The Presence of an Absent Father — How the Rev. J. C. Jaynes Influenced His Son, Julian Jaynes


While giving a talk some years ago at a conference about Julian Jaynes on Prince Edward Island in Canada, a member of the audience asked if I thought that the loss of Julian Jaynes’s father at age two in some way shaped his theorizing about hallucinating voices of supernatural beings. It was a fair question. But at the time, being more interested in the singular intellectual achievements of Jaynes himself, to me the question seemed a bit irrelevant. Though I’m still not sure if this line of thinking is completely valid — i.e., in an attempt to replace his missing father, Jaynes came up with the notion of hallucinated voices from authoritative (paternalistic) figures — there might be something there. In any case, acquainting ourselves with some of the writings of Jaynes’s father certainly demonstrates interesting linkages.

A Principled, Purposeful, and High-minded Life

Julian Clifford Jaynes, the son of Charles L. and Martha Jaynes, was born in 1854 in Springvale, Virginia. At the beginning of the Civil War his family moved to Connecticut and then to Wisconsin. The elder Jaynes graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1875. He then worked as a master of a high school in Virginia City, Nevada and also taught in California. In 1880 he entered Harvard Divinity School and graduated four years later. He then became the minister at the First Unitarian Church in West Newton, Massachusetts, and remained there until his death 38 years later in 1922. He was popular and well-regarded by the community. With his second wife, Laura M. Bullard, he fathered three children: Julian, Robert, and Helen.

The younger Jaynes grew up in the large family house that had been built by his father’s congregation in West Newton in 1895. Growing up surrounded by his father’s books, possessions, and community connections, the young Julian absorbed the spirit of the former’s worldview. The young Jaynes had access to the 48 volumes of sermons penned by his father, which undoubtedly inspired him. We can only speculate on which sermons from those many volumes shaped his thinking. However, an examination of the 17 sermons compiled posthumously by the elder Jaynes’s widow in Magic Wells: Sermons by Julian Clifford Jaynes (1922) affords clear evidence of intellectual influence.

The younger Jaynes possessed a deep, rich baritone voice and one can speculate that he had inherited this feature from his father, who was gifted with a “wonderful voice which no one who heard it could ever forget” as well as with an “unusual power off expression.”1 The younger Jaynes apparently also absorbed his father’s writing style; the latter could make the “commonplace sound like the unusual” so that when delivered as a sermon, “one forgot the manuscript” and the “majestic voice compelled the attention and made one subject to his will. And yet it was not all atmosphere. There was meat for the mind.”2 Given that his father’s writings are meditative, soul-searching, thoughtful, it is not surprising that the younger Jaynes himself was inward-looking, pensive, contemplative and drawn to a topic — consciousness — that by its very nature demands a self-introspective, self-examining, and self-reflective attitude.

A “Group of Selves” and a “Larger Self”

Bicamerality, the younger Jaynes’s theory that at one time the left and right hemispheres subserved “two selves” (a following, listening mortal and a governing, commanding god, respectively), may have been inspired by the elder Jaynes’s view that the individual is “not a single homogenous self” but rather “several fragmentary personalities.” The elder Jaynes also speculated about the “presence of the watcher” or who or what stands outside an individual’s “company of selves”: “Are you not conscious of still another self, larger and more inclusive than the others, that seems to be standing outside watching them, counting them, criticizing them, applauding them?” Who or what “does the observing?”3 And who is it that wonders about one’s different facets of selfhood?

According to the elder Jaynes, we often forget that there is something watching us from the outside. But then sometimes the “presence of the watcher is seen and felt. There are other times when the watcher seems to be on the guard all the time, and while the lesser personalities are having their way, is continually sounding the word of rebuke or encouragement. What is it? You may call it conscience, or moral sentiment — anything you please.” He called this the “larger self.”4 It gains control over the lesser selves and like a superego, subdues our evil propensities. Perhaps the younger Jaynes came to understand the “larger self” as the authoritative, admonishing, and commanding supernatural visitors generated by the right hemisphere — counseling gods, meddlesome ancestors, or a thundering Yahweh.

The elder Jaynes uses the examples of the “true self” of the Buddha, the daimon of Socrates, and how Paul’s conversion was in fact his discovery of his own “larger personality.”5 The elder Jaynes rewords the statement of Jesus about how he has come to do not his own will but that of God: “‘I am come not to serve the little desires and fears and prejudices of Jesus the Nazarene carpenter, but I am come to try to realize the great vision God has given me to see — I am come to be true to my diviner self — to work but the grander possibilities of my soul.’”6 The elder Jaynes had Jesus pleading the “liberation of God in man.”7 

For the elder Jaynes, the story of the Prodigal Son described how when we make moral decisions, we are returning to our real or larger selves; in the end the Prodigal Son learns that he had merely returned to himself. It is a parable about the “soul finding its own — coming to itself.”8 It is not completely clear what the elder Jaynes meant when he wrote that the “thing that said ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the old days was not the actual ‘I’ and ‘me.’ The reality has now come into its own, and the ‘I’ and ‘me” are pronounced by the same lips, but rise up out of a different and nobler spirit.”9 But intriguingly, when delineating the features of conscious interiority, the younger Jaynes listed the observing analog “I” and the observed metaphor “me.” The elder Jaynes may have been articulating how the human mind operates as both perceiver (“I”) and perceived (“me”), producing that indefinable sense of personal self-reflexivity and separateness from the world and others that no one else shares.

The attention to the self that the elder Jaynes highlighted is also evident in something I like to remind my own mental health clients: “One of the great arts of living is to know how to enjoy one’s self, to be alone and yet have company, to be destitute and yet have the abundant resources of the spirit.”10  

From Soul to Mind: Replacing Religion with Psychology

As traditional religion has been eroded by the Enlightenment, modern psychology (along with science) has become a great intellectual enterprise that has sought to soothe our existential longings for certainty. So it should not be surprising that out of the spiritual impulse of the late 1800s and early 1900s, psychology emerged as a way to reconceptualize the soul as the mind. The elder Jaynes touched upon this idea when he wrote about what was called the “new psychology” (i.e., a scientific versus a more traditional philosophical psychology). He pointed out that a “great group of men” are “prying into the secrets of personal consciousness and trying to understand the complexities of the human soul.”11 It seems that by the nineteenth century the vast innerverse of each individual was increasingly being probed, surveyed, and dissected. The elder Jaynes noted a “new kind of awe and reverence” in the air toward our psychic contents as “we discover that there are heights and depths of personality yet unexplored, and that in every individual there are mysteries of the past and possibilities for the future that stretch both ways toward the still greater mystery of the supreme and universal life.”12 Indeed, the human soul has “something about it that suggests infinity.”13 This resonates with the younger Jaynes’s focus on the spatialization of psyche — since space suggests a horizonless expanse — as a key feature of conscious interiority. 

Almost prophetically, the elder Jaynes warned about “so many spiritual fads and fancies” inspired by the new psychology which was like a “new tract of earth that has emerged for the first time above the ocean. No sooner is it safely established in the sunlight, that all kind of vagrant seeds root themselves in its soil and strange sea-monsters bask upon its shores.”14 This, of course, still characterizes today’s social landscape, populated with cult-like organizations, dubious self-help movements, and precooked questionable psychotherapeutic remedies.

“Moving Forward from More to More”

Another theme the younger Jaynes imbibed from his father was evolution. Here we must tread carefully. The younger Jaynes had the benefit of more recent evolutionary theory at his disposal. And like many of his contemporaries, he did not accept a social Darwinist view of humankind’s inevitable and continuous climb up a ladder of moral progress. Nevertheless, if broadly understood, the relentless development of the human species threads through the thinking of both father and son.

For the elder Jaynes there is an exorable march “onward through the vast, unchartered realms of being — onward and upward forever!”15 We “have been evolving angels out of savages, educating the primitive passions, developing the hidden resources of the spirit.”16 The views of the elder Jaynes on “progress without end,” while spiritual, also take a this-worldly form: He mentions the philosopher and social Darwinist Herbert Spencer and links “eternal progress” to American democracy.17

The secret of happiness, then, is found in the “growing and expanding life.” A “stagnant pool” lacks music. It “simply stands still, while mosses prey upon it and reptiles make it their habitation.” A running brook “sings as it passes through sunshine and shadow.” It is going somewhere and is growing stronger and larger all the time. But the stagnant life, the “unprogressive mind, the indolent soul, becomes sick of itself.” Looking upon the same thing it becomes “bored and unhappy.” Motion is the real joy of life as this involves “changing experiences and new visions.”18

Accomplishing Something “Superbly, Tremendously Great” in This World

While the elder Jaynes was respectful of religion, he put great purchase in how science can advance human society. Perhaps this was rooted in the more optimistic spirituality of the elder Jaynes. A hopeful, expectant, and enthusiastic attitude characterizes the elder Jaynes’s view of our “supreme satisfaction of life” and our place in the cosmos. There is a “sense of growth, of expanding day by day into larger self-expression, into the keener appreciation, into wider circles of helpfulness, into clearer vision of the humanity of God and the divinity of man. The world, too, expands and becomes the warm body of the Great Oversoul, and life tense with sacred privilege.” We are not “flies on revolving wheels,” but “co-partners in the divine business.”19 For the elder Jaynes, the world is a vast field into which we are born. “We come with the dignity of noble birth. We come with the gifts of infinite capacity. We come with hearts innocent and clean, with powers waiting to be made virile and strong, waiting to be dedicated to the high emprise of improving the world and winning the things that cannot perish.”20 The individual, after all, is a “son of God” and a “citizen of this majestic and splendid Universe.”21

Coming Full Circle

A few of the themes that the elder Jaynes dealt with — a larger, hidden self that can help us along, a confident sense of personal growth, and something inherently good about the deepest layers of our psyche — are echoed in the younger Jaynes’s faith in positive psychology. Though he did not devote his energies to developing a positive psychological dimension of what he understood to be conscious interiority, a few tantalizing quotes of his strongly suggests that he had an optimistic opinion of the power of the mind to improve itself. He believed there is an “enormous future in people realizing how much they can control themselves, and how much perhaps they can change themselves and change their way of thinking. We all know the concept of psychosomatic disease; well let’s reverse that to psychosomatic health.”22 He hoped that consciousness can “develop into perhaps better kinds of self-control, until, for example, those of us who want to give up smoking can just make a decision to do so, and that’s all there is to it. I think we might be able to train consciousness so that we are suggestible to ourselves to a greater deal.”23 Learning how to become more suggestible allows more control over behavior than is possible with ordinary, everyday consciousness.

In 1981, Jaynes was invited to give a Sunday sermon — “The Magic Wells of Consciousness” — at the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts. Four years later he was invited to speak at the 100th anniversary of his father’s ordination and read a sermon that his father had given called “A Religion of Selfhood” a century before. This sermon has a surprisingly modern-sounding title. It captures well our transition from a species lorded over by supernatural beings to one that is on a relentless journey inward, heralded by advances in neuropsychology and expanding psychoscapes. We are darkly obsessed with consumerist promises of self-indulgence and self-gratification as well as the self-absorption that quick-and-easy psychotherapeutic fixes encourage. And yet we are also attracted to the potential of shining personal liberation and that which “measures the advance of man up to the stairway of the ages.”24

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our publications.


1. The Christian Register, June 22, 1922.

2. Ibid.

3. J. C. Jaynes, “On Becoming One’s Self.” In Magic Wells: Sermons by Julian Clifford Jaynes. Boston, MA: Clara B. Jaynes, 1922, pp. 169, 171, italics in original.

4. Ibid, pp. 171‒172.

5. Ibid, p. 173.

6. Ibid, p. 174.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.  

10. Ibid, “Alone,” 1922, p. 270, italics in original.

11. Ibid, “Coming To One’s Self,” 1922, p.168.

12. Ibid.  

13. Ibid, “To Be Not To Be,” 1922, p.124.

14. Ibid, “Coming To One’s Self,” 1922, p.168.

15. Ibid, “A Little Child,” 1922, p. 34.

16. Ibid, “Jeremiah And Human Nature,” 1922, pp. 25‒26, italics in original.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid, “A Little Child,” 1922, p. 284.

19. Ibid, “To Be Or Not To Be,” 1922, pp. 124, 126.

20. Ibid, “Where Hast Thou Gleaned?” 1922, p. 76.

21. Ibid, “A Little Child,” 1922, p. 35.

22. Julian Jaynes, “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind: McMaster‒Bauer Symposium Discussion.” In The Julian Jaynes Collection, Marcel Kuijsten, ed. Henderson, NV: Julian Jaynes Society, 2012, p. 319.

23. Julian Jaynes, “The Consequences of Consciousness: Emory University Discussion.” In The Julian Jaynes Collection, Marcel Kuijsten, ed. Henderson, NV: Julian Jaynes Society, 2012, p. 345.

24. J. C. Jaynes, “Coming to One’s Self.” In Magic Wells: Sermons by Julian Clifford Jaynes. Boston, MA: Clara B. Jaynes, 1922, p. 172.

Brian McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

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