Archetypes and Platonic Forms

‘ARCHETYPE’ IS GREEK in origin and dates from classical times.[i] Jung’s first use of the term archetype was in 1919 and Jung makes the point strongly that ‘archetype’ was synonymous with ‘Idea’ in Platonic usage. He consistently states that the term has precisely that pre-existent, a priori meaning that it had for Augustine and Plato.[ii] In particular Jung acknowledged his debt to Plato, describing archetypes as “active living dispositions, ideas in the Platonic sense, that preform and continually influence our thoughts and feelings and actions”.[iii]

ARCHETYPES ARE TIMELESS, for Jung, as for Mircea Eliade. Eliade, like Jung, compares archetypes to the Platonic “forms that exist “on supraterrestrial planes”.[iv] But while there are striking similarities in Jung’s and Eliade’s understanding of archetype, there are also sharp divergences.

The whole thrust of Eliade’s ontology is towards escaping the profane time of history and maximising our consciousness of sacred mythic time of eternal archetypes. As Dudley points out: “The archetype has an exclusively positive and redemptive role in Eliade’s scheme of things. With Jung however, the case is different. For him the archetype can be both positive and negative, redemptive and destructive”.[v]

To become subsumed into the collective unconscious where archetypes reign, for Jung, is to lose oneself. The goal is a balance and connectedness between ego and archetypes, hence individuation which can occur through a dialectic between the individual ego and archetypes.[vi]

Despite their differences, Jung and Eliade’s understanding of archetypes is strikingly close. They staked their life’s works on the existence and understanding of archetypes. Both believed that humankind’s survival depends on developing consciousness of the archetypes.[vii]

Like archetypes themselves, the theory of archetypes, as Stevens points out, recurs in different guises at different times and places; indeed:

“the theory has been rediscovered and propounded in different terminologies by the ethologists (Lorenz’s innate releasing mechanisms), Gestalt psychologists (Wolfgang Kohler’s isomorphs), developmental psychologists (John Bowlby’s behavioral systems), biologists (Ernst Mayr’s open programs), anthropologists (Fox’s biogrammar), and psycholinguists (Naom Chomsky’s language acquisition device).”[viii]

THE ARCHETYPE POSSESSES A FUNDAMENTAL DUALITY: it is both psychic and nonpsychic. What is passed on from generation to generation is a structure – a characteristic patterning of matter and it is this ‘physic’ pattern which forms the replicable archetype of the species.   As Stevens describes it, the archetypal hypothesis proposes we possess innate neuropsychic centres which orchestrate the common behavioural characteristics and experiences of all human beings regardless of culture, race or creed. This is akin to Jean Piaget’s mental developmental stages, Fox’s idea of inbuilt programmes for learning, and H.F and M.K. Harlow’s theory that “social development depends on the motivation of a sequence of affectional systems”.[ix] Other theorists whose thinking has an affinity with the archetypal hypothesis and hence provide associative evidence include Kepler, Kant, Lorenz and Pauli. They have emphasized “inner ideas” or images which correspond with external events perceived through the senses.[x]


[i] Stevens, Archetype – A Natural History of the Self, 47.
[ii] See Guilford Dudley, ‘Jung and Eliade: A Difference of Opinion’, Psychological Perspectives, vol.10, Part 1 (1979), 41.
[iii] Anthony Stevens (1982) Archetype – A Natural  History of the Self,
39;  Cf. C.G. Jung, ‘The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche’, 
Collected Works, 8, 154.
[iv] Dudley (1979) ‘Jung and Eliade: A Difference of Opinion’, 42.
[v] Ibid, 45.
[vi] Ibid, 46.
[vii] Ibid, 47.
[viii] Anthony Stevens, ‘Thoughts on the Psychobiology of Religion’,
Zygon, vol.21, no.1 (1986), 13.

[ix] Ibid, 12.
[x] Ibid, 19.