers of ordinary
men and women held beliefs about witches and Jews which, if they
had been expressed by one or two individuals instead of by whole
communities, would have been dismissed as paranoid delusions.
There are extremely primitive, irrational mental forces at work
in the minds of all of us which are usually overlaid and
controlled by reason, but which find overt expression in the
behavior of those whom we call mentally ill, and which also
manifest themselves in the behavior of normal people when under
threat or other forms of stress."
Solitude: A Return to the Self
In the next video of the series we will explore how certain
ideas, or what the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky called
demons, can induce a societal-wide flood of negative emotions
and therefore pave the way for a mass psychosis.
Ideas, as we
will learn, are so powerful that at times they can posses us,
consume us or even destroy us.
Those who control the flow of
information in a society, and the ideas we accept as true or
false, exert a great power over the course of civilization.
"It was not you
who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you."
Or as Jung echoes:
"Once upon a time
men were possessed by devils,
now they are not
obsessed by ideas..."
Psychology and Religion