When the author of the ultimate university humanities textbook (The Passion of the Western Mind) turns his full attention to astrology and proclaims it to be the newest, greatest, most revolutionary page in Western philosophy, the world should sit up and take note. At least, that part of the world which can fully get its head around 500+ pages of a re-definition of our world-view largely justified personal experience backed by lengthy correlation of planetary cycle periods and social trends. Because of its size and complexity, it does run the risk of sharing the prestigiously unread coffee-table fate of Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
But take heart — once you get through the first 150 pages of the carefully argued premise (and that’s essential) and a simple introduction to astrology for the general reader, the rest is an enjoyable, scenic ride through planetary history, much of which is refreshing addition and expansion to what great mundane astrologers like Charles Jayne, Grant Lewi, Dane Rudhyar, and others have been saying for a century or so, seen through a pair of fresh eyes. Unfortunately, too many astrologers will be inclined to skip the tough part, thinking they already accept the principles of astrology, but they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t, because Tarnas is proposing to the rest of the world a raison d’etre for astrology that astrologers should look at twice, before they buy into his version in the way too many have previously bought into Jung’s. The arguments are dense, intellectual, and sweeping, but he makes some presumptions and conclusions not all astrologers (or scientists) might or should accept.
At the heart of Tarnas’s thesis is a modern humanistic struggle: the centuries-long schism between science and religion leading to the nihilistic version of life that has resulted, as the most soulless, reductionist visions of science triumphed to lead Western thought, leaving mainly fundamentalist religion and escapist spiritualism as the alternative. There’s a terrible disconnect between the inner and outer worlds in which the latter has largely eclipsed the former except in its most extreme forms. It’s kind of like you can have Uranus or Neptune, but not both, and that’s a lose-lose option for life. He explains in detail, philosopher by philosopher, how we got stuck with this, from Descartes to post-modernism, and demonstrates familiarly how in the separation between science and religion, and church and state, astrology became the baby thrown out with the bathwater because it insisted on unity, thus earning the current rejection of both sides.
Over a lifetime of observations correlating planetary positions with events, both inner and outer, Tarnas has come to the conclusion that you can have both, and that the inner and outer human worlds are connected, albeit loosely, through the really big outer world of the planets and their movements. In other words, like most astrologers who started out as skeptics, he learned from simple experience that “astrology works,” because of the too-high coincidence of planetary events with human ones, individually and collectively. Reading the account of his personal journey is a pleasure, because we’ve all been there and he explains it so clearly and sympathetically to the non-astrological reader. The problem to solve, as always, is how does the one connect with the other, the outside with the inside, or is an explanation necessary at all? Are the often-mysterious “synchronistic” correlations that suffuse astrology somehow directly causally related or are they merely complex systems running in parallel, only serendipitously associated? Is it mostly a projection of our imagination, or is our imagination (and events in tandem) at least partly projected from elsewhere?
That same journey was taken by two scientists in the early 20th century, biologist Paul Kammerer and psychologist Carl Jung. The former suggested the solution lay in external natural law of a higher complexity than previously observed (presaging chaos theory), the latter suggested that there was a greater, inner world that was calling the shots at a higher, “archetypical” level. For a variety of socio-political reasons, too complicated and often devious to get into here, Jung’s vision dominated, primarily because it cloaked itself in the growing shelter of modern psychology, one of the only “sciences” left which didn’t have to answer to more reductionist, laboratory versions of science. Thus, “synchronicity” and the idea of “archetypes” underneath it became labeled a fundamentally subjective phenomenon, as Jung himself defined it. In search of some shred of establishment support in a world of rejection by science and religion alike, many modern astrologers took up this point of view as an explanation of and framework for astrology. In the end, modern astrology has thus predominately painted itself as an historical anthropomorphism of the planets, the projection of our own internal (and apparently, somehow, freestanding) mythological “archetypes.”
Tarnas actually appears to see beyond this, almost, as he continually points out that although synchronistic events have a large internal component that seems to provide meaning from within, they actually coincide with real external trends which define meaning from without. In other words, the planets do seem to be running in tandem with human events, but without a suggested linking mechanism. To find that mechanism, however, he goes right back to a set of anthropomorphic planetary “archetypes” to explain it all, and in the process claims it to be thus an “ensouled” system that puts the human connection back into the cosmos. The archetypes float numinously above both planets and humankind so that they compel both, but are necessarily at least half human-derived and contextual. So, after first decrying anthropomorphism, he returns to it as part of a fundamental premise. Had he gone a simple step further — to say that since planetary rhythms have been the original, persistent forces predating human existence, anything subjective we have to provide must necessarily derive from them — he would have capped the issue. It could be they don’t just reflect our meaning and “soul,” they are the drivers and progenitors of it. We got it from them, and they continue to entrain what they spawned and will do so long after we’re gone. But Tarnas doesn’t go there.
What he gets really right, and argues clearly, is that planets seem to carry with them large and amorphous yet very central meanings, like proto-concepts which move on their own and drag our specific associations along with them, which vary from application to application, in context and in combination with each other. But by using the recently muddied term “archetypes” he tends to lose his focus that the planetary archetypes are really the only ones the term applies to, or that they are at least quite different and more fundamental than the host of other specific non-planetary archetypes established and outlined by the likes of Jung and Joseph Campbell. That’s a shame, because apples and oranges are thus allowed to slip into the same crate, confusing the issue. Would that he had chosen or invented another word (protoconcept? dynalogue?) and bent it to his own, fresh definition.
These are real fundamental questions astrologers should entertain before using Tarnas as the new Jung to hitch their wagons to (as is happening already — he’s becoming quite an icon). But non-astrologers are really his target for this book, and that is why he has spent the majority of it carefully and lovingly showing the synchronous development of Western civilization and major planetary configurations. Regardless of a final, yet-to-be-determined mechanism for the link between the planets and human events, if there is this much correspondence between them (about 350 pp. worth, and that’s only a start), there’s so much smoke here there’s got to be fire somewhere. That’s the message the average reader (at least, the one who makes it through the first part of the book) will take away, and it is one which astrologers should welcome and cherish. Although he deals early but only briefly with shorter, personal cycles like Saturn’s, his main focus is on the longer middle and outer planetary cycles and their association with socio-political development and the evolution of civilization and humanity at large. After all, that is where he was coming from to begin with, and why his previous book is an established college text, entirely outside of astrology.
Ultimately, what this book may do is help readers re-understand the kind of unifying thinking that allows the generally obvious to govern the locally specific, the evolutionary principles that ultimately hold the extremes of science and religion in check, in service of practical survival and, hopefully, progress. And, like Benson Bobrick’s recent popular history of astrology The Fated Sky, it may help put the general public back on track to understanding that astrologers, and astrology, have been addressing it all along — and, to a larger degree than most understand, have gotten it right.
Penguin Group, 2006 (paperback by Plume, 2007)
Richard Tarnas was born in 1950 in Geneva, Switzerland, of American parents. He grew up in Michigan, where he studied Greek, Latin, and the classics under the Jesuits. In 1968 he entered Harvard, where he studied Western intellectual and cultural history and depth psychology, graduating with an A.B. cum laude in 1972. For ten years he lived and worked at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, studying with Joseph Campbell, Gregory Bateson, Huston Smith, and Stanislav Grof, and later served as director of programs and education. He received his Ph.D. from Saybrook Institute in 1976. From 1980 to 1990, he wrote The Passion of the Western Mind, a narrative history of Western thought which became a best seller and continues to be a widely used text in universities throughout the world. He is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he currently teaches. He also eaches on the faculty of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, and gives many public lectures and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.