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The guilty conscience as an existential problem




The great Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Gustav Jung made a significant contribution to understanding the spiritual life by underlining the moral character of most of the personality’s repressions. Jung argued, on the basis of his clinical psychotherapeutic and medical experience, that these repressions were usually of a moral nature. In fact, in some cases, Jung went even further and taught that neurosis, which is today a very common disharmony in the personality, has a religious character. This is why, in his opinion, the problem of neurosis is actually a religious problem.

Jung’s view here on the primary content of our modern repressions has been corroborated by many psychological and psychotherapeutic studies, as well as by philosophical thought. In fact, a lively discussion has begun in many quarters regarding the existential significance of the guilty feelings that plague modern people, often without them even being aware of the role of these feelings. The unconscious part of the human personality suffers from the pressure of repressions, which usually consist of strong moral conflicts, without the person being aware of the particular way in which these conflicts generate feelings of guilt. However, in spite of this, it is today well established in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy that the concept of guilty feelings, or the concept of the guilty conscience, is a psychological factor accepted even by psychoanalysis.

In any case, in terms of psychology and psychotherapy, we should take note of the book by the German psychologist and theologian Helmut Harsch, in which he attempts a systematic exposition of the problem of guilt in the areas of theology and depth psychology. The combination of these two areas of the spiritual life in researching the problem of guilt takes on particular significance today, inasmuch as this research recognizes, and provides scientific validation for, the idea that the problem of guilt stands as the foremost existential problem of our times.

This claim is neither unfounded nor exaggerated, given the enormous influence Franz Kafka’s famous work The Trial has had on modern thought and art, as well as on philosophy in general. The Trial, which was performed not long ago at a theater in Thessaloniki, is the creative product of a man who was greatly skilled in studying the way in which guilty feelings are repressed in the human psyche. Of course, the interpretations offered of this Czech author’s work are many and varied, and critics’ disagreements over the book’s deeper meaning are well known. Nevertheless, nearly all Kafka scholars agree that, in The Trial, Kafka dissects and analyzes with incomparable skill and precision the existential nature of the feeling of guilt. It thus comes as no surprise that, with the incredible interest generated by Existentialism, The Trial became the subject of research highlighting the feeling of guilt, i.e. the guilty conscience, as modern man’s central problem.

On the other hand, it is, of course, understandable why such a claim would not be easily accepted, since, as is clear from psychotherapeutic practice, guilty persons carefully hide the causes of their neurotic behavior, and, in fact, react strongly to any attempt to bring this cause (i.e. guilt) to the surface of their consciousness.

As the psychoanalytical dialogue progresses through its various stages (which, for the moral conscience, are particularly sensitive), the patients’ attitude toward their personal responsibility for creating and maintaining these moral conflicts manifests itself quite clearly. Experienced psychotherapists and psychiatrists, however, know that neurotic people, who are experiencing an existential moral problem, will never admit that the symptoms of their mental disharmony or disorder are the result of the way in which they are experiencing this moral conflict. Patients always insist that the problem is pathological/anatomical, and for this reason never think to visit a psychiatrist but rather insist on visiting general practitioners, cardiologists, surgeons, and every other kind of specialist except a psychiatrist. And, as prominent psychiatrists testify, often, since the neurotic symptoms are also organic, many specialists also see neuroses as organic illnesses involving the heart, the stomach, the intestines, the peripheral nerves, the bladder, and other organs of the human body. So it is not always possible for doctors and those to whom the neurotic sufferers are linked to recognize that they are experiencing an existential moral problem. The German psychiatrist von Uexküll notes that neurotic people live their lives just like other people, with no obvious abnormalities. They may have considerable professional success and seem very well adapted to social life. The latter may explain why we are generally unable to identify the extent of this neurotic phenomenon in social life.

However, the neurotic person’s tightly concealed experience of a moral problem demonstrates that neurosis, as the experience of repressed feelings of guilt, is in fact a sickness of the personality’s character. Despite the fact that experts disagree as to the existential meaning of neurosis, all those involved with the problem of the interpretation of neurosis agree that this mental disharmony is a sickness of the personality’s character. One might say that this officially confirms the moral character of the neurotic person’s mental conflict. It also verifies the unconscious way in which this repressed conflict is experienced, i.e. ultimately as the repression of the moral conscience and as feelings of guilt.

Of course, this description of the modern person’s spiritual state is not unique to the modern era. In their basic attitudes toward life and its problems, human beings are certainly always the same. One era, regardless of how pivotal it may be and how much it may subvert the basic ways of life, could never change the essence of human behavior in the face of life’s problems. Rather, a pivotal era may simply test and strain certain weaknesses or certain inadequate mental coping mechanisms. In no way, however, could it substantially alter human behavior. Thus, modern psychological research and psychotherapeutic practice simply constitute an impressive vista onto the basic form of human behavior, which always involves people’s dissociation from their moral consciousness. And that is why it falls within the domain of the regenerative work of the Church of Christ, because the central problem the Church of Christ confronts within its redemptive sphere, and the main goal of its regenerative efforts, is always the experience of the moral conscience’s demands in the light of the Gospel imperatives.

In fact, according to the Church’s teaching, the problem of existence is tied to the moment people transgress against God’s commandment, i.e., transgress against their moral conscience. Adam, as a transgressor against the divine will, is first and foremost a transgressor against his moral conscience. The fact that he was given God’s commandment and the way in which to transgress against it shows that God placed humankind, from the very first moment of its existence, in front of the mirror of its moral conscience. God’s prohibition in Paradise was an invitation to Adam to begin a dialogue with his moral conscience, for his moral and spiritual perfection. Thus, Adam’s failure to experience his existence as an active dialogue with his conscience is a failure of his dialogue with his deeper, genuine nature. When he transgressed against his moral conscience, he cut himself off from his true self, alienating himself from the deepest parts of his personality. This activates the most shocking repression of the moral conscience. For this reason, Adam thereafter lived his existence accompanied by guilt and a repressed moral conscience.

This reality, then, that the Church highlights as the prologue to and essence of the human drama, is being uncovered today by depth psychology and underlined in a shocking way by psychotherapy. Indeed, the findings of psychotherapeutic practice, which are encapsulated in Igor Caruso’s basic position, highlight in a modern, i.e. impressive, way this fundamental teaching of the Church. According to Caruso, neurosis is a sickness of the bad conscience, i.e. of the conscience which represses itself, of the guilty conscience.

This encounter between psychotherapy and the Church’s teaching is a constructive partnership in the realm of existential thought. And one cannot deny this fact without…pangs of conscience! So even here the guilty conscience serves as a provocative presence!


Source: J. K. Kornarakis, “Psychology and spiritual life,” pp. 33-40, published by Orthodoxos Kypseli [in Greek].