The Wise Old Man: Archetype Anatomy

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June 15, 2019

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The wise old man (also called senex, sage or sophos) is an archetype as described by Carl Jung, as well as a classic literary figure, and may be seen as a stock character. The wise old man can be a profound philosopher distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment.

In literature, the sage often takes the form of a mentor or a teacher to the hero, playing a crucial role in the hero’s journey. The sage archetype may be portrayed by a God or a Goddess, a magician or wizard, a philosopher or an advisor.

The sage is usually depicted as a wise old man or an old crone with great foresight, who offers measured advice and guidance to help the hero in his quest, and at the same time letting the hero choose his path towards destiny.

This archetype has been described in various forms throughout literature across cultures. The sage archetype makes its presence felt in modern popular fiction as well, for instance, as Yoda from Star Wars, as the Wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and as Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter series to name a few.

In speaking of Senex, we are referring to a number of “faces” that are always dynamically changing. It is one of the psychological blessings of archetypes that they cannot be precisely defined or taken literally, meaning that the psyche/soul cannot be a defined psychic entity, but rather is an experience. This ineffability of the archetype is particularly crucial in understanding the Senex, and the Sage for they lie beyond the grasp of ego and mind. This further invites reimagination of the Self.

Symbolism of the Sage Archetype

This type of character is typically represented as a kind and wise, older father-type figure who uses personal knowledge of people and the world to help tell stories and offer guidance that, in a mystical way, may impress upon his audience a sense of who they are and who they might become, thereby acting as a mentor. He may occasionally appear as an absent-minded professor, appearing absent-minded due to a predilection for contemplative pursuits.

The wise old man is often seen to be in some way “foreign”, that is, from a different culture, nation, or occasionally, even a different time, from those he advises. In extreme cases, he may be a liminal being, such as Merlin, who was only half human.

The Dark Side of the Wise Old Man

The shadow of the sage asserts itself in us by our tendencies to be critical and dogmatic in our views of the world, as well as of our own selves. We can easily imagine the wise old man sometimes, becoming too fixed or rigid about his ideas.

Often when we reflect, we tend to be critical and make judgments about the thoughts, feelings and actions of ourselves and others. We label them as ‘good or bad’ and/or ‘right or wrong’. For instance, we might think “How can I be jealous? Jealousy is wrong, I should not feel this way” or “How can I be attracted to another person when I love my partner so much? This means I am a bad, sinful person”. These labels that we attach to the insights we derive while looking inward, make us feel guilty and hurt. Such reflections then become unhelpful as they lead to unhealthy rumination.

By making judgements about our thoughts, feelings and actions that we do not like and by labelling them as ‘bad or wrong’, we are rejecting those aspects of our being, which in actuality cannot be denied to oblivion. Such denial, though bringing temporary respite, becomes suppressed and gets integrated into the shadow. In our anxiety of running away from our shadow that in fact lies within us, we end up perceiving our lives as a series of uncontrollable events we feel helpless in.

The Senex in Individuation

In the individuation process, the archetype of the Wise old man was late to emerge, and seen as an indication of the Self. ‘If an individual has wrestled seriously enough and long enough with the anima or animus problem… the unconscious again changes its dominant character and appears in a new symbolic form: as a masculine initiator and guardian (an Indian guru), a wise old man, a spirit of nature, and so forth’.

The Senex and Crone ( or collectively, the Sage) in their ultimate development are archetypal personifications of the Higher Self. That is, in their highest reaches, they are images of the woman or man who has realized the Self.

The antithetical archetype, or enantiodromic opposite, of the Senex is the Puer Aeternus.

The Sage is a seeker of truth, and this archetype operates from a fundamental principle that ‘the truth will set you free’. It is associated with attributes of self-reflection and understanding that enlightens our path to individuation. It implies asking questions to self in order to reach to the answers one seeks in life.

Often, when we reflect inwardly and deeply, we are able to generate insights, new perspectives and actionable solutions and it is the sage archetype that drives us toward such self-reflection in the search for wisdom. The sage thus engages in meaningful introspection, which involves reflecting and looking inward by being aware and accepting of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions without any judgement.

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