Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View
“Evening Star, you bring all things / which the bright dawn has scattered . . .” With these evocative lines from Sappho, Richard Tarnas prefaces Cosmos and Psyche, what is sure to be one of the decade’s most influential and controversial books. Tarnas begins by reviewing the ambiguous cascade of effects that have resulted from the intellectual breakthroughs of the modern era. When Copernicus recognized that the earth and planets revolve around the Sun, he set in motion powerful forces that over the following centuries would gradually differentiate the human self from nature and dramatically empower the human intellect vis-à-vis a now-disenchanted cosmos. But for this intellectual empowerment humanity paid a serious price, the separation and estrangement of the human self from its former ground of being. Tarnas suggests that in the bright glare of our Promethean rush toward individuation and the appropriation of all intelligence to the human mind, we may be overlooking qualities intrinsic to the universe itself, namely consciousness, purpose, intelligence, and the capacity to hold and communicate meaning.
In the lineage of Plato and the neo-Platonists, the Idealists and Romantics, and more recently the work of C. G. Jung, Tarnas reintroduces the concept of archetypes that has played such a fundamental role in Western culture. The archetypes have been recognized at various times as Homeric deities, Platonic metaphysical essences, Jungian psychological principles, and many other overlapping forms. In Cosmos and Psyche’s bold hypothesis, Tarnas suggests that the dynamic interplay of these timeless universals that have shaped and permeated our history occurs in coincidence with geometrical alignments between the planets and the earth, intelligible through an emerging epistemology and method of analysis he calls archetypal astrology.
A highly respected cultural historian, Tarnas gained international acclaim with his best-selling The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), which has become required reading in university courses around the world. He now marshals his formidable intellect to present five hundred pages of compelling evidence to support the archetypal astrological hypothesis. Here are the grand lines of Western history: scientific and technological revolutions, social and political awakenings, cycles of creativity and expansion, of crisis and contraction, of conservative empowerment, spiritual epiphanies, and Dionysian awakenings. With a staggering depth and breadth of scholarship Tarnas draws upon periods such as the Axial Age in the mid 6th century BCE that saw the birth of Greek philosophy, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, through Periclean Athens to the birth of Christianity, Petrarch and the giants of the Renaissance, and on to Romanticism, feminism, postmodernism, and the counterculture. He has an uncanny ability to illuminate the essential nature of figures such as Sappho, Aeschylus, Descartes, Shakespeare, Melville, Nietzsche, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, and hundreds more, bringing these cultural giants and the archetypes they embody to life before our eyes. Tarnas’ correlation of these narrative trajectories in our history with cyclical alignments of the outer planets paints a portrait of vibrant historical meaning and purpose, a highly complex yet coherent and intelligible patterning of archetypal principles unfolding over time.
Tarnas presents for the layperson his method of analysis for perceiving archetypes in history as well as in individual experience, essentially offering the reader a telescope to look at the evidence for him or herself. He recognizes and even celebrates the virtue of skepticism, as Santayana did when he referred to skepticism as “the chastity of the intellect.” Yet Tarnas goes further, reminding us that while “the mind that seeks the deepest intellectual fulfillment does not give itself up to every passing idea,” what is sometimes forgotten is that the purpose of skepticism is not to be an end in itself but to prepare us to be ready when a new and deeper truth finally arrives.
In contrast with traditional astrological belief and practice, the archetypal astrology he introduces is non-fatalistic and non-deterministic. Because of the multivalent and multidimensional nature of the archetypes—their basic formal patterning that manifests in a diverse range of concrete expressions—he believes that archetypal astrology is archetypally predictive rather than concretely predictive. Although long-term planetary alignments can illuminate many essential characteristics of an historical epoch or individual life experience, and even suggest basic expected characteristics of an upcoming period, the specific concrete expression the archetypes will take at any time is indeterminate, contingent on factors such as cultural context, free will, co-creative participation, and perhaps unmeasurables such as karma and grace. In this understanding, precious human autonomy and creative potency are maintained, while individual selfhood is recontextualized within a now reenchanted cosmos.
With its open-minded spirit of hypothesis, empirical observation, and ongoing theoretical refinement, this book is a scientific triumph, scientific in the highest sense of the word: Here is the evidence, and here is a possible theory to explain the evidence. Most importantly, the correlations in Tarnas’ methodology are replicable. Anyone with a knowledge of the basic tools of this method of analysis, which he carefully introduces, can investigate the patterning of archetypal principles in his or her own life. To preemptively criticize this body of research without actually investigating it, to refuse to look through the telescope for oneself, might, I believe, be symptomatic of a vested emotional position rather than a genuinely scientific attitude toward the evolution of knowledge.
Tarnas writes that the fundamental component in a cultural paradigm is its cosmology. The cosmology of a world view is the place, the context within which that world view exists and flourishes. With Cosmos and Psyche I believe the emerging new paradigm finally has its missing component: an essentially Platonic-Pythagorean cosmos which is intelligibly ordered by archetypal patterns of meaning and experience, and in which the macrocosm of the solar system mirrors archetypal processes in the microcosm of human life. In this cosmology the highest and most treasured capacities of human reason and cognition are ultimately recognized as expressions of the universe’s own intelligence. But, integrating the modern development of an autonomous self, the human being is also recognized as having both freedom and responsibility for consciously and creatively enacting these powerful forces in the most life-enhancing forms possible.
The Promethean successes of Western culture have transformed the world in stupendously positive but also deeply problematic ways. Perhaps underlying our culture’s less salutary features remains some fundamental omission or projection in our vision of the universe. Perhaps the “bright dawn of our modernity” has hidden a grand intelligence and purposefulness that both transcends and informs the human mind, a consciousness imbedded in the universe itself. Tarnas suggests that our long moral and intellectual evolution has prepared us to forge a new kind of relationship with that cosmos, transforming our role within it from peripheral byproduct to co-creative partner and explorer. With this book Tarnas has succeeded in unveiling what only a few years ago might have seemed impossible: an accessible bridge between the mainstream high culture and an emerging world view that returns the soul to the cosmos.
Renn Butler is a writer and health care worker in Victoria, B.C.
Originally published in New Age Journal