Cosmos & Psyche: Intimations of a New World View
by Richard Tarnas
ISBN: 0670032921 hardback, 569 pages.
Published by Viking, Penguin, 2006
Reviewed by Garry Phillipson
Available for purchase from
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Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass Bead Game revolves around a game wherein a single movement by a player will disclose resonance and parallels between apparently unrelated expressions of human culture - an historical event and a piece of music, for example. In this enormously ambitious book, Richard Tarnas aims to show that astrology does just this. He ranges freely throughout recorded history for examples to illustrate his thesis.
Tarnas is clearly on a mission with this book, and a wholly admirable mission at that. He argues that, although many things have been gained from the modern view of the world as meaningless and inert, there has been a heavy price to pay:
In Max Weber's famous term at the beginning of the twentieth century… the modern world is "disenchanted" (entzaubert): It has been voided of any spiritual, symbolic, or expressive dimension that provides a cosmic order in which human existence finds its ground of meaning and purpose. (p.20)
This disenchantment is not, he suggests, the result of facing up to the reality of things. Rather it comes about because humanity has painted itself into a philosophical corner, and the times demand that we now take the leap needed to get ourselves out of it:
One need not be graced with prophetic insight to recognise that we are living in one of those rare ages, like the end of classical antiquity or the beginning of the modern era, that brings forth, under great stress and struggle, a genuinely fundamental transformation in the underlying assumptions and principles of the cultural world view. (p.xiii)
Tarnas contends that astrology, if it is correctly understood, has the potential to bring about the transformation that the times demand: to show that the universe is not in fact lifeless and meaningless, but that rather it is profoundly meaningful. He is, as I said, a man on a mission.
In approaching the question of how far Tarnas succeeds in his aim, I feel that I need to be circumspect and to carefully nuance what I say. Tarnas's previous book, The Passion of the Western Mind, is as close to a perfect book as any I can think of, managing to turn the history of western thought and culture into a real page-turner. From start to finish it is a truly elegant, yet impassioned, work. It has to be said that Cosmos & Psyche does not share its predecessor's formal perfection. There are many pages where the accretion of events, trends and ideas starts to overwhelm the narrative flow. There is, in a way, just too much detail. But having said this, let me confess to feeling somewhat like the Emperor Leopold II who (reputedly) listened to a work by Mozart and complained that there were 'too many notes'. The question that has to be asked is this: given the immense and entirely laudable ambition that Tarnas gives voice to in this work, could it have been any different? Is it not necessary that he should provide an avalanche of evidence? Probably. So if it becomes difficult to read at times, this is not just a weakness; it is also a consequence of one of the book's strengths, namely the huge amount of research which has clearly gone into it. Since it is fifteen years since Passion was first published, perhaps we can infer that Tarnas himself has wrestled at times during the interim with questions about how to marshal and articulate his material.
Another thing that needs to be said: although I will be reviewing this book from an astrologer's perspective, the book is not written primarily for astrologers. Rather, it is written as a way of introducing a general readership to the ways in which astrological patterns can express through world events, and to the implicit order and meaning in the universe to which this points. If you take a look at Amazon.com you will see from the reviews there that the book seems to be succeeding very well in doing just this. For example, one reviewer writes: "Don't let the references to astrology in the other reviews turn you off toward reading this book. I am not particularly interested in astrology, and yet I found this book to be a breath taking, far ranging analysis of where Western culture and history have come from, where it is now, and where it is going." Such reviews are far more consequential in determining how far Tarnas's aim with the book succeeds, than anything I might have to say.
Theme and Structure
The first word in the book is 'skepticism' and in its entirety it is an implicit, and occasionally explicit, dialogue with scepticism. Early on (p.39) Tarnas introduces his 'parable of the two suitors'. Suppose, he says, that the universe is indeed "deep-souled, subtly mysterious… of great spiritual beauty and creative intelligence". Suppose, further, that it finds itself being approached by two different epistemologies, as if by two suitors: one views this universe as "essentially lacking in intelligence and purpose"; the other sees it as "intelligent and noble… permeated with mind and soul… endowed with spiritual depths and mystery". To which suitor, he asks, would the universe reveal its deepest truths? The suggestion is that scepticism, as generally understood in this culture at this time, is an attitude which actively precludes certain possibilities, preventing them from being seen. As Henry H Bauer put it:
…facts are theory-laden: that is, there is no such thing as a definite piece of indisputable knowledge about the world whose meaning is not in some way colored by pre-existing belief about the world. 
So what might there be in astrology which the sceptic misses? Tarnas answers this by firstly talking about synchronicity. This will not come as a surprise to many astrologers, though let it be noted that Tarnas's treatment of Jung on synchronicity and astrology contains some real gems and is one of the strongest sections of the entire book. He then shows how synchronicity's working needs to be seen in terms of archetypes, concluding:
Compared with, for example, the aims and modus operandi of various forms of intuitive divination and clairvoyance, with which astrology in earlier eras was often systematically conjoined, the essential structure of this emerging astrological paradigm [appears] to be focused not on the prediction of specific concrete outcomes but rather on the precise discernment of archetypal dynamics and their complex unfolding in time. (p.67)
At such a point, readers of a certain age may find memories of their youth returning, and it's true that the references to the archetypes ring many of the bells that (for instance) Arroyo rang in 1975 (Astrology, Psychology and the Four Elements; particularly Ch.4). And indeed, Tarnas acknowledges Arroyo as one of the astrologers who influenced him (p.65). What is new, I think, is the epistemological turn that Tarnas gives to the involvement of archetypes - how he draws out the implication that if astrology works through archetypes, then numerous apparently disparate phenomena can be seen to all be different manifestations of the overarching archetypal configuration. He sees this "archetypal multivalence" (p.87) as being the key to a world-view through which we can genuinely participate in the universe's unfolding.
Although there is some discussion here of natal charts, it is very brief. For instance the age-old problem of time-twins is covered in four pages (pp129-32) which seems more than a little perfunctory. By far the main focus of the book is Tarnas's illustration of his archetypal astrology thesis, through the accretion of examples of planetary cycles.
He covers the cycles of four planetary pairs: Uranus-Pluto (pp141 - 205); Saturn-Pluto (pp209 - 288); Jupiter-Uranus (pp291 - 351); and Uranus-Neptune (pp355 - 451). (With orbs of 15º extending up to 20º, looking mainly at conjunctions and oppositions but with some material on squares.) He says something about how each expressed in natal configurations and transits, but by far the greatest emphasis falls on world events - and in fact the natal comments are usually to do with individuals who embodied or shaped the zeitgeist in some significant way. To take a fairly random example, over a few pages he sees the impress of Uranus-Pluto in: Isadora Duncan's dancing (p.174); mass violence and/or assassinations in China, India, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the United States and Italy; the growth of Freud's influence (p.175); the quality of Wagner and Liszt's music and of Baudelaire, Whitman and Melville's writing (p.176); Schopenhauer's philosophy (p.178); the symphonies of Mahler (p.179); the development of plate tectonics theory (p.180).
If I mention that this list still leaves out quite a few events etc that are covered in these pages; and if you bear in mind that this selection spans seven pages, whilst the planetary cycles section of the book covers 310 pages; you will see that there is a huge amount of material here. This is at the same time a strength and a weakness.
It is a strength because of the sheer depth and breadth of human culture that Tarnas brings to the astrologer's table. You could spend the rest of your life teasing out the connections set forth here, and still do no more than scratch the surface.
It is a weakness because the sheer weight of information inevitably makes the prose drag; rather like a shopping list of everything that has happened in the last two thousand years (and occasionally more), sorted into categories. You might want to say that the weakness pales into insignificance in light of the strength, and I might agree. However, since Passion of the Western Mind was such a page-turner, it seems necessary to labour the point that the reader is in for a more demanding ride here.
In the same way that a move in Hesse's 'glass bead game' could serve as a basis for hours of reflection and study, so it is with the pages of Cosmos and Psyche; ideally one would not simply read it from beginning to end, but would dwell on its pages, taking its correlations as a basis for further work and insight.
The astrological technique on display here is, by Tarnas's own admission, rudimentary:
For the sake of simplicity and clarity in this initial survey of archetypal correlations with planetary movements, I have restricted the focus of this book almost entirely to a few major cycles of the outer planets. The larger astrological picture, however, is far more rich and complex, with many more interpenetrating variables. (p.455)
So I think that what any astrologer who reads this will feel, is a desire to look at charts for the periods and the people that Tarnas discusses, in order to flesh out the picture. I suppose any two astrologers will have different opinions about the extent to which the fundamental project - characterising all of human life in terms of four planetary cycles - succeeds. For what it is worth, it seemed to me that he succeeds much of the time. There are however times when it seems that he is stretching the symbolism to breaking point and beyond. An example comes when, in describing the Uranus-Neptune cycle, he says that the conjunction of the late 80s and 90s symbolised how:
A radically heightened fluidity and openness entered into the major religious traditions of the world during this era… complex interminglings, dialogues, and creative fusions of these traditions took place… Within the specific traditions themselves, major reformations and even revolutionary developments took place… [reflecting] the influence of the emancipatory streams that had developed during previous Uranus alignments, moving the mainstream religious traditions to become more democratised and antihierarchical… (pp.424-5)
I have a couple of bones to pick here. Firstly I don't think the outer planets rule as many things as Tarnas takes them to. Certainly the idea of Neptune as ruling all forms of spirituality and religious organisation is something I'd question. But let's set that to one side; astrologers can argue about such things until the cows come home, and we can at least agree that, if Neptune has that rulership, then the kinds of things described would fit very well with the symbolism of a Uranus-Neptune conjunction. But here is the second issue: was the late 80s/90s in fact a period of universal liberalism amongst religions anyway? Well no. Recognising this, Tarnas attempts to pull the rise of fundamentalism into the Uranus-Neptune cycle too:
The intensified religious consciousness of the age gave rise to many New Age infatuations and eccentric cult movements while simultaneously inspiring and bolstering fundamentalist fanaticisms in many religions throughout the world… the widespread evangelical Christian revival in the United States… often took the political form of an unreflective reactionary conservatism. (pp427-8).
This, it seems to me, is where the symbolism reaches its breaking point. No matter how I put Uranus and Neptune together, I don't end up with reactionary conservatism. In fairness I should point out that immediately after the passage just quoted, Tarnas refers to the Saturn-Pluto opposition of 2000-4 as another relevant factor in the rise of fundamentalism. But his self-imposed constraint of limiting the frame of reference simply to planetary cycles means that he does not then draw out the meaning of that opposition having occurred in Sagittarius, which is surely essential to understanding how it manifested.
Having said this much by way of criticism on astrological grounds, let me also say this: if my time amongst astrologers has taught me anything it is that, wonderful people though many of them are, astrologers tend not to see the wood for the trees. Astrologer A may dismiss Astrologer B's work out of hand, and a simmering enmity may be formed, because A uses mean rather than true nodes (for instance). This myopic obsession with the minutiae of technique is a trap, and I am aware that I could easily fall into it here. So let me try and put things into perspective.
Firstly, it has to be said that some of the astrological connections Tarnas makes in these pages are breath-taking. Perhaps my favourite is the parallel he points out between the French Revolution of 1789, and the contemporary mutiny on the Bounty, which he describes as:
a kind of laboratory case of a continuing synchronous emergence of parallel events totally isolated from each other yet reflecting the same archetypal complexes. (p.303)
Though the parallels between the 1960's and revolutionary France around 1790 also need to be mentioned. (This is a recurrent motif in the book, beginning at p.144.)
Secondly, he is a respected academic. As events in university circles remind us periodically, there are plenty of academics with an untutored hatred for astrology. So, by explicitly advocating astrology, Tarnas must surely be putting his reputation on the line. And he is doing so in pursuit of what he believes in, in order to make the world a better place. So, absolute respect to the man!
Thirdly: in order to convey a sense of astrology's workings to the average human on the street, there is no alternative but to strip it down and simplify it radically. So what, in practical terms, might Tarnas have done differently? The one thing I can suggest is this: I wish that he would have given maybe one, two or three detailed examples, where he would show how much a full astrological analysis can bring to the table. I would like to see, even if just once, the kind of treatment of which Dennis Elwell is such a master - an astrological analysis that makes the symbolism of a particular time dance and sing. Although the average reader would not be able to follow all the symbolism, I think the exercise would be valuable as a way of showing astrology's power to decode and illuminate the specific event.
There is so much in this book which leaves me wanting more. This, as I have tried to suggest, is largely inevitable given the scope of the project Tarnas has undertaken here. Let me describe one specific issue which I would like to have seen elaborated upon.
In describing his research, Tarnas writes that as part of it:
I examined in detail the biographies of a considerable range of culturally significant individuals… (those) who have made major cultural contributions or whose historical influence has been significant are, in certain respects, paradigmatic. The shape and force of their lives and characters, the sharp contours and decisive vector of their biographies, render more discernible their essential qualities. Such individuals are more conspicuous embodiments of archetypal tendencies that are present in varying degrees in everyone, and thus potential correlations can more readily be judged. (p.136)
It would be very interesting to know whether Tarnas sees this principle as similar to what Michel Gauquelin called 'the eminence effect' and what Peter Roberts refers to as being 'star born'. If astrology works better - or at least more straightforwardly - for some people than it does for others, this is a huge issue, and there is a conversation here which astrologers need to have.
Optimism isn't what it used to be
Early on in the book, Tarnas makes the very useful distinction between two paradigms for humanity's trajectory. The first is that we are gradually evolving, raising ourselves through our own efforts towards a golden age. The second is that the golden age was our natural, Edenic, state, and most everything we've done since has just served to make things worse. It isn't clear whether he recognises the extent to which he himself partakes of the first paradigm. Thus he can write:
It is perhaps not too much to say that, in this first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communications media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world's swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible. (p.483)
Is it just me, or is there an element of seeing the glass as half-full here? In any case, it is clear that he sees the world's progress being mirrored by developments in astrology:
I have come to believe… that because of the important theoretical and technological advances in the field (i.e. astrology) that have emerged in our time, a careful examination of historical correlations with the cycles of the outer planets can allow the modern mind to explore and assess the astrological perspective with a rigor and depth that has not previously been possible. (p.138)
It could well be said that the entire modern and postmodern development of human autonomy has prepared us to be better able to walk the tight-rope presented to us by the contemporary archetypal astrological perspective and evidence - in particular, by the knowledge of the outer planets' existence and their corresponding archetypal principles, by the retrospective knowledge of the historical correlations, and by the foreknowledge of future planetary alignments. (p.459)
And he can refer to the "extraordinary expansion of astrological research and evidence" that has occurred since Jung's death in 1961 (p.504 n.8). All this, I think, goes quite a long way towards explaining why he dwells so much on cycles involving the trans-Saturnians.
It would indeed be interesting to see how a more traditionally-oriented astrologer might analyse and explain some small part of the material Tarnas covers here, drawing on such tools as the Jupiter-Saturn cycle and eclipses. I'm not saying this would be ultimately better than Tarnas's approach; but if, as I believe, astrology's language is sufficiently flexible to be able to convey similar messages in widely differing ways, then it should at least be equally valid.
Qualitative v Quantitative
Tarnas writes, and I think he is absolutely on the money with this,
…compared with the archetypal approach to astrological analysis, the methodology of statistical research appears to be fundamentally inadequate for examining the actual scope and intricacy of astrological correlations, hampered as it is by simplistic epistemological assumptions inherent to that mode of investigation… The evaluation of such (synchronistic/astrological) coincidences depends deeply on the sensitive perception of context, nuance and multiple levels of meaning. The suggestive patterning and subtle precision of detail characteristic of such phenomena notoriously escapes the net of quantitative experiments and objectivist assessments. The task is better suited to a Sherlock Holmes than a Scotland Yard. (pp462-3)
I wonder, however, if he has noticed the extent to which his own methodology implies the possibility of quantitative verification. He writes:
As the Bastille correlation also suggests, on those occasions when these shorter alignments of the Jupiter-Uranus cycle coincided with the longer and less frequent alignments of the Uranus-Pluto cycle… the concurrent events tended to be especially dramatic, widespread, and consequential. (p.303)
Assuming that the principle holds generally - that when planetary cycles fall within orb at the same time, dramatic events tend to happen - we have the basis for something which could be studied quantitatively. You could define which planetary interrelationships you were going to look at, and graph the overall level of intensity in that relationship over time; periods of maximum cyclic intensity should register most strongly in the history books.
Borges wrote of an infinite library made up of all possible arrangements of all possible characters, and (therefore) containing endless explanations of the universe of which one must be true. There are times when Cosmos & Psyche seems to take on the character of that library; at one time astrology sounds as if it should be an objective, quantifiable phenomenon, albeit seen darkly, through archetypes. At other times, it sounds vertiginously subjective - as in these words from Tarnas's Epilogue, of which Borges would surely have approved:
There are many possible worlds, many possible meanings, living within us in potential, moving through us, awaiting enactment. […] …we are miraculously self-reflective and autonomous yet embedded participants in a larger cosmic drama, each of us a creative nexus of action and imagination. Each is a self-responsible microcosm of the creative macrocosm, enacting a richly, complexly co-evolutionary unfolding of reality. To a crucial extent, the nature of the universe depends on us. (p.491)
This, however, is to raise a huge issue about the nature of astrology, the universe and everything, only to remind the reader that this is, after all, only a book review and that no significant discussion is going to occur. Indeed, in trying to write about Cosmos and Psyche, I feel as if I have begun to partake a little of some of the issues which must have beset Tarnas in assembling such a work. There is so much that could be said, so many avenues of enquiry opening up at every turn, but at the same time a balance that needs to be struck between comprehensiveness and comprehensibility. So I salute Tarnas for the vision, courage, endurance and insight which he has brought to this project - and, frankly, for retaining his sanity whilst working on such a huge, huge project; a lesser mind could have been unhinged by its demands. I do not think it is a perfect book, but I do feel that it is important and profoundly good.
There is an excellent interview with Richard Tarnas at:
More resources can be found at the website of the book:
- including a pdf with an excerpt from Cosmos and Psyche, and Ray Grasse's interview with Tarnas which originally appeared in the Dec 05/Jan 06 edition of The Mountain Astrologer:
Notes & References:
||Review of Cosmos & Psyche on Amazon.com by Dr. R - posted 11th Feb 2006, viewed 5th June 2006.
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|| Henry H Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p.65.
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|| Neptune "governs myth and religion, poetry and the arts, inspiration and aspiration, the experience of divinity, the numinous, the ineffable, the sacred and mysterious." (p.355)
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|| E.g. Michel Gauquelin, Written in the Stars (Wellingborough: Aquarian, 1988) pp72-7.
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|| E.g. Peter Roberts & Helen Greengrass, The Astrology of Time Twins (Durham: Pentland Press, 1994) p.52.
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|| See Baigent, Campion and Harvey's Mundane Astrology - particularly Ch.6, and particularly pp.167 - 175 thereof - for more on such an approach. It seems a little odd that this book (so far as I can see) is referred to only once in Cosmos & Psyche (in the endnotes, p.501) given the extent to which their themes overlap.
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Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Library of Babel' in Labyrinths (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).
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