Economists, Parsifal, and the Search for the Holy Grail

By Morong, Cyril | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Economists, Parsifal, and the Search for the Holy Grail


Morong, Cyril, Journal of Economic Issues


Like Parsifal, the modern economist naively blunders about the Waste Land in search of the Holy Grail. Cynicism and despair reign in the discipline. The many versions of Parsifal share a few basic themes that are, at least in part, played out in the profession of economics.

Many students and economists are dissatisfied with this state of affairs. We continue to use standard approaches because this is how one gets published and advances even though we doubt the validity and power of the models. Very often, prominent economists, whether in presidential addresses to their respective associations or in Nobel Prize acceptance speeches, criticize the overuse of math even though they themselves achieved success by using it. Why can't we aim our research at a broader view of the world, one that encompasses history, sociology, philosophy, etc., early in our careers? Why not ask the meaningful questions at the start? It may be the need to publish and society's own emphasis on the rational and quantifiable. The myth of Parsifal provides a psychological explanation.

The Myth of Parsifal

Parsifal, a simple, poor, and naive boy, is dazzled by the sight of five knights. Wishing to join, he follows them to the court of King Arthur against the wishes of his mother. He is told he can be a knight if he slays the evil Red Knight. Parsifal kills him and then puts on his armor. But he soon learns that knighthood is arduous and is attained only after much valor and noble work. He must learn a great deal and be versed in knightly arts of battle, learn to live by certain social rules and rituals, and learn as well that it is childish to ask too many questions. He eventually becomes a good knight, defeating others and sending them to serve King Arthur. One day he enters the Grail Castle and meets the wounded Fisher King whose kingdom has become a Waste Land. "The cattle do not produce; the crops won't grow; knights are killed; children are orphaned; maidens weep; there is mounting everywhere - all because the Fisher King is wounded" [Johnson 1989, 1]. Parsifal sits at a banquet and sees the Fisher King sitting before the Holy Grail. If Parsifal can ask the question, "whom does the Grail serve?" the king will be healed and the kingdom will again flourish. He does not ask and is expelled. He later slays many dragons and defeats many knights until finally, in his middle age, he again earns the right to re-enter the Grail Castle and ask the question. In some versions of the story, he does, the kingdom is rejuvenated, and he takes the place of the Grail King (or Fisher King) as guardian of the Grail.

The Grail symbolizes life, spirituality, youth, health, joy, purity, creativity, the unconscious, and generativity [Jung and von Franz 1970, 114]. It harmonizes the conflicting opposites of male-female, rationality and emotion, dark and light, good and evil, etc. [Jung and von Franz 1970, 194]. The conflict of opposites in Parsifal's psyche needed to be discovered for him to get back into the Grail Castle. He needs to expand his consciousness and travel, psychologically speaking, far beyond the naive fool, to find the Grail Castle and discover himself, to be conscious of and reconcile the opposites in his psyche.

The Fisher King, or the Grail King, represents a limited consciousness, one who is too rational and is incapable of solving the real problem his kingdom faces [Jung and von Franz 1970, 212]. The successor who will free him was prophesied to be a wholly innocent fool who would ask a specific question. "The myth is telling us that it is the naive part of a man that will heal him and cure his Fisher King wound. It suggests that if a man is to be cured he must find something in himself about the same age and about the same mentality as he was when he was wounded" [Johnson 1989, 11]. Although Parsifal must transcend his naivete to re-enter the Grail Castle, it will be his innocence and compassion that inspires him to ask the healing question. …

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