Psyching Out The Cosmos


According to contemporary cosmology, our solar system emerged from titanic accidents. Gases swirling together in the void of deep space randomly formed stars and planets; eventually, the whole show will collapse back into nullity. This perspective, developed from the Renaissance to the present, stands as a great achievement of the modern mind. It also deviates radically from the ancients’ conception of a universe saturated with meaning and purpose, where human activity reflects the movements of the celestial bodies. The basis of Hermetic philosopher was, “As above, so below.” Seemingly crushed by the rise of scientific materialism in the West, this worldview has now been rephrased in a new book that proposes a startling reversal of paradigms.

Scrupulously researched and carefully argued, Richard Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche (Penguin, 2006) is the product of thirty years of thought and study. A Harvard-educated professor and a founding director of the California Institute of Integral Studies, Tarnas is already known for The Passion of the Western Mind, a surprise 1991 bestseller that surveys Western philosophy from the Greeks until today and is used as a standard text in many college courses. With his new work, Tarnas has staked his success and academic reputation on a radical thesis. The new structuring metanarrative that he explores, in 550 carefully argued pages, is not some postmodern deconstruction of systems and methods, but that cornerstone of antiquity and the often derided New Age: astrology. According to his thesis, the orbits of the planets—especially the so-called outer planets—are synchronized with developments in human consciousness, and their movements can be correlated with cycles of scientific progress, cultural breakthroughs, war, peace, and revolution. Ignoring the zodiac signs explored in tabloid horoscopes, Tarnas focuses instead on planetary transits—geometric relationships between the bodies of the solar system—and the correspondence that these alignments seem to have with the dynamics of civilization.

For those with no sympathy for astrology, Cosmos and Psyche will prove an implausible stretch. Tarnas knows that he faces a difficult task in getting this material taken seriously in mainstream circles—let alone the skeptical and intellectual enclaves of academia that embraced The Passion of the Western Mind. In conversation, he says that Passion was, in a sense, a “Trojan Horse,” and that he had always intended that book to be followed by his new work, which seeks to revive astrology as a serious intellectual discipline and provide a cosmological missing link between the human world and the greater universe in which we are embedded. Cosmos and Psyche offers us, ultimately, a rejoinder to Copernicus—where the astronomer shifted the Earth from the center to the periphery, Tarnas proposes a reintegration, in which the evolution of consciousness reflects the ordering principles of a larger whole.

Tarnas does not believe that the planets directly influence human behavior, in some straightforward cause-and-effect manner. He concurs with the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who wrote, “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.” When we look at a clock, the hands indicate what time it is, but they do not make it be that time. Similarly, Tarnas argues, patterns in human culture are meshed within larger cyclical processes of the solar system. He believes the planets function like Jungian archetypes, complexes with multiple meanings that can influence the individual and collective psyche in myriad ways. By studying astrology, we can learn to read what time it is, in an archetypal sense.

What are astrological transits? As the planets orbit the sun, they form geometric angles in relationship to the Earth and to one another. An individual’s natal chart maps the particular pattern of relationships that exists at the moment of birth. Throughout our lives, the planets—said to be “transitting”—weave further geometries that intersect with this original matrix. If the planets represent archetypal complexes, than the expression of these energies—their particular intensity or quality—depends on this constantly shifting set of relationships. How or why such geometric alignments of planets might correspond with large-scale trends in a civilization, or psychological patterns in an individual, is another question. Such a correlation is impossible to account for with modern scientific methods, as it is not based on any transmitted force or direct influence, but on a deeper realization that human consciousness is meshed within in the larger universe, a fractal that organically expresses the larger pattern of the whole.

Classical astrologers knew of only seven spheres—Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas instead focuses on the slower swoops of the outer planets—Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto. Because these distant bodies take more time to complete their orbits of the solar system, their conjunctions and oppositions can require many years to complete. It is in this protracted dance that Tarnas believes he has uncovered a convincing system of correspondences, integrating wide-spread developments in history and culture. Of the outer planets, all but Saturn were discovered within the last two hundred and fifty years. The archetypal astrology that Tarnas promotes is, therefore, an explicitly modern discipline, founded upon our technological capacity to peek into deep space, and aided today by computer programs that can calculate complex orbital patterns in the distant past or far-flung future. “We have, in a sense, been given a powerful archetypal telescope for a vast archetypal cosmos at the same moment that we have developed extraordinarily powerful space telescopes to apprehend the vast physical cosmos,” he writes.

Astronomers name new planets when they are found; it then takes decades of observation by astrologers to understand the energies these planets represent, which they discover by studying the effects the spheres exert, first, on individual lives, and then on larger periods of cultural development. The oldest-known of the outer planets, Saturn, has long been associated with limitations, discipline, the paternal, melancholy, death, and gravity. During an individual’s “Saturn Return,” which happens roughly every 28 years, Saturn swings around to the place it occupied at the time of birth, often coinciding with a period of existential reappraisal.
Discovered in 1781, at the peak of the Enlightenment, Uranus (the father of Saturn in classical mythology) is often associated with breakthroughs, liberations, and rebellious upsurges. Tarnas argues that the planet bears close resemblance to the classical figure of Prometheus, who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to mortal humans. Tarnas suggests it was no accidental that Uranus/Prometheus showed up in the skies at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, of the Romantic movement in literature and art, and in the era of the French and American Revolutions. The astronomical event seems correlated with an intense liberating upsurge in the West, as if the physical embodiment of the planet represented the new powers and self-realizations then emerging “into the conscious awareness of the collective psyche.”

Neptune was discovered in 1846, and named for the god of the deep seas. The planet represents all things transcendent, formless, subtle, and spiritual. It is also connected with the dissolution of boundaries and structures, illusion, addiction, and “the bedazzlement of consciousness, whether by gods, archetypes, beliefs, dreams, ideals, or ideologies; with enchantment, in both positive and negative senses.” Neptune’s discovery corresponded with a 19th century fascination with the occult and the mystical. In high culture, this fascination manifested as the “world spirit” of Hegel and the Transcendentalism of Emerson, while the masses, and even some scientists, indulged in explorations of Spiritualism, mesmerism, and phrenology.

Pluto, linked to the Underworld and its ruling deity, made its appearance in 1930, a decade before World War II, at the time of the Great Depression and the rise of the gangster as mass-cultural anti-hero. “Pluto is associated with the principle of elemental power, depth, and intensity,” Tarnas writes. He connects Pluto with the creative/destructive deity, Dionysius, noting that the Greek Hades, who became Pluto under the Romans, was identified with Dionysius by Greek authors such as Heraclitus and Euripides. Pluto/Dionysius represents instinctual upsurge, cathartic, orgiastic, and frequently violent; the archetype empowers “whatever it touches, sometimes to overwhelming and catastrophic extremes.”

These four planets take the starring roles in Cosmos and Psyche, which can be enjoyed as a vast Shakespearian drama where the action revolves around cosmic principles that influence human lives, social movements, and historical actions. When Saturn and Pluto align in the heavens, for instance, the result is often phases of mass-destruction and planet-wide violence. The spheres were in exact conjunction at the start of the World War I; in opposition from 1929—1933, during the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism; and in an exact square alignment in August and September of 1939, as Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. They were within two degrees of exact opposition when the events of September 11, 2001 incited the current phase of global conflict. The Plutonic principle of instinctual intensification appears to catalyze Saturn’s downward pull towards “the bottom line, the workings of necessity, the inevitable and inescapable.” Acute periods of conservative empowerment, environmental destruction, and social repression are often marked by transits of these two spheres.

When Uranus and Pluto come together, on the other hand, the party starts—and then tends to get out of hand. Dionysius amps up the Promethean urge towards liberation and creative breakthrough, while Prometheus incites Dionysian rampages that often end in violence. The last conjunction of Pluto and Uranus occurred from 1960 to 1972, reaching exact alignment in 1965–66. The 1960s were an Oedipal outburst, marked by volatile movements aimed at political and personal liberation. The entire period, Tarnas notes, “can be recognized as essentially a manifestation of two distinct archetypes—the rebellious Promethean and the erotic Dionysian—acting in close conjunction and mutual activation.” Uranus and Pluto were also in opposition from 1787 to 1798, the period of the French Revolution, which had a volatile and emancipatory gestalt similar to the 1960s. Uranus and Pluto formed a square from 1845 to 1856, when a “wave of revolutionary upheavals” passed across Europe.

Tarnas believes that suggestive correlations—such as Uranus/Pluto with radical upsurges and Saturn/Pluto with drastic downturns—indicate that the cosmos “as a living whole appears to be informed by some kind of pervasive intelligence.” But where does this leave human will? Tarnas calls, not for fatalism, but for viewing the human condition as one of “creative participation in a living cosmos of unfolding meaning and purpose.” While the natal chart appears to give deep psychological insight into the individual, the archetypal forces it depicts are not determinative or predictive, but open to personal expression and conscious mediation. He points out that Charlie Chaplin and Adolph Hitler had similar natal charts, having been born four days apart in April 1889. The similarities indicated by their charts include “harsh life experiences such as sustained poverty and isolation; susceptibility to displays of anger; problematic relationships with authorities combined with dictatorial controlling tendencies.” In addition, the men shared “an impulse to experience or create dramatic illusions capable of powerfully moving audiences.” But Chaplin and Hitler expressed these archetypal energies in starkly dissimilar ways, exemplifying the creativity and free will of the individual.

With Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas has attempted to do for cosmology what Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics did for quantum theory, showing how an area of modern rational thought can be integrated with ancient metaphysical principles. Of course, his evidence features psychological and philosophical dimensions that cannot be statistically quantified or materially demonstrated—although hard data such as the quadruple conjunction of Jupiter, Uranus, Pluto, and the Moon at the exact time of the 1969 Apollo lunar landing is quite impressive. However compelling the evidence that Tarnas has garnered, there can be no ironclad proof of a thesis that takes so many intangible and qualitative factors into account. Recognizing this, he notes that part of what he is proposing is that the rational faculty itself must now be contextualized. Skeptical reason must be integrated into a greater understanding that involves intuitive, artistic, and empathic dimensions of the psyche: “It is possible that the deeper truths not only of our spiritual life but of the very cosmos require, and reward, an essentially aesthetic and moral engagement with its being and intelligence, and will forever elude a merely reductive, skeptical, objectifying judgment issued by a single proud but limited faculty, ‘reason.’”

The universe, in Tarnas’ reading, is closer to a great symphony than a mechanical instrument or mathematical model—and the study of archetypal astrology offers us insight into its deeper harmonics. Since his thesis requires an evaluation of ethical and aesthetic factors as well as material ones, it is up to each reader to decide if Tarnas makes a compelling case. Personally, I have tended to avoid astrology, which seemed reductive and intellectually naive. After studying this work, I will never look at the planets the same way, and I intend to pay close attention to their future alignments in relation to global events and my own inner processes.

Observed through this lens of outer planet transits, what does our own age hold in store? We have recently concluded a long Uranus-Neptune conjunction, spanning 1985–2001, when the Promethean spark of creative and technological innovation aided the spiritual and transcendental impulse, coupled with the more problematic dissolution of boundaries and bedazzlements caused by the inciting of Neptunian energies. Tarnas believes that this Uranus/Neptune complex was experienced as “a liminal state... unprecedentedly free-floating, uncertain, epistemologically and metaphysically untethered and confused.” The development of the Internet and new dizzying networks of communication, as well as the “addictive, druglike, trance-inducing aspect of Internet use,” characterized this archetype, as did the rise of raves and electronic music. The forming of the European Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall also exemplified the fast, fluid, boundary-dissolving play of these forces.

Beginning in 2004, we entered into a problematic Saturn/Neptune opposition that lasts, alas, until 2008. During such alignments, Saturnian principles of limitation, death, and repression encounter Neptunian tendencies towards dissolution and the oceanic loss of boundaries. The tsunami in South East Asia and the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina seem deeply and tragically symbolic of this transit. As Tarnas notes, characteristic Saturn/Neptune themes include “death caused by water, the ocean as source of suffering and loss, contamination of water...” It is a time when “numberless haunting images of death and sorrow... [permeate] the collective consciousness.” During these alignments, “Social anomie and spiritual malaise are frequent, sometimes intensified to a state of profound alienation.” On the upside, the meeting of Saturn and Neptune can also indicate a deepening of spiritual commitment and disciplined response to tragedy. To show what this means, Tarnas points to celebrated individuals with major alignments of these planets in their chart, including the Dalai Lama, Robert F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln; all of them, in different ways, figures “of sorrow and reconciliation,” who brought spiritual depth to tragic historical circumstances.

From 2008 to 2020, Uranus and Pluto come into a square alignment, and Tarnas proposes that the Promethean/Dionysian energy of the 1960s will return, perhaps in a new and more tempered form. (According to his model, square alignments often lead to a further development of the possibilities and principles catalyzed by the previous conjunction or opposition of two outer planets.) In 2008–2011, Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto will square each other, as they did from 1964 to1968, “when both revolutionary and reactionary impulses were intensely constellated.” Tarnas suggests, gently, that the period we are hurtling toward may be something like the 1930s crossed with the 1960s—think Preston Sturges meets Jim Morrison. At the same time, he is quick to point out that concrete prediction is impossible, as the archetypal energies can take a multitude of forms.

Nonetheless, according to the thesis of Cosmos and Psyche, an awareness of which archetypes are currently constellating and approaching can be extremely helpful. The transits of the outer planets indicate ambient mood-shifts in the Zeitgeist that influence all aspects of cultural and social reality, from cultural trends to musical genres, technological developments to historical events. From this perspective, knowing that we have several more years of Saturn/Neptune can help us prepare for the types of challenges, both psychic and physical, we may face.

Awareness of personal and collective transits might also allow us to find, in Tarnas’ words, “a more autonomous and creative response to the archetypal forces at work at any given time.” The purpose of such knowledge is similar to that of Jungian psychoanalysis, which seeks to reveal the deeper forces pressing on the psyche, so that the individual can mediate them consciously rather than suffer as their unwitting victim. While Tarnas has not given us a crystal ball for divining the future, he may be offering something far more important—a transformative matrix for reconceiving our relationship to the cosmos, as well as some subtle directions for the times ahead.