Tarnas recently spoke to Beliefnet about history and astrology, and how, in a culture with a soulless cosmology, "you can never get enough of what you don't really need."
Your first book, "The Passion of the Western Mind," published in 1991, is widely taught in universities. You’ve used the word “scandalous" to describe your new book, "Cosmos and Psyche." Why a scandal?
Given current assumptions about the cosmos, it is a scandal for a professor of philosophy to come out with a book that is in any way supportive of astrology. I think it's safe to say that of all perspectives, astrology is the one most subject to automatic rejection and scorn in the modern intellectual world. I myself was skeptical until I conducted my own research. But the evidence is very compelling: There is an astonishingly consistent correlation between planetary alignments and the patterns of human experience. "Cosmos and Psyche" sets out that evidence in a way that readers new to this perspective can examine and assess for themselves. It's a little like Galileo's telescope: Anyone could look through it to see the new universe it revealed, but it was a scandal at the time.
How would you describe the astrological perspective?
Most cultures, including our own prior to the modern era, had some kind of astrology as part of their world view, for they understood the cycles of the moon, sun, and planets as deeply meaningful. The astrological perspective sees the universe as both meaningful and unified. Instead of the modern division between the purposeful, meaning-seeking human consciousness and a random, meaningless universe, astrology points to a universe that is integrated at all levels: outer and inner, macrocosm and microcosm, celestial and terrestrial. As was said by the ancients, "As above, so below."
What would be the advantage of a world view that includes astrology?
The existence of correlations between the planetary cycles and human life makes it possible for both individuals and societies to understand better what archetypal energies are at work and at what time. This can help us be more skillful and aware as we engage in the activities of life. It's like knowing the weather report before going out into the ocean to sail or surf. It helps to know where the winds and waves will be coming from.
But there is also a deeper advantage: Modern civilization pays a high price for living in a universe that it believes is random and spiritually meaningless. Nature is not honored but is instead exploited for short-term benefit. And a purposeless universe creates a sense of deep spiritual emptiness inside, which people try to fill with endless consumer products, so that the industrial technology producing those products is cannibalizing the planet. But as we know, you can never get enough of what you don't really need. A new vision of nature and the universe as ensouled, as spiritually significant, would give a better ground for both moral responsibility and a sense of spiritual belonging.
Our civilization desperately needs to develop more awareness about the consequences of our activities. We need to be paying attention not just to the bottom line of the next quarterly profit report, but to what seven generations from now will experience as a result of our actions. The only way that such a fundamental change will occur would be if enough individuals become more deeply aware of our profound embeddedness within the larger Earth community and the universe itself. Our civilization basically seems to be caught in an immature period in its development, like a self-enclosed adolescent who has not yet been initiated into the deeper realities of life and who therefore continues to act from a short-sighted and often self-destructive state of consciousness. It's as if our entire civilization is undergoing an initiation in our time, into a new world view and a new way of living.
How and when did astrology fall out of favor with established academia and science?
Historically, astrology actually has a long, noble tradition that was central to Western civilization from the ancient Greeks onwards. As recently as the Renaissance it was highly regarded by most of the intellectual and cultural elite. The shift really happened in the later 17th century, when many factors came together—the growing conviction that the modern mind was superior to all ancient traditions and perspectives, the new sense that the cosmos was disenchanted or soulless, a belief that to be free, the human being could not live in an astrological universe, and a gradual intellectual decline within astrology itself that made it increasingly vulnerable to criticism. Underlying all of these, a deep change of consciousness was occurring in the modern self that eclipsed the astrological vision so that something else could emerge. Astrology stopped being taught at Harvard and Oxford by the end of the 17th century; interestingly, though, astrology courses are again entering higher education, this time in a form that has integrated modern and postmodern developments.
Short of a complete technological-electronic meltdown, how can we go from our present state of constant distraction and addiction to technology to one that comes out of a serene relationship with nature and the cosmos, one that allows us to hear our own heartbeat?
It's an enormous challenge. On the one hand I think each individual is on a journey of her own or his own. Individuals need to be listening closely to their own hearts, their own calling to new horizons. They need to pay attention to where they feel "not right"—perhaps unplug the television, go out into nature more often, look at the heavens and the night sky outside of the city. We all need to orient our lives more towards beauty, towards art, towards relationships, and towards interior self-exploration, whether it's meditation or more powerful forms of experience. For example, the ayahuasca rituals coming from South America are extraordinary, powerful initiatory rituals that help people become aware that they are in a larger universe than they thought.
So on the one hand, there are individual paths on which each of us has to find our own way. But then there's the question of how we are to deal with the major problems of modern consciousness on the collective level--for example, the vast collective entrancement that's happening right now through the mass media.
Entrancement? As in electronically medicated and hypnotized?
Exactly. Many people today are more tuned into the weekly sitcoms and "reality shows" than they are to what's going on in the planetary biosphere or even in their neighborhood community. What will wake people up from this trance? Many experts believe that some very critical events will unfold within the next decade or so. We've already seen some in these last two years: Katrina, the tsunami, the many violent hurricanes and tornadoes, the strangeness of the weather patterns, the melting of the ice caps... And we know from individual lives that there is nothing like a mortal crisis to profoundly reconfigure a person's life. Out of such a crisis a radical shift of values tends to emerge. The whole moral structure of a person's or an entire society's way of being is transformed. It seems to me quite possible that we as a civilization and as a species may face some kind of crisis that will serve to catalyze this awakening. The question is: How severe will the crisis have to be for this awakening to take place? This is where we come in, with our free will, our courage, our spirit.
How did you come to use planetary aspects (cyclical relationships of planets to each other) instead of "signs" in your research?
Over the 30 years of research, I found that the most striking correspondences involved the aspects, like conjunctions and oppositions between the planets, rather than the signs. It's more important that there is a new moon or a full moon (which is formed by the conjunction and the opposition of the sun and the moon), than what sign the moon is in. It's not that signs have no significance. But the most basic archetypal dynamics that we see in history and in people's biographies seem most precisely connected to the geometrical aspects between the planets. Signs color those energies, but the energies themselves are related to the planets and their cyclical alignments.
We see this, for example, in the great conjunction of Uranus and Pluto that took place from 1960 to 1972. This coincided precisely with a time of tremendous empowerment of innovative and revolutionary impulses across the world, with both great social upheaval and liberating change occurring in every country on the planet. Which is just what one might expect given what astrologers have long concluded about the meanings of those two planets. Those same two planets were also in alignment during the French Revolutionary epoch, 1787-1798, when there was a virtually identical upsurge of tremendous rebellious and liberating energies sweeping the world, with radical change affecting many societies. We actually are going to be getting the square aspect of these same two planets during the next fifteen years, so on the basis of the past correlations we can anticipate some profound changes and new social energies in the not-too-distant future.
What do you hope "Cosmos and Psyche" will accomplish?
I hope my book opens thoughtful readers to a new dimension of the extraordinary universe we live in, a universe that seems to be informed at all levels by a profound creative intelligence. I believe that we can participate in the evolutionary unfolding of this universe more consciously and fully if we are aware of the correspondences between the planetary movements and our lives. And we can move into a more trusting relationship to life and the cosmos when we recognize the larger patterns of meaning and purpose in which we are embedded.