Carl Jung and the Origins of Alcoholics Anonymous

In 1961 Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), wrote a letter to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to thank him for his role in the founding of AA, a fact Jung was not aware of. In the letter he explained that in the 1930’s a wealthy American alcoholic, Rowland H., desperate for a cure for his affliction, went to Switzerland to seek out the help of the famous Dr. Jung. After a relapse, Dr. Jung had to tell Rowland H. that he would no longer be able to treat him, that he was incurable. The weight of the statement caused a profound shock on Rowland H., especially since it came from none other than Carl Jung. When Rowland H. pleaded for some solution, Jung told him that on very rare occasions alcoholics of Rowland’s dimensions had been ‘cured’, but only by a profound spiritual transformation, a rare occurrence.

Rowland H. joined an evangelical organization called the Oxford Group, found the spiritual experience he needed, and was saved from his alcoholism. He then dedicated himself to helping other people overcome their addiction to alcohol through ‘spiritual conversion’. One of these men was a friend of Bill Wilson’s, who once freed from his compulsion to drink, brought the message to his still drinking friend Bill Wilson. Wilson was cured almost immediately, and soon after having his last drink, he read William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, which confirmed for him the nature and meaning of his own spiritual conversion. These two elements are the first two steps, and the most important, in the twelve step program: accepting that you are hopelessly within the grips of alcohol, and that only a higher force can save you. Here is a link to Wilson’s letter to Jung.

Jung’s response was swift and brilliant. He immediately recognized what Wilson was referring to, making it all the more interesting by telling Wilson that he had to couch his thoughts to Rowland H. in soft language so as not to be misunderstood. The message was profound, culminating in the famous last line of the correspondence, “spirutus contra spritum”.

'You see, Alcohol in Latin, is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.'

Link to Jung’s response to Wilson’s letter.

There is something very interesting in the intersection of these two men's lives: Wilson, the hustler alcoholic turned evangelist, so American in his light touch, gritty language, and over the top enthusiasm, and the erudite Jung, so subtle and profound. Compare the difference in tone in these two sentences in their correspondence.


‘Because of your conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion, and two dollars worth of chemicals, you have especially endeared yourself to us.’


‘I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by religious insight or by the protective wall of human community.’

It’s hard not to be impressed by Jung’s humanity and Wilson’s humility; these two icons of the 20th century, so different in many ways, but arriving at the same basic conclusion about life and both helping so many people. One of Jung’s final books, Memories, Dreams, Reflections is a fascinating and very accessible look into this genius’s mind. Here is a quote regarding the neurosis of modern man.

"I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking. Such people are usually confined to too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning. If they are enabled to develop into more spacious personalities, the neurosis generally disappears."

In his letter to Wilson, Jung refers to this ‘displacement’ as evil itself, a term he was afraid would be misinterpreted. For Jung, evil is real, as real as child sensing something dark and unnatural lurking in the cellar; that feeling, that cringe which is expressed in our culture and religion. For Jung, evil is the disconnection from ones spiritual and social life.

Jung famously was not interested in taking patients before they had reached middle age "The adaptations that we make in childhood stop working in our middle age." Only when ‘the protective wall of human community’ began to crumble, and the ‘religious insight’ remained elusive did Jung believe there was a chance to change. Jung’s role was to connect man to that spiritual flow that is so easily lost, or worse, confused with ‘spirutus’, money, love, sex etc. The title of his most popular book for laypeople was aptly called Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

Wilson was doing the same thing, but with the advantage of having alcoholism create a dogmatic shield in the tenants of AA. An easy alternative to the ‘dark night of the soul’ and the spiritual path is a ‘clean well lighted place’, or, ‘a long afternoon in a dark bar’. Wilson grasped this completely and realized the only way to fill the empty space left by the departing bottle is to create a spiritual experience. Wilson was really applying Jung’s thinking in a practical, nuts and bolts way-  there are no atheists in foxholes or in AA meetings.

As the years passed Wilson would come to see AA as much more than a cure for alcoholism. Actually, its alcoholism as a cure for existential crisis. There is a void, alcohol fills the void until the mental, emotional and spiritual deprivation from drinking puts man in a position where he is forced to accept his humility before the power of the universe, which is the first step in any spiritual journey, or at least the first ‘conscious’ step.

Alcoholics are infamous narcissists. Consumed by their immense egos, which in the real world don’t find the accolades they believe they deserve, they find solace in alcoholic fantasy. But the fantasy can only go on for so long until at some point the alcoholic is crushed by his own enormous ego. This is the optimal moment for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, when a person peers out onto the universe without an ego blocking his view.

Jung’s challenge was to deal with the subtle, pernicious angst of modern man. It shouts out at us from every billboard, strip mall, office building and television set. The collective psyche of man was moving from a healthy neurosis to a dangerous borderline state that could at any moment throw us into nuclear holocaust. His challenge was the same as Wilson’s, but on a grander scale. It’s hard to know what a man of his profound understanding really felt. Even in his letter to Wilson he talks about what he ‘couldn’t’ say. But maybe, like all enlightened people, he knew that, in spite of everything, things were exactly as they should be, the only way they could be. It's not surprising that when Jung died, on his night table was a book about Zen.

The only cure for addictions, anxiety and angst is a healthy and sustained dose of wonder. What’s spiritual enlightenment other that seeing the world again for the first time? That’s why people truly in search of a spiritual conversion generally head for the mountains or sea, not a church. A good formula for spiritual encounter is a contemplation of death and the acceptance and awareness of the impermanence of all things and beings. Our society has made security the ultimate goal, which is like being on the Titanic thinking you will be okay because you have a bucket.

Wilson and Jung saw the formula for addiction and neurosis as the spiritual experience. The problem with our modern world is that the digital world and our distance from nature make it so much harder to truly ‘feel’ the world, and not just see it. The perils the world will soon encounter may have their silver lining by opening people’s spiritual potential by completely crushing their sense of security.

'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.'