The Three Stages Of Life
Nietzsche and Jung on the three metamorphoses of the spirit.
There is a passage in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ in which Friedrich Nietzsche describes the spiritual evolution of man from childhood to old age. He begins the passage by showing how a child spends his first years as a collector of duties, traumas and the word ‘No’, and how he resembles that of a camel, a beast of burden who must carry whatever is thrown onto its back. The child is made a camel by the dragon of society, who goes by the name of ‘Thou Shalt’, and on each of the dragon’s scales there are laws and instructions declaring what thou shalt not do. Eventually, however, the young child will begin to question the authority of his society; he will ask why he is carrying such a heavy burden and, if he is paying attention to his surroundings, a feeling of disillusionment will set in, because he sees the dullness of the world that he has been conditioned for, he sees the consequences of his years of yielding to the dragon and he senses that he has been betrayed somehow, that what was promised to him by society has not been delivered.
And then he will notice his conditioning, all the limits and expectations that imprison him, and he will finally give way and fall to his knees, throwing the load from his back and onto the desert beneath him. This is the first sign of maturity, referred to by Joseph Campbell as the ‘call to adventure’, and it is the stage of life when the boy sets out on his own into the desert and marches towards the great dragon of ‘Thou Shalt’. At this moment, the young camel faces two options: Either he continues to exist as a beast of burden and allows the dragon to rule his life or, like St George and Apollo, he slays the dragon and becomes a lion, the monarch of his own kingdom:
‘Here the spirit’, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, ‘becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be master…
Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and go? ‘Thou shalt’ is the name of the great dragon.
But the spirit of the lion says, ‘I will.”
― Thus Spoke Zarathustra
To navigate through the hero’s journey and defeat the dragon, it is necessary that this young man, Carl Jung writes, channel his energy into a discipline of some sort. Men discover their significance the higher they rise in their chosen vocation, just as the sun shines at its brightest when it reaches its highest point around noon, and as they become distinguished in their art, they also free themselves from the grasp of the masses — from the burden of ‘Thou Shalt’. Each man has some understanding of where his calling might be, and it is preferable that he pursue the craft he is inclined towards. Here stands an argument for the traditional trades such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing and plastering, which have been, foolishly, devalued since the ugly and inflated expansion of higher education, a celebrated delusion that will no doubt crash in the coming years. But the pursuit of mastery in general, Carl Jung believed, entrenches a man’s individuality into the mass consciousness of the culture and builds a trust in one’s own powers. Without a purpose of some kind, men have nothing to defend their personality against the conformity of ‘Thou Shalt’ and nothing to stop them from needlessly pondering on existential questions that carry no answers. If there is no channel for the masculine to express his anger and strength, then the energy will rise into the mind and show itself through endless, infinite thinking, the most disagreeable suffering.
It is the dragon, then, that defines the threshold of adolescence, because it is the first threshold outside of birth that involves a reawakening, a shedding of the boundaries and assumptions imposed during childhood — it is the stage when the boy learns to say ‘I will’ in the face of the great dragon. Something within us wishes to remain a child, and many people hold onto the promises of their childhood throughout their lifetime and never come into their own, preferring instead to settle into the safe enclosure of their mother’s embrace. Most fear the responsibility of freedom and consequence, but if a man continues to cling to the delusions of his childhood, then he will refuse to expand his awareness beyond the narrow confines of his adolescence, and he will never discover the edge of his fears and, in turn, he will not become who he was meant to be. It is a sad thing to see those of my age who cannot embrace the wonder and potential of life, in part because they are indeed full potential, but also because life today is much more abundant than it was in the past.
Now, at this point I would like to address the final threshold of life — that is, the age of atonement and of the elderly sage. Our culture has idealised and prioritised youth for so long that most people dread the thought of ageing. Indeed, this haunts women most since their chief value in our culture is their beauty and radiance. But this is only a shallow and surface display of the feminine, and there are deeper and stronger features of the feminine essence that are far superior to the superficial sexiness of those bikini models you see on the advertisements. However, since most men are disconnected from their masculine core of purpose and principle, they are only attracted to the shallow display of feminine radiance, for they are merely boys who lust after shiny objects. We continue to contribute to the cultural obsession with youth and all the while, we have denied the wisdom, power and intuition that comes with old age. In primitive tribes, Carl Jung writes, the elderly were always the sacred guardians of common law and the guiding light for the younger generations. But what role do they serve today? Where is the wisdom and the mysteries of our older people? Unfortunately, the elderly finds themselves inside a machine that forces them to compete with the young, and if they are too old to compete then they are removed from the community to care homes, because, in our time, those who do not bring economic value are merely a burden.
There is no happiness in fighting dragons all one’s life; one cannot live in the evening as one did in the morning. Of course, I cannot speak too elegantly of old age, for I have yet to cross this final threshold; I am still coming into my own sovereignty. Still, it is worth learning of this phase so that one can be aware of what is to come. The evening of life, Jung writes, should be a celebration of what has become and an opportunity for everlasting creativity, because the old man is no longer a participant in the attainment of life — for he has already achieved his life. He should let go of the things of this world and all that he has accomplished in his previous life, and he should allow himself to lower his energy, to descend within and leave the game of life to those who have yet to prove themselves. And as he lets go, he transforms once again and returns to the world as a child, but this time he is a child with the experience of the camel and the wisdom of the lion, able to pass on wisdom to those who are at the beginning of their journey.
Children grow out of the unconscious, but the old must descend into the unconscious; both thresholds — growing and descending — require the courage to leave behind the known world and move into the unknown. The child and the old live without conscious problems or uncertainties about the future, and it is during the afternoon of life when problems abound. At our highest we march towards the dragon and carve our name into the landscape, and only once we have given the world our gift and ‘filled the beaker of life’ will we be able to welcome the coming of old age. This is, indeed, the great cycle of life, the three metamorphoses of man — when ‘the spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child.’