On 27 February 1944, as Europe writhed in the anguished grasp of darkness and chaos, far from the violence in Birdlip in the Cotswold District of Gloucestershire in England, a sixty-year-old medical doctor and student of C.G. Jung, was meeting weekly with a small group of students. His teachings were eventually published as the six volumes of The Psychological Commentaries by Maurice Nicoll.
Nicoll made almost no reference in his voluminous teachings to the tumultuous times in which the world was embroiled. But, it is not hard to sense the painful political realities behind his words. One of the places where it feels as if the troubling history of Europe breaks through is in Nicoll’s description of what he calls the “dead man,” or the “man of darkness in whom there is no light.”
The “man of darkness of mind” Nicoll describes as,
the man of the senses, without an inner life, the man who ascribes his powers to himself, the man of self-esteem, for whom everything real lies in the outer world, the man who has not begun to think or feel beyond himself…. the man whose well-being depends on the ill-being of thousands and millions of others.
cannot think in terms beyond himself and what he wants. There is no “love of neighbour” – that is, no emotional development beyond self-love and self-interest.
He is incapable of what Nicoll calls, “external considering,” a term used to describe the ability to get out of oneself and enter sensitively into the world of another person. “External considering” is the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes and to have empathy for their life circumstances. To lack the ability for “external considering” is to have
no ability to put oneself genuinely in the position of another person and to think and feel as he or she thinks and feels, unless it belongs to one’s own self-interest and the personal sphere of one’s own merit.
It is impossible to imagine that Nicoll could not have had the tyrannical dictator of Germany in his mind when he gave this description of the “dead man” in early 1944. But to focus this description simply on Hitler, would have been too small a goal for Nicoll. While Hitler certainly embodied the qualities of the “man of darkness in whom there is no light” to a dangerously exaggerated degree, Nicoll wanted his students to understand that the capacity to be a “man of darkness of mind” lies in every human being.
Implying that the answer is obviously “No,” Nicoll asked his students,
Shall we each suppose that we are not in this state ourselves?
Nicoll hesitated to allow his teaching to become merely political because he understood that the capacity for darkness lies in every human being. He knew that, in the end the world will change only when human beings change. And we are only truly changed from the inside out.
Unless I choose consciousness, honesty, and light, I will always be in danger of living as a person “of darkness of mind,” a person “in whom there is no light.” The danger is real; the challenge is profound. Unless I choose daily to live in the light, I will become an instrument of death. This is not someone else’s problem. We are each responsible to awaken to the light by, as Paul said, determining to
lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. (Romans 13:12)
The world will only become a more compassionate place as we develop the skill of “external considering.” As we enter sensitively into the lives of other people and extend to them the respect and empathy we might hope to receive, kindness and gentleness will increase in the midst of the darkness that afflicts so much of the human community.