Cosmos and Psyche

Cosmos and Psyche

Richard Tarnas (2006)

Viking, 2006, 569 pp., $29.95 h/b – ISBN 0 670 03292 1

Only a fortnight ago, I was recommending to a prospective philosophy student that she spend a part of the summer reading The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas’s earlier book which was published 15 years ago. That book, like the present one, was an extraordinary tour de force charting the heroic journey of the Western mind from its origins to the present-day. Brilliantly and perceptively written, the work was a landmark of intellectual history and an eloquent articulation of the emerging participatory worldview. Psyche and Cosmos takes the argument further, redefining the relationship between inner and outer, using Jung’s concept of synchronicity and the tradition of archetypal astrology.

Subtitled ‘intimations of a new world view’, Psyche and Cosmos is divided into eight sections: the transformation of the cosmos, in search of a deeper order, through the archetypal telescope, the epochs of revolution, cycles of crisis and contraction, cycles of creativity and expansion, awakenings of spirit and soul, towards a new heaven and a new earth.   The book begins with a penetrating analysis of the paradox of the modern self that can only deepen the reader’s understanding of our modern western predicament. Tarnas lists three fundamental factors now affecting people in the world: a profound metaphysical disorientation and groundlessness,  a deep sense of alienation and the need for a deeper insight into the unconscious forces that shape human life and history. Cosmos and Psyche addresses this crisis of the modern self and the modern world view by introducing the cosmological perspective of archetypal astrology.

At the beginning of the book there appears a significant quotation from C.G. Jung: ‘our psyche is set up in accord with the structure of the universe, and what happens in the macrocosm likewise happens in the infinitesimal and most subjective reaches of the psyche.’ Jung was a pioneer in reaching beyond contemporary notions of linear causality and a radical split between the self and the world. His interests in divination, gnosticism, alchemy and Oriental philosophy opened up new vistas and led to his formulation of such key ideas as synchronicity, archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Tarnas distinguishes two paradigms of history:  the first depicts ‘the evolution of human consciousness as an epic narrative of human progress, a long heroic journey from a primitive world of dark ignorance, suffering, and limitation to a brighter modern world of ever increasing knowledge, freedom and well-being.’ The second historical perspective ‘reveals the progressive impoverishment of human life and human spirit, a fragmentation of original unities, a ruinous destruction of the sacred community of being.’ The point, as Tarnas puts it, is that ‘the two historical dramas actually constitute each other’ as light and shadow, outer and inner.

The same goes for the forging of the modern self, accompanied as it was by the disenchantment of the world. The very differentiation of the self from the world and of the human being from nature has led inexorably to the disenchantment of the world and a radical split between inner and outer. The external world has been drained of intrinsic meaning and purpose and has ‘metamorphosed into mindless, soulless vacuum, within which the human being is incongruently self-aware.’ In other words, ‘the achievement of human autonomy [or emancipation] has been paid for by the experience of human alienation.’

We now find ourselves in a transitional period between two worldviews. Tarnas argues that we have moved beyond Newton, but not Copernicus, within whose cosmological metastructure we are still living. The tension between the reason of the Enlightenment and the sensibility of Romanticism exists within each of us. In our modern disenchanted cosmos, there are tangible consequences arising from what Tarnas calls our collective psychic numbness and desperate spiritual hunger which give rise to ‘an addictive, insatiable craving for ever more material goods to fill the inner emptiness and producing a manic techno-consumerism that cannibalises the planet.’   It is therefore legitimate to pose the question of the ultimate impact of cosmological disenchantment on our civilisation.   The dominant mechanistic metaphor may have led us to misperceive the cosmos by projecting its own image and mistaking it for objective reality.

In order to elaborate this point, Tarnas constructs an epistemological parable of two suitors approaching the universe, asking which one is likely to understand its mystery better.  The one driven by a desire for mastery, certainty and control, or the one whose act of knowledge is ‘essentially an act of love and intelligence combined’, and who views the universe is being at least as intelligent and noble as himself. It is a call to extend our ways of knowing beyond the purely linear rational mode, or, as Tarnas puts it ‘the light of reason [is] re-evaluated, transformed, and deepened by the very mysteries it sought to illuminate.’ He now builds on Jung’s concept of synchronicity, pointing out that he used many different faculties of cognition.  – empirical, rational, emotional, relational, intuitive and symbolic. Tarnas sums up Jung’s achievement in this respect: ‘the existence of synchronicities implied that the large outer circle representing the world could no longer be seen as a definitively meaningless void.’ In this sense, synchronicity should not occur at all in a random, purposeless universe.   If one takes this point seriously, then one has to undertake a radical re-evaluation of the relationship between what we call inner and outer.

It is at this stage that Tarnas introduces the background of his own studies of archetypal astrology. He does this sensitively, realising that most readers will have a highly sceptical reaction, which he himself helps examine and explain.   He introduces a key distinction between what he calls concretely predictive and archetypally predictive astrology. The former suggests an almost mechanistic determinism, while the latter confers on the human being a co-creative and participatory role with the archetypal forces. This is a difficult point for readers to grasp completely, as there is a residual suspicion that the notion of archetypes could be made so flexible as to fit any pattern of events.  However, readers will have to make up their own minds in view of the immense wealth of illustrative material  which Tarnas gathers in support of his case. It is helpful that he defines astrology as resting on a ‘conception of the cosmos as a coherent embodiment of creative intelligence, purpose, and meaning expressed through the constant complex correspondence between astronomical patterns and human experience.’ This definition makes it easy to see why modern science represents the exact metaphysical antithesis of this position.

Tarnas is careful to distinguish between causality and correlation or correspondence. Many of the key scientific developments of the last hundred years move beyond the atomistic model to a conception of the universe as a coherent and interconnected whole ‘informed by creative intelligence and pervaded by patterns of meaning and order.’ With this kind of cosmology, it is not such a large step to accept Tarnas’s case for the relevance of archetypal astrology.  He suggests that the archetypes of the collective unconscious are ultimately embedded in macrocosm and represented through the planets, whose positive and negative qualities he subsequently explains.  He then introduces the general concepts of the natal chart, personal and world transits, cycles and aspects, illustrating these with the charts of prominent individuals. It is clear of that his 30 years of research have yielded an enormous database, only the tip of which appears in the book. His basic model is that the natal chart indicates ‘the underlying archetypal corporal structures of life, while the transits suggest[s] the tempo and rhythmic structure of its unfolding.’

The next four sections unfold the substance of the work by considering planetary alignments corresponding to revolution (Uranus/Pluto), crisis and contraction (Pluto/Saturn), creativity and expansion (Jupiter/Uranus), and spiritual awakenings (Uranus/Neptune). It is impossible to convey the depth and breadth of analysis that Tarnas brings to bear on the patterns of human life and history. Readers must arrive at their own conclusions after reflecting on the material.  His erudition is monumental, ranging across history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, technology, literature, music, film and the visual arts. A particularly fascinating aspect of his exposition relates to what he calls sychronic and diachronic manifestations. The former refer two concurrent events, while the latter reveal patterns across time  corresponding to planetary conjunctions.   For instance, patterns of revolutionary emancipation occur in the late 18th century, the mid-19th century, the early 20th century and the 1960s.  Correspondingly, there are conservative reactions to these periods. In this sense, one can see how future conjunctions could be archetypally predictive, although it is not possible to know exactly what sequences of events will actually occur.

The new perspective emerging from the book is ‘a profound awareness of the human condition as one of embeddedness and creative participation in a living cosmos of unfolding meaning and purpose.’ (p. 293, italics in original) As with the theme of the 2005 Mystics and Scientists conference, we can sense the urge to overcome older separations and dualisms ‘between the human being and nature, spirit and matter, mind and body, subject and object, masculine and feminine, intellect and soul, cosmos and psyche – and to discover a deeper integral reality and unitive consciousness.’   This corresponds to a shift of emphasis from the sharply differentiated autonomous self of the 1960s to a more permeable relational self corresponding to the metaphor of the Internet or web of life.

If one accepts the broad outlines of time as his argument, it becomes possible, as he puts it, to forge a ‘more informed and creative response to the archetypal forces at work at any given time.’ In other words we can enhance our self- and collective awareness and overcome the Enlightenment sense of loss by reconnecting with the cosmos and redefining the relationship between inner and outer.  Tarnas concludes that ‘the cosmos is intrinsically meaningful to and coherent with human consciousness’ and is pervaded by creative intelligence in which we can consciously participate by reuniting the human and the cosmic.  Hence one can understand that ‘the human spirit is the spirit of the cosmos itself as inflected through us (italics in original).   What more important message could there be for our time? If you want to understand more deeply the currents which have shaped and are shaping our world, then this and passionate, brilliant and luminous book is essential reading.

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