The Wise Old Man and the Eternal Youth

The last few years I've been attempting to harmonize elements in my psyche - the rational and the ecstatic, or Socrates and Dionysus. I want to approach this idea today through the lens of Jungian psychology, and his idea of the two archetypes of the Puer Aeternus (or Divine Child) and the Senex (or Wise Old Man) - two aspects of the psyche which are superficially antagonistic but which actually need each other.

The archetype of the Puer Aeternus was mentioned rather briefly by Jung, and then developed by later Jungian psychologists like Marie-Louise von Franz and James Hillman. By 'archetype', Jung meant mythological figures that rise up from the collective unconscious, representing aspects of the psyche and its journey towards self-actualization. The aim of self-actualization is to recognize and integrate these different archetypes without being possessed by any of them.

Jung is largely positive about the Puer Aeternus, seeing it as the harbinger of spiritual and natural rebirth.  In his chapter, The Psychology of the Child Archetype, he notes the appearance of the Divine Child or Eternal Youth in many different mythologies - Tammuz, Attis, Iacchos-Dionysus (the child born at the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries), Krishna, and of course the Christ-child (he doesn't talk about the divine girl). They are the chosen ones who will redeem their societies. The child-hero is also an important figure in fairy tales - Harry Potter, Paul-Muad'dib, Luke Skywalker, Rae, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, the Little Prince, and so on. 

The dark side of the Puer or Puella archetype - if you become over-identified or possessed by it - is you can fall prey to massive ego-inflation and start thinking you're an exceptional being, a Messiah. You can get incredibly inflated expectations of your life and the great work you will do, and you may escape into fantasy or drug addiction when boring reality doesn't measure up.

Marie-Louise von Franz focused more on these negative aspects in her book, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. For her, a man (she focuses entirely on men) who becomes possessed by this archetype 'remains too long in adolescent psychology'. They're the boys who never grow up, the Peter Pans or Don Juans, possessed by 'a kind of asocial individualism - being someone special, one has no need to adapt'. Puers abhor commitments and schedules, and are usually single and freelance - 'there is always a 'but' which prevents marriage or any kind of commitment'.

Puers are stuck in 'the provisional life' - they don't commit to the here-and-now because they're waiting for the day when they 'will be able to save the world, that the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics, or art, or something else, will be found'. She writes: 'There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out again'. Instead of dull reality, the Puer dreams of flight, and shows 'a fascination with dangerous sports, particularly flying and mountaineering'. Puers also have a yearning for ecstasy, for altered states, for sudden psychic leaps out of the mundane. James Hillman writes: 'personal revelation is preferred to objective knowledge'.

The puer complex may come from being a daddy's boy - always being bailed out by a doting father - or from being a mummy's boy or daddy's girl, their special child, into whom the parent pours all their own frustrated dreams - one thinks of DH Lawrence, Russell Brand or Simon Amstell, these restless boy-men endlessly searching around the world for personal and cultural redemption, never quite sticking to anything. Are there similar 'golden girls' who never adjust to adulthood because they're still obsessed with pleasing Daddy? 

The Senex, or Wise Old Man, is another archetype that can arise from the unconscious, who represents ancient wisdom, rules, duty, virtue, habits, schedule, temperance, rationalism, evidence, self-control and discipline - everything the puer lacks, in other words. The dark side of the senex, if one becomes possessed by it, is a pompous sense of one's own wisdom and virtue, over-seriousness, as well as boredom, depression, pessimism, drudgery, and a lack of spontaneity, playfulness or inner vitality.

Both these archetypes can appear and dominate cultures or subcultures at different times, and there can be a dynamic polarity between the puer yearning for ecstasy, rebellion and disruption, and the senex desire for stability, order and tradition. One sees the puer archetype particularly strongly in, say, the Sixties counter-culture (Marc Bolan is the ultimate Puer), in Silicon Valley (Mark Zuckerberg), and in the New Age. I want to talk a bit about how I became somewhat possessed by this archetype while at English boarding school, which is a culture that really fetishizes the cult of the golden youth.


Like I said, certain cultures or subcultures really celebrate the golden youth. Modern western culture is quite obsessed with the golden youth, and English boarding schools are particularly obsessed with them (that's why it's so appropriate that Harry Potter goes to one). Boarding school can mess you up in various different ways but one of the more insidious dangers is it creates these school heroes or heroines who subsequently fail to grow up, fail to fulfil that early promise, or spectacularly crash in later life. Allow me to extrapolate - this might seem a bit niche when only 0.5% of the UK go to boarding school, but unfortunately some of these golden boys end up crashing our country. 

Boarding schools are self-organizing societies in which the boys and girls more or less govern themselves. They are driven by the desire for acceptance and glory, and the fear of shame and ridicule. Pupils tend to hero-worship certain individuals, labelling them a 'legend' or some such hyperbole. Many teachers are also enthusiastic boy or girl-worshippers. They treat the children like paper aeroplanes - let's see how far this one goes.

And the schools themselves feed the cult, showering promising youths with honours. I heard last week about a friend of mine who arrived at Eton already garlanded with legend from his prep school - he'd scored two centuries, and the school had named a holiday after him. Can you imagine how unhealthy that is for a 12-year-old! He dropped out after Eton, and has now re-discovered himself as a healthy human being, rather than a Golden Boy.

Excessive early hero-worship can lead to an ecstasy of adulation. One's ego expands in the echo-chamber to imperial proportions. But the flip-side is a terror of shame and failure. The high-flyer wipes out, or feels they haven't lived up to the expectations of others. They go through life in a school daze, perpetually turned to the fading glory of youth. I know many GBS (Golden Boy Survivors). One older boy was a promising actor, tipped as the next Damien Lewis. I asked a teacher-director, who had a crush on him, how he was doing in the real world. 'Drugs', the teacher sniffed. 'The light has gone from his eyes.' Don't worry sir, another will be along presently.

The cult of the golden youth is an ancient phenomenon. The journalist Cyril Connelly wrote in 1938: 'Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.... Once again romanticism with its death wish is to blame.'He's right - the natural conclusion of the cult is early death. In The Hill, Horace Vachell's 1905 novel about Harrow, golden boy 'Caesar' Desmond makes a brilliant catch in the Eton-Harrow match at Lords. He will 'never never know again a moment of such exquisite unadulterated joy as this'. There's nothing for him to do but die, which he does, a few years later, in battle. How many books and films romanticise the cultic sacrifice of the golden youth, from Dead Poets' Society to Picnic at Hanging Rock. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

Sending your children to boarding school increasingly seems to me like giving them a powerful hallucinogenic drug for five years. Some may be traumatized. Others will leave firmly believing they are masters of the universe, and will convince many - even whole countries - they are right. They seek opportunities to do something dashing and boyish - walk across Afghanistan! Leave Europe! They suffer from the opposite of Imposter Syndrome. They dangerously overestimate their capacities. 'How hard can it be?' Dave Cameron quipped before entering Number 10.


I only had a half-measure of public school adulation, but it almost did for me. By 18, my ego was soaring. I then crashed out on drugs, and spent my early 20s feeling deeply ashamed at having failed to live up to some impossibly-high expectation of glory.I had recurring nightmares where I was flying and the fuel ran out, sending me hurtling to the ground.

What healed me from this 'fallen Icarus' psychodrama? As regular readers will know, I was initially healed from Post-Traumatic Stress by a skiing accident - when I was 24, I crashed through the barrier on the side of a mountain in Norway, fell 30 feet or so, broke my leg and two vertebrae, and knocked myself unconscious. Except I wasn't unconscious -  I was immersed in a loving white light, and felt myself psychically healed and regenerated. I was then flown in a helicopter to a hospital in Lillehammer, where they put a metal pole in my leg, which is still there today.

In Jungian terms, this was a crisis of the Puer Aeternus - I felt broken, traumatized, and very ashamed at failing to live up to the golden expectations I believed society had of me. I felt like Icarus, or a fallen angel. My subconscious engineered it so that this subconscious situation played out in real life  - I flew off a mountain and crashed. Just to make it even more Jungian, it's a mountain in the Peer Gynt valley. Peer Gynt is a Puer Aeternus figure from Norwegian mythology, always flying off into fantasies of escape (he tells a tall story about flying on a reindeer).

Peer Gynt flying off on his reindeer

I could have died in that accident, but instead it was healing and renewing. The boy becomes grounded, and lame - the metal pole in the leg, fixing him on Earth. I realized the world didn't much care about me, and I managed to get over the feeling I was special, and had failed to live up to my specialness. I later became fascinated by Stoicism, and the idea of training my mind. I spent 15 years or so working on the revival of Stoicism in western culture, and became a sort of public philosopher. In Jungian terms, this was the switch of my personality from the puer archetype into its opposite, the senex archetype - being drawn to ancient wisdom, rationality, self-control, discipline, duty and so on. Stoicism is the ultimate senex philosophy.

But by the time I was nearing 40, Stoicism was beginning to feel rather dry, boring, depressing, lonely, pompous and brittle. Stoicism can feel like it's lacking in heart, love, connection, spontaneity, dance, and ecstasy. I remember that time I went to a public reading at the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, and abruptly found myself in conversation with the spirit of my dead Irish grandmother. 'Why are you so serious now?' she said to me, through the psychic. 'You used to be so funny. You should go to more festivals.' 'She' was telling me to put down the archetype of the Senex and rediscover a bit of the Puer playfulness. 

I've spent the last five years or so searching for the ecstatic, and trying to find a way to harmonize these two archetypes. I feel I've made some progress in this.I found the ayahuasca retreat in Peru particularly helpful, because on the one hand psychedelics appeals to the Puer Aeternus in me - the flight out of the ordinary ego, the opening of the imagination, the risk - while on the other hand the psychedelics were taken in a cultural context that was quite Senexian - we dieted and fasted in preparation for the retreat, then were guided by these quite elderly Indian shamans, and were told to continue our ascetic practice after the retreat.

It's an interesting challenge for our culture - how to integrate the Puer aspects of New Age spirituality - play, spontaneity, improvisation, ecstasy, childishness and the yearning for the new - with more Senex aspects of spirituality - wisdom, tradition, routine, habituation, moderation.