The Encounter with the Soul

To finish off what’s ended up becoming a little series of posts on the subject of archetypal transformations, I thought I’d focus on a couple of stories that show us a “successful” transition from the Adult to the Elder. Stories featuring a hero making the Elder transition are vanishingly rare in the modern world.

In fact, Elder characters in general are rare and, when they do appear, it is almost always in a fantasy or sci-fi context. Arguably, all the most famous Elders from modern stories are fantasy-figures: Obi-wan Kenobi, Yoda, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Mr Miyagi and Morpheus (from The Matrix). It’s also true that each of these Elder figures is not the hero of their respective stories but a secondary character in what I have called the Orphan Story: the journey from the Orphan to the Adult archetype.

Mr Miyagi is the Elder to the Orphan hero of the story, Daniel

I had a quick browse through a few top 100 movie lists and couldn’t see a single story that features an Elder as hero. Another search revealed this list of the “best movies about old age”. I hadn’t heard of a single one of them, which just goes to show how popular stories about Elders are in our culture. For all these reasons, it will be a useful exercise to outline what a “real” Elder looks like and that’s what we’ll do in this post, albeit by looking at literary and films versions of the archetype.

In the last couple of posts, we’ve examined the failure of the archetypal progression to Elder as exemplified in Shakespeare’s King Lear (and also, less obviously, in Macbeth). We’ve also seen that the failure of the Elder transformation is accompanied by the rise of the hyper-masculine since Elderhood implies the tempering of Will by Soul; something which is true at the individual and the societal level.  

We have captured these generalisations in the table of archetypal progressions:-

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

For male heroes, the Soul is represented by one or more female characters and this is in keeping with Carl Jung’s point that the Soul in man is the feminine anima while for women it is the masculine animus. Thus, Cordelia represents the positive anima for King Lear – the prospect of a successful transition to Elder – while Goneril and Regan represent the shadow anima; the failure of the transition.

Note that I am using the Jungian concept of the shadow here in a modified sense to refer specifically to archetypal transformations. What I have been implying with the above table is that each archetypal transition is itself a confrontation with the Unconscious. In Freudian terms, the archetypal transition comes up from the id (the Unconscious) and challenges the ego. Our mission is to incorporate the archetype and, in doing so, to transcend it. When we succeed, we progress to the next archetype. Failure to transcend does not leave us where we started, however. Rather, the “energy” from that archetype gets channeled into the shadow part of the psyche.

We can capture this by adding a column to our table as follows:-

PhysicalExotericEsoteric (positive)Esoteric (shadow)
OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellectIdeology
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWillHyper-masculine, devouring feminine
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)SoulN/A

The failure to transcend from Adult to Elder leads to the shadow form of the Adult will: hyper-masculine and devouring feminine. The failure to transcend from Orphan to Adult leads to the shadow form of the Orphan: Ideology instead of Intellect. The failure to transcend childhood into adolescence leaves one dissociated from reality.

These combinations hold true at the societal level too. The institutions of society function as the Soul of society. When they are just, they keep the rest of society in balance. When those institutions become corrupt, everything goes out of balance. The Will turns into the hyper-masculine/devouring feminine. Intellect becomes Ideology. Imagination becomes dissociation. What all this implies is that the archetypal progressions cannot be avoided. All you can do is push their energy into the Unconscious.

And this brings us nicely into the first of the stories we will be talking about in this post; one of the most famous that deals with the Elder transition: Goethe’s Faust.

At the beginning of the story, we find Faust alone in his study in a state of suicidal depression. Faust is lamenting what he perceives to be the wasted years of his adult life. He is on the verge of the Elder transition and is not off to a good start.

That bad start is going to be made worse by the arrival of the devil and here we have a prime example of the symbolism often used by literature and film to represent the difficulties of the archetypal progressions. The devil in this case represents what we have just called the shadow. He symbolises the parts of Faust that are pulling against the transition to the Elder archetype. 

Pro-tip: don’t take life advice from an old man wearing face paint and a hoodie

Another classic example of this symbolism is Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is the archetypal Orphan trying to make the transition to adulthood. He has Elders in the form of Obi-wan and Yoda to help him. But he also has two shadow Elders, Darth Vader and Palpatine, who are tempting Luke to the dark side. The dark side is just what we have called the shadow. It’s the temptation to try and avoid the archetypal mission.

It’s no coincidence that, in Hamlet, it is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who appears to him late in the night with evil tidings. Hamlet’s shadow father represents the part of Hamlet’s psyche that is trying to subvert his transcendence to adulthood just like Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s shadow father.

Pro-tip 2: don’t take life advice from ghosts who appear under a full moon

Of course, these things are not purely psychological in nature. In the real world, there really do exist people who do not have our best interests at heart. This is not necessarily because they wish evil for us. Most of the time, they are simply pursuing what they think is best for themselves. The psychological aspect is the extent to which we allow ourselves to be influenced by those who lead us right or those who lead us wrong.   

Luke Skywalker and Hamlet are both offered the same devil’s bargain. Palpatine tells Luke to kill Darth Vader. The ghost tells Hamlet to kill his uncle (surrogate father). In a Freudian sense, killing the father represents the failure to overcome the Oedipus Complex and develop the super-ego. It would therefore condemn the individual to a lifetime stuck at the developmental level of the Child.

The Orphan must transcend the father, not kill him. More symbolically, the Orphan must incorporate the energy coming from the Unconscious, not deny it. The failure to do so simply funnels the “energy” into the shadow of the psyche. For the Orphan, that means a reversion to the Child and the dissociation from reality.

What is being offered to Skywalker and Hamlet is the avoidance of their archetypal mission. The same is true of Faust. The devil offers a different bargain but one that is perfectly formulated for the avoidance of the Elder transition. We know that the Adult archetype is associated with the faculty of Will. It is no coincidence, then, that the devil offers Faust the unlimited fulfilment of his Will. He may have anything in the world. In exchange, the devil will take his Soul. This is quite literally the negation of the archetypal transcendence from Adult to Elder. Faust must integrate his Soul. Instead, he sells it to the devil.

To deny the archetypal mission brings ruin as we have seen with Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. We already know that Faust is in for the same treatment since the title of the work is Faust: A Tragedy.  Since Faust is at the Elder stage of life, it’s a tragedy of the Elder and we can expect something similar to King Lear.

We know from last week’s post that the negation of the Elder transition leads to the hyper-masculine and that is exactly what happens in the story of Faust. The twist is that it is Faust himself who reverts to the hyper-masculine driven on by infinite energy of the devil.

Woe betide the anima figure in a male tragedy

A female character, Gretchen, enters the story and we know by now that she represents Faust’s anima. Since he has denied the Elder transition and since the story is a tragedy, we can expect the female character to die. And that is precisely what happens, but not before Faust and the devil kill her brother and mother into the bargain. With that, Part One of the story of Faust ends and we can see many parallels with the tragedy of King Lear.

It would take Goethe another 25 years to finish Part Two and so we can presume that he had much time to deliberate on what to write. Part Two is a hard work to parse as it is rich in symbolism. But, for our archetypal analysis, the meaning of it is very clear. It is the redemption arc of the story. Faust failed his Elder transition in Part One. In Part Two he is going to make good. We see this quite clearly in the opening scene where the angel Ariel makes an appeal to forgive Faust and we also see it in the closing scene where another angel declares “He who strives on can earn redemption still.”

Near the beginning of Part Two, Faust descends to the “realm of mothers” to bring back the ideal form of beauty. Symbolically, this represents the first step on the path to transcendence. Faust is no longer denying the urge which is coming up from the Unconscious but facing it head on. That urge represents the desire to learn what beauty is. Having learned that, Faust then sets about trying implement it in the real world.

He wins a battle on behalf of the emperor and is assigned some land where he puts his plans into action. Note that this is an almost identical set up to the beginning of Macbeth but, unlike Macbeth, Faust devotes himself to governing the lands assigned to him as best he can rather than striving after more power. He is tempering his Will by Soul realised in the pursuit of beauty. In doing so, he becomes the Elder at the societal level in the form of a just ruler.

Finally, we get to the finale to the story, which has perplexed many a reader (myself included). When Faust dies, his Soul is taken up to heaven where three biblical holy women advocate on his behalf. The devil gets shafted and Faust is accepted into heaven. The completion of Faust’s archetypal mission is symbolised by no less than the arch-anima figure of western civilisation – the Virgin Mary. The very last line of the play confirms this reading – “the eternal feminine lifts us up”.

The devil demands his due but is thwarted by the eternal feminine

The reason the finale of Faust has been so misunderstood is for two related reasons.

Firstly, Goethe named the second book Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy. That implies that Faust is going to be ruined yet again. In fact, the opposite occurs. Since Faust wins in the end, this technically makes the second book a comedy, not a tragedy as the title suggests.

A god comes to the rescue of the hero

Goethe reinforces this reading by using a trick which goes right back to antiquity. It’s called the deus ex machina. In ancient theatre, this involves a god descending to the stage at the end to resolve the story in the hero’s favour. Traditionalists descried this technique for the exact reason that it turned a tragedy into a comedy.

It is impossible that a scholar of the Classical such a Goethe could have used this technique accidentally and so we can only assume he did it on purpose, thus emphasising the comedic ending and making the title playfully misleading.     

No less a philologist than Nietzsche seems to have misunderstood the meaning of the ending of Faust since he used the phrase the eternal feminine sardonically numerous times in his own writing. Can it be a coincidence that Nietzsche’s will-to-power is the philosophy of the hyper-masculine?

Because of the strange nature of the ending to Faust, it seems many readers have simply ignored it. If you do that, you can end up with a quite different reading of the story and one that foregrounds the hyper-masculine elements. I suspect that’s also why Spengler chose to use the phrase “Faustian” to describe modern western civilisation.

Faust Part Two is clearly meant as a redemption story that fulfils the Elder transition. But the highly symbolic nature of it alongside the strangeness of the ending and the contradiction in the title hides its meaning. It’s also true that the work is abstract and not primarily concerned to portray Faust as a real human. There is one modern story which takes the opposite approach and portrays the Elder as a real human being while also being a story of Elder transcendence – the Charlie Kaufmann film Synecdoche: New York.

The hero of the film, played by one of the great actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theatre director, Caden Cotard. Cotard’s wife and daughter leave him early in the film and we know this signals danger since these are symbols of his anima. Cotard’s Soul has gone missing in action. He needs to find it.

Cotard will not be tempted by the devil but does receive a very similar offer in the form of a MacArthur grant which sets him up financially for the rest of his life. He determines to spend the endowment creating a theatre piece of “brutal honesty”. What occurs next is very similar to Faust’s journey through the ancient Greek imagination in Faust Part Two only far more self-referential and postmodern. Cotard hires an actor to play himself. His theatre piece of brutal honesty becomes a replay of his own life now in symbolic form.

While all this is going on, Cotard’s physical condition is steadily deteriorating and it’s in this way that the movie is, in fact, a work of brutal honesty since Kaufmann does not shy away from this aspect of aging. Cotard eventually hands over the directorial duties of his play to a female character while himself taking on a job as a cleaner. We should know by now that the new female theatre director represents Cotard’s anima. She begins directing both Cotard and the man who is acting as Cotard in the theatre piece.

What this symbolises is that the successful transition to the Elder role involves giving up control to your Soul. At the societal level, it means handing over of the reins of power to the next generation having ensured they are ready for the task, something which Lear failed to do and which also does not happen in Faust. Cotard ceases to be the boss and becomes the servant. The Elder transition is the final transcendence of ego and the incorporation of what Jung called the Self.

Arguably, Goethe meant something very similar in the finale of Faust. Faust’s ultimate fate is not in his own hands. Only the intervention of the eternal feminine saves him and rescues his Soul from the devil. It was the tacked-on nature of the finale and the comedic and playful style of its delivery which backgrounded this reading and can lead to an interpretation of Faust as the hyper-masculine. Kaufmann leaves no doubt in the matter. He has his hero physically degrade before our very eyes. There is no way to view Cotard as hyper-masculine and yet he continues to work, think and dream until the very end just like Faust.

For those who haven’t seen it but are interested, you should know that Synecdoche: New York is a pretentious movie and you will probably be tempted to switch it off halfway through. It’s also a masterpiece of storytelling and possibly the greatest film ever made. I recommend persevering to the end and then re-watching it. Every time I’ve watched it, I’ve noticed things I missed earlier.

But, of course, it was a box office flop. We live in the Faustian culture, the culture of the hyper-masculine/shadow feminine. Kaufmann gave us a hero that, unlike Faust, cannot be interpreted in the way that our culture demands. For us, the Elder reeks of death and “giving up”. Which is true. The Elder transition is the facing of death and that’s something that even Goethe seemed to want to avoid. I’m sure Kaufmann needed every bit of “brutal honesty” to make his film.

But one of the things that both stories make clear is that the Elder archetype is not about just sitting in a chair waiting to die. It’s about the pursuit of beauty and truth. The Elder becomes a servant to beauty and truth. That is only a degradation and “giving up” from the point of view of the ego.

To the extent that Elders end up in positions of authority, they will make their society beautiful and truthful. The alternative is the lies and deceits of the hyper-masculine and shadow feminine. I’ll leave to the reader to decide which sort of society we are living in.


Just a quick final note to say that I’ll be taking the next two weeks off to enjoy the summer holidays here in Australia (I will be responding to comments, though).

I wish everybody a Merry Christmas and happy new year. See you on the 9th January for a new year of blog posts.

The Hyper-Masculine

Two of my favourite movies are the pair of Akira Kurosawa samurai films called Yojimbo and Sanjuro. In the earlier movie, the wandering samurai, played by the wonderful Toshiro Mifune, finds himself in a town being torn apart by gang warfare between two local strongmen. He devises a cunning strategy to have them both destroy each other but the strategy goes wrong and the samurai gets sucked into the trouble himself and only just makes it out alive.

The wandering Samurai

In the sequel, Kurosawa does something interesting by weaving into the plotline the idea that the samurai needs to stop simply slaughtering everybody who gets in his way. In a scene meant to be (and succeeding to be) comedic, the samurai is reproached by a local noblewoman who tells him it’s bad manners to kill people. “The best sword is kept in its sheath,” she says reproachfully.

Those who have read the last few posts of mine might recognise the tropes in this short summary. The noblewoman as the feminine character symbolises the Jungian anima and therefore the Soul of the samurai. The Soul, in this case, is telling the samurai to temper his Will. Thus, in a roundabout way, the second of Kurosawa’s samurai movies is a story about the Adult – Elder progression I talked about in last week’s post.

The noblewoman and her daughter as the Jungian anima

At the societal level, though, the Kurosawa story represents a very old idea which has correlates in the ancient Greeks. The military class represents the Will of society and the Will must be tempered by institutions based on wisdom. Since wisdom is traditionally represented as Sophia, who is feminine, we can posit that a healthy society is also one in which the Will is tempered by Soul. The noblewoman in Kurosawa’s movie, thus, also represents the Soul of society.

As we saw in last week’s post, Shakespeare had described in King Lear what happens when society is not led by Soul. One of the ways things can go wrong is the rise of what we can call the hyper-masculine. In King Lear, this is represented by the character Edmund, who will take by Will what is not his by birth. He is the unsheathed sword slashing at whatever gets in his way.

It is not a coincidence that Kurosawa’s two samurai movies take place at the time when the Tokugawa era of Japan was approaching its end. The wandering samurai refers to the fact that many samurai found themselves unemployed. Previously, they had been a kind of private militia kept by local noblemen. In such roles, they served the clan faithfully and did honest work. What happens when the class that represents the Will of society is released from the Exoteric institutions that keep them tempered? The same thing that happens in King Lear: the hyper-masculine appears on the scene and death and destruction follow in short order.

Another example of the hyper-masculine in film would be the Terminator movies. The first Terminator shows a robot who continues trying to get what it wants and will not give up until it is destroyed. This is almost identical to Shakespeare’s Macbeth since Macbeth also refuses to give up and fights until the death. No coincidence that Macbeth is led on by his shadow anima in the form of the three witches and his wife.

Meanwhile, Terminator 2 shows us a very similar story to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, since it is about the need for Will to be tempered by Soul. In Sanjuro, it is the noblewoman who fills the role of Soul. In Terminator 2, Soul is represented by the young John Connor who must train the terminator not to go around killing everybody.

Putting all this together, we can see that Plato and Socrates, Shakespeare, Kurosawa and modern filmmakers have all portrayed the same phenomenon. The arrival of the hyper-masculine follows the breakdown of the Exoteric institutions of society. The breakdown can occur by the institutions disappearing altogether or by them becoming corrupt. King Lear creates a corrupt kingdom by botching the handover of his crown. It is in this corruption that the hyper-masculine symbolised by Edmund is able to thrive.

Of course, it’s also true that the hyper-masculine can appear of its own accord. There’s nothing corrupt in the kingdom of Duncan. In fact, Duncan rewards his best general, Macbeth, for his good work. But that doesn’t stop Macbeth from screwing things up anyway. This exact subject is discussed by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. How do you stop the warrior class from becoming corrupt and extorting the rest of society? Socrates suggests education to promote the cultivation of wisdom (Sophia). For Socrates, a well-ordered state is like a well-ordered Soul. It must be ruled by wisdom.  

What happens when you have no meaningful Exoteric role to fulfil

Of course, putting theory into practice often fails. History shows plenty of examples of not so well-ordered states (and Souls!). In early modern Europe, many problems were created by the fact that the first-born son of a nobleman inherited his father’s estate entirely while any younger brothers were given almost nothing. Many young noblemen rebelled against this state of affairs by embracing the hyper-masculine. They became bandits, outlaws and crusaders or otherwise spent their time in debauchery. No, the Hunter Biden phenomenon is not new.

In more recent history, we see the hyper-masculine as world historical drama in the persons of Napoleon and Hitler. What do both men have in common? They were both Edmunds i.e. they were outsiders who fought their way from the bottom to the top by any means necessary including deceit, fraud and murder.

It’s not a coincidence that their rise occurred during periods when the Exoteric institutions of their respective societies had been decimated. In Napoleon’s time, it was the French revolution and the chaos that followed that. In Hitler’s time, it was the Weimar Republic and the chaos that followed WW1 in Germany. Both Napoleon and Hitler could have uttered the exact phrase of Edmund in King Lear: I will take by Will what is not mine by birth. Having taken what was not theirs by birth at the personal level, they proceeded to attempt the same on behalf of their countries.

In the Anglosphere, a different kind of hyper-masculine appeared in the 19th century with the onset of the industrial revolution. This followed the breakdown of the Exoteric institutions of civil society caused by the British civil war, the enclosure acts and the highland clearances among others. One of my favourite poets, Coleridge, satirised the developments in Britain in his great poem The Delinquent Travellers, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before.

Rogues, rascals, sharpers, blanks and prizes,
Delinquents of all sorts and sizes,
Fraudulent bankrupts, Knights burglarious,
And demireps of means precarious

It was this cadre of hyper-masculine rascals (and their women of ill-repute) which Coleridge saw climbing the ladder in 19th century Britain. In fairness, the Anglosphere did learn to channel the hyper-masculine to productive ends for some time through the work of the industrial revolution. The problem, however, was that industrial capitalism was as much a destroyer of Exoteric institutions as it was a creator or new ones. One of its main drawbacks was the unemployment it brought on through the problem of oversupply.

When capitalism began, work was still plentiful enough that working class women and children were still employed in the factories. Gradually, as supply increased, the jobs decreased. Children first and then women were made unemployed. This was not a problem for children, who could be sent off to school. For women, it was a bigger issue. The idea of woman as homemaker arose partly because of this development. Can it be a coincidence that the suffragette movement began around the exact same time?

Next on the block were men who duly organised themselves into unions to protect against their fate. Still, the boom and bust swings of industrial capitalism were the main problem. When Hitler came to power, Germany had a 33% unemployment rate and so did most other western nations. Thus, modern capitalism created the conditions that led to the arrival of the hyper-masculine in the form of Hitler. It’s worth remembering that this occurred after Germany had attempted to compete against the Anglosphere in the domain of international commerce.

All-in-all, we might say that at least the last couple of hundred years of western civilisation has been ruled by the hyper-masculine in one form or another. The Anglo countries differed by utilising it for business rather than the military. This had a very long tradition going right back to the British East India Company. It is not an exaggeration to say that the English and American empires have been built on the hyper-masculine channelled into business, commerce and trade. In some respects, the results have been spectacular. It has created a level of material prosperity without historical precedent.

The trouble that we have now is that we seem to have arrived at the endgame of industrial capitalism. Even our WEF overlords are saying as much. The new plan, implemented through the neoliberal agenda of the 90s, involved sacrificing the jobs of millions of mostly working-class men in the United States.

History tells us that when you remove the Exoteric roles of millions of men you can expect to see the arrival of the hyper-masculine. In a symbolic way, that is exactly what we saw with the election of Trump who represents the Anglo version of the hyper-masculine in the form of the businessman. Viewed this way, Trump’s promise to make America great again means restoring the old system of bare-knuckle business competition which, in fairness, was the system which built the modern West.

It seems that the people who rolled out the neoliberal agenda are well aware of the risk of the hyper-masculine returning since what has happened in the last few decades is an all-out psychological and propaganda war against masculinity in general. For example, the way that masculinity is represented in popular culture these days is farcically denigrating. Trying to find a decent and honourable male character in a movie or TV show is a near impossible task. Even advertisements show barely disguised malice towards men.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the rollout of unlimited free porn, unlimited free computer games and the unlimited distracting potential of the internet. Throw in the legalisation of recreational drugs and the flooding of the streets with illicit drugs and you have what looks to be an attempt to pre-emptively subvert the arrival of the hyper-masculine. We also see it in the blatant persecution of hyper-masculine figures such as Andrew Tate, Trump and to a lesser extent (since he’s less hyper-masculine) Jordan Peterson.

It all makes some kind of logical sense given the real dangers of the hyper-masculine. But, as Socrates noted two and a half thousand years ago, it’s indicative of a society and a Soul divided against itself. A healthy society and a healthy individual are united and ruled over by Soul. Sadly for us, Soul is one thing money can’t buy.

King Lear’s Soul

One of the big changes in my thinking over the past several years has been to take symbols seriously. I have always been an enthusiastic reader of fiction, but it wasn’t until I started writing my own that I fully came to appreciate the depth of symbolism involved in stories. The Hero’s Journey, the structure that lies beneath literally every best-selling novel and movie, is a complex symbol which is fractal in nature. It is sometimes said that music is mathematics. Well, so are stories. And learning to unpack the puzzle of stories is every bit as rewarding as solving a maths problem.

The Hero’s Journey is the story of transcendence

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been using the following table of the archetypal progression each of us takes through life as a shorthand to solve the puzzle of some of the best-known Shakespeare stories. In this post, I’d like to add one more to the list and go into detail on the story of King Lear.

OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

I’ve come to think of the archetypes as mini-lives that we live within the overall arc of our whole life. The transition points between the archetypes are mini-deaths. This notion is captured in the Bible by Jesus’ concept of being “born again”.

In my analysis, we are born again each time we transition between archetypes. The example that most of us would agree on is puberty. In a physical, psychological and social sense, puberty is a mini-death. Once you’ve hit puberty, you can no longer go back to childhood in a physical sense. But that’s also true psychologically and socially. Many of us probably had the experience of being scolded by our parents when we slipped back into childish behaviours as teenagers. “Act your age, mister, you’re not a kid any more!”

The physical transition of puberty is an undeniable marker of the archetypal change from Child to Orphan. The other archetypal changes in our table are less obvious, however. Especially in the modern West, the transition between Orphan and Adult has become very blurred. This is almost certainly because marriage has lost much of its meaning for us.

Marriage has been the definitive rite of passage of into adulthood for most of history and across most cultures, especially because children were expected to follow shortly thereafter. Once you have children, you have undeniably taken on Adult responsibilities.

We can think of puberty as the mini-death that separates childhood from adolescence and marriage/childbirth as the mini-death that separates adolescence from adulthood. These are the undeniable events that change our lives. In both cases, we “die” as the previous archetype and are “re-born” as the next. When we try to deny the archetypal change we cause all kinds of problems psychologically and socially, but the change happens anyway. The archetypal wheel turns in only one direction.

If the Orphan – Adult progression has become blurred in the modern West, this is even more true of the Adult – Elder transition. This transition involves the tempering of the dominant Adult faculty of Will by the incorporation of Soul. In Jungian terms, the Soul is feminine for men (anima) and masculine for women (animus). Jung noted that the confrontation with the Soul is a traumatic experience that many people will try and avoid. This fits with the notion that the Adult – Elder transition is also a mini-death.

My belief is that the death phobia of the modern West is rooted in the breakdown of the archetypal transitions. Since each mini-death is a preparation for the big one that comes later, the failure to confront those mini-deaths leaves us naked when the real thing arrives. Can it be a coincidence that we are now trying to eliminate the one final mini-death that everybody still goes through: puberty. In this way, the maniacal rolling out of puberty blockers to confused teenagers in recent years is symbolic of our more general denial of death.

I was fortunate once to catch Ian McKellen as King Lear at a theatre in London

Still, in this post we are talking about the Adult – Elder transition and there’s no better Shakespeare story to address that than King Lear.

For those who don’t know the story, King Lear is about a king who is ready to retire from his monarchical duties. At the beginning of the story, we see Lear organising the transfer of his kingdom by apportioning it to his three daughters and their husbands. Those familiar with the biblical quote “a house divided cannot stand” may see the problem with this idea immediately. But, Lear makes a bad idea worse by promising the largest share of the kingdom to whichever of his daughters can profess their love for him in most obsequious terms in front of the court.

The first two daughters, Goneril and Regan, duly make grandiose claims of love for their father. This pleases him so much that he awards them their share of the kingdom on the spot. Finally, it’s the turn of the third daughter, Cordelia, but she refuses to stroke her father’s ego at which point Lear flies into a rage and disinherits her. She is banished from the kingdom to go and live in France with her new husband. In the resulting kerfuffle, we learn that Cordelia had previously been Lear’s favourite daughter.

Lear gives Cordelia an earful

From a Jungian point of view, the three daughters as the three female characters in the story can be analysed as Lear’s Soul (anima). Cordelia represents the positive Soul as evidenced by the fact that she tells him the truth. Symbolically, she is Sophia – wisdom. Since wisdom is a quality of the Elder, Lear’s rejection of Cordelia is the rejection of his archetypal mission and the beginning of his tragedy. Hamlet is the tragedy of the Orphan who fails to become an Adult. Lear is the tragedy of the Adult who fails to become an Elder.

If all this sounds rather high falutin’, the Lear story is very relevant to our times. Many readers might know of the difficulties faced by people transitioning out of the workforce and into retirement. It is a dramatic change of lifestyle and one which, if not handled correctly, can lead to real problems. It’s not an uncommon story to hear of men (it’s almost always men) who, after retirement, deteriorate quickly and reach an early grave due to the failure to find meaning and purpose in later life.

The change from Adult to Elder maps to the rows in the table as follows:-

AdultMaturityEconomic, political, spiritual, sexualWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

At the Physical level of being, there is a continued decline in overall strength and health. Whether this is inevitable is an interesting question. There have been some fascinating results achieving by having the elderly do weightlifting, for example. Nevertheless, it’s simply a fact that old age brings a reduced physical condition compared to the younger years of life.

Apparently an excellent antidote to osteoporosis

In the Exoteric realm, the movement into retirement involves the stepping back from one’s Adult Exoteric roles. This is why the story of King Lear is the ideal vehicle to explore the dynamic since Lear holds the highest Exoteric role in the land: king. He must give up this role but we see that he fails to do so completely. For example, he keeps what amounts to a small personal army of 100 knights, an unnecessary expense which symbolises that he does not really want to give up power.

This brings us to the Esoteric. Adulthood is the time of maximum willpower. It is in the adult years that we reach the peak of our ability to shape the world around us. This is far more true for a king than for the average person. Lear fails to give up his ego and his Will.

Cordelia’s failure to flatter Lear is also relevant in this respect since it is presumably the first time she has refused to acquiesce to his Will. Since Cordelia symbolically represents the anima, Lear’s soul, her behaviour is the Call to Adventure for Lear to transition away from the mighty king role and into the Elder role. Lear’s rage against Cordelia is the rage of the Will which will not allow itself to be tempered.

The shadow anima

If Cordelia represents Lear’s pathway to his Soul which he denies, Goneril and Regan represent the shadow Soul. The archetypal transitions come upon us whether we like it or not. When we deny them, they do not go away but become introverted.  Goneril and Regan represent the introverted or shadow anima. One of the lines of Lear’s court jester is relevant here:

“I have us’d it, nuncle, ever since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mother; for when thou gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches”

This statement may be taken literally in the sense that Lear has handed over power to his daughters. But, actually, that doesn’t make a lot of sense since both daughters have husbands and, since the story of Lear takes place in a patriarchy, it should be the men to whom Lear has given political power.

The truth is that both husbands are – to use a word that Shakespeare was fond of and which has become popular on the internet in recent years – cucks. They are almost literally cucks since there is another character, Edmund, who will later publicly have a dalliance with both men’s wives.

At this point I can’t help but throw in a reference to the Devouring Mother. Lear’s daughters become, in the fool’s words, his “mother”. But they are also the “mothers” of the kingdom ruling vicariously through their weak husbands. They have become Devouring Mothers to Lear and his kingdom.

This actually makes symbolic sense. When Lear fails to make the transition from Adult to Elder, his Soul becomes a shadow Soul as represented by his daughters. Goneril and Regan proceed to humiliate Lear, stripping him of all worldly power and leaving him out in the rain. Lear proceeds to go mad. He has lost both his Will and his Intellect. Since the Will is the dominant Esoteric faculty of the Adult and the Intellect of the Orphan, Lear has reverted back to the Child archetype in shadow form. Again, the fool sums it by telling Lear: “I am better than thou art now: I am a fool, thou art nothing.”

Lear’s fool has most of the best lines in the play

So, we have Lear the patriarch failing to temper his Will and being punished symbolically by his Soul in the form of his two daughters. At the social level, this amounts to the failure of the patriarchy in general because the two new lords, the dukes of Albany and Cornwall, husbands to Goneril and Regan, are themselves lacking in Will. Mapped onto our table it looks like this:-

AdultMaturity(Duke of Albany), (Duke Cornwall)Will
ElderOld Age  (Lear)Soul

We put the characters’ names in brackets to signify that they are failing their archetypal mission. Lear is failing the transition to Elder and the dukes of Albany and Cornwall are failing to exert their Will and become proper rulers.

Edmund – the hyper masculine

There is, however, one male character who has learned to exercise his Will and that is the man who is making cucks out of the two dukes. Edmund is the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester who rises through the ranks by deceit and betrayal of his father and brother. He announces his plans to us at the beginning of the play:

“A credulous father! and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so far from doing harms
That he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty
My practices ride easy! I see the business.
Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit;
All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”

Edmund will take by Will what is not his by birth. In the broader dynamic, however, he is filling the void of Will left by the two fops, the dukes of Albany and Cornwall. That is why he is able to steal both their wives.

Edmund’s deceitful and, eventually, murderous rise also speaks to Lear’s failure to transition to the Elder archetype. Edmund has learned how to exercise his Will. However, it is not channelled towards productive enterprises but secretive and mischievous schemes. Edmund is the Orphan archetype in need of an Elder. As there are no Elders around, Edmund must find his own way into adulthood.

Edmund represents unrestrained will-to-power. Since he ends up being responsible for the death of Cordelia later in the play, it is unrestrained will-to-power that kills Lear’s Soul. Lear’s inability to become the wise Elder and guide the Will of the Orphan, Edmund, kills his own Soul. Again, the fool sums it up by saying to Lear “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

The death of Cordelia as Lear’s Soul represents his ultimate failure to transition from the Adult archetype to the Elder. The genius of Shakespeare is to show the relationship between the socio-political and the personal character failings of the individuals involved. It’s possible to read King Lear as a tale of personal psychological failings, familial breakdown or political weakness. In fact, it’s all of these and more.

The personal failings of the king bring ruin on the society. But we can just as well read it the other way around: the failings of society bring ruin on the king. There is no definitive cause and effect relationship but rather a pattern of failure that’s like an electrical circuit with a broken connection.

Again, these abstruse musings might seem far removed from everyday life. But, I personally know of two small business owners who retired recently and were unable to sell their business or hand it over to an employee. The two men in question blame the younger generation who they say “don’t want to work”. But I have seen the attitude of these men towards their younger employees and let’s just say it was very Lear-like.

The failure is not necessarily in the individual but in the relations between individuals. It’s not a matter of the absence of archetypal Orphans or archetypal Elders but a failure of Orphans and Elders to “complete the circuit”. It takes a Lear and an Edmund to bring ruin. If one of these is missing, the Lear story has, if not a happy ending, at least a less tragic one.