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Evaluating “Cosmos And Psyche” And Archetypal Cosmology

Richard Tarnas and I share a common pursuit.  We’re both seeking order and meaning within what we believe to be a purposefully intelligent and profound universe.  We’re looking for confirmation of what we sense to be true, what in the core of our souls we know to be true; that the cosmos is a living whole informed by a creative intelligence to which humans are intimately connected and actively interrelate.  Unfortunately, to those whose sensibilities fail to similarly resonate, the idea of an intelligent, meaningful and interconnected cosmos is a tough sell.  This is understandable.  The mindset of the modern age remains firmly rooted in the power and persuasion of science and its empirical and mechanistic approach to knowledge.  Any concept of intrinsic cosmic meaning (save that which we humans impose on reality) seems absurd.  Science’s assertion that we live in a universe of random, chaotic and ultimately impersonal forces has rarely been challenged in a deliberate and systematic manner.  This is changing.  In his book Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas fuses astrological principles with the archetypal realm of the human mind in an attempt to prove how cosmic forces have historically influenced and directed human behavior in a predictable and ultimately intelligent manner.  As with most paradigm shifting proposals, the assessments of his results run the gamut between revelatory and groundbreaking to baseless and delusional.

Astrology as we know it first arose six thousand years ago in Babylon.  By noting the position of certain planets and stars during prior events, Mesopotamian astronomers attempted to divine the future for their anxious rulers.  Astrology was highly regarded in virtually every worldly culture from ancient Egypt, India, China and Greece through such new world societies as the Aztec and Maya.  Its popularity endured through the European Renaissance with such notable astronomers as Galileo and Kepler being extensive practitioners.  However, in modern times, despite the widespread popularity of predictive horoscopes (or likely because of them) few words exist so laden with anti-intellectual and superstitious connotations as astrology.  Though simply defined as “a belief in the actions and movements of the cosmos upon terrestrial matters,” mere mention is enough to illicit raised eyebrows and shaking heads.  To date, nothing within a vast number of controlled scientific studies has yet to bestow any degree of credibility to the concept or practice of astrology.

Current skepticism aside, for over thirty years Richard Tarnas has maintained an active interest in astrology, pouring over the charts of a litany of prominent people and significant time periods.  Given his reputation and credentials (Harvard, Saybrook, ten years at Eselen with the likes of Stanislov Grof, Huston Smith and James Hillman and a founding director at the California Institute for Integral Studies) immersion in a field of such dubious repute would seem somewhat unusual.  However, make no mistake, within the field of transpersonal studies Tarnas is a bona fide heavyweight with an imposing command of psychology and history.  Any who doubt his analytic and scholarly abilities need only review his last book, The Passion of the Western Mind which remains a core text within many major universities.  His concept of astrology and its attendant methodology differs from what many consider the norm.  Tarnas has pioneered and become the iconic figure within the newly emerging field known as “Archetypal Cosmology.”

In the modern period the concept of archetypes received it’s most extensive and conspicuous exposure through the work of the Swiss psychiatrist C.J. Jung.  Jung considered archetypes to be innate symbolic forms existing within the unconscious structure of all human beings that define and impel our experience and behavior on both the individual and collective level.  They are the cognitive software running through the hard drive of the human brain.  Each archetype has its own distinctive characteristics or personality and influences our behavior accordingly.   Archetypal Cosmology proceeds from the notion that each of the planets within our solar system is an “ensouled” psychic entity possessed of its own unique archetypal personality.  When any planet comes into alignment with our earth its distinctive archetypal qualities begin to stimulate and resonate with those same dispositional structures lodged within the individual or collective psyche.

Tarnas works with the traditional planetary characteristics as defined by the ancient Mesopotamians, Ptolemy or whatever unknown intellect of antiquity originally ascribed the essential personalities that endure to this day.   By observing the geometric relationship between the planets and our Earth at any given time (assessing their “transits” and “aspects”) one may determine what archetypal characteristics are most likely to be active and influential.  This is the key to Tarnas’ major assertion; there is a clear and observable relationship between the position of the planets and the events of human history.  Human activity reflects and is influenced by the archetypal character of those planets in strongest transit with the Earth at any given time.  He contends a detailed examination of multiple periods of the historical record vividly confirm and demonstrate this psychic connection.  Through this process will the necessary empirical evidence emerge to conclude that psychological cosmic forces directly impact and shape the flow of human existence.

Tarnas and his disciples are quick to indicate this archetypal approach is what separates their astrology from its disreputable cousins so widely derided and mocked by science.  Their archetypal assessment is not a predictive process.  No clues or advice regarding your relationship with family or coworkers, no direction towards riches and certainly no tall, dark strangers.  They are most concerned with what they believe are the creative, elemental, psychic forces at work within the cosmos that influence our behavior and psychological perspectives on both an individual and collective level.  They carefully point out these archetypal influences, no matter how powerful or extensive they may be, have little fatalistic quality and do nothing to compromise our exercise of free will.  Archetypal forces never force us into specific actions.  Rather, they set the psychic stage for the deliberate and creative roles we all play within the course of our own lives.

The essential premise of Cosmos and Psyche is easy enough to accommodate.  One needn’t leave the realm of material science to find support for the concept of existence being a vast interconnected whole.  The hackneyed analogy of causality resembling billiard balls on a table remains the cornerstone of mechanistic reasoning.  In point of fact, modern cosmology is an active exercise in retro-causality tracing back the existence and motion of celestial bodies to their initial point of origin.  Few doubt our planetary neighbors with their relatively formidable size, proximity and the scale of their gravitational and electromagnetic fields exert significant causal forces.  If the moon has the ability to move our oceans the larger planets joining our orbit around the sun could also have a pronounced physical influence on the Earth and its creatures.  But can the same be said regarding psychological effects?  Many of measured mind remain convinced planetary bodies (particularly the moon) have the ability to shape our thoughts and moods.  To be clear, while anecdotal testimony abounds, there is currently no empirical study suggesting the planets exert any direct psychological influence on human behavior.  However, reasonable inference on the relation between the physical and the psychological suggests such a connection may not require too long a reach.  Many a medical study draws the correlation between physical condition and psychological status.  Nor can we forget that regardless of how one conceives of the nature of consciousness, be it divinely/externally imposed or the product of our unique physiology, there remains a corporeal basis through which it operates.  As such, if one is willing to acknowledge the physical effects of planetary bodies one can’t blithely dismiss the possibility of corresponding psychological reactions.  To acknowledge the possibility of an active resonance between human beings and their cosmic context requires no great leap of reason.

After cementing these principles firmly in place, Tarnas proceeds to present over 300 pages of historic example fortifying his assertion that planetary positions are “indicative of the cosmic state of earthly archetypal dynamics at the time,” (p. 77.)  Though all planetary alignments are relevant to understanding the psychic inclination of the cosmos at any given moment, Tarnas’ focus is selective.  He primarily concentrates on the four most powerful transits (oppositions, conjunctions, trines and squares) as they relate to what he believes are the four most influential bodies within our solar system; Saturn, (whose major archetypal characteristics are contraction, alienation, negation and opposition) Uranus, (change, rebellion, innovation and awakening) Neptune, (spiritual, symbolic and imaginative) and Pluto (power, depth and intensity).  Having identified specific influential planetary transits to specific historical periods he proceeds to examine the manifestations of what he considers the dominant psychic personality active within a litany of notable world events.  All are intended to reveal a clear, unambiguous and consistent archetypal influence at work.  It’s a staggering compilation of material.  However, despite bearing ample witness to the breadth of Tarnas’ historical knowledge and his masterful ability to relate and interpret human activity within the vast context of our collective existence broader issues emerge. Does this extensive compendium of example verify his original assertion?  Does his evidence compellingly argue that cosmic forces actively and intelligently direct and influence our lives?  Is his new astrology a valuable tool towards understanding human existence?

I approached Cosmos and Psyche with guarded hope and expectation.  I believed it plausible to assume our psyches, (either individual or collective) could be connected with the rhythms of the greater whole and influenced by physical bodies in direct proximity to ourselves.  The reviews were ecstatic.  I’d been told Tarnas had made the legal case for astrology; empirical, rational with example argued in a consistent, persuasive and unambiguous fashion.    However, though the evidence in Cosmos and Psyche is bountiful, coherently presented and beautifully expressed, I was soon troubled by a number of issues of both method and interpretation.  Some have dogged the process of astrology for years; others are unique to Tarnas’ particular approach.

The methodological side presents underlying problems that traditional astrologers (and now Tarnas) perpetually confront.  These concern the intrinsic accuracy of astrological assumption; specifically the manner in which the planets were initially assigned their unique characteristics.  A review of astrological history reveals planetary personalities were originally deduced from their visual appearance to the naked eye from a distance of millions to hundreds of millions of miles away.  The reddish Mars was thought to embody red like qualities such as anger, conflict and courageousness.  Gigantic Jupiter was assigned qualities of size, superiority, presence, expansion and so on down the line.  To be fair, early astrologers also noted the nature of earthly events associated with the positions of the planets in refining their characterizations.  However, in both cases one must wonder how adequate were the assessments of these ancient observers given the extremely limited scope of their perspective (both heavenly and earthly) and the lack of any other empirical factors supporting their contentions.

The issue of other bodies outside those planets within our solar system remains perplexing.  If existence is an interconnected whole wouldn’t any number if not all celestial bodies (those billions upon billions) exert their own archetypal influences and require accommodation within the astrological scheme?  Why address only those major bodies within our solar system?  Why does a tiny body such as Pluto warrant inclusion while the larger, more proximal moons of Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune are excluded?  What about our own planet Earth?  Doesn’t it have its own archetypal qualities?  How could any astrologer accommodate the complexity of thousands of potentially overlapping transits?  These and countless other questions suggest the study of astrology may not be sufficiently developed to be considered a reasonable source of explanation.  For the time being I shelved these nagging preliminaries in an effort to allow Tarnas’ approach to stand or fall on its own.

One of the most disconcerting elements within Tarnas’ methodology I couldn’t ignore was the stunningly wide latitude of time he allows for linking cause, (planetary transit) to effect, (specific behavior).   Tarnas claims human behavior begins to realize an archetypal effect when a planet is within 20 degrees of alignment with an opposition, conjunction, square or trine.  This creates a disturbingly large period of time to account for human activity without the consideration of a multitude of other factors unrelated to cosmological influence.  The Uranus-Pluto relationship that receives extensive treatment is a case in point.  The conjunction of these planets is twelve years and the intervening square is ten.  This creates a “window of effect” of twenty two years within each eighty four year cycle without considering any added time the trine, opposition or any other configuration would necessarily add.  Combine this factor with Tarnas’ observation that many of the archetypal qualities associated with these alignments begin to “phase in or out” prior to or after their designated duration and one can easily see the problem.  Within this degree of temporal latitude one need not be a great student of history to find events within all fields of human endeavor corresponding to the archetypal qualities suggested by this alignment.

Unfortunately, Tarnas’ temporal generosity is matched with an equal amount of definitional latitude.  The wide range of archetypal characteristics, their relative shadow components and the multidimensional qualities introduced by the presence of other planetary alignments are so vast and often vague as to virtually encompass the entire span of human psychology.  Tarnas assigns the planet Saturn over one hundred different possible qualities.  When Saturn falls into transit with any other body (as planets are always in rotation they constantly modify each other’s archetypal characteristics) the archetypal possibilities increase exponentially.  Then there are matters of interpretation.  What specific human actions correlate with such Saturn like characteristics as wisdom, judgment, discipline, discrimination or challenge?  Tarnas’ response that there are many possible human responses to such archetypal influences reinforces the problem rather than obviates the confusion.  Under these circumstances there would appear to be no specific, or even general  human responses that can be consistently observed to persuasively argue cause to effect.  In a study intended to deliver objective evidence we are too frequently left with an infinite number of subjective interpretations.

In numerous instances Tarnas’ attempts to link the psychic effects associated with either an event or person purely to planetary forces appear misdirected.  Frequently he seems to conflate natural biological, psychological and social patterns with cosmic causes.  On the individual level this apparent post hoc fallacy is most evident when discussing the periods when Uranus opposes a person’s birth position and the Saturn return transit.  The Uranus opposition occurs within all human lives sometime in their early forties.  Tarnas notes this powerful transit is associated with radical shifts and breakthroughs within our lives and provides numerous historical examples to buttress this assertion.  However, most people in their early forties are in their psychological and social prime.  It’s therefore not surprising this would be an extremely productive and influential time regardless of planetary alignments.  The same problem exists with the Saturn return which occurs in all lives between ages twenty eight and thirty and again at fifty seven to sixty.  Tarnas claims the primary archetypal influences at these key times encourage a refocusing of our priorities, a more serious approach to life and our “uploading to a more authentic destiny.”  Any with a modicum of psychological and social awareness can easily appreciate these inclinations tightly correspond with those natural psychological orientations, developmental processes and relative concerns  virtually all encounter as they pass through these seminal points of life for reasons having little to do with cosmological influence.

On the collective level, a possible conflation of natural social cycles with planetary/archetypal influences can also be found.  Within the fields of art, music, politics, culture or science there are predictable courses of development readily explainable without resort to cosmic alignments.  Tarnas provides numerous examples of social cycles of creativity, expansion and change, (such as the late 1960’s,) associated with the alignment of Uranus being followed by cycles of contraction, repression and rigidity (such as the early 1980s) associated with the archetypal influence of an aligning Saturn.  Many with no astrological orientation may offer more pedestrian reasons to account for this behavioral cycle so common to all arenas of human activity.  They note any period of great change in any field is followed by a “down” period of assessment and accommodation.  Societies, like people require time to intellectually and emotionally process and integrate any new paradigm, change or development.  And yes, in most cases people are uneasy with the new status quo and for a period may actively resist and repress the flow of progress.  This is an expected response.  Human development within all fields of endeavor has always been one of fits and starts.  There are many psychological and evolutionary reasons for this tendency to resist perpetual change.  For Tarnas to ascribe this progression solely to the alignment and procession of the planets without noting and accounting for such other possible (and in many ways more likely) explanations does little to promote the veracity of his position.

Not all of Tarnas’ examples are subject to apparent confusions of cause and interpretation.  In fact many of his observations seem to align accurately with general historical perspectives and prevailing opinion (late sixties America was a time of great social change as was France in 1788).  However, under the best of circumstances, any who engage in such wide ranging psychological, social and global interpretations as found in Cosmos and Psyche are bound to find themselves slamming headlong into a wall of post modern criticism, and rightly so.  The idea that the meaning of all events and motivations are individually constructed, interpreted and resistant to outside standards of understanding or classification is an obstacle not easily overcome by those intent on forming grand, universal theories.  Regardless of how constrained Tarnas’ post modern inclination, he surely understands the psychological imperatives and historical meanings of the people and events he notes hold a number of possible interpretations, not all of which are consistent with his own.  This is a formidable and inescapable problem when trying to unite all of human history under a singular working thesis.

This brings us to the major concern within Cosmos and Psyche.  The question of how Tarnas selects and interprets those events he feels reflect active archetypal forces typifies the greater problems he faces towards making an empirical case.  His historical evidence, though copious, is inevitably highly selective and limited.  It could be no other way.  While many of the specific global events Tarnas cites may be representative of a specific archetypal character it’s too easy to find a multitude of other events within the same range of cosmic influence exemplifying a different or even contradictory psychic orientation.  This is hardly surprising.  Regardless of diligence and consideration, Tarnas has set upon an impossible task.  A complete evaluation of the totality of human and cultural experience whether for a decade, a year or a day is certain to reveal instances of every possible mentality and response within the total potentiality of the human psyche.  Providing fifty or even fifty thousand examples of why the Uranus-Pluto conjunction of 1787 through 1798 encouraged radical social and political change, empowerment of revolutionary impulses and intensified intellectual creativity does nothing to confirm these same elements at work within all or even a majority of other human endeavors of the same time.  There is not a single moment, much less an entire epoch within human history where all societies and their members have experienced and reacted to events in a manner consistent with any archetype or archetypal constellation.

The above represent some of the categorical issues and problems immediately present within Cosmos and Psyche.  Suffice it to say I was suitably conflicted and disappointed.  Deep in my heart I agreed with Tarnas’ assertion we live in an ensouled and intelligent universe.  Unfortunately, my inclinations, intuitions and desires were incapable of smoothing over what I felt to be holes, inconsistencies and subjectivity haunting his claims.  However, within the book Tarnas suggested the best way to understand these ideas was to directly confront them within the context of one’s own biography.  To appreciate the depth and consistency of archetypal patterning and to gain a deeper understanding of his method one needed their own personal archetypal reading.  Having already invested in 579 pages of text this seemed a reasonable next step.

I must confess my two previous attempts at having an astrological reading fared poorly.  In both India and Kalimantan I’d paid an astrologer in advance for a natal chart.  In both cases, at the appointed rendezvous I was left standing with only the company of my own gullibility.  This time I would be more cautious, the astrologer would have to be on Pay Pal.  I wanted Tarnas himself.  However, being advised he no longer did personal readings I was directed to one of his protégées.  Over the phone the reader seemed a voluble fellow well schooled in the intricacies of Tarnas’ Archetypal Cosmology.  Prior to our discussion he asked for my requisite birth information and requested I complete a questionnaire dealing with selective elements of my personality.  Initially the idea of a questionnaire was very off putting.  Though wanting to approach this exercise with an open perspective towards better understanding Tarnas’ approach, I couldn’t deny certain cagier elements within me wanted to “test” the astrological process.  Any advance information I provided could seriously compromise an accurate assessment of this method.  I was aware of many of the possible psychological proclivities astrologers historically play on (confirmation bias, selective thinking, the Forer Effect, etc.) and wanted to control for them wherever possible.  Eventually I abandoned any ideas of proving or falsifying the method.  I concluded the best way to understand Tarnas was to play it his way and see what happened.  I completed the questionnaire with only a modest degree of circumspection.

Over a period of three sessions spread over two weeks the reader analyzed and interpreted my chart.  He discussed how the archetypal elements reflected in the transits of the planets influenced and shaped my particular personality and disposition.   He also identified what he considered to be significant times within my personal history and the celestial/archetypal reasons why.  Despite a certain initial skepticism, I was impressed with what I perceived to be the precision of his assessments.  His personal readings were detailed and specific.  In many cases he accurately identified many dimensions of my psychic constitution at odds with those traditionally associated with my natal zodiac sign.  Having assimilated a fair degree of astrological theory from reading Cosmos and Psyche I could see every observation he produced had a clear and directly identifiable reference to the geometry of my natal chart and every interpretation was firmly grounded within the established (though wide) archetypal qualities of the specific planets in play.

The reader was consistent in discussing and evaluating the elements of personality and history in purely archetypal terms.  Never did he venture an opinion as to how any planetary forces would specifically manifest themselves through the course of my life.  He frequently articulated Tarnas’ assertion that archetypal influences don’t determine or demand specific behavior.  They set the dispositional stage from which human beings exercise their own free will in any number of personal ways.  I must confess, through the process I was secretly hoping to garner some sort of mystical insight into my future.  It was not to be.  The most the reader offered was to identify certain time frames within the next few years in which certain archetypal energies would be more pronounced.  What happens during these times is purely up to me.

My time with the reader was quite enjoyable.  As any good psychologist knows, the process of talking about yourself and investigating the influences in your life (be they cosmic or corporeal) can be a revelatory and cathartic experience.  I came away from these sessions with an inexplicable sense there may likely be more to the practice of astrology than traditional science allows.  Clearly the quality and intentions of each individual practitioner does much to define the experience.  However, though the reader’s assessments of my personal history seemed accurate I had to acknowledge the obvious; none of us are usually the best arbiters of our own lives.  To a certain extent we all exist within a reality of our own creation and interpretation.  Our perceptions of our personality and history are woven of a vast and intricate web of psychological dispositions, events, biases and desires, many having little relation to objective evaluation.  Seldom do our own self assessments coordinate with those of the external world.  Is changing jobs or locale a sign of courage, growth and expansion or cowardly contraction?  Is adopting a new love interest the sign of personal validation or desperate need?   Who can say for sure?  Human motivations are rarely clear cut or subject to categorical assessment.  Interpretation will always remain in the eye of the beholder.  And therein may very well lay the greatest problem within Cosmos and Psyche.  This conundrum gave me much to consider when assessing the viability of the astrological method as it related to both my own experience and Tarnas’ method.

Cosmos and Psyche is constructed around the premise that the cosmos is an intrinsically intelligent, meaningful and ensouled entity capable of psychologically influencing individual humans and societies at large.  Many intuitively feel this assertion accurate but remain frustrated by the lack of consistent, unambiguous and objective evidence.  Tarnas addresses this concern early on by eloquently discussing the problems of calling forth the empirical in matters of interiority.  He passionately reveals how early humans once had an awareness of and connection to this essential character of the cosmos before the empirical and rational perspectives of the Western mind cast us into a meaningless, mechanical existence devoid of the spiritual and mystical.  Victims of our intellectual gods we’re now adrift in a disenchanted universe.  Though giving credit where due, Tarnas obviously feels the real villain in this scenario is the modern scientific paradigm.  On this point Tarnas is spot on.  There is unquestionably a disturbing arrogance associated with the positive materialistic method.  Holding all truth to be the exclusive domain of empirical science is a flawed and limited perspective.  In a different context Tarnas presciently noted how “you don’t put Gods in a double blind study and expect to come out with anything,”

So true.  The problems and constraints of the purely materialist approach to knowledge have received extensive treatment through the works of Kant, William James, Russell, Whitehead and numerous others.  That the entire subjective realm of human existence eludes positivist evaluation and understanding is quite evident.  Despite eluding objective verification, instinct and intuition remain formidable tools in approaching the unknown.  Seekers of any stripe disregard these innate human assets at their own peril. On this point Tarnas need not actively persuade.  However, though interior or mystical realms of existence may not be entirely bound to the scientific method their existence and qualities must remain subject to the forces of reason.  Unfortunately, Tarnas fails to adequately sidestep this snare.

The expectations attendant with Cosmos and Psyche are formidable.  Many claim the book provides proof of an intelligent cosmos or makes the “legal case” for the validity of astrology.  Clearly it does neither.  Little within the books body of evidence convinces on either an empirical or rational level.  No degree of cause and effect can be reasonably inferred (either empirically or argumentatively) when a methodology rooted in questionable assumptions and expansively applied is paired with the subjective interpretation of a relatively limited number of cases.  Tarnas’ repeated assertion that any archetypal influence can be manifested in any number of ways in accordance with the free will of any individual succinctly articulates the fundamental problem; within this framework of interpretation anything can be anything.  No particular form of action can be clearly and consistently assigned to a particular cause.  Without this kind of linkage no standard of proof or persuasion exists.

Tarnas himself notes the presence of many “complicating factors” within his methodology, the need for “other significant categories of evidence to be presented” and the tentative nature of his conclusions.  These issues may provide the concrete challenges for those who wish to build upon his work.  Indeed, the inability of Cosmos and Psyche to “prove” Tarnas’ premise does nothing to invalidate his theory.  Tracing the patterns of history to the patterns of the cosmos is clearly a novel and intriguing approach towards investigating a possible intelligent and psychic influence within the universe.  Likewise, his assertion that astrology is a path towards understanding the cosmos may have some degree of merit.  There exists a gargantuan body of work grounded in many different personal, cultural and historic perspectives dedicated to investigating the possible links between cosmic bodies and earthly affairs.  That so many throughout the grand span of history have intuited and sensed this connection is a phenomena not easily dismissed.  However, those who wish to further pursue Tarnas’ Archetypal Cosmology must begin to find ways to more precisely justify and calibrate their methodology and tighten the spectrum of interpretation lest their approach continue to be shadowed in question.  I for one hope they can.  In this way we may perhaps better learn if our emotions, imagination and spirituality are drawn from and connected to a universal intelligence and in the process open ourselves to a new way of understanding existence.

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2 Comments

  1. CommentsL.D. Palmer   |  Sunday, 15 June 2014 at 2:47 am

    You may be interested in the following article: The Gauquelin Controversy, ANS (Astrology News Service)
    http://astrologynewsservice.com/articles/the-gauquelin-controversy/

    Thank you for the articles you have written.

  2. CommentsCarpenters Bridge   |  Saturday, 18 August 2018 at 2:21 am

    http://Robtbrandenburg.Wikidot.com/blog:344

    Star Crossed | Warped And Weft

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