Richard Tarnas – prophet of the conscious revolution

What does it do to the human self, year after year, century after century, to experience existence as a conscious purposeful being in an unconscious purposeless universe? What is the price of a collective belief in absolute cosmic indifference?” Cosmos and Psyche.

Richard Tarnas is on a truly heroic quest. He’s attempting nothing less than an explanation of the grand sweep of Western philosophy and culture, and to bring about its transformation. And it’s pretty successful.

He also sketches out a very persuasive examination of the blind spots of our worldview which underpin many of our most negative behaviours and habits. In that way, he attempts to do for the intellect and the wider culture what a process of personal development does for the individual.

In The Passion of the Western Mind, he describes the history of western thought from the Greeks, through the middle ages, to the Enlightenment and up to the present day. It had a huge impact on me when I read it, studying philosophy back in Manchester in 1994. Joseph Campbell, another heroic thinker of the 20th century, described it as “the most lucid and concise presentation of the grand lines of Western thought”.

Luckily the excellent epilogue from Passion of the Western Mind is online here: http://www.mysterium.com/tarnas.html

He’s quite a technical writer, so it helps to have a little grounding in philosophical concepts to get the most out of it.

As a very brief simplification, he sees the history of modern Western thought from Copernicus and Descartes onwards as a process of increasing intellectual isolation and disconnect from the Universe. Copernicus (and Galileo) relegated the earth from the centre of the universe, and Descartes, and later Kant, sketched out what that meant for our knowledge of the world.

We have the post-Copernican dilemma of being a peripheral and insignificant inhabitant of a vast cosmos, and the post-Cartesian dilemma of being a conscious, purposeful, and personal subject confronting an unconscious, purposeless, and impersonal universe, with these compounded by the post-Kantian dilemma of there being no possible means by which the human subject can know the universe in its essence. We are evolved from, embedded in, and defined by a reality that is radically alien to our own, and moreover cannot ever be directly contacted in cognition.” The Passion of the Western Mind.

He describes this process as the building of the “prison of modern alienation” that underpins our current worldview.

The entire progression of Western thought, he argues, has been a steady questioning of unconscious assumptions of thought, from Copernicus’s realisation that the earth was not the centre of the universe, through Darwin’s revelation of our animal origins to Freud’s unveiling of the unconscious to undermine our assumption of a single autonomous self.

But this steady and heroic progress of Western thought has hidden a blind spot.

The fundamental governing assumption of our modern world view – is that any meaning and purpose the human mind perceives in the universe does not exist intrinsically in the universe but is constructed and projected onto it by the human mind. Might this not be the final, most global anthropological delusion of all? For might it not be an extraordinary act of human hubris – literally a hubris of cosmic proportions – to assume that the exclusive source of all meaning and purpose in the universe is ultimately centred in the human mind, which is therefore absolutely unique and special and in this sense superior to the entire cosmos. …Perhaps the modern mind has been projecting soullessness and mindlessness in a cosmic scale, systematically filtering and eliciting all data according to its own self-elevating assumptions at the very moment we believed we were ‘cleansing’ our minds of ‘distortions’. Have we been living in a self-produced bubble of cosmic isolation?” Cosmos and Psyche

So how might we get out of this bubble of isolation? Broadly, by opening up to more direct ways of knowledge, of reopening to the role of intuition, creativity and empathic understanding. Of accepting that the reality of the universe cannot be known ‘objectively’, but that it can perhaps be known in a way that goes beyond the concept of objective/subjective, in a direct way.

The use of metaphor, myth or story is actually key to understanding, and in Cosmos and Psyche, he gives a powerful parable of how our worldviews will subtly influence the supposed ‘objective reality’.

The Two Suitors:

Imagine for a moment that you are the universe. But for the purposes of this thought experiment, let us imagine that you are not the disenchanted mechanistic universe of conventional modern cosmology, but rather a deep-souled, subtly mysterious cosmos of great spiritual beauty and creative intelligence. And imagine that you are being approached by two different epistemologies – two suitors, as it were, who seek to know you. To whom would you open your deepest secrets? To the suitor who approached you as though you were essentially lacking in intelligence or purpose, as though you had no interior dimension to speak of, no spiritual capacity or value; who thus saw you as fundamentally inferior to himself, who related to you as though your existence were valuable primarily to the extent that he could develop and exploit your resources to satisfy his various needs; and whose motivation for knowing you was ultimately driven by a desire for increased intellectual mastery, predictive certainty, and efficient control over you for his own self-enhancement?

Or would you, the cosmos, open yourself most deeply to a suitor who perceived you as being at least as intelligent and noble, as worthy a being, as permeated with mind and soul, as imbued with moral aspiration and purpose, as endowed with spiritual depths and mystery, as he?

His ultimate goal of knowledge is not increased mastery, prediction and control, but rather a more richly responsive and empowered participation in a co-creative unfolding of new realities. He seeks an intellectual fulfilment that is intimately linked with imaginative vision, moral transformation, empathic understanding and aesthetic delight. His act of knowledge is essentially an act of love and intelligence combined, of wonder as well as discernment, of opening to a process of mutual discovery. To whom would you be more likely to reveal your deepest truths? Cosmos and Psyche

So the vast sweep of Western thought with its increasingly reductive, mechanistic worldview is seen as an overwhelmingly masculine phenomena – an epic, heroic attempt to liberate Western man from his place in the world, but one that has caused immense isolation and damage, and one that will be resolved in a reunion with the feminine.

To achieve this reintegration of the repressed feminine, the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death. The Western mind must be willing to open itself to a reality the nature of which could shatter its most established beliefs about itself and about the world. This is where the real act of heroism is going to be. A threshold must now be crossed, a threshold demanding a courageous act of faith, of imagination, of trust in a larger and more complex reality; a threshold, moreover, demanding an act of unflinching self-discernment. And this is the great challenge of our time, the evolutionary imperative for the masculine to see through and overcome its hubris and one-sidedness, to own its unconscious shadow, to choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. The feminine then becomes not that which must be controlled, denied, and exploited, but rather fully acknowledged, respected, and responded to for itself. It is recognized: not the objectified “other,” but rather source, goal, and immanent presence. 

This is the great challenge, yet I believe it is one the Western mind has been slowly preparing itself to meet for its entire existence. I believe that the West’s restless inner development and incessantly innovative masculine ordering of reality has been gradually leading, in an immensely long dialectical movement, toward a reconciliation with the lost feminine unity, toward a profound and many-leveled marriage of the masculine and feminine, a triumphant and healing reunion. And I consider that much of the conflict and confusion of our own era reflects the fact that this evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stages. For our time is struggling to bring forth something fundamentally new in human history: We seem to be witnessing, suffering, the birth labor of a new reality, a new form of human existence, a “child” that would be the fruit of this great archetypal marriage, and that would bear within itself all its antecedents in a new form. I therefore would affirm those indispensable ideals expressed by the supporters of feminist, ecological, archaic, and other countercultural and multicultural perspectives. But I would also wish to affirm those who have valued and sustained the central Western tradition, for I believe that this tradition–the entire trajectory from the Greek epic poets and Hebrew prophets on, the long intellectual and spiritual struggle from Socrates and Plato and Paul and Augustine to Galileo and Descartes and Kant and Freud–that this stupendous Western project should be seen as a necessary and noble part of a great dialectic, and not simply rejected as an imperialist-chauvinist plot. Not only has this tradition achieved that fundamental differentiation and autonomy of the human which alone could allow the possibility of such a larger synthesis, it has also painstakingly prepared the way for its own self-transcendence. Moreover, this tradition possesses resources, left behind and cut off by its own Promethean advance, that we have scarcely begun to integrate–and that, paradoxically, only the opening to the feminine will enable us to integrate. Each perspective, masculine and feminine, is here both affirmed and transcended, recognized as part of a larger whole; for each polarity requires the other for its fulfillment. And their synthesis leads to something beyond itself: It brings an unexpected opening to a larger reality that cannot be grasped before it arrives, because this new reality is itself a creative act.” The Passion of the Western Mind

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